Megachurch scammers were also a problem for Jesus’ followers
The past year has seen the public disgrace of a number of prominent ministers and pastors. Jeremy Foster, the former leader of Hope City Church in Houston, Texas, the fastest growing church in America.resigned in January, when he appeared, he was engaged in an affair. In March, Brian Houston, co-founder and global pastor of the celebrity-supported Hillsong Church, resigned from his position after it emerged that complaints had been made about his conduct towards two women. And just last month it was revealed that Father Richard Murphy, an Irish-born priest who lived in Florida and died in 2020, allegedly embezzled $1.5 million.
Corruption in the clergy is not new. From the sale of indulgences in medieval Europe to the peddling of fake cures in the 19e-century in America, there are many crooks who made money with God. Aside from sexual abuse, harassment and misconduct, profiteering remains a problem. What might surprise is the realization that the phenomenon is not new.
The problem of a potentially fraudulent minister was more acute in antiquity than it is today. The social world of the ancient Mediterranean was governed by the cross-cultural principle of hospitality: you were expected to extend generosity to strangers. In religious terms, it was because celestial beings sometimes hid in human form as beggars or travellers, but in general hospitality was about a web of trust that kept people safe. Since travel was the only way to deliver goods and messages, it was a building block of civilization. When you married these general rules of being nice to strangers with the Christian principle of treating your fellow Christians like family, there was a lot of pressure for people to welcome traveling ministers into their homes.
For a certain type of person, however, it also represented an opportunity. An entrepreneur might be able to take advantage of these rules and regulations not only in free room and board, but also in cold hard cash. From the end of the first century, Christians therefore began to legislate around the problem. What if someone shows up, out of the blue, and tells your community that they are a prophet? How do you decide if the person is a messenger from God or just someone looking to make a quick buck.
A text, composed towards the end of the 1st or the beginning of the 2nd century and known under the name of Didache or the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, tackles the problem head-on. At the time it was written, the church was still finding its feet. It was a working religious movement, with itinerant preachers—sometimes personal acquaintances of Jesus—traveling across the Empire. They used the Roman roads to establish small assemblies of disciples of Jesus in the urban areas scattered around the Mediterranean. Some of them had brilliant spiritual gifts – the ability to prophesy, to heal, or to speak in tongues – and some were simply extremely charismatic. The problem was one of authenticity. Like anyone who follows the story of Anna Delvey or the rogue tinder knows it, charm is also the main skill of the confident trickster.
“Anyone who asked for material goods was blaspheming against the Spirit and was an impostor.”
The solution proposed by the Didache is a series of guidelines for the evaluation of self-appointed apostles, prophets or religious teachers. The first is quite simple: do they know the basic principles of Christian belief and do they follow the same type of liturgical rituals? It is not so bad to complement traditions, but those that contradict the received tradition should be avoided. While some wandering ministers might have claimed ties to religious heroes, these claims were difficult to authenticate. It’s not like you can pick up a phone and find out if they really interned with Saint-Pierre. It was therefore easier to base the authenticity of an individual’s claim to leadership on his conduct. Did they acquit themselves in the way that befits men of God? Did they have the right spiritual habits?
Then there is the financial question. If a newcomer is in transit and wants to stay just one night then he should be welcomed like Jesus, but if he wants to stay more than two days things start to get messy. Nobody likes a profiteer. If they stay too long, they have to find a job.
When a traveling apostle left the community, he was to give it nothing but bread. It is striking because the public of Didache, like many early Christians, seemed to have practiced a kind of strong philanthropy or loose socialism: if another Christian needed something, it had to be given to them. This rule did not apply to potentially fraudulent traveling preachers. Apostles, according to the Gospels, are not to carry purses or amass wealth (Mark 6:8; Matt. 10:8). According to Didache, Christian leaders were supposed to practice what Aaron Milavec called a kind of “radical homelessness” and believe that God would take care of them. It was a bit of a red flag for a traveling missionary to apply for funding.
So far so good, but there was one area where the rules could go out the window and that was prophecy. What if a minister was overcome by the Holy Spirit and began to prophesy? What if, in the midst of religious ecstasy, the prophet asks for money, food, a private jet or a luxury mansion? The Didache has strong feelings: he who asks for material goods blasphemes against the Spirit and is an impostor. The Gospels make it clear that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit was an unpardonable sin.
It should be noted that in ancient times the problem of fraudulent religious experts was not only Christian. The Roman writer Juvenal records that there was a high priestess of Judea working the streets of Rome who claimed to be able to interpret oracles and the law (given that ancient Judaism does not seem to have allowed female priests, some details of his biography seem far – recovered). The Syrian writer Lucien de Samosate devoted an entire book:alexander the false prophet— to sack the thaumaturge Alexander of Abonoteichus. Lucian writes that Alexander had sent representatives to foreign lands to announce the sanctuary he had established for the serpent-god Glycon. Although Lucian portrays this oracle as nothing more than a glorified puppet, Alexander was a true ancient celebrity. The risk of fraud was everywhere.
While the guidelines of Didache may seem a little austere – don’t people have to eat? – they certainly protect Christian communities from predatory pastors who seek to exploit their goodwill. A study of Todd JohnsonProfessor of Mission and Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, reported that in 2013, “ecclesiastical crime” accounted for $37 billion worldwide (about six percent of donations to churches worldwide). As criminal justice expert Walter Pavlo said Forbes, “Fraud is on the rise in American churches.” Perhaps if modern churches were a little more careful in evaluating the financial and personal conduct of their leaders, they would not find themselves in such difficulty.