Sunday, March 15, 2015

When ignorant journalism and bad theology mix

This is going to be a long one.

CNN ran a piece on their webpage that details the tragic story of D.E. Paulk, one time Pentecostal clergyman destined for greatness at the risibly named "Cathedral of the Holy Spirit at Chapel Hill Harvester Church "and the derailment of that path. The article, How The Ultimate Scandal Saved One Pastor, is supposed to be a predictable story that goes from tragedy to triumph but it really goes from tragedy to worse tragedy.

This story has everything. Junk theology, family secrets, lurid sex, power struggles, mushy pagan syncretism dressed up as "ecumenism", rejection of Scriptural truth, confused chatter about "justice". It reads mostly like an exceptionally bad Lifetime movie in a religious setting. Yet even in the midst of the mounds of malarkey there are some important points.

If you want to suffer through the rest of my post it continues after the jump....warning, you might want to keep one of those air sickness bags close at hand...

Filter out the junk and you start to see a powerful warning to the church, a warning against love of money, pride, power, privilege, "leaders" insulated from the little people, wolves among the sheep, false prophesies. You know, all of the stuff the Bible warns us to be on guard against that we still stumble into over and over again. I will warn you, it is kind of depressing to read and is saturated with sketchy journalism and bad theology. Secular journalists invariably make a mess when they try to report of issues of faith, typically because they are a) ignorant of the faith they are talking about and b) come into the story with a preconceived set of assumptions and ulterior motives. This is not only not an exception to the rule, it is the very epitome of it.

The bulk of the first half of the article describes the early days of D.E. Paulk and the environment he grew up in. As someone who has never been a part of the megachurch or charismatic wing of the church it is an alien world. I am pretty sure that about 30 seconds into this circus they called church I would have done something I have only done once before in my life, gotten up and left a "church" gathering in disgust. As the story progresses we find out that the seemingly rock solid "church" that drew thousands was led by a guy who had impregnated his brother's wife with the boy who was "anointed" to be the future pastor and was awash in sycophants and megalomaniacs. In case you haven't read the article, I will skip ahead. The scandals disembowled the "church" leaving it to D.E. Paulk to ride to the rescue, although since this is a secularist story of religious "tragedy to triumph" the rescue is just as bad, if not worse, that the tragedy itself. That is when we start getting into some choice quotes.
As D.E.'s confidence rose, though, the church's fortunes continued to plummet. The scandals drove thousands of members away. Tabloid television shows joined the fray, and the Internet was eventually filled with lurid details about the bishop's sex habits. 
The amount of money in the weekly offerings fell, but the bills kept coming. People saw the cathedral's glamour but not the financial grind. Sitting on 100 acres filled with church office buildings and a Bible college, the upkeep for the cathedral alone could make an accountant weep: a $45,000 weekly mortgage payment; a $30,000 monthly power bill; an annual $200,000 property insurance payment.
The church's staff had grown to around 300, including 26 full-time pastors. The bishop had hired many down-on-their luck pastors to prop them up until they could find work and support their families again.
"The government had welfare," Don Paulk says. "We had staff."
I love that line. What is welfare but people who are not productive living off of the work and wages of those that do? That really kind of describes our clerical system, a church flavored welfare system. That might warrant a separate blog post of its own one day....
"In introspective moments, D.E. tries to figure out the source of the bishop's twisted sexual appetite. He concludes it was rooted in repression. The bishop grew up in a Pentecostal world of thou shalt nots: no wearing jewelry, playing sports, cards, dancing or makeup."
That must be it! After all, a permissive attitude has always led to all sorts of moral conviction and self-control! It couldn't be anything old fashioned like "sin". I have my own thorns in the flesh, my own struggles but I don't try to foist those onto someone else or some external factor to cover it up. I recognize that the source of the issues I have, that we all have, is the old sin nature in my flesh.
"D.E. knew something about fear. The bishop feared losing power. His mother feared her secret. Pastors feared losing popularity. And the people in the pews came to church each Sunday fearing hell.
How can you love God if you're driven by so much fear?"
There is some truth in the first sentences but not the last two. We gather as the church because we have been saved from hell, not because we fear it. We don't get to make a mockery of the faith by listening to some pagan Muslim seer and declare " He was going to burn down heaven and extinguish the fires of hell." Again, I don't write articles about nuclear physics because I don't know anything about it. The same holds true for people who write about religion.
D.E. took a spiritual detour. He had been leaning in another direction for years, reading about other religions and forms of spirituality. He kicked that into overdrive.
He went on a spiritual pilgrimage. He bought hundreds of books on spirituality: "The Power of Now" by Eckhart Tolle; "The Third Jesus," By Deepak Chopra; and "One River, Many Wells," by Matthew Fox.
"I was finding similar truths in these non-Christian books that I saw in the Bible," D.E. says.
He also sought truth in the people he reached out to. He had lunch with Jewish rabbis, talked with Bishop Pearson about universal salvation, placed statues of Buddha throughout his house and walked through Hindu temples in tears because he sensed the same spirit that he felt at Pentecostal revivals.
Calling that a detour is like describing the driving of a car off a cliff as taking an off-ramp. He might think he is being new and edgy but this sort of turning from orthodox teaching to pagan idolatry is nothing new or noteworthy. It is the same thing religious unbelievers have been doing for millennia.
D.E. finally had a new church and a new message: "The Gospel of Inclusion." God doesn't exclude: Muslims, Hindus, atheists, Wiccans, gays and lesbians – God accepts them all. There is no hell except what one creates with one's own actions. People don't need a "Man of God" to give them revelations; God is within them.
He wrote a book, "I Don't Know... The Way of Knowing," explaining his journey. He wrote that while he was still a "Jesus freak," there is one river, many wells.
"Religion's nature is to exclude, to see in black and white, to deny exceptions and to maintain dominance by supposedly knowing who qualifies and who does not," he wrote. "Why is it that religion always seems to need a WHIPPING BOY?"
D.E. didn't just call for a bland commitment to interfaith acceptance.
"It's not just live and let live," he said of the inclusion message. "It's God in all of these streams. That thing you call Jesus. The thing you call the Prophet Mohammed they call Buddha. It's just different names, but it's the same spirit."
He could have never preached that message at Chapel Hill, but court-ordered DNA tests have a way of liberating a pastor. What did he have to fear now? He had survived the worst the church world could throw at him.
His scandal was his salvation.
How one can read and allegedly believe any of the Bible and make statements like that is staggering but then again people from Joseph Smith to David Koresh have been doing that for years. He is sort of right though, this all does come from the same spirit but it is not the Holy Spirit.
He was so excited that he didn't grasp another possibility. What if the people who followed him from Chapel Hill to his new church didn't want to hear his good news?
There it is (emphasis mine). Right there. He is not talking about the Good News of the Gospel. He is talking about his own good news. He is his own religion and really in essence he is creating a god in his own image. Again nothing new or revelatory  there.
He witnessed another mass exodus from a church, but this time he was responsible.
"Love, not sex, had actually proved to be the ultimate scandal," he wrote in his book.
Um, that is not love. There is no love in telling the lost that everyone gets a free pass.
Thumma, the seminary professor, says D.E. grew up in an atmosphere of lies and deception and he may have become good at it. He's not surprised that D.E. has such a bold new message.
"He's Earl's son," Thumma says. "Earl Paulk was a religious genius. He was entrepreneurial. They were doing things that were far ahead of other churches. D.E. is a part of it. He's looking at where the American church is going."
Thumma says D.E. is in denial. "He's just fooling himself. He's never really renounced it, all of that suffering, and come to grips with how insidious and sick it was."
Thumma's anger may seem mystifying, but there are many ex-Chapel Hill members who are still hurt years later.
Anger? Where is the anger in that? Can one not point out what one sees without it being driven by anger? Or is it automatically anger or hatred when someone from a more orthodox point of view stands for something? I think we know the answer to that. The world hates the Son of God now as much as, if not more so, than it did when He was scourged and crucified. It hates us because we love Him. They don't hate us for us, they hate us for His sake. The world hates Him because it loves the dark and hates the light. Christ shines as a light in the darkness and calls the darkness evil. Christ wasn't crucified for an economic or political agenda, He was crucified because of who He is.
And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God." (John 3:19-21)
The lurid details here are nauseating. Any follower of Christ should find this revolting, first for the way it makes a mockery of the faith in front of the world and more importantly for the way it slanders and defames the name of Christ. We should also weep for how lost these people on display are. They think they are enlightened but in spite of the groovy chanting and ecumenical stained glass windows they are as lost as a tribe of cannibals in the jungle. Perhaps even more so because they have heard the truth and denied it.

