Jimmy Swaggart was defrocked Friday by the Assemblies of God after he refused a one-year suspension, asserting that a prolonged absence from the pulpit would doom his television ministry and jeopardize his Bible college.
The decision to defrock Swaggart for unspecified “moral failures” was made in a telephone conference of a dozen elders of the Assemblies of God church. It commenced upon receipt of a letter from Swaggart declaring that he could not submit to the terms of his penance and rehabilitation.
“We believe,” Swaggart told reporters later at his Baton Rouge, La., headquarters, “that to stay out of the public for a year would totally destroy the television ministry and greatly adversely impact the college.”
Assemblies of God leaders said Swaggart gave them no choice but to defrock him.
The one-year suspension had been ordered last week, after a dispute between national and Louisiana church officials over how to discipline Swaggart. It would have forced him out of the pulpit and off television for a year, and require that he undergo two years of counseling from brother preachers.
Swaggart had confessed before his congregation in late February to unspecified “sins” against his wife and God. The confession followed reports that a rival preacher had caught Swaggart leaving a New Orleans motel with a known prostitute.
Swaggart’s regional elders had instructed him not to preach again until May 22, and he indicated Friday that he would abide by the terms of that subsequently overruled order.
In a lengthy prepared statement, Swaggart struck a conciliatory tone toward the Assemblies of God. He asked the elders to pray for him and apologized for dragging the church into its second high-profile sex scandal in a year. Television evangelist Jim Bakker was defrocked by the Assemblies of God last year after refusing punishment for a much-publicized sexual encounter with a church secretary.
“I sincerely apologize to the offices of the Assemblies of God and all its ministers of the Gospel,” Swaggart stated, “for any and all concerns and burdens that have come about because of my personal failure. Mere words do not help much, and I wish it was possible to erase the ledger and start again. But, of course, it is not.”
He was flanked by his wife, Frances, and son, Donnie, as he stood outside his ministry headquarters and somberly read the three-page statement. Afterward, he declined to answer questions.
Swaggart’s statement did not make clear if he would return to the pulpit as a self-ordained minister or seek affiliation with another church, and Assemblies of God officials said it remains to be seen what financial impact the defrocking will have on Swaggart’s ministry.
“I know there are a lot of Assembly of God people who have listened to Jimmy and followed Jimmy through the years,” said the Rev. Glen Cole, a Sacramento Assemblies of God pastor who was one of the dozen elders who participated in the teleconference. “I think that the majority would hang with the Assemblies of God and support their local ministry.”
He said contributions to the Assemblies of God foreign ministries actually have increased since the Swaggart scandal broke. Swaggart’s ministry had contributed $40 million to the foreign program over the last four years.
Decision Called Economic
Cole said in a telephone interview that it was clear from Swaggart’s letter to the church’s Executive Presbyters that his decision to refuse rehabilitation was economic rather than spiritual.
“It would sink the ministry,” Cole said, paraphrasing the letter.
He said the defrocking decision took only “the matter of a moment” to make, and the presbyters spent most of the 80-minute conference drafting a statement for public consumption.
The hand of Swaggart had been forced last week when a larger body of church officials gathered in an unusual session and ruled that the church executives--and not Louisiana elders--were empowered to mete out discipline to disgraced ministers.
Afterward, participants had admitted that it was a long shot Swaggart would abide by the suspension, which also forbade the showing of reruns of his programs.
The punishment had been based indirectly on the recommendation of Swaggart himself, who until he became ensnarled in scandal had positioned himself as a hard-line puritan when it came to fallen preachers.
Advocated Tough Punishment
Swaggart, who was instrumental in making church officials aware of Bakker’s indiscretions, once had advocated in his church magazine that wayward ministers be suspended for at least two years. A yearlong suspension along with two years of counseling is the typical Assemblies of God discipline for preachers who admit to “moral failure.”
The defrocking was announced by the Rev. G. Raymond Carlson, general superintendent of Assemblies of God.
“It is on this basis of precedent and our own bylaws,” Carlson read, “and upon his decision not to accept a rehabilitation program that he himself has agreed is right and proper, that the Executive Presbytery has, with regret and deep sorrow, taken formal action to dismiss Jimmy Swaggart as an ordained minister of the General Counsel of the Assemblies of God.