Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Prosperity Preachers to be Audited by a Republican Senator!

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 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.


Leslie said...

"Truly, the eschaton is at hand."

Haha! I'll have to remember that phrase when I'm looking for one that will get me a weird look from my wife.

On another note, I am glad to hear this in a way, but I'm also sad to hear about it, because I feel confident they will find problems. It's saddening because these types of preachers already make Christianity look bad in my opinion, and I hate the idea of enemies of the faith getting more ammo. Then again, such could work out positively for Christianity in the long run.

ChrisB said...

After the feds said that a parsonage paid for by the church counted as income, it's surprising that they don't make these folks count "marble toilets" as income. Of course, if they do, while it may still be ridiculous, the stuff they pull isn't necessarily illegal.

Jeff Gill said...

Ben, part of me delights in this necessary investigation (commode, blessings, fall from sky = nicely put). But my worry is that there is a quietly growing movement to a) tax church property and b) drop the clergy housing allowance. You can even make a fair case for why this should happen, but if/when this happens, if it hits all at once, we'll see a very worrisome change on the American landscape. And my fear is that the large, gooberish operations like Meyer and Dollar will be used to justify steps that will close down thousands of small congregations all over the country, or at least all across the states which first go this route.

And there are those in mainline/oldline judicatory offices who will help, because they're convinced that getting rid of all their 35 to 95 worship att. ave. congregations will help make things more congenial -- i've heard 'em say it.

So i'd suggest everyone go easy on the schadenfreude. That, and as i recall, the year after the Two Jimmys (Swaggart and Bakker) went down, mainline/oldline offerings went down by an extra 3-5%. Many folk even in our pews don't spend a lot of time making distinctions between Arminian, Calvinist, Word-Faith, and Cult o' Personality.


Ben Witherington said...

I take no joy in Christian ministers being shown to be greedy and selfish and self centered. It is a horrible witness. But what is important in all this is accountability. Surely it is far better to be brought up short here and now, than when we stand before the bema seat judgment of Jesus himself. The Bible does suggest that we reap what we sow, especially when our handling of resources and gifts is at best so-so.


Shane Vander Hart said...

Unfortunately Senator Grassley and others will be demonized, what people may not know is that Senator Grassley is a follower of Christ and evangelical.

Brian LePort said...

Too bad it is taking the State to fix this problem. But I guess the church at large can't help those in our ranks that see themselves as highly as the names mentioned.

Unknown said...

Ben, watch your tongue. I agree with all those names their BUT Joyce Meyer. She is NOT a prosperity preacher. She might have the same popularity, but her messages are NOTHING like the others AT ALL.

I just glanced over the hundreds of sermons of hers I have, and I can not even find a single message that talks about prosperity.

Joyce Meyer speaks about the realities of the Christian life, and though her theology is sometimes off, a person focussed on money she is not. In 10 years of watching Joyce, it is VERY seldom i hear her asking for money. Yes, she sells her books and the like, and she gives most of the royalties to the ministry that are legitimately hers. She also keeps several years of her financial audits online for anyone to see.

In her messages, she far more likely to scorn someone for focussing on money or wanting more money, rather than encouraging someone to get more.

Israel Anderson

latoberg said...


A lot of this reaction may be growing out of the Oral Roberts University "scandal" that is currently being investigated. From what I understand, some of the ministers you have listed are on the Board of Regents at ORU. And while coincidence is possible, I don't believe Senators operate on coincidence. Especially since Richard Roberts is being accused of basically the same thing.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Israel:

I must honestly say that you may well have watched Joyce far more than I have, and I quite agree she is often more Biblically substantive than the others, but let me be clear right now---

I have heard her talk about prosperity in much the same terms as others, and her comment that "all this STUFF is a blessing from God" apparently including the $23,000 commode seat suggests that perhaps you have overlooked something.


Ben W.

Peter Smythe said...

The real issue with this investigation is not the theological doctrine of the particular ministries, but governmental intrusion into churches and religious organizations.

