Rogue Mega-church Pastors

I am noting a disturbing trend among a new strain of mega-church pastors. The denominational affiliations differ among them, but there are basic, negative similarities that unite them. I am thankful in some ways for these rogue pastors, for their excesses have quieted down petty disagreements that have often characterized evangelical believers. It reminds me of national politics – the political leanings of a new prime minister in England pale when compared to Taliban leaders in Pakistan who shoot school girls to prevent their education. Of course, in evangelical circles, there is no shooting of school girls. But, frankly, the sins among some of these pastors are not that far short.

Matthew 5 21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

The main characteristics I see among these rogue pastors are 1) heavy handed tactics against dissenting church members/elders and 2) graft.

graft n. Unscrupulous use of one’s position to derive profit or advantages; http://www.thefreedictionary.com/graft

The trail of violent language such pastors use to intimidate critics within and without their church are often publicly available, sometimes published even on their own ministry websites. They proudly trumpet the dead bodies under the bus of their leadership and the elders that they wish would just die. Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 are that such hate is an-affair-with-your-secretary kind of disqualifying sin. Actually, it’s murder-your-secretary kind of disqualifying sin. Yet, we still invite them to our conferences and trumpet their books. I have strong personal convictions on homosexual practice and egalitarian views of Christian ministry, but those pale in comparison to my convictions against pastors who use murderous language to intimidate their congregants and fellow elders. Such language is a primary characteristic of someone I consider a rogue mega-church pastor. They willingly unleash hateful speech against their opponents. The interesting and disturbing thing is to see more than one of these pastors exhibiting these characteristics. But they receive boldness from others who do the same, bullies traveling in a posse, if you will.

The other characteristic of these pastors is graft. John Piper gave an excellent interview at The Gospel Coalition this week. I loved, loved, loved this article, mainly because it contained so much Biblical reasoning. I remember years ago when our former mega-church started to move from transparency to duplicity in how it handled finances. The calls for donations went up, especially at the end of each fiscal year, while unbeknownst to the church members, so did the lead pastors’ salaries, into 6 digit territory. Even then, I don’t think I would have begrudged them that amount of money – Seattle is truly an expensive place to live. But the lack of transparency coupled with the constant pressure to give felt very, very wrong.

A shared characteristic among these mega-church pastors is that they have significant second sources of income by way of book sales and speaker fees. The problem is that they write these books during the time that they are earning salary at their church. So one could well argue that the profits from books that they produce while ON THE PAYROLL OF A NON-PROFIT should significantly benefit the ministry paying their salary while they wrote it. Maybe most of these pastors only write these books after they have fulfilled all of their paid ministry obligations to the church, perhaps staying up nightly after having visited the sick, counseling the wounded, and preparing their sermons. Oh wait, they DON’T visit the sick and counsel the wounded. I almost forgot that that is another characteristic of such pastors.

The most recent disturbing trend I am seeing is duplicity in the personal finances of such pastors – particularly a trend of buying million dollar homes through trusts not in their name. I can understand why this is done. Rogue mega-church pastors might long for privacy. They probably really want a nice house. And they know some church members would balk at the cost of such a house purchase. Quite likely, struggling young singles and newlyweds living in a moldy studio apartment (as so many of us did) who tithe faithfully to the church would feel some weird nagging sensation that caused them to pause over the offering plate when their pastor living in a million dollar house in an exclusive community asks them to give more. So, yes, I understand why they want to keep it silent. Yet, Scripture says to walk in the light. Bottom line, if you can’t do it in the light, don’t do it. 

John Piper gave some great wisdom in his interview. Here are some excerpts (I have highlighted some thoughts in bold).

Q: Why shouldn’t a pastor of a growing and thriving church earn more money as a reward for his hard work and incentive to stay around? After all, the church would probably suffer financially and numerically if he left.

A: I never felt that I was the church’s privilege, but that she is mine. To be at Bethlehem was gift, all gift. The mindset that I am so valuable I deserve any benefits that come from my ministry is alien to the spirit of Christ. He came to serve and give his life a ransom for many. …

… while I am speaking outside and writing, my staff is covering for me in dozens of ways. That investment of time could have focused more directly on the church. It wasn’t. The last thought in my mind was, “They owe me.” They didn’t. I owed them. To this day, I know that Bethlehem Baptist Church was more a gift to me than I was to her.

