By Bill Mefford
When I was a student in college way back in the 80s I remember when the controversies over the televangelists hit the headlines. I was hardly surprised. Just months before the news of Jimmy Swaggert and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and several others broke, I remember being in the dorm room of one of my friends who liked the televangelists and I told him that one day news was going to come out that showed them having affairs and mishandling money. Sure enough, Swaggert got caught doing something weird with a prostitute and Bakker was caught in an affair with a young woman and even went to prison for tax evasion.
My friend came to me after the scandals broke and asked me how I knew this was going to happen; he thought Jesus has given me a “word of knowledge.” No, I told him, no word of knowledge. It doesn’t take supernatural knowledge to know those two guys were full of crap.
Well, in keeping with unsurprising headlines regarding supposedly “Christian” leaders being entirely full of it, news broke on Monday about Jerry Falwell Jr., President of Liberty University, and his misuse of school finances to give his relatives and friends some sweetheart contracts, enriching himself and his friends, and protecting his weird sexual proclivities. The article I linked to is long and excellently researched, though it does tend to portray Jerry Falwell Sr. in a sympathetic light and that is unfortunate since both Falwells have done immense damage to real people and to the gospel in general.
Can anyone say they are surprised to learn of how crooked and self-enriching people like Falwell are though? I sure can’t. The building of Christian empires have been an impediment to faithfully following Jesus ever since Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire even though he wasn’t actually a practicing Christian.
What do I mean by “Christian empires”? I mean building large organizations or churches that have as their intended purpose bringing glory to God through some specific and, at face value, entirely practical way, but in reality, are vehicles that people use to enrich themselves and/or satisfy their cravings for glory and power. People like Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and Jerry Falwell Jr. (and Sr.) are all easy to detect, as are others like Robert Tilton, Creflo Dollar, Joel Osteen, and trump’s own pastor, Paula White. Their completely skewed interpretation of the Bible to support their stealing money from poor and ignorant people is completely heretical. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing will a helluva lot of hairspray. They are an embarrassment to the name “Christian” and one of the main reasons why I rarely call myself a Christian anymore.
But “Christian empires” aren’t the sole property of TV caricatures on TV. No, there are many people in the church, particularly in mainline denominations, who are building their own Christian mini-empires, minus the hairspray. What is core to these empires is self-enrichment, self-promotion, and/or self-protection. As denominations are declining at a more rapid rate and face irrelevance through infighting in recent years, with particularly the United Methodist Church coming a part at the seams, those who sit atop the episcopacy and the various boards, agencies, or other entities are racing to ensure that they maintain as much of the current funding and institutional power that they have inherited.
This entails the political art of cozying up to leaders of various factions within the splintering denominations and ensuring that no matter which way the wind blows they will somehow maintain their current paychecks and seats of power. It does not matter that the budget of these mini-empires comes nowhere close to the $3+billion that Falwell Jr. is in charge of and benefits from. The core values are what empires are about: self-enrichment, self-promotion, and self-protection.
Reflecting on this brings to my mind the image of Jesus clearing the money-changers from the temple. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the story of Jesus cleansing the temple occurs at the end of the gospel (John places it at the beginning), and so it represents Jesus’ final act of disgust with the religious elites of his day; people he has repeatedly invited to join him but who he has finally given up on.
Instead of the sounds of prayers, the temple has been filled with the noises of commerce. Instead of contrition and brokenness, the temple has become a place of enrichment and the garnering of power. So, in a fit of rage - there is no other way to put it - Jesus overturns the tables and clears the money changers from the temple. He has had enough.
Almost all empires begin as well-intentioned means of serving God and people. But oh how easily they turn to serving the people who run them. Cleansing the temple, driving out money changers, and overturning tables is a natural and needed act every so often, whenever the building and maintaining of empires are betraying the gospel they are proclaiming - a gospel that calls all people to repent of self-protection and self-aggrandizement - but also threatening to hurt people we are called to love and serve. We do need to overturn tables and not all of the tables that need overturning belong to presidents of massive universities; some belong to the people who run our failing denominations. And as it should be, we pray that the judgment of God will come and when it comes, let it begin with the house of God.