Atlanta pastor Eddie Long is innocent until proven otherwise. But the sordid details surrounding accusations against him, as well as earlier scandals involving other Christian leaders, have opened the floodgates of popular opinion — and it’s not good.
I’m only speculating, but imagine if Monday’s lead news story reads something like this:
Calling himself a “deceiver and a liar” who had “given in to his dark side,” the pastor, standing in his pulpit, confessed to sexual immorality during the Sunday-morning service at his crowded megachurch.
“Not all the accusations are true, but I take responsibility for the entire problem. There’s a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it for all of my adult life,” he said.
The popular minister, known for anti-gay sermons, had found himself drowning under the threat of being outed. So he stood before his congregation, came clean, and asked for mercy …
The imaginary news report above is based on actual reports about the confession of Rev. Ted Haggard, the former pastor of the 14,000-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs. In 2006 he was forced to step down following revelations that he had been involved in a relationship with a male prostitute. I’m guessing that at least some folks among the 25,000-member New Birth Missionary Baptist Church near Atlanta are wondering whether they should brace for a similar confession from their pastor, Bishop Eddie L. Long.
Three men in their twenties went public this week with civil lawsuits against Long, accusing the pastor of using his power to force them into sexual relationships with him. The story is the buzz in the Atlanta area and among Christians across the nation. (And as this story goes to press, at least one other young man has filed a suit.)
People must not forget that Long is innocent unless proven otherwise. He deserves a fair hearing to respond to the charges, especially since, if found innocent, sexual abuse charges remain a very difficult stain to cleanse from one’s reputation. It’s also worth noting that Long’s accusers filed civil — not criminal — lawsuits against him, and civil suits are usually always about money. And, as we all know, money can complicate the telling of truth. Hopefully Bishop Long is innocent, but as of now, we’ve only heard one side of the story.
Long has been slow to speak out publicly and denounce the charges himself. He canceled a press conference and a highly anticipated radio interview on the popular Tom Joyner Morning Show, choosing instead to deny the charges through his lawyer.
And though Bishop Long deserves a fair hearing in the court of law, the court of popular opinion is already running in overdrive. And it’s not looking good, which of course it never does when the press gets a hold of any story involving complaints against a religious or political leader. No matter how tempting it may be to gawk and judge and convict a person before all the facts are in, it never does us any good as Christians to revel in the misfortune of another human being, no matter how easy of a target he becomes.
Bishop Long is renowned for an extravagant lifestyle (drives a Bentley, drew $1 million in salary from his charity, has a nine-bathroom mansion) that had already come under investigation by the federal government. And his politics have made him a prominent target as well. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among others, has referred to Long as “anti-gay” for his stance against same-sex partnerships.
Unfortunately, the shadow hanging over Bishop Long’s presumption of innocence is one cast by the scandals of a number of other high-profile leaders. How often has it come to light that the person who is publicly against a particular controversial issue is struggling personally with that very same issue? Remember fire-and-brimstone preachers Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, who were caught in sexual scandals, financial corruption, and lies? How about vocal anti-gay rights politicians like former Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, caught allegedly soliciting male sex in an airport bathroom, and Sen. Roy Ashburn of California, arrested for drunk driving after leaving a gay bar?
What we’ve learned from those previous scandals is that we need our leaders to be honest and compassionate promoters of justice and truth. We don’t need them crusading against issues primarily as a cover for their own personal sins, and often at our public expense. The media lives to expose hypocrisy, and Bishop Long’s situation must look like low-hanging fruit to them right now.
A side-note question raised by this latest scandal is, have Christians been placing too much emphasis on the homosexuality issue? There are ongoing theological debates regarding homosexuality and where it ranks among various sins. For me, the Bible seems to indicate that homosexuality is no worse than any other sexual transgression (1 Cor. 6:9-11,18-20). They’re all lumped together. Sin is sin. All of us have committed our share (I know I have) and remain susceptible. It’s when you believe you’re too powerful and untouchable that deception seeps in and eventually drowns you.
I hope this isn’t the case with Bishop Long. I hope his name doesn’t become just one more Wikipedia entry in the annals of religious scandals. Hopefully, he will be cleared. Hopefully, his young accusers will get the healing and deliverance they need. Hopefully, these events will help New Birth Missionary Baptist Church become a more honest, compassionate, and effective God-fearing church. Let’s hope that God uses this.
In the meantime, we must wait for the truth.