Monday, June 23, 2014
arch 27, 1997, police found the partially decomposed bodies of 39 people in a rented mansion in San Diego, California. They were members of a religious sect called Heaven’s Gate. Their leader, Marshal Applewhite, had convinced members that the end of the world was imminent. He assured them that the only way to assure the safe passage of their souls, to another and better realm, was via a spacecraft that he believed was tracking behind the Hale- Bopp comet. To get to the spacecraft, according to him, they would all have to commit suicide. Just like Jim Jones poisoned his followers in Guyana two decades earlier, members of the Heaven’s Gate, at the behest of Applewhite, ingested lethal doses of pre-mixed cocktails and wrapped plastic over their heads. This occasioned the quick death of all 39 members by asphyxiation. A leader, who once claimed to be the direct brother of Jesus, had cut short the lives of 38 people, in addition to his, while purporting to be speaking with authority from God.
Attempts by errant men and women of God, to predict the end of time, are not new. Many have made predictions that failed to materialize. But they always seem to craftily justify the failure of their predictions and hence continue to maintain their followership. It is worth reiterating that Christ warned that even HE does not know “the day”.
“End of time” predictions are not the only types of predictions that some of these people engage in. For example, every start of a new year, some come out with predictions of, according to them, what “would happen in the year”. While this is a world-wide phenomenon, it is very rampant in Africa’s most populous nation. A Nigerian pastor once said, “Nigerians should pray hard because a prominent person will die this year”. Of course, in a nation of over 150 million, more than one prominent person will die in the year! What is the unique prediction here?
Not long ago, I had a very funny but troubling exchange with someone from Nigeria on the issue of predictions. This was after the disappearance of flight 370 of Malaysia. He told me that a certain pastor in Nigeria predicted the location of the missing aircraft. He said it was in the bottom of the Ocean. When I said that telling us it was in the bottom of the Ocean does not reveal anything because the Ocean is vast, he became exasperated with me for daring to question the “holy” man’s predictions.
If the bible is still the guide for these people, they should remember that when Jesus Christ was getting ready for his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, on what is now celebrated as Palm Sunday by Christians, he directed his disciples to go and get a colt from a certain location. He was specific in the description of the location and what they would find. The disciples found the colt exactly where Christ said and brought it to him. He mounted it and the triumphal journey to Jerusalem began. His instructions were not nebulous, ambiguous or open to interpretation.
Here in the United States, a pastor once told his congregation that he had been directed by God to raise a certain amount from his church or die! This is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob we are talking about here! Did this type of atrocious demand really emanate from him? Was it just hyperbole from the pastor to elicit action from faithful members? If it is hyperbole, why ascribe such an atrocious statement to God? These types of careless statements have made it difficult for people to truly discern who is telling the truth and who is not. The story is not much different in Nigeria where, for two consecutive election cycles, a certain pastor presented himself as a candidate for president. Before throwing his hat into the ring, he would tell his congregation that it was revealed to him that he was going to win. He failed both times. How does he explain to his congregation that an assurance he said came from God failed to materialize? These are clearly personal ambitions that should be seen and treated as such. This is not peculiar to Nigeria. Even here in the United States, some pastors have told us that the Lord asked them to run for president. When they did, they failed. Go figure!
Some years back, when a Nigerian pastor was arrested for fake currency printing, his laughable defense was that, “Judas was a true man of God but when Satan pushed him, he fell”. Essentially, the pastor blamed Satan for pushing him into what he did. No one doubts the ability of Satan to goad mankind into all manners of transgressions. However, when one purports to be the face of Christianity, purports to speak with authority from God, there are certain codes of conduct that the person must strive, against all odds, to abide by. One cannot be doing the exact thing that one preaches against. On the YouTube page where this issue was reported, someone wrote, “If Satan is the culprit, then bring Satan and we will jail him. If you cannot produce Satan, then it will be obvious you are the Satan and we will jail you”. That aptly summarizes how people feel about these aberrant pastors that continually taint Christianity.
I once attended a service where a visiting pastor was to give the sermon. Everything was going well until he stepped into the pulpit for what the congregation thought was to be the sermon. From his looks, it was clear that he spared no expense in taking care of himself, most probably at the expense of his congregation. From the suit he was wearing, to the gold watch he had on, the cuff links, his tie and the way his hair was groomed, he was flawless! He could have passed for a Hollywood model.
