This week: Ted Haggard, Sherman Allen and the ever-popular concept of holiness
This morning I'm launching an occasional Bible Girl feature called Three Points and a Lame Joke, which will allow me to tackle multiple subjects in the same column. The name honors the evangelical formula for preaching -- which is really three points, a fake anecdote and a lame joke, but that didn't fit my headline space. So here goes.
The Rod of Correction
Sherman Allen is pastor of Shiloh Institutional Church of God in Christ in Fort Worth, and right now he's holding his annual prophetic conference at the church. I don't know too much about Allen, who's a big name locally in black Pentecostal circles, but a few years ago I visited the conference, and I can tell you this: Allen has provided a platform for some excellent preachers, and he's no slouch himself in the pulpit.
The thing everyone remembers about Allen is that he's a short guy, one who favors bright, many-buttoned custom suits. But the other lasting impression is his passionate, timely and eloquent preaching. His members, I'm told, revere him for his servant's attitude. He's been known to foot the bill for the funerals of poor members. He's there for his followers emotionally, spiritually and financially.
Last week KXAS-Channel 5 broke the news of a lawsuit against Allen that alleges serious sexual improprieties. A 33-year-old Fort Worth woman, a former church employee, claims Allen repeatedly spanked her during private counseling sessions and coerced her into having "sexual intercourse and other sexual relations with him...and forcefully engaging in anal sex."
The lawsuit, filed in Tarrant County on January 30, says this:
"Davina Kelly began private counseling sessions with Allen for emotional issues in or around November 2001, which sessions occurred both in the Church and in the home the Church provided for Allen. Allen, as a form of punishment to Davina Kelly for not reading assigned scriptures, for tardiness to work, for incomplete work, and for various other reasons, administered severe physical beatings to Davina Kelly by way of assaulting Plaintiff with various paddles, these beatings being disguised as scripturally based or scripturally justified. These extreme beatings caused Davina Kelly serious physical harm evidenced by bleeding, bruises, and scars. Many of these beatings occurred on Church property...Furthermore, Davina Kelly was frequently forced to disrobe, partially or completely, for the beatings administered by Allen.
Beginning sometime in 2005, Allen, through manipulation and coercion and deception resulting from abuse of his confidential relationship, began to sexually abuse and sexually assault Davina Kelly in addition to continuation of the physical beatings described above. These sexual assaults were serious in nature and continued over roughly a six-month period. Allen instituted the sexual and physical assaults expressly under the guise of pastoral counseling."
I spoke yesterday to Matthew Bobo, one of Kelly's attorneys. He says his client, who is married and the mother of two, has authorized for her name to be used publicly. Bobo confirmed what I'd heard from a source -- that Shiloh's denomination, the Church of God in Christ, had investigated Allen years ago for allegedly spanking some female members, though those claims, to my knowledge, did not involve sex. Bobo also said he spoke earlier this week with another woman who told a remarkably similar story about her involvement with Allen. "It's a little scary that this same thing keeps coming up," Bobo said.
Early on in counseling, Bobo said, Allen instructed Kelly about "the rod of correction" mentioned in the biblical book of Proverbs. He kept a wooden paddle either in his office or in the trunk of his car, Bobo said. The pastor would paddle Kelly repeatedly for supposed transgressions. In 2005, the lawsuit claims, the relationship devolved into sex: "Allen represented to Davina Kelly that God's will was that Davina Kelly engage in sexual conduct with Allen and that such was authorized or justified by scripture."
Bobo said Kelly's claims could end up in the Tarrant County District Attorney's Office. "The assaults were often forced in nature," the lawsuit alleges. "The extreme and outrageous conduct has caused and continues to cause severe and long-lasting emotional distress to the Plaintiffs." (The other plaintiff is Kelly's husband.)
Kelly, however, has not spoken with police or prosecutors, Bobo said.
At some point in 2005, Bobo said, Kelly complained to Shiloh's elders and left the church.
Allen, who is married and has children, hadn't filed an answer to Kelly's claim as of Thursday at noon, and a woman at the Shiloh COGIC office told me the church and Allen have no comment "at this time."
I received this statement from Shiloh at the end of Thursday via e-mail but didn't notice it till Friday afternoon:
"My name is Laura Cobb. I am an employee of the Shiloh Church. I am calling on behalf of Shiloh Church. We understand that a lawsuit has been filed alleging sexual and other improprieties on the part of Pastor Allen. Neither the Church nor Pastor Allen has been served with any court papers at this time. If court papers are served, then legal counsel will be consulted, and we will address this matter in the courts rather than the media."
Oh, I really didn't want to go there again, but you, Bible Girl readers, asked, and it shall be given unto you.
A Tuesday story in the Denver Post reports that Ted Haggard, disgraced former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, has emerged from "three weeks of intensive counseling" in Phoenix and has discovered he's "completely heterosexual." Those, by the way, are the words of a member of Haggard's four-man oversight board, not necessarily Haggard himself. Haggard and his wife have been in seclusion since he was dismissed as senior pastor of the 14,000-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs last November.
Haggard, 50 and a father of five, admitted he was guilty of "sexual immorality" after a male prostitute went public alleging they'd had a three-year relationship. Haggard was quickly removed as pastor and president of the NAE and submitted himself to the guidance of an accountability group that will steer him through recovery, though reinstatement to ministry is not the goal. I wrote earlier about Haggard's wrenching confession to his congregation, which I saw then and still see today as an example of something exceptionally rare: true repentance.
Now we hear that he has emerged a mere three months later as "completely heterosexual." Folks in the media, of course, have teed up Haggard for a second round of ridicule, since most seem to operate on the unproven assumption that sexual orientation is fixed and unchanging from birth.
