Capitalism and the Church: Strange Bedfellows

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A couple of weeks back, I got a text message from my husband that read something like “Do we know anyone at C3? They’ve just gotten a run on 60 minutes.” The inference was that it couldn’t be good. As I mentally flicked through the friend list, I could only find a couple that were affiliated in some way: all people who were involved in smaller incarnations of the C3 (Christian church) movement lead by Phil Pringle. I watched the 60 minutes special and to be honest, it was no shocker. It was an attempt at a damning expose on the riches of Phil Pringle, earned off the back of the tithes and offerings of congregants. They showed pictures of him prophesying riches and success over people and then juxtaposed this against his multimillion-dollar property and the common Christian doctrine of tithing. 

*Sigh* We’ve seen this before. Hillsong has been criticised for it. American televangelists are notorious for the old “donate and God will bless you” line, along with private jets and lavish lifestyles. The prosperity gospel has been trotted out in many a church across the globe. I’ve heard it a lot. So how does one respond when another one of these TV specials sets out to expose the business of Church?  

I’ll say upfront that I have no problem with Phil Pringle, or C3, or Hillsong. I don’t even have a problem with people making good money. But there are some things that I think we ought to approach with caution: the false gospel of prosperity, mystical manipulation that comes in the form of nice but false prophecy, and the idea that God is a capitalist. The latter is one I’ve heard a lot. I’ve even heard it said just like that (by a pastor, no less). I smiled and thought straight away, “Huh. Well, Jesus wasn’t. Nor was the church of Acts.” Now sure, Jesus did learn a trade. He was a carpenter. He is known to have thrown the tables over in the temple when the traders moved in to sell their wares (and we get to assume or guess the levels of corruption that may have taken place within that context). I’m sure he was anti-corruption. I’m sure there’s loads of that in capitalism. But I’m also sure there are good things about it too.

But is God strictly a capitalist? No. I don’t believe so. I don’t even believe that God needs to stoop to our level in terms of social construct, but that’s another (highly philosophical) conversation entirely. Do we need to shun the capitalist church? Not necessarily, but I believe the era of handing our brains over to big institutions and letting them think for us is over.

We need to take responsibility for our faith, our discernment, and the place that God and church (both being different things) have in our lives.

We know that socialism is the antithesis of capitalism and within the socialist construct is communism. There are theorists who believe the church in the book of Acts was a seminal form of communism, and it’s not entirely hard to see why. In Acts chapter 2 “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” In Acts chapter 4, “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”

My first thought here was that when forced communism (i.e. China) is juxtaposed against chosen communism (i.e. a group that you choose to be part of because it shares a belief system you choose to have), the latter can’t be harmful. But in truth, I’m yet to read a modern case where this hasn’t gone terribly wrong (i.e Waco Texas, Jonestown, The Family – Heck, even Ananias and Saphira in the book of Acts went deady-byes when they lied about the proceeds of the land they sold.). Like I said, the church in Acts was likely a seminal form of communism: shared beliefs, distrubution of resources, devotion to the doctrine of a central character or characters. If not handled incredibly carefully, this sort of thing can lead to cultish or totalitarian situations which terrifies me. I’m not saying the church in the book of Acts was like that. I am saying that centuries later, with the physical form of Jesus long having departed the Earth, we ought to step very carefully.

The truth is, I’m not a fan of pure communism, just like I think pure capitalism stinks. There are some fundamental problems with Capitalism that I don’t think God could possibly be happy with. Things like:

  • inequal distribution of the spoils of capitalism leaving some of His beloved children to starve in poverty,
  • power and money corrupting people or causes,
  • money buying power,
  • greed,
  • environmental costs,
  • short-term focuses sacrificing long term stability in various domains
  • economic immobility.

When you pair any of these factors with good Christian gullibility, you’ve got a recipe for something I don’t like. Meanwhile, socialism on the far opposite end of the spectrum contains its own bad apples: reduced prosperity, devaluing of the individual, lost freedom of thought, and totalitarianism to name a few. So you won’t find me choosing one over other. Nor has God given us, in the Bible, a clear directive of which version we should operate under. 2 Thessalonians says “If a man won’t work, neither can he eat.” There are multiple scriptures about work and wages. There are also scriptures that clearly indicate we are not to tolerate inequality. Exodus 22 tells us not to charge interest if we lend money to the poor. Leviticus 23 tells farmers to leave the corners of their field to be gleaned by the poor and the needy, rather than taking it all. James 1:27 tells us that true religion is looking after the widows and the orphans (ie. the marginalised and those who cannot take care of themselves). There is more, but the debate can be argued from both sides depending on which you cherry pick.

What can be gleaned from all of this? God isn’t a capitalist! But He isn’t exactly a socialist either. So when we see preachers earning a buttload of money off the back of tithes and offerings, it can be offensive. It perhaps should be offensive, because in beside Gods directive that we all earn our wages, there is another mandate: that we care for the poor and marginalised. I spotted an account on Instagram called “Preachers N Sneakers” which found the prices for the shoes some of today’s Christian big-wigs wore: wow. Ouch! Some of them would clear some seriously big bills for me. But hey. $3,000 shoes matter too, I guess, in some universe. Maybe? Um…

The truth is that Christianity has become big business and while I don’t for a minute doubt that the likes of Phil Pringle, Brian Houston, and others are genuine in their faith and desire to serve humanity, I also have no doubt that some bad apples have gotten into the applesauce. Those bad apples = bad doctrine. And bad doctrine hurts people. I suppose I split church up three ways in my head: the local church, the dominionist church and the capitalist church. The local church is the type that exists in and for the local community. The leaders are largely altruistic and conscientious, with a heart to serve Gods people whether they are in church or not, regardless of their socioeconomic status. They don’t exist to line their own pockets. Then there is the dominionist church (which I’ve spoken about before). This church exists to infiltrate the so-called “seven domains” of society. In my mind, it is riddled with problems as it is a pseudo-Biblical heresy that can be very attractice to people who want to seek out power or wealth for themselves. (But more on that here).

