The Lost Shepherd

The scandalous Ted Haggard, recently ousted president of the National Association of Evangelicals, has resurfaced. You’ll remember him, no doubt, as the Colorado mega-church pastor whose secret meth-addled trysts with a homosexual prostitute finally came to light a couple of years ago. His devastated church removed him from office, but gave him a full year of severance pay, and asked him to cooperate with a “restoration” process that involved being accountable to some national-level religious leaders like (for awhile, anyway) James Dobson of Focus on the Family. Evidently the process did not go very well, and finally unraveled.

Tragically Ted Haggard let us all down in the national and international spotlight. The State of New York got rid of its governor Eliot Spitzer for less outrageous behavior. The exposure of gross immorality by the head of the National Association of Evangelicals erodes the credibility of evangelical Christians. Much more seriously, it fuels skepticism about the Gospel to which evangelicals have historically borne witness. It undermines the plausibility of the Christian faith itself when its “leaders,” whether pedophile Catholic priests, tax-evading televangelists, or drug-using, adulterous Protestant ministers like Haggard, bring dishonor to it.

Our religious leaders become topics of derision for late-night talk show hosts. And those of us who call ourselves Christians should be outraged—not at Leno, Letterman or Maher, but at Haggard for giving these comedians and cynics so much great material.

But it was only a matter of time before Haggard resurfaced. He showed up this past week in a Newsweek magazine feature (19 Jan 2009, pp. 53-54). Ever the entrepreneur, Haggard is promoting an about-to-be-released HBO documentary about his life and ordeal, and exposure in Newsweek certainly can’t hurt its ratings.

The Newsweek article offers a window into how Ted Haggard sees the world, and the picture isn’t pretty. He doesn’t go to church anywhere right now, because he wants to keep a low profile and not cause a stir. But surely there are better ways to lie low that by interviewing for Newsweek and approving of an HBO documentary on your life.

In retrospect, Ted Haggard thinks he “over-repented.” He’s concluded that he’s actually not a liar and a deceiver, as he confessed publicly to his church when the scandal broke. Here’s an alternative assessment: maybe his moral clarity is fading with time. There were in fact some blatant Haggard lies caught on national television.

But Haggard now struggles too with bitterness because he believes the church has let him down. Presto, the perpetrator becomes the victim. According to ex-Pastor Ted, “the church has said, go to hell.” This is quite a charge, given that his own congregation has made it clear that he is welcome to return and attend as a lay member.

The forgiveness of sinners is a central theme and practice of the Christian faith. Often overlooked is its equal emphasis on genuine repentance and contrition. It is telling when fallen leaders feel sorrier for themselves than remorseful for the exponential damage they have done to the Christian faith.

The Bible itself contains some sage advice about carefully vetting the people who function as high-profile representatives of the faith. Otherwise the risks for disaster can be as high or higher than their potential for good. Unfortunately, too many evangelical Christians seem to have a genetic predisposition to put their confidence in religious hustlers. And maybe that’s the real problem. We’ve diminished our capacity to discern the qualities required of wise and faithful leaders. That needs to change. Already there are signs that it is–the new president of the NAE, Leith Anderson, is a person and pastor of established integrity.

3 Responses to The Lost Shepherd

  1. Kate Smoot January 29, 2009 at 10:03 pm #

    I really struggle with anger at these high-profile people who defame God’s name and obscure His image before others who don’t know any better. (And I’m paranoid about doing it myself!!) A few months ago, though, I was praying about this, and I got the sense that God views these people as the “Lost Christians.” They’re really like sheep who’ve not only completely lost their way, but they’re blindfolded, disoriented, and keep bleating simply because they think that’s what they’re supposed to do. On one level, I guess they don’t know any better! That perspective has helped me feel more compassion towards these people – and concentrate better on my own homework. 🙂 I guess I’m still just an avid student of God’s sovereignty, truth, and grace. I know it’s going to be okay – I really think that on many levels American Christianity is just shedding its old skin, providentially making way for the new order.

  2. Thorsten Moritz January 21, 2009 at 1:11 am #

    Glen – I had read the same article an hour or so before I saw your post and had a very similar reaction (and still do!). Vetting people well for spiritual etc. integrity (on reflection, ‘spiritual integrity’ doesn’t need an ‘etc.’) is crucial, and I hope that Dave Harvey is right in his optimism – he may well be! Having said all that, what if we started asking questions at an even more foundational level – that of the need for the kinds of institutionalized ministries that necessitate the kinds of ‘public face’ positions that we are talking about in the case of Haggard. It’s not so much that I would rule out such institutions and positions, but I have yet to find anyone making a cogent biblical-theological case for them – except, of course, those based on the Mosaic covenant. What if we discovered some day that Christianity’s public face was meant to be more systemically hippy-esque in leadership than corporate American? Genuine movements don’t seem to have some some of the problems that institutions do – though, admittedly, they can be prone to having others.

  3. Dave Harvey January 20, 2009 at 8:09 am #

    I’m ok with your article up until your last paragraph. Yes, Ted Haggard committed a series of sins for which he was rightfully removed from his pulpit. Yes, he seems to have some issues with his own self-importance and seems willing (if not eager) to wear the mantle of victim in this whole sordid mess. No, I don’t believe he’s come across as contrite – certainly not on a continuing basis. It’s one thing to feel regret and sorrow when one is first confronted with one’s own sins. It’s quite another to have that work be on-going; to refuse to allay the blame and instead continually put the fault back where it belongs – on the person who committed the sin.

    However, you seem to draw a line between the failings of this man and the NAE who appointed him to this position. Of course, hindsight being 20/20 we can see now that he was a poor choice – but was anyone sounding the alarm prior to 2006? Was he being cast as a “religious hustler” before his sins were splashed across the headlines for the world to see?

    No doubt there’s a number of “religious” hucksters out there, and many of them operate under some form of evangelical umbrella – like Creflo Dollar, Robert Tilton, T.D. Jakes, and others of the “prosperity gospel” ilk. But although each of these men have their own large church and following, no one’s really holding them up as a paragon of virtue. There’s also untold numbers of pastors, teachers and evangelists who have and continue to labor with the same wise leadership they’ve exemplified for years. I think it’s more likely that for every Ted Haggard there’s 10 more Grahams, Brushabers, or Lillises (or even Scorgies!) that are carrying on the work they were called to do. We just don’t hear enough about them.