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Friday, November 9, 2007

Give Me Prosperity or Give Me Something Really Important!

This past Tuesday (11/6/07) my friend Jim Gilbert posted on his weblog opinion and insight on the current investigation of the spending practices of six prominent charismatic ministries by Senator Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee.

For more information J. Lee Grady, editor of Charisma magazine, addresses this issue in his current “
Fire in My Bones” editorial.  You can also read Senator Grassley’s letters to these ministers at the Senator’s website.

[Note: You can click on the yellow-colored text to go directly to these sites]

As to the point of Jim’s post I have no problem with investigations into the individuals. But it shouldn’t need to be done by our federal government. It should have already been done on a regular basis by the Board of Directors of these organizations. Then, when a member of the federal or state or whatever government gets a burr under their saddle about abuse of donations to churches or charities, the work is already done, the corrective action already taken, the documentation readily available and thereby the intended reproach remains far below the actions.

So I’d like to address two of these topics: prosperity teaching & excess and taxation.

One difficult aspect of the prosperity argument is defining excess. Should Benny Hinn have a $3 million mansion? Does Joyce Meyer need a $23,000 toilet with a marble lid? Is flying a ministry plane to the Fiji Islands an appropriate use of this resource? My responses: why not, what for, probably not. But then I have no idea whether or not these expenses were paid from the specific accounts of these individuals who are entitled to spend their earned income as they please.

My opinion on taxes: As both a business owner (for profit) and president & senior pastor of a non-profit church, I believe individuals should be taxed, not organizations. And then, only once. Either tax my income (no more than 10%; as Jim observes that would be a relief) or tax my spending. Tax both? How does that make sense to anyone except those who want to spend my taxes?

My church receives donations (tithes, offerings, etc.) from members and friends who have already paid taxes on their income. They also pay taxes when they spend their money. To date, there is no ‘offering’ tax but I’m certain it’s on some government employee’s to do list. To argue that my church should pay tax on our receipts is scripturally, morally and logically indefensible. But then so is our current income tax. And while I’m on the subject I’m of the opinion we should close the doors on the IRS, an organization whose only purpose is enforcing laws that shouldn’t exist (sorry, nephew, but with your law degree I know you’ll get another job).

As for prosperity I teach it because the Bible teaches it. However, teaching biblical prosperity properly requires defining biblical prosperity properly, that is, according to Biblical examples.

Prosperity can include material possessions:

Deuteronomy 28:11 (NIV) The Lord will grant you abundant prosperity — in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your ground — in the land he swore to your forefathers to give you.

Prosperity can also include professional success:

1 Chronicles 29:23 (NIV) So Solomon sat on the throne of the Lord as king in place of his father David. He prospered and all Israel obeyed him.

By most standards possessions and success are the essential earmarks of prosperity. But Solomon – arguably the most prosperous man in history (Bill Gates only has one wife) – shares this insight:

Ecclesiastes 2:10-11 (NIV) I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.

To better understand what the Bible says about prosperity let’s look at an Old Testament example:

Acts 13:17 (NIV) The God of the people of Israel chose our fathers; he made the people prosper during their stay in Egypt, with mighty power he led them out of that country…

“Prosper during their stay in Egypt?” I thought they were slaves. Maybe we need a different example.

How about the apostle Paul?

Philippians 4:11-13 (NIV) I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.

The secret of being content in want? How is that prosperity? Actually, it’s not. That’s contentment. I know a lot of prosperous people who aren’t content. Contentment is better.

When we teach prosperity with a focus only on material possessions we rob our listeners of the vast riches that God has available to us. Riches that can’t be spent at Best Buy. Riches that can’t be washed and waxed. Riches that can’t be lived in, dined at, hung on a wall, dusted on a shelf, pulled from a pocket, stored in a vault, or flown to an island.

So if material possessions and success aren’t the epitome of prosperity, what is? Affluence aside, there are family, children, friends, the blessing of the Lord that makes us rich (don’t you know?) in ways that material possessions cannot. And above all things the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ and the assurance of our eternal salvation:

2 Peter 1:3 (NIV) His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.

Can you say as Job did, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised?” It’s not easy. Especially just after the “taken away” part. But that attitude is a prosperity that defies rust, inflation, devaluation, market plunges, strikes, layoffs, traffic jams, late checks, loan defaults, expired coupons and no refills.

