One day some years ago, my family and I were out driving on a sunny Sunday afternoon, talking about our need to replace the vehicle we were riding in. We happened upon a small car lot, so we drove through, looking to see what they had that was interesting.
Within seconds, we were greeted by a salesman with slicked back hair, a polyester tie and big toothed smile: the quintessential used-car salesman. He proceeded to tell us why it was in our best interests to trade in the vehicle we were driving for a similar car of the same make and mileage for “only a few thousand dollars more,” and we could make payments at “only 12% interest.” I imagined him licking his chops, as he looked on us in our tired station wagon.
It was clearly not in our best interests to do business with this gentleman. My daughter called him a shark.
I came away from that experience with a new principle for my life: “Never ask a car salesman if I should buy a car.” The reason is obvious: some car salesmen have difficulty separating what’s good for their commission check from what’s good for my household, and their recommendation – their “expertise” – is self-serving.
Another illustration: imagine a judge presiding over a trial in which his brother-in-law is the defense attorney. The reason judges recuse themselves from cases like that is because the public cannot trust their impartiality: they have a conflict of interest: do I serve justice, or do I help out my family?
I see this happening in the church with alarming frequency: I see self-serving principles taught from the pulpit without any acknowledgement of the conflict of interest. I hear doctrines taught as truth, which clearly benefit those teaching them, and which sometimes do not benefit those being taught. And nobody questions either the doctrine or the motive.
What am I talking about? I’ll state these doctrines more bluntly than they’re taught from the pulpit, but this is the content being taught. I’ll state them very directly in the interest of clarity:
* You must tithe in this church where I get my paycheck or else you’re stealing from God,”
* If you’re not in this building every Sunday morning you’re in town, the devil’s gonna getcha!”
* If you don’t teach in Sunday School, our children are all going to hell!” or
* Give $1000 to my ministry and God will give you [fill in the blank]!”
Let me digress long enough to clarify what I am not saying: I am not saying that the doctrine of tithing is incorrect. I am not saying that the doctrine of covering is heretical, or that there’s something wrong with teaching Sunday School. I believe in tithing and I believe in raising our children as a community.
I’m also not saying that we should reject any teaching that could possibly be construed to the benefit of those teaching. I’m also not saying that the people who teach these things are necessarily teaching them out of self-serving motives. An ethical used car salesman can give me good advise about cars; an honest judge can judge fairly even when his family is involved; a televangelist truly can speak about money without greed in his heart. A true pastor or can invite people to join his church without thought of personal gain – financial or otherwise. It can happen, but it’s hard to have confidence it’s actually happening.
I am saying that it’s kind of awkward that the only people teaching the doctrine that individual believers must belong to an organized Sunday-morning church are the leaders of organized Sunday-morning churches. I’m saying that it’s confusing that the only people teaching that the Old Testament laws about tithing apply to New Testament believers (and who also teach that the rest of the Old Testament laws don’t apply to New Testament believers) are generally the same people whose paycheck comes out of that offering basket they want me to fill up: they may be teaching the truth, but it sure appears that they’re going to benefit more than I am from that teaching.
I’m not convinced that the system is corrupt, or that just because a pastor benefits from our obedience to his teaching, that he is necessarily teaching from a self-serving heart. I know a lot of pastors, and frankly, the vast majority of them are men and women of integrity. I have watched one or two of them struggle with the very issues I’m writing about here. But I’ve watched many others – particularly in small churches, where the size of Sunday’s offering determines whether they get a paycheck this month or not – where the line between their doctrine and their need becomes seriously blurred.
Obviously, a response is appropriate on the part of leaders and teachers who teach doctrine from a motive of self-enrichment, and that response starts with repentance for trusting something other that God as their provider. It may or may not be appropriate to acknowledge the conflict of interest publicly: the real response of a right heart must be towards God first, and only then towards man. As leaders, we must guard our teaching, our counseling, our hearts from mixed motivation.
Interestingly, as believers, our response to this dilemma is old news: after we forgive them, we as the Body of Christ in the pews need to examine the Word for ourselves, not just live off of what is fed to us by others. I’m not advocating an abandonment of all that is taught by paid pastors; I’m advocating that we test the things taught us, that we “search the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.