I was perusing the news today and saw that Ted Haggard (the megachurch pastor who was busted a few years ago for buying meth from, and then sleeping with, a male prostitute) was back in the pulpit. A lot of Christians are up in arms over details of the story, such as his rather unclear comment that he “over-repented” when he promised not to become a pastor again, or the fact that he now proudly cusses from the pulpit (Incidentally, that debate seems to be between people who think that “cursing your neighbor” really means “uttering forbidden phonetic constructions” and those who think saying “shit” is a proof of having spiritual maturity rather than, well, a tongue and vocal chords. But that’s another discussion.)
What I can’t help thinking as I peruse this story is how grateful I am to be a part of a denomination that actually functions as such. When they hear about polity debates or bureaucratic frustrations, many of my independently-minded friends scoff at having a larger structure which local churches have to submit to. I feel that frustration too from time to time. However, the way the Ted Haggard situation seems to be playing out is a great example of why I can’t ultimately side with those critics.
When they function as they should, denominations serve the important role of overseeing pastors and protection congregations from those who aren’t qualified for ministry. Now, before anyone bristles, I want to clarify here: I’m not in the business of deciding Ted Haggard’s salvation. He has repented of his sin, and I don’t get to sit on the judgment seat and say whether or not that was legitimate. However, when he went to some fellow pastors, they asked him to enact his repentance through a set of promises. One of those promises was to seek employment outside of vocational ministry and not return to the pulpit, I think that was a prudent judgment. Even if it wasn’t, it was one which Haggard himself said he would submit to. Those sorts of commitments can’t be taken lightly, and a denomination is a vehicle through which they can be enforced.
What’s more, a denomination can serve as a means through which restoration can happen. While I admit I’m suspicious of the timing and attitude which characterize Ted’s return to ministry, I don’t think it’s impossible that someone who failed, even in big ways, could be restored to being a pastor. The problem is that neither I nor Mr. Haggard have the collective wisdom to make such a call. If a group of wise, ordained men – ideally the same men who had asked him to resign – had carefully assessed the spiritual condition of Mr. Haggard and then given him permission to move forward, while there still couldn’t be a guarantee of true repentance, it would at least have helped ensure that this was a wise course. Instead, it is simply Haggard’s personal decision and charisma which has allowed him to step back into that role.
Let me put it another way: denominations can be frustratingly cumbersome and prohibitive, but the conservativeness of such a structure is exactly what the gravity of being a pastor requires. It’s a lot like making people only drive on the street: I might be able to get where I’m going faster if I could cut across sidewalks and lawns, but the trade-off would be the good chance that I’d step out my door and end up under the tires of someone’s pickup truck. The damage that could be done by an unqualified minister is far too great for expedience to overrule it.