It’s not looking good for Eddie Lee Long-–Bishop of Atlanta’s 25,000 member New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. Just last week, a penetrating spotlight was directed towards this mesmerizing messenger who dines with heads of state and celebrities. It took most by surprise when four young men alleged that their spiritual father had committed unspiritual incest. The one who they hoped would pray for them had purportedly preyed on them; the shepherd in whom they had placed their trust is accused of enticing them into disturbing trysts; the life of the manly model who publically abhorred homosexual behavior has apparently been muddled by the private aberrations of a hypocritical predator.
This is a scandal of immense proportions. If true, the Bishop will be forced to take his place in the hall of shame beside Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, Ted Haggart and other celebrity evangelicals whose secret sex lives were ingloriously exposed. As the story makes its rounds in the headlines, many in the media are quick to point out that the alleged perpetrator was a vociferous opponent of gay marriage. This tantalizing detail heightens the horribleness of the accusations as the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “most virulently homophobic black leader” is challenged to remove the beam from his own eye. While the New Birth counseling ministry sought to drag homosexuals “out of the wilderness,” is it possible that their cheerleading “Bishop” had been hiding the location of his own oasis? Could his harsh rhetoric have been a guise to quench the inquisitions of those who sensed that he himself may have been lusting after the flaming heat of the desert he purports to despise?
Although the circumstantial evidence seems stacked against Bishop Long, since the alleged victims were at the age of consent at the time of the allegations, the truth may only be revealed through a guilt laden confession or the revelation of irrefutable proof. Nonetheless, as we impatiently wait for cognitive closure that probably won’t dissolve all internal feelings of dissonance, there are some things about which we should be mindful. Firstly, we cannot allow the media to confuse the real issues. Some have already concluded that a guilty Long is also a hypocritical Long since he would have been preaching against homosexual behavior while engaging in it. However, the act of preaching against a personal vice is not hypocritical in and of itself. The hypocrisy is not in speaking what a person believes to be truth, but in pretending to be someone that he or she is not. In other words, an alcoholic would be hypocritical if she claimed to be a teetotaler, but it would not be hypocritical for an alcoholic to publically decry the pitfalls of alcoholism?
Secondly, it will do well for us to remember that all parties involved are in desperate need of Christ’s healing grace. Whether he is guilty or not, Eddie Long is probably mired in a dense pit of despair that few have experienced. This scandal has not only impacted him, but his family and congregation; in fact, all of Christendom has been permanently scarred. Some wish for him to be innocent so as not to bring a stain on the Church of God. I have news for those – it’s too late. The damage has already been done. Let’s not allow a desire for protecting an already broken image to make us forget that at least four others are also in desperate need of spiritual healing. It is no secret that for years these men had invested immense trust and confidence in a human icon they still reverently call “Bishop.” Indeed, if their experiences are valid it must be tremendously painful to hear their gorgonizing Goliath flip the script and assume the position of defenseless David.
Finally, let’s not get so distracted by the present scandal, that we forget the scandal that brought us to this point. Few will deny that Eddie Long is gifted and productive. He is among a handful of visionary preachers who have managed to grow their congregations to such a size that they can only be accommodated in stadium sized arenas. His leadership in the community is commendable as people are empowered to break through socially conditioned molds and embrace all that life has to offer. Schools and hospitals have been erected in developing nations and many lives have been saved as a result of the numerous ministries and ministers Bishop Long has inspired. Indeed, for many of those who have viewed and experienced these fruit of this ministry, it is difficult to accept that the one who shone so bright may be tarnished. Those who observed the body language of the three New Birth members interviewed by CNN’s Don Lemon should know how hard it is for the “faithful” to allow for even a modicum of doubt about “Bishop.”
However, these weren’t the only fruit that the Bishop bore. Like many other mega-church moguls, Eddie Long’s empire was built like a massive pyramid scheme maintained by a host of tithe paying downliners – many of whom give sacrificially with the hope that next Sunday morning their spiritual lottery number would be called. This scandalous gospel of wealth with its “name it and claim it” heresy has the masses so mesmerized that – even now – they fail to hold their leader accountable. Together with the millions of gullible who contribute to similar clergy greed, they allowed him to build his kingdom on their unquestioned loyalty. They defended the right of the “man of God” to have a $350,000 Bentley, multiple items of jewelry, six to seven figure salary, and expensive suits; and gave no thought to the fact that excessive materialism has long been successful in transforming “men of God” into “men of gods.” This, my friends, is the undisputed scandal – a scandal for which neither the Bishop nor New Birth have a defense.
In conclusion, I would be the first to admit that Eddie Long is right about one thing – we are witnessing spiritual warfare. Through this one incident, scores have been added to the growing pool of those who confuse the counterfeit for the real and cast Christianity in the trash heap of irrelevance. Some have enthusiastically revealed that their true allegiance is to the man who claims to be imperfect, and not the One who is without sin. Others have grasped this as an opportunity to pat their own selves or denominations on the back, forgetting that none of us is righteous enough to cast stones. The final battle lines have been drawn, and many have chosen to fight in the various legions of Satan’s army.
However, spiritual warfare also presupposes that many will align themselves with the forces of Good. These are those who see this as an occasion to intensify their reliance on God as they hold up the time tested shield of faith that has never ceased to sabotage the path of one of Satan’s fiery darts. These are the ones who respect pastoral leadership, but do not allow their confidence in human authority to displace their trust in God. These are the faithful who believe in the power of prayer and have not “chosen” who the “real” victims are in this scandal, but are interceding with the Spirit for each affected person with the hope that all will be saved. As the events continue to unfold, lets not participate in the fanning of scandalous embers; instead, let us allow the Spirit to use us as God’s healing agents of grace, who are true witnesses of his eternal Kingdom.
Keith Augustus Burton assists the director of the Bradford-Cleveland-Brooks Leadership Center (BCBLC) at Oakwood University. The BCBLC prepares present and future key church leaders for spiritual service in the cause of Christ (http://www.bcblc.org).