There are two types of people in the world, those who remember Tammy Faye Messner (Bakker) and those who don’t. Alright, so that is a little melodramatic, but Jim and Tammy Faye left an imprint on American Christianity. Tammy Faye died on Friday, which will stir up reminders of her life and faith.
In the 1980’s their PTL ministry and TV program made them famous, and they became the picture of what many thought was wrong with Christianity and the church. Tammy was well known for her outrageous hair, makeup, and eyelashes, that reached out like the wings on an eagle. She and her husband taught a health and wealth oriented gospel that promised people rewards when they would send money to their ministry. While Jim & Tammy Faye were bizarre, to say the least, they had a significant following, which eventually led to the idea of starting a Christian theme park called Heritage USA. It was the building of this park that led to the downfall and humiliation of Jim & Tammy Faye, as Jim was indicted and convicted of fraud, and sentenced to 45 years in prison (eventually his sentence was reduced and he was released in the mid 1990’s). Part of the fraud involved payments Jim made to a woman he’d had an affair with trying to keep her from going public. Many will remember the day when Jim Bakker was carted off by the police, and how Tammy Faye publicly stood by her man.
A few years later, while Jim was in prison, they divorced and Tammy Faye married again. Over the past several years, both of them came into the public eye again, in different ways, including interviews on Larry King Live. Tammy Faye gave her last interview with King the night before she died. I’m not trying to blog her life story, but I wanted to give enough information to make my point.
Jim and Tammy Faye became targets for criticism from all sides during their downfall. Johnny Carson and David Letterman had field days cracking jokes about her gaudy dress and his indescretions. They also received a lot of bashing in Christian circles. Many pointed out their false teaching and sinful lifestyles, but others made it personal, attacking them and tearing them down. At that time, it was pretty hard not to laugh at them and feel a sense of self justification as you thought of their downfall.
How should those who are following Jesus react when a brother or sister in Christ fails, falls down so miserably? A few years ago I was at a conference that had Jay Bakker, Jim and Tammy Faye’s son as a speaker. His messages was interesting. He cussed a lot, but mostly, he expressed anger over how he and his family were treated when their failures became public. Jay expressed that while things were going well, they had more supporters than they knew what to do with. But when things went south, when he needed support and love the most, those who claimed to know Jesus ditched them, and they were so alone. At the time, it was so easy to join in on the jokes and the criticism, but I never thought about how all of this would affect their children and the others around them.
I guess Tammy Faye’s death was a reminder for me of the goodness of the Gospel and the importance of being living expressions of it. On one hand, a follower of Jesus must stand for what is right and against sin. We must know the truth, and be able to point out error. The church did that well during the scandal. Yet, on the other hand, we must be people who communicate grace, and the unconditional acceptance people find at the foot of the cross of Jesus. Somehow, this message was lost at the time. I don’t really know all the issues that led these two people to the things they did, but I do know that God loved them deeply, and that Jesus died for them. It is easy to point out their flaws, while finding a justification for mine. But that is the point, there are tendencies in each of us to be like Jim & Tammy Faye and to do the things they did. We all find ways to make our selves look and feel more accepted and loved. We all have sinful desires that makes us feel like we are the most important people and that others should follow me. We all have times when greed, sexual desire, and other flaws could lead us to make devastating decisions. And in all of these times we need grace, we need the unconditional acceptance, forgiveness, and love of our Creator. And we need people around us who will communicate that grace in tangible terms and lead us to repentance. This does involve having people who will lovingly call out our sin and rebellion, but always in the context of relationship, and always with a desire to see repentance and reconciliation.Â But is also includes the communicating unconditional love in countless ways, especially when people are in the midst of suffering brought on by their own sin.
I never met either of these people, and therefore have no way of knowing whether their faith is genuine. From a distance, both of them seemed to repent after the scandal, and have a faith in Jesus that seems real. If so, they are trophies of God’s grace and examples of His goodness, love, and beauty. May God be gracious with me in my times of failure, and may I be a reflection of that grace when others fall.