Saturday, November 04, 2006

Ted Haggard: A Christian Perspective

If you've read or watched or listened to the news recently, you already know about the scandal pertaining to Ted Haggard. There's not much point in repeating it here, other than to sum up the matter by saying that Haggard was head of the National Association of Evangelicals until he was forced to step down from that position in response to allegations that Haggard had paid a male prostitute for sex, during which Haggard allegedly used illegal drugs.

From what I gather, Ted Haggard hasn't admitted guilt in terms of actually having gay sex or using methamphetamines, but it now appears that he has admitted buying meth (and being tempted to use it), and he's admitted that he contacted the gay prostitute who made the accusations against him.

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. I would not presume to know whether or not Haggard is guilty as charged. But I do believe in the fundamental American principle of "innocent until proven guilty", despite the fact that there seem to be a number of people who are all too willing to suspend their appreciation of that principle where Haggard is concerned.

Regardless of Ted Haggard's guilt or innocence, I do believe that he's a brother in Christ. And that, to my way of thinking, means that members of the Body of Christ, such as myself, have certain obligations towards him.

If the accusations which have been leveled against Ted Haggard are false, then I pray that he will be vindicated and that his accuser will be punished for what will have amounted to slander.

On the other hand, if indeed Ted Haggard has been guilty of some serious sins, then I pray that he'll genuinely repent of those sins, learn from the experience and become a better person as a result of the experience.

If Ted is guilty and repentant, then I pray that the church will demonstrate the love and forgiveness Christ requires us to demonstrate, knowing that there isn't a single one of us who has not ever sinned in some way against the Lord.

However, if Ted is guilty and unrepentant (or unpersuasive when claiming to be repentant), then I pray that his church and the larger evangelical Christian community will both love him and hold him accountable for his sins. (Contrary to the false teachings of some Christians who have perverted doctrines pertaining to forgiveness, the two things are not mutually exclusive. Love should be unconditional, but forgiveness should not be unconditional. We should always be willing to forgive, just as God is always willing to forgive us. But God's forgiveness is not unconditional, nor should ours be, lest we equate forgiveness with condonation.)

By the way, I've read some recent blog posts suggesting that conservative Christians have a double standard when it comes to how sinning Christians are treated. Those posts have unfavorably compared the recent reaction of the Christian community to Ted Haggard's sin to the Christian community's earlier harsh reaction to Bill Clinton's sin.

I have two responses:

  1. I'm getting pretty tired of saying this, but I guess I have to say it again, because a lot of liberals seem to be incapable of grasping the concept: The uproar over Clinton's sin was not just about his sexual sin. That was just a part of it, and a relatively small part at that. The bigger issue, which led to an attempt to impeach Clinton, was that he had committed perjury. When Ted Haggard likewise commits perjury while serving as a political leader who has sworn to uphold the law of the land, then and only then will I consider the two situations to be comparable.
  2. As the above paragraphs ought to make clear, I do believe that Ted Haggard should be held accountable for any sins he may have committed, even if he and I are both political conservatives. I totally agree that double standards ought to be discouraged. For my part, I do the best I can to avoid such double standards.
Beyond questions pertaining to Ted Haggard himself, and pertaining to questions about how the church ought to treat Ted Haggard, it seems to me that we ought not to be naive about the larger spiritual and social realities pertaining to this incident. What really concerns me about this incident is the manner in which this news story is being used by people who are transparently hostile towards conservative Christians in order to try to discredit all of us.

Visit recent blogs which comment on the issue, and you'll quickly discover that there is a palpable sense of glee among those who never much liked what Ted publicly stood for to begin with. All of which makes me wonder about the objectivity of news reporters covering the story, given the well-documented fact that there are disproportionately large numbers of political liberals working as journalists.

Like it or not, the Christian church today is involved in what have rightfully been described as "culture wars". To be a particularly prominent and successful Christian leader is to invite derision, false allegations and all kinds of other forms of negativity from people who are dedicated to agendas which are contrary to Christian values and teachings.

There are a lot of people in the world with serious axes to grind against the church and its leaders. Such people will sometimes say or do just about anything in order to try to neutralize the effectiveness of those of us who are doing our best to spread God's word and bring spiritual light into a world of darkness.

If such people can find genuine instances of hypocrisy among Christians, then so much the better for them. But let's not be naive. Such people are not above lying through their teeth, if necessary, in order to score points.

The same thing is true in the political arena, especially in an election year in which liberals are visibly salivating at the prospect of recovering from losses in previous elections.

The well-known relationship between Ted Haggard and George Bush has a lot of political liberals thinking that this latest scandal will virtually guarantee that they will succeed in driving most Republicans out of office.

Never mind that Ted Haggard's sins, whatever they might be, are Ted's sins and his alone. Never mind that it's utterly illogical to blame all conservative Christians for the sins of one of our leaders. To some people, this incident just confirms their bigoted and ignorant assumptions to the effect that all conservative Christians are hypocrites.

I'd be the last person to claim that Christian leaders are perfect. Over the years, I've had my own personal encounters with hypocritical pastors and other leaders with feet of clay.

Years ago, my own father (who served for two consecutive 3-year terms as a Methodist lay minister when I was in grade school) committed adultery and subsequently divorced my mother as a result of his adulterous affair. Since that time, I've seen a number of other instances of hypocrisy in the church. As a result, I developed a healthy skepticism of people who claimed immunity from criticism on account of their leadership roles in the church.

So I acknowledge that some Christian leaders are hypocrites. However, people who think that demonstrating the existence of hypocrisy in the church disproves the legitimacy of Christianity itself (or that it disproves the legitimacy of teachings promoted by the more conservative branches of the church) are way off base.

It is as nonsensical and illogical to claim that the existence of hypocrisy in the church and among some leaders of the church disproves Christianity as it is to claim that the existence of hypocrisy among some law enforcement officers or public school teachers means that neither law and order nor education are desirable things.

While it's true that sincere believers in Christ do aspire to be perfect, or that they ought to aspire to be perfect, the true message of Christianity is not, and never has been, that being a Christian instantly makes one perfect. Our salvation is not something which we have earned, nor is it something which we could ever hope to earn. It's a free gift, paid for by Christ on the cross and given to all who will humbly admit their failures and ask for God's forgiveness.

Most of us understand that forgiveness through God's grace and mercy is no excuse for not doing our best to meet God's standards of behavior. Most of us understand that we ought to seek to grow in wisdom, self control and righteousness. But we also understand, if we're realistic and honest with ourselves, that very few of us will attain those lofty goals in our lifetimes.

Therefore, seeking and finding instances of imperfection among Christians in an effort to discredit Christianity itself amounts to shadow boxing, in the sense that it's an attempt to refute a claim that most serious Christians never make about the Christian faith in the first place.

Only the naive and the ignorant see incidents such as this latest incident involving Ted Haggard as a victory for people who oppose Christianity. True Christians do not worship or serve Ted Haggard or any of the other prominent but fallible human leaders who have guided or led the church in the past or who will do so in the future. It is Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone to whom we look for ultimate inspiration, guidance and salvation.


NOTE: This is a slightly updated version of an older blog post here which has been (or will be) deleted now that this newer version has been posted.

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