c. 1996 Religion News Service
(UNDATED) A decade ago, when the PTL television ministry was at its peak, Jim Bakker was so busy raising money he hardly had time to read the Bible.
Now, after five years in prison and two years of introspection on a rented North Carolina farm, he considers the holy book, marked and highlighted throughout his incarceration, to be “an old friend.”
Such is the transformation of the 56-year-old Bakker, who has gone from the height of power at the modern Christian campground called Heritage USA to the depths of despair in a prison cell. In 1989, after getting caught in a sex and money scandal, Bakker was convicted of bilking supporters of his Praise the Lord (PTL) ministry out of $158 million.
With that fall from grace, Bakker embarked on a spiritual journey that has led him to radically change his theology, his social consciousness and his attitudes about money. Although he continues to deny that he intentionally defrauded anyone, he now admits he was so obsessed with his earthly empire that he ignored the spiritual foundations on which it was supposed to be based.
“I realized I had been teaching people how to get rich and how to fall in love with material things, and Christ says you can’t serve material things,” Bakker said in an interview Monday (Nov. 4). “He said, `Don’t build treasures on Earth.”’
Bakker said he especially had misread a key verse in the third epistle of John, a short book just one page away from Revelation: “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.”
“The word `prosper’ here meant a good journey,” said Bakker, recounting his study of the verse’s original Greek. “John would simply say `I’m wishing you a good journey through life, even as your soul has a good journey to heaven.’…It has noting to do with money.”
Bakker, author of the recently published “I Was Wrong” (Thomas Nelson), said he used to prepare for sermons by using a concordance to look up verses that applied to a particular topic.
But in prison, with ample time for reflection, he wrote down by hand every word spoken by Jesus in the Gospels.
That intensive study, Bakker said, changed his understanding of the text and of himself. Bakker applied verses like “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” to his own life.
“The word is what convicted me and I repented,” he said. “I kept hitting these things _ judge not, condemn not _ and the Lord just dealt with me. He said I had to pray for my enemies.”
So, just as writing down the words of Jesus changed Bakker’s interpretation of the Bible, writing down the names of people he had considered his enemies helped him repent.
“I began to make a list of everybody _ the judge, the prosecutors, the ministers who helped put me in prison, those who testified against me, my friends who never have spoken to me since the day I lost PTL,” he said.
And, he had to add the names of his ex-wife, Tammy Faye Messner, who divorced him while he was in prison, and Roe Messner, her new husband who helped Bakker build the former Heritage USA in Fort Mill, S.C. and is currently appealing a conviction of bankruptcy fraud.
“I prayed for them every day,” said Bakker. “There were days when I didn’t feel like it. Then, I would just read their names to God and I said, `God help me.”’
Bakker acknowledged that there were times when he backslid.
“Roe was the hardest for me to forgive, but I have totally forgiven him now,” he said. “If God said you had to build a church with Roe Messner … I could do that today.”
Although Bakker mentions thoughts of building a church again, he is presently touring the country to promote his book and making guest appearances at conferences and in church pulpits. Bakker, defrocked from the Assemblies of God, said he was ordained a couple of years ago through a “fellowship of ministers” he declined to name.
But he approaches his work with the spirit of an inmate.
“I’m more of an inmate than I am anything else today,” said Bakker.
His time spent as Inmate Bakker, No. 07407-058, gave him a chance to see how those inside prison walls viewed the clergy they watched on television news reports _ “People at abortion clinics screaming hate, ministers saying `Throw ’em in prisons and lock ’em up and throw the key away.’
“The men in prison were booing preachers while I was sitting in the room,” Bakker said. “This is the image that the world sees of Jesus Christ. No wonder they don’t want Jesus.”
Today, Bakker said, his social agenda has changed from the time when PTL supporters primarily visited the ministry’s fancy Christian hotel and amusement park and watched “The PTL Club” on television. The role of a ministry, Bakker now believes, is to reach out to those who are in need _ including the incarcerated, as well as ex-cons trying to adjust to life outside prison walls.
“This is somebody’s family member and we treat them like they’re non-entities,” he said. “As soon as I’m off parole I’m praying to God that the prisons will allow me to come in and speak. I would rather speak to inmates than any group in the world.”
Bakker proudly details how his daughter, Tammy Sue Chapman, is active in prison ministry and his son, Jamie _ now known as Jay Bakker _ works with street people.
“This demonstrates what our family believes,” he said. “I believe that we are to feed the hungry and we are to clothe the naked.”
As he fondly recalled the church group in his last prison assignment in Jesup, Ga., Bakker said he now realizes that a local church is more important than a television ministry.
“A television can’t hug you. A television can’t marry you or bury you,” he said. “I don’t think anybody can do too much spreading of the word, (but) if it becomes a substitute for the local body of Christ it is wrong.”
Bakker, who expects to be off parole by April 1997, recalls struggling to constantly raise money _ as much as a half-million dollars a day _ to keep up with his goals and expenses at Heritage USA.
“God’s people ought to just give to the church without being prodded so much,” he said.
But Bakker said he didn’t want to chide current televangelists.
“I don’t criticize these men today who are having to do this, “ he said. “They’re on a speeding train and they can’t stop it. If you don’t pay your bills you’re damned and if you don’t raise the money you’re damned.”
For his own part, Bakker said the transformation from televangelist to avid Bible reader continues.
“I feel like I’m further from arriving than I’ve ever been,” said Bakker. “I’m far from perfection. The more that I knew the word, the more I realized how gracious and full of grace God is and how much I had to go in my own life.”
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