Unbelief and Ted Haggard's Return

Early in 2007 I went to a writers conference in Colorado Springs, the home base of Ted Haggard. Haggard was supposed to have been a headliner at the conference, but a couple months prior he had become a headliner in a less positive way: he had resigned from his megachurch and from the presidency of the National Association of Evangelicals because of drug use and sexual immorality. Though he was not speaking at the conference, he haunted it.

At most meals, conversation discovered members of New Life, where he had been pastor, and gingerly probed them, finding them in various stages of anger and sorrow -- and also defensiveness. One man of Calvinistic views and Socratic habits, whose method I had the misfortune to witness over dinner, peered at a New Lifer through heavy glasses and questioned whether Pentecostalism had been the real cause of Haggard's fall.

The hardy soul under interrogation insisted New Life was going to be just fine.

In this buzz, I happened to be pitching a novel about pastoral deceit (since published as Fallen). I took it to a mentor for some feedback, an editor who lives in Colorado Springs, and after reading the first couple of pages he mused about the lightning chain of people he had witnessed saying to each other on the day Haggard fell, "Have you heard about Ted?"

Colorado Springs had been haunted for months.

It is not free yet. Two weeks ago, an article reported that Haggard was back, not at New Life, but at a church in Illinois. What are we to think about his return to preaching? The piece sampled many reactions, three of which made me realize something about the nature of unbelief among Christians.

Start with H.B. London of Focus on the Family -- a faithful man who is devoted to restoring fallen pastors, and who had been helping with Haggard's restoration. The article summarizes his view: "a return to vocational ministry in less than four or five years would be dangerous." Then London is quoted as saying, "To sit on the sidelines for a person with [Haggard's] personality and gifting is probably like being paralyzed. If Mr. Haggard and others like him feel like they have a call from God, they rationalize that their behavior does not change that call."

That kind of personality and gifting. He's wired to lead. You can see why he rationalizes his return, but . . . it's dangerous.

A negative assessment majoring on compassion. London's emphasis probably isn't reflected accurately by the article, but I wonder why the nod toward Haggard's charisma and talent is needed at all, and why his return would be dangerous rather than completely unjustified.

The statements seem tempered. What I think ought to be sharp edges of principled reasoning are blunted. As reported, they are weak.

A second reaction comes from Leo Godzich, who has met with Haggard weekly as part of the restoration process. "If all men are honest," he says, "all men are liars and deceivers. Once someone is gifted and called, that is something they generally cannot escape. . . . True redemption occurs when someone is fulfilling a destiny and purpose in their life."

Those sentences almost made me blow out a swig of coffee.

1. The doctrine of moral equivalence: all men are Haggard. Hit the gong. Not all men have systematically deceived their wives, their children, their associates, their subordinates, their boards, their constituents, and the public at large in order to cover up their behavior.

2. The notion of calling: Haggard "cannot escape" his "destiny." Get the hook and yank Godzich offstage. There's a substantial difference between "not escaping" and renewed self-promotion.

3. The new salvation: "true redemption" as fulfilling your purpose. It's trapdoor time for Leo. Down to the dungeon. True redemption is actually the forgiveness of sin, not the fulfillment of a calling that is very much in question.

This is the perversion of principles to fit a man.

A third reaction comes from the Illinois pastor who invited Haggard to preach. Chris Byrd says, "I had confidence his heart was solid, his theology is sound and the message he's always brought to the body of Christ would come forth." By what standard was Byrd confident that Haggard's heart was solid?Why should I be confident Haggard's theology is sound? On Byrd's say-so?

This is the substitution of pious avowals for discernment, again because of partiality to a man.

I constantly encounter people whose faith in Christ is in crisis. The reason is always the same: their relationships are entangled in unconfessed, unrepented sin. Sometimes the sin is their own; often it belongs to others. In order to salvage these relationships, they want to give and receive compassion. They want to have the space to change, and they want to give that space to others.

They are dancing a minuet of mercy with their partners. To keep the dance going, they have to keep Christ from cutting in. They have to redefine sin, broaden righteousness, and avoid judgment. But after years of giving and receiving vague compassion, they have relationships haunted by destruction. And when their rationalizations no longer give comfort, they want Christ to wave his magic wand and do a "work of transformation" -- which he won't do on such terms.

This is an anatomy of unbelief today.

In all likelihood, many New Lifers from that haunted 2007 conference have learned something about true redemption -- that sin, righteousness, and judgment will not be redefined by partiality, and that forgiveness is a sharp tool for healing.

My prayer is that they've gained a gospel worth believing.