Explaining megachurch scandals

In researching my recent posts on charismatic theology, contemporary Christian worship music and so on, I came across the fact that yet another serious sex scandal has hit the New Apostolic Reformation movement, this time involving the International House of Prayer in Kansas City and its leadership. Whatever else this shows it demonstrates that holding the (claimed) longest prayer meeting in history, not counting Count Zinzendorf’s famed Moravian one, doesn’t of itself guarantee the integrity of a ministry: as in most things spiritual, as well as in the world, the devil is in the detail.

These big Charismatic churches seem to be habitually beset by serial scandals both monetary and sexual (spiritual abuse occurs too, but is less newsworthy). I won’t give numerous examples, but if you’re at all familiar with this area, you’ll know that leader after leader has been exposed, not only in America, but across the globe from Australian Hillsong to my own local experience of Peniel in Brentwood, Essex, and even to T. B. Joshua in Nigeria and others further afield.

More scandalously, the wider leadership of new apostles and their like routinely defends the offenders, then eventually unites to admit they have fallen and are not worthy of ministry. But then, a year or two later, these same leaders accept them back not only into ministry, but into full membership of the apostolic band that claims authority equal to, or greater than, the biblical apostles, to decree reality, heal at will, attract angels to drop their feathers and cheap glitter, and so on. In some notorious cases this cycle has been repeated two or three times, but the culprit’s videos somehow remain popular among members of many ordinary Evangelical churches practising what I’ve heard referred to as “entry-level Pentecostalism.”

Now of course Hypercharismatic megachurches are not alone in suffering cases of leadership abuse. For a start, church leaders are indeed “only human,” and such frailty has led to moral failure in mainstream Anglicanism, in Evangelical and Reformed churches, and of course famously in the paederasty scandal in Roman Catholicism. And of course, there was the case of the apologist Ravi Zacharias. What makes the Pentecostal megachurch situation different are the apparently endemic nature of such sin, the ease with which restoration to the same high-profile ministry results (no shunting off to a retired life in a quiet parish for a Todd Bentley!), and most importantly, that these flagrantly abusive leaders are held up not only as heroes of the faith, but as fully-fledged modern apostles with direct access to God. Would you trust your daughter with such an apostle?

In cases of corruption-in-office across the churches there may often be “institutional” factors. In Catholicism, for example, the stresses of mandatory celibacy in the priesthood, contrary to Pauline advice, has been seen as problematic since the Reformation; but according to Catholic sources, the recent scandal has more to do with a culture of homosexual tolerance in the seminaries. Defensive and cultish denominations can foster secrecy and narcissitic leaders by their us-against-the-world mentality: apparently there is an ongoing scandal in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but it is prone also to occur in less heterodox groups like the Closed Brethren, Strict Baptists and so on. I suspect such defensiveness may help explain the handful of well-publicised scandals in Evangelical Anglicanism, which rightly sees itself as marginalised by the hierarchy, making willful blindness to internal leadership failures a temptation, to safeguard “the brand.” That’s very unlike the New Testament, where airing the dirty linen in public is seen to be both the cure and a witness in itself – something to do with God being the God of Truth.

But Pentecostalism, in my view, is in a class of its own. It is certainly the case that Megachurches have several particular reasons for fostering abusive leaders. “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and there’s little more absolute power than the perceived authority to decree events that, because of your divinely appointed apostleship, heaven itself must ratify. More prosaically, there are many whistleblower reports of downright cynical manipulation behind certain ministries, in order to accumulate Lear jets, vintage cars, mansions and so on. That’s before we get to angel-dust in the air conditioning, leg-lengthening fraud, and the prayer requests being binned after the money has been unpinned.

And yet there is a profound paradox here, in that those same whistleblowers will testify that such leaders often have highly annotated and well-thumbed Bibles, and seem to believe, or come to believe, the tall stories and shady doctrine with which they deceive others. Costi Hinn, for example, who broke away from his uncle Benny’s family cult, did not simply have to be converted from deliberate charlatanry, but to unlearn a whole theology he grew up in and believed.

In the most extreme cases it is hard for the dispassionate observer not to see demons at work in such deception and the excesses it leads to, but even this trajectory towards welcoming Satan in the guise of the Holy Spirit has theological underpinnings.

It is the theological problem that I want to concentrate on here, which seems to make Pentecostalism (and hence Charismatic Christianity informed by Pentecostal theology) particularly vulnerable to moral failure. I noticed something of this long before megachurches became a thing. In fact my interest was aroused by the way that so many Southern US rock singers seemed not only to have grown up in Pentecostal manses, or even dropped out of leadership themselves, but despite notorious womanising, under-age marriages, substance abuse and so on, they were able to slot back into leading churches at the drop of a hat. The key to it all is the theology of holiness, or in some case the lack of one.

