Putting butts in the seats: the rise and fall of Bishop Eddie Long

Bishop Eddie Long

 Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia has been accused of using a mentoring program to lure gifted young male congregants into sexual relationships.  Long, an adherent of the “prosperity gospel”, told his congregation this past Sunday that, although he has never advertised himself as “a perfect man”, he intends to fight the allegations in court. 

Significantly, the bishop never claimed to be innocent. 

Long has gained a reputation as a body-building man’s man who opposes same-sex marriage and counsels men to get in touch with their “inner warrior” so they can assert dominance in the family. 

But “the prosperity doctrine” has always been Eddie Long’s primary message.  You have probably heard “prosperity-lite” preachers like Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes on television.  They emphasize spiritual boldness and a positive, entrepreneurial attitude to life.  Prosperity-lite (my term) preachers teach that God created us for victory and greatness, but we thwart the divine purpose by thinking small and expecting little from life.  Nothing wrong with that, so far as it goes. 

But Eddie Long preaches a more robust version of the prosperity gospel.  Simply put: God gives to get and so must we.  God gave his Son and was rewarded by a rich harvest of human souls.  Preachers like Pastor Eddie make passing reference to the standard evangelical salvation message, but the central focus is always monetary.  If people are willing to invest their wealth in kingdom enterprises (like making their rich pastor even richer), God will send them magic money from heaven.  

Clearly, there is a big downside to this kind of thinking.  If you are broke you need more faith; i.e. you need to put even more twenties in the offering plate, even if you have to dip into the mortgage money.  

I wish I was making this up, but I’m not. 

You may object that Jesus, the Apostle Paul and most of the biblical prophets were poor folk living hand-to-mouth.  Not so, say preachers like Eddie Long, Creflo Dollar, Joyce Meyer, John Hagee, Kenneth Copeland and Benny Hinn.  Their Jesus was a plutocrat lounging in the lap of luxury.  They have trouble finding biblical authority for this view, but a poor Jesus is inherently problematic for prosperity preachers.  

Eddie Long and his ilk are rolling in the dough.  Since they practice what they preach, prosperity is inevitable and should inspire hope in the hearts of those who haven’t quite got the hang of “seed faith”.  Just look at the bling and the Bentley and you’ll see what you’re missing. 

The recent allegations of sexual misconduct and the abuse of pastoral authority are particularly embarrassing for a black preacher who has played a leading role in the Christian right’s anti-gay movement.  Long’s supporters accuse the media of attacking the integrity of the black church, but that’s not what’s happening.   Long’s theology was invented by ambitious white evangelicals and most of the men and women cashing in on the prosperity message are white.  

Moreover, sexual abuse among the clergy, although commonly associated with the Roman Catholic communion, is as ubiquitous as it is iniquitous. 

What is the primary issue here?  Does the Eddie Long story raise questions about “prosperity preachers”, megachurches in general, or the sorry state of American religion? 

It is often noted that, contrary to developments in other developed nations, religion is flourishing the United States.  Why is this? 

The separation of church and state is an essential ingredient in the American religious recipe.  Lacking an established religion, Americans are free to experiment.  We are religious entrepreneurs who know how to shape a spiritual message to the needs and tastes of a particular demographic.  

The prosperity doctrine is a perfect example of this phenomenon.  Preachers looking for ways to put butts in the seats know that most people have little interest in ministering to “the least and the lost”; they are concerned about paying the bills, keeping their jobs, finding and keeping a mate, and trying to inject some order into chaotic domestic relationships.  If you want to fill a church, these concerns must be the primary focus.  

American religion shapes and reflects the prevailing social consensus.  If the culture is driven by greed and fear, preachers must find ways to bless consumerism while identifying and castigating the enemy.  Churches grow to the extent they reflect this tendency.  During the progressive era stretching from Roosevelt’s New Deal to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, mainline Protestant churches grew like topsy.  In an age of trickle-down economics, mass incarceration and a steadily expanding gap between the rich and the poor, churches affiliated with the Religious Right have been in the ascendency. 

