I am a young man. That has never stopped me from having opinions, but I am often reminded of my youth when my opinions outstretch my years, as they do in the sad case of Ted Haggard. I would point out that though I speak in the passionate confidence appropriate my youth, I lack the mature wisdom to deal in such matters. I submit the following in the spirit of blogging: tentative, and subject to the criticisms and arguments of others.
I criticized New Life last night for raising Ted Haggard to a plane of uber-Christians. This morning, Scot McKnight more ably articulated many of the problems I saw only dimly. He identifies five problems:

1. Christians, and not just pastors, do not feel free to disclose sins to anyone;
2. Christians, including pastors, sin and sin all the time;
3. Christians, including pastors, in evangelicalism do not have a mechanism of confession;
4. Christians and pastors, because of the environment of condemnation of sin and the absence of a mechanism of confession, bottle up their sins, hide their sins, and create around themselves an apparent purity and a reality of unconfessed/unadmitted sin.
5. When Christians do confess, and it is often only after getting caught, they are eaten alive by fellow evangelicals — thus leading some to deeper levels of secrecy and deceit.

These attitudes, of course, were at the core of Haggard’s demise. But the response by Haggart and New Life fail to address the problem, and for reasons other than their acquiesence to ‘celebrity-Christianity.’ By being removed from leadership and leaving the church for a while–“Gayle and I need to be gone for a while,” Haggard writes–Haggard essentially removes himself from the life he had within the Church. Would not a better strategy be to re-integrate even closer into the life of the church? How will a break help him and his family, other than ease the shame they feel and help them avoid the discomfort of having sin out in the open? But that was the problem that started the whole issue.

I am also troubled by New Life’s dismissal of Haggard. Challies this morning praised them for responding “quickly and decisively” to the situation. And the esteemed Mark Roberts, for whom I have nothing but admiration and respect, intimates that he thinks Haggard should be removed from his position. While mine is the minority position, I wonder how much New Life’s permanent dismissal further reinforces the notion that leaders must maintain a veneer of perfection in order to have the respect of their parishoners. While Scripture maintains that overseers must have good reputations with outsiders (cf 1 Timothy 3:1-7), it does not make clear when those good reputations have to be maintained (i.e. all the time, or is any fluctuation allowed?), and within what spheres. While Haggard’s sin is big news now, will his repentance be? Will his credibility with outsiders ever be restored, even if it should be? What if those unbelievers in his local community respect, but the rest of the world does not? In our modern age, is it incumbent upon Christian pastors to have the respect of unbelievers everywhere? One thinks of the life of Augustine, who was compelled to write the Confessions just to justify his own position as a leader within the church. If Haggard has the gift of leadership, then with appropriate confessional and accountability structures in place, it seems plausible and more healthy for him to serve the body in that way. Let him grow, as we all are, into the holiness of the Kingdom. That is, if he writes his Confessions. To claim that he will never be in leadership at New Life again, as he does in his letter and as his quick dismissal indicates, seems to undercut the power of forgiveness, even for our leaders.
The responses, then, while sincere, further perpetuate the problems that afflict evangelicalism and (ostensibly) New Life Church. They are only half-solutions, which often breed more problems. At the core of the leadership culture of New Life is a desire to maintain appearances–as Haggard’s lifestyle reveals–and New Life and Haggard’s actions this last weekend do nothing to rectify that. It is a problem at the core of many of our lives, and a problem that sucks out the power of the Gospel from our Churches and relationships.
I should point out that I am not being critical of New Life, or of Haggart. It is for many of us the natural response. When we sin, we turn our face away from those who we sin against. I hated it when my parents made me look them in the eyes after disobeying, and now in my marriage it is harder than ever to stand face-to-face with my wife when I screw up. But it is only in looking her in the eye that I see and experience her tender, gracious forgiveness. It is when I overcome my desire to maintain appearances, my desire to avoid the discomfort of knowing that she knows my sin, that our relationship is restored. Changed, but restored.

At the core of my query, then, is not criticism but a cry of optimism. It is because I am optimistic about the good people at New Life that I think they should reconsider their decision and put Haggard on leave for a while, and then restore him to his ministry. It would be a telling and bold move that says that the reality of grace is powerful enough to help even the most deceitful sinners when they repent. It is because I am a optimist about the people of New Life that I think that Haggard should show up every Sunday to experience their love and forgiveness. It is because I am optimistic about the leadership of New Life that I think Haggard should commit to submitting to them, rather than Dobson, Barnett and Hayford. It is because I am optimistic about Haggard that I think he should take his leave of absence, be still and wait upon the Lord, authentically confront his sinful lifestyle and then return to the ministry where he flourished with a new heart, a new mind, and a deepened understanding of the power of the Gospel. It is because I am an optimist about the evangelical church that I think these measures would be viewed as understandable, even if disagreeable.

In this case, it is because I am an optimist that I am a critic. Which is to say, it is because I am an optimist that I am a blogger.

(ht: my boss, who prompted a lot of these thoughts)

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

4 Comments

  1. […] Matthew @ Mere Orthodoxy elaborates on Mr McNight’s thoughts on church leaders and sin. […]

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  2. I think you’ve said some wise things here, Matthew, particularly about the benefit to the church and the Haggards of remaining under the care and guidance of the church fellowship. An example from Scripture might be Peter after denying Christ, remaining with the disciples and later being forgiven by Jesus.

    Practically, of course, it would be tremendously difficult to accomplish with grace. There would be some who would want to expel Haggard from the church. The church itself would have to figure out how to handle his transition from leadership to participant-member of the fellowship. But I have a feeling that much would be gained, especially since it would demonstrate a healthy attitude about sin and repentance and grace.

    It also might be really good for Haggard’s pride to spend some time as an ordinary member of the church body, while he works out his salvation with fear and trembling. Thanks for posting these thoughts. You may be in the minority, but I think you’re on to something important.

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  3. […] We blogged about it a lot at Mere O when it happened.  Offered some pretty strong opinions, too, especially about the response by the people at New Life.  Ted Olsen at Christianity Today posted this recap of the followup by New Life.  there is much to be encouraged about.  It seems the church has entered a period of soul searching and made steps to improve accountability and oversight for its leaders. […]

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  4. Jake,

    Thanks for linking to Brandon’s article and continuing the discussion. If only more local churches would start having healthy dialogue, both internally and externally, we might see some progress in this area. In my own evangelical church, I’ve discovered there is a large “underground” group of members and attendees who struggle with SSA, but are afraid to speak about it openly. Some are married with children and others remain single. Most often when homosexuality is mentioned from the pulpit, the context is political rather than pastoral, which is unfortunate.

    Wesley’s book was also a huge influence in my own personal journey with a homosexual orientation. Washed and Waiting is the book on this topic I recommend most often to others.

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