Q: Did you ever feel like your church could not or would not adequately provide for your family’s needs? How would you counsel a pastor who feels that way right now?

A: … There are all kinds of situations that may warrant a pastor’s earning and keeping income besides through his church ministry. Paul made tents. But let us be careful here.  Paul’s aim was, as he said, exceptional. The laborer should be paid his wages. Don’t muzzle the ox treading out the grain.

Paul’s aim was not to get rich with tent-making and forego church income, as though that little self-denial were a justification of making millions on tent royalties. His aim was to avoid the very appearance of wanting to get rich on the ministry. Paul feared giving the slightest impression that his life work was a “pretext for greed” (1 Thessalonians 2:5). Paul’s mindset was not what he had a “right” to do with his “hard-earned income.” His mindset was to renounce any rights that might make people think he loved money: “We have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:12).

Q: Is there such a thing as an unbiblical “poverty theology”? 

A: Yes. There is unbiblical everything theology. For example, it would be unbiblical to glamorize or idealize poverty. The Bible steers a middle way between destitution and opulence: “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God” (Proverbs 30:8-9). …

But it would also be a mistake to think that the Bible treats riches and poverty as equally dangerous spiritually. Riches are more dangerous. We never read, “Only with difficulty will a poor person enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:23).

Q:  How much is too much? Almost any of us in the developed West is much more comfortable than our brothers and sisters laboring for the gospel in the Majority World.

A: The impossibility of drawing a line between night and day doesn’t mean you can’t know it’s midnight. If someone is starving, they’re poor and need urgent help. If some pastor has ten-times more than the average folks in his church, he is communicating that material things are too important to him. It is a stumbling block. The Bible commends fasting and feasting—not because food is evil or because no one is starving. It’s because it is evil to be enslaved to good things, and it is good to savor God in his gifts. …

Q: How would you advise young pastors with regard to their finances as they begin to be invited to speak at conferences and write books? Would your counsel be different for a rising lawyer or doctor?

A: Talk to your elders about all these things. Serve them long enough and humbly enough that they know you care about the church, and are not just using the church for career advancement. Don’t move into a kind of ministry they disapprove of. Put in place an accountability group among them (not from outside) to whom you report all your honorariums and other income outside the church. Work out with them an understanding of what is appropriate for you to keep and for the church to receive. Make the church you serve the place where most of your giving goes. …

end of interview 

I have 2 burdens for self-correction on these issues. First, we need to treat pastors who employ hateful speech without repentance the way we treat pastors who have an affair with their secretary. These are clearly disqualifying sins according to the Bible! Second, we need to expect our big name pastors who are clearly earning much money from their books (often through publicity campaigns centered at their church) to live in the light. Tax returns, salary via the church budget – these should not be hidden, especially to the congregation that these pastors are actively soliciting MORE money from each week.

I should say clearly that I love and respect several mega-church pastors. Pastors of large congregations are certainly not all like this. But “by their fruits, you will know them” (Mt. 7:16).

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,­ gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Galatians 5:22-23

*Edited to add this final thought.  On my blog, I try hard to deal with principles, not people.  With about 4 exceptions over the last 5 years, I’ve managed to hold to that standard with nearly 500 posts.   I believe in private confrontation when possible and followed through with that conviction in these circumstances.  

Gossip is distinctly different than publicly drawing attention to something someone publicly said.  When pastors preach public sermons that they promote on their website that are filled with hateful speech against their church leaders, drawing attention to it is not gossip, and there may be much sin and fear of man among those who don’t confront it.

28 Responses to Rogue Mega-church Pastors

  1. K November 8, 2013 at 8:42 pm #

    Word.

  2. Anonymous November 8, 2013 at 10:04 pm #

    Live in the light…great words. We all need to do that and particularly if you are in a public arena. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Tana A November 8, 2013 at 10:17 pm #

    And the people said, Amen.

  4. Anna Vroon November 9, 2013 at 3:05 am #

    My husband and I read this article the other day and deeply appreciated it. My husband is about to take up a pastoral role in a small congregation and it was good to be reminded about these things. We are servants of Gods church, and God delights in the welfare of his servant. (Psalm 35:27) We will have what we need, and it will be enough.

  5. Elizabeth November 9, 2013 at 12:39 pm #

    Thanks for this! I found it helpful.

