Stories of Christian leaders’ moral lapses may not be new, but skewed prosperity gospel teaching and TV evangelists offering miracle cures in exchange for large gifts, is causing fresh damage.
It’s not just financial scandals. The unholy trinity of money, sex and power, exacerbated in recent years by the excesses of Christian TV, continues to wreak havoc on Christian witness across the globe. They have particularly damaged the reputation of charismatic and Pentecostal churches, ministries and practices.
The sexually impure behaviour of some Christian leaders who brazenly deny that their immorality is wrong, or who fail to demonstrate genuine repentance even when their sinful behaviour is revealed, has caused outrage.
A third strand of scandals surround the abuse of power by some ministers. These are sometimes linked with the spread of strange doctrines which make it easier for leaders to influence the lives of impressionable followers.
In the first of a three-part series, we will explore some of these abuses within parts of the charismatic and Pentecostal movements in the US and UK. We will also think about the involvement of Christian TV in spreading the influence of charlatans. Next month we will look in depth at the issue of spiritual abuse in the UK and then we will consider appropriate responses and remedies. But first we examine some of what has happened.
The Abuse of Money
If a pulpit provides an opportunity to encourage a congregation to give generously to God’s work through gifts and tithes, a TV pulpit multiplies that opportunity many times over. The potential for the message to become corrupted is always a real and present danger. In recent years, those preaching a prosperity gospel message have grown in number and influence.
Kenneth Hagin Senior is widely regarded as the father of this movement, which teaches that Christians who give generously can expect to be rewarded in this life as well as the next. Over the years, others have adapted and added to Hagin’s teachings, resulting in a backlash and the derogatory sobriquet ‘health and wealth’.
Some lifelong advocates of the prosperity gospel have changed their minds. Hagin himself wrote a book, published three years before he died, in which he attempted to correct what he considered were abuses of scripture. In The Midas Touch (Faith Library), he argues that people should not give in order to get, that people should not ‘name a seed’ when they give (ie claim a specific blessing they hope to get in return), that people who claim a ‘debt-breaking’ anointing should not be trusted, and, most crucially, that financial prosperity is not a sign of God’s blessing.
After years of supporting the prosperity gospel agenda, wellknown TV evangelist Benny Hinn publicly stated that he would no longer support or preach this theme. Apparently it was Hinn’s visits to poverty-stricken countries such as the Philippines that provoked his U-turn. Preaching to huge crowds of faithful but poor Christians, Hinn couldn’t stomach promising the crowd that if they gave generously in the offering they would receive material, financial benefits.
Nevertheless, fundraising appeals which imply prayers for physical healing or the salvation of a friend are more likely to be answered when a financial gift is given, are not uncommon. Several Christian TV channels on Sky broadcast US and UK preachers who address their viewers directly and strongly suggest that the bigger the gift they donate, the bigger the blessing or benefit they can expect to receive. Some preachers also offer handkerchiefs, oil, water or other objects to viewers who phone in for them. Having been prayed over by the preacher, outlandish claims are made about these items’ healing powers. Testimonies are aired of people who claim that when they obtained their ‘miraculous’ handkerchief they suddenly received a financial windfall. The clear and obvious suggestion is made that a monetary blessing is awaiting anyone who makes contact.
When UK pastor Dave Gilpin’s son rang up one of these ministries out of curiosity, he received a letter which included a ‘personal’ prophecy and a ‘personal’ word of knowledge that were clearly not personal at all – addressing Gilpin’s son as ‘my daughter’! He subsequently received various items, including miracle seeds, miracle oil, miracle beads and requests for large sums of money.
Gilpin, the senior pastor of Hope City Church, which has congregations in various cities across the Midlands and northern England, describes the experience in his book Sacred Cows Make Great BBQs (Authentic). ‘All of the giving was directed by “magic” numbers,’ he writes. ‘It all played into the hands of fear rather than real faith.’
Much of the financial excess and failing in US charismatic and Pentecostal circles has been chronicled by J Lee Grady in Charisma, the US magazine he edited until recently. In an explosive new book, The Holy Spirit is Not for Sale (Chosen), he calls on charismatic and Pentecostal Christians to return to their biblical roots and restore integrity and humility to charismatic spirituality.
Grady is angered by the abuse of money, sex and power by some Pentecostals and charismatics. ‘We’ve turned the holy fire of God into a circus sideshow,’ he says, ‘then this flawed spirituality is distributed on TV.’ He goes on: ‘I don’t believe the problem is as widespread in the actual pews of the church but it is widespread in the media – it gets a lot of exposure in the US and it’s also exported overseas. This infection has been spreading to many places. It has spread to Europe. I’m not saying it’s only coming from the United States, but I certainly take some ownership and responsibility for what’s coming out of my own country.’
