Ministers Grieve, Worry Over Swaggart Scandal

Times Staff Writer

The Rev. Dwaine Lee said it all came down to one word.

"Sickening," he said.

He referred to the controversy swirling around a man he called his brother, the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart. Like Lee, Swaggart is a minister in the Assemblies of God church.

Swaggart, who reaches millions through television evangelism, earlier this week confessed to sexual misconduct.

He was reprimanded by the Louisiana District of the church, which prohibited him from preaching for three months and recommended that he undergo two years of counseling and rehabilitation. It is up to national leaders of his denomination to approve or modify the rehabilitation plan.

Lee calls the episode "a defeat," saying the impact hardly stops in the South. Locally, the phones haven't stopped ringing, he said. Nor has the gossip subsided among members.

Lee and colleagues from local congregations spoke Tuesday of the "fallout" and "repercussions" they expect in their own ministries. Will the Swaggart incident affect membership in local churches? They say it's too early to tell, but they share it as a fear.

Private reactions ranged from anger and disgust to utterances of hope and forgiveness.

"You see a man that was preaching hard against sin, and now this. Well, it makes you hurt ," said Lee, senior pastor of the 1,800-member Bonita Valley Christian Center. "It's especially difficult for the millions who believed in Jimmy."

For the second time in a year, an Assemblies of God minister has had his reputation besmirched in a national scandal. The Rev. Jim Bakker, head of the PTL Club, was also affiliated with the fundamentalist denomination, which has its national headquarters in Springfield, Mo. Bakker was ousted from PTL after disclosures of a tryst with Jessica Hahn.

The Assemblies of God number about 5 million members nationwide and millions more overseas, Lee said. He said Swaggart is its biggest contributor to foreign missionaries, giving about $13 million a year.

Both scandals point to the truth that only God, never a man, should be the focus of a ministry, Lee said.

"There was a sign you used to see in the hippie days," Lee said. "It said, 'Jesus yes, Christianity no.' If you focus your eyes on Jesus, the trappings of the church and of Christianity are not gonna smear you. If you look to personalities and individuals, well, yes, you'll inevitably fall and fail."

Lee equated the Swaggart incident to "one cop on the force going bad. Naturally, you worry about the impact it might have on the force as a whole. I hope it has none, but it has to have some."

The Rev. Steven Hunt is associate pastor of First Assembly of God in Mission Valley. He said the Assemblies of God were founded as "a cooperative fellowship" and that competition engendered by the likes of Bakker and Swaggart runs counter to the tenets of the church.

Hunt used the word grief in describing his feeling.

He said he mourned the plight of local ministers who "work so hard, year after year, with little recognition," only to have efforts damaged "by the sin of one." He said the average Assembly of God congregation is about 90 people.

"It serves us notice of the need to walk circumspectly," he said. "This could begin to plant seeds in people's minds: 'If we can't trust Swaggart, who can we trust?' It could begin to undermine spiritual authority. That's my fear."

Hunt compared the Swaggart incident to a superstar athlete being arrested for drugs or a politician being caught in a sex scandal.

"It will be a travesty of the first degree," he said, "if every Assembly of God minister is hanged because of the error of a few--or of one. Jesus said we will build the church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. We must march on and do what God called us to do."

Hunt and others have heard the talk on the street--of an epidemic of Elmer Gantrys, of "televangelists" preying on the weak and the dispossessed for economic gain. He acknowledged there is truth in the criticisms, saying that even local ministerial styles may come under scrutiny.

"I hope none of what we do is show business," he said. "The things I do and say from the pulpit . . . I'm only asking God to allow me to be his mouthpiece. Sure, I get excited from time to time, but I don't see what I do as showmanship. I see it more as personality, flair, God's use of human instrumentality."

Bob Jacobs, senior pastor of Sweetwater Assembly of God in South San Diego, said he was shocked by the Swaggart revelations.

"What helped me personally was that he admitted and then repented of the thing in front of everybody," Jacobs said, voicing an endorsement each of his colleagues shared in counterpoint to Bakker's handling of his crisis. "That was the most honest thing he could do."

Jacobs, like his "brothers," said Swaggart's handling of his "sin" had far exceeded Bakker's. For that reason, each feels Swaggart will not only be readmitted into the ministry, but grow from it and strengthen the church as well.

"I think it's gonna help our church," Jacobs said. "It'll pull us closer together, make us realize we need to get closer to the Lord. We're not following a man here. We're following God. Maybe some of us had made a mistake with that."

Jacobs said he hoped that the "Bakkers, the Swaggarts, the (Rev. Jerry) Falwells and (the Rev. Marvin) Gormans could all come together as men and make things right among them. Let's make it right before the world. As Christians, they should not be engaged in capitalistic competition. Each ministry should complement the other."

He summed up the pros and cons of televangelism as "reaching the lost" but carrying all of the foibles that go with being human. He listed financial and sexual indiscretions as just two of those.

"We need a thorough accounting of all of their money," Jacobs said. "Now. I'm talking about all of them. I think we should have that. I think we deserve it."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
66°