I have to say, my own immediate reaction to this latest Haggard news was "too fast." But then I considered the source. I'm writing now to provide some balance and context.
Remember: These weren't necessarily Haggard's words; those were someone else's words. I've been around evangelical folk all my life, and I can say this with confidence: Most of them have little understanding of the dynamics of same-sex attraction. I can make an educated guess where many of the members and leaders of New Life Church are right now in their thinking. They want someone to reassure them that "No, Pastor Ted really isn't gay."
Why is this so important? To them, gays are an inscrutable Other, a walking emblem of sin, an embodiment of a condition they both fear and fail to comprehend. Trust me -- there are many men and women in evangelical churches who quietly struggle with same-sex attraction to one degree or another. How do I know? Since I spoke openly about my own struggle with same-sex attraction earlier in my life, first in a small Christian women's group and then in this column space, I've heard from some of them. And I knew I would.
But you can't talk about this stuff in evangelical churches. We still haven't found the compassionate space between declaring homosexuality a sin and offering a solution. We don't talk about it, and we frantically seek assurances about Pastor Ted, because we're not confident that Jesus Christ can transform a person's sexuality.
I can say a few things about that from personal experience and observation. God can break the back of a longtime sin condition in an instant through the power of the Holy Spirit. It happened to me. I also know several crack addicts and former (yes, former) alcoholics who were "delivered" instantaneously through "Holy Ghost power," as the old-school Pentecostals would call it, never to touch the substances again. Some of them never even experienced temptation in that area anymore.
I've seen others struggle for years to get free without success.
Our problem is a problem of faith. We think it more important to develop theological constructs for why there is such a power deficit in the church than to throw ourselves at the feet of Jesus Christ and cry out for his transforming grace, to ask him in all humility why our churches have grown so weak in spirit.
When we limit God's power through our teaching, is it any surprise that our members are weak in faith?
I don't care if you're Pentecostal or not. This has nothing to do with whether you speak in tongues, pray Our Fathers or toss sentence prayers at the ceiling.
Do you believe you're a "new creature" in Jesus Christ?
Do you really believe?
Every evangelical, at least, is mumbling "amen" right now. If so, you shouldn't be needing assurances about Pastor Ted. Based on his own confession, he'd been struggling with dark and "repulsive" thoughts for many years, which I presumed to mean homosexual thoughts. If he truly repented and sought God's power to deliver him, on his own and in the company of skilled ministers, he's delivered. It doesn't take a lot of hocus-pocus.
The tough part usually comes afterward, and it involves a lifetime of choices. Paul said it most succinctly: "Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind."
The truth is, it could take years for Ted Haggard's mind to be fully renewed. He seems to understand that, based on an e-mail he sent to his former congregation on February 5. Here is part of it:
"Jesus is starting to put me back together. I have spent so much time in repentance, brokenness, hurt and sorrow for the things I've done and the negative impact my actions have had on others. That sadness continues as my family and I, along with so many others, go through the painful consequences of my actions. Jesus and his followers, though, have saved my life. As part of New Life's efforts to help me, they sent Gayle and me to Phoenix for a three week psychological intensive that gave us three years worth of analysis and treatment. We all wanted to know why I developed such incongruity in my life. Thankfully, with the tools we gained there, along with the powerful way God has been illuminating His Word and the Holy Spirit has been convicting and healing me, we now have growing understanding which is giving me some hope for a future."
I don't see triumphalism anywhere in here -- I am completely heterosexual, completely healed, completely wonderful, ready to assume my powerful positions as soon as you unforgiving wretches allow me.
I see a humble admission that this is a complex problem, that this is gonna take some time.
I wrote in September how I began having "crushes" on girls as early as 7. This was not a conscious decision, and it had nothing to do with sex. I had a "hole in my soul" that cried out for affection and comfort from a woman, and to this day I can only speculate why. (It doesn't really matter.)
At adolescence, however, I believe a Christian makes a choice concerning same-sex attraction: Do I dwell on these thoughts, fueling a fantasy life that will probably manifest itself in sinful sexual relationships as I get older, or do I commit myself to finding a solution in Jesus Christ? And once Jesus delivers me from my sin condition, do I submit daily to the process of having my mind renewed by the Word of God, prayer and fellowship with other believers?
Those Christians who choose to dwell on these thoughts -- and I did, to some extent, because I didn't know how to get freed -- develop thought patterns that can take some time to unwire. The beautiful thing is that you can untangle them once Jesus has freed you from the spiritual root of same-sex attraction.
So, Pastor Ted, don't beat yourself up if those thoughts intrude from time to time. Keep talking to your Christian confidants, the ones who are really praying for you, and to your wife. Yes, especially to your wife. It's important to walk in the light of brutal truth, and she probably knows you best. People have already said the worst about you, so what have you got to lose by getting to the bottom of those "repulsive" thoughts?
Those thoughts are like slugs. Before you know it, they'll be frying on the sidewalk in the summer light.
That Musty Old Word: Holiness
If the word "holiness" makes you think of the dusty, musty home of your great-grandmother, then you're allowed to substitute something else, such as godliness or integrity. But you're not allowed to ignore the concept itself.
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If there is any message to be gained from the news about Haggard and Allen, it is that the church must turn back to holiness. Not legalism, but holiness that derives from a reverent fear of God. J. Lee Grady is editor of Charisma magazine, the premier chronicler of news in the Pentecostal-charismatic community. He's also one of my favorite columnists.
Dallas Observer Editorial Assistant Kaitlin Ingram contributed to the reporting for this column.
Next week in Bible Girl: Master Prophet E. Bernard Jordan