BY PHILIP HARRELSON
Some time ago, a book caught my eye. It was Swaggart: An Unauthorized Biography by Anne Seaman. I soon found myself caught up in a compelling story. You may or may not remember the collapse of Jim Baker and PTL and Jimmy Swaggart in 1987-88, but I do. It seems almost as if it were yesterday, but the years have quickly passed.
During this time, I was in the process of making decisions that have forever altered me. I felt the compelling and unrelenting call
into the ministry. I made plans to attend Bible college and I began to gravitate toward godly men who have continued to affect me even until now.
At that time scandal and upheaval marked the religious world. Because those with whom I worked associated all “Pentecostals” with those who ruled the media industries, there were a lot of things that I had to explain, defend, and separate myself from.
As I read about a ministry that collapsed, it was seemingly almost beyond belief As a kid, I had listened to Jimmy Swaggart sing on records, and some of his songs had even made their way into our churches. Who could forget “There Is a River”? It was not until my religious education began to take form in my midteen years that I fully understood the doctrinal differences between Oneness adherents and trinitarians. I strongly believe the Apostolic message of Acts 2:38, the new birth, the oneness of God, and principles of holiness and separation. I have heard some maintain that Swaggart’s bitter fight against truth led to the ultimate collapse of his ministry. This well may be true; however, as I read this book I became aware of some other lessons that I could learn from his failure.
The book documents that in his sermons over the course of ten years before his collapse, Swaggart fought against all sorts of evils.
He preached hotly against the sins of the flesh, against “sissies” who tried to preach in their “pompadoured” glory, against certain music trends, and on a host of other issues. Despite that he was preaching against all of this, despite that he had a schedule that would paralyze a normal man, and despite that he was preaching to the masses in crusades and camp meetings in the United States and around the world, he was fighting a secret battle with pornography. Over the course of time, that was not enough to satisfy him. While he was actively involved in bringing charges against other ministers for immorality, he was taking trips down the road to New Orleans to engage prostitutes in illicit acts. He would then rail against the licentiousness of the world on Sunday.
The story of Swaggart illustrates some important truths that we would all do well to heed:
Every person must have a pastor or someone to whom he is willing to submit.
As his empire began to collapse, Swaggart became embroiled in a battle with his district board and finally with his national board. In all of this battle, he was entirely without submission to anyone. His trips to his district offices and then to the national offices showed that he was interested in keeping a “business” afloat that was amassing $150 million per year. In his rise to power, he had no peers. Accountability is a good thing. Those who rattle their swords against being accountable to anyone generally have the “Lone Ranger” concept, and transparency and honesty frighten them. No matter how many blessings God brings into our lives, accountability helps to preserve integrity. We do ourselves well when we are willing to submit to godly leaders. None of the rebels in Scripture–such as Judas, Absalom, Ahithophel, and Gehazi–were successful. If a person cannot submit, he cannot lead.
Spiritual churches are not built on fleshly talents.
It was said that within his own denomination Swaggart had no peer as a preacher. Any conference in the denomination that wanted to have a good attendance made arrangements for Swaggart to preach. Having him at a meeting gave it some sense of credibility. But when someone gets so busy that he trusts in the arm of flesh instead of the anointing of the Spirit, complications will occur. A person may compartmentalize his sin for a certain amount of time, but over the course of the long haul, carnality always will reveal its presence.
No matter what level of talent that we have been gifted with, talents have never provided salvation for anyone. We must not allow the trappings of success to justify improper or immoral activities. We must be persons of integrity.
Swaggart apparently became so busy doing that he forgot about being. We are human beings not human doings. The further along in the ministry that we progress, the more we must develop spiritual disciplines. Prayer, fasting, and reading Scripture just for the sake of reading it are invaluable. Prayer develops and nourishes the passion of the preacher. Fasting develops the discipline of both body and soul. Reading Scripture adds wisdom and gives us options when we face weariness, temptation, and discouragement. No ministry will ever rise above what occurs in the secret place of the closet.
An old survey conducted by one author found that pastors prayed an average of 22 minutes per day. Of the 572 who were surveyed, 57% spent less than 20 minutes a day in prayer, 34% spent between 20 minutes and one hour a day in prayer, and 9% prayed for an hour or longer daily. The principle of renewing the mind really works (Romans 12:2). But perhaps we have gotten so high-tech with all of our computers, Palm Pilots, DayTimers, and other stuff that we think that praying our way through something is too old fashioned. However, renewing the mind keeps us from conforming to this world, and it transforms the average person into a noble instrument to be used for God’s purpose.
