Almost three years ago, in perhaps the most egregious known example of religious hypocrisy in this country, Ted Haggard, founder of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colo., and president of the National Association of Evangelicals, admitted methamphetamine use and homosexual sex with a prostitute.
The outcry over his indiscretions, however, softened to some degree when those who defended Haggard insisted, essentially, that the devil made him do it.
Perhaps, then, it was the devil who last week in St. Paul, Minn., compelled John Erbele, for years a pastor at Missoula's South Hills Evangelical Church (SHEC), to give $60 to a hooker...who turned out to be an undercover cop. Erbele was one of 16 "johns" arrested during the sting.
Erbele has a wife and three children. He served as senior pastor at SHEC—a popular New Age, rock 'n' roll church—from 2000 to 2008, and as a "senior visionary officer" until just two months ago. His father served SHEC as a pastor for 26 years. In April, Erbele launched the LifePrint Church in St. Paul.
For followers of Pastor Ted and Pastor John, it's probably easier to reach for excuses when their pastor's false virtues are so starkly revealed than to deal with the sense of betrayal and confusion they must feel. Still, we find the excuses shocking.
After we reported the story on our blog last week, a number of commenters jumped to Eberle's defense. One wondered why, of all the men arrested, only Erbele was taking the heat. Another said many believers "sin in secret" and would hate to be "found out"—"especially if the liberal media was involved!!"
And then commenter "radiantrose" exonerated Erbele from all wrongdoing: "There is a spiritual war going on here people...I am deeply saddened that the enemies (sic) schemes have worked. We all face temptations but everyone knows that the more you do for GOD the harder the enemy works to take you down...We all sin, I am living with and being intimate with my boyfriend and I am a believer, but that was not in the newspaper."
Well, now it is. The enemy wins again.
But we're not the only ones calling the excuses bogus. During Saturday night's service, SHEC Preaching Pastor John Luhmann, who happens to be Erbele's brother-in-law, tackled the sticky issue head-on and rejected the convenient notion that Erbele succumbed to a devilish scheme.
"We need to acknowledge that what has been done is wrong," he said, "and I want to be very clear on that. It's not our job to minimize or excuse or cover up or hide or roll under the carpet sin." He went on to say that "it's way too easy to give the devil too much credit."
To that we say simply: Amen.