Reza Aslan is not a Christian, he is just married to one. He is a professor at my university. Very controversial. Hated by most Muslims, Christians and atheists. If I was not going to be a teaching assistant next quarter, I would have taken a creative writing class under him. Although, I do not ascribe to his theological views, Reza Aslan’s thoughts on churches as Ponzi schemes ring true.
And so the idea that you could transform Jesus’s teaching into an appeal for material wealth is astounding to me… This is about as far from the message that the historical Jesus preached as one can get. It’s less a church than a pyramid scheme.
Reza Aslan, author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus
1. When the Preacher Is the Church Poster Boy
I once read a book by a famous preacher. The back cover had a smiling man with a gold Rolex dangling on his hand. He was the apex of wealth. After reading a few pages, I learned the author owned a fleet of cars, including a Bentley and a house on a hill, fully paid. It was all because of faith. As I rushed through the pages I longed to be like him. He was the faith poster boy. Faith was a vehicle for material gain. For any Ponzi scheme to succeed, it needs a success story.
According to prosperity theology, faith is not a God-granted, God-centered act of the will. Rather it is a humanly wrought spiritual force, directed at God. Indeed, any theology that views faith solely as a means to material gain rather than justification before God must be judged faulty and inadequate.
Justin Taylor, 5 Theological Errors of the Prosperity Gospel
2. When the Sermons are Self-help Guides
John Piper once advised, “Look out for the absence of serious exposition of Scripture. Does the preaching take the Bible seriously by explaining what is really there in texts?” I will add these questions. Does every sermon series by your pastor have merchandize to go along with it? If so, you need to begin to ask yourself if you are not being fleeced. A good slogan, a T-shirt, a book and a DVD goes a long way in a scam. Motivational talks are a necessary ingredient for a successful Ponzi scheme. Remember all pyramid schemes hold annual conventions with success coaches as speakers.
A Christian obsession with therapeutic self-help fads reveals how disconnected we are from substantive historic theology and the ancient practice of spiritual direction.
Brian Zahnd, The Cross as Counter-Script
3. When the Preacher Gets Richer With No Definite Source of Incomes
Pastoring is a noble profession and ministers should not suffer if the church can help. Most Ponzi schemes start as a legitimate business initiatives until greed creeps in. Pastors are not immune from greed, Christian tabloids have enough proof to support that. However, believers often are guilty of enabling greed in their leaders through lack of understanding scriptures. So, as the church grows believers give more, not to support other believers, but the pastor.
Whereas the gospel of the cross calls for repentance and denial of self and other things, the gospel of champagne calls for self-satisfaction in response to stimuli from diverse entertaining attractions.
Femi Adeleye, Preachers of a Different Gospel
4. When More Cars is the Goal
I have preached several sermons encouraging people to give cheerfully because God loves a cheerful giver. But to prompt giving I would remind people about the Malachi Curse. Like a cunning rat that bites and blows air to soothe its victim, I would talk about how God gives more to gives. People would give anticipating more from God, I was wrong. Others did better than me, they came up with a seed concept. If you want a better car, give the pastor the one you have. It is the promise of greater returns that sustains any Ponzi scheme.
Like the pyramid scheme, the prosperity gospel doesn’t necessarily require financially desperate people. It just needs people who are sufficiently idolatrous. We don’t fall for pyramid schemes because we’re stupid. We fall for them because we want to fall for them. We want the money, health, and esteem they offer—and we want it quick.
Nicholas McDonald, Why the Prosperity Gospel is the Worst Pyramid Scheme Ever
5. When You Should Give the Church Only
Why do we write a check to a local church when we give to the Lord? Many preachers equate giving to God as giving to their churches. If you give to a homeless person, your mother or troubled sibling, is it not giving to the Lord? All pyramid schemes claim they are the only legit ones. Believers need to ask honest questions to avoid falling prey to deception and manipulation.
Generosity is noble, it is a necessary virtue, but can easily be manipulated by those who should encourage it. When believers give, they are participating in the nature of God, and this should not be limited to the offering bowl only, but extended to those without a meal for dinner, a sweater for the winter or a place to spend the night.
And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold, saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers.”
Luk 19:45-46 ESV