  6. Michelle November 9, 2013 at 4:12 pm #

    I really appreciate how you address these issues without calling out anyone individually. For those who know of specific circumstances, your thoughts can shine light on those specifics. And for those who may not be aware of any such happenings, these insights can help open their eyes to thinking about such things.

  7. Wendy November 9, 2013 at 4:48 pm #

    Thanks, Michelle!

  8. Persio D. November 10, 2013 at 4:30 am #

    Amen! Including the little note in post-publication!

  9. Trace November 11, 2013 at 8:00 am #

    Thank you for this article, Wendy. I read John Piper's article and found myself agreeing with every sentiment presented by you both.

    Grateful for your blog and your ministry!

  10. Wendy November 11, 2013 at 8:01 am #

    Thank you, Trace!

  11. MRM November 13, 2013 at 2:51 pm #

    Wendy,
    You have encouraged me and helped the church by your willingness to engage people by name in previous posts. I have found you to be measured and even gracious. Why then, in this post do you draw a comparison between unnamed megachurch pastors and the Taliban? As a reader, my mind is wondering who you are talking about. Why not name names and be specific and measured like you have been before? It would be clearer for your readers.

  12. Wendy November 13, 2013 at 3:28 pm #

    I am not at peace being any more specific.

  13. RobinLS November 14, 2013 at 1:48 pm #

    This is such an important conversation. Great thoughts and things to pray through.

    The beginning of your article stirred up so many thoughts. It's sad how Christian brothers and sisters devour one another. Side note- have you heard of the IF Gathering? It's a movement seeking to unite Christian women of all denominations/ backgrounds.

    Also, loved John Piper's thoughts here. Ironically (or maybe not so) this article was also posted about John Piper at GC (I think the same day)

  14. RobinLS November 14, 2013 at 1:51 pm #

    http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2013/11/07/is-john-piper-really-reformed/

    Here's that article (my phone was being wacky). Anyway, I can't help but wonder if the first article influenced the second written about him and it also goes along the lines of “devouring one another.”

  15. Dwayne Forehand November 16, 2013 at 11:54 pm #

    While not wanting to answer for Wendy, I will point out that immediately after the reference to the “Taliban” she quotes Matthew 5. God says that the way we think and speak about others is as important as whether or not we decide to kill them. Radical sounding? Could be. Over the top? Maybe. Is it the teaching of scripture? Yep.

    “The tongue has the power of life and death.”

  16. Wendy November 17, 2013 at 2:08 am #

    Thanks, Dwayne. Jesus is indeed the one who makes this comparison, and His spoken truth is that hateful words are a very, very dark and bad thing.

  17. Anonymous November 18, 2013 at 12:53 am #

    Okay, first let me say I agreed with everything. Second, my question would be this: What are we talking about in “hate speech”. I find Christians these days are way too sensitive and everyone gets their feelings hurt way too easy. I can't imagine Jesus, Peter or Paul would be welcomed to easily and would most certainly be branded as “haters” in todays church for hurting folks feelings (especially, and I mean especially women's).

    So while I agree with you (and we are bad mouthing in general other believers as we agree are we not?) I'm cynical and while not giving names would love more specifics.

  18. Wendy November 18, 2013 at 1:27 am #

    In the passage that I quoted above, Jesus speaks of it as angry speech. There is a difference in being labeled a hater because you lovingly tell your people hard truth and being a labeled a hater because you speak against people out of hate and anger. Angry speech isn't that hard to recognize in my opinion.

  19. Anonymous November 18, 2013 at 3:12 am #

    Wendy,
    I agree with you. The problem as I see it is 80% of believers do not…even the same percentage of those in leadership. The goal is no longer to glorify God but to make everyone feel good (did I mention especially the female believers?).

    Quite honestly, I left the paid ministry because no one wants to hear truth anymore and I couldn't do it while accepting a salary from the church. Truth is very much frowned upon…no matter how much scripture there is to back it up & no matter how lovingly delivered and well intentioned it is.

  20. Wendy November 18, 2013 at 3:54 am #

    Well, that's something worthy of future discussion, but it's not what this post is about.

  21. Anonymous November 18, 2013 at 4:06 am #

    I thought your post was about meg-church pastors, the first third of it was about their violent language. My point being is that what is considered murderous by most is just truthful speak. And that is why I asked for examples…I wanted to judge for myself what you thought violent speech was because most are far to sensitive to this. So I think like many things today where a word can be hijacked or a definition hijacked…I wanted examples of what you considered violent. So your post was very much about this.

