In this final installment, John and I will conclude our evaluation of the Word of Faith (WoF) movement at this moment in history. Again, John gets to go first.
The ugly happens when the bad goes unchecked. Because most people are human, there is tendency to feel good about your choices. This is not necessarily bad until it crosses over into pride. Pride is always bad.
I will speak from some of the ugliness I have personally experienced…
The first WoF concept that I truly took to heart was confession. What comes out of your mouth is what is in your heart. It changed my life profoundly. It also made me a bully. When told “Wear your coat or you’ll get a cold.”, my reaction was “I don’t receive that! You can’t place that curse on me.” Yuck! I am so ashamed these words ever came out of my mouth, but they did. I shamed and bullied beautiful people who loved me. Beware of the “confession police.”
Another example is with the WoF teaching of prosperity. The fact that God is a good God and wants to bless and provide for His children gets twisted by the ones who “believe” God is required to provide whatever they say simply because they say it. I was around several big-headed Christians that continually spouted, “God wants me wearing the best, driving the best, living the best. I’m calling in a Cadillac, a Rolex, Armani suits, and diamond rings. I’m calling them in.” These are some of the most snooty, mean-spirited persons. Beware of the “name it and claim it” believer.
Another concept that I was introduced to in the WoF camp was provision, and all that has been done for me. I was born again into a covenant with Jesus’ blood on the cross, and all that was purchased with it. Where this goes off the rails is when the believer denies symptoms because they believe God will heal them carte blanche. “I can write this bad check because God will fill my bank account.” I have no flaws because of Jesus. These folks have no humility. And sometimes no brain.
One of the most ugly sides of WoF can be the appearance of infallibility. I almost bought into it once upon a time. Noah planted a vineyard and got drunk. His “bad son” exposed his drunkenness, the “good sons” covered it. The concept that exposing sin in the church weakens the church does none of us any favors.
Because the WoF message is so liberating, so powerful for the Christ-follower, people flock to the message and very large churches can be established. The danger is that leaders begin to think that the church is as big as it is because of them, rather than because of the message. When a church becomes built around a personality, it becomes vital that the personality is never associated with any negative element at all. Steve has written an amazing post on this subject. Churches are full of people, and when people fail, how we deal with their failure is a huge indicator of how humble and God-directed the leadership of the church may or may not be.
I’m going to go into the issues John just raised in greater depth by exploring some of their root causes.
The Lunatic Fringe
Along with every move of God I can recall throughout church history, a lunatic fringe arises around it. The vast majority of the time, such groups are composed of scripturally-illiterate pietists who have assimilated just enough of what God was doing at that moment in time to be spiritually dangerous to both themselves and others. Such folks have had either an incomplete grasp of what is actually being taught and/or they have filtered those teachings through the lenses of their cognitive biases and logical fallacies.
Regardless of which, the end result of their distorted perceptions is a caricature of the core movement’s tenets. Satan then weaponizes those distortions to fend off sincere Christ-followers who would otherwise see and receive the actual truths being taught as well as their accompanying benefits and blessings (John 8:31-32).
Tragically, the lunatic fringe surrounding the WoF movement is rather massive. Such folks took the message of divine prosperity and warped it into thinking God owes them mansions, Mercedes SLs, $2000 suits, and designer dresses. They put on airs, looking on the outward appearance of others, then got snooty towards those who didn’t “measure up.” They mistakenly assumed they could merely tithe or give in an offering and God would be forced to multiply it back them in kind apart from the mind renewal required for Him to be able to entrust it to them.
Anyone who dared disclose having an illness was considered less-than, even more so if they went to a doctor for treatment. No one could admit their afflictions, flaws/weaknesses, sins, or struggles for fear of being judged for “not having enough faith.”
The arrogance, self-seeking, and selfish ambition James, Paul, and Peter all repeatedly warn us against ran rampant. Tragically, this kind of spiritual toxicity is no longer limited to those on the fringe. Some of the most colossally arrogant horse’s patooties you will ever meet are those employed by — sometimes even leading — WoF churches and ministries.
Jesus had to deal with a similar bunch back in His day. They were called Pharisees.
Name It, Claim It, and Frame It
Tragically, this also was perverted by the lunatic fringe who took these absolutely scriptural principles and twisted them into the subtitle of this section. In their thinking, they presumed they could simply claim whatever they wanted — regardless of how fleshly that desire might be — and they would receive it if they confessed it long enough, hard enough, often enough. The bottom line is they were treating Almighty God, the King of the Universe, like he was a cosmic bellhop. One badly deceived WoF pastor actually taught it was scriptural to command God to do what we wanted.
Somehow, it completely escaped them that we work for Him, not the other way around!
