I´m an old veteran of the church trend wars that have ebbed and flowed since I began in ministry in 1973. Can a Christian have a demon? Do you have to speak in tongues? Is the rapture going to happen before the tribulation?
Agree to disagree, I concluded. We´ll never solve all the conflicts. Focus on the work of the Gospel.
But what happens when one of these issues becomes so harmful that it becomes a malignant beast that threatens to undermine the work of the Gospel? Then I feel it has to be addressed, and I will make few friends in the effort.
The issue is concerning the extreme prosperity gospel.
Even though I objected to the way that the prosperity preachers ignored certain scriptures and took others out of context, I realized that arguing was an exercise in futility. Plus, some of my dearest and most godly friends believe wholeheartedly in that gospel. I could agree to disagree.
All that changed this year. It began when I learned of someone trying to raise support for a very worthy but struggling outreach who was told by some in the prosperity church, “We only give to the `already blessed.´“ Was this the newest mutation of an already shaky doctrine?
What moved me to write this was a conversation I had with a young man who had spent seven years in leadership training directly under the pastors of one of the largest prosperity churches in the state. What he saw and experienced led him to finally walk away - from the church - from Jesus.
He was not bitter, nor did he speak to “get back” at them. He simply conveyed, because I asked, his experience to me. This is a sampling:
The pastors lived in a luxurious house in one of the most well-to-do areas of their low-income city.
Most of their congregation is poor to lower middle income people fed weekly on a diet of “you too can be rich”.
The church just installed a $125,000 coffee bar in the church.
The Pastor´s fee to travel to teach other pastors how to raise tithing and their income is $20,000 a day plus first-class everything.
The Pastors complained about and laughed at their staff and the struggling poor people who they often used, for little or no wages, as maids, bodyguards, gardeners, etc.
His most startling statement when I asked him how they could follow God and justify all this was, “God? I don´t think these people believe in God at all. It´s not about God to them. It´s a business. That´s it.”
It angered me that a promising young leader was now an assistant to a professor that taught that the Bible was nothing but a myth. I could not dismiss all of this as just the bitter rantings of a disgruntled church goer, which is the usual self-defense we use to justify our wrongs as leaders. His was actually just the latest in a fifteen year stretch of horror stories coming from that church.
The last straw for me was learning that one of the most popular Christian preachers and mega-selling author had come to that church - for a fee of $50,000 a night plus first class everything.
When did the ministry become a place of privilege, prosperity, power and prestige? Why aren´t we outraged, when, as I write this, thousands of missionaries around the globe are spilling their life blood to reach the lost without thought to pay, while the spiritual elite in the U.S. are living lives of obscene, pampered wealth? And how did we become so used to it that we EXPECT to pay big bucks for ministry?
What happened to “freely you have received, freely give”?
I recently traveled to Ohio to speak at a youth rally. The coordinator said, “What do you need?” “Travel & hotel, maybe a love offering”, I replied. “What else?”, he asked. What does he mean, what else? “I don´t know, some bottled water onstage?” “That´s it?” he laughed. That´s it. He explained that most of the preachers and speakers they got had a high fee, demanded limos, first class hotels, fruit baskets, you name it. Just like Hollywood stars or rock bands. I felt sick.
When you watch Christian TV, listen to Christian radio or read Christian magazines, you come to realize that we´ve developed a ministry caste system. The haves and the have-nots. The happening and the has-been. The apostles, bishops and self-proclaimed prophets who take out full page ads...and the struggling little preacher who can only afford a tiny little ad so he can send out free Gospel tracts. Just like India. The rich...and the Untouchables.
And what, largely, do the Ministries of the Rich and Famous offer? Large Christian feeding troughs - expensive spiritual buffets of spiritual junk food designed to make you prosper, feel good, get blessed and get more. And you get, get, get, only when you give, give, give - to THEM. The Gospel is little more than a ticket to the Good Life. And it flies in the face of not only the complete and consistent truth of the scriptures, but of the millions of martyrs and saints who gave ALL so others could just find Jesus. No price was too much for them to pay, no sacrifice too great.
We should be mortified. I am sure that the Great Cloud of Witnesses is.
I am not against wealth, and poverty is not a virtue. I certainly am not against large ministries, or ministers being worthy of their hire. And like Paul, I´ve been abased, and abounded. I have met ridiculously generous rich believers who can never stop giving, and I have met poor people who are going to hell for the love of money. It´s not about what you have, but what is at the center of your life, your heart, your affections.
