Lithonia’s Bishop Eddie Long generates strong feelings. In a metro area approaching 5.5 million people, most everyone had an opinion even before last week’s lawsuits. By some, he is deeply loved and admired; by others, he is bitterly disdained and ridiculed.
While I have heard him preach on several occasions, he has not been on my radar screen in recent years. Now I find myself checking to see what Jay Anthony Brown says (today he thinks Long is enjoying the attention), and chatting with friends about the news stories. We wonder why he always wears those tight clothes, what caused his divorce from the first wife, how he chose his alleged victims, and whether New Birth will revert to its 1987 form – 300 members looking for a pastor.
The outcome of these allegations will reveal much about his character, and our responses to this entire process will reveal much about our own. During his Sunday mini-sermon, he focused primarily on how Christians should respond to adversity. I have taken a broad view, borne of my belief that this is not just a crisis for him, but for the entire body of Christ.
My initial response was parochial – this thing has not merely hit close to home, it is home. I was raised a Missionary Baptist. I had always complimented Long for not following the modern trend of dropping the denomination from the church’s name. And, up until now, I relished a feeling of one-upmanship, knowing that the lion’s share of embarrassing church sex scandals involved Catholics, Pentecostals, and non-denominational church leaders. Of course I know that Missionary Baptist pastors have engaged in illicit sexual activities for as long as the church has existed, but none of that included nationally publicized allegations and lawsuits by young men. The lesson: “We” are no different from “them.”
My secondary response surrounds the perception of those who are not a part of the body of Christ. What will they think? Will this be another excuse not to seek God and fellowship with God’s people through organized churches? What can those of us not named Bishop Eddie Long do to keep people interested in accepting Jesus? Are we equipped to discuss these events in a way that would make someone who is on the fence still want to consider Christianity? The lesson: Keep your eyes on what is of ultimate significance to the Kingdom.
The remainder of my response has been to look for signs of veracity. I have examined Long more closely than I ever have, and this is what I see:
1. Spiritual authority, at least in a worldly sense. He possesses spiritual authority by virtue of his position – he leads 25,000 people who came to New Birth to follow his ministry. He has mastered the art of meeting people where they are, recognizing that people’s lives are messy, and allowing them to find acceptance in his sanctuary. (Only God can answer whether that authority truly emanates from Him.)
2. Ego. Long possess a high level of self-confidence (requisite for someone in his position), if not an outsized ego. It is telling that he chose David as the biblical figure comparable to himself, as David was quite self-serving at times. I don’t see Long as the underdog he has insinuated, akin to the boy shepherd. Rather he and David the King could potentially have the element of sexual sin in common; David killed a man because he coveted that man’s wife while Long is accused of taking advantage of vulnerable youth to gratify himself.
3. Vanity. The newly acquired toupee, the not-so-new muscle shirts, and the cell phone pictures taken in the lavatory point to vanity. He is not merely proud of himself for what he has accomplished, he is proud of the way he looks, and he seems to be screaming, “Look at me! Do you like what you see?”
4. Immaturity. I appreciate his desire to work with young men; they certainly need as much help as they can get. But he is portrayed as spending an inordinate amount of time with teenagers. How many 50+ year old men can tolerate 18 year olds for sustained periods of time, especially when they are not required to? Some psychologists opined that the abusive Catholic priests were glorified altar boys, trapped in and by some peculiar type of arrested development that rendered them most comfortable with children. Is Long similar to the priests in that way?
It has not yet been proven (and might never be) that he has homosexual tendencies, but if you throw that in the mix, you have a combustible combination that just might have exploded several times over. I believe Long — like David — is one of the many supremely gifted and seriously flawed individuals that God uses to do His work.
As for the accusers, they could be
a. Innocent victims looking for male role models in all the wrong places;
b. Youngsters who rode the gravy train of gifts, tuition payments, and jobs at the church for as long as they could, and are now angry because the gravy is gone; or
c. Pathological liars twisted enough to smear Long’s reputation just because they don’t have anything to lose.
Because Long is a public figure, we can form opinions of him based upon what we have seen and heard; the habits and history of the accusers are largely unknown.
I have concluded that some proportion – up to 20 percent – of the accusations are exaggerated, taken out of context, or otherwise distorted; it would really surprise me if the accusers (and especially their lawyer) have not sensationalized things to some degree. The remaining 80 percent is likely true; many of these things would be difficult for four people to fabricate and pursue legal action regarding.
The lesson: Our job as Christians is to scrutinize objectively, chastise where necessary, show compassion as appropriate, and forgive as God does for all parties involved. Those parties include not just Long, the alleged victims, and their respective families, but also all of New Birth, Missionary Baptists, and the Christian community at large. Most importantly, those parties include all of those non-Christians who may walk more closely to God, or further away from Him, depending on what they see from the rest of us.