What's the worst thing that could happen to an evangelical leader who has been an outspoken critic of the homosexual agenda? You'd think it would be a scandal involving the services of a gay prostitute. But Ted Haggard, recently departed head of the National Association of Evangelicals, managed to top even that. In Haggard's case, it appears that his favorite male prostitute was also his drug dealer.
Many in the evangelical community are wringing their hands, wondering how such a thing could happen. It's the wrong question. We live in a fallen world and have fallen natures, and we face a relentless enemy who "prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour" (I Peter 5:8, NIV). The real question is not how something like this could happen, but why it doesn't happen much more often.
When the scandal began to unfold, Haggard followed a pattern established by too many others before him. He denied the charges. Then he admitted that some of the charges might have some merit. The truth came out bit by bit, with Haggard admitting only to what he could not effectively deny until the weight of evidence was too great to support further evasion. (Note to evangelical leaders: This approach only prolongs the story, and makes the eventual revelation all the more painful for those who gave you the benefit of the doubt. When you're caught, it's already long past time to 'fess up. God already knows, and in the grand scheme of things nobody else really matters.)
The ideological foes of evangelicalism received the news of Haggard's fall with unseemly glee, pointing to yet another example of hypocrisy in the Christian community. I'm never surprised to find hypocrites in the church – in fact, I don't really know where else you'd expect to find them. It's all but impossible to be a hypocrite if your life philosophy boils down to "If it feels good, do it." On the other hand, if you serve a God who calls you to be holy, occasional bouts of hypocrisy should be expected. One must have standards before one can violate them.
All are vulnerable. Haggard was pastor of a 14,000-member church, president of a group that influences some 30 million Christians, a husband, and father of five children. You'd think he wouldn't be tempted by drug-fueled gay sex, but he was. But don't be too quick to heap condemnation on him just because gay sex and crystal meth don't tempt you. Something else does. The Bible says "each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed" (James 1:14, NIV). There are no exceptions in that verse. The Bible says that even Jesus was "tempted in every way, just as we are" (Hebrews 4:15, NIV). We need to respond to Haggard's situation with humility, realizing that but for the grace of God, we'd all be right where he is.
Haggard's fall should encourage a bit of soul-searching. Where have we made ourselves vulnerable in our own lives? Where have we fallen? There are two kinds of people in this world: repentant sinners, and unrepentant sinners. Make sure you're on the right side of that divide.
Years ago, after the visible fall of a leading figure in the Christian music industry, I interviewed another prominent artist and asked him how he avoided the temptations of life on the road. He pointed to his road manager, and explained that this was a trusted friend who was with him at all times when he traveled, thus eliminating any opportunity to slip into hidden sin. He also told me about his accountability team back home – a group of men who had known him before he was famous and therefore weren't particularly impressed by him. Each time he returns from tour, they sit down with him. The talk goes beyond actions to include his thought life. It's a hard-core approach to accountability, and it may be exactly what's needed for Christians in the spotlight.
We also need to rethink our use of that spotlight. The Christian community has an unhealthy attraction to celebrity. We like to make our leaders into superstars and to imagine that they are beyond reproach – and beyond correction. It's far too easy for an evangelical leader to reach a place where they are surrounded by sycophants who spend a lot of time smiling and agreeing. If you've reached a point in your life where there's nobody who can tell you that you're wrong, be afraid. Haggard fell, but he wasn't the first and won't be the last. Haggard is down, but others are wobbling.
Our leaders keep falling from their pedestals. Maybe we should stop putting them there.
Published, December 2006
Doug Trouten is executive director of the Evangelical Press Association. He teaches journalism at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota.