The allegations against Bishop Eddie Long are horrifying and disgraceful, but not necessarily shocking. Unfortunately, many well known Christian leaders of large ministries have stepped outside of their marriages into sexual immorality. Even more unfortunately, we African Americans often excuse our morally failing leaders as people who are mere men or victims of white conspiracies. But sinners are not victims; they are perpetrators who make choices.
Certainly the allegations against Long, if found to be truthful, sadden me and cause me to seek the Lord for more mercy and grace upon my own soul: “Lord, lead me not into temptation and deliver me from evil.” But they also provide an opportunity for all of us as believers to consider what we should expect of the pastor’s morality, and what to do when pastors make the choice of vice.
First, churches should expect their pastors to be men who walk in holiness before God. All of us are called to be holy, for our God is holy (1 Pet. 1:16). Pastors in particular are expected to be men who meets a full composite of qualifications (I Tim. 3:1-8; Tit. 1:5-9). Many of these qualifications concern the pastor’s personal holiness: “self-controlled,” “not a drunkard,” “not a lover of money,” “upright,” and “holy.” These qualifications should characterize the pastor throughout his tenure. This is the only way in which he can remain above the reproach of his people.
Second, churches should expect their pastors to be men who model Christ. Again, all of us are called to follow Christ and our Lord’s walk before God the Father. But pastors have many opportunities to set an example of Christ for others to follow. We must be able to say to our people, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). We are to “set an example to the believers . . . in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12).
Believers are commanded to consider how their leaders live and imitate them (Heb. 13:7). If our people cannot see an example of Christ in us—including keeping our bodies pure from immorality—they cannot follow Christ by following us. To put it differently, our stead as pastors is no greater than our ability to say, “You can please Christ; just follow me and I will show you how to do it.” We have no credibility or meaningful role in evangelizing sinners if our message only is “God can change and keep you, but he cannot do the same for me.”
Third, churches should expect their pastors to be men who keep their marriage vows faithfully. Pastors must be “[husbands] of one wife” (I Tim. 3:2). The man of God must be one who keeps his marriage vows. This means that he should not be a man of remarriage, adultery, pornography watching, or bisexual and/or down-low relationships, for each of these items stands in contrast to fidelity in marriage to one woman. This is an issue where lesser understandings and disobedience to this Scripture are harmful to our churches, and of which we, as African Americans in particular, need to raise our standards, for at least two reasons.
First, the African American family needs to hear and see modeled the message of the gospel and its significance for the family so that our families and community might be rescued from destruction. The social indicators of African Americans, including high divorce rates, high percentage of children growing up in single-parent homes, and high numbers of single, marriageable-age women—some of whom are now blaming the Black Church for the problem of their singleness—all point toward the need for the strengthening of the African American marriage and family. Couple this with the large numbers of African Americans who are members of churches, and you will see that there is an opportunity for the church to lead the way in repairing the ruins of the African American community. The repair works starts with the church being a place in which marriage is held in high honor. Typically this happens in places where a pastor holds his own marriage is high honor.
Second, the gospel story itself is readily portrayed and explained by the mystery of marriage. The gospel is the story of Christ giving his blood in death and rising from the dead in power in order to beautify the Bride the he will wed in her final salvation (Eph. 5:25-32; Rev. 21:1-4). The gospel we proclaim to the world inherently says, “Do you want to see what salvation is like? It is like a perfect marriage between the Perfect Man and the perfect woman in perfect marital bliss forever and ever! Come get what you have always wanted in life!” We believers are that bride that Christ is beautifying. We are the ones who should be able to say, “Christ will make your life like a great marriage; just look at my marriage” (or “my purity as a single believer,” 1 Cor. 7:32-28).
Pastors should be the leaders in their congregation in preaching and living out the gospel—the story of the perfect and eternal marriage. Otherwise, how can his people trust his word on marriage? When he says, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church,” will he have any credibility? Can church members trust that his counsel on marriage will work for them if God’s power did not work for him? Instead of questioning their pastors, congregations should be able to trust their pastors as men who fear the Lord in all areas, including in their bedrooms (Heb. 13:4).
It would be appropriate to ask, “If a pastor fails in his marriage, what should happen next?” Having not met the qualities of a pastor, he should be responsible to step down from his role as pastor immediately. If he does not step down, his congregation should ask him to step down. This may seem harsh, but consider the alternative message you are sending to his wife, children, and the watching world that is in need of redemption. The wife and children are, in effect, being told that the church is not there to hold the head of their household accountable to the gospel. Thus, he can live two lives before them and God’s people and there is nothing his family can expect the church to do.
Moreover, we tell the world that our gospel is a powerless sham. We appear to be people who say, “Well, you do not really have to live like a Christian in order to be one, or be a member of the church. We’ll prove it to you: just look at our pastor!” This is shameful. But it also is what we do when we allow immoral men to remain in their pulpits, and it is commonly accepted in the African American church. A pastor cannot divorce his work from his life, for his work is a message that must be modeled in order to be proclaimed with credibility and the power of the Spirit of God.
Let me be clear that requiring an immoral man to step down from his position as pastor is not a question of the man’s gifts or his internal calling (which is subjective). It is a matter of his qualifications—his external calling, which is objective and verifiable for every man, regardless of his spiritual and natural gifts. Such a man may be gifted as a teacher and preacher. However, this does not mean he needs a pulpit. Instead, he needs repentance, marital counseling, brotherly accountability, a pattern of faithfulness in his marriage, and must make amends with the congregation that he has harmed. His gifts can be used to teach Sunday school. But he is not qualified to lead.
The fall of a pastor is a serious matter for the church as we seek to glorify God in all things. It must mean the end of a pastor’s tenure as his church’s pastor. Thankfully, because of the blood and resurrection of Christ, it does not mean the end of his salvation.