First, some background on this topic so you will have a better grasp on what I will say later. There are more than a few forms of church government within Protestantism, of which I will address only the following primary four for reasons of space and time:
- Strong Pastor
Each has strengths and weaknesses. None are perfect. Indeed, all have potentially fatal flaws. Why? Because there are people involved. Perfection eludes all churches because each and every one of them is attended/governed by flawed human beings with varying degrees of sanctification, no matter how diligently we try to crucify our flesh to serve our loving and holy Lord. As the old Pogo cartoon said, “We have met the enemy — and he is us!”
The following summarizes their distinctive characteristics plus my personal opinion on each one.
Episcopal is an old-school word term for “bishop” or “overseer.” This is the hierarchical dictatorship practiced by the Anglicans (aka Episcopalians), and Methodists. It was carried over almost intact from Roman Catholicism, the primary difference being that none of them have a pope, though the Archbishop of Canterbury is the conceptual equivalent for Anglicans.
Ideally, this form provides good pastoral accountability. However, I believe this system is tragically flawed because it differs little, practically-speaking, from a secular corporate structure with all its political intrigues, in-fighting, and jockeying for position/prestige. By this, I mean it tends to place a local pastor in a situation where his political skills within the bureaucracy are more important than his ministry calling and personal godliness, the same kind of corruption Roman Catholicism has struggled with for well over a millennium.
This is a pure democracy similar to that practiced by the Athenians in ancient Greece where the entire congregation votes on how the church does business. Any local church with that word in its name employs this form of church government.
I believe it to also be tragically flawed because the spiritual course of a church should not rest upon the winds of popular sentiment. Every congregation on the planet has a wide spectrum of personal sanctification and spiritual maturity present within the group. Thus, at one end of that continuum we have baby believers having almost zero biblical literacy, have experienced almost zero mind-renewal, and may or may not even be particularly good citizens, much less committed disciples of Jesus. At the other end, we have mature Christ-followers who are seriously devoted to the Word and prayer. Throughout that mix are members who may or may not have personal axes to grind because of their own emotional baggage and/or personal agendas.
All those folks then get to weigh in on any plan of action the pastor might care to take. Depending upon the popularity of both the pastor as well as the intended agenda, any direction the Holy Spirit has clearly told him or her to take could be voted down by folks having the spiritual discernment of a frog. This also leaves the pastor’s spiritual accountability in those same hands, with his popularity being the #1 criteria in any such discussion.
This is the selfsame reason our founding fathers rejected this concept for our federal government. To put a nice bow on the whole concept, there is not one shred of scriptural support for the concept.
Presbyterian (with a small “p”)
The word “presbyter” is simply an old-school term for “elder.” This form places control of the church’s business operations in the hands of a small board of ostensibly spiritually mature men elected from the congregation at large. Elders also provide accountability for the pastor to safeguard the congregation against any gross doctrinal error, moral turpitude, and/or financial malfeasance.
All capital “P” Presbyterian denominations are governed worldwide in this manner. Point-of-fact: they invented the idea! The foundational concepts were initially expressed by John Calvin, then later refined into its current expression by the Scottish reformer John Knox, considered to be the founder of all Presbyterian denominations.
In my humble opinion, it is the most scriptural of all three types of church government. The structure of our federal government is derived from the selfsame concept and is successful for the selfsame reasons: checks and balances. Here’s a bit of trivia for you: the British called our Revolutionary War “The Presbyterian Revolt” at the time.
Please do not mistake me here: I am neither endorsing Presbyterianism nor their Calvinist theological foundation, only their form of church government. Truth be told, many other denominational and non-denominational churches of a variety of doctrinal persuasions employ some variant of this same governing system.
These are the downsides as I see them:
- The first one is when an elder board is composed of men whose sole claim to fame is they are financially well-off and are major contributors to the church’s budget. Their resulting sense of entitlement arrogantly assumes their so-called generosity automatically gives them a controlling say over the church’s finances, operations, and spiritual direction, even to the extent where they can start telling the pastor what to — and what not to — preach.
- An elder board can also become toxic when the lead elder has strong leadership skills and an unscriptural personal agenda who then abuses the system by packing the board with his cronies. This is simply a malignant variant of the strong-pastor form of church government we will discuss below, but with a pernicious elder at the helm instead of the pastor.
A major problem with all three governance systems I’ve just described arises when a pastor receives revelation concerning the things of God which may be absolutely scriptural, yet runs counter to the church’s doctrinal heritage. Either that or the closely held and vociferously defended preconceptions of the denominational leadership, the elders, or even the congregation itself.
During the Charismatic Renewal of the 1970s, more than a few pastors were given the so-called “left-foot of fellowship” when they suddenly started speaking in tongues as the Holy Spirit sovereignly crossed all denominational boundaries. Such common events were the primary impetus behind the on-going seismic shift away from mainline and evangelical denominations to non-denominational churches.
