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The dis-qualifications of an elder

October 4, 2011 Leave a comment

It is with some trepidation that I wade into this issue, but recent events, both at a local church, and in Alex Grenier’s ongoing relationship with Calvary Chapel, have me thinking about this stuff at some length. I hope kind readers will bear with me; as always I’m not especially interested in whether one particular man or another should be a pastor, but rather I’m looking for guidelines when trying to pick a church that is a safe place for myself and my family.

As everyone knows, Paul the Apostle sent his traveling companions Timothy and Titus a couple of different places and then wrote to them giving instructions on the handling of elders and deacons in the local churches in the cities he sent them to. Those of us with a high view of Scripture typically derive our views on the qualifications of pastors, elders, and deacons from these instructions, and we typically dress up our views by calling them “biblical eldership” or some such.

When writing to Timothy Paul sets a very high standard for elders, including spiritual maturity, absence of various vices, managing his household, etc. In a later section Paul also gives Timothy instructions regarding money given to elders, and warns against being quick to judge elders. What Paul doesn’t do is outline the process or criteria for disqualifying an elder.

Some readers draw a bright line, saying that any elder who isn’t fully qualified is disqualified. See e.g. this article by Orthodox Presbyterian writer Archibald Alexander Allison [link]:

It is the church’s God-given duty to keep all unworthy men out of the office of ruling and teaching elder. Should a man already in office show himself unqualified for the office he holds, the church must be diligent to remove him from that office. In so doing the church will uphold the honor of Christ and insure that the church is edified unto greater peace, purity, and unity.

Not everyone draws the same conclusions. I was surprised, for example, to find in Jay Bakker’s book Son of a Preacher Man his claim that since God had called his father (televangelist and Assemblies of God preacher Jim Bakker) nobody was qualified to tell him he couldn’t return to the pulpit after he did his prison time.

I have on occasion seen a deacon board confront and fire a preacher because his wife left him and wouldn’t return. I’ve also seen Paul’s later instructions “do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses” used as a way to discredit mounting accusations against a pastor because none of the anecdotes had two or three independent witnesses.

If I had to stake a out a position here, I would be inclined to say that since the Scripture doesn’t say clearly how to handle the difficult problem of removing a preacher (yes, note the equivocation between the ancient “elder” and the modern “preacher”), then

  1. There’s a great deal of liberty to be had here
  2. It’s important to find out what position the church you’re attending takes, and what process they have in place for guaranteeing they will behave consistently with that position
  3. These verses serve as a prism of sorts, and the standard we use to interpret them often says more about the reader than about the text

That being said let me turn to the case of Bob Grenier, pastor of Calvary Chapel Visalia [link]. His son Alex has accused him of physically abusing Alex and at least some of his brothers, including punching them in their heads, etc. These accusations are central to understanding Alex’s blog Calvary Chapel Abuse [link]. After having read a fair amount of Alex’s blog over the years, I have to say I find Alex’s accusations credible. I don’t think he’s lying; I don’t think he’s mistaken; I don’t think he’s exaggerating. Having decided that Alex is credible I have to choose one of two positions:

  1. It’s okay for a preacher to punch his children, repeatedly, over a period of years. Or
  2. It’s not okay for a preacher to punch his children, repeatedly, over a period of years.

Because honestly if there’s nothing wrong with hitting children then there are no more questions here about whether Bob Grenier is fit to be in the pulpit.

This is not a subject the Scriptures treat  in great detail either; the proverbs about “sparing the rod” notwithstanding. There’s more going on in the Grenier situation than simple disagreements over disciplining children, anyway.

But on balance I would have to say no; it’s not okay for a preacher to punch his children, repeatedly, over a period of years.

I have focused on this particular accusation for a reason: Paul the Apostle singles out physical violence as being off-limits for an elder. This gets rendered “not violent” in the ESV and “no striker” in the KJV; I do occasionally see people attempt to interpret this prohibition as being a description of temperament (as if “not violent but gentle” were just a poetic way to say “really gentle”) but I can’t find a good reason not to take it literally: a violent man shouldn’t be installed as an elder.

Also, and this is more of a personal opinion, I have to suggest that if a man has two or more adult children making serious public accusations against him, he isn’t “managing his household well” (ESV) or “ruling well his own house” (KJV).

I have to argue that if I were responsible for ordaining Bob Grenier, and I knew these things about him, I would be failing my responsibilities if I ordained him.

