Friday, January 30, 2009

Only Human

News recently surfaced of another previously-undisclosed inappropriate sexual encounter between Ted Haggard, former pastor of New Life Church (an Evangelical church in Colorado), and a young male volunteer. If memory serves, Haggard, who was also previously the president of a nationwide Evangelical association, resigned a year or so ago after a separate sexual indiscretion was brought to light.

This kind of news hearkens back to the infamous escapades of Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker and others. Revelations of this sort used to shock me, but not anymore.

My lack of surprise stems not from the fact that this type of revelation seems to pop up with some regularity, nor from any belief that Haggard is a phony, money-grabbing rascal. He may or may not be; that’s not for me to decide. He (nor those of his ilk who have gone before him) is not the type of minister to which I am drawn or attracted, but I would never presume to know his spiritual foundation or depth.

I no longer am surprised at such news because I reached a place some time ago where I realized that men such as this – like all of us – are (get ready for this) HUMAN. All of us, regardless of our occupation or station in life, are subject to temptation. And when we succumb, there are usually consequences. The severity of the consequences usually depends on the severity of the action.

Those of us who subscribe to traditional Christian theology are of the belief that man has a basic depravity problem (sin) for which there is only one remedy (Jesus Christ). I believe that when we trust in Christ, He can help us overcome the basic problem, but I do not know many (if any) Christians who do not struggle with temptation and, from time to time, give in. This is not to excuse or in any way diminish the impact of actions such as Haggard's.

On the contrary, it is indeed tragic when something like this happens in a church and especially when it involves someone in a position of leadership. I do not know anything about Haggard, other than what I have learned through the media, nor do I know anything about his church. But I would guess there are people in this particular church body who are hurt and dismayed, and rightfully so. One wonders what kind of accountability Haggard had. Was he a “senior” pastor and was he so vested with power and insulated from others that he was able to hide these actions while continuing in his pastoral role?

Or, was he was just so good and so smooth that, despite any kind of authority he might have been subject to, he was able to carry on until he was eventually found out? Or perhaps he was particularly good at denial (something with which a lot of us also have some experience). I do not know the answer. Whatever the case, it is incredibly sad.

I guess it all comes down to being accountable. Just as governments and businesses have processes and procedures in place to assure that one person does not exert too much power and authority, most churches have (or should have) structures in place to assure the same.

I have belonged to three churches in my life – a United Methodist church where I grew up, and two non-denominational churches, the present one being an offshoot of the one of which I was a part in Arkansas.

Methodist churches are not autonomous. Rather, they all “report up,” if you will, to some governing body of the denomination, which assigns their pastors and probably supports them in other ways (it has been a long time so I am not up on how they do everything, but I think that is the general idea).

Some churches are “congregational” in nature, i.e. the church members actually have a vote on matters of importance. Having never been a part of such a church, I am not sure how that works. I would guess communication between leadership/staff and parishioners would be crucial.

My current church, like the one I attended in Arkansas, is completely autonomous, not part of any denominational affiliation and is governed by a body of “elders” who become qualified according to New Testament principles. We do not have one senior pastor, but, rather, several teaching pastors who share various duties including preaching/teaching at services.

All of these systems I just mentioned seem to have built-in accountability and some semblance of checks and balances. In my own church, I particularly like having more than one pastor and not having one with seniority over the others.

One matter with which I disagree with my current church is that all of the elders and teaching pastors are men. I used to agree with this but, after meeting some wonderful female pastors and studying the subject more carefully, I am now fully supportive of and believe in women having leadership and pastoral positions in the church. In fact, I believe this is one way that systems of accountability can be stronger. With their God-given distinctives, women contribute their own unique perspective as well as wisdom and discernment that are extremely beneficial when problems arise (I know this first-hand from being married to a very wise female).

This, however, is not a deal breaker for me. Obviously, a church is a private, voluntary organization. I am free to go elsewhere if I so choose. Even though I disagree with the position of my church’s leadership on this subject, I understand that it comes from their sincere belief in the interpretation of certain Scriptures. Our leadership in no ways believes women and men are not equal; they just believe in differing roles. I happen to take a different view but for now I can, in a civil manner, agree to disagree.

Hearing news such as this about Ted Haggard is no surprise, but it certainly underscores the human nature of all leaders and the importance of accountability, whatever that might look like in a particular church body. No system is fool-proof and Haggard’s church might have had all the right pieces in place, only to have him circumvent the process.

Those of us who follow Christ have to remember that those in positions of leadership in our churches are human, just as we are. We support them and we pray for them, but our ultimate hope should not be in them.


Pam said...

I tend to agree with you, Bob. I guess the thing that irks me with the Haggard and other similar things is the hypocrisy involved.

When we set ourselves up on pedestals we are asking to be knocked down.

On a different subject: I have the book "Look Me In the Eye". It's very good. I got it, last year, I believe.

Bob said...

Totally agree Pam. And I suspect that a lack of accountability (and thus setting ourselves up on pedestals as you said), as I wrote about, might lead to some of this. And a lot of good people get hurt in the process. I know people who used to faithfully give to PTL (Bakker) and look where their money went. It's ridiculous.

I loved that book. I have known a few people who have children with Aspberger's and found his story really interesting and so well written. I can also think back to my childhood, before we knew what it was, and think of kids who I definitely believe had it.

Also enjoyed 'Dry' by his brother, Augusten Burroughs.

Debby said...

Bob, this was a very good post. It actually went along with my Sunday School lesson this morning. My 'kids' and I discussed the fact that everyone is subject to temptation. We also discussed how to protect ourselves from succumbing. Keeping your relationship with Christ is first and foremost, but they also felt strongly that fellowship with other Christians is very important. Funny that your post so closely mirrors our class' conclusions.

I am most impressed with how you handle your difference of opinion. You do not allow it to be a divisive thing...would that all Christians would take a lesson from you.

Redlefty said...

Sexual scandal is nothing new to God's followers in general. The geneology of Jesus reads like a Jerry Springer cast list! You're right -- we're all human.

I'm pretty sure that we're in the same denomination, or at least ones very, very similar. I'm with you on the women thing. But no way can I bring it up at church!

Haggard was upfront with his wife very early in their marriage about his "feelings". My guess is that he was homosexual from the start, but grew up in a religious culture that hoped to "turn" him straight. Can't say that I've ever seen that work yet. His has been, and probably continues to be, a difficult and non-enviable life.

Bob said...

Michael, did not know that about Haggard's history. As I said, really don't know anything about him except what I've read.

Don't think we are in the same denomination as my church is truly not part of one, not even one of the ones that says it isn't one. We're in the 'Bible Church' or 'Community Church' genre. There are advantages and disadvantages -- not as easy to steretype and don't have the trappings, but a lack of tradition and liturgy which I miss. Lots of good things though.