The Persecution Trap: When sincere believers who are making questionable decisions won’t listen to correction because they consider it to be persecution.
The unfettered opulence that characterizes the lifestyles of some prosperity gospel teachers has caught the attention of Congress. Senator Charles Grassley (R, Iowa), ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, has conducted a congressional investigation of six TV ministries that feature prosperity teaching, looking to uncover any financial misconduct. Several reactions to that probe are featured here, including an article by J. Lee Grady that was first published in Charisma Magazine. In my response to Grady’s article, I say the following:
I don’t like it that government is investigating Christian ministries. I like it much less that government HAS to investigate these ministries. Obviously, the church is not doing the job of self-correction. By that failure we open the door to a level of government intrusion that should make us all uncomfortable.
I found especially telling Grady’s question, “How can anyone … think that it is a wise use of God’s money to pay $10,000 a night for a hotel room on the way home from a foreign ministry trip?” Perhaps the real issue is that we have allowed ministry leaders to forget that it is God’s money and not their own that pours into their ministries. Leaders of ministries are not owners but stewards. And as Paul says, it is required in stewards that they be found faithful.
The fact of the matter is, if we Christians don’t hold our own ministries accountable, the government will. That’s just reality.
Why doesn’t the church at large hold accountable ministry leaders who live extravagant lifestyles on money donated to their ministries? Actually, many Christian leaders have been quite vocal with their critiques. (See, for example, Albert Mohler’s comment in my article, “Prosperity Gospel Or Gospel Prosperity?”). The problem is that the prosperity teachers aren’t listening. Their theology has built-in defenses against remonstrances about their lifestyles from people outside of the prosperity gospel movement.
First of all, prosperity teachers genuinely believe in their theology, which tells them that any believer who is faithful and faith-filled should expect to live large. In the recent New York Times article on Paul and Jan Crouch of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, there is this telling comment:
Relatives and former employees agreed that Paul and Janice Crouch seem to have deep spiritual feelings and believe they are doing the Lord’s work — a belief, according to a former employee, Troy Clements, that seemed to justify almost any extravagance.
So, far from it bringing any consciousness of doing something wrong, prosperity teachers see their ability to live lavishly on donated money as vindication of the truth of their theology. And because of that theology, they are impervious to criticism by non-prosperity gospel leaders. In fact, they expect such criticism because of the apostle Paul’s admonition that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12). To these leaders, any criticism of their lifestyles is evidence of the persecution they expect to be subjected to.
In a Christianity Today article entitled Prosperity Gospel on Skid Row, Scott Thumma, a Hartford Seminary sociologist who studies megachurches, puts it this way:
Most clergy who preach a prosperity gospel would interpret for their congregation any conflict, scrutiny, or questioning as an attack of the Devil and proof that they are following God.
This is what I call the Persecution Trap. When sincere believers are making questionable decisions, but won’t listen to correction because they consider it to be persecution, they trap themselves into continuing on an ungodly path in their lives. And by the very nature of the trap, no one can help them to escape it. Outside pressure from other Christians just confirms them in the belief that they are under satanic attack because of their faithfulness to the gospel.
And yet, the whole idea that we don’t have to listen to correction by other believers because we know we are right is unbiblical. Many verses in Proverbs, for example, make that point:
Prov 15:12 A scoffer does not love one who corrects him, Nor will he go to the wise.
Prov 13:1 A wise son heeds his father’s instruction, But a scoffer does not listen to rebuke.
Prov 9:8 Do not correct a scoffer, lest he hate you; Rebuke a wise man, and he will love you.
It is always dangerous, and a sin against humility, to just shrug off, without examination, attempts by other believers to correct us. Instead we need to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1), and, like the Bereans, search the Scriptures to see if these things are so. Then God can get past our defenses and show us when we are missing the mark.
All of us, as the body of Christ, need to be praying for our leaders that the Holy Spirit will be able to minister humility and truth into their lives (and our own as well!). That, I believe, is the only escape from the Persecution Trap.