For the Love of Money
by Jeffrey W. Hamilton
Paul warned that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil (I Timothy 6:10). Because of the desire for wealth, Satan has pulled many Christians away from their service to God. Yet, the desire for easy money has led to the church being the target of many fraudulent men.
Those Who Prey Upon the Church
As a preacher, I have come across many who view the church as a means of gaining a quick buck. My phone rings regularly with people asking the church for help with their apartment rent or to restock their refrigerator. At first, I was curious as to why they called churches they did not attend. "Well, the people at the welfare agency suggested calling churches while we wait for the paperwork to be processed." To these people and to the government, churches are simply welfare agencies that can respond quicker than the bureaucracy of the government.
Many times I offered to help out of my own pocket since such aid is not the mission of the church, but of late I have come to realize that I am not being a good steward of the money with which God has blessed me. Paul taught that if a man will not work, he should not expect to eat (II Thessalonians 3:10). By simply handing out funds because someone asked, I was encouraging people not to work. There are better ways to help people in need than encouraging them to neglect their duties.
Lately when someone calls the building for funds, I state that the church's policy is to help its members, leaving out that the congregation expects its members to help nonmembers. Ninety-nine percent of the callers will simply hang up. They have other, more willing churches to call. A few will press their claim. "I am a member of the church." "Oh. Which congregation do you belong to?" I will ask. If they name a place, I will ask for a number to return their call. You would be surprised how many refuse to give out their phone numbers. I keep a directory of churches across the U.S. The directory lists any group wearing the name "Church of Christ" regardless of the groups' beliefs. I call the church to ask if they know the person and his background. One fellow preacher said, "I don't know why he keeps giving out this congregation as a reference. I tell everyone that calls that he only visited for a short while and is not to be trusted."
I've noticed that those who call are always in a hurry. Of course, people in a rush tend not to be thorough. I figure if a brother needs help, then the problem will not change in the few hours it takes to confirm a story. One man called wanting the church to pay for his hotel room. With great reluctance he gave a congregation to call. It took about three hours to find out his story was not legitimate. When we called him back at the hotel lobby, the clerk told us he staged a heart attack and he was taken to the local hospital for observations. He managed to get his free room for the night - and no, the heart attack was not legitimate.
One man called collect saying he was in Georgia about to move to our area, but his car broke down leaving him and his family stranded. He claimed to have visited the congregation a few weeks earlier when he was interviewing for a job in the town just south of where the church is located. I knew immediately I had a crook on the phone. The name of the town south of us is not pronounced by the locals the way it is spelled, and he pronounced it wrong. I knew he had never been in the area. In addition, I stand at the back and greet everyone at the end of service. We are a small group and I knew we did not have a visitor that week. We also keep visitor cards and a quick check while I was on the phone showed no one by that name attending in the last several months. I asked where he was stalled because I have relatives and friends in Georgia, but all he would say was outside of Atlanta, but he could not give me an exit number or nearest town. I asked for the name of his new boss, so I could let him know of his difficulty, but he won't give a name. I couldn't help giggling though when he asked for the church's banking account number so he could get funds to fix his car right away. If nothing else warns a person, the need for money immediately should ring loud warning bells.
There will always be people who look to the church as a means of making money. The money changers used the worship in the Temple as a way of making a profit in Jesus' day (Matthew 21:13). You can expect people to take money from kind Christians.
Those Who Prey From Within
Some brethren are alert enough to catch the bums looking for handouts. However, they neglect to watch for those who claim to be faithful preachers but use the church as a simple way to make money. In my younger days I was neatly fooled by such a man. I grew up trusting those in the church and I just couldn't believe someone would be so bold in his wrong doing.
There were ample warning signs, now that I look back. The man said he had given up on preaching and would soon be quitting - the work was just too hard. I naively thought I had a depressed preacher on my hand who needed some encouragement. They only met on Sunday mornings, but I said if they would meet on Sunday evening I would join them. He agreed, but asked me to do the speaking. This should have been my first warning. The congregation consisted of only this man's family, his father, and one other gentleman. Before long, my wife and I began attending full-time at the congregation. The odd thing was the preacher's sermons were impossible to follow. No wonder the group was so small. I simply thought he needed more training in presenting the Word. This should have been my second warning.
One day, I arrived for class and the preacher didn't show. "Is he ill?" I asked his wife. "Oh, no. He has gone to raise support." I wondered why he didn't warn me that I needed to fill in. "How long will he be gone?" "He usually is gone about three months." I never heard of such a thing! "How often does he make these trips?" "At least once a year." Looking back, I wished I walked out of the door right then. Somehow we managed to stay about two years before we decided to leave. Things were wrong, but I couldn't define them well enough to figure out what to do. At that moment a wonderful man moved into the area. He was an elder where he came from, but he was forced by his job to move. He asked me about the church and I explained my misgivings and our plans to leave. He asked us to stay while he dealt with the situation.
