Preachers and polygraphs

Father David Epps's picture

Several months ago, a well-known, influential and prominent pastor was accused of drug use and sexual immorality. The minister, who was president of the National Association of Evangelicals, an organization representing some 30 million Christians, was the founding pastor of a church whose ranks had swelled to a phenomenal 14,000 members. The pastor resigned as NAE president and, eventually, was removed from his pulpit and the ministry.

In the aftermath of the scandal, a Colorado sex therapist advocated that pastors submit to annual polygraph tests to prove that they are not “in immorality.”

If that’s not the dumbest, most ill-conceived, hare-brained idea I’ve ever heard, then it has to rank somewhere near the very top.

Let me say this up front — I am a sinner. I wish that I could tell you that I have overcome the “sins that so easily beset” me but I have not. I did give up soft drinks about four or five years ago, and I don’t swear like I did when I was a young Marine, but in the really tough things that normal people struggle with, I am still in the fight.

I regularly sin “in thought, word, and deed” against “God and my neighbor.” If thinking about doing something that I shouldn’t do is wrong then I am guiltier that I would like to admit.

Do I envy and covet? Yes, once in a while. I really don’t want another man’s wife but there are a number of pastors whose buildings (especially those spacious sanctuaries filled with hundreds of people) I lust after.

Do I lie? Well, the last time the doctor asked me how much I weighed, yes, I did. The scale found me out and I repented.

Have I ever murdered? Not “in deed” but there have been those times that, if thoughts could have killed, I’d be sitting on death row.

Used the Lord’s name in vain? Did that. Dishonored parents? Did that, too. Have I loved God with all my mind, heart, soul, and strength? Sadly, no. Am I walking in unforgiveness? Not to my knowledge, but there were years that I did.

Religious titles bother me, even though we use them in our denomination. Sometimes people will call me “reverend.” That almost makes be shudder. I am the least “reverend” person I know. How bishops are able to bear up under hearing “the most reverend” or “the right reverend” is beyond me. How the Pope is able to be called “your Holiness” without flinching, I’ll never know.

I have been in the presence of truly “godly” and “holy” people. I have also been in the presence of those who pretend to be. I am somewhere in-between. If I took a polygraph to prove to someone that I was “without sin” then it would only prove what I, and those who know me well, already know — I am in need of mercy.

In my faith tradition, we do not use a polygraph to uncover hidden sin. What we do have is an ancient rite called “The Reconciliation of a Penitent.” Some know the rite by its more common name: “confession.”

In the confessional, with the assurance of absolute confidentially, I am able to confront those dark areas in my life and that perversity of the heart that hides itself from others.

There, I am able to bring into the light that which is hidden, I am able to name that which is shameful to discuss, and I can bare my darkened soul.

In that place of safety, I am held accountable — it is demanded that I repent and seek “amendment of life.” It is there that I am also given the counsel and direction — and the absolution — that enables me to rise from my fallen place.

When the people in my congregation, or the other priests and deacons in my church or diocese, come to me in the “confessional,” they are not coming to a man with a polygraph to uncover, record, and reveal their sins and immorality for the entire world to see.

They come to a man who is a fellow struggler, to a person whose nature is also fallen, and to one who understands that they are sinners. You see, it takes one to know one.

And there in the hushed quietness of the moment, sometimes punctuated with tears and sobs, the two sinners seek a holy God and brokenly confess sins, receive help, and rise from the wreckage of the moment to begin anew in this relationship with the One who is “not counting men’s sins against them.”

I cannot be the one to throw stones at the fallen pastor whose sins were so publicly made known. I cannot be the one to despise him or to judge him. I am too flawed, too fallible, too “human.”

So I will pray that God will give him and his family the thing that I, myself, need most — mercy. And I will ask that those who find me flawed beyond their liking and approval simply pray for me, a sinner.

login to post comments | Father David Epps's blog