In the 'it's about time department' a series of mostly Prosperity TV Evangelists are going to have to face financial accountability at the hands of a Republican Senator! Truly, the eschaton is at hand.
Here is the link to Laurie Goodstein's article in the NY Times this morning---
Charles Grassley is the Chair of the Senate Finance Committee and the issue here is whether money given for charitable purposes to this or that TV Evangelist's ministry has been used to feather the nest, build the house, buy the yacht, purchase the bling bling, etc. of the Evangelist.
To date, the six ministries that will fall under this probe are those of: 1) Creflo A. Dollar (you can't hide when you are a prosperity preacher with that name); 2) Paula and Randy White (see the upcoming article in Time Magazine by David Van Bema for which I was consulted); 3) Benny Hinn; 4) Joyce Meyer (who says these were all blessings from God showered on her personally... including a $23,000 marble commode! I hope that blessing didn't fall directly from the sky.); 5) Kenneth and Gloria Copland; 6) Bishop Eddie Long of Lithonia Georgia.
M.I.A. are Joel Osteen and Rev. Hagee of San Antonio, but perhaps they will be on a subsequent list.
The issues here are severalfold. Firstly, from a legal point of view, 'churches' do not have to file the IRS forms that tax exempt non-profits do have to file. With normal non-profits a 990 form is filed with the IRS as a useful form of accountability. But, if you can somehow construe yourself as a church ( applying for and get tax exempt status), even if you don't pastor a church, and then call yourself a tax exempt ministry (which falls into the category of church by certain current definitions), well then you can claim the money which comes into that ministry is tax exempt.
However if funds are diverted from this tax exempt 'ministry' for personal use, that appears rather clearly to be a violation of the tax code... a sort of robbing Peter to pay Paul, or in this case, a robbing of Jesus to pay Joyce, and others. As Senator Grassley has rightly stressed, tax exempt revenues have to be used for the tax exempt purposes of the organization. This might mean buying a new bus to ride to one's preaching appointments might be o.k. Buying a new marble commode--- not so much.
There are several helpful organizations which try and prevent such abuses of donations to tax exempt ministries. There is for example www.ministrywatch.com or the Trinity Foundation in Dallas. There is in addition the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability which many Evangelical Organizations are accountable to (for example the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association). I am pleased to say that many many Evangelical Churches and organizations do indeed report and accept the guidelines and strictures of the ECFA and its auditing procedures. Sadly, many do not.
One of the reasons there is such a need for this in Evangelical circles is of course because so many Evangelical ministries are accountable to no one and nothing but themselves and their own self-appointed Boards or supervisors. They are not accountable to a larger denomination, or a federation of churches, or a bishop or the like, being so low church in polity, that the temptations and possibilities for financial abuse are huge.
There is the further problem with the prosperity teachers that they have long since provided what they see as Biblical justification for living a prosperous, indeed rich and opulent life style. In fact, it would be contradictory to their preaching not to do so, because otherwise they would appear to not be practicing what they preach, or put another way, it would suggest God wasn't blessing their ministry! It is indeed a vicious circle.
Sen. Grassley says that when he gets answers back from these six ministries they may look at others. It is a consummation devoutly to be wished.
The sad part is that none of this would have to happen if either: 1) these preachers had a better theology of stewardship when it came to God's resources; 2) they had local persons who were not just their cheerleaders whom they held themselves accountable to within the ministry or church; and 3) they had a decent enough ecclesiology to realize they are accountable to the whole body of Christ as well, and many of us are watching--- and are appalled! To whom more is given, more is required and be sure your sins will find you out, are two phrases that immediately come to mind.
But sadly, if past performances are any guideline (e.g. the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker PTL Ministry scandal), one or more of these folks will be anathematizing the good senator from Iowa, getting their flock to pray against his probe, and otherwise demonizing the accountabilty folks. I hope that unseemly spectacle does not transpire this time. But we shall see. If it does it will be yet one more example of Evangelical Christians behaving badly.