    I was in total agreement on the rest.

  22. Wendy November 18, 2013 at 4:14 am #

    No, words considered murderous language by most are NOT just truthful speak. As John Piper said above, the impossibility of drawing a line between night and day doesn't mean you can't know it's midnight.

  23. Anonymous November 18, 2013 at 4:58 am #

    I disagree strongly that what is considered murderous by most is not just truthful speak.

    I'll give a few examples from real life that I've encountered over the past year:
    1) telling someone homosexuality is a sin. Nevermind, I treat folks who are engaging in this sin respectfully and show them Christ love. You are called a hate monger. I've been called some of the vilest names in the book.

    2) You go into 80% of churches and speak the truth about submission in marriage and you will have a line of at least 50% of the women in the congregation calling you every name in the book and threatening you. Doesn't matter if you teach the greater sacrifice of Christlike love to the husbands. You are abusing women! Surf any of the most visited Christian blogs and you'll see the same. I've been called some of the vilest names in the books while speaking respectfully and with love & usually gently. It is murderous to most women in today's age.

    What I am saying is that many Christians are so thin skinned and so used to having their leaders teach them what their ears want to hear when someone actuallys teaches truth they consider it murderous. Exactly my point of much of Jesus', Peter's & Paul's messages would have been considered murderous in todays church. Exactly why I wanted to hear specifics. Because our modern day guage is so out of whack most don't know what truthful is and what murderous is. I'd like to know where you draw the line before I make judgement. Is that wrong of me? I'm sorry I've been shouted down on too many Christian blogs by women who when all I'm doing is quoting direct scripture. The truth often hurts. It's a double edged sword that cuts to the marrow. Before I take you at your word I'm asking for what you think is murderous language…why is that wrong?

  24. Wendy November 18, 2013 at 5:18 am #

    Good grief. I quote John Piper positively in this post as NOT a hate speaking rogue mega church pastor. Second, I list exactly what I am talking about. To repeat:

    1) heavy handed tactics against dissenting church members/elders and 2) graft.

    If you're not doing that, then I'm not talking about you.

  25. Anonymous November 18, 2013 at 5:27 am #

    Okay, what do you consider heavy handed tactics against dissenting church members? And over what? You can good grief me all you want. I actually appreciate you are willing to call out those you don't think are being biblical but why is it when someone just asks you to clarify what you consider you get all thin skinned? Forgive me but the devil is in the details. If you want to call someone out, then give me details don't be all vague on me. You got into details on the gaft and I apprecitate that & didn't question you.

    I went to Bible college within a few minutes of you. Pastored in a few churches in our fine state. I want to know what you consider murderous/hate language/heavy handed tactics. I'm not all against calling something as you see it. Give me some meat and not dancing around the vagueness.

    I know you aren't talking to me. I want to know who you are talking about (don't care about names, I care about the words & character you are calling out). You are new to me. I want to know if there is truth in your words or if you are off base…but your dancing around specifics doesn't allow me to make that judgement.

  26. Wendy November 18, 2013 at 5:33 am #

    I am not giving anymore specifics. You can read my review of Real Marriage, which is one of the few posts I've ever mentioned names. Otherwise, I'm done talking about specifics, and I'll delete further comments asking for specifics.

  27. Natalie November 23, 2013 at 4:57 am #

    This was very much helpful to me. You pinpointed my reservations with, let's just say, a certain camp or influence. What my fears have been? They dismiss criticism and dissenters quickly and easily (both from within and without). That reeks of sinful pride and superiority, which left unrepentant and unchecked could lead to error. Thank you for helping me to see that it's just these loud personalities and perhaps not the movement altogether that's the problem. Though, it still concerns me for down the line, when the current older, wiser leadership is no longer present.

  28. Anonymous November 23, 2013 at 4:19 pm #

    I appreciate your point on book sales. I work with a religious non profit and we're not allowed to make personal gain off book sales because of our charity status, but also because it's done on the dime of my missionary-style salary. The one exception being that if I write a novel or work that's totally unrelated at all to my job and I have done it on my own personal time – then there is potential for me to earn money from it, but at that point I no longer receive tax benefits for being clergy with a religious non profit.