Stewart Plays Unfamiliar Role in Bakker Incident

Times Staff Writer

Until last week, John Mark Stewart was known primarily as a Bible teacher, a defender of the Christian faith on a call-in radio show and an instructor at a Christian law school in Anaheim.

But since the revelations that he helped draft a lawsuit designed to pressure TV evangelist Jim Bakker to acknowledge his sexual encounter with church secretary Jessica Hahn in a Florida hotel room, Stewart has been thrown into the national spotlight.

Describing his role as a minor one in the unfolding televangelist war where charges of sex, money and power abound, Stewart compared his situation to Andy Warhol's oft-mentioned line: "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes."

"Yesterday was probably my time," the 35-year-old Stewart said.

On Thursday, Stewart continued to be swamped with questions from reporters who are seeking to unravel charges that Bakker's rival, TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggert, plotted to oust Bakker by leaking word of his 1980 encounter with Hahn. Bakker, 47, quit his ministry last week after newspaper accounts revealed that he had the affair and allegedly had paid the New York woman and others thousands of dollars to hush it up.

In a telephone interview Thursday, Stewart reiterated that his only involve ment was in helping his friend, Orange County businessman and religious activist Paul Roper, draft a lawsuit against Bakker, after Roper had been approached in 1984 by Hahn.

"I played a fairly minor role," he said, adding: "I was involved through a friend, and I have confidence that he did the right thing."

Stewart, who is married and has a 4-year-old son, said he first met Roper in 1983 when Roper came to speak at the Lighthouse Christian Fellowship in Anaheim where Stewart was a pastor. The following year, Roper enrolled at Western State University College of Law in Fullerton where Stewart was finishing up his law degree. "From that, we began to do a lot of things together," Stewart said. "I worked with him on a lot of business ventures."

Stewart said he learned of the allegations surrounding Bakker and Hahn in Roper's Anaheim home in December, 1984.

"It immediately came to mind that this could potentially be a big scandal," he said. "Essentially, I was sworn to secrecy. There were a few people I confided in, like my wife and one attorney friend, but it wasn't something you wanted to spread about."

Stewart, who was studying for the California bar exam at the time Roper came to him, said that he provided Roper with "a few weeks' worth of assistance." He said he drafted a complaint against Bakker in longhand on a yellow legal pad in which emotional distress, among other things, was alleged. He has said he was paid a "modest fee."

After that, Stewart said, "I more or less just followed the story (through Roper) and sat on it."

"Frankly there's a lot of backstage Christianity where people make mistakes," Stewart said, referring to Bakker's activities. "I was not shocked but I suppose you're never fully prepared for something such as this. I believe the truth should come out."

Some of Stewart's colleagues were surprised when his name surfaced last week in connection with the uproar and questioned whether his role--however small--could come back to haunt him.

A Surprising Role

"Until this happened, he (Stewart) has been the law school professor who studies the Bible and answers Bible questions," said Rich Buhler, the host of a nationally syndicated radio talk show called "Talk From the Heart," which is based in Los Angeles. "But to find that he was a player in this drama was surprising . . . he has a very guy-next-door kind of image.

"I don't perceive him as sitting in the driver's seat on this. He was a person who could be of help and he did."

During the year and a half that Stewart was the host of a Sunday radio program called "Let's Talk About the Bible" at the station where Buhler was the general manager, Buhler said Stewart offered his opinions only on "doctrinal things, not personal integrity things."

"There has never been the slightest hint of his making comments on other people's ministries, lives or morals," Buhler added.

While Buhler stressed that he thought highly of Stewart, he said his involvement in such a controversy has the potential to tarnish Stewart's "upright" reputation.

"I think people are asking questions not only about Jim Bakker but about the people who confronted him," Buhler said, referring to the lawsuit that Stewart helped draft and which was later presented to Bakker as a kind of ultimatum. "John Stewart was obviously part of the team which confronted Bakker, and to the extent that the team has been criticized, he will be criticized, too," Buhler added.

Used to Hot Seat

Joni Gray, public affairs manager for Christian Research Institute in El Toro where Stewart is an assistant director and co-hosts the "Bible Answer Man" radio show, said that Stewart is accustomed to being in the hot seat in the combative give-and-take of a live call-in show.

"He has the quality to see the rational side in a heated discussion," said Gray, who has known Stewart for a year. "We get a lot of calls that are hostile, and when he started on the show, he just came through with flying colors."

Ken Nickel, an assistant to the dean at the Simon Greenleaf Law School in Anaheim where Stewart teaches law and apologetics, or defense of the faith, added that Stewart is popular with the students and faculty.

"John is a real easygoing sort of person and gets along well with people," Nickel said. "He's an excellent teacher in the sense that the students really respond to him well."

Greenleaf, which has not yet been accredited, offers night classes and has an enrollment of 85 students. It was started seven years ago with a curriculum that integrates law and theology--particularly in the areas of apologetics and human rights.

On Thursday, Stewart said he is not sorry he got involved in the Bakker matter although he doesn't see himself as a "champion of pursuing scandals."

'Tired' of Role

"I'm tired," he said. "I kind of wish it would all go away now. I have to get on with my life.

"I feel sorry for Jessica Hahn and for Jim and Tammy Bakker. I would like to see them find peace of mind and move on with their lives."

Stewart has an undergraduate degree in biblical studies from Biola University in La Mirada and a master's degree in theology from Biola's Talbot Theological Seminary in addition to his law degree.

Although he passed the California Bar exam in the spring of 1985, Stewart has not been admitted to the State Bar, precluding him from practicing law. He said his application is pending further review.

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