The strong-pastor form of church government was a companion reaction to that same kind of abuse. Pastors who had been treated shabbily by their denominational churches were suddenly freed from their prior poisonous environments and determined to not allow themselves to be placed in such a position ever again. Many found their way into the WoF.
One of the leading voices in this shift was the late Kenneth E. Hagen of Rhema Bible Institute renown, a major hero of the WoF movement. He had suffered precisely the kind of abuse I just described at the hands of carnal elder boards while he was pastoring at least one church during the 50s and 60s. His experience soured him on presbyterian church government for the remainder of his life and ministry. As a reaction, the strong-pastor form of church government was and is taught as holy writ at Rhema to this day. Correspondingly, every Rhema graduate who has opened a university or ministry training school teaches the exact same thing — including my alma mater, I might add.
Hagin’s premise was that, a strong pastor has the authority to:
- Preach whatever he feels God told him;
- Run his services as the Holy Spirit leads;
- Spend the church’s funds on whatever buildings, outreaches, missions, the Lord commanded of him;
- Steer his congregation’s “ship” without a bunch of armchair quarterbacks trying to second-guess his plays, and;
- Control his own job security (I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard the comment from a founding pastor, “They didn’t hire me, so they can’t fire me!”)
Alongside that, the WoF sought to correct decades of disloyalty and disrespect/abuse towards pastors by denominational congregations and/or elder boards (vicious gossip leading to unjust pastoral firings and/or church splits, as well as poverty-level salaries and living conditions, just to name two). Instead, the WoF taught congregants to respect their pastoral leadership, honor them as “God’s anointed,” pay them well, and drove home the idea our Lord would not bless those who dissed their pastors.
In principle, such teaching is entirely correct scripturally (time and space does not allow me to explore that topic here in the depth it deserves) when confined to its biblical limits. But a major problem arises when folks indulge their flesh and take these concepts to extremes never intended by NT writers. In many cases, this resulted in what John has already termed as “pastor worship” on the part of many WoF congregants and a colossal sense of entitlement and infallibility on the part of more than a few WoF pastors.
Most strong pastors have little or no accountability for their decisions concerning finances or personnel management. Even if a board of directors or elders does exist, it functions in a strictly advisory role. Often, it is there merely to rubber-stamp the pastor’s agenda because such bodies tend to be packed with the pastor’s relatives and/or a bunch of yes-men.
To be fair, as the moral misconduct and/or financial extravagance of certain WoF pastors came to light during the 90s and 2000s, responsible pastors took steps to make themselves more publicly accountable, especially financially. Several WoF churches I’ve attended either published monthly budget summaries during church services or or made those numbers available at the information desk to anyone who cared to ask.
Lest you accuse me of over generalization in what I’m about to say next, let me be perfectly clear that many WoF pastors do quite well without elder oversight. That being said, the ills I’m about to describe are far more prevalent that not.
Questionable Business Skills & Practices
Sadly, almost none of these ministers has ever run a business of any kind and could not effectively manage their way out of a wet paper bag. Because there is almost no effective internal financial accountability, some of them make the most colossally stupid business decisions imaginable.
Example #1: One such minister is severely conflict-avoidant and has problems dealing with malignant female staff members, refusing to man up and fire them despite their demonstrable incompetence, deceptive behavior, divisive self-promotion, and/or gossip/backbiting.
Example #2: Another pastor in dire financial straits with his grandiose building program became desperate and tried to obtain financing from a criminal enterprise wanting to launder money through the church. Tragically for all concerned, that sketchy organization turned out to be a law enforcement sting operation — the pastor was publicly humiliated, landed in prison, and the church disbanded.
Nepotism is rampant. Why? Because all pastors want to leave a lasting legacy. That desire is not bad in and of itself — indeed it is a godly goal. Where it often goes awry is when a pastor tries to establish it via his own children. Some pastors have offspring who are indeed worthy of the task in terms of both calling and character; others, not so much! Tragically, in my experience, the latter tends to be far more true than the former. Other PKs want nothing to do with the ministry, yet are sometimes emotionally forced into the role — their resentment never fails to eventually surface.
Some strong pastors become dictators perfectly willing to abuse their absolute power, all ostensibly in the name of Jesus. The toxicity of their reign varies according to the undealt-with emotional baggage they bring to the equation.
For example, one such pastor of a megachurch I attended had unresolved issues arising from being raised in a broken home where his alcoholic mother constantly employed tears and other emotional ploys to manipulate him. Because of all that, any female employee who broke into tears during one of his reprimands triggered him and he would summarily fire her on the spot because he automatically assumed he was being manipulated.
He also had a nasty habit of firing employees and volunteers out of nowhere on a whim. For example, I was fired from my volunteer role running an overhead projector (remember those?) displaying the song lyrics during the song service with no prior warnings. The reason? Because I wore jeans to our services. A few years later, he summarily fired my then-wife, a major department head at his ministry, because she could no longer work the extended hours she had worked prior to our adopting our 4-year-old son.
