The Sins of Jimmy Swaggart I

Part 1: A Bad Weekend

The tele-evangelist business is going through a particularly tough time. The scandals over Jimmy Bakker and Pat Robertson just seemed to be quietening down when news broke of the sins of Jimmy Swaggart. America’s best known television Christians have fallen into disrepute.

The weekend of February 20-21, 1988 was a bad one for Christians. The Sydney Morning Herald and its magazine The Good Weekend had a five page article debunking the Rev Peter Popoff whose television ministry of miraculous healing was exposed as nothing other than stage conjuring. In the same edition was a long article feting Roman Polanski, the renegade film director, in which Polanski attacks the hypocrisy of Pat Robertson’s sexual ethics. Later in the newspaper there was an unpleasant piece questioning the finances of a Christian school in the outer suburbs of Sydney. And then that night, or the next day, the story broke of the sins of Jimmy Swaggart. Publicly, on television, Jimmy Swaggart confessed to his sin against his wife and against God.

Initial reactions

The media takes great delight in exposing Christians for their fraudulent claims, their financial mismanagement, and their sexual sins. What a weekend it was! False miracles, questionable finances, and sexual peccadilloes. Since then we have heard on the radio, or seen on television, nothing but joy in the media over the tragedy of these peoples ruined lives. Tele-evangelists, and Jimmy Swaggart in particular, have become the butt of media humour.

This is really the response of those hardened to the gospel. The events have not hardened them to the gospel—they were already in opposition. These events simply justify and confirm them in their own opinion.

Much of the community is just confused about Christian leadership. There is a surprising level of support for tele-evangelists in our community. There is a healthy scepticism about them (and these events can only encourage such scepticism) but the Australian love of the underdog will leave our community feeling ambivalent about Jimmy Swaggart and his friends. Many people will know of ministers, or of Christians, who are honest and sincere. Most people understand that there are some rotten apples in every barrel. Within a year or two, all will have blown over, and people will not remember the name of Jimmy Swaggart, let alone his sin.

For evangelical Christians it has been a difficult time. Even when the men involved represent a theological emphasis radically different from our own—even when we have been opposed to their methods and styles of ministry—we can find no joy in their downfall. There is a feeling of grief that those who profess the name of Christ should bring such discredit upon him in the world. We are gravely disappointed in these Christian men, yet we can understand their sinfulness and frailty, for we too are sinners.

Some Christians, drawing on a seemingly endless well of gullibility, will continue to support and defend ministries that have been publicly discredited. They are hostile about what has happened and will not face facts—even facts consistent with the gospel, such as mankind’s sinfulness.

Charged with hypocrisy

The charge that hurts the Christian cause most is that of hypocrisy. Men such as Robertson, Bakker and Swaggart, who preach against sexual sin, are themselves found to be sexually sinful. Men who represent the one who had nowhere to lay his head are found to be living in opulence and wealth. The very charge that Jesus brings against the Pharisees—hypocrisy—is now levelled against the followers of Jesus.

However, hypocrisy is not the exclusive domain of Christians. There is considerable hypocrisy in the media attacks against us. The joy expressed at other people’s misery is repulsive; the desire to smear mud upon Christians in order to discredit the message of Christianity is hardly just; and the desire to discredit Christianity so as to rationalise one’s own sinfulness is intellectual dishonesty of the purest kind.

The usual posture of the media is libertarian—a kind of live-and-let-live tolerance, where people’s private morality is their own concern. The role of witch-hunter is hardly a becoming one for the freewheeling libertarian. The detailed search though the affairs of Pat Robertson to expose his immorality and hypocrisy, the charade and expenditure of chasing Peter Popoff all over the United States to demonstrate his fraudulent claims, the masses of journalists deployed to follow up the Bakker and Swaggart cases, all demonstrate the hypocrisy of the media.