Grady believes that prosperity teaching’s move to a more materialistic emphasis began during the 1980s, mirroring what was happening in American culture at the time. ‘We were living high and on a roll financially – achieving the American dream. The prosperity message became very materialistic with a focus on what God could do for me.’
These days, many charismatics and Pentecostals take a middle road regarding prosperity or health and wealth teaching – arguing that it is not God’s intention for his people to live in poverty. They point to scriptures that state God wants to bless us. ‘But that doesn’t mean he wants to bless me with a Rolls- Royce or that I have to own a mansion,’ says Grady. ‘Prosperity in scripture simply means that our needs are met and that we have enough to give to other people. It doesn’t mean that we live in excess and certainly not that we are exploiting other people through our wealth.’
The strong ‘respect’ culture which many Pentecostal churches in particular foster towards their pastor can end up being corrupted. Believing that their leaders are worthy of honour is one thing; buying their pastor an expensive, brand new top-of-the-range luxury car is quite another. It is not difficult to see how leaders could abuse the culture of respect, and milk their flock.
Some ministries have developed expensive and self-serving habits. Grady recounts stories of American evangelists who refuse to visit a church to preach unless a limo picks them up from the airport, takes them to a five-star hotel, and the church allows them to give time and attention during the service to an extended appeal for money or guarantees a hugely inflated ministry gift.
When a preacher claims to have a direct word from God that if a person gives a gift of $1,000 or more into the offering then God will return it to them a hundredfold, he is invoking God’s name and authority, not something to be taken lightly. Persistent stories about another high profile American ministry claim that during semi-private meetings with small groups of business people, the ‘prophet’ offers specific prophetic words from God to those who make large financial gifts. This is akin to the corrupt medieval practice of buying indulgences from the Church.
Perverting gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as prophecy and discernment, for personal gain has cheapened charismatic and Pentecostal ministries, and in some cases repulsed Christians and non-Christians alike. But the potential to become corrupted by the lure of money is only one of the traps waiting for Christian leaders.
The Abuse of Sex
While everyone can be susceptible to sexual sin, an itinerant ministry in which accountability structures are weak, where the preacher or evangelist has a large ego and spends many days away from home living in hotel rooms, is often particularly vulnerable.
Even when greater care is exercised, men and women much used by God can and do still fall into sexual sin. The big issue then is whether admission of guilt is clear and unequivocal, remorse and repentance is genuine and sincere, and whether sufficient time is given for reflection, counselling and new godly patterns of living to grow.
Todd Bentley is only one in a long list of ministry casualties in this area. The Canadian preacher became famous around the world in 2008 thanks to satellite TV broadcasts of his Florida revival meetings. Thousands flocked to the Lakeland Revival, including many from the UK, to enjoy long periods of worship followed by preaching, words of knowledge and healings.
However, after four months of nightly meetings, Bentley disappeared from the platform amid rumours of drunkenness and bawdy behaviour. Soon after, he announced he was to divorce and intended getting married to a younger woman who was a ministry intern on his team. His ‘repentance’ and counselling sessions were broadcast on the Internet through programmes in which he was interviewed ‘chat show’ style by church leader Rick Joyner.
Putting aside Bentley’s sometimes bizarre behaviour and doctrines, the apparent lack of remorse and space to attempt reconciliation with his wife, and then the hurry to divorce and remarry, is clearly contrary to biblical standards of behaviour.
‘What grieved me and many others so much wasn’t just the abruptness of saying we need to hurry up and get Todd Bentley back in the pulpit after he’s just left his wife and three children in Canada and got married to this younger woman, it was the lack of remorse on the part of those who were involved in the process,’ says Grady. ‘It seemed as though it was business as usual. The impression was they were sorry that the broadcast isn’t continuing right now, but were going to try and get him back on the air as soon as possible. Oh, and by the way, he’s got a new wife and she’s going to be ministering with him soon too. There was no mention of the fact that there was a wife and three kids back in British Columbia who were hurting over this. It wasn’t handled right. With so many people watching Todd Bentley on TV all over the world and then for them to hear this – it was a bad example to the Body of Christ; it was not a good model. Todd should’ve gone into a private situation to get personal ministry. It shouldn’t have been something that was featured on the Internet every week like some kind of a reality show.’
Grady describes this clamour to put a person back into the pulpit after only a limited time for reflection and remorse as ‘greasy grace’.
While some ministries offer limited repentance and restoration, far worse is when there is no admission of guilt at all. When an American Pentecostal bishop, who encouraged profanity and coarse language in the bedroom from his pulpit, divorced his wife, there was no talk of stepping down for a time of restoration. Three years after a million dollar wedding ceremony, which was aired on Christian TV in 2004, their marriage hit the rocks when the bishop’s wife alleged her husband had beaten her in a hotel car park. Both continued preaching immediately following the divorce.
