Tuesday, October 29, 2013

How Much Is Too Much?


Most people hate being imbrued by it, but most everyone enjoys talking about it. Just about every person is at least intrigued in some way by objects of controversy.
The world of the church and ministry is no exception.

In a sense, the church and ministry has always been controversial. Equally true is the fact that sometimes controversy can be caused for God-glorifying and morally and experientially good reasons. For instance, much of the preaching of the apostles in the days of Acts was quite controversial, but for all the right reasons, and it led to God being honored and people being saved. Merely being a Christian was controversial in those days as it involved throwing off and resisting values, traditions, and customs that the larger culture held dear. In some ways, it could be said that controversy was so normative that Peter instructed his readers to always be prepared to explain the hope that they had whenever people asked them about it (1 Peter 3:15). Controversy in these senses is actually good and beneficial.

Unfortunately, there is also controversy that is not helpful or beneficial. Such controversy ranges from outrightly negative at worst to at best being somewhat gray regarding how it should be interpreted. Examples of this undesirable brand of controversy are rife. It is not hard to recall some of the scandals that preachers and church leaders have been at the center of. In the past three decades alone, there has been no shortage of ministry leaders who committed sexual atrocities, not the least of which involved extramarital affairs. There have also been cases of misappropriation of finances and other financial-type sins. Throughout it all, there are examples of men who proclaim Christ with their lips but whose lives and actions betray a heart that is far from Him (Isaiah 29:13, Mark 7:6).

However, there are some controversial matters which do not seem to so clearly be immoral…ones which may on the whole not be good, but at the same time are not completely condemnable as sin either.

Enter the recent news story of mega church pastor Steven Furtick’s new house.

Some background info…

While many are aware of Furtick in the church world through the rapid growth of his church, Elevation Church in Charlotte, the largest city in my home state of North Carolina, he is still relatively not well known to the larger public. Nevertheless, his influence is far-reaching, not in the least because of his best-selling books Sun Stand Still and Greater.

Just in case you don’t already know, Elevation has been one of the fastest growing churches in America since it started with Furtick, his family, and a handful of other families back in 2005. They average between ten and twelve thousand attenders every weekend, though some estimates have it at fourteen thousand.

In modern church growth terms, that is amazing. Very few, VERY FEW churches ever experience even a tenth of that growth. While mega churches may be well known and get a lot of press, the overwhelming majority churches never reach that kind numerical growth.

It also seems that many people are genuinely coming to Christ for the first time as a result of the ministry of the church. That is certainly something to rejoice in.

Why the Controversy?

With such good things going on, why all the ruckus? Especially when he is purchasing his house with income from his books rather than his salary from the church?

While there is controversy related to the fact that neither he nor the other pastors of Elevation are transparent about their individual salary packages, I think the controversy lies in the unsolved question of “How much is too much for a pastor or person in ministry?”

While there is a lot I could reprint here in terms of the details surrounding Furtick’s house plans, you can find the details in stories here and here.

I’m not a hater!

Before I delve into this further, I want to make clear that I am by no means a hater of Furtick, and certainly not of mega churches in general. On the contrary, I’m actually quite a fan of larger churches. Regarding Furtick, I’ve never heard him say something that I would have serious problems with (i.e., I’ve never heard him say something that was outrightly heretical). In fact, I’ve heard some snippets of sermons here and there that I actually agreed with quite heartily and have been encouraged by some of what I’ve heard him say. I've also "evernoted" a few of his blog posts.

Although I have issues with some of the speakers I know he’s allowed in his pulpit, mainly Joyce Meyer and T.D. Jakes (although at least Jakes has recently affirmed his commitment to Trinitarian theology), aside from that, I don’t have anything to balk about, thus I’m certainly not a hater.

For the record, there is actually a lot about Furtick and his ministry that I sincerely admire. He's certainly a hard worker, concerned with reaching people, and is a gifted preacher and leader. Just to be fully transparent, I have even been tempted to be envious of his (and others') influence, talent, and success…I would love to have the kind of influence and growth that God has given him in my own ministry. But I have not been a hater.

All in all, I want to make it clear that my intentions are not to criticize Furtick but rather to simply raise the question on where to draw the line in material possessions.

But I am a thinker.

While I never want to be thought of as a hater, I do think issues like this warrant our consideration. Just how much does one need to provide for his family? Where precisely do we draw the line when it comes to material possessions?

