When a man became a bishop or presbyter (priest) in the first three centuries of the Church’s existence, he did so knowing that he would likely face martyrdom. You see, Rome had an indifferent attitude toward the religions of its subjects so long as they didn’t unnecessarily roil the religious waters and didn’t challenge the authority of the emperor. The empire thought Christians strange people but didn’t begin to harass them en masse until it became clear they weren’t like other religious groups.
Although Christians were known as moral and law-abiding imperial citizens, they were also in the business of converting new believers and thereby upsetting the religious status quo. What’s more, a central tenet of the Christian faith is the existence of only one God and that all other gods are false, in direct contradiction of the state religion that honored the emperor as a deity. During the imperial persecutions in the three centuries after Christ’s death, the people who called themselves believers in Him faced horrendous persecution and those in positions of leadership in the Church held them knowing they would likely die in defense of the faith.
The legalization of Christianity by the emperor Constantine via the Edict of Milan in the year 313 changed that, however. Then, a few decades later, Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire by Theodosius. This was new territory for the Church. Bishops were no longer the clandestine shepherds of a secret flock; they became prominent and respected individuals and, over time, were granted broad civic powers. As an inspection of the canons of the church councils will reveal, this presented a challenge as ecclesiastical office became something to be desired. Indeed, one pagan Roman senator was reputed to have claimed he’d gladly be baptized a Christian if he were guaranteed the bishopric of the city.
While some of the more famous canons of the councils in, say, Nicaea, Chalcedon, and Trullo dealt with theological matters, most of them concerned proper conduct for Christian laypeople and particularly the church leadership. Church leaders were forbidden from owning public houses, marrying while serving in their offices, collecting fees for usury, and a host of other things. The thing about law—even church law—is that it is almost always written to correct a problem, which means these and other things were going on at the time. Some offenses meant that leaders had to vacate (or be deposed) from their offices and while repentance and restoration to full communion with the Church was possible, they could not be reordained to their positions.
The root of this concern for preserving the sanctity of ecclesiastical office lay in a desire to avoid scandal. Scandal—and especially outright amorality—among the episcopate or presbytery undermined the credibility not only of the Church, but of the faith it upheld. This was something the Church on the whole wanted to avoid, particularly since the faith itself was already somewhat scandalous. After all, a central tenet of that faith was and remains that the incarnate God died hanging on a tree, spent three days in the grave, and then arose. As difficult as that is for people to swallow in the 2000s, it was even harder then. In that era, most religions were still polytheistic and revolved around the worship of vindictive and capricious gods whose characteristics were anathema to the concept of a deity who would become human and willingly die as a means of reconciling himself with His creation. If that isn’t scandal, I don’t know what is.
Capitalization carries a lot of weight in a discussion on Christian terminology. There is tradition, for example, but then there is Tradition. There is orthodoxy, but then there is Orthodoxy. In like fashion, Scandal, for the purposes of this discussion, is separate from scandal. As Fr. Thomas Hopko (OCA) has said, the only scandal the Church has any obligation to defend is the Cross.
This, of course, brings me to my point.
Not many months ago, the ousted president of my alma mater was charged with and subsequently pled guilty to misdemeanor DUI. The response from Christians in the aftermath was anything but unified (some all but consigned him to the fires of hell), but there were those who rushed to his defense. My personal favorites were the ones who said people shouldn’t criticize Richard Roberts because he’s a man of God spreading the Gospel. Some directed these complaints toward me for a post I wrote about the incident. I assume the same cohort rushes with the same defense to the side of Pat Robertson every time he makes an outrageous verbal ejaculation on the air. I’m also sure similar folk existed for the scandals of Ted Haggard, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and Oral Roberts, to name just a few.
Most recently, Creflo Dollar was accused (accused, mind you) of abusing his fifteen-year-old daughter in his home and spent the night in jail. While there is no proof yet that actually happened, what interests me is the way some members of his congregation reacted. One man in particular told the Associated Press: “It’s not up to me to me to be satisfied with what he had to say. This is a man of God spreading the word of God.”
I wish I had taken a course in Church History at ORU because I’d love to know precisely when Christians leaders ascended above reproach. Now, in all honesty, I really do believe this to be a minority viewpoint within the various branches of the Church. That said, I do believe a sizable and unfortunately vocal number of people maintain this departure from logic and good sense to the detriment of the faith as a whole. In many ways, the Church is like a strong, independent, black woman: She needs no man. Simply put, there is no man, no matter how great his teaching is perceived to be, who is essential to the survival of the Church or of the faith. Furthermore, when a man’s presence in Christian leadership becomes permanently mired in scandal, he arguably becomes more of a liability than an asset. Considering some of the people Christians call their leaders, it really is a miracle anyone joins the faith.
In many ways, the leaders of contemporary American Christianity are facing the same old problems that existed hundreds of years ago. Were Solomon alive today, he would undoubtedly go on The 700 Club and say, “I told you so.” Success in contemporary Christian ministry has come to entail fat speaking fees, book deals, television studios decorated with fake ficus, and other trivialities. None of those things are intrinsically evil, except, of course, when the person enjoying them fails to display true Christian leadership.
While the fact is that even the holiest men fail, what I think is lacking is a greater concern for how the failings of Christian leaders affect the perception of the faith as a whole. Scandal’s worst affects are to distract from the true message of the faith and, since leaders like the ones I’ve discussed here are unlikely to recuse themselves from leadership in the greater interest of the Church, Christians have to become better at discussing and dealing with scandal honestly. Defending the indefensible only makes us look hypocritical—and not inaccurately so. While defending the Scandal is an inescapable aspect of Christianity, supporting the leadership of those who’ve shown a penchant for scandal is not. In love, it is the responsibility of the body of believers to say, “Thank you for you for your leadership and ministry. Now, in both your and the Church’s best interest, you need to sit down for a while.”