Editor's note: Jonathan L. Walton is assistant professor of African-American religions at Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of "Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism" and the resident ethicist on the Tavis Smiley radio show.
(CNN) -- Over the past two decades, Bishop Eddie Long has built his public ministry at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church near Atlanta, Georgia, upon a testosterone-laden theology and a hypermasculine image.
His books bear titles such as "Taking Over," "Called to Conquer" and "Gladiator." Typical names for his sermons are "Conquer and Subdue" and "Reign or Maintain." The ministry motto, "Taking Authority," is signified by a golden sword and shield that adorns the bishop's ring finger.
This is why I was saddened to watch Eddie Long duck and dodge allegations that he seduced multiple teenage boys into sexual relationships. One would think that someone who constantly preaches about male headship, rulership, and power would deny these allegations with the same bravado that he defends his right to drive a $300,000 automobile.
Yet on Sunday we never heard the term "innocent," or a refutation of the charges. In fact, we witnessed a cowardly, rhetorical two-step that may mark the tragic end to this bishop's reign.
Milquetoast quotes like "I am not the man being portrayed on television," and "I'm going to fight this," are at best nondenials. Anyone familiar with these sorts of civil cases knows that such word selection is common among those trying to deflect a potential perjury charge down the line. Either Long engaged in inappropriate sexual acts with these young men or he didn't. To hide behind legal counsel, biblical metaphors and spiritualized acknowledgments of one's imperfection insults the intelligence of those who respect him and his ministry.
The question on the hearts and minds of parishioners is not whether he is a "perfect man." Nor does this story have anything to do with David and Goliath, as Long so irresponsibly alluded. The faithful just want to know whether Long used his authority (and their money) to maintain a teenage male harem under the pretense of mentoring. Is this too much to ask?
As a professor of social ethics who trains aspiring clergy, you pray religious leaders adhere to two important points. First, although we all fall short of our professed moral ideals, one should never spiritualize indiscretions. And no religious leader is fit to be called a leader unless he or she is willing to acknowledge when he or she is wrong.
Second, we must draw a line between our position and the institution that we are called to serve. The latter should always be considered more precious and important than the former.
Eddie Long had four days leading up to Sunday morning to address these charges. But aside from a brief yet legally broad statement through lawyers saying that "the charges against me and New Birth are false," he did not counter the boys' allegations.
He did choose, however, to invite the media and the world into the house of prayer on the Christian Sabbath. By doing so, he appears to be the kind of pastor who puts his own protection and self-preservation before the community of faith. And rather than courageously defending himself, he looked like a coward using New Birth's congregation as human shields.
If the bishop wants to take authority, he needs to begin by taking some responsibility. Maybe for the good of New Birth, Eddie Long should take that sword out of his golden ring and fall on it.
The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Jonathan L. Walton.