yet another warning sign your church is doing something weird

August 9, 2012 Leave a comment

City Harvest Church is an independent evangelical church founded in 1989 as a youth outreach under the Assemblies of God umbrella. They run some 30,000 attendees. Founding pastor Kong Hee withdrew from the payroll in 2005, and has since been serving as “honorary founder/senior pastor” [link].

Hee first came to my attention a couple of months ago, when he was arrested for appropriating tens of millions of dollars from the church to support his wife’s singing career. There’s a summary article in the August 4 print edition of The Economist [link]:

Mr Kong’s detractors are smug after years of wailing about the evils and excesses of the new mega-churches which, they claim, put entertainment before spirituality, Mammon before God. Mr Kong often prophesied that donations to the church would cause donors’ personal wealth to swell. Such a “prosperity gospel” exploits the materialist aspirations of young Singaporeans living in a society with more millionaires per head than almost any other.

Church members have closed ranks, claiming that they approve of their leaders’ spending (CHC’s building fund alone raised S$23m last year). They seem to have trusted Mr Kong to spend their money in any way he saw fit. Local activists also acknowledge that the church contributes much to the wider community. Still, the case has revealed a lack of accountability and transparency at religious organisations. Worshippers often place blind faith in their church leaders, showing little interest in where their tithes and donations go.

As per usual I’m not overly interested in the details of what the Kong’s did. But I would humbly suggest that when your pastor’s wife posts a video of herself dropping $217.30 on groceries at Whole Foods several thousand miles from your local church that’s a good indication somebody’s not being too careful about the money.


What’s up with the Prevos?

August 8, 2012 Leave a comment

I would encourage readers to take a look at a couple of articles from the Anchorage Daily News; a longer one from January [link] and a shorter one from a couple of weeks ago [link]. It’s mostly about a dispute between a local tax assessor and Anchorage Baptist Temple; the church had apparently allowed a number of ministers to accumulate equity in church-owned properties, meaning that the property would be tax-free (because it was owned by the church) and the ministers would own equity in the properties (which would otherwise be taxable) subject to secret agreements. Here are some choice quotes with salient facts from the later article, written by Richard Mauer:

The assessor, Marty McGee, said Friday his decision was final for the two homes in question — the residences of the Rev. Allen Prevo, the church’s lighting technician, and the Rev. Tom Cobaugh, its education minister.

That’s right: the church ordained their lighting technician.

The ruling could be expanded to include the home of the church’s chief pastor, the Rev. Jerry Prevo, Allen Prevo’s father, pending receipt of a sworn statement about whether he too holds an unrecorded interest his property, as he did for several years.

And he’s the son of the church’s head pastor.

Allen Prevo has lived on Banbury Drive in East Anchorage in a 2,650-square-foot, tax-exempt house since 2004. But in 2011, he and his wife were in divorce court. Both testified that he had a secret employment agreement with the Baptist Temple that allowed him to accumulate equity — ownership — in the house as if the church was carrying a mortgage and he was making monthly payments.

And the whole mess came to light because the younger Prevo was going through a divorce.
The earlier article explains what’s problematic here: church properties are supposed to be tax-exempt; but they’re supposed to be owned by the church. The secret agreements effectively meant that the ministers retained most if not all of the benefits of home ownership without paying the taxes they would otherwise owe. The article also questions who should be considered a minister; it’s a fair question and one that I don’t think has a lot of case law. It is fairly common practice for ministries to ordain men for the express purpose of making them eligible for the ministerial exception.
I don’t have much to say about this case in particular; despite the fact that the elder Prevo is the current chairman of the Board of Trustees at Liberty University [link], with a term scheduled to expire next year. I will say this, though: it rates pretty high in terms of what I’d consider warning signs that your church may have some ethical problems.
  1. The head pastor has family members on staff. A church is not a family business, and the bigger it is the less likely it is that members of the pastor’s family are really the best people for the job. This is something we see a lot of among prosperity theology folks, and it’s something I’d think conservative folks would steer clear of.
  2. Complicated business dealings, including complicated real estate, subsidiary business, and tax dealings. Especially cases where organizational changes are made to exploit loopholes in the tax code.
  3. Divorced ministers. A divorce should disqualify a man for the title of elder; pastors are elders; even if they’re just pastors for business reasons.

It is fairly popular in conservative circles nowadays to do very close readings of Paul the Apostle’s qualifications of an elder as they regard the gender of an elder but to be nuanced regarding the requirements that an elder be the husband of one wife, manage his house in an orderly way, and have well-behaved children. I hear all kinds of exceptions being raised, including single elders, exceptional divorces that don’t disqualify elders, and childless elders. It strikes me as odd that conservatives read a pronoun so closely and wish away Paul’s language regarding wives, households, and children.

