No “Hard Question” today…just some reflections.
The rumblings last May about Paula and Randy White – about their apparently insatiable appetite for luxury homes, cars, planes, fancy clothes, and plastic surgery, about their seemingly inappropriate use of church funds, about their insensitivity toward the needs of their own congregation - along with the current news story about their recently announced divorce, have really been bothering us.
You see, we used to think that Paula White was a great preacher, a great “woman of the Word.”
She was a guest speaker at Living Word Church (again, for the record, a pseudonym, as are all the other non-celebrity names we use here) on more than one occasion. That last time that she preached at Living Word, we were privileged to have a front-row seat (which, as we’ve previously discussed, was a BIG DEAL). As her eyes seemed to lock into mine throughout much of her message, I found myself mesmerized by her authority, by the way she spouted off Scripture, by the way she exhorted us to have the faith of the Syro-Phoenician woman for whatever obstacle we were facing.
When, toward the end of her sermon, she proclaimed with absolute assurance that we would find ourselves delivered out of our bad situations within just a matter of days, I actually believed her. In her rapid-fire style, and with complete authority, she said, “I have been sent by God as His messenger to tell you that you WILL have victory. You WILL see His miraculous hand moving on your behalf!”
I can remember leaving that service feeling absolutely energized, revived in my faith, full of expectancy for how God was going to move in a particular situation my husband and I were facing at that time.
Paula’s preaching so moved me, in fact, that the next day, I logged on to her website and signed up to be one of her prayer partners. Even when her absolute proclamation ended up not working out exactly as she’d said, I was still her fan.
So to read of her “fall” has been especially troubling to me. I feel like I had invested a little something of myself personally into her ministry.
Of course, as with all of this stuff in Charismania, the truth is, I should have known better. The “gospel” that most of these folks preach – including Paula’s faith-filled exhortations about the Syro-Phoenician woman – is not even the real Gospel of Jesus Christ and what He did on the cross for us. Jesus may get a courtesy mention, but the real “gospel” these folks preach is the “Prosperity Gospel,” where how Jesus came to reconcile us sinners with God is just an incidental part of what He REALLY came to do, which is to make you healthy, wealthy, and (worldly-)wise.
We’ve been having some discussions at our house about how this all could have happened. How DID Randy and Paula – and, in a less public but no less intense fashion, our former pastor, Pastor Smith and his society-wannabe wife Mary – get it so wrong? How did they turn the truth of the Bible into the pursuit of money and celebrity? How did the simple Gospel of Christ and what He did for us on the cross get lost in that shuffle?
We don’t believe that all these “prosperity preachers” actually sat down one day and, rubbing their hands together in glee, plotted how they were going to preach twisted half-truths from the Bible mixed with downright lies and then fleece the people for enough money to fund their extravagant lifestyles. We think that most of these folks probably started out with sincere motivations.
So what happened along the way? How did they grow so corrupt?
Awhile back, as part of my personal “therapy” to work through our experiences at Living Word, I actually sat down and wrote out my theory as to how this stuff happened to Pastor Smith. As I read it again, it struck me that you could replace “Pastor Smith” with “Paula and Randy” and it’d probably be pretty close to accurate.
I put it up on this site quite some time ago, so I’m going to post it again here today:
The other night, I realized that I could rather succinctly sum up a few of the things that I believe caused such a once-good ministry to go sour. In no particular order, here are some observations:
Lack of Formal Education/Lack of Doctrinal Knowledge. As an essentially uneducated (or to be more fair, “self-educated”) man, who by his own admission learned most of what he knows from listening to other preachers on the road, Pastor Smith is not very well-grounded in Christian orthodoxy. He’s a smart man, but he lacks the perspective that a formal education could have given him. This is why his preaching is so heavy on the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” – it just reflects what he has absorbed from all the other prosperity preachers through the years.
I actually have come to believe that Pastor Smith didn’t initially buy into the Prosperity Gospel because he was greedy for money. Rather, although he’s intelligent, he just didn’t know enough to know that teachings like the “Manifest Sons” doctrine, for instance, are heretical.
And then, because tenets of the Prosperity Gospel just about ALWAYS work for the preacher taking up the collection, Smith tasted the fruits of declaring, “Give your best sacrificial offering and you will reap a hundredfold harvest,” and those fruits – his own financial success – made him believe even more in the Prosperity Gospel.
A hardened heart. And then, even if Pastor Smith had dark moments of conscience – even if he had a doubt or two about preaching so much about money and “blessings” for the here and now – once he’d attained financial success and had grown accustomed to his luxurious lifestyle, I believe that he hardened his heart against any such questioning.
I also believe that there is something about money and its fruits that naturally tends to corrupt human nature. There’s a reason why we are cautioned over and over and OVER AGAIN not to pursue or love money. (Somehow, “prosperity preachers” conveniently manage to overlook all these passages when telling their cheering crowds of all the material blessings that God is going to give them.)
As Smith’s appetite for luxury grew, and as his sons became adults, got married, and had to fund their own lifestyles in the manner in which they’d grown up accustomed to, it was like Smith was now on a terrible money treadmill, where he had to keep pulling in larger and larger offerings.
His initial taste of luxury grew into a necessity, and there was no way the truth of God’s Word could even penetrate his heart.
It reminds me of I Timothy 4:1-2, where Paul writes, “Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron.”
The “Emperor’s New Clothes” Syndrome. Pastor Smith has, over the years, surrounded himself with nothing but “yes people” who are so enamored of their proximity and access to Smith’s “anointing” that they’d never dream of giving him honest feedback about anything that could be perceived as “negative.” This explains why nobody has ever dared correct Smith on obviously wrong practices like asking people to give his family personal gifts.
Blurred Identity. Somewhere along the line, Pastor Smith grew confused about where his own personal identity ends and where that of the church and/or “his ministry” begins.
This is actually a huge thing that explains so much of the strange stuff that goes on at our former church. It explains why Pastor Smith has no problem soliciting offerings for his wife’s birthday, or simply declaring several times from the pulpit that we needed to give his son and bride cash gifts for their wedding.
It explains why Pastor Smith seems to see nothing wrong with being treated like a celebrity. After all, in his mind, if HE is treated well, that just means that the cause of Christ is advanced, because his sense of himself as an individual has morphed into (and become all intertwined with) his ministry, and his ministry is, after all, about preaching the Gospel. It’s sort of like the old, “If A = B, and B = C, then A = C.” If Smith the man is one and the same as Smith’s ministry, and if Smith’s ministry is one and the same as the Gospel, then Smith is actually…the gospel?
I have come to believe that this identity confusion is why Pastor Smith is still able to convey such a total sincerity both when he preaches and when he engages in questionable behaviors, such as soliciting gifts or favoring the rich. It’s because he honestly has ceased to see any difference between what he does on behalf of himself-and, because his wife and two sons are all on the church dole, of his entire family-and on behalf of the cause of Christ. Hook Smith up to a lie detector, ask him if he’s ever abused ministry funds, and I’m willing to bet he’d firmly declare, “No!” And he’d pass the lie detector with flying colors, because in his mind, his $80,000 Mercedes, his million-dollar mansion, his designer clothing, are all purchased on behalf of the ministry, because they were purchased for HIM. And since he works for Jesus, then it’s actually Jesus who is benefiting from the expensive suits and the luxury car.
Those are some of the observations that time has distilled.