When I consider this matter, I think of other pastors who have influence comparable to Furtick’s who have different housing situations. For instance, one friend of mine who recently attended Desiring God's annual conference got to visit John Piper's house. It was not anything spectacular. In fact, this friend, who has been to my house, compared Piper's to my own. Just so you can see the comparison, I've included it in a photo here.

Matt Chandler (who actually spoke at Elevation once) also comes to mind. I recall very clearly the stories that national news programs did on him during his brief, yet serious bout with brain tumors. During those stories, they came into his home. While I am not in any way qualified to make an accurate guess as to the precise square-footage of a house, I'm fairly confident it was not even half of 16,000 sq.ft.

What does the Bible say?

What Scriptures are particularly relevant to this issue? There are a number of texts that seem to speak directly and indirectly to a topic such as this. Matthew 6:19-21 might seem like an obvious reference here, but I would like to focus on a number of other places that might get overlooked.

Paul's words in 1 Timothy 6:8-10 come to mind: "But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs."

Obviously it is possible to take Paul's words to the extreme and say that food and clothing comprise the entirety of what we need, getting rid of every possession that we have. But we have to develop a proper understanding of what Paul said here by considering it in light of other places in the Scripture. In particular, the fact that we know Paul had a place to live where he lived at his own expense for at least two years (Acts 28:23, 31) and that he owned books (2 Timothy 4:13) are enough by themselves to dismiss any notions of extreme asceticism being a requirement.

But the principle still remains and still needs to be applied in some way. Although Furtick certainly has the right to do what he wants with his finances within moral and ethical bounds, one has to question if this is a wise course of action in light of his position and message he is proclaiming. I fear that by pursuing such extravagance, he is, albeit perhaps unintentionally, endorsing the prosperity gospel by his practices.

So what do you think?

Once again, my intent here is not to criticize Furtick as it is to raise the question of how much is too much within ministry. I realize that I could be accused of having an "unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction." (1 Timothy 6:4-5) Truly though, I'm not craving the controversy at all; I'm just seeking to make sense of it.


Matt Lloyd said...

A very good question to ask indeed.

While everyone will have their own opinion, it was clear where Jesus stood on the topic of money vs. God. He exclaimed himself "how hard it is for the rich to enter into the kingdom of heaven!"

While it is very hard to pinpoint, to draw a line in the sand what exactly is the preferred or ideal salary is or how big the house is, or how nice the car is because of so many variables...I believe God knows what that line is for every man is. And you can't bs God!!

I don't think you have to be poor or struggling....look at the life of Job: he was a very wealthy man and God found favor in him. But I think Jesus said what he said because of how easy it is to fall into the trap of letting your money control you, of serving the god of money instead of God himself.

So ultimately I don't think the pastor is sinning by buying a large house, however he needs to be very careful of not falling into the trap. And to remain thankful, and to use the wealth to bless others more.

Also I do think its bad for his image as a pastor. There will be plenty of people skeptical and doubt him that his motives are pure. Many may view him as a wolf in sheeps clothing, using the ministry to feed off people's emotions just to obtain there's that.

omochan said...

I find myself in agreeance with what Matt has said and concerned about a larger potential problem in terms of perspectives about this sort of thing.

A person makes $X and he is in the will of God. Once (s)he exceeds $Y, we find ourselves having to question where they get money from and who they are taking advantage of or even worse if they are going to compromise themselves and the Gospel as a whole in the process.

I simply can't understand the logic required to make that leap.

Then I read "well, he's a messenger of the gospel" as if that implies "so he shouldn't own a lot of things or make a lot of money" and so on.

I don't understand how or why this is remotely sensible. The same Paul that writes about having just enough also wrote "I know what it is to have plenty and what it is to be in want" and only lines before "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me". The idea here is that amounts shouldn't matter.

That said, amounts are easy to judge (evaluate, not condemn) and quantify. "Less than X is good. More than X is bad."

However, the rules for what these dollar amounts are aren't biblical from what I can read. Nor is it biblical to assume that people that have a lot of money/wealth are bad or that all poor people are destined for sainthood.

So in a place where people are passing harsh - and I mean HARSH - criticism on one man for a certain amount of dollars, I have to ask: does being a true (wo)man of God come with a price tag and/or a receipt? If so, I want to know what it is.

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