Magical thinking, ignoring context and fear-mongering
1. Using the Bible as a charm
I once heard about an interesting practice within a church denomination. When weddings are conducted in any of their branches, instead of the traditional exchange of rings, the couple exchanges Bibles. A friend of mine who was familiar with this practice told me that an aunt of hers, who was divorced, lamented that perhaps her marriage would have lasted if they had exchanged Bibles instead of rings at the wedding!
I am not sure where this fits on the list of many issues that are over- spiritualized. There is much more to making a marriage work than the ceremony itself. The success of a marriage is certainly not dependent on the items that were exchanged during the vows. I’m sure there are many couples that had the “Bible exchange” that are now divorced. (I know at least one).
The Bible is not a good luck charm and using a Bible in a ceremony does not guarantee success.
2. Taking passages out of their proper context to promote an agenda
This is a very common practice but is especially prominent in circles where the prosperity gospel is promoted. An example of this is when preachers use the following passage to encourage people to give generously, with the idea that this is how to get rich.
“Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you.”
Luke 6:38 (NKJV)
While generous giving is encouraged in Christianity (and other religions), there is no guarantee that giving will lead to wealth. Taking this verse in its proper context, the conversation has nothing to do with financial prosperity. The verse immediately preceding the one quoted above makes it clear that the message is about forgiveness, not finances.
“Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
Luke 6: 37 (NKJV)
We are being instructed to be generous in forgiving others, so that we will be forgiven, too. We are not being promised that we will get rich if we bring all our money to the church or otherwise give it away.
3. Using Bible stories to promote fear rather than faith
I once heard a preacher give a reason why certain members were being excommunicated from his church. The pastor claimed that these people were asking for financial accountability and suggesting that he (the pastor) should be on a regular salary (as opposed to the one controlling all the money that came into the church).
The pastor claimed that there is a curse on anyone who “gives to God”, then asks what was done with the money. He then went on to read a story from the book of Numbers in the Old Testament where people were swallowed by the ground after rebelling against Moses and Aaron.
“As soon as he finished saying all this, the ground under them split apart and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah, together with their possessions. They went down alive into the realm of the dead, with everything they owned; the earth closed over them, and they perished and were gone from the community.”
Numbers 16: 31-33 (NIV)
Taking stories from the Old Testament out of their proper context to instill fear is a classic tactic that spiritual leaders often use to control their followers. Church leaders should absolutely be accountable, especially when it comes to finances.
God loves a cheerful giver
So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver.
2 Corinthians 9:7 (NKJV)
Giving should be cheerful and from a willing heart, not a response to fear. Church members should expect accountability from their leaders. The lack of accountability in finances and other areas creates an environment where various forms of abuse actively thrive.
Does accountability get in the way of doing God’s work?
Someone once supported the notion that it was alright for a lead pastor to not have to answer to anyone. Her reason was that God might tell him to do something that the board (or whoever he reports to) disagrees with, and in such situations the pastor could be prevented from following God’s orders.
The idea that God would speak exclusively to the pastor is yet another problematic issue – but let’s save that discussion for another essay.