Frankly it’s hard to make sense of conservatives getting so worked up about gay marriage when we’ve done such a poor job of dealing with divorce within the church.


life expectancy of gay men

August 7, 2012 Leave a comment

Listening to The Dividing Line lately has been excruciating. James White, the host, is usually interesting to listen to, but lately he’s just been repeating himself and using an increasing number of cliches and buzzwords and fewer and fewer facts, especially regarding gay marriage. I have to admit that for the last couple of weeks if I hear him start in on Islam or gay marriage I will typically fast-forward until he moves on to the next topic. Listeners who skip him altogether missed a fascinating discussion of the primacy of Peter last week, but not much else.

One of tropes he’s been flogging lately has been the difference between the “culture of life” (in the Christian community) and the “culture of death” (in the broader culture). I’m accustomed to hearing “culture of life” meaning at least political (if not organizational) opposition to abortion and euthanasia; sometimes opposition to war; rarely any mention of support for say good nutrition or limits on pollution; almost never any references to homosexuality.

I’ll say just as an aside that claims to a “culture of life” are harder for modern evangelicals to make in the wake of the Iraq War, but that’s another topic for another day.

White repeatedly refers to gay men having shorter lifespans than their heterosexual counterparts; he sometimes goes on to suggest that any kind of legal marriage-like arrangement won’t lengthen gay men’s lives the way marriage does straight men’s lives. So I went looking for some data.

Back in June, Sean Gorman of the Richmond (VA) Times-Dispatch published a “Politifact Virginia” analyzing similar comments by Delegate Bob Marshall claiming that homosexual men live twenty years less than their straight counterparts [link]. Here’s the takeaway: there was a study conducted in Canada, looking at how HIV changed life expectancy among gay men in Vancouver over the period 1987-1992, and they had a life expectancy of about 20 years less than the baseline.

This was during a period of time that deaths due to HIV were rising substantially each year; these peaked in the US about 1995 [link]. Here’s Gorman’s quote:

In the United States, figures from the Centers for Disease Control show that the rate of HIV deaths per 100,000 people peaked at 36.3 deaths in 1995 and fell to 2.7 in 2010, the latest year data is available.

So far as I can tell there have been no substantial studies on the life expectancy of gay men since then, so if you’re willing to connect the dots the way Gorman does it’s reasonable to conclude that gay men in the United States are living longer today than their late Eighties counterparts in Vancouver, so their life expectancy is no longer twenty years less than their straight counterparts.

The truth of course is more complicated; gay men die of causes other than HIV/AIDS; they apparently have a cancer rate that is roughly double that of straight men [link]; during adolescence they attempt suicide at higher rates than their straight counterparts [link]; etc. But so far as I can tell nobody has updated the Canadian life expectancy numbers in a way that would substantiate the kind of claim Marshall makes above.

I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader whether White’s “culture of death” claims are as strong as he makes them sound.


Richard Land retires, and good riddance

August 6, 2012 Leave a comment

Richard Land, of the Southern Baptist Convention Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, announced earlier this week that he will retire next year [link]. The linked article, from the Washington Post blog On Faith, by Adelle Banks, suggests that his departure has something to do with the loss of his radio show, resulting from some comments he made regarding the death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, and that it may also have something to do with the ascension of Fred Luter to the presidency of the Convention.

Maybe; the Convention is more complicated than simple racial identity political issues, regardless of the racial demographic crisis Al Mohler has been describing at great length on his podcast, etc.

I frankly don’t care; I’m glad to see the back of Land. I listened to two of his podcasts, For Faith and Family and Richard Land Live! for a couple of years each, and I always got the impression that he was more concerned with repeating Republican talking points to Southern Baptist than he was anything else. I stopped listening to Land in 2009 after he suggested that the profitability of insurance companies was necessary to the continued viability of the health care industry in the United States.

But the bigger problem from my perspective was Land’s selling of the Iraq War in 2002; he is the last living signatory of the Land Letter [link], an endorsement by five evangelical leaders (Land, Colson, Bill Bright, D. James Kennedy, and Carl Herbster) on the basis of Just War Theory.

I would really encourage careful readers to follow the link from the page above to the text of the letter and decide for themselves how well it has aged, and whether it deserves critical reappraisal and, dare I say it, repentance. Hint: I’d opt for repentance, and I am inclined to consider an open and honest dialog on the latter Bush Administration a good place to start any further discussion of evangelical leaders and their involvement in contemporary politics.

In other words, if you’re an evangelical opinion leader I don’t care what you have to say until you’ve reassessed the Bush years. They were a disaster, and since we believe in openness, honesty, and repentance, we owe it to ourselves to start the discussion there.

I appreciate Land retiring, of course, since it effectively puts the punctuation on his career, full stop, while he’s still alive. I try to avoid speaking ill of the dead (see e.g. this week’s non-discussion of Gore Vidal), and I consider it something like providence to have a chance to take a long hard look at Land’s shall we say corpus all at once.


a quick correction regarding Jack Schaap

August 3, 2012 Leave a comment

Douglas Stanglin at the Detroit Free Press has an article in the Detroit Free Press [link] with additional information on the Jack Schaap situation.