Now if I read the tea leaves here (starting at say [link]) it looks to me like Chuck Smith has decided that he isn’t going to do anything about Bob Grenier and nothing is going to change his mind. And there isn’t, apparently, anything in the Calvary Chapel way of doing church that can or will do anything about Bob Grenier.

I don’t know what it means about Calvary Chapel that Bob Grenier is still in the pulpit, but I would encourage thoughtful readers to find out more before committing any time, money or energy to a Calvary Chapel. It says a lot; I’m just not sure what.

Of course like a lot of things about Calvary Chapel this will probably get revisited when Chuck dies and the new regime, whoever they are, take control. I for one hope they will clarify this aspect of church leadership for the benefit of those of us who love Calvary and wish them well.

 

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Smith: Thieves

August 15, 2011 Leave a comment

I spent last week in upstate New York on business, staying in a middling chain hotel where the cable offering included only major network affiliates and a cable-company-produced news channel. The cable company which shall remain nameless offered only EWTN and TBN as religious channels, and I lost all of Sunday to travel, so I had almost no chance to catch any off-brand Christian television on this trip.

I did however catch a couple of TV preachers in the cheap time slots: 3AM, 4AM, 5AM on a weekday on the sort of minor-league cable offerings, opposite the workout videos and the debt-into-wealth real estate/investing programs. In particular, I managed to catch Peter Popoff and Mike Murdock. I had no idea Peter Popoff was still a going concern. I really thought he got out of the business after James Randi exposed him in the late Eighties [link]. He’s still around, though, and his hair is shall we say unnaturally black and immobile.

Mike Murdock of Wisdom Center fame [link] was winding down a half-hour when I caught him, and he was doing a by-the-numbers seed-faith bit. The basic bit is to suggest that if you give a small amount of money to the Man of God then God will give you a large amount of money, provided you have faith. I’ve rarely seen it done as close to the formula as Murdock was doing it; apart from referring to the amount I’m supposed to give him as a “seed” it was as free of pretense and metaphor as I’ve ever seen it. The other distinguishing characteristic was that Murdock was asking for a thousand dollars.

Even in these days of market volatility and sub rosa inflation a thousand dollars is a lot of money; that’s about three and a half weeks’ gross pay at the current minimum wage. I don’t personally have a thousand dollars just lying around. How about you?

Murdock was going further in pressing for money than I’ve ever seen: he actually leaned in toward the camera and said that even if you’re facing bankruptcy and having trouble paying your credit card bill you should still call his toll-free number and give him a thousand dollars. Operators are standing by and all that.

So I went to Google and did a little research and stumbled onto the new book by Trey Smith, Thieves: One Dirty TV Pastor and the Man Who Robbed Him [link]. It’s overpriced at $9.99, but I bought it anyway.

I’m about halfway through it; it moves pretty quickly, it needs editing, and it tells a pretty unpleasant tale. There’s rough language and scenes that are appropriate for a rock-and-roll memoir (I’m thinking Hammer of the Gods here, but only because I’m years out of date regarding the genre) but will offend anyone who reads a steady diet of say Karen Kingsbury. It portrays Murdock as a thief (hence the plural in the title) who exploits employees, women, viewers, family, just about anybody. And it portrays his son Jason Murdock as a hard-partying drug-using Gen X atheist.

He goes into detail about Murdock’s greed, adultery, etc. No drinking or drug use so far, and just the occasional passage referring to inexplicable personality quirks. I’m tempted to measure the portrayal of Murdock against the portrayal of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker in various accounts in the Eighties; I’d argue that the accounts are commensurate, but Murdock comes off as thoroughly and intentionally evil, where the Bakkers came off as more bewildered and overwhelmed.

I can’t say I recommend this book; it’s too poorly written and the material, while germane to the story, is presented in a way that to my ear sounds calculated as much to titillate as to inform. Still, it stands apart from a lot of TV-preacher exposes in that there’s no political angle and the author does at least suggest that there’s a moral standard that he (the narrator) and Murdock fall short of. So I’d recommend elements of it against say Rob Boston’s book on Pat Robertson.

 

The Grassley staff report and the pastoral housing allowance

The Grassley staff report written by Pattara and Barnett [PDF] also cites some of the history of the way the pastoral housing allowance has run afoul of the IRS in the past. The pastoral housing allowance, for those just joining us, is a provision in the tax code that allows “ministers of the gospel” to receive money from their churches tax-free as a housing allowance; it is meant to parallel the tax-free benefit received by pastors who have use of a parsonage paid for by their church.

