Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Ted Haggard Scandal
How will we, and how should we, respond?

Yet another evangelical scandal.

I wonder if the body of Christ as a whole will ever learn how to deal with the moral failures of its leaders. The predictable reactions have already begun. First, separation into two camps: Shoot the Wounded and Excuse the Sinner.

The Shoot the Wounded crowd has already begun to get its digs in. There are two motivations: a desire to distance oneself (and one's chosen Christian subsgroup) from the offending party (and his chosen Christian subgroup), and a sense of vindication that it's the other guy's brand of Christianity that got tarred. For example, we have Phil Johnson arguing that
The fashionable brand of NAE/Christianity Today-style "evangelicalism" actually abandoned historic evangelical principles long ago, and hasn't taken a firm stand for biblical and evangelical doctrine for some time. The current scandal is only a symptom of that much deeper problem.
And Ingrid Schlueter writes
The sad truth is that evangelicals have asked for this for a long time. Rather than be about the Great Commission left us by Jesus Christ, Christians have sought temporal and political power and influence.
So you see, Ted Haggard isn't just Ted Haggard and a moral failure isn't just a moral failure; it's a Symptom of the Sad State of the Apostate Church of Our Day.

The logic that is being attempted here can be expressed syllogistically as follows:
  1. Ted Haggard has been a representative of the kind of evangelical / charismatic / megachurch / politically-conservative / seeker-sensitive / arminian / market-driven (choose one or more epithets) "Christianity" that I (to put it mildly) disapprove of;
  2. Ted Haggard is guilty of moral failure and probably of living a double life;
  3. Therefore, the kind of evangelical / charismatic / megachurch / politically-conservative / seeker-sensitive / arminian / market-driven "Christianity" that I disapprove of has been demonstrated to be morally bankrupt.
Of course, this is not only completely bogus, but is identical to the logic that the unbelieving world uses when it dismisses Christianity as a whole on the basis of the moral failures of its prominent leaders. A person's moral failure reflects on that person, period. Anything else is speculation and extrapolation, at best.

I haven't seen much from the Excuse the Sinner crowd yet, but it will happen. We can't possibly imagine the stresses Brother Ted was under; we are all sinners, after all; who among us could cast the first stone; it's our duty to forgive; what would Jesus do? (This last one is taken in the most marshmallowy sense possible.) There is truth in all of these statements, but there is a crucial difference between forgiveness and restoration on one hand, and making excuses and denying responsibility on the other.

At the time of this writing, Haggard claims that he "purchased methamphetamine from a gay escort after contacting him for a massage, but never used the drugs." I'm sorry, but this smacks much too much of admitting only what on has to, based on what the hard evidence has already proven to be true. Who buys meth with no prior history of drug use? And Haggard could have gone to a health club for a massage; why hire an, erm, escort? If Haggard wants any credibility in the future at all, he needs to come clean with what really was going on in his life. Which is not to say that he needs to do that publicly right now; I don't think he needs to talk to the press at all during this time. But if he's going to do so, saying something plausible might be a good way of going about it.

Thank God that those two crowds aren't the only ones out there. I do think that some people are getting it right. Michael Spencer writes,
I’m a preacher and a sinner. I have intimate knowledge of what it’s like to be the person who is preaching against an issue where I am personally failing.... If we aren’t willing to be humiliated to know Christ, we are quite likely not going to know him at all.
David Wayne writes,
Christian engagement with the world (whether political, social, evangelisitc or otherwise) is not based on a position of moral authority. It is based on grace.... But let's also be careful that we not assume some moral superiority to, or moral authority 0ver, Ted Haggard.
And Ben Witherington makes some very good points on accountability and being real with temptation and sexual issues among pastors.

The truth is, Christian leaders are just people. If they're doing their jobs right, they merely act as signposts, pointing others to Christ. The attempt to make them more than that, to elevate them on a pedestal, to follow them rather than the Lord they serve; or conversely, to make them emblematic of All that is Wrong with the Church Today, is a form of idolatry. And the sin of idolotry is committed, not by the idol, but by the one who worships it.