Eddie Long tries to have it both ways; cultivating relationships with civil rights icons like Correta Scott King while aligning himself with the policies of the Bush administration.  

Here’s the problem: the religion of Jesus has no natural constituency.  You can’t fill a church talking about compassion for the poor and the upside-down ethics and economics of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus didn’t leave his followers a viable model for church growth.  Jesus is scratchin’ where we ain’t itchin’. 

But what if there is a God?  And what if this God has plans and dreams out of sync with the rhythms of American consumerism and the national security state?  And what if Jesus is right about the least and the lost?  In that case, we’re in big trouble and our religion, for all its vigor, is part of the problem.  

There is something pathetic about an anti-gay crusader manipulating young men into sexual encounters.  But I suspect the civil suits recently filed against the Baptist Bishop are symptomatic of a much deeper problem.  Eddie Long probably doesn’t realize that he has inverted the teaching of Jesus, exchanging foul for fair and fair for foul.  He simply figured that a religious formula that worked for others would work for him.  

He was right.  In the hands of a charismatic preacher, the prosperity gospel is a proven money machine.  It doesn’t work for everyone.  The preacher is the product.  If you sound loud, proud and confident, walk with a sanctified swagger and look like the American dream, you too can be a prosperity preacher.  Unfortunately, it’s all a marketing gimmick.  God doesn’t send us magic money from heaven.  

Prosperity preachers like Eddie Long are simply the most egregious example of a general spiritual collapse.   

Conservative churches grow because their preachers are free to reinforce the political, economic and moral beliefs of their congregants.  Conservative pastors and conservative politicians use essentially the same talking points.  capitalist democracy is good; socialist totalitarianism is bad.  Greed is good because it fuels entrepreneurial passion and creates jobs.  Only a change of attitude can help the poor; social programs feed dependency.  The criminal classes will only shape up if bad decisions lead to swift and brutal consequences.  There are only two legitimate roles for government: national security and the criminal justice system.  

Conservative preachers can inject these themes into their preaching with little fear of repercussion.  In general, hints and code words suffice. 

Mainline clergy don’t have it so easy.  Methodists, for example, reflect the American mainstream.  A typical Methodist pastor will have as many Republicans in the pews as Democrats.  The culture war is always lurking just beneath the surface of congregational life.  Talk tough and the blue people will be up in arms; get too soft and the red folk start to fuss. 

This explains the “gospel of nice” emanating from most mainline Protestant pulpits.  We are called to be kind, to forgive, to maintain a positive attitude, to think about others as much as ourselves.  Money is rarely mentioned except during “pledge month”.  There can be no serious discussion of sexual issues.  Politics is off-limits and economic issues must be assiduously avoided.  The criminal justice system, so far as mainline preaching is anything to go by, does not exist. 

Mainline preaching isn’t designed to put butts in the seats; the goal is institutional survival.  This being the case, it is hardly surprising that, in a recent survey, agnostics and atheists knew more about religion than did Christians of any description.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus proclaimed, “because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the Jubilee day of the Lord” (when all the slaves go free).  Can such a message be institutionalized?  Can American preachers grow rich speaking this way?  Can they even survive? 

These are the real questions raised by the Eddie Long controversy.  The big deal isn’t that a successful pastor may be disgraced; it’s that American pastors must twist themselves into ethical, intellectual and emotional knots if they hope to be truly successful.  The closer our religion gets to reality, the harder it becomes to institutionalize.  The more successful our religion becomes, the further it strays from the spirit of Jesus.  

What is the antidote for this toxic situation we have created for ourselves? 

The first step is to tell the truth.  Christians should have the guts to look at life from a Jesus perspective.  This isn’t as easy as it sounds–the Romans didn’t crucify the man for nothing.  For 2000 years, the Christian Church has been trying to domesticate a intrinsically subversive message.  The process didn’t start with the Emperor Constantine; it began the moment preachers started trying to put butts in the seats.  Jesus died on a Roman cross.  Paul died in a Roman prison.  This isn’t supposed to easy, folks.  

