Friday, January 17, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: Making Merchandise

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

As long as there has been a people of God in the world, there have been those who looked to take advantage of them. The Israelites had their false prophets, and Peter warns the young church to expect their share of false teachers. He says, as the translators of the King James Version so eloquently put it, “Through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you”.

Tom: But of course the trick is always identifying such people, isn’t it, Immanuel Can? I mean, what does that look like in the real world?

Spiritual Merchandise

Immanuel Can: I think there are some obvious cases: those alleged “televangelists” who bilk credulous people out of their cash in exchange for prayer cloths and candles and phony healings, or for special promises of prosperity or prayer ... clearly they’re turning the name “Christian” into a license to print money. But finding those guys is an obvious take on that verse.

Let’s be more subtle: let’s ask ourselves if it has any application beyond the obvious.

Tom: This is one of those rare instances where the KJV is actually more “on” than some of the modern translations. Most other versions say something like “they will exploit you with false words”. In a general sense, I think that’s true. But the “merchant” image in the verse is an accurate translation of the Greek, which is literally “they will make gain of you”. It’s a word that only occurs one other time in the New Testament, when James criticizes those who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit.” So that’s the sense of it, I think.

The Profit Motive

IC: Yes, that’s right. So what we’re talking about is people who are calling themselves Christians and proposing to aid, teach, serve or lead the people of God, but doing so with a profit motive: they’re turning Christians into salable goods, making a tidy packet off religious activities.

Tom: Essentially the same trick used by the merchants in the temple at the time of Christ, and his condemnation of them is in the same language: “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade”. There was nothing wrong with the sale of oxen, sheep or pigeons in the appropriate venues. The problem is when the house of God — which in our day is synonymous with the people of God — is targeted as a means of making a profit.

IC: Okay, right. But maybe it’s time to pin it down: who does this today? I mean other than the televangelist set?

The Christian Relationship Industry

Tom: Well, there’s Jim Daly and Dr. David Clarke of Focus on the Family. Daly (the president of Focus) gives Clarke (a “Christian relationship expert”) a radio forum to promote the sale of his self-help goodies. Their racket is fomenting marital discontent by stoking the fires of petty interpersonal grievances, giving every sufficiently gullible Christian woman a problem that can only be solved with the expertise of the folks who diagnosed the problem in the first place. You can buy Dr. Clarke’s book, or you can donate to Focus and they’ll send it to you “free”.

In the same vein, there’s Joel and Kathy Davisson, who label anything husbands do that wives don’t like “abuse”. Their redefinition of the term is so broad and all-encompassing that even a husband who inadvertently misinterprets scripture to his wife is an “abuser”. If every woman has an abuser at home, thankfully the Davissons and their guru Dr. Paul Hegstrom have answers for them. You can buy Hegstrom’s books, or the Davissons’. Better still, get yourselves to one of the Davissons’ INTENSIVE seminars (only $200).

Selling Books to Christians

IC: Alright. So there are some clear cases. However, I suspect that most of us are not in danger of being abused by such people. I have doubts about things closer to home. At one point in my life, I worked for over a year for a company that sold various nominally “Christian” goods: Bibles, cross pendants, Sunday school pencils and curricula, music, workout tapes, plastic gewgaws with verses printed on them, and books of various kinds … self-help, romance, celebrity bios and study aids of various kinds. We also sold a whole lot of stuff that had no right being regarded as Christian at all. We must have sold a hundred “Christian” romance books for every Bible or study aid we shipped.

Really, it was pretty much a business, not a ministry. And like all businesses, we mostly catered to the base and trivial tastes of people immersed in pseudo-Christian culture, focusing on what sold, not what was good or edifying for people. And eventually I came to realize that we were not really selling “Christian books”: we were selling books to Christians. That’s a very different thing.

Is that a relevant case?

The Element of Deception

Tom: It certainly could be. To me, it depends very much on how these things are conceived and promoted. The intent is relevant. The wannabe novelist who hawks her romantic fantasies to middle-aged Christian women may be under the delusion that she’s doing something creditable. She may even call what she is engaged in a “ministry” and believe herself when she says it.

But Peter’s condemnation of false teachers has two aspects: (1) they “make merchandise of you” and (2) they do it “with feigned words”, which I think refers back to Peter’s earlier statement that they will “secretly bring in destructive heresies”. These people are not just out to make a buck; they are consciously lying about what scripture teaches to do it.

Some of the product in Christian bookstores absolutely falls into the “false teaching” category. But I suspect much of that stuff is either a product of well-intentioned stupidity or a cynical cash grab with no particular intent to distort scripture behind it.

IC: Now, there’s also another dimension to this issue more closely related to church life and practice. Some years ago, I read an essay on clerical sex abuse, in which the author identified two components of modern expectations of spiritual leaders that are conducive to abuse: we expect our leaders to have (a) expertise, and (b) charisma.

The Fetishization of Expertise

According to sociologist Edwin Freedman, expertise is seductive on two levels: firstly, the more “expert” we perceive the leader to be, the more passively followers yield power and influence to that leader, and secondly, his reputation for “expertise” seduces the leader himself to believe that only he knows what needs to happen, and followers have less and less value to add to the situation. The higher his knowledge and spiritual activity goes, the more he is distanced from the “flock”.

