Bishop Eddie Long, pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., is the latest minister to find himself caught up in a scandal. According to CNN, four young men filed civil lawsuits accusing Long of coercing them into sexual relationships, allegations he has denied in a statement issued through his attorney.
Over the past few decades, many spiritual leaders have fallen from grace. Usually, this scatters the flock and destroys the ministry. There is no justification for a spiritual leader abusing his or her authority, but the church should be able to withstand even the worst of scandals.
In many churches, the pastor is placed on a pedestal and deemed to be perfect. This perception of righteousness is sometimes created by the pastor.
Some clergy believe the only way to lead people of faith is to make them think they are sinless. While a minister should refrain from doing things in the presence of others that may cause them to stumble, they should never give the impression that they are without sin. I often remind worshippers that, while I am a pastor, I am still human and therefore susceptible to sin. This is not meant to be an excuse for my shortcomings, but I believe I have a responsibility to make it clear to my congregation that I struggle with some of the same sins so their faith is not shaken when I fall short.
There are times when the perception of perfection is created by the parishioners without the preacher’s help.
Some people of faith believe that God only calls those who have achieved a higher standard of righteousness. One need only study the lives of some of the greatest characters of the Bible to see this is not the case: Moses had murdered a man, yet God choose him as his prophet to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. King David committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband murdered to cover up his sin, yet he is referred to in the Bible as “a man after God’s own heart.”
In the Old Testament, God made provisions for the priests to atone for their own sins before they made sacrifices on behalf of the people. It is clear that God knew the priests would sin. The New Testament tells us, “There is none righteous, no, not one. For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”
Second, the presumption is that a preacher only delivers sermons on issues he or she has overcome. God uses the minister to speak to his people. The pastor is flawed and therefore there are times when the message is meant for the pulpit as well as the pew. Furthermore, a sermon is supposed to have its basis in the Scriptures, so it is not hypocritical for a preacher to speak on issues he or she is still struggling with; it is God’s word not the minister’s.
Our legal system demands that we presume Long did not commit these despicable acts until proven otherwise. If the accusations are indeed true, God will forgive Long but some of his membership may not. I hope that no matter the outcome, New Birth, a church that has done a lot of good over the years, will continue to thrive.