"We're not just a church, we're an international corporation," Long told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2005, as he defended himself against criticism that he had profited too generously from a charity his church created. Between 1997 and 2000, the pastor earned $3 million from the charity, Bishop Eddie Long Ministries Inc., the paper showed.
The North Carolina-born pastor seemed to bristle at the suggestion that he was being overcompensated for his work.
"We're not just a bumbling bunch of preachers who can't talk and all we're doing is baptizing babies. I deal with the White House. I deal with Tony Blair. I deal with presidents around this world. I pastor a multimillion-dollar congregation," Long told the paper. "You've got to put me on a different scale than the little black preacher sitting over there that's supposed to be just getting by because the people are suffering."
Now, the 57-year-old preacher is battling accusations that he used that influence to coerce young men in his church into having sexual relationships with him, something the married pastor and father of four has vehemently denied through surrogates. But as a major evangelical figure who preaches against homosexuality -- and one who has far from avoided the limelight in his meteoric rise -- the pastor will find it hard to escape scrutiny.
When he arrived at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in 1987, it was home to just a few hundred members, according to its website. Over the past two decades, though, thousands began to flock to the church as the pastor's prominence grew. Long became a popular televangelist with his weekly TV show and authored numerous books about faith and relationships, including one called, "What a Man Wants, What a Woman Needs."
Today, the suburban Atlanta church has more than 25,000 members, making it one of the largest in the country. It boasts a school, a youth fellowship for young men called LongFellows Academy and a list of well-heeled and well-connected congregants from Atlanta's black upper class. And at its center is Long, a flashy and charismatic leader who wears diamonds, lives in a $1 million home and has hosted heads of state such as President Bill Clinton.
Long's lifestyle doesn't resonate with everyone, however. Julian Bond, a former head of the NAACP and a longtime rights activist, said the pastor's gospel is one of financial success.
"He is a prosperity minister," Bond told AOL News today in a phone interview. "He preaches that if you follow his teachings then you will become rich. So it's not as much about salvation as it is about putting cash in your pockets. And he puts cash in his pockets too. He's extravagantly paid."
In 2007, Long attracted the attention of Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who demanded that Long and five other prominent pastors turn over their financial records to determine whether they were abusing their tax-exempt status. At the time, Long called the probe "unjust," "intrusive" and "an attack on our religious freedom and privacy rights," according to WSB-TV.
Supporters also pointed out that Long's church has given generously to charity and has worked to help drug addicts and the homeless. And many of his congregants are standing behind him. Samuel Midgette, 40, said he doesn't believe the allegations, in part because of how often Long speaks about his wife. "A man who talks about his wife as much as he do ... I can't see it. Unless I'm blind," Midgette told AOL News in a phone interview this week.
The pastor's outspoken views on homosexuality have come under particular scrutiny since four men in his church filed lawsuits this week accusing Long of using cash and cars to coerce them into having sexual relationships with him as teenagers.
Long, who is married to Vanessa Griffin Long, has called homosexuality and lesbianism "spiritual abortions" and helped start a group at his church called "Out of the Wilderness" to help gay members live a heterosexual lifestyle.
Bond described the pastor today as a "raving homophobe." In 2006, when New Birth was chosen as the site of the funeral for Martin Luther King Jr.'s widow, Coretta Scott King, Bond refused to attend. He said homophobia is prevalent in many black churches. "It's sad. It's religious-based, and it's based on ignorance," Bond said today.
Long is expected to address the allegations directly at his church on Sunday. On his Twitter account Thursday, he thanked his supporters. "Thanks for all your prayers and support! Love you all," he wrote.
Long's lawyer did not return calls for comment.