(Photo: REUTERS/Phil McCarten)
Sharing from his own experience of being involved in a sex scandal in the past, former megachurch pastor Ted Haggard suggests the apparent suicides of Isaac Hunter and that of other evangelical pastors and their family members in recent months, reflect an evangelical culture that alienates those who fall and spiritualizes their struggles.
"Some researchers are reporting that the suicide rate among Evangelicals is the same as that of the non-Christian community. How sad," Haggard, who made national headlines for a sex scandal involving a male prostitute in 2006, writes on his blog, days after Hunter, founder and former pastor of Summit Church in Orlando, Fla., died of an apparent suicide.
Hunter's father, Joel C. Hunter, senior pastor of the 15,000-member Northland church in Florida and former member of President Barack Obama's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, is a sincere, wonderful believer with an admirable ministry, Haggard says. And so is Pastor Rick Warren of California's Saddleback Church, whose youngest son, Matthew Warren, committed suicide after suffering from mental illness for years, he adds.
Isaac Hunter was "in the midst of divorce with accusations swirling, he resigned from the church he founded," notes Haggard, former president of the National Association of Evangelicals. "He gave it his best shot, and his heart was broken."
Darling Murray, a church coordinator, sent an email to Summit members Tuesday, saying, "We found out today that Isaac took his life." Hunter is survived by his wife, Rhonda, and three children. The 36-year-old's sudden death came about a year after he resigned from Summit Church after admitting to an affair with a former church staff member.
Last week, Ed Montgomery, a pastor at the Full Gospel Christian Assemblies International church in Hazel Crest, Ill., shot himself in the head while grieving over his wife, who died suddenly last December. And last month, Pastor Teddy Parker Jr., of Bibb Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Macon, Ga., killed himself after reportedly struggling with manic depression.
It is natural that "when God's holiness is infused into our humanity, that sets us all up for some degree of struggle," states Haggard, founder and former pastor of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colo.
"I was so ashamed in 2006 when my scandal broke," he admits. "The therapeutic team that dug in on me insisted that I did not have a spiritual problem or a problem with cognitive ability, and that I tested in normal ranges on all of my mental health tests (MMPI, etc.). Instead, I had a physiological problem rooted in a childhood trauma, and as a result, needed trauma resolution therapy… Contrary to popular reports, my core issue was not sexual orientation, but trauma."
Haggard says when he explains that to most evangelical leaders, "their eyes glaze over."
"They just don't have a grid for the complexity of it all. It is much more convenient to believe that every thought, word, and action is a reflection of our character, our spirituality, and our core. They think the Earth is flat. Everyone is either completely good or bad, everything is either white or black, and if people are sincere Christians, then they are good and their behavior should conform."
Haggard goes on to say that his sin never made him suicidal, "but widespread church reaction to me did." "Do we actually believe that the many pastors who have been characterized as fallen decided to be hateful, immoral, greedy, or deceitful? I think not."
But many in the "church-world" had to "demonize" the facts, he says, of his "struggle," which "was easily explained by a competent therapeutic team."
"Saints, I have a high view of Scripture and am persuaded that the theological underpinnings of Evangelicalism are valid, but I am growing away from the Evangelical culture we have created. I think our movement has abandoned the application of the Gospel, and as a result we spend too much time on image management and damage control," Haggard points out. "Maybe we should be willing to admit that we are all growing in grace, be willing to be numbered with the transgressors, and stop over-stating and over-promising."
Evangelicals have a "core, fundamental, essential problem" with their application of the Gospel, he says. "We need to re-read the New Testament and modify some of our interpretations. The Bible is true. God is faithful. But at this point, too many are missing the mark."
Many are known to have fallen because of "obvious sin," Haggard admits, "but I did not mention the proud, envious, gluttonous, angry, greedy, blamers and scrutinizers in the body of Christ who have equally fallen but their sins are acceptable in our culture so they do not even realize their sin or need for repentance." He adds: "They are too busy with the sins of others. Often we actually laude these Pharisees and Judaizers because of their stand against sin, not realizing that they are still not teaching us the New Testament solution to mankind's sin problem. When the New Testament becomes Torah in their hands, that law, too, stimulates sin."