When megachurches are publicly critiqued, sometimes it is well-deserved:
It is a general truth that if believers are fed a diet of faulty, questionable or incorrect teaching, this may very well show up in how they live. Just as orthodoxy (good teaching) is needed for orthopraxis (good living), so too bad doctrine will often result in bad behaviour. One sad example of this was found in the morning newspaper yesterday. It said in part:
Christian megachurch Hillsong told staff how to claim housing expenses, including a $50,000 pool, as deductions to minimise tax, leaked documents show. Emails and internal forms from the scandal-plagued church, tabled in federal parliament, reveal Hillsong’s “unwritten rules” when it comes to paying tax.
The details have emerged as the church has been hit with claims in parliament of financial impropriety. The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, which has the power to strip Hillsong of its tax-free status, has also confirmed it’s investigating the church. https://www.heraldsun.com.au/truecrimeaustralia/faith-on-trial/hillsong-staffers-50k-pool-tax-deduction-revealed-in-documents-tabled-in-federal-parliament/news-story/1b2a2b3d9a46666f81a3a9aff32440c4
Of course before proceeding, a few things must be said. There are two sides to every story, and we are not surprised to see the secular media attacking churches. That said, some churches may certainly deserve a bit of close scrutiny and criticism. And as this piece and other reports make clear, this is just one episode of many. There are a number of financial irregularities and problems being looked into at the moment.
Also, the issue of tax-exempt status for churches again arises. That would require a full article to do it justice, but a few quick points. Often in the past this was well-deserved, since so many churches offered so many important social goods to the community, from food and shelter to counselling and other welfare services.
But using such tax breaks to just pad out your mansion and get a bigger and better swimming pool is not quite the way to proceed here. Also, the whole question of getting government help – and the strings attached that goes with it – always needs to be thought through. As I wrote in one earlier piece:
To take away the tax-exempt status of churches, parachurch groups and others will mean a drastic cutback in these invaluable services, and countless thousands of poor, disadvantaged and needy people will be severely impacted as a result. And just as bad, the federal welfare state, with all its problems, will expand exponentially.
But the good thing is, as I have said before, this will separate the men from the boys. Churches and Christians who depend on the government teat are hamstrung in various ways, and the old adage of ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’ comes into play here.
I have known of far too many Christian groups and churches which have failed to stand for biblical truth and morality, simply because they don’t want to rock the boat and lose their government funding. https://billmuehlenberg.com/2015/06/28/scotus-and-the-new-homo-tyranny/
And one must ask where Christian leaders and staffers get this notion that they are entitled to all the goodies of life, including swimming pools and fancy mansions and hot cars – all tax deductible. Well, having your main leader telling you this might explain a few things.
Indeed, back in 1999 Brian Houston wrote a whole book telling his followers that they need more money! Hey, don’t shoot me – that was the actual title of the book: You Need More Money. I actually got a copy of the book, read it, and wrote a review of it back then. In it I said in part:
Pastor Houston is concerned that many Christians have a ‘poverty mentality’ which keeps them from enjoying all of God’s blessings. This may well be true for some: just as there are those who take pride in their great wealth, there are some believers who take pride in their poverty. But in materialistic, consumeristic Australia, I would guess that the real danger is not thinking negatively about money – it is thinking about it too much. That is, most Australian Christians, like most Australian pagans, are far too materialistic and money-hungry.
According to You Need More Money, much of the problem of those Christians who are struggling financially comes from their negative thoughts about money. If they would only think and speak positively about wealth, much of the problem would disappear. Now there is some truth to the positive confession teaching. Even secular folks recognise that having a healthy positive attitude can be helpful. A person who keeps telling himself that he is lousy will probably act and feel lousy. But applying this to health and wealth becomes problematic when held up to Scripture. We have no record of Paul telling the poor saints of Jerusalem to just stop their negative thoughts about money. He does not chew them out for being outside of God’s perfect will for their lives. Instead, he takes up a collection for their needs. And when Jesus said “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matt. 26:38), we don’t hear a voice from heaven saying, “Come now my son, stop this negative confession and show more faith”. https://billmuehlenberg.com/1999/11/28/a-review-of-you-need-more-money-by-brian-houston/
If you do read my review, you will see that I really tried to be fair and balanced – perhaps even more than I needed to be. I finished the review with these words:
In conclusion, the biblical teaching on wealth and poverty is pretty straight-forward. God doesn’t want us rich, or poor. He wants us holy. That is His main concern, that we be conformed to the image of his son (Rom. 8:29). If we can become that in wealth or poverty, fine. Success in this life, at least as the NT presents it, is not measured by material wealth. Success, and the faith-filled life, are measured by one’s radical commitment to a Saviour who gave up everything for our sakes and calls us to do the same.
As an indication that I was not intending to go to war on this, a Christian magazine at the time reprinted my piece. Houston and a few of his acolytes came along and attacked me for it. I thought that I could easily weigh back into the debate, but I decided not to proceed, but just keep those folks in prayer.
But whenever you push an unbiblical health and wealth gospel you are always going to get into trouble. Indeed, this teaching is such an egregious error that I have written nearly 100 pieces offering a thorough biblical and theological critique of it: https://billmuehlenberg.com/category/theology/the-health-and-wealth-gospel/
When the flock gets fed dodgy doctrine and treacherous teaching, you can expect to see various behaviours following. If you teach them that they should be all agog over money and the good life, guess what? They will probably do all they can to get money and live the good life – perhaps including by dubious means.
We should pray for this church and its leaders, and others like it. I am sure there are many good Christians connected with them. But when doctrinal rot sets it, it will spread and cause real damage. It is just a shame that it is usually the secular press, and not the church of God, that has to call this stuff out. No wonder the church of Jesus Christ gets such a bad rap today.