We may not have known all their names before 2017, but we knew something about their talents, the images they portrayed in public, and their reputations. They come from the world of entertainment — Weinstein and Hoffman, Spacey and Piven, Affleck and Simmons — and journalism — Lauer, Halperin, and Rose — and politics — Franken and Franks, Moore and Conyers, and others from business. They are black and white, homosexual and heterosexual, Democrats and Republicans. The list goes on and on.

But this isn’t a list anyone wants to make. What all these people have in common is not just that they’ve been accused of and/or confessed to serial sexual harassment, or worse, but that all of them have destroyed their reputations in the process. After all, before 2017, many of them seemed to be good people, at least from the safe distance of the television set and movie screen. That’s the tricky thing about reputations: Sometimes they don’t reflect reality. 

The past year reminds us that two-dimensional versions of three-dimensional people can often be false — and that even the best reputation can be destroyed in a fraction of the time it takes to build one.

Image Is Everything 

First things first: We’re not talking about sexual harassment here, which is a serious and shockingly pervasive problem. According to the website HealthDay, a staggering 42 percent of working women have experienced sexual harassment. This is a plague that — for the sake of equality and fairness, for the sake of our culture and our workforce, for the sake of our moms and wives, sisters and daughters, nieces and granddaughters — the church and the world desperately need to address.

This tidal wave of sexual harassment accusations and disclosures gives the church an opportunity to discuss something God cares about: that word reputation.   

Reputations, as we have seen in recent months, can reflect the heart of a person or disguise it. Reputations can be good or bad. And they can be ruined in an instant. This truth applies to anyone: the good husband who has but one indiscretion and ruins his family; the good mom who has just one too many cocktails, hops in the car, and wrecks someone’s world; the good teacher who loses control for just a moment and ruins her career; the good surgeon or CEO who cuts a corner and ruins someone’s life. This truth — this frailty of reputation — hangs over all of us. 

God has long challenged His people to cultivate and protect their reputations. There are two important reasons why.

Our Reputation Reflects on Christ 

First, each of our reputations and indeed our collective reputation as His people — what the world thinks about us — reflect on Christ. 

“A good name is to be more desired than great wealth,” Proverbs 22 declares. “To be esteemed is better than silver or gold.” I know this to be true because, thanks to my grandfather and my dad, I was blessed with a good name. It was the first gift they gave me — one I never thanked them for. Because my grandfather was loving and loyal, humble and honest, good and gracious, because my dad is all those things, the good name they handed down to me is a treasure I didn’t earn and don’t deserve. Yet I am known by their name — a name that is respected and admired because of them.

In much the same way, the Lord shares His good name with us. His good name and reputation — proven over millennia of rescue and redemption, healing and helping, sacrifice and salvation, love and light — can be tarnished by the behavior of His children. As Paul wrote in a scathing section of his letter to believers in Rome, “God’s name is being blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

God’s name is connected to me and you. How we act, what we say and leave unsaid, what we do and don’t do — these things tell the world about Him. As Peter explained, God’s people are supposed to “live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day He visits us.”

Peter understood that if we don’t keep our word, the world may think He doesn’t. If we don’t help those in need, the world may think He doesn’t. If we are hateful or vengeful, uncaring or unforgiving, distant or cold, the world may think the same about Him. And if God’s people are no different than the world, the world may ask, “What good is God?”

Of course, God can defend and rebuild His reputation in ways that people cannot. In spite of the behavior of His children, He reminds the world of who and what He truly is. Indeed, the Bible is sprinkled with moments when God rises to defend “My own name’s sake” — in a sense rebuilding His reputation from the mess His people have made of it. “It is not for your sake,” He thunders in the Book of Ezekiel, “that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord.” 

Our Reputation Reflects on the Church

A second reason God wants His people to cultivate and protect their reputations stems from the fact that our reputations reflect on other believers, which ultimately reflects back on God. The church, after all, is the body of Christ. We are, then, His arms, hands, feet, face, and voice.

This helps explain why all the prerequisites and requirements of being a church leader are related to reputation. Consider Acts 6:3, where the apostles instruct believers in Jerusalem to select “men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” to handle the daily distribution of food to widows and others in need. Likewise, in 1 Timothy 3, Paul advises that elders and deacons must have “a good reputation with outsiders.” He instructs his readers that those in church leadership should be above reproach, faithful, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money, worthy of respect, and not pursuing dishonest gain.

It also explains why Paul spent so much time advising the early church,  in Galatia and Ephesus, Corinth and Rome, Colossus and Philippi, about what was acceptable and what was not. “Do not conform to the pattern of this world,” he wrote. Instead, “hate what is evil.” And Paul had no qualms about listing the evils that swirl around the body of Christ: “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.” 

We should hold each other to a high standard — higher than the world’s standards — because Christ has given us His good and perfect name.

There is no place for these in the body of Christ. What the world should see when it sees the body of Christ is “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” These characteristics build up the body and attract those outside — strengthening the Lord’s good name and reputation along the way. Paul adds that God’s people should “live in peace with each other,” “be patient with everyone,” “be joyful” and generous, “submit to governing authorities,” pay their taxes, and “aim for perfection.” 

