Joel Rainey leads the Engagement Team for Evangelism and Missions at the Mid-Atlantic Baptist Network. He is on the adjunct faculty of two seminaries, and the author of three books. He blogs at Themelios, where this was originally posted.
Western Christianity never looks more lavish, or less like Jesus, than when its leaders are embroiled in scandal. This past weeks events proved no different, as Creflo Dollar, an Atlanta area pastor and “Word of Faith” teacher made waves across the internet by asking his congregation to provide funds for a new private jet–at the bargain price of $65 million.
Anyone even casually acquainted with Dollar’s background and ministry will not be surprised at this latest development. Formerly a student of Kenneth Copeland, Dollar promulgates a message of health, wealth and prosperity that sounds less like Jesus’ call to take up one’s cross, and more like Milton Friedman on steroids.
So first things first: when scandals like this are caused by prosperity preachers, followers of Jesus need to send an abundantly clear message that this is NOT Christianity. Often, our Pentecostal brothers and sisters are unjustly blamed because of the more casual relationship that exists between these movements and prosperity teaching. But the historical roots of the so-called “Word of Faith” movement aren’t anchored to Azuza Street, but to Spencer Massachussets, where E.W. Kenyon developed his philosophy of New Thought Metaphysics. His teachings concerning the nature of reality–and the ability of the human mind to bend that reality by “tapping into the divine” and “positive confession,” are a bizarre mixture of eastern panentheism and practices that originated in a form of Vajrayana Buddhism. The subsequent “positive confession” teachings of the late Kenneth Hagin and his students built on these teachings.
So when it comes to the origins and essence of “health, wealth, and prosperity,” Word of Faith theology bears absolutely no historical, Biblical, theological, or philosophical resemblance to anything like orthodox Christian faith. We may call this twisted faith system many things. “Christian” is not one of them. So its important that when non-Christian leaders cause scandal that affects the name of Jesus, genuine followers of Jesus call these false teachers what they are. But at the same time, we must also admit that many who might otherwise be considered “orthodox” can be guilty of the same things.
To be sure, prosperity teaching certainly makes it easier for someone to do what Creflo Dollar has done. But Dollar’s recent actions aren’t primarily about heretical theology. Nor are they about affluence. Honestly, I’m not sure who it was who first suggested that ministers should be poor, but whoever did it was forwarding a poverty theology that is every bit as heretical as its prosperity counterpart. If a pastor is doing well financially, in most cases we should be happy for his success.
But when your net worth is north of $27 million, and you are seeking to bilk one of Atlanta’s poorest neighborhoods–one in which the average annual income is less than $29,000–out of another $65 million just so you don’t have to fly coach, that’s a character issue!
And when it comes to a lack of character, the ripple effect through the western church is vast!
Too often, churches and ministries have skimmed right past the instruction of the pastoral letters, and ignored their call for character, because they were attracted to winsomeness, or leadership skills, or visionary ability. The results in too many ministries have been tragic. And while they will never make the headlines like someone coveting a $65 million plane, the results of low character even in “doctrinally sound” environments are very similar to those produced by religious charlatans. When we ignore character, in the end we really don’t look that much different from the heretics.
After many years of working within denominational systems, and with many, many churches, I’ve observed three primary ways that low character presents itself, damages the body of Christ, and casts aspersion on the mission:
Pride; When a leader of low character becomes prideful, he or she develops a “God’s man” syndrome that causes them to think themselves “above” everyone else. This sometimes leads to an entitlement mentality. Like Moses in Numbers 20, they feel as though their faithfulness over a certain period of times means they should be allowed to blow their stack, or otherwise use their ministry for personal gain. I’ve seen pastors pad their resumes, embellish their achievements, and use ministry resources for personal pleasure–all because of pride.
Personal: Personal animus sometimes causes a leader to harm entire ministries simply because he or she won’t practice Matthew 18. I’ve counseled with churches where staff conflict was handled in an unhealthy way, and the conflict rippled out to eventually divide the church. I’ve seen church members scarred, staff terminated, and ministries ruined because someone who presumed leadership was willing to damage mission simply to be vindictive. Leaders unwilling to take the relational high road for the sake of mission are leaders of low character.
Power: Low character leaders will sometimes abuse their authority for personal gain. More obvious examples of this involve sexual misconduct and/or financial impropriety. I’ve unfortunately had to deal with a few pastors over the years who couldn’t keep their pants on, or keep their hands out of the offering plate. At the end of the day, it was their sense of entitlement that fueled these behaviors, and the power they were granted for the good of those under their care was instead used to serve themselves.
In each of these cases, the ripple effect of low character carried a very high cost.
So how do we respond to this dilemma? The answer to this question has been starring us in the face for the past 2000 years. In 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, we read clearly that the first qualifiers for spiritual leadership have little to do with ability, vision or charisma, and everything to do with character. Unfortunately, western Christendom has too often looked past these essentials, and we have paid a dear price for it.
Pastor search committees, executive search teams, senior pastors looking to hire staff shouldn’t ignore the importance of skill and competence, nor should they view visionary leadership as an undesirable trait. But deep questions to determine if a leader is truly above reproach, genuinely devoted to his family, morally consistent, financially responsible, and relationally respected are the most important questions. Eventually, the things a leader does when no one else is looking will break through all the “visionary” facade. When that happens, it suddenly becomes clear whether the things which are most important are inherent in a leader’s life.
Creflo Dollar’s theology and lifestyle are easy to identify as a false Gospel to anyone with an ounce of discernment. But for those who call ourselves followers of Jesus, its the less distinct expressions of bad character wrapped in “solid theology” or “visionary leadership” that is the real danger. The Holy Spirit through Paul has warned us for 2000 years; when it comes to spiritual leadership, character is king.