Who Cares About Megachurch Scandals? Or, a post about private sovereignties

Who Cares About Megachurch Scandals? Or, a post about private sovereignties March 11, 2014

With the recent spate of controversy surrounding megachurch pastors like Mark Driscoll, Steve Furtick, and David Cho Yonggi, it might be tempting to ask: who cares?


The question is legitimate. The Russian violation of Ukraine’s sovereign borders to get into the Crimea is a geopolitical nightmare. The savage attack on ex-Ming Pao editor Kevin Lau in Hong Kong points to larger issues in Greater China geopolitics. The demonstrations in Venezuela have led to a military crisis. And the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines 370 has all of us on the edge of our seats, wondering if this is another terrorist event while we already grieve with those who have lost loved ones.

And here we are, sitting around, talking about who plagiarized whom, whose money is going where, and whether baptisms are really real. I’m sure there are people who are telling us to get real and get relevant.

These megachurch scandals, after all, are supposedly just about the individual megachurches and how their private dealings are being revealed to the public. In some ways, such news might be treated as mere entertainment, about as relevant to ‘real issues’ as keeping up with the Kardashians (I’ve stated my case for Kimye here).  

Who cares?

I do plan to blog about Hong Kong, so stay tuned. But I want to impress on you the importance of what the megachurch scandals mean, especially they impinge on the very same geopolitical issues raised by the other “more pressing” news events.

What we are seeing is the unraveling of the private consensus for megachurches on both sides of the Pacific. This is important because it reconfigures the meaning of sovereignty in the private sphere.

Let’s unpack that.

Since the late 1970s, it seems to have been assumed that religion, along with the market, the family, and sex, all belonged in the private sphere. Already, this is an issue of sovereignty. You could say, along with Richard John Neuhaus, that the relegation of religion to the private sphere stripped the public square of religion – hence, the public square is naked, according to Neuhaus. But you could also say that the opposite is true: in the private sphere, the religious community itself is sovereign.

If religious communities are sovereign, then it follows that they can also be assaulted, invaded, and territorially challenged. This was precisely the rhetoric of that loose coalition that has come to be known as the ‘Christian Right’: God has been taken out of the public square, and now that viciously secular public is coming even to assault the last vestiges of free religion. Stand up, America, and protect your First Amendment liberties!

You could say that megachurches represent the nicer version of these politics. Instead of baldly stating that megachurches are private strongholds to be protected, the aim was to present a welcoming polity for seekers seeking to find God. But the system was still privately governed. From Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Church to Mark Driscoll’s Confessions of a Reformission Rev, what we find is that for all the talk about ‘new paradigm Christianity’ being ‘individualistic, therapeutic, and anti-establishmentarian,’ there has always been a hierarchical governing structure within megachurches. It’s called leadership and vision executed by a team of people. A private governing system.

And here’s where the public has made a fatal mistake: because these churches are privately sovereign — and because they don’t really state their private politics up front — then it follows that they are also irrelevant. (Indeed, riffing on the Cho Yonggi thing a bit, you could also say that because the Asia-Pacific and Asian America were framed in upwardly-mobile economic terms because of the rise of Asian private spheres, Asians and Asian Americans might also be considered publicly irrelevant. My experience talking about Asians and Asian Americans with two journalistic publications in the last two weeks and receiving the ‘How is this relevant?’ question twice suggests that I may be on to something here. More on this in the Hong Kong post.)

The point is, with the sovereignty of the church framed as publicly irrelevant, you can hardly blame the critics of those who criticize megachurches for seldom noticing that the recent reconfiguration of sovereignties also impinges on the sovereignty of the megachurch.

And that is precisely why there is new public interest in megachurch sovereignty. The rundown of the recent megachurch scandals is not just a public outcry by bloggers who, as Mark Driscoll is wont to put it, ‘don’t have a job and live at home with their mom.’ It’s a democratic interrogation of the megachurch that displays a new public configuration of church-state relations on both sides of the Pacific:

  • The legal questions behind Mark Driscoll’s plagiarism engage, well, all kinds of laws around private property. There are all kinds of questions about copyright law, given the allegations of plagiarism directed at Driscoll. There has been a furor of legal activity around Mars Hill Church’s logo and intellectual property. And there’s the question of whether pushing goods via ResultSource to circumvent the New York Times bestseller list rules is, well, circumventing the rules – and whose rules? How much should the state step in to arbitrate church property disputes?
  • The questions that surround Steve Furtick have to do with taxes and the public purse. When the story broke about Furtick’s house last year, the question behind the journalism was how the church could be held financially accountable because it was not governed within the church, but by an external board of elders with reputations for opulent living. Yet the real question here is whether those private monies are in fact being channeled into the public system or whether the lack of financial transparency in fact affects the public purse. This is now exacerbated by the question of baptisms at Elevation Church because the public image allegedly masks a private reality that is allegedly being used to get private monies that allegedly seldom make it into the public purse. How does how the church spends its money affect the public purse?
  • The controversy stirred by David Yonggi Cho’s conviction have to do with the state balancing the letter of the law and the spirit of Cho’s social contributions. Cho was convicted, no doubt about it, but his sentence was deferred because, as the judge said, of his contributions to social welfare out of his private pocket. Again, the public is being taken into consideration here: the public interest in Cho’s private dealings suggest that Yoido Full Gospel Church is not as privately governed as it imagines itself to be. How does the contribution of the church to the public sphere affect the way it is treated during scandal?

In other words, what is happening is that publics outside of the private spheres constructed by megachurches are saying that they have a stake in how megachurches work. This is because the work of the megachurch is not merely to transform lives within its own private sphere; it is to become a private vehicle for social and civic transformation.

What I’m saying is that we should not pay attention to the sovereignty of states and neglect private sovereignties, such as those in the megachurch. Indeed, even outside of the megachurch, the transforming questions around state sovereignty are forcing reconfigurations within religious circles. The recent violence of the Ukraine has forced a new adjustment among Orthodox bishops as their recent Istanbul meeting has issued a statement on the Ukraine in an act of nearly unprecedented solidarity across national lines. In Hong Kong, the fact that Kevin Lau was a Christian is forcing Christian churches to reflect on whether they can in good conscience support regimes that silence dissidents.

In short, all of this means that all kinds of sovereignties are being currently reconfigured and with it, the political importance of religious communities is being constantly revealed. In the process, it turns out that the notion that religion is privately sovereign may have been a historical invention. Certainly, the consensus around that idea is unraveling.

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