Thursday, January 11, 2018

A Megachurch Pastor and Sexual Assault: A Compromised Christian Leader

“A Memphis megachurch pastor received standing ovation during a church service on Sunday after he admitted that he had engaged in a ‘sexual incident’ with a high school student 20 years ago in Texas.”[1] That the woman had made the man’s prior misdeeds public just days before throws into doubt whether the pastor deserved the ovation by his loyal flock. Prompted by the firing of Matt Lauer, the anchor of NBC’s “Today” show, the woman emailed the pastor more than a month before his public acknowledgement at his church; he had not responded to the woman’s email to apologize. Letting his flock in on the secret hardly added much value to the man’s character, for damage-control is not laudatory. The standing ovation connoted not only praise on the man and a revalidation of the pastor’s continuance as a religious leader. That a Christian leader could be validated as such, rather than invalidated and thus shown the door, throws into question the integrity of religious leadership itself.
What is distinctive about specifically religious leadership? Moses is a distinctively religious leader because in the story of Exodus he follows divine decrees in leading his people out of Egypt and handing over ten basic laws. That five of them are moral in nature means that moral infractions can legitimately count against religious leadership in the Abrahamic religions. Yet the Book of Job tells us that God is not bound by what we take as ethical; omnipotence cannot be limited by anything, including moral commandments applicable to us mere mortals. As Kierkegaard’s analysis of the story of Abraham and Isaac in Fear and Trembling suggests, religiosity can seem absurd from the lower perspective of morality. Following the divine decree to sacrifice Isaac is not murder in religious terms, yet the act would be highly unethical as murder in terms of ethics and public legal justice.
Morality and theology are clearly distinct, yet at the same time related. This is why assessing the impact on the ethically-sordid pastor’s religious leadership is so difficult. In Christian terms, morality is salient in the preaching of Jesus. Yet love as agape (i.e., divine self-emptying) and even as caritas (i.e., human love directed to loving God) do not reduce to morality. In directing the girl to perform oral sex on him and touching her naked breasts twenty years before his acknowledgement, the then youth minister had not only acted immorally, but also violated the sort of love that Jesus exemplifies and preaches in the Gospels. That sort of love, being theological in nature, cannot reduce to moral or even emotional love; religious love as depicted by Jesus is God itself, as Augustine and Calvin emphasize in their respective writings. What is theological love as distinct from moral and emotional love? The self-emptying aspect of agape love provides an opening, yet not even the metaphysics of divinity voluntarily self-emptying of itself reaches the distinctly theological.
To decide whether the pastor’s religious leadership was compromised or outright deflated, the nature of theological love must first be known—in this case, as depicted and taught by Jesus. That the youth minister had not followed the Golden Rule is a good indication that in acting selfishly at the expense of the high school student, he had violated a divine decree on love, or God itself. Furthermore, in refusing to atone, the man had for twenty years (or more) kept himself reconciled with the woman and thus with God, and thus he remained at a distance from God. That the public acknowledgement was predicated on the woman making the incident public suggests that the pastor remained unreconciled in his heart, and thus with God. The standing ovation, giving the pastor a pass, thus suggests that a religious congregation can be misguided regarding not only morality, but also the very nature of religious leadership itself.

[1] Matthew Haag, “Megachurch Pastor Admits to Illicit ‘Sexual Incident’,” The New York Times, January 10, 2018.