Pastor Ted Haggard of New Life Church in Colorado Springs was dismissed after 21 years of service for sexual misconduct. Apparently, his ouster came as a result of a homosexual who claims that Haggard had maintained a sexual relationship with him for several years. Mike Jones said he “owed it to the gay community” to expose the pastor for hypocrisy. Haggard had been a leading opponent of same-sex marriage in Colorado, and Jones went public about the relationship when he found out Haggard’s position.
When the story broke, Haggard maintained that he had never spoken with Jones or had any dealings with him. Jones produced phone messages that indicated otherwise. Then, Haggard admitted to buying drugs from Jones and to contacting him for a “massage” but nothing else. Although the details are sketchy, they were enough for the overseers of New Life Church to fire Haggard. The church heard letters from Haggard and his wife this morning in what must have been a very emotional service. The feelings must have been those of anger, sadness, and betrayal. I commend those in authority for making a courageous decision, and in reality, the only responsible one.
It’s interesting to note that Haggard probably wouldn’t have been exposed except for his public opposition to same-sex marriage and his credentials as a well-known conservative. There is discussion about what impact his fall will have upon this Tuesday’s election. I really couldn’t care less about that part of it, but here again is another prominent pastor preaching one thing and living another. This idea of turning morality into a political football is a confusing one, as if one party had a corner on piety. I don’t blame Jones one bit for turning Haggard in for hypocrisy.
This whole affair is tragic, but offers several important lessons about life and ministry. First, we are all sinners. Even preachers. The Bible makes this clear in a number of passages. Some sins are more public than others, but we are all in the same boat as far as our condition before a holy God. We need forgiveness and salvation from Jesus Christ. Pastors are no exception, and we tread on dangerous ground if ministers are held up as if they were somehow immune to the temptations of life. No doubt Haggard found himself in a hole so deep that there was no way out. He didn’t want to disappoint his family, church, or the Christian community. He is another prominent Christian leader who now finds himself in rather notable company. I still remember Jimmy Swaggert’s “I have sinned” speech and images of Jerry Falwell taking over the PTL club after Jim Bakker’s moral lapse are brought into focus once again.
Second, this incident gives more ammunition to those who call Christians “hypocrites.” Pastors should be held to a higher standard, and for Haggard to stand up week after week proclaiming the gospel while living this way turns my stomach. It’s hard for me to preach after an argument with my wife, and here is this guy preaching to thousands and taking a stand against same-sex marriage while maintaining an alleged homosexual relationship with Jones. At least that’s his story, but Haggard has had trouble telling the truth about other things and this might be another one. Haggard described himself as a “deceiver and a liar” in a letter he wrote to the church. The church overseers fired him for “sexual misconduct” so you can figure out what that means.
Third, pastors and ministers in general need to be careful. We ought to pray every morning for the Lord to “deliver us from evil.” There are so many landmines out there, and not only from the sexual realm. We should never say “that would never happen to me” because pride can lead to a lapse in judgment and moral failure. So, while I have a great deal of disgust about this situation I cannot allow myself to think that I am somehow superior to Haggard. I am a sinner saved by grace, and must pray for strength and wisdom to deal with temptation. Haggard’s fall only reinforces this need.
Fourth, I will be thankful for what God has given me. Haggard started New Life Church is his home 21 years ago and it has grown to more than 14,000 members. He was president of the National Association of Evangelicals, a position of prominence among conservatives. Haggard participated in conference calls with the White House and chimed in on public policy. He had an influential pulpit on top of that. Haggard’s success and prominence were the envy of the evangelical community, yet no one knew the filth hidden just underneath the ministry surface. You can have the popularity and fame, just give me a loving congregation and a clear conscience. There isn’t a price tag for that.
Fifth, some of the greatest leaders in history have had moral flaws. David did great things as King of Israel yet committed adultery and had a man murdered to cover up for it. Moses murdered a man, yet let the Israelites out of slavery. Jacob deceived his father into giving him his blessing rather than Esau. There are many examples of this kind of behavior in Scripture. My point is that Haggard’s downfall doesn’t take away from what the Lord did through him in building a great church and ministry in Colorado Springs. God uses flawed individuals time and time again. This doesn’t excuse Haggard’s behavior, but should bring into a larger perspective.
Haggard’s behavior impacts all of us in the Christian community. His actions give folks reason to suspect the worst among ministers whenever there is a question of morality. Pastors are not perfect by any means and face challenges every day that could threaten their ministries. Haggard’s hypocrisy doesn’t endear us to the general public, especially those who are skeptical of the church already.
Although Haggard’s story may be newsworthy in an unfortunate way, other pastors are deserving of recogntion for more worthwhile things. Many serve faithfully in anonymity with never a hope for the kind of recognition Haggard received. These are the servants who deserve gratitude from their congregations. Their quiet, unassuming behavior and godly examples are to be appreciated. Oftentimes these men and women serve in out of the way places out of the limelight with little fanfare or appreciation. The lives and influences of these kinds of ministers need to be promoted as the real success stories in the ministry.