And yet the public tele-evangelist, the Moral Majority, the New Right, have all set themselves up for it. They cannot call for private morality in those who seek high office in the land without themselves being held to question. They cannot preach against the decline in moral standards in the community without themselves upholding those same moral standards in their private lives.

The Real Problem

This charge of hypocrisy is a very great problem, for it reveals our inability to explain clearly to our contemporaries the gospel of forgiveness.

We can never lower God’s standards, nor remove the doctrine of wrath from the gospel. But the message of the gospel that we preach is one of mercy, love, forgiveness and grace. When our contemporaries charge us with hypocrisy it becomes clear that they have not understood our gospel. We need to communicate to our society the mercy and love and forgiveness that can be found in the death of Jesus. We need to preach ourselves as sinners, and God as forgiving—but we are being heard to preach ourselves as righteous and God as approving our morality.

The basic understanding of the gospel that Australians have is that:

  1. “You dont have to go to church to be a Christian”
  2. “Christianity is about being moral”
  3. “I’m not perfect, but Im better than many of the hypocrites that go to church”.

Whenever we speak about sin, we are reinforcing their perception that Christianity is morality. Whenever we are found to be sinning, we are demonstrating that the church is full of hypocrites and that the real Christians are the good people who live outside the church. We are unwittingly painting ourselves into the corner of the Pharisees! Even those who believe in the grace and mercy of Jesus, and who wish to emphasise sin so that grace can be seen in all its power, are painting themselves into the public perception of Pharisaism. Many Australians approve of Christ, but dislike Christians and church. In the person of Christ, they see forgiveness, love and generosity of spirit—in the church they find rules and regulations, judgementalism and meanness of spirit.

We have lost the battle of “The Decline in Public Morality” in our society. We are going to reap the whirlwind in coming days, but now is the time to preach the grace and mercy and forgiveness of God. Now is the time to preach the opportunity for a new start and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives. It may be that our tele-evangelists have been preaching this message, but the joy over the public exposure of their sinfulness indicates that the message has not been heard or understood by the community.

Our Weakness—Our Strength

The enemies of the gospel think that they have scored a great victory over us in the sinfulness of Christian leaders. Certainly, it is a great shame and disappointment when such sinfulness takes place. However, our weakness is our strength. We may fail our Lord, but we know how to deal with sin when it happens. We may be gravely disappointed, but we understand our own sinful nature and know how things can be put right.

Conversely, a non-Christian’s strength is his weakness. For though he may rejoice over our sinfulness, he has no way of dealing with his own sin. When a non-Christian hears of someone found in sin, he has no sympathy and understanding because he has no gospel of forgiveness. Without the cross there can be no atonement, and without the atonement there can be no forgiveness.

A comparison of the Swaggart and Polanski cases reveals the difference. What the evangelist has done is wrong and deserving of God’s judgement. But the blood of Christ has paid for the sinfulness of mankind, even the sinfulness of bringing the name of Jesus into public disrepute. Now, more than ever, those involved in this scandal need to know the forgiveness that comes to the repentant. They need to be restored to fellowship, the fellowship of pardoned people. Instead of rejoicing in their downfall, we will seek to restore the brother caught in sin in a spirit of gentleness, looking to ourselves, lest we too be tempted.

On the other hand, the unbeliever not only rejoices in the downfall of a man who publicly apologises for his sinfulness, but has no way of finding forgiveness for his own sin. Roman Polanski has been found guilty of the felony of having sex with a minor and is charged with supplying drugs and five additional accounts of the sexual abuse of a thirteen year old. He has fled from America, jumping bail and refusing to answer the charges brought against him. Where can a man find forgiveness for such actions? The world offers him nothing but the promise of a long jail sentence should he return to America.

