What if Clinton was a famous pastor?

Try to imagine what would have happened if Bill Clinton was a world-famous pastor.

What if he led a thriving evangelical megachurch, was the author of Christian bestsellers and the key to TV-ministry ratings? Or what if he was the bishop of a prestigious diocese, a prophetic voice for social justice and crucial to a progressive power structure?

Then it happens. Someone claims this leader has had a sexual affair, perhaps even with someone under his pastoral care. But the scandal hasn't been made public. Or, perhaps there is some doubt whether he is guilty. So the ministry board meets behind closed doors and someone asks the big question: Should we force him to resign in shame?

It says a lot about America's divisions over sex, gender, marriage, sin and repentance that many themes aired in these religious debates echo those in the national shouting match over Clinton's sins. Sin is sin, but power is power.

The leader's defenders always note that he is crucial to the church's future and, besides, his flock still loves him. What would happen to the budget? Who could replace him in the pulpit? Isn't this just a conspiracy? Where is the proof? What about the woman's motivations?

Critics always ask: Is the sinner's repentance real?

In Clinton's case, there have been two "inadequate reactions" to his plea for forgiveness, said the Rev. Gordon MacDonald of Lexington, Mass., preaching soon after joining the president's private trio of pastors.

"One has been to engage in the offer of cheap, swift grace, a forgiveness that comes so quickly and freely that it provides no justice nor healing and spiritual redemption," he said. The other has been to automatically dismiss his plea, assuming "it is a matter of political theatrics. ... If the president's repentance is false or short-termed, that will show in time, and we will have to swallow hard and admit that we were taken in. It wouldn't be the first time nor the last that the Christian community extended its hand of grace and had it bit off."

The ultimate question is the same: Does he stay or does he go? Many are convinced the leader's departure is essential. Others believe a fallen leader can repent, be healed and find accountability - in private, while keeping his job.

MacDonald has been a crucial figure in these debates. Twelve years ago, he was ensnared in a scandal that rocked evangelicalism. But he repented, sought his wife's forgiveness and, years later, put the lessons he learned into a book called "Rebuilding Your Broken World" - which the president is said to have read twice.

Ironically, Clinton's critics praise MacDonald's path to restoration. They note that he resigned as leader of a major missionary group and sought two years of therapy with his wife, before returning to ministry. MacDonald has urged repentant leaders to go on retreat, stop blaming their critics and, if and when they return to public life, to restrict their duties and embrace strict disciplines. A retreat, he wrote, is no time for "plotting what the politicians call a comeback."

Critics want to know if MacDonald is preaching a softer sermon to the president.

In an open letter to MacDonald, another pastor reminded him that Clinton grew up with the language and symbolic gestures of Southern religion. The result can be an "Elvis syndrome" in which emotions are more important than actions, noted the Rev. William Smith, writing in World magazine. This condition allows sinners to "stand around the piano at Graceland and sing gospel songs with tears in our eyes, then to go upstairs to fornicate, and persuade ourselves in the morning that our real person is the hymn-singing one," wrote Smith.

But, MacDonald told his flock that critics should ask themselves why they keep assuming the worse of this president. For now, he accepts that the president's confession of sin came from "genuinely contrite heart," he said.

"I have seen his private tears, heard his personal words of remorse. And I have chosen to embrace this man as a sinner in need of mercy. I have received him as I would try to receive any of you should you find yourself in a similar circumstances."