On multiple occasions, he even publicly announced that his attitude towards employees was like them sticking their hand into a bucket of water; once you remove it, the water doesn’t even know the hand had ever been there. On the other hand, there were more than a few ministry employees who thought themselves God’s great gift to the ministry. Talk about a classic case of role reversal!
I could provide far more examples of his abysmal employment attitudes and policies, but I think I’ve adequately made my point. And yes, I’ve forgiven him! 🙂
At yet another WoF church in a different city, I was a volunteer member of the sound crew. At the beginning of a Sunday service where water baptisms were about to take place, I briefly left the booth in violation of church policy to correct an extremely unsafe situation where the mic boom at the baptismal tank had sagged to the point where there was a genuine danger of the microphone itself making contact with the water. My pastor scoffed at my reasoning as he fired me from the crew. Sadly, within 2 weeks, a pastor in a baptismal tank at another church was electrocuted and died because his mic had fallen into the water. My pastor remained unrepentant even after I had related that to him.
In such malignant churches, any plan, direction, or opinion the pastor expresses is sacrosanct, no matter how ill conceived, poorly thought out, or inadequately planned it may be. Any staff member having the audacity to ask for a specific roadmap of how it is to be accomplished, express questions/concerns about its manning and financing, or even request something as simple as a job description of their role within that plan is instantly condemned as disloyal or insubordinate. Usually, that hapless employee is either summarily fired or marginalized into resigning.
Compounding all this is the phenomenon of toxic pastors’ wives. I call them “Gloria Copeland wannabes” (that is not any kind of an accusation against Sister Gloria, by the way). Such women demand the same honor from staff and congregants due their husbands. Many times, they are the “power behind the throne” in pastoral households where the husband is the weaker-willed personality one of the two. For example, the aforementioned conflict-avoidant minister’s wife dominates the ministry’s business decisions concerning personnel. One incredibly toxic staff member is essentially untouchable because she is the wife’s best friend.
Almost without exception, the WoF ministries of the 1990s and 2000s in Tulsa had revolving-door personnel practices. I know that most, if not all of them, did not contribute to the state unemployment system or comply with government-mandated fair employment regulations (citing separation of church and state). This meant a loyal employee who had devoted years to a given ministry could be terminated without cause, notice, or separation pay — and then could not collect unemployment benefits afterwards. I know this from personal experience.
Tragically, the Tulsa pastor I cited above as an example was considered by many ministry employees to be the best ministry employer in the city. Selah!
There’s plenty of ugly to be found in the WoF movement at large. All the things stated above contribute to the fact that people have left the local church and refused to engage with any flavor of local church moving forward, choosing rather to paint the entire church world with a broad brush of disdain. One of our greatest shames is that any of the attributes we’ve described here be named even once among us. I agonize that I, and the church I love, may have contributed to the the shipwrecking of anyone’s faith.
This litany of bad attributes should serve not as a reason to hang our head in shame or to consider dissolving the whole WoF edifice. Instead, it should cause us to look inward with more fervency so we conduct ourselves in such a manner that none of these attributes should be evidenced in our midst.
There is so much good, so much passion, so much opportunity, and so much work to be done, that, even though we occasionally encounter this ugly side of the WoF message, we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. I hope and pray that laying out this tirade of trainwreck will make those who read it be more aware of the pitfalls on the pathway and more careful to avoid them, for it is God’s kingdom we represent and God’s work we must do.
Apart from a hearty “AMEN” to John’s eloquent comments, here is what I have to add:
I got so fed up with toxic WoF churches that I left the movement over a decade ago, though even a cursory examination of my writings will discover it is saturated with scriptural principles I learned during my 27+ years there. My reason for leaving? I decided I would rather attend churches with a far greater level of emotional health, even at the expense of not experiencing the move of the Spirit. Simply abandoning all churches is patently unscriptural and absolutely not an option.
That doesn’t imply I’m looking for a “perfect church” because such a body does not exist this side of eternity. Even if there was such a unicorn, once I joined it, its perfection would be immediately lost. 🙂
That being said, from hard, cold experience I have learned to never say “never” about anything before God. Every time I have done so in times past, He has arranged for me to experience whatever I said “never” about because using that word implies I’m in charge and He isn’t. Bad move! So there may well come a time when He takes me back to a WoF church. If/when so led, I will obey, albeit with a certain level of reticence and an abundance of caution.
The tangible presence of God’s Spirit is precious to me. While I enjoy that privately, I miss experiencing it in a corporate setting among my brothers and sisters in Christ.
I have often felt like the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes who walked around Athens with a lamp searching for an honest man. Except instead of honesty, with me it has been the search for a non-emotionally-toxic church where they also have a powerful move of the Spirit.
The search continues…
Thanks for reading!