Are Mega-Preachers Scandal-Prone?

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Chad Buchanan / Getty

Gospel singer and preacher Juanita Bynum performs at BET's Celebration of Gospel IV at the Orpheum Theatre on January 20, 2007 in Los Angeles, California.

Juanita Bynum's story may read like soap opera, but her travails are a reminder of the longtime magnetism between celebrity Pentecostal preachers and scandal. The 48-year-old regular on the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) made her reputation with a sermon renouncing pre-marital sex to search for a holy partner. She appeared to find one in a minister named Thomas Weeks III, wed him in a $1 million on-air ceremony, and together they went out to preach and teach the perfect Christian marriage. Then, in August she accused him of badly beating her in a parking lot (he has been charged, but claims he "walked away" from the confrontation), and said she planned to seek a divorce — and to become the "new face of domestic violence." A dramatic reversal of fortunes, certainly, but hardly the first in her particular corner of Christianity.

Bynum's misfortune coincided with the divorce by an even more popular Pentecostal figure, Paula White, and her co-pastor husband Randy, of the Without Walls International megachurch in Tampa, Fla. Divorce, once a taboo in evangelical culture, is now a fact of life. But the Whites' apparently no-fault parting appeared so matter-of-fact — few details were offered, and neither partner seemed to take a time out from preaching — that some grumbled about the unchristian notion of marriage as a convenience. Then there was the drugs-and-call-boy-abetted exit of marquee-name Pentecostal pastor Ted Haggard from his leadership of the National Association of Evangelicals. Clearly, Pentecostalism is facing testing times.

Some suggest that the risk of high-profile meltdowns may be in the very nature of Pentecostal leadership roles. "There's a lot of soul searching in our movement right now," says J. Lee Grady, editor of Charisma magazine, because of the spectacle of highly successful preachers losing their way. "There's a saying, 'Your anointing can take you to a place where your character cannot sustain you.' I'm hearing that a lot more often these days."

"Anointing" refers to the Pentecostal belief not only in the conversion experience, but in a "second anointing in the Holy Spirit" that bestows such gifts such as speaking in tongues, healing and prophesying. From its emergence in Los Angeles exactly a century ago, it has tended to be exuberant, physical and generally more theologically adventurous than its evangelical cousins. And despite thousands of pastors and churches that pursue their joyous vision without taint, scandal has dogged some of its most prominent figures. Among the best-known were the late 1980s downfalls of televangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart: Bakker, who was undone by charges of fraud, and Swaggart who was caught with a prostitute, had preached a "theology of prosperity" suggesting that there would be divine rewards in this world for those who donated to the ministry.

Some critics, such as Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Southern Theological Seminary, see the movement as hardwired for scandal. "The Charismatic movement is so driven by emotion and by passion that it sometimes lacks both theological and moral accountability," he says. Others, such as Tim Morgan, an editor at Christianity Today, see it as a more organizational problem — the absence of the kind of internal oversight common in mainline Protestantism and more recently in non-Pentecostal Evangelicalism. "Quite a few of these independent churches feel they are beholden to God alone," says Morgan.

But Anthea Butler, a professor of religion at the University of Rochester in New York believes Pentecostals are no more trouble-prone than other Protestants. "The same sort of thing is happening to Baptists and Presbyterians," she says. "Except for one big thing. They are not media figures." Notes Charisma's Grady: "There's something about someone who is excited about the things of the Holy Spirit that makes them want to get up and proclaim it" — often on TV. "But you'd better have character, or there's going to be a national scandal."

Many supporters and critics of the Pentecostal movement agree that a troubling factor is the recent resurgence of the prosperity theology (known, among other terms, as Word of Faith or neo-Pentecostalism), which introduces a material aspect to worship that could be an inducement to sin.

Practitioners of prosperity philosophies of varying intensity include some of the biggest names in Pentecostalism, including the Whites, Joyce Meyer and Creflo Dollar. None of these has had trouble with the law, although in 2006, after years of fencing, Joyce Meyer Ministries came to agreement with local authorities to pay 52% taxes on parts of its headquarters, which the county had maintained were a business. Nonetheless, Hank Hanegraaff, a non-Pentecostal evangelical broadcaster who calls himself the Bible Answer Man, expresses concern "about people out there emptying out their bank accounts so their daughter with leukemia can be healed." He recently read on the air a editorial by Grady denouncing "Celebrity Christianity," which described the case of an unnamed female evangelist whose appearance contract included a five-figure honorarium, a $10,000 fuel deposit for a private plane, a five-star hotel, room-temperature Perrier and two bodyguards. The column ended, "May God help us root out the false apostles ... who are making the American church sick with their.... money-focused heresies."

But Pentecostals tend to be forgiving of their preachers' lapses — both Bakker and Swaggart are back in the ministry, for example — because of a theological distinction between Pentecostalism and more austere forms of conservative Christianity. Says the University of Rochester's Butler: "Calvinism is [God's] grace, one time. This is grace after grace after grace. You can mess up a thousand times."

So, will this forgiving trait help Bynum keep her flock? Yes, say Butler and others. "Where else can you say that you were the church Jezebel," marvels Butler, "and then recast yourself as a pure, holy single woman living a godly life, then all of a sudden you get married in a big elaborate wedding to a bishop, with 40 bridesmaids and then go off and have a ministry with that husband and tell other church couples, 'This is how to love your husband because we got it right'? — and then your husband beats you up in the parking lot, and now you're an advocate for domestic violence?"

Yet Harvard African-American studies and religion scholar Marla Frederick says many of the women with whom Bynum's preaching resonates have seen just as many reversals as in their own lives, and they yearn for a God who will ride the roller coaster with them. "Pentecostal faith is really about the power of the Holy Spirit to instantaneously transform life," she says. But she admits she personally is troubled that "taking a personal story and turning it into a narrative of triumph also becomes something that can be marketed for profit."

Indeed, beyond the scandal of the moment, Pentecostalism has produced a culture of superstar preachers whose lives are always at risk of being turned into something close to secular entertainment.