BEFORE THE STORM: Bishop Eddie Long and Rev. Bernice King. (Newscom)
This week’s news that Reverend Bernice King would leave her leadership post at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in suburban Atlanta led to immediate speculation about the nature of her departure. But both King and Bishop Eddie Long, New Birth’s senior pastor, denied this week that she resigned as an elder because of the controversy surrounding Long’s and New Birth’s financial settlement with four men who accused Long of sexual coercion. Both said King left because she sensed a calling to start her own ministry.
In a statement published on New Birth’s website, Long said he and King had been in “discussion and prayer” for some time about her decision and that “New Birth is planning a wonderful and fitting farewell tribute in honor of Reverend King.”
The announcement was delayed until after Memorial Day “because we felt it was appropriate to first honor the service men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice in service of our great Nation,” said Long.
“I heard I resigned. I was a little confused about that, because I’ve never been on staff. I’ve never been an employee of New Birth. I didn’t step down because I didn’t step up,” King told Rhodell Lewis of Atlanta’s Praise 102.5.
“Elder is a title they use in their church as Ebenezer [Baptist Church] would use Reverend. They’re the same, so if you leave a Baptist church, they don’t say you stepped down as reverend,” said King. “I’m just no longer a member of New Birth.”
King, the youngest child of Martin Luther King Jr., said her sole function was to occasionally preach, but she also described herself as a leader in the church and said there is an appropriate way for leaders to leave. She wrestled with the decision for two years, she said, and met with Long in early April to tell him that May 29 would be her last Sunday worshiping at New Birth.
King was “tremendously blessed” by the ministry of Long in the eight years, eight months she attended the church, she said, and thanked him and the congregation for its love and support through several difficult situations she endured.
Those trials included the illness and then death of her mother, Coretta Scott King, the death of her sister Yolanda King, a legal conflict with her brother Dexter King over their parents’ estate, and another with the leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, from which she resigned as president in January.
“I know that I have a pastoral calling on my life and I have to accept it,” said King.
“I’m going to launch a ministry. I’m not calling it a church right now because I believe that Christ builds his church. …What God is showing me doesn’t look like what people are accustomed to,” she said. “We must raise up true disciples of the kingdom of God so the kingdoms of this world came become the kingdoms of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. That is my mandate as I go forward.”
Though King has refused to comment on the controversy that has engulfed Bishop Long and New Birth since last fall, others are projecting that her departure will lead to a further implosion at the church.
When one of Bishop Eddie Long’s accusers spoke out last week, it offered insight into the tortured contradictions of male sexual abuse. But the question remains: Who’s telling the truth?
Has the Black church lowered its expectations regarding its pastors? According to Rev. Eric Redmond, the Eddie Long scandal provides us with an opportunity to reevaluate what’s required of our church leaders and to reclaim a biblical standard.
The allegations against Bishop Eddie Long are horrifying and disgraceful, but not necessarily shocking. For, unfortunately, many well-known Christian leaders of large ministries have made the choice of stepping outside of their marriages into sexual immorality. Even more unfortunate is that we, as African Americans, often excuse our morally failing leaders as people who are mere men or victims of white conspiracies. But sinners are not victims; they are fallen people who make choices.
Yesterday, in front of his Atlanta congregation, Bishop Long finally addressed the accusations that were leveled against him. He was right in saying the case should not be tried in the media, and it is not my intention to imply the man’s guilt in this space. Until proven otherwise, he deserves the presumption of innocence.
For pastors like myself, however, the allegations against Long should cause us all to pause and seek the Lord for more mercy and grace upon our own souls: “Lord, lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.” But this sad episode also provides an opportunity for all believers to consider what we should expect of our Christian ministers in terms of character and morality, and what to do when pastors make choices that disqualify them for leadership.
What We Should Expect
First, churches should expect their pastors to be men who walk in holiness before God. All of us are called to be holy, for our God is holy (1 Pet. 1:16). But pastors are called to live at a higher standard of Christian behavior than that of the general believer. When the qualifications for pastors (elders) are given in Scripture, the pastor is expected to be a man who meets the full composite of the qualifications (1 Tim. 3:1-8; Tit. 1:5-9). Many of these qualifications concern the pastor’s personal holiness: “self-controlled,” “not a drunkard,” “not a lover of money,” “upright,” and “holy.” These qualifications should characterize the pastor throughout his tenure as a pastor, not simply during his candidate period at a church. This is the only way in which he can remain above the reproach of his people.
Second, churches should expect their pastors to be men who model Christ. Again, all of us are called to follow Christ and our Lord’s walk before God the Father. In a more significant way, pastors must set an example of Christ for others to follow. At all times we must be able to say to our people, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1, ESV). We are to “set an example to the believers … in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12).