The article in the Herald, however, has no criticism of him, no questioning of his morality, no rejection of his standards. Rather there is the desire that he might be able to find his way back to America without any further legal action taken against him. The only forgiveness that is suggested in the article is simply to forget about the crime. This is to declare that taking young girls away for weekends of debauchery is not a crime; that feeding young people drugs, abusing them sexually, using them for our photographic and pornographic exploits, is perfectly acceptable behaviour. Here the non-Christian is caught between merciless judgement on the one hand and immoral forgiveness on the other. For those concerned to protect young children from exploitation, there can be no forgiveness for the actions attributed to Mr Polanski. For those who want to bring Mr Polanski home, there can be no standards of morality and justice left in the world.

Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things, but also approve of those who practice them. (Rom. 13:2)

The Way Forward

It is hard to know how far our personal responsibility extends for the Jimmy Swaggarts of this world. (See the article in our next issue: “Where Does Responsibility End”) We certainly can have no joy in Mr Swaggart’s failure. However, there are great lessons that we can learn from the sins of the tele-evangelists, lessons that we must apply in the areas in which we unquestionably do have responsibility.

Firstly, we do have responsibility in the area of prayer. Whatever we can or cannot do in mass media evangelism, we can pray for public leaders, or public figures, who profess Christ. We can be thankful to God for their stand for Christ and we can pray for them that they can be protected from the wiles of the devil in the lonely, high pressure, image-making, big money context of life in which they walk. The Billy Grahams or the Fred Niles, the Archbishops, or the Moderators, are all deserving of our prayerful support for their testimony to Jesus.

Secondly, we must work harder at preaching the message of the gospel in such a way that our contemporaries will understand it accurately. We need to get off the legalistic, pharisaic bandwagon of social morality. Our message is not the political imposition of a Christian lifestyle, but the spiritual transformation that comes from God. We are speaking to a context where people already misunderstand us about morality. We need to declare our sinfulness publicly and frequently so that church can be seen as a fellowship of the forgiven, rather than a factory for the Pharisees.

Part of our right preaching of the gospel will be right actions about those who publicly fall. We cannot, and must not, restore these men to public ministry. Righteousness must be seen to be upheld in our actionsrestoration of function does not automatically flow from restoration of relationship. (This requires an article to itself—we’ll see what we can do. Ed.)

However, we must show compassion for a man in his problems. If we denounce and reject him, as the pagans are doing, then we confirm the pagan misunderstanding of the gospel. The public acceptance of repentant Christians by our Christian leadership is an important demonstration of the gospel that welcomes sinners, cleansed by the death of Jesus.

One of the great lessons we must learn from the failing of the tele-evangelists is the right selection of people for Christian leadership. Whether we are involved in selecting Sunday School teachers, elders in our congregations, missionaries, or denominational officials, we must take seriously the New Testament teaching about selecting leaders. Godliness of life is a prerequisite for eldership within a congregation (1 Tim 3). It was to faithful men that Timothy was to entrust the message to be taught to future generations (2 Tim 2:2; cf. Titus 1:5-9). Too often we are seduced away from these fundamentals in the pursuit of the colourful, charismatic personality, the leader with social poise, impeccable educational standards and so on. Many of these things may be right and good in themselves, but must be seen for their secondary nature. To complain about the dullness of our clergy and not rejoice in their godliness, lies at the heart of the problem we all have with the Sins of Jimmy Swaggart.

However, the selection of leaders is not the end of the matter, We must also challenge the frauds who stand in the name of Jesus. It may be scandalous that Mr Popoff could play conjuring tricks in the name of Jesus Christ. But it is equally scandalous that it was the non-Christians who exposed his errors. We do not want another witchhunt, but the open public nonsense that is proclaimed in the name of Jesus needs to be challenged by Christians. This is particularly so in the bogus miracle ministries in which so many people sincerely believe, to their own financial and spiritual hurt. It’s not good enough to be quiet, to keep the peace, and to hope that it will all pass away.

These lessons should be writ large inside our congregations. The same error can occur in a local suburban church as can occur in a multi-media empire. The damage that can be done to the cause of the gospel on the local level is just as severe. It is futile to point the finger where we can effect no change. Instead, let us apply the lessons in those areas in which we do have direct responsibility.

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