“Some were called, others were sent—some just got up and went.” This is a common expression about a lot of people who become preachers. When I was growing up preachers who just “got up and went” were called “jacklegs.” Folks used this expression to describe preachers who showed up at different churches and asked to “have a few words,” then tried to upstage the “real” preachers by giving a long sermon. Compared to some of the latest news about “bad apple” preachers “a jackleg” was a saint.
I’m sure by now you’ve heard of the Montgomery, Alabama preacher who recently confessed that he has AIDS, that he has had unprotected sex with several church members, even on church property, and that he has been using hard drugs. He refused to leave when asked—especially when he was asked to return the keys to the Mercedes Benz the church supplied for him. A recent episode of American Greed featured a Florida fire chief who got involved with local drug pushers to help them launder their dirty money. This man was not only a fire chief, but was also a preacher. He racked in millions of dollars and was living large until the bottom fell out the economy in 2008. He is now doing 20 years after being convicted of 45 different crimes. Not long ago a crime show featured another preacher doing the same thing, but he was having open gay sex, using hard drugs, but all killed someone. One of the prosecutors said that this preacher was one of the worst people on the planet. When the reality show “Preachers of L. A.” aired folks had a fit claiming that the show misrepresented the life of the average preacher by showing so much opulent wealth and “high style living.” These mega-church preachers–and First Ladies–were truly “living large.” Some people were truly offended by the big houses, big cars, fancy clothes, and over the top life styles. But, we know that some mega church preachers do in fact live this way including Joel Osteen, T. D. Jakes, Creflo Dollar, Joyce Meyer, and a whole slew of televangelists. We have also heard of other “televangelists,” Jimmy Swaggart, for one, acting badly and getting caught up in “sins of the flesh.”
So what is the difference between a preacher acting badly and a lawyer or accountant acting badly? Why is a preacher’s greed and sins of the flesh any different than a thieving, conniving, womanizing lawyer or doctor? Well the answer is two words, “moral authority.” Preachers are supposed to represent a certain amount of “godliness” meaning, they are supposed to be people who have a “special calling” from God to help save the rest of us. So how can a preacher who has this “special calling” from God engage in some of the worst fleshly sins possible? How can a preacher sleep with a variety of church members, both men and women, then put on his “holy collar” and preach? How do these type preachers mentally block out their own sinful behavior and try to preacher salvation and morality to others?
The history of the church is a history of kings and popes with too much power and no accountability. In fact the long history of organized religion is one where the popes have claimed to be “God’s ambassadors.” They saw themselves as accountable only to God. The Protestant Reformation was the first backlash against religious power and corruption. But have we come full circle to another era of “pulpit bondage,” the same type bondage that peasants and the unlearned were subjected to in the 16th century when any type of religious self-education, as in reading the Bible, was frowned upon? Had it not been for the printing presses that made Bibles available to the average person we might still be beholden to whatever religious authorities proclaimed to be “the truth.”
So what is the purpose of preachers in the 21st century? Are they supposed to have “unique” moral authority? If so, moral authority over what aspect of a person’s life? At the end of life there are typically two people that show up—a doctor and a preacher. Both of them have the same purpose—to save the sick. On the living side the doctor is supposed to treat disease to prolong life. In the event the doctor fails, and they will fail 100 percent of the time, the preacher is supposed to prepare the patient for death. The preacher, or chaplain, is there to ease the transition to “the other side” by assuring them that there is eternal life. Is this the ultimate role of a preacher—to prepare the living for the eternal life—or eternal damnation? Is the preacher’s role limited to reminding the living that death is certain and that one day there will be an accounting for how we have lived in this realm? If so, how can some preachers act with total disregard for the ultimate accountability of their own behavior? Of course the answer is “God forgives.” In fact, some of the worst “bad acting” preachers have reminded us of David’s sins and that he still remained the “apple of God’s eye.” Preachers are quick to ask forgiveness from congregations as one the key tenets of Christianity—meaning, don’t take this “good gig” away from me—and don’t take my Mercedes Benz. But, how can a “totally fallen” preacher admit to sex on church property with several women, and men, to using hard drugs, still stand before a congregation and represent any type of moral authority? Is the often quoted mantra, “We fall down, we get up” enough to wash these fallen preachers, “white as snow?” Who are you to judge—no one is perfect. Of course, that is the expected response. We are all “sinners saved by grace,” but what about folks who disgrace the pulpit? Should they be “turned out” and told to go clean up their acts in sack cloth?
Maybe the problem with fallen preachers is that the world we live in now is one of “live and let live.” If any type of conduct is okay as long as it is between two consenting adults, who are preachers to teach moral standards of conduct? What exactly is morality anymore? Is morality strictly an individual “thang” anymore? Over and above “bad acting preachers,” the question for today’s preachers is what exactly can they preach to “this generation” about?
Copyright 2014 – L. Arthalia Cravin. All rights Reserved. No part of this commentary may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.