Fighting for Survival: On Sunday, Bishop Eddie Long finally addressed the allegations leveled against him by four accusers. The unfolding saga illustrates the importance of pastors being “above reproach” in both their ministries and personal lives. (Image from New Life Missionary Baptist Church)
Believers are commanded to consider how their leaders live and imitate them (Heb. 13:7). If our people cannot see an example of Christ in us — including keeping our bodies pure from immorality — they cannot follow Christ by following us. To put it differently, our stead as pastors is no greater than our ability to say, “You can please Christ; just follow me and I will show you how to do it.” We have no credibility or meaningful role in evangelizing sinners if our message only is “God can change and keep you, but he cannot do the same for me.”
Third, churches should expect their pastors to be men who keep their marriage vows faithfully. Pastors must be “[husbands] of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2; 1:6). The man of God must be one who keeps his marriage vows. This means that he should not be a man of remarriage, adultery, pornography-watching or addiction, or bisexual and/or down-low relationships, for each of these items stands in opposition to fidelity in marriage to one woman. This is an issue where lesser understandings and disobedience to this Scripture are harmful to our churches, and of which we, as African Americans in particular, need to raise our standards, for at least two reasons:
- The African American family needs to hear and see modeled the message of the gospel and its significance for the family so that our families and community might be rescued from destruction. The social indicators of African Americans, including high divorce rates, high percentage of children growing up in single-parent homes, and high numbers of single, marriageable-age women — some of whom are now blaming the Black Church for the problem of their singleness — all point toward the need for the strengthening of the African American marriage and family. Couple this with the large numbers of African Americans who are members of churches, and you will see that there is an opportunity for the church to lead the way in repairing the ruins of the African American community. The repair work starts with the church being a place in which marriage is held in high honor. Typically this happens in places where a pastor holds his own marriage is high honor.
- The gospel story itself is most readily portrayed and explained by the mystery of marriage. The gospel is the story of Christ giving his blood in death and rising from the dead in power in order to beautify the bride the he will wed in her final salvation (Eph. 5:25-32; Rev. 21:1-4). The gospel we proclaim to the world inherently says, “Do you want to see what salvation is like? It is like a perfect marriage between the Perfect Man and the perfect woman in perfect marital bliss forever and ever! Come get what you have always wanted in life!” We, the believers, are that bride that Christ is beautifying. We are the ones who should be able to say, “Christ will make your life like a great marriage; just look at my marriage” (or “my purity as a single believer,” cf. 1 Cor. 7:32-38; 2 Cor. 11:2-4).
Pastors should be the leaders in their congregation in preaching and living out the gospel — the story of the Perfect and Eternal Marriage. Otherwise, how can his people trust his word on marriage? When he says, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church,” will he have any credibility? Can his members trust that his counsel on marriage will work for them if God’s power did not work for him? Instead of questioning their pastors, congregations should be able to trust their pastors as men who fear the Lord in all areas, including in their bedrooms (cf. Heb. 13:4).
When the Pastor Falls
Many of you might be rightfully wondering at this point, If a pastor fails in his marriage, what should happen next? There are no easy answers to this. Simply put, having not met the qualities of a pastor, that man is biblically obligated to step down from his role as leader of his congregation immediately. If he does not step down, his congregation should ask him to step down. This may seem harsh, but consider the alternative message you are sending to his wife, children, and the watching world that is in need of redemption. The wife and children are, in effect, being told that the church is not there to hold the head of their household accountable to the gospel. Thus, he can live two lives before them and God’s people and there is nothing his family can expect the church to do.
Moreover, we tell the world that our gospel is a sham and powerless. We appear to be people who say, “Well, you do not really have to live like a Christian in order to be one, or be a member of the church. We’ll prove it to you: just look at our pastor!” This is shameful, but it also is what we do when we allow immoral men to remain in their pulpits, and it is commonly accepted in the African American church. We must remember that, unlike King David or President Clinton, a pastor cannot divorce his work from his life, for his work is a message that must be modeled in order to be proclaimed with credibility and the power of the Spirit of God.
Let me be clear that requiring an immoral man to step down from his position as pastor is not a question of the man’s gifts or of his internal calling (which is subjective). It is a matter of his qualifications — his external calling, which are objective and verifiable for every man, regardless of his spiritual and natural gifts. Such a man may be gifted as a teacher and preacher. However, this does not mean he needs a pulpit. Instead, he needs repentance, marital counseling, brotherly accountability, a pattern of faithfulness in his marriage, and to make amends with the congregation that he has harmed. His gifts may be used to do outreach in the community or to teach a Bible study. But, at that point, he is not qualified to lead a congregation.
The fall of a pastor is a serious matter for the church as we seek to glorify God in all things. It must mean the end of a pastor’s tenure as his church’s pastor. Thankfully, because of the blood and resurrection of Christ, it does not mean the end of his salvation. For his fall is only a fall from his qualification for the pulpit. It is not a fall from the grace and mercy that secures our salvation in Christ.
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.