World Missions Invoked As Excuse For Ecclesiastical Socialism
During the 1980ís, Phil Donahue use to get on his show and wring his hands about how guilty he felt for being an American while much of the world languished in poverty and despair. While Donahue was noted for being an avowed secularist, similar tactics are often invoked in churches across the United States in order to manipulate good natured parishioners into forking over their incomes in what amounts to a shameless redistribution of income that would make many IRS agents blush.
The pastor of Arlington Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland spoke on the July 8, 2007 broadcast of the congregationís Sunday morning service about his missions trip to the Ivory Coast in Africa. And now possessed of the irritating fervor characterizing those just having given up what they now consider to be vices such as cigarettes, booze, or even fattening foods, the pastor of this particular congregation is now bent on condemning the American way of life in light of that endured by the Africans he met while on his expedition to the Dark Continent.
It is one thing to compare how much we as Americans have to be grateful for in comparison to those living in abject squalor. However, the homily goes too far and reveals less than altruistic motives when it goes beyond the purpose of making such observations into condemning Americans for things that are not sins in themselves and for matters over which those hearing the message bear little direct personal responsibility.
From the pastorís remarks, one comes away with the impression that, if one owns more than one pair of shoes or happens to subscribe to Direct TV, one is somehow the culprit behind Third World disease or malnutrition. According to the pastor, Americans enjoying such niceties need to be rebuked, in large part, for failing to submit to what would amount to a massive income redistribution where we would be the ones ending up with a diminished standard of living and its doubtful the Africans would be much better off either since such programs, though more efficient than when the government steals from you under threat of violence or incarceration through the tax code, still have considerable overhead.
Some will respond, well itís good to speak out against excess. Maybe so if one is railing against the golden thrones such as the name it claim crowd sit upon on the TBN soundstage.
But what is being condemned from this particular pulpit in question is not any kind of blatant debauchery. Coming dangerously close to the Al Gore and Evangelicals Against Climate Change perspective, this pastor --- a Bob Jones graduate --- shows the extent to which collectivism has infiltrated what was once considered the impenetrable bulwark of Christian Fundamentalism when he derides those claiming they need three automobiles in case something happens to the other vehicles.
While that may sound like a ostentatious number, when you think about it, it really isnít especially if --- unlike many among professional religionists --- you keep your cars decades on end until they wear out. So technically, for a married couple, three cars is simply one spare if the husband drives one to work and the wife drives hers to wherever she goes during the day either to work or the kids to school or to the supermarket as part of her duties as a domestic engineer and child rearing specialist inside the home. Press some of the more strident Fundamentalists on the issue and theyíd probably come out saying women shouldnít be allowed to drive at all as an increasing number at the fringes of the homeschool movement will tell you young women should be discouraged from attending college.
Back to the issue at hand, if this pastor is going to sit in judgment on an issue no where delineated in the pages of Holy Writ and attempt to lay a guilt trip on the congregation as to how many cars they might own, is the pastor going to provide an ironclad guarantee of refunding tithe money should the one family car breakdown or that the church will provide a ride to work. Unlike the rest of us, the pastor only has to get to work on time one day a week.
In most centralized economic systems where priorities are not spontaneously ordered through the complex interplay of self-interest on a variety of levels but rather as the result of edicts handed down from on high, those at the top do not adhere to the standards they seek to impose upon the rest of us. As such, one must ask does this minister and the church he pastors adhere to the levels of asceticism he expects from those sitting under his preaching.
If a fuss is going to be made as to how many cars the average Christian owns, why doesnít the pastor put it on the line and tell those in the listening audience just how many automobiles he owns. Normally, Iíd say such information isnít anyoneís business, but I am not the one making the issue a measure as to the sincerity of oneís Christian walk.
In his sermon, the Arlington Baptist pastor bemoans the wages of his missionary counterpart totaling to about $4.00 per day as if it is somehow wrong for the average American to have higher wages because of the destitute conditions prevailing in other parts of the world. However, like most other institutional mouthpieces lamenting such alleged excess, austerity is not something to be expected from himself or the bureaucracy that he oversees.
Such is not an accusation without foundation. For the pastorís own comments betray a lifestyle above that of the average American Christian he is so eager to heap condemnation upon.
For example, in his exposition, the pastor mentions it costing $50 to go out and eat. Frankly, Iíve never had a meal that I know of costing $50. So before he goes about ready to accuse me of crimes against humanity, he should be sure to put his money where his mouth is.
And while the rest of us are suppose to feel ashamed that we have more than one set of clothes because the pastorís missionary acquaintance had to borrow his own sonís sneakers, the pastor is himself pictured on the church website in at least two changes of apparel. Furthermore, since we are suppose to embrace a degree of austerity that make the Amish look like Hollywood moguls, arenít photographs a frivolous luxury?
For while one appears to be a headshot taken around the church, there is a much larger professionally-taken one of the pastorís entire family that just happens to scream ďLook at me. Arenít I a bigshot?Ē Is there any reason why visitors to the website need to see him all posed with the wife and kids; the assistant pastorís family isnít depicted in such a manner.
Furthermore, if as the pastor recommends, we are obligated to cancel our subscriptions to ESPN and satellite TV, shouldnít the money going for his familyís photoshoot have gone to African missions instead? Or is this one preacher so vital to the cause of Christ that it is worth a few African children starving to death just so the world can see just how adorable his are?
Donít be the one to shoot me (or spear me through if we are to hoist the African way of life as inherently more spiritual than the ways of the West) for pointing this out. For am I not only being a good little pew warmer and applying the pastorís own words?