Regarding the commode comments, this site might be helpful:

Roger Pearse said...

This is excellent news, and it is good to hear that it is a *Republican* senator involved since otherwise the unscrupulous would undoubtedly have tried to muddy the water with pro-/anti-Christian rhetoric.

The dishonest shepherd needs to be nailed to the wall head down.

You're right that Christian groups often are vulnerable to this kind of swindler because of the lack of a larger organisation. But looking today at, I see that the Episcopalian Church is in the process of sueing Christian congregations out of the churches that they paid for, for refusing to abandon the gospel and endorse unnatural vice.

So you're stuffed whatever you do! This is *why* so many Christians end up outside of formal organisations; the corruption of the mainstream denominations. While this continues, such situations are inevitable.

Let's hope that those 'pastors' making money by cynically exploiting believers are hanged high.

Ben Witherington said...

This word just in. Most of these TV preachers are not part of a mainline or mainstream denomination, and denominations have no control over them. That's part of the problem.


Chris Larimer said...

This is substantively different from the Chinese situation how?

I'm all for accountability in the Church, but since when did the Republicans become the new Inquisition?

Roger Pearse said...

It is different from the Chinese situation in that the senator is a friend, not a foe. It's not an excuse for a Christian-bash; it's a legitimate weed-out of scumbags milking the Christians.

One would like to suppose that the church can do this itself. Unfortunately the legacy of prelatry and persecution by people who got in control of the church denominations but didn't actually believe in Christianity is that no-one trusts these denominations any more.

So a respectable layman, on the face of it, looking at financial transparency, would seem to be a good thing. (Unless, of course, I completely misunderstand the real issues!)

Goyo Marquez said...

Hi Ben:
I tried to post a comment on this, from the perspective of prosperity preacher, but by comment has not been posted. I'm pretty sure I posted it because I'm being emailed follow up comments for this post. Just wondering if there was a technical glitch or something more sinister ; )

Greg Marquez

Ben Witherington said...


Nothing sinster going on, but I do screen all the potential posts, and in the case of the last one of yours, I couldn't tell what perspective was being taken. It sounded like an unnecessary rant, but perhaps I misunderstood the intent.



Ben Witherington said...

Dear Peter:

I have thought about your comment, and must disagree. Christians should be setting the best possible example as good citizens in our country, and that includes properly paying their taxes. The examination of what people have done to avoid paying taxes is legitimate regardless of who we are talking about. It is not an invasion of privacy, nor is it in any way a violation of the separation of church and state. Hiding behind the phrase 'tax exempt' is the last refuge of a scoundrel, and Christians should never be guilty of such shabby ethics anyway. If you don't like the law in regard to taxes, then work to change, but there is no complaint that is viable in this case on the basis of separation of church and state.



Goyo Marquez said...

At the risk of being again accused of ranting for pointing out the obvious.

Ben You said:
"Christians should be setting the best possible example as good citizens in our country, and that includes properly paying their taxes."

So I'm a guessing you don't think Bonhoeffer was a very good Christian.

You're failing to understand the legal aspects of this case. It's not about the ministers or the churches failing to pay taxes or even trying to avoid paying taxes. Most ministries operate at a zero profit level or below. They spend everything that comes in and usually more than comes in. They have no excess of income over expense to be taxed. These ministers are paying taxes on their income just like everybody else.

The tax benefit at issue here accrues to the supporters of the ministries not to the minsters or their churches. Supporters receive a tax deduction for giving to a charitable institution. As a practical matter the deduction makes very little difference except to very large donors. In order for the donors giving to qualify for this deduction it must be donated to a charity which the government finds acceptable.

One of the requirements for qualifying as a charity is that the charity, in this case churches, must only spend money in ways the government deems appropriate. The government says the money must only be used for a charitable purpose? What is a charitable purpose? Whatever the government says it is. The government says in effect, if your donors want to receive a tax deduction for their giving then the church must only spend money in ways the government likes.

