US Justice Louis Brandeis, in his book Other People’s Money, explained: “Sunshine is said to be the best of disinfectants.” He leveraged the view that ‘public opinion … is full of sunlight … selfishness, injustice, cruelty, tricks and jobs of all sorts shun the light’. This is appropriate to the national discussion about religious bodies and money.
The Bible is an interesting book. Paul indicates that people preach out of different motivations, including impure ones (Philippians 1: 14-17). The ‘wheat and tares’ parable points to the difficulty of distinguishing between false and true preachers. Jesus whipped scoundrels, because of their mercenary ways, out of the temple on two separate occasions (bad behaviour is stubborn).
What we see today should not be surprising to anyone with a nodding relationship to the Bible and its view about men. William Lyon Phelps, an American critic and scholar, wrote in 1922: “You can learn more about human nature by reading the Bible than living in New York.”
We have now seen the opposite end of the continuum from the Trinity Cathedral debacle: a church—The Third Exodus Assembly—allegedly flush with money. This state of play, as seen in other assemblies, may be the outcome of the prosperity doctrine (God’s will for us is to be rich, healthy and successful if we ‘sow a seed’).
This doctrine is a direct link to neo-liberal capitalism, where we seek our individual goals and money is the success marker, and it is bred and nurtured by our ‘gospel’ radio and television programming. This teaching is at odds with much of the biblical experience.
The prophet Balaam mixed up political interests and the word of God for his monetary gain, and his donkey had to reprimand him. Paul got stoned for preaching the Gospel of Jesus and exclaimed: “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14: 22).
‘Sowing a seed’ philosophy assumes that God can be bribed, so we give Him a ‘kakada’ and expect much wealth in return. It is our greed and desperation, and not an understanding of the Bible, that facilitates the rise of such teachings.
In politics, business and the church, we have a sad societal need to have a ‘Big Man’. Remember the long-time insurance agent who dressed flashily and drove a fancy car, the better to induce us to buy? In the church, the ‘Big Man’ through his flamboyant lifestyle, exemplifies economic, if not spiritual, success.
This glorifying of a ‘Big Man’ never works out well. We have ample case history in this country, and it is universal. Remember Enron with the smartest men in the room? Or Tyco International where the CEO and the CFO stole, in 2002, in plain view more than $600 million? They all felt the company was them and they were the company. The Bible warns: “Put not your trust in men.” They nearly always rob you blind.
Paying tithes or the ‘seed’, in this context, is a corruption of the Old Testament position: tithes are for the upkeep of the priests but also importantly for the foreigners, orphans and widows—the needy. New Testament teaching does not promote tithing but focuses on helping the poor (2 Corinthians 8). Storing up money for a potential ‘bad day’, as was reported in this case, is to not have faith in God’s providence.
The commentary from our religious leaders lacked clarity. The legality of the matter should not be their primary concern. They needed to answer: is this man living according to the precepts of the Gospel? This is not about whether he is an exception since up to the time of exposure, he too would have claimed faithfulness.
To talk about audits and vetting of accounts is meaningless if the managerial/policy decisions taken are suspect. The case of CL Financial with their PricewaterhouseCoopers audits showed us this. Competent auditors are wary of the “Big Man”—they call him a ‘dominant CEO’—because it is a red flag for weak internal controls.
Most people do not do bad things, but most people do not want to get involved, choosing to remain silent. Silence is not an ‘on and off’ choice for religious leaders.
The ‘Big Man’ approach and strident confrontation, as exemplified in this case, are the antithesis of Christ. ‘Big Men’ deflate criticism and inflate their self-importance. God and Christ decrease in importance when we worship and tiptoe around the ‘Big Man’. If our religious leaders fail to call out this behaviour, then they approve. Paul sets the example by denouncing Simon, a new believer, in Acts 8 and Peter, an established peer, in Galatians 2: 11—21.
Thankfully, the heart of the Gospel is redemption; no matter what place we find ourselves, God offers a way out of it. Confession, not defiance, is a prerequisite for redemption. We, who seek to point fingers and yet not acknowledge the wisdom of the Bible, fall into a trap of deliberate ignorance.
This man’s behaviour ought not to be a shield for us to ignore the observations and claims of the Bible. We, like him, have to give our own account at the end of the day.
The government has a role since tax-exempt entities increase the taxes paid by individual taxpayers. The deal has to be that such entities provide transparent financial reports to a regulator so that taxpayers could see what is being done. If God is satisfied, men should be. Open the books.