But I cannot believe that much of modern evangelical Christianity has become little more than big business in the guise of a spiritual “move of God”, whose Kingly leaders shell out plastic trinkets and call it Gold - or God - or the Gospel. And all we get is - fat. And lazy.
Most of this empire has been built on two verses:
“Beloved, I pray that you would prosper in all things and be in health, even as your soul prospers.” (3 John 2)
This, we are told, is proof that God wants you to be rich. But in fact, “May you prosper in all things and be in health” was simply a common greeting of the time, much like us saying, “Have a nice day”, or “May God bless and keep you” at the end of a letter. This is hardly a sound prooftext to prove God wants us to be rich.
“Whatever he does shall prosper.” (Psalm 1:3b) This verse, the first part of a Psalm contrasting the godly with the wicked, is used as proof God wants you to prosper. But the word “prosper” in Hebrew simply means, “push forward.” Progress. Growth. In our total lives. Again, one verse, taken out of context. And as with the verse above, using “prosper” to only mean “money”, which these writers clearly never intended.
Other verses, however, provide the full truth: “Freely you have received; freely give.” (Matthew 10:8) Isn´t it self-evident that charging exorbitant fees to preach God´s free Word is not just a sin, but a scandal, a shame?
“Set your affections on things above, and not on things of the earth.” (Colossians 3:2) When we seek for wealth, it becomes an idol and Jesus is dethroned.
“He who is the greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves.” (Luke 22:26) Jesus said not to seek the best seat, the head of the table. He warned his leaders NOT to Lord it over the flock, but to be SERVANTS. Paul did not ride around in a stretch chariot charging big fees. Most often he paid his own way, even while teaching that a laborer was worth his hire. In fact he paid his own way to avoid appearance that he was using the Gospel for money. Shouldn´t we?
But let´s look at that. Do you really believe ministers and Christian speakers are worth fees that often make their worldly corporate counterparts blush? Who do we think we are? Even the world laughs at us. We are portraying the farthest thing from servanthood, humility and guilelessness that we possibly could. Paul said the Apostles were the least, the “offscouring of all things.” Not pampered, privileged, powerful and rich.
I believe Paul spoke to our crisis when he said there were those “who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself. Now godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content.” Do you really think Paul would be anything less than appalled at what is being taught? What else can this be, but speaking to those who preach “the Gospel is about gain” and build empires from offerings ?
While hundreds of millions of dollars are filling the coffers of those who live lavish lives while giving lip-service to “reaching the lost”, the REAL world languishes in darkness while a vast army of missionaries - here and abroad - stand ready to give all but struggle because the resources are being misdirected to build self-serving empires far from the battle, or from suffering, or from even the slightest hint of self-sacrifce for the highest call. Paul called these “enemies of the cross” in Philippians 3:18-19. Read it for yourself and tell me it does not apply.
There will always be plenty of people who will follow these teachings and teachers blindly, because they appeal to people´s basest flesh instincts and covetousness. But the time has come for the church to pull out its support from them.
Do not buy their books. Do not purchase their overpriced seminar tapes. Do not attend their conferences, and do not fall prey to their seductive words when they tell you, “God is telling me that if you sow $1000 into this ministry, He will answer your prayers.” No, He will not! He will answer because He loves you - because of His mercy. You cannot buy His gift (doesn´t this form of manipulation remind you of the “indulgences” once sold by the church?) and hear me - GOD WILL NOT BE MANIPULATED.
When you are broken, sick, hurting and jobless, and the TV preacher reaches into your hurt with tears and says, “I sense someone is hurting...if you reach for your checkbook and give your best gift...” just dry your tears, shut that huckster off and write a check for someone or some cause that REALLY needs it - someone worse off than you. Do it, not because you think it will trigger some divine chain reaction financially, or that God will feel He owes you now. Do it because it is a command to give, especially to the needy and poor. Do it to break the chain of despair and depression you may feel. Do it and LAUGH because God WILL take care of all you need! He can create from nothing. Do it to scorn the very idea that God needs our money at all. Do it to starve the hucksters that would tap your vulnerability and suck you dry to make themselves rich.
If this article makes you angry, I cannot apologize. Truth must hurt before it heals. These words, if they anger and hurt us into action, whether we´ve been deceived by lies, taken by thieves or just ashamed of the way the Gospel is being peddled and merchandised like Madison Avenue, may move us to clean house, kick out the money changers and become the servant-church we are commanded to be.
Submitted 10/11/2009 12:37:21 PM | Author: Dr. Gregory R Reid