Christians aren’t supposed to be normal.  We aren’t even supposed to be successful.  We are supposed to be faithful unto death.  Try building a church on that foundation.

14 thoughts on “Putting butts in the seats: the rise and fall of Bishop Eddie Long

  1. Well, Bishop Long has risen. (No reference to the resurrection intended.) Not certain yet whether he has fallen. Time will tell on that.

    But when I learned of his ostentatiously extravagant lifestyle–limousines, bodyguards even–all the trappings of a monarch, it made me sad and sick at heart. That overtly and extreme prosperity gospel may put butts in the seats, but it is not the Gospel of the pre-Easter Jesus nor the post-Easter Christ.

  2. The best we can do as fellow Christians is pray that the truth will be revealed. Right now the church and Bishop Long are being tried in the media. The ramifications of this as well as the Catholic Church scandals send ripples out that have a long lasting affect on non believers and those who oppose organized religion. I believe this has been divinely allowed. We all must look at our own walk with Christ. We must use our decernment to find a house of worship that supports our walk and pray that we can join a body of believers that we can continue to build the body of Christ with. Isn’t that the point.

  3. That is part of the point. But before we can select a good church we need to know what real Christian theology and a distinctly Christian ethic looks like. The popularity of Bishop Long’s brand of religion suggests a deep confusion at the most fundamental level. For instance, to site a superficial example, Baptists don’t have bishops. When a Baptist minister wants to be a bishop he is confused about his own religious tradition (not that I have anything against bishops). Bishop Long is a symptom of a spiritual problem he didn’t create but which, unfortunately, he manifests.

  4. Your point is well taken. Now as a believer and regular member of a mega church…what do we do? Unfortunately for those that Bishop Long and others like him serve, Christian Theology and ethics are not apart of the Sunday sermon. A mega church can boast about 25,000 members but bible study(Christian Theology) and service(Christian Ethics) the number is far less. For me it comes down to how we live especially public figures. As much as a some public figures, clergy or not, would like to keep their lives private they are not private. So now the question becomes the lid has been blown off the “mega church” where do go from here without the casualty of loosing hungry Christians?

  5. I would like to create intentional Christian communities dedicated to the kingdom teachings of Jesus. Whether this kind of Church is economically viable I’m not sure. Do you live in the Atlanta area? Atlanta is megachurch central–with the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex running a close second.

  6. If by economically viable you mean able to have a professionally trained pastor paid at a professional salary level and to have and support a building, I kind of doubt it. But I think there could be kingdom groups of Jesus followers who break bread together sacramentally in homes and encourage each other in kingdom activities. There may be some mega-churches who take seriously the kingdom teachings of Jesus to some degree. I think of Adam Hamilton’s Methodist church in Johnson County, Kansas and Bill Hybel’s Willow Creek church in the Chicago area. I don’t think either of them are prosperity gospel or even prosperity-lite preachers. I could of course be wrong.

    I think we need to take a close look at Walter Brueggemann’s insights in “The Prophetic Imagination” and John Dominic Crossan’s kingdom emphases in “The Greatest Prayer” and elsewhere. Marcus Borg’s works also have a strong kingdom emphasis.. I hope to prepare a paper for a possible blog along these lines if I can get my mind around it.

  7. I don’t live in either of those areas. I live in the mid-west. The church I attend is along the mega church line for this area of country. However, our pastor does not preach prosperity teaching. We are a bible based church. I pray that intentional communities take hold, because now more than ever the Christian community is begging for solid teaching.

