Friday, November 10, 2006

You can't serve both God and the Dollar

Hollywood could not come up with a better mockery of the Christian faith, a more stereotypical lampoon of the money-grubbing clergy than the all-too-real Rev. Dr. Creflo Dollar of Atlanta, GA.

Dollar is a well-heeled Southern preacher whose name sums up his theology. He is involved in a "team ministry" with his wife ("Pastor" Taffi Dollar), and he drives a Rolls Royce, has a million-dollar home in Atlanta (as well as a home in New York City), and a private jet. He lures people by their own greed via the so-called "prosperity gospel."

He's a Richard Pryor caricature writ large.

In the following article he argues that Jesus was rich, and wants his followers to likewise be rich. His website's "statement of beliefs" includes the following: "We believe that God wants us to have a full life, free from poverty, sickness and disease."

Of course, to take this premise to its logical conclusion is to believe that material wealth is an indicator of God's favor, that the rich are blessed and the poor are cursed. Take it yet a step further, and one can conclude that suffering is a curse from God, punishment for sin or for a lack of faith. This means that cancer patients, orphans, aborted children, crime victims, people who must deal with alcoholic relatives, children who have been molested, people who live in third world countries, etc. have somehow gotten on God's bad side. This also means that Mafia dons, crooked politicians, playboy tycoons and wealthy TV preachers are all doing the Lord's work.

This view of theology was around in the sixteenth century, and Martin Luther called it the Theology of Glory. Of course, it was also around long before the middle ages. It was condemned by our Lord when he refuted the Pharisees who believed those who suffered illnesses were being punished for their (or their parents') sins. It was condemned when Jesus warned of the difficulties of the rich entering the kingdom of God. It was condemned when Jesus praised the widow's offering of two mites over and above the flamboyant religious folk who blew trumpets to announce their wealth.

In contrast to the Theology of Glory is the Theology of the Cross. Though the image of our Lord suffering and bleeding hardly fits the triumphant image of Dr. Dollar's idealized Messiah on a lear jet, this image is the very picture of God. The Suffering servant of Isaiah may not appeal to a man who sees imported suits and gold watches as the purpose of the coming of Jesus, but to those who heed the Lord's doctrine and store up their treasures in heaven, this seemingly weak and defeated Man is the very picture of the victor over the grave.

I would bet a few dollars that Dollar's megachurch in Atlanta nowhere has a crucifix on the wall.
Pastor Dollar needs to know a few things: the first will be last, and the last first. He will one day deteriorate in health, and all the money in the world will not buy him comfort, joy, or favor from God. He will get sick and he will die. He will be held accountable for his false teachings that have served to deceive the gullible and fatten his bank account. As our Lord says, such people "already have their reward."

You would think that snake-oil salesmen and shysters would lose their appeal over time, that people would figure them out, that the well would run dry - like a Ponzi scheme or multi-level marketing pyramid. One would think that after the likes of Reverend Ike, Oral Roberts, Robert Tilton, the Bakkers, Kenneth Copeland, Joyce Meyers, Benny Hinn, and many others of their ilk, people would be immune to the teachings of the "prosperity gospel."

But like any get-rich-quick scheme hawked on late-night infomercials, this kind of satantic false doctrine will always attach itself to people in the name of the Christian church like the blood-sucking parasite that it is. This is no different than John Tetzel selling indulgences with a flourish of showmanship and false promises to beguile the faithful. There will always be new Creflo Dollars to mock Jesus and to fool the greedy - and give the enemies of the cross ammunition to portray all preachers as sharing this kind of ethic and thelogy.

But by the same token, for every buffoon of his ilk there will be many faithful shepherds who lead people to Jesus, to the true wealth espoused by our Lord: the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life; men who proclaim the humble-sounding Gospel and who administer seemingly simple sacraments of God's grace. Such shepherds seek no attention for themselves, but rather put the spotlight on the Crucified One.

One such shepherd was a 20th century Lutheran clergyman, a real theologian with a doctorate in theology, a true pastor who suffered and died at the hands of the Nazis. His name was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He knew the meaning of suffering, as he watched innocent people rounded up by the National Socialists - not so they could be given Mercedes-Benz cars and fancy homes on the Rhine, but rather to have their possessions confiscated and to be put in concentration camps. Bonhoeffer's friends and relatives lost all of their wealth at the hands of the Nazis, and many lost their lives - as would Dr. Bonhoeffer himself. Their plight was not attributable to their lack of faith, their saying of the wrong prayers, or somehow deserving to be tortured - but rather due to the fallen state of the world - something not addressed by the "name it and claim it" crowd.

Dr. Bonhoeffer understood the gospel, the real gospel, the theology of the cross - as can be seen from this very un-Dollarlike quote:

"The figure of the Crucified invalidates all thought which takes success for its standard."

For all of the questions scholars have raised about Bonhoeffer's orthodoxy on various points of theology, this much is certain: Dr. Bonhoeffer truly understood that God hides himself in suffering, that the Christian life is lived under the bloody sign of the cross as opposed to beneath the glittering dollar sign, that the Lord's beckoning "Follow me!" means following Him to his passion and cross and death, and not to follow him down the red carpet into a Rolls Royce - at least not on this side of the grave.

Creflo Dollar is not entirely wrong about Jesus being rich. Jesus is God. All things were created through Him. Indeed, He shares all of His wealth with His adopted brothers and sisters. However, the Lord humbled Himself, taking the form of a servant. He has come to serve rather than be served, and He implores His followers to do the same. The riches that are His in the Kingdom, which are the riches He shares with His Church make anything on this side of the grave look like baubles from a bubble-gum machine. And while some, like Dollar, are distracted by what amounts to cheap costume jewelry that is really junk inside - our Lord promises true wealth beyond measure to those who confess Him and lay up their treasures in heaven.

I cannot imagine how any pastor can sincerely believe the "prosperity gospel" and the "theology of glory" and surround himself with such crass wealth as Creflo Dollar if he has spent any time ministering to Christians in the hospital, in the nursing home, and on the deathbed. Perhaps that's the special cross of the televangelist - to be too busy and "important" to minister to anyone except through the sterile lens of a camera man, to sacrifice the privilege of giving of personal pastoral care in exchange for mere material trinkets of temporarily shiny "bling" that is subject to rust and the moth.

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