  1. Keith,

    Your post is outstanding and a proper call to appropriate procedure when we face such tragic events as the sad moral fiasco with Pastor Haggard.

    I think also your proposed continum of reaction between "Shoot the Wounded" on one end and "Excuse the Sinner" on the other sums up nicely the evangelical church's response--typically an E/O.

    And surely not to disagree with your proper exhortation, Keith, my own take is that dealing with morally failed Leaders is not exactly the same as dealing with what we usually consider non-leaders, as some seem to imply. Haggard represented--at least to the mass media--30 million+ evangelicals, not a plain vanilla position, we all would agree.

    James 3.1 warns that Leaders receive--whether or not they desire or deserve--stricter scrutiny and the Pastorals make plain those who desire to be Church Leaders, while desiring a noble work, must face the moral music of a litany of character traits specifically directed toward them.

    Personally, I think, whether his idea or his eldership's, it was a good thing to immediately step down until the investigation is complete. I also think you are right on by insisting that he keep quiet or speak humbly rather than dismissively. "I bought it but didn't take it" sounds strangely like "I smoked it but didn't inhale it". President Clinton's words were similarly unconvincing.

    Gordon MacDonald and his Church surely is the model of Christian charity when a Leader falls. Upon his confession of the inappropriate liason between him and another woman, he stepped aside and took a seat in the pew. After several years being under the care of Elders, reconciliation with his wife and seeking the Lord, he actually was invited back to his pulpit. An amazing example of love, forgiveness, accountibility and being the People of God.

    Again, Keith. Superb post. I trust your Lord's Day tomorrow is filled with grace. With that, I am...


  2. This is simply the Democrats and mainstream media throwing mud at Christian Conservatives - and linking them to Republicans - the week before an election.

    If Haggard was a liberal Episcopal, this story would have never made the news.

  3. Good post.

    It was more sickening than the scandal itself to see those beat their chest with the "Haggard fell because he is not us" mantra. Couldn't get more simplistic and short sighted than that.

  4. Thanks, one and all, for the comments. I always wanted this blog to be a forum, not just me throwing my ideas into the ether.

    Peter, my brother, thanks for the kudos. Even though I did write that leaders are just people, I also recognize that the gravity of their position requires extraordinary measures when dealing with sin issues. I take my cues from 1 Timothy 5:19-20 -- basically, don't entertain frivolous accusations, but if something is proven, the leader must be publicly rebuked (and depending on the gravity of the situation, removed from office temporarily or permanently). I also think Gordon MacDonald's example is quite appropriate.

    David, thanks for joining us. I agree--the response was more disturbing to me than the allegation.

    Malott, yes, the political "timing" shouldn't be ignored. This smacks of "dirty tricks" big time. But politics isn't the whole story. Haggard should be held to a higher standard than your hypothetical liberal Episcopal.

    Brad, you're solidly engaged with the STW crowd, I see....

    Grace and peace to all.

  5. I would love to see Phil or Ingrid go on record to tell us that Christians who are Calvinistic/no mega church/no marketing driven/not seeker senstive/not charismatic/or whatever sin much less.

    Because as you say, essentially that is what they are saying. Let's see some data instead of vitriolic rhetoric, Phil and Ingrid.

    How about this:

    Haggard fell because he is like the rest of us:  sinners like us.

    I think I will post a link to your posting in a few days when I post my take on this.

  6. The more public the condemnation the more meth-fueled the private practice.

  7. Thanks for a clear and balanced presentation on this issue. You are right, I think, in your analysis.

    I do think that Christians set themselves up somewhat for these controversies by following a worldly superstar attitude to Christian leaders - which is perhaps reminicent of Paul's "super apostles".

    I knew very little about Ted Haggard, but there have been other cases of Christian leaders who are followed too closely, where this has led to problems. I can't say I'm enamoured with the idea of Christian superstars.