Who says there are no second acts in American religion? Ted Haggard, the former mega-pastor and evangelical leader who fell from grace in a 2006 gay sex scandal, launched his new church last week with a gathering of 100+ people at his home, located a stone's throw from his former New Life Church. Hometown religion reporter Mark Barna was there--at least for a brief press conference Haggard held before the gathering. The resulting article, "Haggard holds home prayer service: a night of redemption," contained classic quotes of the kind that make Haggard's followers swoon and his skeptics cringe:
"People here tonight believe in resurrection and me."
Resurrection is a great hook. But forgiveness was the key doctrine explored in the article and follow-up pieces. Barna went further in "People repent, change -- so give Haggard a chance," a post on his blog, "The Pulpit."
The Bible is filled with stories of spiritual transformation, few of them more famous than the story of Paul, who went from someone who murdered Christians to arguably the greatest teacher of the faith.
While the tale of Paul is extraordinary, there is no shortage of stories about people who have changed their lifestyle, sometimes dramatically, through Christian teachings or because they've suffered such hardships as a serious illness or financial downfall.
Barna quoted Haggard supporters who say he has paid his dues and repented. But one question I've heard some local Christians ask is: "Isn't there a higher standard for leaders? Is forgiveness enough for a fallen pastor who has broken people's trust and damaged the image of Christ's church?"
Barna briefly addresses these concerns in his blog:
Well, that's all fine and dandy, but should Haggard lead a church?
Well, why not? Many nondenominational evangelical pastors like Haggard have no academic training as a minister. They become a pastor by proclaiming it. They start a church or join one and work their way up.
And for every Bible passage (First Timothy 3:2) saying a minister of God must be beyond reproach, there is a story like Paul's in which a repentant sinner is used by God for good.
I think Barna confuses two issues here: the issue of whether God can use a repentant sinner (like Paul) and the issue of what should done with a leader who essentially forsakes his call by wandering away from the truth he himself has proclaimed.
Barna also reports that Haggard, who did not complete the program of recovery dictated to him by spiritual advisors, has now selected his own team of advisors to whom he says he will be accountable. Haggard's certainly not the first leader in the evangelical/charismatic community to pull this (as Charisma magazine editor Lee Grady frequently points out in his editorials).
Once again, Haggard supporters sing "Hosannas" and others say, "Here we go again." Should Barna have dealt more with questions of leadership rather than forgiveness? Perhaps. But many readers are saying they want to be done with the whole issue. To them we say: Good luck.