Tom: We certainly see that dynamic in the workplace. The opinion of overcompensated consultants is worth far more to management than that of the people actually doing the job who know both the product and the marketplace far better than any expert. But there’s a mystique about (alleged) expertise that makes companies willing to pay millions for it, no matter how ineffective the advice that comes from experts actually turns out to be.

It would hardly surprise me to see that sort of sensibility among some Christians.

The Lonely Narcissist at the Top

IC: And then there’s the problem of charisma. A leader with magnetism, energy and a sense of direction stirs people to enthusiasm, to a sort of spiritual “high”. Freedman says this is particularly attractive to people who lack self-motivation, and they expect the leader to “move” them. While this grooms his ego and predisposes him to overestimate his own value, it also forces him to operate at a high level of stress and further distances him from the flock. The result at least some of the time is increasing narcissism and isolation in the leader and, simultaneously, an increasing sense of entitlement to all the support — in enthusiasm, participation and finances — that he can get. He becomes the lone, underpaid leader … the one who can do no wrong … the possessor of the vision and the hope of the future.

Tom: That is a job description totally antithetical to that conceived of by the apostles when they gave us the scriptural qualifications for leadership.

Exploiting the Flock

IC: The result is that the “best” leaders on this modern, single-man model are also the most likely candidates to become abusers of their position and exploiters of “their” flock. Their reputation for expertise and charisma, coupled with the stressful demands of meeting astronomical expectations, makes them least likely to be humble, deferential or correctable.

So the profile of the “admired modern pastor” is also the psychological profile of the spiritual abuser. Not surprisingly, the one sometimes tips over into the other.

Tom: That’s pretty grim. Under these sorts of pressures and temptations, it would hardly be surprising to find the scripture misused in ways that sanction, support and further the agenda of the man in charge.

IC: Or of people who realize his susceptibility to flattery and exploit it toward their own ends.

Tom: Really?

Manipulating the Manipulator

IC: Oh yeah. I saw this in a church a short time ago. The pastor was a new guy, and no sooner was he installed then a parachurch organization with a rather sinister theological agenda began to woo him. First, they came to the church on a missionary-information day and subtly introduced their bad doctrine. Then they gave the pastor a free trip overseas and feted and guided him to see their situation their way. And then when he returned, they gave him a high position on their board. He, of course, praised them in front of the congregation, established them as a funded cause on the mission budget, and then began to parrot their poisonous doctrine from the platform.

Now, when eventually confronted on the matter by a few discerning leaders, the pastor took it very personally. He misrepresented his critics and acted like a martyr, denying that he was wrong to take a salary from the congregation and also receive perks from the organization; and he refused to see what his compromise had done to his teaching. We might say his attitude became like that of Shakespeare’s Macbeth:
“We will proceed no further in this business.
[They have] honored me of late, and I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people,
Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,
Not cast aside so soon.”
At length the situation ended, but unhappily. Both sides lost, and many were wounded. The pastor never did see how he had been played; how the incentives and praise he had enjoyed had been bestowed strategically rather than as expressions of honor. Yet the truth was that he had been turned into a Trojan Horse for bad doctrine.

The Damage from Outside

Tom: We talked a little about this “off the record”, and you’ve just given me a good example of a false teacher with a greed motive inside the local church whose misbehavior was curtailed because he found himself accountable to other members of his local fellowship. But my observation is that a lot of damage today is being done from outside the local church. Many leaders in the greater Christian community have built platforms for themselves through the internet, seminars, personal appearances and book sales that give them a disproportionate influence on your congregation and mine; maybe even an influence beyond that of any single pastor or elder.

And this with zero accountability. I mean, other than at the Judgment Seat of Christ, where can people like the parachurch organization you speak of, or John Piper, or Focus on the Family, or the Davissons be called to account? How can their influence be managed at the local level?

IC: Well, one big problem is that discernment now has a bad name. If you say a person’s (or an organization’s) actions don’t add up to good doctrine or scriptural practice, you’re immediately accused of being mean-spirited. Many people do not understand the difference between someone who’s nice, intense, charismatic or highly regarded by others, and someone who’s speaking the truth. And they think that questioning the doctrine of a man (say, John Piper or Joel Osteen) is tantamount to character assassination. They think Christians ought never to question nice people.

The Case for Discernment

But the Berean Jews are praised for questioning and examining the doctrine of the apostle Paul himself. Paul took Peter square on over the issue of legalism and repeatedly exhorted Timothy to be on guard against the prevalence of false doctrine in the church. Keeping up a fa├žade of niceness, tolerating anything while allowing doctrine to slide is roundly condemned by the Head of the Church himself.

Tom: All true.

IC: So why, oh why, is it considered such a sin among us to examine anyone else’s doctrine or practices? That’s a tragedy for the Church, because those who exploit us for material ends invariably do so by the lethal combination of errant doctrine and corrupt practices. If we have no discernment anymore, or if we think that questioning “experts” and charismatic leaders is just plain bad and unchristian, then how shall escape being “made merchandise”?

We need to recover a key Christian virtue: the humility that allows teachers and leaders to be called to scriptural account. But where is that being practiced today?

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