A temporal judgment day awaits Jimmy Swaggart next week in Springfield, Mo., when fellow clergy will decide if the television evangelist's admitted immoral behavior calls for the customary yearlong ban on preaching.
The "final decision" on the appropriate terms of rehabilitation will be made by the 240-member General Presbytery of the Assemblies of God at a special session Monday and Tuesday.
Swaggart, one of the nation's most-watched television evangelists, confessed to an undisclosed sin before denominational leaders in a closed session Feb. 18 after photos were examined showing him entering and leaving a motel room with a known prostitute. A sobbing, repentant Swaggart told his congregation in Baton Rouge, La., on Feb. 21 that he was leaving the pulpit for an indefinite period as officials decided on a path of restitution. At that service, he confessed publicly to an unspecified moral failure.
The next day, the Louisiana District of the Assemblies of God recommended that Swaggart be banned from the pulpit for three months and begin a 2-year probationary period that would include counseling. The 3-month suspension from preaching was unprecedented in its brevity for such a failing and immediately drew nationwide criticism. In every other case of sexual immorality, the church has imposed a 1-year suspension, according to church officials.
When the Louisiana District refused to lengthen the suspension, the denomination's Executive Presbytery found it necessary early this month to summon the General Presbytery. Next week's session will be closed to the public.
Meanwhile, Swaggart told about 400 congregants at his church Wednesday night, he was going out of his mind staying away from the pulpit, but added "when I'm back in the pulpit on May 22, I'll be back in my mind."
Swaggart, who occasionally addresses his old congregation at services conducted by his co-pastor, the Rev. Jim Rentz, indicated that he expects the presbyters to approve the 3-month suspension.
However, information surfacing in recent weeks raises more questions about the Louisiana District decision.
Won't List Officials
The district, based in Alexandria, La., has refused to make public the list of church officials who participated in the Swaggart recommendation. However, church headquarters in Springfield confirmed that two Louisiana District officers who were believed to have had roles in the recommendation on Swaggart, Supt. Cecil Janway and Secretary-Treasurer Forrest Hall, also are on the 11-member board of Jimmy Swaggart World Ministries.
Juleen Turnage, a spokeswoman for the denominational headquarters, said that information was confirmed only recently because Swaggart's evangelistic organization is independent of the denomination. National officers have not commented on the apparent conflict of interest, she said.
Joseph Flower, the Assemblies' general secretary, said he did not know if Janway and Hall took part in the Swaggart recommendation. "We don't have a record of how the vote was taken," Flower said.
Turnage also said that unconfirmed reports say that Swaggart's co-pastor, Rentz, is one of the 19 Louisiana presbyters who made the controversial recommendation, but she said the national headquarters does not know the names of all those on the state presbytery.
Swaggart himself once commended his denomination's policy of a year's absence from the pulpit as "one of the fairest and most biblical systems." In a 1986 article for his organization's magazine, the Evangelist, he wrote, "If a preacher of the Gospel is caught (not hearsay or rumor, but fact) in an immoral situation . . . this pastor or evangelist must be placed on probation for a period of a year.
"During this time, he cannot preach anywhere. If he is the pastor of a church, he has to resign. . . . If he is an evangelist, he has to cancel his revival meetings for a year. To allow a preacher . . . to remain in his position as pastor (or whatever) would be the most gross stupidity," he wrote.
Swaggart's continued preaching prohibition can be expected to affect donations to his organization, which in turn has contributed millions of dollars to the foreign missionary arm of the Assemblies of God.
Swaggart has donated $38 million in the last four years to the division, annually providing about 12% of the overseas mission budget, according to the church.
However, the Rev. Fred Cottriel, superintendent of the 426-church Southern California District of the Assemblies of God, said that the Swaggart donations to the denomination would not affect his decision next week as one of the General Presbytery members.
"I don't think there is any way I can treat one person different than another and (still) have integrity," Cottriel said in an interview at the district's Costa Mesa headquarters.