The examples cited by the staff report are meant to summarize the case law, and are not intended to be representative either of typical use of the allowance or of extreme uses of the allowance. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • 1987: PTL was paying not less than $2000 a month to Jim Bakker as a housing allowance, plus picking up his utility bill, which ran $1000-2000 a month. That’s a really soft number, but it works out to at least $36000 a year for a $1.3 million house.
  • 1993: Leroy Jenkins was using a parsonage in Ohio and taking the allowance for a second house in Florida where he was spending most of his time conducting crusades. The IRS denied the allowance for the Florida house. No amounts are given.
  • 1995: Walter V. Grant was taking $175,000 a year as a housing allowance before he was imprisoned for tax evasion.
  • 1993-5: Rick Warren takes allowances ranging from $76,300 to $84,278 as a housing allowance each year for a house purchased in 1992 for $360,000.

The court case surrounding the Warren allowance mushroomed (pages 13-15) and ended up in front of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals [link] where Establishment Clause issues were raised and not entirely resolved; one of the results was the Clergy Housing Allowance Clarification Act of 2002 (CHACA) [link] which limited future allowances

such allowance does not exceed the fair rental value of the home, including furnishings and appurtenances such as a garage, plus the cost of utilities

and exempted anyone who exceeded the new guideline in previous years

no person shall be subject to the limitations added to section 107 of such Code by this Act for any taxable year beginning before January 1, 2002

Section 2(b)(3) effectively settled Warren’s case in his favor and had the side effect of making the examples above, all pre-2002, legal.

CHACA continues to be interpreted fairly generously, at least in some quarters. Fred Southard, the recently retired Chief Financial Officer from Crystal Cathedral, was taking almost all of his compensation as a housing allowance:

According to court documents, Southard received $132,019 out of his total $144,261 compensation in the form of a housing allowance in 2009. Southard has been with the Crystal Cathedral since 1978. He owns a home in Newport Beach assessed at $2.3 million, property records show. [link]

In other words, Mr Southard’s tax attorney would have you believe that the fair rental price plus utilities for a $2.3 million house in Newport Beach was $11,000 a month.

This brings up two more issues: 1) apparently anyone can be a “minister of the gospel” for tax purposes provided they have a church to pay them; the Grassley staff point out that Paul Crouch of TBN fame ordains various station managers and department heads to this end, and 2) the allowance is not capped.

This certainly seems like a lot of money, especially when compared to the national average:

Note that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average housing expenditure for all households in the United States in 2007 was $16,920. (page 14)

Remember that the Rick Warren we’re talking about here, who is taking a $6000-7000 a month housing allowance isn’t the best-selling author we know today. That didn’t happen until 2002 [link]. In 1994 he was just a megachurch pastor from California.

I have a hard time making sense of these numbers; if I had to estimate my own housing costs they’d come out somewhere near the 2007 average. I’ve been to a couple of pastors’ houses here in the Santa Fe area, and while they were nicer than mine, etc. it’s hard to imagine that their expenditures were twice mine (say $32,000 a year). I have a hard time believing that any pastor needs a million-dollar house, and an even harder time believing that if he needs a million-dollar house that he should be able to pay for it and maintain it tax-free.

Even allowing for that it’s hard to comprehend a preacher taking 90% or more of his compensation in the form of a housing allowance. That seems dishonest both to the letter and the spirit of the law. I think if I were attending a church where the pastor were taking even a $50,000 tax-free housing allowance it would give me pause.

Anyway, in conclusion, I hesitate to mention this now, but we will need to think about what this means later when we come back to the case of Joyce Meyer; it’s important to remember that she’s the star pupil of the Grassley investigation for having made some changes and joined the ECFA, so it may be helpful to look at how she treats the housing allowance.

 

Christian Coalition: America at a Crossroads

September 19, 2010 Leave a comment

This is a short (17 minutes) Christian Coalition video from 1990, after Pat Robertson had made his run for the White House and decamped to Virginia Beach to … do whatever it was he did. I think it’s fair to describe the history of the Religious Right in three phases so far: Moral Majority, Christian Coalition, and Focus on the Family. This video is from that second awkward phase, when Pat Robertson ran for President and Ralph Reed was more or less the tastemaker until he ran aground due to his association with Jack Abramoff, and the Founding Fathers somehow became the Puritans, not Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin.