The teenager in question is now 17 and was 16 when the alleged relationship began. The age of consent in Indiana and Michigan is 16, so it appears Schaap will not be arrested.

regarding Jack Schaap

August 2, 2012 2 comments

I am extremely busy and will be so for the foreseeable future, and I have a backlog of topics that is almost stifling. But the firing of Jack Schaap, now former pastor of First Baptist, Hammond, IN, was something I couldn’t let pass unmentioned.

In the interest of full disclosure I will say up front I attended a church pastored by a Hyles graduate for a couple of years in high school, and attended the school attached to the church, and it was a miserable experience, and that has colored my impressions of all things Hyles. That has been one of the reasons I haven’t written much about the Jack Hyles branch of midwestern Fundamentalist Christianity.

The best article I’ve seen on the Schaap firing is an article from the NWI Times (Northwest Indiana, I’m guessing), written by Mark Kiesling [link]. Here are the facts as best I can tell:

  1. Jack Schaap has been fired
  2. He is accused of having a sexual relationship with one or more underaged girls
  3. He may have met with one of them in Michigan, where she was transported from Indiana by a Schaap operative; for this reason the FBI is involved.

Another article says this all came to light because Schaap left his cellphone in the pulpit after a service, and the person who found it saw that it contained a picture a girl had sent Schaap that was incriminating.

Before I proceed let me note the following:

  1. Schaap is Jack Hyles’s son-in-law; Hyles died in 2001 and was survived by sons who were or had been pastors.
  2. Similar but not identical charges had been made against Hyles by Voyle Glover; his is the book Kiesling refers to in the linked article.
  3. Hyles and his sons had been accused of adultery and of having third parties procure and support women for them. It was not clear to me when I last looked at the details that these charges could be substantiated; at one point there were links to them from the Wikipedia entry on Hyles, but that has since been cleaned up to reflect a more neutral editorial voice.

I’m not particularly interested in the sordid details here; I’m lukewarm on the First Baptist leadership’s response [link], since they don’t name the sin for which Schaap was fired and they refer any inquiries to a spokesman rather than signing their names to the press release. I think that’s cowardly, and it undermines any goodwill they get for firing him and saying so in a press release.

I’m more interested in the question of how this disaster might have been prevented or at least detected without say the benefit of Schaap’s absent-mindedness regarding his cellphone. And I think this comes out somewhat nicely in Kiesling’s piece: if the pastor of a church of 15,000 people is doing one-on-one counseling sessions with an underage girl, that’s a warning sign, and some responsible party should have been asking pointed questions.

The pastor of a church of a thousand people is typically a very busy man. He’s doing a very difficult job. And it’s safe to assume that the bigger the church the busier the pastor, for better or worse. And Schaap was the head of a ministry complex, including a church with services in English and Spanish, two high schools, and a college. He must have been an extremely busy man. If he was doing one-on-one sessions with anyone someone should have been asking questions.

What’s the takeaway here? Well, first of all, stay away from churches that are so big that nobody knows that the pastor is doing. Second, it’s always worth trying to find out what your pastor is doing; what he’s doing isn’t as interesting as whether or not you can find out. If you can’t, it’s worth asking why. Third, it’s worth knowing how busy your pastor is. Chances are the answer is “very.” And this can be good and bad; e.g. a pastor who is a lousy father is a lousy pastor, and a pastor who’s too busy to be a dad is a lousy dad. And finally, it’s worth trying to find out who your pastor is really accountable to. If he isn’t really accountable to anybody, he’s an accident waiting to happen.


Todd Wilken reviews Mark Driscoll’s sermon on the Church of Philadelphia

I wanted to refer readers to a recent sermon review by Todd Wilken on Issues Etc. [link] in which Wilken spends about forty-five minutes, net of commercials, ripping into Driscoll from a number of directions. Among other things, if I heard him correctly, he accuses Driscoll of having a crypto-Roman-Catholic soteriology.

I like the fact that Wilken does sermon reviews; for those of us looking for a tradition to call home, these sorts of things are very helpful for underlining what the differences in the various traditions look like in practice. It’s also helpful to hear how a sermon sounds to someone else. That being said, I think Wilken’s definition of what constitutes a good sermon is way too narrow, and would, when facing many passages of Scripture require a preacher to skip them altogether or do such violence to them as to leave them meaningless.

That being said, this message from Driscoll, at least as edited down from its full hour-plus, is a mess. If anyone has a link to the full-length sermon I’d love to hear it. I am not a big fan of taking sermon time to talk about the expansion (or contraction) of a church network; it’s something I’d put on my list of warning signs when visiting a church, because it suggests that the growth of the church is part of its message. And it’s the sort of thing that’s fine in a bulletin or a business meeting or an annual report, or even the announcements, but it just doesn’t belong within the sermon.

I think it’s interesting that Driscoll is apparently not Reformed enough for some of his Reformed kin; he was apparently Reformed enough to be considered Young, Restless, and Reformed by Collin Hansen, but he’s apparently strayed far enough out of the circle of light that it’s okay for Wilken (and James White, for that matter) to be critical of him. Go figure.