Sex scandals and evangelicalism go together like Christian Bale and rage. And it’s all very unfortunate. From Jim Bakker to Paul Crouch to Ted Haggard, we Christians are all too familiar with our leaders being caught in sex, scandal, and hypocrisy. Mostly we just like to forget that these things happen, hiding them or writing them out of the history books to whatever extent we can.
The case of Ted Haggard, unfortunately, has recently resurfaced with a vengeance, thanks to two things: 1) the release of Alexandra Pelosi’s HBO documentary, The Trials of Ted Haggard, and 2) the new allegations that, in addition to having sex and meth with a male prostitute, Haggard also had an inappropriate relationship in 2006 with a 20-year old boy in his church. In something of a bizarre press tour (similar to that of Rod “I might as well milk my infamy” Blagojevich), Haggard has recently appeared on Larry King, Oprah, and Nightline to discuss his experiences of being sexually confused, shunned by his church, and generally despised by most everyone. It’s all very sad to watch, as Haggard describes his various therapists’ opinions on his sexual orientation and how he’s tried to reconcile his sexual struggles with his abiding passion for Christ, the church, and his family.
Watching Haggard on Larry King Live last week, I had a few thoughts:
- It’s hard to feel bad for Ted Haggard. But I do. He started his church from the ground up, made it a megachurch, made a name for himself in evangelical circles, and let the pride and hubris of all of it undo him. It’s not the easiest thing to be powerful—especially in the church.
- The evangelical church is really bad at dealing with any sort of complicated issue in sexuality. This is why Haggard was and is so confused about it; it’s why he is shunned by most in the established church. We don’t know how to handle people like him. He had no one to talk to about it for all those years, because the church is so ill equipped to offer any guidance on the matter. This is not to put the blame for what Haggard did on the church. It’s just to say that, as an institution, we’re not that great at helping people through these things.
- The church’s reaction—to exile Haggard and let him fend for himself post-scandal—is understandable but very unfortunate. When people in our Christian communities mess up, are we really supposed to kick them out and let them find redemption some other way? (in Haggard’s case: not through a church, but through a string of therapists and counselors). I understand the gravity of Haggard’s sin. It was egregious. Our response to moral failure must involve discipline and punishment, yes; but shouldn’t it also involve forgiveness and restoration?
All of this got me thinking of Lonnie Frisbee, an influential evangelist from the early 1970s who ignited the Jesus People movement in Southern California and proved to be the catalyst for the explosive rise of two very prominent evangelical denominations: Calvary Chapel and Vineyard. Frisbie, an LSD-tripping hippie who converted to Christianity in the late 60s, struggled with homosexuality prior to his conversion. And, as is so often the case with life post-conversion, he continued to struggle with it. But he was a lightening rod and major boon to the growth of the church in Southern California, and so initially the pastors who brought him on as preacher looked past his sexually suspicious past. But as soon as Frisbie had a few “lapse” moments and it became clear that his homosexuality could not be hidden from the congregations, he was kicked to the curb—first by Chuck Smith at Calvary Chapel and then by John Wimber at Vineyard. Eventually both denominations made attempts to write Frisbee out of their official histories or at least downplay his contributions. Exiled, Frisbie eventually died of AIDS, a shunned and misunderstood footnote in evangelical history.
It’s not that I fault any of these churches for removing Haggard or Frisbie from their ministry; I think it would have been wrong to let them continue in ministerial authority even in the midst of illicit sexual sins. But I do lament that they felt the need to essentially disown these fallen men, making little attempt to work with them for community-based healing and restoration. It’s as if they were saying, “It was an aberration that this pastor ever had our respect; we’re sorry we put you in the trust of such an imperfect man.” But aren’t we all imperfect men? I’m not saying that we should validate unrighteousness or anything. But can’t we at least admit that struggling with sin is not abnormal or immediately exile-worthy? Hasn’t the church always been led by screwed up people?
Thus ends the “Sex From the Pulpit” series, on a slightly off-topic note. I suppose one take home from all three posts is that, while sex can be recklessly wielded from the pulpit, it can also be recklessly ignored by the church at large. We need to talk and think about all this stuff, critically, carefully, and Christianly, and we need to do it together. I hope these blog posts have been productive in that regard. Now I’m ready to not write about sex for a long long time.