It's pretty easy to imagine how the power of the government to regulate churches' spending can be abused. Pastors being afraid to speak out on political issues is one example.

But here the real question is: Should the government be taking sides in theological disputes? That the government is taking sides in a theological dispute is clear from the fact that all the churches being investigated are Word of Faith Churches. Now this, no doubt, brings Christmas cheer to 100s of evangelical heresy hunters, but do you really want your government getting involved in the investigation of heresy?

Greg Marquez
"Ranting" Evil Prosperity Preacher

Ben Witherington said...


I am afraid you are wrong about various aspects of your evaluation of the situation. The issue is ministers wrongly appropriating funds given to a ministry for personal purposes-- like buying a $23,000 commode. And the issue of the separation of church and state is not well conceived in your discussion.

Religion and theology have always been a part of American state craft-- always. They are a part of our foundational documents. You will be hard pressed to find anything specific in those documents about 'the separation of church and state' or what specifically that might look like. It is another thing to talk about government 'prohibiting' the establishment of a religion. The intent of the forefathers was to avoid having a national state church, an officially recognized one, one that had to be recognized by all the states. Interestingly, individual states did have governmentally recognized denominational churches to begin with (e.g. Congregationalism in New England).

And as for most ministries operating with a balanced budget, that's irrelevant in this case, as those ministries have taken in much more than they have spent on either ministry or charitable purposes. Therein lies the rub.



Ben Witherington said...

P.S. By 'those ministries' I mean the one's now being probed.

Ben Witherington said...

One more thing Greg. The analogy with Nazi Germany and Bonhoeffer doesn't work. We are by no means in a parallel situation, as the U.S. government is not 'the enemy' or in the grips of an anti-semitic and wicked ideology.

Goyo Marquez said...

Ben you said:
"those ministries have taken in much more than they have spent on either ministry or charitable purposes. Therein lies the rub. "

You say this with such certainty I'm wondering how you know this?

I agree therein lies the rub. But the rub is who gets to determine what is ministry or charitable purpose? Per your view the government gets to pass on what is legitimate ministry.

Take my church for example. Last year we spent something like $5000 dollars on a video projector. Was that a legitimate charitable purpose? Couldn't that money have been better spent on the poor? What if some large Baptist ministry spent $25,000 dollars for a new desk for the pastor? A ministry buys a jet so they can move quickly and easily between meetings? A Methodist Church builds a multimillion dollar cathedral and deicdes to use italian marble for the entrance instead of cement? A private university spends 2 million dollars on the presidents house? A pastor spends ministry time writing a book and then pockets the proceeds was his salary a legitimate ministry expense? Which of those are legitimate and which are not?

But more importantly who gets to decide these issues? Your theological opponents? The local Salvation Army Captain, The United States senate, the society of atheists, Ben Witherington?

Greg Marquez

Ben Witherington said...

Obviously, the government gets to decide what is and isn't taxable income. The best way the church can have a say in that is to have elected officials like Sen. Grassley in there who understands something of how to make the proper distinctions, and cares about the outcome. I agree that there are some shades of gray in regard to some items, but the basic assumption (that a charity does not line its own pockets, and live the lifestyle of the rich and famous) is a reasonable assumption.


Roger Pearse said...

Greg is quite right to say that bad governments can certainly use charitable status as an excuse for interference. Here in the UK the charity laws have just been altered, specifically in order to harass the public schools like Eton, which have always had charitable status. The official appointed has been given discretion to make more or less arbitrary demands for supposed 'public benefit' (i.e. over and above educating children) on the charities, and has stated that these will increase each year. Church charities are fairly sure that they are next in the firing line for the treatment, since the same government is forcing Catholic adoption agencies to close unless they place children with gay couples. We can all see how churches that refuse to endorse sodomy will be stripped of charitable status. Luckily the public schools are well-connected and wealthy and are challenging it in the courts, so it may not be that bad.

But the issue here seems to be preachers who are effectively stealing. $23k marble toilets is a charitable purpose? Really?

Goyo Marquez said...

One last point from me.

