The Ted Haggard scandal: implications for the church

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I have followed the Ted Haggard scandal closely since it broke November 2, waiting for some distance and perspective. As was predictable, we now have confirmation from the New Life Church board that “without a doubt that he has committed sexually immoral conduct,” as well as Haggard’s own confession.

As a professor of contemporary Christian ministries, I spent several class sessions considering the many facets of this story with my students. Let me distill that discussion down to three conclusions:

Church leadership
Haggard built New Life to a church of 14,000 members over the last 20 years. This is yet another case of a church built by a man. The megachurch necessitates a hierarchical structure with the leader operating as the CEO, often called the senior, or executive, pastor. Furthermore, as president of the National Association of Evangelicals he was the closest thing to a pope the evangelical church has. Why do we keep creating such grand systems of status and prestige, constantly placing pastors on pedestals? Haggard’s demise is part of a systemic problem within the North American evangelical church. We continue to elevate Christian leaders to nearly divine status, allowing them no room for failure, doubt or humanity. Jesus’ instruction: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,” has simply become figurative language.

Dealing poorly with the offense
What happened to Haggard is predictable. He was caught, he confessed, he has now been banished from the community. The pattern is routine. We send those who have fallen away for discipline and treatment with the hope of “curing” them. We believe that sin is an individual problem to be solved “over there.” Haggard is now under the care of a group of men from another church in another state who will help “fix” him, but he knows he and his wife (and children?) will never again have fellowship with the New Life Church congregation. Wouldn’t it be better to confess our failures together, admit our brokenness, bear each other’s burdens and restore one another with gentleness? It certainly would be harder….

Ignoring the larger issue
The evangelical church will continue to ignore the larger issue of homosexuality. Where is a homosexual least likely to go if he/she wants to know something about God? The church. My guess is that Haggard’s church will do what most churches do in this situation—they will focus on Haggard (and possibly ways to prevent other leaders from participating in such elaborate deceptions) and will not attempt to address the issue of homosexuality in the church. The conversation will quickly move to “accountability” and then to selection of a new lead pastor, thus deflecting the real issue.

Any discussion about sexuality is taboo in most of our churches. Recently one of my students told the class her youth pastor had to arrange two two-hour parents meetings just so they could talk about heterosexuality in the youth group! Most youth leaders will never make it this far, and even fewer will address the issue of homosexuality, yet all of us know someone who is homosexual. I have challenged my ministry students: “Your generation must begin to seriously discuss this issue in the church and it can’t be as trite as saying, ‘homosexuality is wrong.’” (On Tuesday, November 14 the 1.2 million-member Baptist State Convention of North Carolina voted to ban any church in the conference that endorses homosexual behavior.)

I hope it is clear from my comments that the emphasis of my concern is not on Ted Haggard but on the system that Haggard was leading in. I don’t mean to dismiss the severity of his sin, but I do want the rest of us to wrestle with the larger issues: issues that will only press harder and harder upon the church in the coming decade.

Tim Neufeld is professor of contemporary Christian ministries at Fresno Pacific University. He also serves in a denomination belonging to the National Association for Evangelicals and is pursuing doctoral studies at Fuller Theological Seminary.

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