Within weeks we learned there were 64 police reports against the family. We found out that they had used the church's name to incur personal debts. Purchases of cars were made in the church's name to avoid tax liability, but the cars were registered in their own name (something the state people told me could not happen - but it did.) Evidence came in of churches sending funds to pay the building's mortgage, which had been paid off years ago. By this time I was taking care of the books, so I knew the church never received this money (nor would it have been accepted). About the same time, the government issued new rules that all business accounts at banks had to have identification numbers. I received letters from five banks requesting our number, but our account was only at one bank. Obviously someone was laundering money in the church's name.
We took our time gathering evidence. It was almost six months before we felt we had enough to warrant a confrontation that we knew we would not lose. He must have suspected this as well. He disappeared one day, abandoning his family, never to return.
In cleaning up the mess he left, we learned that at least 30 congregations were sending him support at the time he left. Two thought they were his only means of support. We pieced together his method. He would visit a congregation on Wednesday night, learning where they stood on various issues. On Sunday morning, he would request to meet with the elders (or the men) after Sunday evening's worship. He then presented a plea for support with a tailored-made brochure for the congregation, showing he was on their side of the fence. Of course, he needed to know that night if they could help because he was leaving the next morning. (There is that rush factor again.) He managed to bluff so many because Christians tend to want to believe other Christians. No one wanted to go halfway across the country to check on his story. And so many congratulate themselves on being able to help spread the gospel, they would rather not know they were supporting a crook (it doesn't help a group's ego or reputation).
While finding such people among the brethren is disappointing, it is expected. Peter warns of those whom in their greed will use the brethren to make money (II Peter2:1-3). Paul also warned of those who see godliness as a means to gaining wealth (I Timothy 6:5).
Organized Exploitation of the Church
For many years I have kept my eyes opened for people who preyed upon the church, but I was once again surprised. I assumed that greedy preachers were independent thieves. Surely any large, organized exploitation of the church would be easily spotted. However, I was proven wrong.
The problem revolves around works in foreign lands. Because of the distances involved, Christians are inclined to send money to aid preachers in these lands without sending someone to check on the work. Paul explained to us the need to send a representative (II Corinthians 8:18-21). Fraud happens in the world and it happens within the church, so precautions must be taken to ensure that the Lord's money is being spent appropriately.
Several churches do use representatives to send funds, but in a recent case, funds were sent with men who enjoy a good reputation among the brethren but who were not personally known by these same brethren. Because of the large quantity of money involved, these men used central distribution points in the target country. Instead of following the biblical example of giving the funds to the elders (or even the men) of a congregation, preachers from the various regions came to the central points. Since everyone could not come on such a short notice, many preachers came to represent many congregations. The representing preachers were not asked what the needs were in their congregations, instead they were asked how many members each congregation had and the money was divided on a per member basis. In others, a premium was placed on being a Christian.
Is it a wonder that many of these same preachers are now reporting the conversion of a large number of people? Since the flow of money is going through the hands of a few, these men began to see themselves as in control of the congregations in a region. It was easy for these men to put up a front for visiting Americans, since such visits are generally short.
Another problem is language. One story I was told was of a visiting preacher, who came with benevolence money. He was asked to give a lesson to a group in the Philippines (most Filipinos speak some English). At the invitation, the local preacher asked in the local dialect, "Who wants rice?" Many hands were raised in the audience. He turned to the visiting preacher and said, "They want to be baptized." "Are you sure?" asked the dumbfounded minister. Again, the local preacher asked in the local dialect, "Who wants rice?" Even more hands were raised as the visiting preacher wept for joy. Perhaps the local people thought that having to get dunked in water was a strange way to get rice, but they and the visiting preacher left happy.
The dependency of a representative to use the local preacher to translate gives the opportunity for fraud to be perpetuated without the knowledge of the representative. I'm not saying that every local preacher in a foreign land is involved in fraud. What I am saying is that it is difficult for a person to detect fraud being done in another language.
No one is immune from being deceived. Unfortunately, pride prevents many people from admitting they were the victims of deception. Even when evidence show there is a problem, too many people would rather denounce the bearer of bad news or deny the evidence exists than to admit that they were taken advantage of.
The result is that the pilfering of the Lord's treasury becomes entrenched. If you want to preach the gospel, then you must become friends with the local preacher who has contacts with the Americans with the money. Since by his word alone you will have or not have support, you learn to operate his way.
One man I spoke to became disgusted when the power-brokering preacher began instructing him how to write letters to the United States brethren to ask for money. He encouraged the man to use family medical problems or use national problems as the basis of each plea (it has good emotional appeal). What the power-brokering preacher had learned over the years is that often far more money comes in than is requested. Even if he offers to return a token portion back, most brethren will urge him to keep the money. He had become quite talented at this method of raising money and he wanted the preachers under him to follow in his footsteps.
It doesn't take a genius to see that a hierarchy of dependant preachers soon develops. With so many involved keeping the money flowing, a ready pool of supporters is found whenever a visiting American comes by to check on the work.
The evidence is too wordy to put into an article, such as this, but you may review the documents at Philippine Corruption.
I realize that many will continue to support men who make merchandise of the brethren. Pride will keep them from honestly looking for deceit. Laziness will encourage them not to look at the evidence. Self-congratulations will keep them feeling good about the "work" they are doing in spreading the gospel, even if it simply lines another man's pockets. Brethren, we need to be good stewards of God's money. Make effort to know you are not wasting the Lord's money.