You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?” If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed. (Deuteronomy 18:21, 22 NIV)
There is a video that has now gone viral that features the pastor of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church of Atlanta, Bishop Eddie Long being “crowned” as king (See it here). This video features a Messianic Jew and suspect Rabbi, Ralph Messer, acting as a Rabbi with some sort of authority to act as spokesperson for the entire Jewish corpus and Israeli nation. The video was shot during the Sunday morning worship in which the now fractured community of New Birth gathers to witness (and condone) acts of utter absurdity in the name of who knows what religion and what God.
A friend on Facebook sent this to me with utter confusion in his message. In his message he said,
“I need for someone to explain to me W T H this is and WHY it was done? I am not being messy. I just have A LOT OF QUESTIONS!!!!!!!!! A LOOOOOOT OF QUESTIONS!”
The truth of the matter is I was just as confused as he was after watching this……travesty. At the core of his concern lay a conundrum of what this disturbing exercise meant to the innocent Christians who are still sitting under Bishop Long’s leadership in ministry. I responded to him with some words talking about the foolishness of the events portrayed in the video and the circus that ensued during worship. Later, a colleague (also on Facebook) offered a link to a Biblical scholar (Rev. Dr. Will Gafney) who accurately challenges the authenticity of the actions in the video. Both my response to my friend and the responses contained in the Biblical scholar’s response are enough right???Wrong.
There is a larger idea at stake in the video. This is not about Bishop Long’s ego, or his abuse of the trust parishioners should have with their pastors. This idea is not about the fraud perpetrated by an individual who makes grandiose false claims about traditions that have a rich history of accounting the acts of -and relationship with- God. It isn’t even about whether or not the people in the pews are being manipulated and brainwashed by a cultic figure. There is a twofold problem here: first, the video exemplifies the failure of the church as the place of communal and spiritual accountability. Secondly, the behavior contained in the video contributes to the continual eroding the credibility of the Christian church in the marketplace of religions.
To begin with, Bishop Long’s behavior over the past twenty-five years of his ministry at New Birth is enabled, in part, by congregational behavior that lost its roots in prophetic accountability and good ol’ Baptist polity. Specifically, Bishop Long’s behavior, and that of the people, is empowered by ‘willful ignorance’. I use this term, willful ignorance, to describe the behavior of individuals (and communities alike) that choose to ignore the facts of a situation in order that they can claim (or feign) innocence. In its use, I try to capture the difference between one not being able to know or one choosing not to be informed. In forsaking rules of accountability, shared ministry and genuine Godly love, the New Birth church (either through manipulation by Long or through negligence by leaders) chose to give their authority over to one man in the early 90’s thus shirking the congregational responsibility for governance that defines a Baptist congregation. The church literally ceases to be the church when that happens…
The results of the last few years are the by-products of that decision so long ago. Those who chose to stay in the pews over the years became party to what Long was doing. Particularly after the scandal broke, those who remain must make a clear decision. By the time you arrive at the events of the last week, the people that remain in the pews as Bishop Long is raised above their heads as a king of “God’s Government” (whatever that means), employ at best, willful ignorance (or at worst are totally complicit in his behavior). But New Birth is not alone….
The church universal suffers from this disease. Christian tradition teaches us that the church is an agency of God’s love and kingdom. (Yes, with its many flaws and shortcomings, this is a declaration of faith). The church is a vehicle through which the love of God is experienced and shared for all. Depending on your theology, your view of the church is the exclusive agent of God’s love or an agent of God’s love. Regardless of your perspective, the effectiveness of the church exists in its ability to address the communities, individuals and societal systems for the love of God. Instead, it has been the willful ignorance of Christians the world over, that has entangled us in discussions that led to denials and refusals to be relevant and thus be the church. This stagnation has been instrumental in the failure of the church to speak to Civil Rights, AIDS, hyper-partisanship, sexual orientation, sexual abuse, gender discrimination, and a whole host of other issues. We have allowed everything from doctrine, sexual orientation, partisanship and secularism to pick apart the prophetic edge that has been integral to the church’s witness.
The second issue deals with the image of the church in the world. Admittedly, this has always been a problem for the church throughout history. From the clergy sexual abuse of the Roman Catholic Church to the history of sexism, racism, homophobia, and discrimination that is still present in many denominations, the Christian church struggles, at times, to be credible in the marketplace of religions. Foolishness like creating a coronation service for ‘King Long’, only serves to validate the corrupting, abusive and manipulative behavior that many non-Christians (and Christians alike) see as defining the church of the 21st century. For many, New Birth is the face of 21st Century Protestant Christian Church and when that face is so far from what the norm is, it can cause such devastating effects for the rest of the Christian witness. It further destroys the message of the thousands of Christian worshipping communities and the millions of Christians that are seeking to help humanity in faithful witness to Christian practice.
Bishop Long’s behavior after this scandal (and sometime prior to that) has been of an egregious nature. Fostering a cult of personality that rivals many cults, he abused his power and insulted his parishioner’s intelligence. He owes his family and his congregation an apology. If that wasn’t enough, his most recent behavior shows a deep arrogance and disregard for the religious beliefs of monotheists everywhere. The millions of Christians and Jews are owed a deep apology for the embarrassment and disrespect displayed last week.
Perhaps the Bishop Long Coronation is just symptomatic of the larger problem of the church becoming complacent with its domestication. In that way, The church may simply be another place of belonging and conformity. However, what results is the loss of the prophet’s voice in the life of the church. My vision of truth this week centers on doing my part to ignite the passions of our people and reclaim the prophetic edge that holds all of us accountable to God’s loving agency in Christ. Will you join me?…..