Perfection. That’s an interesting, and surely intentional, word choice. Paul challenges us to aim for perfection — not lukewarm mediocrity or live-and-let-live acquiescence — but rather iron-sharpens-iron excellence. Yes, we all have feet of clay. Yes, we all fall short. But that doesn’t mean we should revel in the muck of our sinfulness; that doesn’t mean anything goes; that doesn’t mean we have no right to speak the truth in love; that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to improve.

What it means is that we should hold each other to a high standard — higher than the world’s standards — because Christ has given us His good and perfect name. It pays to remember that Paul, who called himself the “worst” of all sinners, bluntly ordered Corinthian believers to expel a brother living in sexual immorality. “You must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler,” he instructed. Why? Because doing so could be taken as tacit approval for willful sin, which could cause seekers and believers alike to stumble, which would do damage to the body of Christ and thus to the good name of Christ: “If one part [of the body] suffers,” Paul warned, “every part suffers with it.”

Paul, like Peter, understood something that we often forget: There’s a standard of behavior for Christ’s people because taking Christ’s name — being adopted into His family — is supposed to set us apart from the world. Our reputation really should precede us.

Image Is Nothing

Of course, having a good reputation is only half the battle. The recent epidemic of high-profile sexual harassment scandals serves as a reminder that a good reputation doesn’t necessarily mean a person is good. And anyone who has ever been the victim of character assassination, false gossip, or innuendo knows that a bad reputation doesn’t necessarily mean a person is bad. It pays to recall that people with good reputations said Jesus was “possessed … by the prince of demons,” dismissed Him as “raving mad,” and used “Samaritan” as a slur against Him to smear His name, His parents, His background, and His birth.

The Lord has good news for anyone who has a “bad” reputation in the eyes of the world because of His name: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
This is not a license to be self-righteous. In fact, it’s the opposite: When we take Christ’s name, we become ever more aware that our righteousness comes from Him, not from us. It’s so separate from us, so outside of us, that Paul compares it to a breastplate worn by a soldier. To extend Paul’s metaphor, Christ covers our flaws and flesh with His righteousness.  

As to the far more common problem of cultivating a “good” reputation in order to hide bad character and willful sin, our goal as God’s people is not simply to look good. After all, Jesus reserved His fiercest words for religious people — self-righteous people — who cultivated good reputations but were “like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” 

Our goal as God’s people is to strive for good reputations that reflect the goodness that can only come from accepting and following Christ.

If Paul was trying to remind the newborn church and us that image is everything, at least when it comes to protecting and preserving our Lord’s reputation and good name, two characters from the Gospels remind us that image is sometimes nothing.

Scripture tells us there was a man who, by all appearances, was good, righteous, and even pious. He collected money for the poor, healed the lame, drove out demons, fed the hungry, preached the Good News, and literally walked with Jesus. 

During one of those walks across Judea and Galilee, he met a woman who never understood or practiced such piety. In fact, she was lost and living in sin. After a lifetime of loveless relationships, after five divorces, after being used and tossed aside by the men in her life, she was living with a man who wasn’t her husband. Doubtless, she understood the pain caused by men who abuse power to gratify their sexual appetites. When she encountered Jesus, she was so lost, so numbed by life, that she couldn’t figure out who He was on her own — Jesus had to come right out and tell her.

Which one of the above reputations would you choose — the righteous man or the promiscuous woman? 

The righteous man’s name was Judas, and he lived a lie. He did many good things in Christ’s name and for Christ’s kingdom. But in Judas’ tragic life, we learn that even apostles can be frauds. In fact, all along, as John explains — as if to help us understand the betrayal — Judas was more interested in money than the Messiah, more interested in looking good than doing good: “As keeper of the money bag,” John reports, “he used to help himself to what was put into it.” 

Judas even tried to diminish how others expressed their love for Jesus: “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” he objected, after Mary anointed Jesus with expensive perfume. In other words, Judas was worse than a common thief. He not only stole; he maintained the pretense of piety in order to make himself look better than everybody else.

The promiscuous woman’s name remains one of Scripture’s mysteries. But we know she lived in the Samaritan town of Sychar. We know she heard the same message Judas must have heard a thousand times. But we know she accepted it into her heart. She literally drank it in. Once Jesus told her about living water and life through the Son, she was renewed and reborn. 

In the last glimpse John provides us of the woman, we learn that she became an evangelist: “Many Samaritans believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony.” The last time we see or hear about Judas, he is impaled, “hanged on a spike,” the victim of a life built on lies and a false reputation.

Judas serves as a reminder that a good reputation can cover up an ugly heart — and that without Christ, even a good reputation cannot save us from our past, our mistakes, or ourselves. The woman at the well serves as a reminder that we are not doomed by the reputations we make for ourselves — and that with Christ, no reputation is beyond repair. 

Alan Dowd writes at the crossroads of faith and public policy.