Unfortunately, when the sermon began, instead of being about God and the kingdom of heaven, it was about the pastor and his kingdom on earth. He talked about the helicopter that dropped him off that morning and how he took a limo to the church grounds. He talked about his house, how big and great it was and then added, “oh, by the way, it is all paid for”. At this point, the audience began to exchange glances and raise eyebrows. This went on and on for a very long time. It was much later that he began to deliver the “real” sermon which at that point in time, at least for me, no longer had any effect or utility. He had presented himself as a material-oriented and attention-seeking man instead of a humble man of God. These types of preachers create the impression that they indulge in the personal use of the funds that the congregation contributes. They make things worse by flaunting their gains unabashedly. Instead of using the money to grow the church, do the type of ministry outreach that Christ engaged in, they use the money on themselves, buying expensive cars, expensive watches and suits and the likes.
I have become leery of this so-called prosperity preaching. This is where a pastor tells the congregation that if they tithe or make donations, they will be blessed with affluence, good health and more. Sometimes, I get the sense that they are saying that poverty and sickness are the direct results of not making donations or tithing! Yet, it is the poor and sick that offer their “widow’s mite” and going by the bible, their types of gifts and offerings, may not be much, but they go straight to heaven much like the offering of biblical Abel. The size of one’s donations or tithes should never be equated with the amount of grace that one gets from God. God is a generous God that bestows his grace and mercy on the rich, the poor, the sick, those that tithe and those that do not. Jesus spent most of his life ministering unto the poor, the infirm and the meek and even tells us, via the beatitudes, that, “theirs is the kingdom of God”
Sometime ago, there was a church service in Lagos, Nigeria, during which a pastor changed clothes three times before service ended. He started with a normal suit, then later changed into something of a zooksuit and then capped it off with another change. Meanwhile, he was pompously using jaw-breaking and highfalutin grammar in bamboozling the congregation. Two things bothered me about that scenario: Why is it important for a pastor to change clothes, three times, during a church service. Was he presenting the Grammy’s? Second, a preacher’s goal should be to effectively communicate his teachings (sermon), to his congregation. Effective communication is where the recipient fully understands the intended communication. During my research for this article, I observed that the same preacher stations armed guards around him, inside the church, in full view of the congregation, when he preaches! Granted, the security situation in Nigeria has degenerated to alarming levels, but there are other unobtrusive ways to protect the church and its occupants during service. Naked display of armed guards, around the pulpit, during a sermon directly contradicts the preacher’s message. On the one hand, the preacher is telling congregants that if they believe in God, their problems will be taken care of but his actions show that he does not believe what he is preaching. How can he convincingly preach Psalm 127 biblical assurance that, “Unless the LORD guards the city, the watchman keeps awake in vain?”
The same pastor had the insensitivity and temerity to announce that he had ordered a Rolls-Royce that cost N120 million! This is about $718,000! How does one explain this type of profligacy to a widow or a poor family that contribute their widow’s mite to him every Sunday? What would Jesus do if he had N120 million naira? Would he buy one of the costliest cars on the face of the earth or use it to provide hand up to the less privileged? It must be emphasized, at this juncture, that there are many good and God-fearing preachers that ensure that funds raised in the church are used in the service of the poor, the hungry, the sick, the infirm. The great work they do must not be muddied or overshadowed by the profligacy of a few.
Some of these errant pastors call on the congregation to “sow seed” but when they do, the seed goes into their coffers instead of that of the church. They have made church a business venture to service their ostentatious lifestyles. The bible tells us about the reaction of Christ when he walked into the temple and people were buying and selling. He picked up his whip and lashed out at them, overturning their tables and chasing them out of the temple. He basically told them that the house of God was not for wheeling and dealing. I recall a Christmas service we attended in my home town many years ago with my brother Nnamdi. Just before the collection of the offerings, the pastor announced that he did not want to see offerings below a certain currency denomination in the offering plate. Nnamdi and I glanced at one another wondering what the church we grew up in had become. As everyone got up in procession to go and place their offerings in the offering plate, a former senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, apparently angered by the statement, rose and with both hands, displayed the exact currency denomination that the pastor had said he did not want to see in the plate. When he got to the location of the offering plate, he deliberately and dramatically placed his money in the plate. He wanted everyone to see what he did. The pastor did not consider that there were many in the congregation that could only afford the exact currency denomination he just banned. He was effectively telling them not to come and commune with their maker as they wished. It was a regretful spectacle. I felt sorry for what some “men and women of God” had become.
