Those who are perceived to have access to God have great power. In Luther’s day, those people were the Roman Catholic church leaders, and he made a stand against such practices. They made a fortune selling indulgences—access to heaven for those who paid enough money and built great monuments to their cause in Rome.
Indulgences are no longer sold today, but we still wrestle with the same underlying issues. Some leaders hold on to the power of God’s word and keep people in a sense of obligation to these authorities, who are perceived to be the only ones we can trust to truly understand God’s Word. Others use every means necessary to receive money from God’s people in exchange for spiritual goods and services.
Simply peruse the Christian television channels for a single evening, and you will see those who sell prayers, healings, blessings from God, and perhaps even salvation to those who will send in their money. In exchange, you may even receive a signed copy of the speaker’s latest book—a $24.99 value for a onetime gift of $100 or more. In one case a prayer cloth that was personally prayed over and anointed by the pastor was sent to anyone who would send in a “faith-gift” of $25 or more. Donors were instructed to place the cloth over any ailing part of their body, and they would be healed. One leader, wanting to demonstrate his servant leadership, would actually send out a moistened towelette packet that he prayed over to “faith-givers” so that donors could use it to wash their feet, thereby enabling the leader to do so by proxy. It is disgusting how abusive Christian leaders can still be even in this day. We may not call them indulgences today, but they are much the same.
The extreme abuses have been well documented by others, and we need not delve any further. Actually, it is the less extreme cases that I find more dangerous because we tend to simply accept them as normative or, worse, spiritually right.
It starts subtly, like serving Starbucks coffee on Sundays, but it can end up going to extremes and, like the frog in the slow boiling kettle, we don’t realize just how far we have gone.
I have written before of a church planter who took out an ad in a paper offering to pay people $100 if they attend his church. Today he has changed his philosophy and is actually quite embarrassed by his attempts at church growth no matter the cost. I want you to see how easily even good folks can get caught up in some unsound thinking regarding these things.
I read of one church that raffled off a $500 gift card for gasoline in order to get people coming to their services. A fast growing church in my own area advertised free raffle tickets to potentially win a new car to the first 100 newcomers who showed up at their Easter service. Like a business, our churches are competing with other churches for our attendance…and tithe dollars.
I’ve not heard any evangelical churches threaten the fires of hell for those who refuse to give money yet, like in the time of Luther, but we are closer than we might think. From the perspective of the non-Christian it is clear that unless one attends a religious service weekly they are not a Christian in good standing.
Just to give you an example of what I mean: We emphasize that Christians are going to heaven and non-Christians are not. We tell them they need to decide to become a Christian (like us) to escape hell. When we evangelize people it usually ends with us taking them to church to hear the gospel and close the deal. We give them the call to walk forward down the aisle to receive salvation. At the altar we escort them to a prayer chamber where we counsel them and sign them up for a newcomers class to become a church member. In the new member class these same people are taught the importance of tithing to the church if they want to be a good Christian. I am aware that most of the churches in America would not believe that church membership is a requisite for salvation, but I am describing how it may appear to someone who is not a Christian yet. We are not as far from selling indulgences than we may think.
We divide the world into two categories. Sometimes we use the distinctions of “saved” or “unsaved”, “saints” and “sinners”, “Christians” and “non-Christians” sometimes it is “believers” and “unbelievers”, but often in our language the words “churched” and “unchurched” are thrown out in the same vein as the others. The logical assumption is that they need to change their Sunday morning routine if they want to avoid an eternity of suffering in hell. We may not truly believe this, but our actions communicate something else entirely. And people do pick up on our nonverbal sermons as much (or more) than our recorded ones.