Back on October 31st 1517 a little known Monk and Professor of Theology and Bible at the University of Wittenberg proposed a theological debate regarding a practice called “Indulgences” where preachers from Rome came up to Germany and basically shook down the population for donations to help built the now majestic Saint Peters Basilica in Rome. Promises of spiritual blessings, to include time out of Purgatory for those that donated had an affect on German churches and the local political leaders.
What happened that day in Wittenberg was one of the most monumental events in Christian and Western History. Luther charged church leaders in his 95 Theses:
“Lastly, works of piety and charity are infinitely better than indulgences, and yet they do not preach these with such display or so much zeal; nay, they keep silence about them for the sake of preaching pardons. And yet it is the first and sole duty of all bishops, that the people should learn the Gospel and Christian charity: for Christ nowhere commands that indulgences should be preached. What a dreadful thing it is then, what peril to a bishop, if, while the Gospel is passed over in silence, he permits nothing but the noisy outcry of indulgences to be spread among his people, and bestows more care on these than on the Gospel!”
However, it seems that Christians and especially ministers of all times and traditions often forget the lessons of history.
The church in the United States is at a critical point in history, but for the most part its leaders don’t understand this. The American church is fast losing its credibility due to the arrogance and excess of many church leaders in matters related to personal behavior, financial accountability, and accountability before the law concerning clergy sexual abuse cases. The common view of many inside and outside the church is that American ministers practice a “do as I say, not as I do” lifestyle holding others, especially non-Christians to a higher standard than they practice themselves.
Likewise there is the nearly incestuous relationship between many ministers and those holding political and or economic power in which quite often one cannot tell where the “gospel” ends and the politics begin. This spans the denominational spectrum.
The practical fallout is stunning: The Barna Group, a highly respected polling organization surveyed people 18-29 years old asked what phrases best described Christians: The top five answers “Anti-homosexual, judgmental, hypocritical and too involved in politics.” This view was held by 91% of non-Christians and a staggering 80% of young churchgoers. But the vast bulk of conservative American clergy and their devoted followers don’t seem to care, probably because the facts do not fit their narrative.
The point I am making is that many clergy in the United States, especially those in influential pulpits and ministries have forgotten the dangers of “clericalism” and the abuses of clerics who use their office as clergy to gain political, financial and personal power. Jesus told his disciples that they wanted to be great in God’s kingdom they had to be servants of all. Jesus, as well as the apostles, other new Testament writers and the Ante-Nicene Fathers warned about the dangers of seeking wealth, status or position. Of course that changed after Constantine when the church became the Imperial Church, something that despite the attempts of some that it has found a way to do throughout history, our American experience included.
Money is a big part of this, and one way to tell what a church, a denomination or a ministry values is to look at their budgets. As my Church History Professor at Southwestern Baptist Seminary said “By their budgets ye shall know them.”
By their budgets ye shall know them….Reverend Robert Schuler’s “Crystal Cathedral” megachurch declared bankruptcy in 2012. It was $43 Million dollars in debt and embroiled in an internal power struggle and losing money. Schuler asked “tithers to double tithe” and those that do not tithe to “start tithing.” He talked about what the church has given to them and why it earned their support.
It was a rather pompous plea from a man who had the ear of Presidents and other political and business leaders. Southern California had been terribly hard hit by the economic downturn and recession of 2007-2011. This affected many parishioners that worshipped at the Cathedral as well as those who watched Schuler’s “Hour of Power” show.
The Chrystal Cathedral tried to live “month to month on $2 Million dollars a month.” It cut back staff, curtailed programs and sold property to try to make ends meet. The efforts failed. The church collapsed and the Church Campus was sold to the local Roman Catholic Diocese. I wonder how many more megachurches built on piles of debt are facing what happened at the Chrystal Cathedral. Of course since their books are well guarded we won’t know until they collapse.
I’m sorry but those that live off of other people’s money should never be presumptuous and assume that faithful givers should have to bail them out.
By their budgets ye shall know them….Other churches at denominational and local levels have often become embroiled in financial scandals that tarnished the reputation of those churches, their leaders and disillusioned their membership. The Roman Catholic Church had to deal with a major scandal involving the Vatican Bank in the 1970s and 1980s and Pope Francis has been having to unscrew the latest mess that occurred during Pope Benedict’s watch.
By their budgets ye shall know them: If a ministry spends the bulk of its time and money working as surrogates for a political candidate or party it is highly likely that it has forgotten the basic mission of the Church. I cannot remember anything in the New Testament even remotely suggests we do this nor can a single time in Church history that it turned out well for the church, or for regular people in general.
By their budgets ye shall know them….I worked for a fairly reputable Television ministry while I was a seminary student. The common plea of these types of ministries is that they “are on a mission from God” and need the money.
Most of these ministries not part of any denominational structure and have little oversight. Most are presumptuous and assume that they entitled to the financial support provided by the often poor people who give them their last dime.
These ministries do not ask their audience for actual input into their “mission” strategy. Their leaders make the call, say that is “God’s will” and use shame and guilt to squeeze the money out of their viewers. This happens in churches as well and if someone questions the church or its financial accountability they are accused of “being unfaithful,” “not hearing God,” or being “disobedient to God’s will or to the church.”