This is a problem besetting the whole contemporary Evangelical church, so that I may even surprise some readers by reminding them that Jesus came to earth to save sinners from sin, and to destroy the works of the evil one. Mrs Alexander was right to summarise, “He died that we might be forgiven, he died to make us good.” The first part of that is justification (agreed on all Evangelical hands to be by faith), and the second is sanctification, which has had (to oversimplify) four main theologies over the millennia.

  • 1 Pre-Reformation Catholicism tended to undermine the divine origin of salvation by making sanctification a question, primarily, of human effort to become holy. Even if the application of the Cross through baptism removed past sins, forgiveness for post-baptism sins came through performing sacraments of eucharist, confession and penance – and by fallible human effort. Hence the need for Purgatory to catch up in the afterlife, and for the “super-erogratory grace” available on application to Saints who had done more good than they needed to. And for pilgrimages and indulgences (all with a monetary price).
  • 2 The Reformation recovered the truth that Jesus asked for the Holy Spirit from the Father primarily so that we could become like Christ. Hence we are saved by Holy Spirit grace, through faith – but in some way also made actually holy by Holy Spirit grace, through faith. The clue is in the Name. I’ll enlarge on this later.
  • 3 Pietism and Wesleyan Methodism were Arminian movements in which divine grace was uneasily balanced with human will and effort. Yet by emphasisng the experiential, Wesley in particular viewed sanctification as a single act the Holy Spirit, subsequent to the analogous sudden role of the Spirit in conversion. In other words, Wesleyan holiness was evidenced by a feeling imparted by the Holy Spirit, the result of which, at least in some cases, was “Christian perfection.”

The evident of failure of those achieving such a status actually to be sinless led Wesley to add epicycles to his doctrine, and for “Christian Perfection” eventually to be dropped by Methodists and other Pietist offshoots. But what to do with the post-conversion spiritual experience that had given rise to the doctrine?

In the first place, it has been re-theologised on more than one occasion, most notably in the US revivalist movements from which Pentecostalism arose. I noted in a previous blog how it became identified as the authentic Pentecost baptism of the Holy Spirit (and therefore true conversion) lost to the “dead” churches for centuries. But I gather that before that, it was seen more as a New Pentecost for the end times, all the biblical miraculous gifts being restored for a post-millennial world revival ushering in the return of Christ. It’s interesting how such ideas live on in the megachurches centuries later.

Since Evangelicals attracted to Pentecostal teaching could not deny (a) that biblically the Spirit baptizes us into Christ at conversion and (b) that many receiving this “blessing” with or without tongues were certainly already true Christians, maybe (they reasoned) the term for the experience should be changed to the less loaded “filled with the Spirit.” That also opened the way for making such an experience a normative part of every worship service, and the 1970s “Jesus People” idea that Jesus gives you a bigger high than dope.

Somewhere along the way, the Pietist idea of the “Spirit for holiness” was actually reversed: failure to receive the Spirit was blamed on unconfessed sin and lack of faith – in other words, on lack of holiness!

At the same time, a subtle shift occurred towards viewing the filling with the Spirit primarily in terms of “power for service,” rather than for holiness. This can be seen in the writings of Jessie Penn-Lewis that informed the Welsh revival of 1904, and subsequently other revivals such as the East African revival, one of whose evangelists, Roy Hession, I met on several occasions, and even booked for a Medical School evangelistic meeting. It should be noted that these earlier movements nevertheless still had a strong emphasis on repentance and changed lives.

As the emphasis on spiritual gifts, signs and wonders increased in Pentecostalism and the later Charismatic Movement, “power” became the focus of the Holy Spirit in and of itself. Becoming mainstream through John Wimber and the Vineyard “Signs and Wonders” movement, the wackier and more lucrative ministries of Word-Faith and its offshoots have become almost the sum of theology. The Holy Spirit has become the free-standing source of power almost without reference to the Father who sends him, and the Son he is sent to glorify. Hence we now see direct invocations for the Holy Spirit to “Come!” in services, that are completely absent from the Bible, where the focus of worship is always Jesus, and the Spirit’s self-effacing work to point to him.

In the Pentecostal megachurches, of course, the lust for power has been taken to new extremes. Not only is the gospel actively stated (as by Bill Johnson of Bethel) to be ineffective unless accompanied by works of supernatural power, but those works have become more gaudy as the years have gone by, whether that be in the mass convulsions of possessed worshippers, the grandiose false prophecies, the angel feathers, and all the rest of the stage hypnotism.

