By now most of North America has heard about the accusations against Bishop Eddie Long. The media are starting their usual feeding frenzy, circling the story looking to destroy the Bishop. He has denied the accusations, in what looks very much like an attempt to cast himself as the victim. It won’t work, of course, and it’s a bad strategy – but in a certain sense, he is a victim. He is a victim not of his accusers, but of a system that puts unrealistic expectations on its pastors in the form of a holiness code. He’s also a victim of the historic black church and its denial of the fullness of human sexuality and the resultant homophobia that permeates that Church.
Did Bishop Long engage in inappropriate relationships with his accusers? That remains to be determined, but at the very least he engaged in very poor judgment. I have never sent pictures of myself in a muscle shirt to anyone – and not only because nobody would want them from me! For a pastor to send such pictures to a member or members of his church is to exercise very poor judgment at best and a misuse of power at worst. None of the individuals who have come forward to date have alleged they were involved sexually with Bishop Long when they were under the age of consent, but they do allege that he began grooming them when they were under the age of consent. The issue here, but only one of the issues, is that a pastor is in a position of power and authority over his or her members, and so to enter into a sexual relationship with them at any age is inappropriate. The media will no doubt focus on this to the exclusion of the larger issue.
The larger issue is that a pastor in many corners of the Church cannot be honest about his or her sexual orientation if they aren’t heterosexual. Many churches won’t hire unmarried pastors for fear that they may be gay. There are other bizarre expectations as well – in many parts of the Church a pastor cannot be divorced, or have piercings, or have tattoos, or wear their hair in an unconventional style, or drink alcohol, or use tobacco products – the list goes on and on. In short, they can’t be human. The problem is that humans are the only species from which churches call pastors.
The unrealistic expectations of many, if not all, churches force their pastors to take parts of their lives underground if they hope to continue to serve as pastors. If I am a gay or bisexual pastor in a church that doesn’t accept my sexual orientation then I will feel that I have to take part of my life underground. Since not too many people are content to be someone’s “under cover lover,” I may turn to prostitutes or other inappropriate relationships to satisfy my very normal and natural needs. While it certainly is a lapse in judgment, it is an understandable lapse in judgment. Every Christian Church will say that celibacy is a gift given to but a few, and then many of them turn around and seek to require it of gay and lesbian people. It’s not hard to see the inconsistency in that position.
Destroying Eddie Long won’t solve the problem. In fact, destroying Eddie Long may only make the problem worse in that it will reinforce the status quo – and the status quo is nothing short of evil. Instead, we need to develop a healthy sexual ethic in all corners of the Church and free ourselves from holiness codes based on the Old Testament Law, If we claim to be Christians, then we need to start living in the freedom that Christ brings. Until we do, we’ll continue to sacrifice pastors on the altar of bigotry.