In the news yesterday (October 21st) was an account of the conviction of six church leaders who have responsibilities for a church known as City Harvest Church located in Singapore. This court case has been going on for around five years and it is interesting to see the ramifications of this case in other parts of the world. It would appear that some £23 million went missing in what was apparently a vain effort to prop up the musical career of the wife of the leading pastor called Kong Hee. Various accounting frauds had taken place over a long period of time. In one detail I picked up, a church financial official claimed that she had been asked in 2008 to spend a huge sum of money on buying bonds but that no minutes had been taken of the meeting. On the face of it would appear to be a case of a church leader using the considerable funds of the church for his own purposes.
It is not unexpected to discover that the City Harvest Church is one that uses Health and Wealth teaching to promote its cause. This is a message which appeals to a young, typically single middle-class clientele who live in Singapore and who want to hear a version of Christianity that fits in with their particular lifestyle. Health and Wealth churches tell their members that it is okay to be rich and to spend your money in whatever way you please as long as you pay the church ten per cent of your income. With this mutually beneficial contract between members and church, it is not difficult to see how a church like this would have a spare £24 million to use on the promotion of Ms Sun Ho who was trying to make a musical career in America. With 30,000 members attending this church and all tithing, it would not take long to amass this sort of money.
The case reminds us of a similar one in Seoul in Korea. There the leader of the largest congregation in the world, David Yonggi Cho, was found guilty of gargantuan financial fraud. Incredibly Cho was not sent to prison or even removed from his post. He received a suspended sentence which has allowed him to continue serving his congregations which number in the hundreds of thousands. Clearly the congregation are very forgiving and are prepared to put up with almost anything in the way of financial dishonesty so that they can retain their pastor and his comforting message. This is one that allows them to enjoy wealthy lifestyles without having disturbed consciences.
In reading the details of the Singapore story we find, once again, examples of incredible loyalty to the leader who has been found guilty of a serious crime by a court of law. Members of the church queued to be in the court building to show support for those convicted or gathered outside for the same purpose. Kong Hee seems to have attracted the same uncritical devotion on the part of the members as David Cho in Seoul Korea. This uncritical devotion towards a Christian leader is an example of what I was talking about in my previous post when I was talking about loyalty. In this case the loyalty to the pastor is similar to that of a small child clinging on to a parent even though they have caused the child pain. The ability by the vast bulk of the membership to ‘forgive’ these massive financial scandals indicates, I believe, a dynamic of infantile dependency. Some churches seem to have no problem in inducing such devotion in their members.
At a time when we are waiting for the reports connected with Trinity Brentwood, it is probable that we will not see any detailed financial exploration of the church’s past. But the same dynamic of infantile dependency seems to have infected Trinity Church as it has in Singapore and Seoul. This uncritical devotion towards leaders has created an environment where leaders are able to commit fraud and exploit the naive trust of the membership. I wrote a piece for this blog on the subject of tithing and I pointed out that all the biblical references to tithing were talking about a kind of tax which would enable not only the worshipping life of the nation to take place, but also the educational and legal systems as well. The idea that members of churches should be required to hand over 10% of their income to the leadership who can spend it in any way they wish is not what the Bible suggests. The large sums of money paid over to the leadership of Trinity Church made possible a lifestyle for the leaders which was unimaginable for most of the members. The same leaders have also amassed considerable capital assets. As Ron Hubbard was supposed to have said in the 1950s, ‘if you want to get rich found a religion’. The financial irregularities of Trinity may never become public knowledge. What will continue is the ongoing poverty of those who gave their all because leaders convinced them that this was the Christian thing to do.
Of the three main motivations to abuse power, financial reward is possibly the most important. The other two are the power to gratify sociopathic or narcissistic needs and the power to abuse sexually. The news stories coming from Singapore all centre on financial misconduct in a church context. Simultaneously they reveal an enormous reluctance on the part of victims to believe that they have been cheated and conned by those in authority. This naivete often seems to be part of the personality of those who join these massively ‘successful’ megachurches. Of course it is exciting to be part of a huge gathering of apparently enthusiastic Christians, but the price to be paid is very often far too high. Somewhere along the line the member is often taken advantage of emotionally, financially and sometimes even sexually. The large gathering, as I said in my previous blog, may be a setting for grooming the individual, making them ripe for abuse. Along the way they regress and become dependent like small children; like small children they are vulnerable to those who want to exploit them in some way. Sadly the church is a place where such exploitation can and does take place.