The great danger of self-deception
No doubt somewhere in Swaggart’s mind he must have thought, “Since I am doing so much for God, since He is blessing my ministry, my little personal battle with pornography and prostitutes isn’t such a big deal to Him.” But God is not nearly as concerned with results as He is with character. We see this truth in the lives of Jeremiah and Epaphroditus. Both of these men had relatively little to show for their callings except for their faithfulness. Jeremiah preached to people who refused to alter their lives. On the other hand, Balaam received huge financial gain for his false steps, but he lost the approval of God.
The person who deceives himself brings a huge liability to the kingdom of God. Self-deception finds its classic example in the life of David and his failure with Bathsheba. The matter of Uriah haunted him for the rest of his life. However, God allowed a twelve-month period for David to correct the matter before He sent Nathan. Self-deceit, self-governed silence, and internal hypocrisy cannot hide the problem of sin. It is only a matter of time before exposure occurs.
The following excerpt from The Perils of Power by Richard Exley is a strong admonition. Every person has his own blind spots and dangerous Achilles’ heel. Let us consider our areas of weakness and face up to them. Where spiritual self-examination occurs, the power of the Spirit can move into our lives. The following describes one pastor’s experience:
“Somehow I made it through the public confession, on adrenalin, I think, but following the benediction an awful weariness settled upon me. Like a sleepwalker I made my way down the center aisle to the front doors. Years of weekly repetition gave my handshake firmness, my smile a warmth I didn’t feel, and my words a personableness which belied the awful emptiness within. Eventually the last worshiper departed and I re-entered the now empty sanctuary and looked around in despair. The silence was overwhelming, almost eerie. I made my way to the altar, then to the pulpit.
“Standing there it all came back–my call to the ministry, the skimpy years when we both had to work so I could finish seminary, my first sermon, the night I was ordained, our first church. Then I begin to weep, soundlessly at first, just huge tears running down my cheeks, then harder until my whole body shook. Great heaving sobs rent my soul. I wept for what might have been, what should have been. I cried for my wife, for the terrible pain I had caused her, for the anguish that now locked her in painful silence. I cried for my church. They deserved better than this. They had trusted me, loved me, and I had betrayed them. And I cried for me, for the man I might have been.
“I stood behind the pulpit, touched it, ran my fingers over the smooth wood and realized as never before what a sacred place it was. And with that realization came guilt so great that I couldn’t breathe. The magnitude of my sin, my betrayal, drove me from the pulpit and I stumbled to the altar and sat down. An accusing voice inside of me whispered, ‘How are the mighty fallen.’
“There was no reason to stay, no reason to linger longer, but I couldn’t tear myself away. My life was ending, unraveling thread by
thread, and I was powerless to stop it. Over the years, I had told ministers, again and again, that they had identity as persons not just as preachers, but now I discovered it wasn’t true for me. Without the pulpit, the church, the ministry, I had no self. I could feel myself becoming invisible, turning into a nonentity–breathing and taking up space but having absolutely no reason to exist.”
While Swaggart’s battle dealt primarily with matters of sexual immorality, dishonesty of all forms, compromises of all forms, and
embezzlement will also lead us to the sloping path to failure.
John and Charles Wesley began their meetings with the following questions:
What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?
What temptations have you met?
How were you delivered?
What have you thought, said or done of which you doubt whether it be sin or not?
Have you nothing you desire to keep secret?
Chuck Swindoll’s more contemporary list follows:
Have you been with a woman anywhere this past week that might be seen as compromising?
Have any of your financial dealings lacked integrity?
Have you exposed yourself to any sexually explicit material?
Have you spent adequate in Bible study and prayer?
Have you given priority time to your family?
Have you fulfilled the mandates of your calling?
Have you just lied to me?
For the sake of our calling, let us maintain integrity in all point of life. Nothing in this world is worth missing heaven.
Brother Harrelson is co-pastor of the United Pentecostal Church in Dothan, Alabama, and the Alabama District Sunday school secretary.
THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS PUBLISHED BY THE PORWARD, SPRING 2001, PAGES, 12, 13, AND 15.
THIS MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY & RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY.