Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Senator Challenges Pastors' Tax-Free Bling

A few weeks ago, Charles Grassley, a Republican senator from Iowa and the ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee, sent letters to six Christian ministries requesting information by Dec. 6 about allegedly excessive spending in their massive non-profit organizations.

While Sen. Grassley was clear that he didn't want to jump to any conclusions, the Associated Press reported that his relatively intrusive inquiry was in response to news reports and rumors about the lavish lifestyles of these famous prosperity pastors.

At issue is whether these clergymen (and women) are using tax-exempt donations for ministry purposes or simply to fatten their own already padded salaries.

Creflo Dollar, pastor World Changers Church International in College Park, Ga., quickly responded to Grassley's faxed letter by disclosing vague figures to the Atlanta Journal-Consitution that revealed that $69 million flowed into his ministry last year. He also quelled the rumor that his church bought him two Rolls-Royces. The only one he got was given as a surprise, and it's used mostly for special occasions.

While I initially would like to concede to Creflo that it's a slippery slope when Uncle Sam starts snooping around in churches' wallets, the flippant attitude he displays somehow makes me want to give Grassley a pat on the back and tell him to keep on probing.

Creflo and the five other ministries under investigation - including those of Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Paula White, Eddie Long and Joyce Meyer - represent all that's bad with the prosperity movement. They lure funds by promising wealth to church members who "sow a seed," and when the start livin' large off the harvest, they act as if they've done some actual work that entitles them to such luxury.

"Without a doubt, my life is not average,” Creflo said. “But I’d like to say, just because it is excessive doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong.”

But according to Grassley, and I think to the IRS, it is wrong - like, the "illegal" kind of wrong - if tax-exempt funds are not being used for tax-exempt purposes. Grassley is investigating Joyce Meyer's $23,000 toilet and $30,000 conference table, Benny Hinn's layover trips between crusades, Creflo's tax-free Rolls Royces, Paula White's Bentley and other rumored expenses that can hardly be classified as "ministry needs." Only in America can charitable organizations be manipulated into a get-rich-quick scheme, and I'm glad someone with power is doing something to rein in the excesses.

People, please don't give your money to these wolves in sheep's clothing. Jesus said that all his true disciples would be despised by the world. James said friendship with the world is enmity toward God. Paul, the man whose call to ministry was a call to suffering, said that persecution would follow all those who want to walk the path of Christ. We might not all be called to die for Him, but we certainly shouldn't expect our treasure to be found where moth and rust destroy, where thieves break in and steal. Unlike those under Grassley's microscope, store up your bling in heaven, for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.


gina said...

Easy there, Trigger. Wolves in sheep's clothing? All of them? That's pretty heavy. i've got no love or respect for their excess, but is it possible that some of them really are making big bucks off of books? i mean, how many billions of books has Joyce sold over the years?
i'm also a little surprised that, given your experience in China, you're not expressing at least mild concern at the gov't getting a little closer to the Church.
i've got mixed thoughts about the whole thing. i'm all for accountability for these folks, particularly in the realm of proper use of untaxed dollars-i guess that is the gov't's business. On the other hand, looking at it from a church perspective, i get a little uneasy about the gov't drawing near.

Trevor Williams said...

I'm not calling these "ministers" wolves in sheep's clothing because of their posh living habits. That's just one of their many offenses, most of which have to do with the audacity of their theological views. Creflo has denied the trinity in his sermons, don't get me started on Benny Hinn's views, and the rest of them are part of the word-faith movement, which basically teaches that you can create your own blessings by "speaking them into your life," a totally ridiculous, new-age kind of belief.

With regard to your statement about the government getting closer to the church, I have two responses. One, if the police get a tip about a drug deal going down in a house in your neighborhood, wouldn't you want them to go check it out? Well, the church is our neighborhood, and when Sen. Grassley got wind of some illegality going on, and he followed up on the tip. This is nothing to get all worked up about. He's using these highly visible ministers as an example to all non-profits about the necessity of following the laws on the books.

Two, this is nowhere near approaching the things going on in China, and besides, although I'm against the govt imposing on civil rights, sometimes a little persecution is good for the growth of the church--the TRUE church. Just ask the believers in the book of Acts. When "a great persecution arose," the believers were scattered around to other Roman provinces and the word was spread there as well. The good shepherd will protect his flock.

gina said...

i don't know, Trev. i have to say that your words show your age. i encourage you not to be so quick to cut these folks off. We could go down a long list of Christian leaders who have some odd cracks in their theology, falling along a wide spectrum. i'm just not sure either of us are in a place to make a call on the authenticity of their relationship with Jesus (speaking to you calling them wolves-that would have them completely outside of the Flock).
i hear what you're saying about church and gov't. i agree with you about persecution. However, i think we'd be naive to think that when/if it comes it's going to be one, big, obvious crack down on Christianity. It's going to begin in subtle things that we either hand over some ground, or they're able to sneak it without us paying much attention. i think it is most unfortunate that the American church is in such a state that there aren't adequate elders in place to oversee this kind of a mess. It happens too often that someone begins sincerely sharing their testimony and ends up peddling the gospel for profit, all because there wasn't proper oversight.
Again, let me make it clear that i'm not a fan of the twisted Prosperity Gospel and other things some of these folks teach-it is dangerous. But i think it is a more dangerous and unwise thing to so forcefully declare these folks to be wolves in sheep's clothing. But if you insist, be fair. Will there be an upcoming post on MacArthur and the deadly doctrine of Cessationism?

Trevor Williams said...

Sorry if you think I'm being too harsh, but Paul reserved his harshest of criticisms for those who distort the Gospel. In his letter to the Galatians, he said that even an angel of light should be eternally condemned to hell if it were to give an account of the Gospel that was different than that originally given to them by Paul. If I'm theologically lax anywhere, please slap me in the face and show me the error of my ways. I'm not too proud, and that's the point of this type of dialogue, is it not? To sharpen one another.

Also, let me say that a "crack" in theology is different than having the bulk of your 'theological' content based on false views.

And for the record, I never said I supported MacArthur's views on Cessationism. I need to read up on it, but on the surface, I agree with you. I think it's a deadly and dangerous doctrine to say that the gifts of the spirit ceased at some point in time. When he shows me that in scripture, I'll believe it.

Lastly, the crackdown on Christianity has already begun. I say let's fight for our rights without forgetting that Jesus said the world would hate us. With every instance of persecution, our Lord is proved right.

chiroman said...

I guess my question to you would be this: Whether you see them as "wolves" which would imply that they work for our enemy Satan, or whether you view them as fellow Christians who have erred from the truth, the Bible is quite clear that you should pray for the them. I want an honest answer here. Have you spent any amount of time praying for them?
I find the internet full of people are quick to criticize anyone from Billy Graham to Benny Hinn but rarely do I see someone encouraging Christians to pray for them. God is big enough to handle these people. If they are Christians who are in error, he can correct them. If they work entirely for the enemy and are Satan's tools to lead Christian's astray(which I have a hard time believing) then He can bring them down hard and fast.
That's my 2cents worth. God Bless.

And oh yes, there is actually one other possibility and that is that you are in error and He needs to correct you. Never forget that possibility in any of these situations.

Trevor Williams said...

Very good points.

I must confess that I have spent very little (if any) time praying for them, but maybe you can help me find specifically where the Bible says that we should pray for those who preach false Gospels.

Jesus says that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. I can see that, but those are people who are outside the fold who have committed specific wrongdoing against us, not people that are claiming to be believers but not living out the true Gospel. Jesus didn't pray for Judas, except to note that he was the only one lost to fulfill the scriptures (John 17:12). Jesus didn't beg Judas to stay. In fact, when Satan entered Judas, Jesus told him to do his deed, and he then told his disciples that it would have been better if Judas wasn't born.

Paul prays for his churches throughout the New Testament, those under his spiritual authority, that their faith may be complete. In this case, I can sort of see your argument, that I should pray for these pastors' faiths to be complete and for them to be encouraged to use their position for the good of the Kingdom (although they aren't under my authority at all). If I really think they are believers who are in error, you seem to be saying, I should be praying that they will come back to the right track.

But Peter's words about false prophets in 2 Peter don't seem to be conducive to prayer for those who have known the truth but have blatantly turned from it (2 Peter 2). Neither do Paul's admonitions to the church, telling them to hand sexually immoral people over to Satan so that they can learn the error of their ways and perhaps be saved (1 Cor. 5). As I noted in an above post, Paul reserved his harshest criticisms for those who distorted the Gospel he taught.

Here's what I think you mean, found in 1 John 5:16, but even this passage is a bit ambiguous:

16If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that. 17All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.

And now for a summary: I agree with you that people spend a lot of time on the Internet bashing people without doing anything to pray for them or lovingly stem the tide of their damaging messages. I confess that I should have a more loving heart toward these pastors, even if I think their ministry is the work of the enemy. After all, if that's the case, they are victims of deceit who need rescuing, not necessarily chastising.

But I don't buy the idea that we're supposed to be sweet and sappy toward those who distort the truth. And I don't think we should be isolationists, standing far off and saying, "Oh, God'll take care of them."

Paul judged those within the church and we are called to be discerning when it comes to supposed spiritual leaders. But, as you mentioned, we should do it with a loving heart and with the proverbial four fingers pointing back at ourselves when we start pointing one finger at them.

In the passage about wolves in sheep's clothing, Jesus is saying to watch out for false prophets, those who go about claiming to be his representatives but having greed and evil inside them. He said by their fruit you will recognize them, and that a good tree bears good fruit and a bad tree bears bad fruit. This has always been a troubling passage for me. I don't think we should go around trying to judge everyone, but I think implicit in the warning to "watch out" is a command to sometimes shake the tree and see what falls. If it's a Bentley and not a Bible, we ought to start questioning whether we should listen to these people. I think that's all I'm trying to say with these blog posts, and I think if you'll look at my other posts, I actually try to be pretty fair and loving.

If I need correction, I hope God will show it to me. And I hope that he will use people who won't sit by and just let me spew whatever self-serving filth I want.

If you have a hard time believing that some of these people are Satan's tools to lead people astray, consider this:

Creflo Dollar disputes the Trinity, denies Jesus' perfection, makes the audacious claim that Jesus was rich, and says that financial prosperity is a prerequisite to spiritual peace, and generally makes the Gospel me-centered, rather than God-centered. And his church has thousands of members. Go figure.

Please watch this and see if I'm being too harsh: