He commanded the people who lived in Jerusalem to give the portion due to the priests and the Levites, so that they might devote themselves to the law of the Lord. As soon as the word spread, the people of Israel gave in abundance the first fruits of grain, wine, oil, honey, and of all the produce of the field; and they brought in abundantly the tithe of everything.—2 Chronicles 31:4-5
The issue of supporting ministry and compensating clergy is an interesting one, and it has been for centuries, famously going back to the Protestant Reformation. For example, Martin Luther’s 95 Theses included accusations that the Church sought inappropriately to accumulate wealth and that the pope was already exceedingly wealthy yet used the money of believers to erect St. Peter’s Basilica (Source). Indeed, during the English Reformation, fully one-quarter of national wealth was shifted from monasteries to the Crown and nobility as the assets of religious communities were confiscated (Source). There are many other such examples wherein so-called “reformers” claimed that the Church was greedy and obsessed with political power. This makes it all the more interesting, however, that Martin Luther himself had a steady diet of roast goose and piglet, and he actually weighed some 330 pounds at the time of his death (Source). Similarly, in England, men such as Sir Thomas Pope were able to become quite wealthy while overseeing the dissolution of the monasteries (Source). In other words, many of the “reformers” took issue with clergy receiving too much wealth until they were in a position to accumulate that wealth themselves. At that point, dining on roast goose and rubbing elbows with Europe’s princes appeared to have suddenly become acceptable practices.
This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to our food and drink? Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who at any time pays the expenses for doing military service? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not get any of its milk? Do I say this on human authority? Does not the law also say the same? For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Or does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was indeed written for our sake, for whoever plows should plow in hope and whoever threshes should thresh in hope of a share in the crop. If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits?—1 Corinthians 9:3-11
It is plain to see what St. Paul was saying here: namely, that the clergyman’s occupation is serving the Lord and tending to his flock. Does the soldier pay to serve? Does the vigneron plant the vineyard with no expectation of tasting the grapes or wine? Does the shepherd guide and protect his flock without gaining something for his efforts? Is the clergyman not the soldier serving the Lord, the vigneron planting the vineyard, and the shepherd tending to his flock, all at once? If a clergyman has sown spiritual good amongst his flock, should he not be provided for by the same? Indeed, St. Paul continued to tell us that “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel,” albeit he also tells us that he did not exercise his rights as other apostles and had instead made himself “a slave to all.”
It is clear that clergy should reap what they sow, but is there a limit?
Take for an example the likes of Joel Osteen. He and his wife are co-pastors of the “nondenominational charismatic” Lakewood Church, which has operated out of the Compaq Center, former home of the Houston Rockets NBA team, since 2003. Approximately 40,000 people attend the church weekly, and millions more watch sermons on television or listen on satellite radio. Osteen reportedly stopped taking his $200,000 salary from Lakewood in 2005, but he is estimated to be worth approximately $40 million and lives in a $10.5 million home with 6 bedrooms, 6 bathrooms, and 3 elevators (Source). Is Osteen simply reaping the material benefits of the spiritual good sown amongst so many? Well, consider the fact that there are no crosses or religious symbols within Lakewood Church (Source), that he clearly violates 1 Timothy 2:11-14 by allowing female pastors, that Osteen preaches a form of the heretical “prosperity gospel” that has made so many televangelists quite wealthy at the expense of their followers (Source), and that he says his “message is helping people let go of the past, reach their dreams, have a healthy self-image, and raise good children” rather than focusing on sins such as homosexuality (Source). Compare Osteen’s message of prosperity and self-esteem with Jesus’s message of penitence and combating sin in our lives and the lives of those around us:
My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.—James 5:19-20
Also consider that the Lakewood “leadership team” includes Osteen, his wife, his mother, his brother, and his sister (Source). This sort of nepotism and other questionable behavior is not unusual among so-called “mega churches.” Kenneth Copeland, another prosperity gospel televangelist who lives in a $6.3 million mansion (Source), includes his wife and children in the hierarchy of Kenneth Copeland Ministries (Source). Creflo Dollar, another prosperity preacher, and his wife, Taffi, are co-pastors of World Changers Church in Atlanta, and they are known for owning a Rolls-Royce, a 53-acre estate near Atlanta, and for previously asking their followers to help them buy a $65 million private jet (Source). T.D. Jakes and his wife, Serita, operate Potter’s House in Dallas, which has allowed them to attain a net worth of some $18 million (Source). Interestingly, their son was arrested in 2009 after he exposed himself to undercover police and began masturbating while making eye contact with one of the detectives (Source). The now-deceased Eddie Long became a millionaire as the pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Georgia, but he was forced to settle out of court with multiple young men who said he had used his position to elicit sex from them (Source). Each of these supposed “pastors” have become quite wealthy through their churches, but it is plain to see that they are not sowing spiritual good among their followers. They are instead peddling heresies and duping many in the process.
Whoever teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that is in accordance with godliness, 4 is conceited, understanding nothing, and has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words. From these come envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, 5 and wrangling among those who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.—1 Timothy 6:3-5
It is not difficult to understand how these false teachers have become so wealthy. They put forth a message that brightens one’s day yet does not enlighten one’s faith. They seek to maximize the number of people who hear their message, and then they let Christian tithing do the rest. Christians are called to provide for men of the cloth, and tens of thousands of people providing up to 10% of their income every month quickly adds up. How many of these supposed “pastors” are actually doing the work of the clergy that warrants the rights detailed by St. Paul? Is Joel Osteen available around the clock to congregants in need of counseling? Does Kenneth Copeland sit down with his followers and host Bible studies? Could Creflo Dollar or T.D. Jakes identify random members of their congregations let alone know their struggles in life? Are any of them shepherds tending to their flocks in the Lord’s name, or are they just wolves preying on wayward sheep?
This sort of predatory behavior is not limited to wealthy prosperity preachers either, albeit they are the most obvious due to their prominent profiles. For example, John Pavlovitz ministers to teenagers at the North Raleigh Community Church in North Carolina in addition to blogging, tweeting, and operating a Facebook group (Source). He has defended Joel Osteen (Source), espouses liberal political positions from his religious platform (Source), claims homosexuals are as God intended (Source), peddles the myth that Jesus was a liberal hippy (Source), defends Muslims (Source), opposes legislation aimed at protecting Christian religious liberty (Source), questions the existence of Hell yet wishes Republicans will go there (Source) as well as homophobes (Source), promotes female ordination (Source), and has even written his own version of wedding vows that references “hot sex,” “flatulence,” and so on (Source). For his heretical and godless efforts, he has cultivated a congregation of some 180 lost souls, which provides him $3,800 per month on Patreon alone (Source).
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.—Matthew 7:15-20
What are the fruits of those mentioned above? Are they faithful shepherds tending to their flocks in the name of the Lord, or are they ravenous wolves? Each of them has accrued immense wealth from their followers, but all they offer in return is New Age heresy that is meant to be like honey in the ear, ever so sweet and pleasant, rather than faithfully sharing the Word and bringing people closer to God. Why then have they prospered so while walking in the darkness? Two phrases come to mind—a fool and his money are soon parted, and the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. These false teachers and prophets have a well-crafted message that is meant to sound like it is from the Lord, but it is an easy sort of faith, requiring little but promising much. Why bother with penitence and service when you can just feel good about yourself and your sins? Why worry about reconciling your personal views with God’s will when you can just believe God’s will is the same as your own? Faith is hard because we are flawed, but most do not want to hear that today. The Enemy’s temptations are so dangerous because they target us where we are weakest, and that includes people who want to see themselves as faithful yet are still so consumed by sins that they cannot recognize them as the flaws they are.
Sometimes there is a way that seems to be right, but in the end it is the way to death.—Proverbs 16:25
On a more personal note, it can be difficult for a man of the cloth to discuss such issues with members of their flock out of a fear that they may seem money-grubbing, greedy, and corrupt. St. Paul may have said that clergymen have a right to be supported, but, in this day and age, can you honestly imagine being lectured about tithing to support clerics, even if using St. Paul’s own words? Would a cleric not immediately be labeled selfish by many? Should men of the cloth be “slaves to all” in silence, or should they be as vocal and forceful as St. Paul? It may be easy for Creflo Dollar to shamelessly ask for a $65 million jet, but it can be infinitely harder for someone trying to walk in the light to discuss financial concerns. Of course, this does not mean members of a flock should pay what they cannot afford, even if they truly support their shepherd. It is for individuals to discern who and what they should support and to what extent, and a true man of the cloth must serve regardless. It is not for them to ever withhold what God commands or the flock needs. God willing, however, more Christians will learn to be more discerning and to stop supporting the Joel Osteens of the world.