One should always be concerned when politicians start trying to oversee the Church. Bad things -- really bad things -- can happen when the State assumes power over the pulpit.
However, the U.S. tax code, allowing as it does exemptions for religious and charitable organizations, does give the government some authority here. And therefore, when the venerable Republican Senator Chuck Grassley from Iowa has had just about enough of television preachers riding around in Rolls Royces, living in mansions, paying $30,000 for a conference table, and siphoning "ministry funds" over to profit-making companies controlled by the preachers, he's decided to at least check things out.
Again, that's a dangerous sign for the Church.
But please note this, if the Church does end up losing some of its authority and liberty out of this thing, the primary fault will not be Chuck Grassley's or the U.S. government's. Rather, the fault will be with the cash-loving clerics who exploited the gullible, brazenly flaunted their wealth, and distorted the Scriptures to justify their greed and arrogance.
All Grassley is doing so far is asking questions. Any other actions will depend on just how those questions are answered. Six TV preachers are being queried. And Fox News reports why these six:
* Kenneth and Gloria Copeland of Kenneth Copeland Ministries of Newark, Texas, a $20 million organization and prosperity gospel pioneer. Questions were raised about the transfer of church assets to a for-profit company, Security Patrol Inc., a $1 million loan from Gloria Copeland to the group, and a "personal gift" of more than $2 million given to Kenneth Copeland to mark the ministry's 40th anniversary.
A Copeland spokeswoman released a statement saying the ministry is working on a response to Grassley's letter, follows all laws and best practices governing churches and religious nonprofit groups, and "will continue to do so."
* Creflo and Taffi Dollar of World Changers Church International and Creflo Dollar Ministries of College Park, Ga. Grassley's letter asks for records on private planes, board makeup, compensation and donations and "love offerings" to visiting ministers. In a statement, Dollar called his ministry an "open book" and said he would cooperate. He also questioned whether the investigation could "affect the privacy of every community church in America."
* Benny Hinn of World Healing Center Church Inc. and Benny Hinn Ministries of Grapevine, Texas, is asked about use of a private jet, a home in Dana Point, Calif. and "layover trips" while traveling on ministry business. Hinn did not respond to requests for comment.
* Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church and Bishop Eddie Long Ministries of Lithonia, Ga., was questioned about his salary, a $1.4 million real estate transaction and whether he, and not the board, holds sole authority over the organization. Long plans to fully comply with the Senate's request, and his church has "several safeguards" to ensure transactions comply with laws governing churches, according to a statement from Long's spokesman.
* Joyce and David Meyer of Joyce Meyer Ministries of Fenton, Mo., who were quizzed about receiving donations of money and jewelry and the handling of cash from overseas crusades. They also were asked about expenditures at ministry headquarters, including a $30,000 conference table and a $23,000 "commode with marble top."
The ministry's lawyer released a statement describing the ministry's work and public release of several years' worth of audits. He also said the IRS found in October that the group continues to qualify for tax-exempt status.
* Randy and Paula White of the multiracial Without Walls International Church and Paula White Ministries of Tampa, Fla. are asked about home purchases in San Antonio, Texas, Malibu, Calif., and New York, credit card charges for clothing and cosmetic surgery and the reported purchase of a Bentley convertible as a gift for Bishop T.D. Jakes, a prominent Texas preacher and televangelist. An e-mail to a spokeswoman for Jakes was not immediately returned.
In a statement, Randy and Paula White declined to comment on specifics, saying they needed time to review the letter with their lawyers. But the Whites called the Grassley letter "unusual, since the IRS has separate powers to investigate religious organizations if they think it's necessary."
Hinn, Kenneth Copeland and Creflo Dollar all sit on the board of regents for Oral Roberts University, which is mired in a financial scandal of its own.
The Senate Finance Committee has chided secular nonprofits for governance and compensation problems in the past, but this level of scrutiny for what are basically "non-pulpit churches" is unprecedented, said Ken Behr, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.
Because the groups have tax status as churches, they are not required to file tax forms open to public inspection.
In a brief follow-up (reported here by a Tampa Bay television station), it is pointed out that none of these preachers belong to the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. A pretty significant observation.
If they did, ECFA President Ken Behr says they'd be asked some of the same questions — about the independence of their governing boards and whether tax-exempt donations are properly spent on evangelists' lavish lifestyles.
Behr says non-profit means “not for profit,” so preachers shouldn't be in ministry to get rich...
Umm...right. And the Bible made the exhortation much longer ago than did the U.S. tax code.
Titus 1: 7 warns the preacher not to be "fond of sordid gain." 2 Corinthians 2:17 warns the preacher not to "peddle" the Word of God. 1 Peter 5: 2 warns the preacher against motivations of "shameful gain."
There's more too but you get the idea.
However, I fear that these very clear, unequivocal commands have been all but ignored by the folks spoken of in these news reports. And, because of their unbiblical shenanigans, shame, scandal...and the U.S. government is now visiting the Church.
(Regarding the photos accompanying this post -- the one at top left is a shot inside the Atlanta mansion of Creflo Dollar. Dollar also enjoys a private jet, a couple of Rolls Royces, and a $2.5 million dollar Manhattan apartment. The next photo is an aerial shot taken by Robert Cohen of the St. Louis Post Dispatch showing the 5 homes that Joyce Meyer Ministries bought for Meyer and her family. The tax-exempt organization reportedly pays all expenses, including landscaping, lawn care, property taxes and rehab work while Meyer, her husband and each of their four married children live in the homes, free of charge. Finally, the photo at bottom left shows a despondent Randy and Paula White announcing last August their plans to get a divorce, the second failed marriage for each of these preachers.)