You said:
"those ministries have taken in much more than they have spent on either ministry or charitable purposes."

Since you have been so quick to say that these ministries expenses are illegitimate without providing any evidence for that conclusion, it seems fair to post a link to Kenneth Copeland ministires accounting of their expenses:

As with most T.V. ministries the greatest expense is television time, which accounts for 39% of their expenses. Is this the part you characterize as illegitimate. 17% is spent on ministry to prisoners, missions and other ministires. Is this the illegitimate part? 13% is spent on the publication and distribution of their ministry magazine. Am I getting warm yet? 13% on their preaching at conventions and outreach meetings. I know some people consider preaching the word of faith to be illegitimate so is this the illegitimate expense? 11% on mail, phone and prayer partner services. 7% on administrative services. Ahh there's the evil expense. They spend 7% on administrative salaries.

That's how they say they spend the money so what's the basis for your accusations?

Or is it that you just don't like their theology and see this as an opportunity to lessen the impact of their ministries?

Now explain to me again how this Senate investigation isn't really about punishing heretics?

Greg Marquez

Ben Witherington said...

Last comment Greg:

The issue here is the lifestyles of those who have most to benefit from the ministry. None of what you list accounts for the lifestyles of the ministers in question. Where is all that lavish amount of spending money for expensive clothes, huge houses, etc. coming from?

Answer-- it's largely coming from the ministry itself and they would never have it at all if they weren't out promoting themselves in various forms of media. Worst of all, this 'personal money' is in various cases not recorded or reported--hence the probe. Go check out the watchdog reports from the website in Dallas I listed.

Go talk to the people who work for the Salvation Army. I can guarantee you that though they take in as much charitable funds as various of these ministries, they certainly don't spend it the way these ministries do.

Why not? Because they understand that it is a betrayal of those who have made sacrifices to contribute to the ministry of Christ-- not to the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

The very same issue would be raised if we discovered that the head of Oxfam America was skimming tons of money off the top, money given to feed the poor.

This has nothing to do with a person's theology. It has to do with how one spends money given to you in trust for charitable purposes.

When you set up a charity, and state its charitable purposes you have a sacred trust to live by those purposes, and resist the tendency for self aggrandizing behavior.


Marc Axelrod said...

I am no fan of the health/wealth American gospel, but I also think that the national government sticks its hands into too many things and goes way beyond the powers alloted to it by the constitution.

KenyaTripper said...

Regarding that gawdy commode, I couldn't help but post the following from my morning reading from 2 Timothy 2:20-21: 20In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for noble purposes and some for ignoble. 21If a man cleanses himself from the latter, he will be an instrument for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.

Robert said...

Prosperous Thoughts – Here is a fine experiment. Write to a prosperity preacher and ask him or her to tithe his or her personal income to you. The multi-millionaire will probably think, who are you to get such an income? You will have made the preacher think, however briefly.
-- Robert Winkler Burke

Unknown said...

Anyone who can criticize Joyce Meyer without knowing all the things she does for people world-wide, and doesn't know her heart, are just running off at the mouth, and I'll bet none of them have a really close relationship with the Lord. I don't care WHO you are. If one of the things you enjoy most is putting others down - Christian or not, then YOU are the one who needs help. You are not on a quest to find God's best for you. Humble people who long to serve the Lord and who love Him, have absolutely NO desire to find fault in others. It's all they can do to keep themselves straight. How long do you spend in the Word every day? How long do you spend on your knees asking God to search out YOUR faults, and asking forgiveness for all your sins, and PRAYING for others? Whoever criticizes Joyce Meyer evidently doesn't watch her on a regular basis, and has NO idea of how many "helping pies" she has her fingers in. And it's NONE of your business how Joyce spends the money she makes on writing books. She only has to answer to God for how she spends money she has earned by her writings. The judgment will show who serves the Lord, and who should have shut up and sat down. Remember the splinter and log in the eye story. If the blog author refuses to print this, it will only prove my point. Emilie LaFave in Gastonia, NC