The capitalist church is a funny one: We’ve established that God isn’t a capitalist (at least according to my rudimentary study on it). While these capitalist pastors (who are more like CEOs in the big business of church) may have started out altruistically with a desire/call to serve God, somewhere along the line they have found a formula that works and attracts big crowds. With the big crowds comes big challenges:  how do you teach them all? How do you encourage them all to devotion? Manage their communities? Often the answer lies in merchandise: books, CDs, conferences, podcasts, etc. I have no problem with that. Its a necessity.

The problem only lies in the area of motivation: who is this serving? God and his people? Or the self-interest of the price-setters/CEO’s who have amassed a huge following and a position of authority or influence in the lives of people with varying levels of biblical literacy and personal discernment? We don’t get to answer the question of motivation. We only get to speculate, and to speculate is to risk getting the answer drastically wrong.

Now this begs a question: If God isn’t a capitalist or a socialist, what should preachers earn? This is a tricky one. Pastors and leaders in the church should certainly earn a fair wage. That wage certainly shouldn’t disadvantage their people. But it’s an impossible question to answer. God didn’t lay out an enterprise bargaining agreement in the Bible, so it’s a hard call. In Malachi 3:10ff, the famous tithing scripture, it tells us to bring all the tithes into the storehouse so there might be food in the house. So the idea of the tithe isn’t so preachers can buy private jets and exorbitantly expensive sneakers. It’s so everyone gets fed (spiritually and otherwise). Fair wage for fair work, pastors should be paid because they are the ones who are looking after the flock – spiritually, pastorally, etc. So are we looking at a local church pastor who should earn a fair wage without disadvantaging his flock? Or are we looking at the CEO of a large (albeit faith-based) company.

My belief is that a good pastor should build up his flock. They should benefit from the fruits of his or her labor. Their lives should be made richer for it. And tithing should be less of a gospel and more of a personal conviction (like it was for Jacob, when he wrestled with God/the Angel at Bethel and instituted the tradition of giving a tenth to God.) I think the reason the Phil Pringles of the world irk us so much is that running a church as a multimillion-dollar enterprise with flights in first class, while we mere mortals pay our ten per cent and hang off prophecies that imply God will make us rich runs a little thin. And we have to question motivation: is he prophecying wealth over people so they feel obligated to tithe? Is he doing it because such a prophecy would make someone feel really good? Or is he doing it because they are legitimately destined for wealth.

The area of prophecy should be one we approach with care (in my opinion): people may place a lot of stock in the words spoken over them by the clergy, but these words may not be divine in origin. If they are not divine in origin, then what the heck is it? The gift of prophecy is one that attracts a bit of attention in the Bible. Ephesians says “Pursue love and desire spiritual gifts, especially that you should prophesy.” Yet despite the exortation towards prophecy, not everyone is a prophet. The office of the prophet is to bring direction, confirmation, or correction for Gods people. There is often a slight sting to the word of the prophet, like there was when the Prophet Nathan came to chastise Kind David, or when the Prophet Elijah took on Jezebel. In fact, find me a prophet in the Bible who went around blessing people with riches and then demanding 10% of their future bounty. This, I believe, is why it doesn’t seem to ring true.

I admit I’m a bit of a prophecy skeptic: not because I don’t believe it is a legitimate gift of the spirit, but because I have seen it misused. As Christians, it is not a bad thing to test a prophet – do their words ring true or confirm something? Have their prophecies come to fruition before? Or are they using “thus saith the Lord” to demand obedience, gifts, or loyalty that otherwise wouldn’t be theirs. Discernment is key here. Not everyone is a prophet. Wolves sometimes wear a sheeps clothing. While the church is full of people who are legitimately serving God, there is also the risk that the ego becomes involved somewhere along the way and people lose the ability to tell what is the voice of God and what is the voice of their own ego. This opens the door for mystical manipulation: “How can I manipulate this person or this atmosphere to make people feel a sense of the divine and offer me more devotion?”

So step carefully. That’s all I’m saying.

As for the prosperity gospel, I’m going to be lazy and point you to an article I’ve already written on it: You can find that here. But if you want the scoop, it is this: when we adhere to a prosperity gospel that tells us all hardship is behind us once we accept Christ, we deny the scriptures that tell us to count it all joy when we share in His suffering. We deny the hardship that inevitably comes as a part of life, regardless of which faith you adhere to (including athiesm!). We deny the fact that salvation should not be judged on healing, wealth, relationship status, or a glowing aura, but simply on whether someone believes in Jesus.

Its a loaded topic. Do read the linked article! But for now ,this:

Perhaps we should be thinking of Phil Pringle, Brian Houston and others like them as CEO’s not purely pastors. Perhaps we should view their wages that way. But we should also certainly, absolutely, always, exercise discernment when it comes to the way people handle the word of God, the word of prophecy and the loyalty of their people. We can’t always tell the intent and motivation behind peoples actions, but we can use the gift of discernment and intuition when it comes to how we engage with them.

Soooo thats the tip of the iceberg of my thoughts on the matter. I’m going to have to leave the tax-exempt status of churches for a whole ‘nother day! So for now…
Peace! 
Kit K.

(Image Cred: Greyson Joralemon via Unsplash)

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