Many churches and ministries suffer a terrible lack of accountability and oversight, so be assured these abuses are more widespread than we would want to believe. In regard to television ministries in particular the amount of money required to keep their programs on the air is beyond exorbitant.
The bulk of the money used by such ministries comes often from those that are barely surviving financially even in “good times.” Often it comes most vulnerable and desperate people. The elderly, the sick, the poor, and the lonely. Such people are “believing in God for a miracle” and trust that the smiling preacher will help get them their miracle. Such vulnerable people respond to these ministries by obediently shelling out of their meager incomes to ministries in response to persuasive pleas by ministers that should know better.
The motivation, love and obedience of these often wonderful people is exploited by unscrupulous ministers in order to support air programs that have little impact on the world. However, those funds have a great deal of influence in the political aspirations of these preachers. Money equals influence and influence equals power.
By their budgets ye shall know them….If money was the only thing it would be a manageable problem. But money and power is the root of the problem and problem extends to lifestyles of ministers and other church leaders which are hardly supported by the demands of the Gospel. The shear opulence of the lifestyle of many clergy is not just off-putting but obscene. When times get tough for their churches or ministries these charlatans demand more money from their flocks rather than amending their lives and budgets. If members of flock object they are the ones that are vilified.
In my old church those clergy who could not meet their tithe for whatever reason were told that they were being “disobedient to their vows.” For some of our bishops and clergy vows to the Church were less concerned with doctrinal orthodoxy, or even being good Christians, but were narrowed down to if you paid your tithe on time.
I remember one Bishop who left the church to go elsewhere who told the assembled priests in his diocese that the tithe was the “essential test of obedience, and what bound us together.” Families and parishioners were described by another Bishop as “tithing units” and not people. When I was in the Army Reserve and contemplating a mission parish start up I was told by the bishop that in order to be “successful” the church needed at least “x-number of tithing units.” I was offended and decided not to do a mission as I was recalled to active duty soon after.
In such churches people and families are reduced to an economic resource to keep the ministry afloat and support the lifestyle of the minister. Doctrine or even other forms of public witness are secondary to paying the tithe.
By their budgets ye shall know them…. If churches spend more money on the salaries of their pastors than they do on outreach to the poor or missions something is severely out of order. I am a historian and I know that the Apostles of those Ante-Nicene Fathers who suffered poverty and persecution never advanced such ideas. Even those that advocated a firm hierarchy in regard to matters of faith and doctrine never advocated for policies that benefited them financially. When leaders of a church, get together and dine in luxury on the monies donated by their often impoverished flocks it is denial of the Gospel and lack of respect and care for the people of God.
By their budgets ye shall know them….When church building programs and plant maintenance are extravagant and require massive amounts of money to sustain without demanding more from their parishioners than something is out of kilter. When chandeliers, or massive high definition video monitors cost more than the mission budget, or benevolence ministry something is wrong.
My Church History professor, Dr. Doyle Young from who I appropriated the “by their budgets ye shall know them” line used to say that “God is going to get us for our stained glass windows when we neglect the poor.” Now I appreciate good church architecture including stained glass windows. However it is highly presumptive and arrogant for churches, ministries and ministers to demand monies when they have failed to be good stewards of what they have been entrusted. When ministries unwisely spend the money given them like drunken sailors and then expect others to pick up the tab while they cry crocodile tears about how “God’s plans will be thwarted” if their ministry fails, it is plain and simple fraud.
By their budgets ye shall know them….Back prior to the Protestant Reformation in Europe there was a large amount of discontent which focused on the arrogance, opulence and financial demands of the Catholic Church. In fact much of Dr. Martin Luther’s protest in the 95 Thesis dealt with the manner in which Church finances.
Back then the Roman Church used a practice called indulgences and the selling of “relics” to fund the construction of St Peters Basilica in Rome. People gave because they believed men like John Tetzel who preached in regard to indulgences “a penny into the coffer rings a soul from purgatory springs.” That is incredibly similar to the collection methods of the big evangelists who prey upon the most vulnerable to fund their ministries. Likewise the Church attempted to use its power to reward or punish rulers of these regions, much as political preachers today attempt to use their influence to push candidates to support their agenda.
However, the chief complaint of many reformers was related to the Churche financial as well as political abuses of its members and nations to buttress its position in Europe. Unfortunately we have not learned this lesson, American churches are so consumed with power and money that people are fleeing them, much as happened to the Roman church during the Reformation.
By their budgets ye shall know them….Finally there are honest and hard working ministers and churches that emphasize ministry and care for people as part of the Gospel message. Many eke out support while working full time in “tentmaker” professions in order to fund their missions without unduly burdening those that support them. In my denomination, all of our clergy are “worker priests” including our bishop, who does not take a salary from the church. Likewise, I know many good ministers who give not only their lives but their livelihoods to care for those in their charge. They seek not fame, wealth or power. Some are conservative, others progressive, but they have caring and compassionate hearts and their budgets reflect their priorities.