  8. If Bishop Eddie Long is to be found guilty, then it must be proven beyond a shadow of doubt. There is nothing wrong with having a Mega Church if all things are equal. The Gospel should be served like a meal, a bit of peas, some corn, meat, bread, rice, a salad, and then desert. The Gospel should be well balanced just as a meal should. There is nothing wrong with prosperity teaching, God wants us to prosper, be in good health even as our soul proper. But there is more talk about money and prosperity than about salvation in some churches, it should be balanced. Money is a tool and a test, that is why “Stewardship” should be taught first. I agree, the Church has missed it’s full purpose,”Seeking And Saving That Which Is Lost” should be primary, but even that takes money. The Church should go out to where the lost is, but the lost have to find there way to where the Church is. The Church is in need of more foot Soldiers, but few are trained for such an awesome call. I will pray for Mr. Long and the young men that has come forward with this heart breaking news. God has a way of allowing us to get re-focused, an attack can happen to any of us at any time. If Mr. Long is found guilty, than there is room at the cross even for him. May God reveal the truth.

  9. Then Jesus looked up at his disciples and said:
    ‘Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
    ‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
    for you will be filled.
    ‘Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.
    ‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you* on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
    ‘But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have received your consolation.
    ‘Woe to you who are full now,
    for you will be hungry.
    ‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
    for you will mourn and weep.
    ‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

  10. Alan, you’ve gone Luke red-letter on us. And this is different from Matthew red-letter. Matthew red-letter says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” whereas Luke red-letter just says, “Blessed are you who are poor. . . .”

    The Magnificat of Mary, also in Luke, while not red-letter, is also instructive: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

    More Matthew red-letter: “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

    Does this mean all rich people are going to hell? I think it’s important to note that this last quote is not about heaven or hell, but about the kingdom of God. And rich people, by definition, have been rewarded by the kingdom(s) of this age, and thus have great difficulty in renouncing their allegiances to those kingdoms in order to declare their allegiance to God’s kingdom.

    The whole matter of rich-poor is central to the defeat of mass incarceration. Not many rich are incarcerated. Relatively speaking, not many middle class. It is the poor, and overwhelmingly poor people of color, who suffer mass incarceration. This is to be expected, since it is the rich who write the laws, enforce the laws, and sit in adjudication of the laws. Those who have ever been incarcerated cannot even serve as jurors. (At least that is the case in Texas; I don’t know about elsewhere, but Michelle Alexander talks about felons being excluded from jury service.)

    Prince Ella, you seem to be a well-intentioned Christ-follower. I would invite you to take a concordance of the New Testament and do a study of “rich” and “poor.” I think then you will agree that the “prosperity gospel” is something other than the kingdom gospel that Jesus preached.

    We do need kingdom centered intentional communities, whether economically viable or not. I think we (Friends of Justice) need to strategize about forming some of those communities. They may be cyber-communities whose members, after getting a cyber-education regarding kingdom issues, may form some flesh and blood communities.

  11. First of all I would like to say that I am praying for the four young men that are claiming that they have been victims of such an horrendous act. I will also like to pray for Bishop Long and the New Birth family. I believe that nothing under the sun happens by chance, God knows exactly what He is doing. The time has come for men and women all around this world to get it together and understand nothing can be hidden from God. For those of you Pastors along with members that have been living in a life of lies, deception, perversion and so on. God is saying judgment day is upon you, however, before the storm there will be a warning. I believe that Bishop Long along with many other so call men and women of God have become selfish, self center arrogant and prideful. And shame on us for failing to support our young children that have been crying out for help for years (mama help me daddy help me) but we have been so ignorant that we can’t even see our on hands even if we put it up to all face (because we are dark). Ask your self this question why is that? Because most of you, are know different than some of the accused pastors your dirt has not yes surfaced. Most of you go to church every Sunday and during the week however you are still engaged in open shame. We as a people need to be delivered and most of you don’t know what deliverance is. (If the shoe fit ) I believe Bishop Long is the beginning of these Dogs that are going to fall and fall hard. So those of you that are following this story take a close look because if you don’t get it together you will be next.

