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.