Someone once said that pastors that want money at all costs, never take time to warn their congregation of the wages of sin. They are afraid to lose the people that fill their coffers. That is why in Nigeria, you see someone with questionable character in church with a special chair in the sanctuary area just because they have money. Those that do not have money but steadfastly follow the path of righteousness and give their widow’s mite are not even recognized as part of the congregation. In Nigeria today, it is hard to hear pastors rebuking affluent people known to engage in certain crimes and corruption. They perceive them as the geese that lay the golden eggs and treat them like treasures. They give them places of honor in the church, special chairs in the sanctuary, bestow them with knighthood or the greatest church honors. But do they deserve such honors? Should they truly be held out as role models or exemplary characters for others to emulate? The message here seems to be that regardless of your income source or character, if you make it, the pastor should hold you up as distinguished in church. I have never come across a church where the poor has been knighted for their dedication and service to the church. When I was growing up, our church had a man we called the “sexton”. He cleaned the church, kept the church grounds up to date, rang the bell, and did all the important things that made the church tick. But he was poor and would never be able to make huge donations. Yet, in my eyes, he qualified for all church honors. Jesus never shied away from calling out people for their wrong deeds regardless of their status in the society. He used very terse terms like “brood of vipers” and “hypocrites” to describe those that paraded wealth as if that was all that mattered.
The intent of this article is merely to caution people to look before they leap so they will not be disappointed. If a “pastor” tells you to take your life, just as Jim Jones and Marshal Applewhite convinced their groups to do, reject that and run because it is not of God. If a “pastor” says they know when the world would end, ignore them and move on because even Christ does not know when that would happen. If a “pastor” makes false predictions, know that they are not of God and run the other way. When a pastor pays excessive attention to those that “sow the most seeds” at the expense of other members of the church, the poor, the meek, it is time to reevaluate. If you get into a church where special places of honor are set aside for some, just because of their status or wealth, something is wrong because in God’s eyes, everyone is on the same pedestal.
On the issue of donations to the church, I make bold to say that donations to church for church work are appropriate and legitimate! Donations for church ministry did not start today. Christ obtained the few loaves of bread and fish he multiplied to feed the masses from someone in the crowd gathered. That is a form of donation. In the same vein, the church has to be maintained and outreach ministries have to be performed with donations and offerings from generous members. Pastors and servants of God have to be paid because they, like other humans, have needs to fill. But if a pastor says that donation or tithing is a condition for good health or prosperity, then that teaching is not of God and must be rejected
Before I conclude this article, I have to confess that as a Christian, brought up in a very religious household with a lay leader as a father, basically went to most Sunday school lessons in grade school, sang in the choir until my very last month in high school, I agonized immensely about writing this commentary. I did not want a broad brush to be used in painting all men and women of God. I am compelled, therefore, to aver unequivocally and unflinchingly, in VERY strong terms, that what I am saying here applies only to errant and aberrant pastors. They present themselves as the face of Christendom and taint everyone. My comments in both parts 1 and 2 of this treatise have in no way shaken my belief in the Christian faith. I have seen the handiwork of God in my life, the lives of members of my family and extended family. I am a personal witness to the grace of God through pastors and the church body here. I have listened to people I know give truthful testimonies about the blessings of God showered on them through pastors and churches. I have seen people lifted from agony and misery by the actions of church bodies and men and women of God. Therefore, no reader of this article has my permission to use this article to broad brush all pastors.
I will end this piece by reiterating, at the risk of sounding like a preacher which I am not even remotely qualified to be, the biblical admonition that ALL, including this writer, have sinned and come short of the glory of God. All Christians must continually seek redemption and strive to abide by the biblical admonition of, “let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify our father who is in heaven”. It is a charge given to all and not just errant pastors. So while one hopes that pastors, as the face of Christianity, must continue to show the light by their words and deeds, all Christians have the same responsibility as well. My secondary school motto is “Lux et Veritas” meaning “Light and truth”. It should be the watch word or mantra of all Christians under every circumstance and situation, no matter how dire. And for all ye men and women of goodwill, when in doubt about your thoughts, words and deeds, think, “WWJD”- What Would Jesus DO?
May God continue to shower his infinite blessings on us all.
Alfred Obiora Uzokwe, Author of Surviving in Biafra - The Story of the Nigerian Civil War