A few years ago I would have told you, had you asked, that I had heard of Samuel Korangteng-Pipim but I had no strong feelings about him. I knew he was a darling of the Seventh-day Adventist conservatives, that he ran a campus ministry, and that he had written some books. Later, as I began to hear more about him, I looked at his website and guessed that he was a man of robust self-esteem: he styled himself an eagle, his followers sometimes calling themselves eaglets.
I also saw, with some concern, that he was unusually rigid about every matter of faith and behavior, that there seemed little grace in his religion or ethics, and that he took a pugilistic delight in attacking those with whom he disagreed.
That’s not the way I do ministry, and I wondered whether it was a good thing to have him teaching young adults. But I still couldn’t have said that I disliked the man. First, because I’ve never met him. And second, I respect the right of those who differ from me to have their own views, over a pretty wide range of beliefs. (That’s not always reciprocated, but that’s not my fault.) Being more pastoral than theological, I will avoid arguing with them if I see that our relationship is at stake. (That’s not necessarily reciprocated, either). Every person is, I want to believe, figuring things out about the best that they can given the hand they’ve been dealt. The universe is big and complicated and I’ve always suspected we’ll probably, on the other side, discover that a lot of what we were certain about was partial at best, and in some cases thoroughly confused. Thank God we’re saved by grace, not by being right.
Recent events, though, forced me toward an opinion about Samuel Korangteng-Pipim, the man. It wasn’t just the infidelity. People commit such sins, and Jesus seemed to forgive repentant adulterers readily. What bothered me more was what happened afterwards. The show of rather proudly spanking himself, then brushing himself off and beginning to talk, rather too soon, as though it were all over: the eagle has healed and is soaring again. Within a few months of the confession he took a group on a retreat in Spain, announced a new recovery ministry, began a book about his affair, and took a job with a Seventh-day Adventist publisher. He was the choreographer of his own recovery, pushing the schedule faster than is either usual or healthy, while his conference leadership seemed to be watching from the loge seats.
Meanwhile the person with whom he’d had the affair was MIA. What little we heard about her from Dr. Pipim left us thinking this had been a mutual attraction, or maybe even—since he was speaking so publicly and we heard nothing from her—a femme fatale.
The whole feeling of the thing seemed wrong. It brought to mind what I’ve seen so often among those who are critical and unbending: that it isn’t the logic of their theology that’s the problem, but that it nearly always betrays a deep lack of spiritual, moral and relational health.
A pastor friend of mine makes this categorial statement: if you look into the life of someone angrily, rigidly conservative, you’ll find sexual sin. In the past or the present, victim or perpetrator, but somewhere. The rigidity, he says, seems an effort to batten down a life that feels dangerously infirm; the strong doctrinal fealty an attempt to stack something else on the scale against the sin. I wouldn’t go that far, yet in my experience the people I’ve known who attack others for their theology (whether conservative or liberal issues) in that angry, hurtful, you-have-no-right-to-even-be-here way, always have far deeper problems than theology. There is something hidden or denied, something that theological argument diverts attention from. They make their defense with a strong offense, and they count on others being too kind or too intimidated to call them on it.
That’s why I’m never completely surprised to find that the people who are indignantly opinionated about faith, doctrine and lifestyle, who like to pick fights, and who hold people to unrealistic standards, have another part of their lives that is completely out of sync with what they say. And so here: as the blankets covering this bed began to be peeled back, we heard that Dr. Pipim’s partner might have been a young student, then that the event may have been coercive, and finally that this wasn’t the first time he’d done it.
Over the weekend after the cancelled baptism, the Adventist commentosphere displayed both sadness and schadenfreude. There was surprisingly little open gloating, contrary to accusations, though there was an occasional “see?”—which wasn’t nice, but it’s hard not to feel some residual resentment when someone who has been unmercifully judgmental of others for so long turns out to have his own problems. A few tried, against the current, to come to Dr. Pipim’s defense. Since it was impossible to say he didn’t do it, they turned their anger on the spectators. People who would kick others out of the church for voicing a different opinion of origins or of women’s ordination were furious with those others for not wanting to restore to membership and ministry a confessed adulterer and alleged rapist. How our loyalties tie us in knots!
I don’t like the word “hypocrite” because it suggests an intention to deceive, and I have a hard time believing that anyone but a sociopath intends to do the opposite of what they say. All of us, just ordinary Christians, do things that we know we shouldn’t. All of us will make excuses for ourselves. But we’re not happy about it. I believe that when Paul talks about failure, when he says “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out” and “the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing,” [Romans 7:18-19] he wasn’t describing what happens just to the unconverted, but what happens to everyone. I’ve been a follower of Jesus Christ for all of my life, and I still do things I wish I hadn’t—and so do you.
Yet there is something even more deeply damaged about the angry believers of the Seventh-day Adventist church. They live in a dark and smeary denial. I have seen it so often that it is diagnostic: find an Adventist who is rigid and critical, and you’ll find a chaotic family, strained relationships, and secrets. Often it is other family members who betray (not necessarily in words) what’s behind the facade of self-righteousness.
That’s why some were concerned when our General Conference president, in his inaugural speech, outlined his agenda and then told laypeople to “hold your pastor accountable” to it. Many pastors, even those who shared his concerns, worried that he was activating the least healthy members of their congregations: the people who are critical, willing to tear the whole church apart in order to get their way, who keep the congregation in constant pain. Some of these will chase anyone in whom they perceive a heterodoxy right out of the church, interrupt services to shout at the preacher, or even (in one case last year) throw fists at someone they perceive to be a theological enemy. Every pastor knows that it is impossible to build a congregation with people like that, doctrinally sound or not.
These are some of the people who adulated Samuel Korangteng-Pipim, who gave him his platform, who bought his books, who helped him build his eagle ego, and who are still defending him. And I say again: while I’m sincerely sorry for Dr. Pipim’s fall, I’m not completely surprised at how this story ended, for the denouement was hinted at in the introduction.
 The other forgotten person—even more than the victim, since recent revelations—is Mrs. Pipim. Like the wives of political men everywhere, she was treated as an accessory to her husband’s career, submerged beneath his substantial ego, perhaps made worse by the African patriarchal family culture. Where she has appeared it seems as though her husband, whose honesty we now have reason to doubt, has spoken for her. I can only imagine her pain.