In another sad case, a charismatic preacher from south-eastern USA who regularly hosts a Christian TV programme was caught in an adulterous affair. He had been seeing a woman he met in a strip club in Europe, and his wife filed for divorce. The pastor never admitted what had happened. He continued preaching from the pulpit and on TV, and showed no remorse for his actions.
This is by no means a solely American problem. In the UK, the pastor of an independent church was recently exposed as having had more than one affair over a long period of time. He took umbrage when the church dismissed him from his post and took the trustees to a tribunal, claiming unfair dismissal. It took a secular employment tribunal to tell this man that his behaviour was inconsistent with employment as a pastor. Within weeks of the tribunal decision, some UK Christian media outlets were then approached by a PR man seeking to get positive column inches and airtime for the former pastor.
Sexual sin is not uncommon, meaning that strong accountability structures are vital – although not foolproof. Churches should consider ahead of time, and have in place a methodology on the whole repentance and restoration process – rather than hurriedly try to develop one after a leader falls. Most denominations have carefully prepared guidelines to handle this eventuality; independent churches often do not.
Of course, charismatic and Pentecostal ministries do not have a monopoly on sexual scandals and neither is it just a modernday phenomenon. How much more shocking and public can a sex scandal be than King David’s? In 2 Samuel, we read how he committed adultery and then arranged a murder to try to cover up his sin. When David’s crime was revealed by a prophet, his admission of guilt and repentance was open and deep, but his sin had further tragic consequences when the child born out of the adultery died and God told David that conflict would always be close to his household (2 Samuel 12). However, God forgave and restored David – the gospel is characterised by God’s forgiveness for the sinner and his desire to restore the fallen. But the dangers of minimising the consequences of sin, bypassing the need for repentance, or accelerating the pathway to restoration, are deep.
Later in this series of articles we will examine what the biblical standards are on repentance and restoration before even considering the possibility of restarting a public ministry.
The Abuse of Power
As well as money and sex, the abuse of power and authority has been a significant issue for churches and Christian ministries in recent years. The abuse of spiritual authority – ie when power is used to demean, manipulate, control or exploit – can result in huge harm. It continues to cause division in churches, families and the wider community.
I knew Julie* through a mutual friend. The day she was baptised by her pastor was, she says, ‘the happiest day of my life’. Later that year, Julie was rocked when several people, including one couple she had grown close to, left the church. The issue was over the pastor’s teaching on a variety of issues including creation, tithing and the nature of spiritual authority. He insisted that these teachings were central to the faith and that dissenters from his line were in serious error that threatened their eternal destiny. It reached a head when one Sunday during a sermon the pastor launched into a personal attack on those in the church who disagreed with him. Naming them – and most were in the congregation that day – he called on them to ‘repent’ and then proceeded to pray for this to happen. During the prayer these people stood up and left the building. Within ten minutes other members of the congregation, some in tears and others heckling the pastor, walked out. The meeting ended in chaos.
Julie continues to meet with a mums’ group for prayer once a fortnight but has dropped out of attending any church. In her own words, ‘my faith has taken a bad knock’ while her husband ‘was completely turned off the church’.
Whatever form it takes, the abuse of power by a Christian leader, whether in a local church setting or by someone with an international platform enhanced by TV exposure, can have a deep and corrosive impact on the faith of individual believers. Julie’s story is just the tip of the iceberg. Next month we will examine in depth the extent of spiritual abuse in the UK.
So how do we begin to respond to all of this? Asking honest questions – not cynical, yet probing for truth – is one key response to the problems of money, sex and power abuse in the Church and Christian ministries. A clear sign that power is being abused is when this is discouraged. ‘If you question it you will lose your healing’ was one message promoted by those who defended Bentley against the criticism of some of his teaching at the Lakeland Revival.
‘Scripture tells us to ask questions,’ insists Grady. ‘It’s one thing to criticise something with a hateful spirit, but it’s another thing to use biblical discernment. Just because they’re a brother in Christ, it doesn’t mean a person has the right to be preaching to millions through the airwaves without answering some hard questions. I think there were some serious mistakes made during that season and we are still reaping the fruit of it.’
Grady doesn’t just blame some TV preachers; he says fault also lies with the listeners: ‘It’s one thing for a man to get on TV and say, “If you send me $1,000 I’ll give you a personal prophecy.” It’s another thing for someone to actually believe and send in that money. That shows a huge level of biblical illiteracy among folks out there who don’t have a problem with that or who wouldn’t see that as questionable behaviour. When the apostle Paul teaches us about the gifts of the Holy Spirit – I believe in all of those gifts: prophecy, healing etc, another in that list is the gift of discernment. It seems to me that a lot of us have lost that gift or haven’t been taught that gift.’
Scripture teaches that we all have a responsibility to grow into maturity and not remain baby Christians who are easily knocked off course by dodgy doctrines or by chasing after faddish spiritual practices. While it is the responsibility of churches to teach truth, it is the individual believer’s responsibility to grow into mature men and women of God.