It’s amazing how poor the production values were twenty years ago, and how it seemed reasonable to have Ralph Reed stand at a flip chart and talk about a quarter-million-dollar media buy as if it were going to change American politics.

It’s also interesting to see the overt attempts to get Catholics into the fold. Note in particular the real clinker Robertson lets loose when he refers to John F. Kennedy and the moon landing about four minutes into Part 2. Seriously; who wouldn’t see that as blatant pandering? I have to admit that in 1980 I couldn’t have told you the difference between Pat Robertson and Jim Bakker; I can’t believe that in 1987 that the average Catholic could have either. If there was a big “Catholics for Robertson” campaign in 1988 I don’t remember hearing anything about it.

I think it’s a crying shame there isn’t more of this sort of media available on the Web. This stuff is really valuable as either a guiding light or a cautionary tale, and it’s a shame that only People for the America Way has possession of this one.

The Red Memo

August 19, 2010 Leave a comment

Turns out my local public library has a copy of Russ Baker’s book Family of Secrets, which is mostly a book about the two Presidents Bush and their relationship to the intelligence community. Baker also devotes a chapter (19: The Conversion) to the younger Bush’s born-again experience and how it was presented as a bona fide to the evangelical community. The short version: George W. Bush may or may not be a born-again Christian; Arthur Blessitt may have actually led Bush to Christ; the rest of the story (the walk with Billy Graham on the beach, any relationship between Bush’s faith and his alcohol or drug use) may or may not be um accretions by a later hand to heighten the effect. Any correspondence here to the Ergun Caner story is probably coincidental. Yeah.

Anyway, the selling of the two Bushes in the evangelical community can apparently be credited or blamed in large part to Doug Wead. Put simply, Wead put together a plan to sell the elder Bush to the community, the plan failed because of Bush, but his son “got it” and the rest as they say is history.

Wead is an interesting character: an Assemblies of God minister, motivational speaker, has connections to the DeVos family of Amway fame, and by 1985 was already an experienced ghostwriter. Baker seems to have gotten most of his interesting material on Wead and the Bushes from Jacob Weisberg’s book The Bush Tragedy, excerpted in Slate:

To help him with this problem, Bush Sr. brought in Doug Wead as his evangelical adviser and liaison. Wead had been involved in a group called Mercy Corps International, doing missionary relief work in Ethiopia and Cambodia, and gave inspirational speeches at Amway meetings. He was also a prolific memo writer. The most important of his memos is a 161-page document he wrote in the summer of 1985 and a long follow-up to it known as “The Red Memo.” Wead argued for “an effective, discreet evangelical strategy” to counter Jack Kemp, who had been courting the evangelicals for a decade, and Pat Robertson, whom he accurately predicted would run in the 1988 primaries. Wead compiled a long dossier on the evangelical “targets” he saw as most important for Bush. (“If Falwell is privately reassured from time to time of the Vice President’s personal friendship, he will be less likely to demand the limelight,” he wrote.) Wead made a chart rating nearly 200 leaders for various factors, including their influence within the movement, their influence outside of it, and their potential impact within early caucus and primary states. Billy Graham received the highest total score, 315, followed by Robert Schuller, 237; Jerry Falwell, 236; and Jim Bakker, 232.

Unbeknownst to Wead, Vice President Bush gave the Red memo to his oldest son. After George Jr. pronounced it sound, George Sr. closely followed much of its advice. [Salon]

Baker portrays Wead’s two memos as being more closely related (the Red Memo was a 44-page edit of the 120-page original) but more or less follows Weisberg’s description of Wead and his role in helping pitch the elder Bush.

Needless to say I’d love to see either version of The Red Memo.

It’s important to remember that in 1985 The Moral Majority was still a going concern, but Wead ranks Falwell’s ability to deliver votes as between Schuller and Bakker. Amazing.

Doug Oldham dead at 79

Former Thomas Road mainstay Doug Oldham died today at University of Virginia hospital, where he had been awaiting surgery.

Oldham served two tours of duty at Thomas Road; one in the early Seventies, when he was at his peak as a gospel singer, and again in the late Eighties, when he returned to the ministry from PTL/Heritage USA as part of the aftermath of the Bakker scandal.