Many people reject Christianity because they perceive it to be a big money-making racket. And sadly for far too many Christian leaders and ministries it does seem that way. They not only preach a gospel of prosperity (‘God wants you rich, and if you are not, it is due to sin or lack of faith’), but they live it as well.
The opulence, indeed decadence, of so many of these prosperity preachers is really quite alarming. They live in the best of mansions, travel in private jets, get first-class treatment wherever they go, and think they are doing God a favour. Some years ago I mentioned the demands of one big-cheese Christian celebrity preacher:
“One friend of mine in Texas recently inquired to see if a prominent preacher could speak at her conference. The minister’s assistant faxed back a list of requirements that had to be met in order to book a speaking engagement. The demands included:
-a five-figure honorarium
-a $10,000 gasoline deposit for the private plane
-a manicurist and hairstylist for the speaker
-a suite in a five-star hotel
-a luxury car from the airport to the hotel
While most preachers and Christian leaders are nowhere near this in terms of greed and selfishness, the tragedy is that there are some – maybe even many – who operate this way. They seem to think that doing ministry for the Lord is a money-making enterprise, and hefty profits must be made along the way.
This stands in stark contrast to the biblical testimony. Indeed, just this morning in my daily reading I came across this interesting account in 2 Kings 5. It is about how Elisha healed Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, of his leprosy.
In verses 15-16 we read this: “Then Naaman and all his attendants went back to the man of God. He stood before him and said, ‘Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel. So please accept a gift from your servant.’ The prophet answered, ‘As surely as the LORD lives, whom I serve, I will not accept a thing.’ And even though Naaman urged him, he refused.”
And to highlight the importance of just how bad greed is, we read in the second half of this chapter about how Gehazi, Elisha’s servant, actually ran after Naaman and lied to him:
“‘My master sent me to say, “Two young men from the company of the prophets have just come to me from the hill country of Ephraim. Please give them a talent of silver and two sets of clothing”.’ ‘By all means, take two talents,’ said Naaman. He urged Gehazi to accept them, and then tied up the two talents of silver in two bags, with two sets of clothing. He gave them to two of his servants, and they carried them ahead of Gehazi. When Gehazi came to the hill, he took the things from the servants and put them away in the house. He sent the men away and they left” (vv. 22-24).
The story ends in v. 27 with Elisha rebuking him: “‘Naaman’s leprosy will cling to you and to your descendants forever.’ Then Gehazi went from Elisha’s presence and his skin was leprous—it had become as white as snow.” That is a pretty strong warning indeed, one which we need to heed today, especially those who are in Christian ministry.
The example of Paul
But some might protest here and ask, is there not a place for getting recompense for the ministry? Did not Paul say the ‘laborer is worthy of his hire’? Yes to both, but we must look at this a bit more closely here. It was Paul’s practice to not accept money for his ministerial services, even though he was fully entitled to do so. Given the extravagant lifestyles of so many of the prosperity preachers, and their constant appeal to money, the pattern Paul sets forth is well worth exploring (and imitating).
The main passages in this regard are 1 Cor. 9:1-18, 2 Cor. 11:7-12 and 2 Thes. 3:6-10. These passages are clear enough, and warrant little discussion. A few remarks will suffice to drive home the point. Charles Wanamaker offers a good summary:
“Paul’s refusal to accept support would appear to have formed part of his missionary strategy (cf. 1 Cor. 9:1-18; 2 Cor. 11:7). Not only was this policy intended as an example to be imitated, but … it also served to distinguish Paul himself and his message from that of the many charlatan preachers who made a living hawking their messages (cf. 1 Thes. 2:4…).”
It is noteworthy that Paul says in 2 Thes. 3:9 that he does this “in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow”. Many of the prosperity preachers seemed to have forgotten this model altogether, charging hefty fees for speaking engagements, or more usually, putting a lot of pressure on listeners to contribute to the “free-will offering”.
Paul’s sacrifices for the sake of the gospel seem so unlike many of today’s preachers. The set of passages at hand make it quite clear that Paul had every right to remuneration, but he was eager to renounce that right for the advance of the gospel. As Leon Morris puts it, “just as it is characteristic of him to assert that he had full rights, so it is for him to waive those rights whenever he judged that to do so would forward the cause of Christ” (1977, 253-254).
While I am not here asking all ministers of the gospel to renounce a salary or stipend, I am pleading for a more sober look at how we deal with money, and how we preach about money. To reduce the Christian gospel to a means of getting rich is a distortion and a deception. It not only lets believers down, but it becomes false advertising when we present it to non-believers. And it of course bears false witness to God. As David Henderson puts it,
“It is also a great temptation to make Christianity attractive to seekers by misrepresenting the faith as a relationship through Christ with a God who is the divine vending machine in the sky, there to meet our every need. ‘Unhappy? Unattractive? Unsuccessful? Unmarried? Unfulfilled? Come to Christ and he’ll give you everything you ask for.’ We forget God is not primarily in the business of meeting needs. When we make him out to be, we squeeze him out of his rightful place at the center of our lives and put ourselves in his place. God is in the business of being God. Christianity cannot be reduced to God meeting people’s needs, and when we attempt to do so, we invariably distort the heart of the Christian message.”
Promising people material riches as a reward for their faith is both deceptive and unspiritual. The one person most full of faith and therefore the one most likely to experience God’s material blessings – according to the thinking of the prosperity crowd – had nowhere to lay his head.
Why do we presume to merit more than our master? As John Cowart incisively notes, “The God of the Bible is likely to give us just as many gold watches as Jesus wore. Jesus is our Master; we are his servants. Can servants expect to live better than their master?”
True discipleship involves seeking to do the father’s will, and following that wherever it may lead. For Jesus, the prophets, the disciples, and most Christians throughout church history, that did not lead to luxury and a life of ease.
Thus we need to think carefully about how we do ministry, and what we preach about concerning such matters. Many church leaders today may scoff at the idea that Elisha or Paul should be a model for us to follow today, but why shouldn’t they be?