In all this, whilst the teaching of forgiveness available in the Cross often appears fairly orthodox (certainly in the songs), it is hard to find any reference to sanctification, to personal holiness. That is despite the truth that changing our sinfulness is the main earthly ministry of the Holy Spirit, according to Jesus’s own teaching. Even the power of the Pentecost-like events in Acts always results in verbal glorification of Jesus and his salvation, in praise and in proclamation, not in electric shocks, inner peace, convulsions, or lying immobile for hours.

With such a power-obsession, the very concept of holiness and sanctification, let alone the Spirit’s role in it, has more or less disappeared from the theology of the Spirit, not only in Pentecostal churches, but in Charismatic “Pentecostal-Lite” churches. At the risk of being contradicted by my readers, when did you last hear a sermon on sanctification, on mortifying sin, on the centrality to NT teaching of personal and corporate righteousness? How many of us see “moving in the Spirit” in terms of ecstatic feelings rather than in the more biblical idea of growing in goodness? How many of us, in a culture with little concept of sin, see the sine qua non of our Christian life as achieving success in the constant battle against indwelling sin? We (and I include myself) are more comfortable telling ourselves that Jesus accepts us just as we are (subtext: “and wouldn’t want to change a thing about us”)?

You would find a very different emphasis in John Owen’s 17th century treatise of the Holy Spirit. What do he, and other soundly biblical authors, teach on the matter? Starting with a text like Galatians 5:24, which speaks of crucifying the flesh with its passions and lusts in the way of the Spirit, they draw out of Scripture a theology of how the Spirit (already in us by the new birth) works in tandem with the word of Christ, especially as applied by exhortation or rebuke in the church, to convict us of areas in which we fall short, and to prompt us and, in a usually unspectacular way, to empower us to change.

Such moral change is not only far more a witness to God’s power than any number of prophecies or healings, but is sufficient work to keep us busy (and humble) for the rest of our earthly lives. Furthermore, such reformed lives are a more dependable sign, both to others and to ourselves, that we truly do belong to Christ, than any subjective experience of the presence of God. “Be perfect, therefore, even as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Jesus says in the same paragraph that is what makes us sons of our Father in heaven. It is, indeed, a work in rather patch progress, but if we talk about the Spirit of Sonship, then we’re surely talking about the Spirit of Christlikeness.

That Spirit would appear to be lacking, or gravely ignored and grieved, in any church leader who is a serial adulterer, or homosexual offender, or substance abuser, or spiritual abuser, or extravagant spender, or purveyor of fake miracles. Teaching false doctrine is a whole other matter. And as much as anything else, it would seem that a theology that entirely ignores what the Bible says about sanctification is a theology that is inevitable going to let sinners down.

So it is worrying for the state of the church that so much emphasis is placed now on a simplistic view of Holy Spirit power, and so little on the means of making us of the Spirit’s power to grow in holiness.

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.

(1 Timothy 1:15)
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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to Explaining megachurch scandals

  1. Ben says:

    Possibly you’ve already come across this, but there is a fascinating article (and following discussion) on the Soul Survivor scandal – which also ties together your recent threads of scandals, megachurches and the charismatic movement.


    It was an offhand reference to the scandal of Jean Vanier and L’Arche that led me to the report by the commission that investigated what went on, over decades. Very challenging to read about the wheat and (very) chaff within the same person, and what that implies for Christians everywhere about leadership, trust, etc.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks for that link, Ben.

      Where I think I disagree with the author is in separating off obvious evils like celebrity culture, emotionalism and suggestion from the theology itself. they seem to me, now, to have been crucial to it from the beginning of Pentecostalism, which is why problems keep recurring.

      That’s not to pretend that there are not problems in other traditions, but with less emphasis on “star performers” and more on the dangers of sin and the need for biblical holiness, they appear to be far less common.

      My single “pull quote” is this one: But let’s not suggest that the core charismatic convictions about God’s transformative presence, that underpinned Soul Survivor, were inherently unhelpful.

      It seems to me that to bracket charismatic theology with the transformative presence of the Spirit, over against alternatives, is at the heart of the problem: charismatic teaching is about desiring not so much transformation by the Spirit, as evidence of his presence, experienced through power of any visible kind, and often strongly correlated with the power of suggestion though mood-music, repetition, rhetorical prayers, mass participation and so on. That comes straight out of Finney in the nineteenth century, but fits today’s scene, including Soul Survivor, just as well.

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