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.

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