    May God Bless the young men and their families that made this allegation and may God have mercy on Bishop Eddie Long’s Soul……………… I

  12. I’m for one very dissapointed in what is going on here. I can not believe the a shepard who studies and teaches the word would turn around and abuse his God entrusted flock. However, what i do know is if ture, his judgement from the Lord willl be greater than anything that mand could think to do. I pray he repents, the truth is revealed and he seeks help. Ipray for those abused and that they may find forgiveness so they are not held hostage by his actions and can move on to normal lives and leave this behind them. And lastly, I must say that I for one am appauled at the writter of this article as to cast all of the blame it seems on the “Prosperity message”. You are incorrect in your painting of what the prosperity message is all about. People abuse everything in this world to a point. Prosperity ministry is not bad nor is prosperity. It’s like that scripture people have misquoted for ages, “Money is the root of all evil” which is incorrect, the scripture states “For the love of money is the root of all evil” Not the money itself. Prosperity is good when used to help and uplift others. And the true prosperity message teaches this. Not to be prosperous and horde it for yourself or use it for selfish indulgence. Please stick to the story here at hand, a pastor, has quite possibly abused and misused his flock and committed what would be true atrocities not only against his fellow man but against God himself. You may not like the message of prosperity but that is not what is in question here. And lastly, Jesus and his deciples never wanted for anything. Please recall how he feed thousands with what seemed only enough for few. But you do not see any scripture where he had to do without which is proof he was well taken care of. And he spoke of the riches in heaven with his father on many occasions so he had wealth their as well. Now, again I ask, stick to the story at hand. This is no different thant saying it all happend because he was affrican american. Non sense and not the point!

  13. Long accelerate quickly with styles that normally preachers don’t openly show. The Mega-Church drew in a lot of people; some christians other lead to be such. Long had a goal…(for himself) using God to get there sort-of-speak. Long established New Birth Baptist Church, firing all of the Deacons so he could make all of the decisions…and we find that Longfellow, the Christian Academy, etc., all under his name like he is in full control of everything! Money took over in a way that drew in other seekers where they want to be part of this Mega-Church with Bishop Eddie Long! What people now know is he was a smoke-screen in his own right. Even while he has been nproven to be guilty, you will find that some of his followers like Jim Jones followers, just fail to see the truth! Out of all of Long’s dilemmas we find that he surrounded himself with body guards, limo, bentleys homes, clothing, etc., all while Elder Harris, Mclaughlin, armstorng, wadellFinley, Franklin, Clarkson, Riley, Woods, Lamour, Hughes, Hill, Lister, Green, Prude, Wood and Breedlove did not know what Long was doing! Oh yea, New Birth Christian Academy shows that Reverend Maxwell, Jr. was the Headmaster and the Chairman was Long. To attend this academy there is an annual registrtion fees of 300, annual matriculation fee pre-k 800, 6th- to
    12 grades 1000, and the new student testing fee 50.oo, to say that he was in the money as a church-business; members pays 5725 first childd and 5253 2nd child, if you are a new birth members, 5-12th grade, first chld feed 6513, 2n child 6040, you will need a tuition payment plan, is this a chruch or a private business being ran in a chruch? Then there was the sexual payments to which he, long said he was going to fight that thing, and he was not the man being shown on TV;, then the congregation suit, the land deal, then came the divorce along with shutting down the christian academy…will the parent get their money back? Well, for all of the above posting, I leave nothing to be truth because it has already been told. But to say surely that the New Birth Baptist Church is in its last stage. What started off to be perhaps something good, one man cause it to break all of the laws that many keep close to their hearts. One thing we al know, you cannot rescind what you have done and I think at this writing, the New Birth Congregations are dissatisfied with Long actions and the many discrepancies he has created. I also think that now, Long see that more is not better because you will always want more…..and that cause his ship to go off course and now it is stuck in the sands that can’t be pull out that easy or pull out at all! Finaly, Long is sitting in his office or in his private study upstairs in NB Baptist Chruch askng himself why me and how ridiculously this has been and the hole that I have dug for myself. Oh, don’t worry about Mrs. Long, I can see her now shopping on Redeo Drive in Los Angles being driven by her driver and in her plain-old STS!

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