Are the young missionaries building wells in Peru and surviving on a few dollars a month prosperous? Is the couple ministering to the youth every Friday night while struggling to start a family prosperous? Is the retired widower living on a pension and showing up for church each week to worship with the young people who admire him prosperous? Is the single guy who doesn’t spend much on his clothes and car but gives proportionately more to missions than anyone else prosperous?

I guess that depends on how you define prosperity.

4:28 pm pst 

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Let's shoot the messenger!

“This summer, associate pastor Bae Hyung-kyu led his mostly female medical team from South Korea into Afghanistan. The plan was to alleviate physical and spiritual suffering. But Taliban terrorists had another agenda. On July 19, radical Islamic insurgents kidnapped the 23 South Koreans traveling by bus through southern Afghanistan.”

This is the opening paragraph to an article in the November 2007 Christianity Today magazine entitled Missions Isn’t Safe. The article goes on to describe how during more than 40 days of captivity team members from the South Korean church were repeatedly relocated, beaten and made to endure forced labor. They were also pressured to convert from Christianity to Islam. When pastor Bae Hyung-kyu refused he was shot 10 times in the head, chest and stomach. Another hostage was also murdered. Eventually the remaining hostages were released when the South Korean government agreed to pay a $20 million ransom.

So who did the Korean newspapers blame for this violence? The missionary team.

Not only were the missionaries publicly chastised for their “dangerous missionary and volunteer activities” but the church was forced to apologize for embarrassing the nation. And causing their fellow Koreans to suffer “a tremendous amount of duress.”

Just to summarize: South Korean missions workers are held hostage, tortured and murdered. South Koreans who remained home are stressed out over the whole thing. So, let’s shoot the messengers. That way we won’t have to think about what they suffered. How thoughtless of them!

As outrageous as this point of view is it pales in comparison to that of the World Evangelical Alliance’s Religious Liberty Commission’s statement: “We suggest that organizations with workers in other countries should pay careful regard to security warnings issued by their government.”

No statement of support. No outrage at the violence against these workers who sought only to provide aid and comfort to those in need. And no discussion of the ramifications of paying off a ransom that will only encourage terrorists to engage in the profitable business of kidnapping future missions workers.

The Christianity Today article does get it right when it says that foreign missions is a dangerous calling, quoting Jesus’ opening comments to the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”

But what about the obvious: what does it say about a religion that cannot get past dogmatic differences to welcome those of different belief who would come to bring aid and comfort with no expectations other than acceptance? What would happen in the United States if an Islamic organization from Iraq sent friendly emissaries with supplies and medical prowess to help the victims of the recent Southern California fires? Would they be kidnapped, tortured, murdered, and held for ransom?

If a group purporting to be Christians engaged in this type of activity within our borders they would not only be condemned by our nation’s laws but also loudly and internationally condemned by Christian organizations as well. Yet in the incident described above it is the church supporting the relief workers that received the brunt of the condemnation. Why is that?

It’s because we’re afraid of the bully. The bully beats up our friends, takes their lunch money and makes their life miserable. Our advice? Don’t antagonize the bully. Stay away from him.

This past Thursday night I watched ABC’s 20/20, John Stossel’s report on “Hate in America.” The source of the hate? Westboro Baptist Church in Nebraska.

If you did not see the broadcast consider yourself fortunate. I can somewhat understand the actions of the Taliban. Their Islamic teachings foster and encourage their violent behavior. But I cannot understand how the Westboro Baptist Church can support their rabid hatred with the Holy Bible.

Yet our nation’s laws and our Christian Scriptures – the same Scriptures the Westboro Baptist Church followers pervert – tolerate this radical group’s behavior. We do not torture them. We do not behead them (though I will admit that while watching Westborough Baptist Church representative and lawyer Shirley Phelps-Roper spout her vile condemnation of all things American the thought crossed my mind...).

Thankfully, Westboro Baptist Church is being prosecuted for violations of the law. But the action against them is legal and civil. That’s what a legal system based on Judeo-Christian ethics engenders.

For the past two centuries Christian missionaries have died in the service of our Lord. How can we expect otherwise when the Christ we follow did the same for us? But we of all people should not join in aiming our rebuke at the messenger.

11:00 pm pdt 

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