For that matter, what does a church need with such an ornate website and radio ministry anyway? In the pastorís remarks, it is pointed out that most churches in Africa donít even have their buildings so I doubt they have websites or radio broadcasts either.
When most pastors get back from their ecclesiastical safaris, one often gets the impression that their goal was not so much about elevating the plight of Africans but rather about having something to bash Americans over the head about. As with their environmentalist counterparts, to many in the Evangelical missions movement, while holding those living in these foreign lands in higher esteem than in previous centuries, one still gets the impression that Africans are still regarded more as adorable pets than as mental equals.
For if Africans are to be viewed on par with those of us living in the West, why does a monoglot English-speaking pastor think a largely French-speaking audience will want to sit around and listen to him? Wouldnít it be a better use of resources to send clergy that already know how to speak the local language?
Upon their return to the United States, the image most short term missionaries paint of Third World populations is something akin to Rousseauís noble savage existing in an almost sinless state unsullied by the evils characterizing the so-called civilized world. While such an outlook might assuage White guilt, it is largely an un-Biblical position.
For despite the vast differences between cultures enjoying 21st century standards of living and those still several centuries behind, human nature is quite similar within an established continuum the world over. Just as much evil lurks within the heart of the primitive as the rest of us. One African person I know of can quote scripture one minute and then the foulest dialogue the next.
When asked by one African (with an outstretched hand) why Americans did not send more missionary support, the pastor responded because of our greed. But why is this destitution the fault of the average American Christian?
Shouldnít Africans bear some of the responsibility themselves and donít their own forms of greed impact the situation they find themselves in? For example, in some parts of Africa, polygamy is still practiced.
Canít one argue that is also a form of greed? So in stressing the need for African missions, why is their the need to snuggle up with anti-American liberalism with its incessant tendency to bash our way of life?
Wouldnít you be more successful by appealing to the inherent tendency of most Americans to want to make the world a better place by exposing the backwardness and degraded practices of most foreign cultures and the need to emancipate the individual from such conditions? That is of course unless the purpose is not to set the individual free but rather to further bind all the people around the world with tighter chains of authority regarding issues over which God intended no priest, pastor, or potentate to exercise power.
In his exposition, the pastor of Arlington Baptist used as an illustration the plight of a pastor there with six children and his struggle to raise them due to a lack of support. For starters, if one is going to sire that many children, it is questionable whether they should be on the mission field in the first place.
Of course, to most possessed of this kind of zeal, normal domestic life is not glamorous enough. This attitude itself points to perhaps of Evangelicalismís little talked about shortcomings, namely the greed of many missionaries who donít seem to mind continuing to pester you with their own outstretched hands in the form of direct mail fundraising letters even if they no longer consider you a friend worthy of human contact beyond a standardized financial solicitation.
Secondly, if one finds oneself living in such dire poverty, isnít it a bit selfish to go out and have that many kids? Some will stand their aghast with their jaws dropped saying why that means using birth control.
Not necessarily if what you mean by that term is assorted chemicals and what not. However, it might mean birth control if what you mean by birth control is a little self control if one finds oneself in a situation where you as a parent cannot secure a reasonable standard of living for oneís offspring.
In such circumstances, one should refrain from those activities where one could potentially bring new life into the world. No one is going to get shot if you donít fire or unholster your weapon.
Those even more ostentatious about their piety will respond, ďBut such an attitude is not relying upon God to provide.Ē However, from II Thessalonians 3:10 we learn that in the context of the parent/child relationship God provides by expecting us to provide for our own.
From the tone often taken in the sermons emanating from the pulpit of Arlington Baptist Church, one gets the impression that it might not be as much about serving God as about surrendering to the hierarchy of the church institutional. For example, in this sermon as well as others at one time available on the Arlington Baptist website, the pastor condemns and chastises parents reluctant to hand their children over for fulltime missionary service, claiming that to exhibit any kind of hesitation or sadness is ďstanding in the way of Godís willĒ.
While Godís will should always be sought after, if the young adult in question has grown up in a Fundamentalist or conservative Evangelical milieu, one really has to stop and question is such a decision is really the call of God on their lives or merely a desire to live up to the expectations pounded into their heads morning, noon and night. Often in Christian day school and church Sunday school, one is presented with the message that any other career choice other than fulltime missionary work is giving God your second best.
If parents are to keep their mouths shut as to whether or not their children go to the mission field, how much more so the pastor should keep quiet as to this decision. At least the parents have a vested emotional and financial interest in the ultimate well being of their children whereas the pastor is just another credentialed professional who ought to have no more say in their lives in areas not definitively spelled out in the pages of divine revelation than a doctor, lawyer, or Indian chief.
Though one can say without equivocation that the pastor of this prominent church would never engage in acts of violence, one cannot help but almost detect seeds of an ďunbalanced zealousnessĒ (fanaticism perhaps being too strong and unfair of a word) removed only by a matter of degrees from that exhibited by the cultic adversaries of the Christian faith. For while this pastor would not bomb nor stone those he disagreed with, one unfortunately finds the shared tendency between these diametrically opposed religious viewpoints to disdain the liberty that would allow the individual to decide for themselves matters not clearly settled between the pages of divine revelation and any wholesome pleasure that might be enjoyed between the miseries that plague this life.
Frederick Meekins is an independent theologian and social critic. Frederick holds a BS in Political Science/History, a MA in Apologetics/Christian Philosophy from Trinity Theological Seminary, and a PhD. in Christian Apologetics from Newburgh Theological Seminary.