We live in a different era. The unbelief, the paganism, all of it, has always been there in American religion, just under the surface. Every now and again it surfaced, sometimes in little cults like Jim Jones, other times in bigger cults like the Mormons and the Jehovah's Witnesses but more often simply in little comprises, the death of a thousand tiny cuts of error. The subtle error is just as damaging as the overt but it is much harder for a non-discerning person to recognize. The difference between the halcyon days of American cultural religion and today is that the error is out in the open. It is even celebrated and all too often by Christians who think it is swell and dreamy to have a dude wearing emblems of a dozen different and mutually exclusive religions on his scarf or sash or whatever he is wearing. On the other hand D.E. Paulk is sort of right, even if by accident. All religions share a lot in common, mostly that they deny the Gospel in order to manipulate and control people.

Can I make a somewhat inflammatory statement? Thanks!

The difference between this "church" and a lot of other large institutional churches is in scope, not kind. It is easy to mock and dismiss this sort of thing and Creflo Dollar's pagan demands for the world's most luxurious private jet but it is not so hard to draw parallels with the more traditional institutional church demands. "Give to your local church first!", the insatiable desire for titles and deference, the empire building based on the "vision" of the pastor rather than the direction of the Scriptures. Sure the theology on paper and blogs might be better but the practice isn't that far removed from this. This isn't unique to institutional church settings. There are plenty, far too many in fact, "leaders" among the house church/simple church set that are every bit as vindictive and manipulative as the worst megachurch pastor. They churn out books and rail against the institutional church but the drive for money is dwarfed by the currency of smugness and the arrogance that comes from lording over the poor saps in the pews.

"Pray for your pastor and don't talk to him before he preaches" is not that far from:
"D.E. remembers one pastor's behavior after he delivered a sermon.
"He can't even carry his own handkerchief. Somebody has to wipe the sweat off of him. He can't dress himself after the sermon because he is still 'under the anointing.'"
I think deep down a lot of very orthodox pastors want something similar to the first part of the story. Huge congregations, a large staff of godly men, visits from R.C. Sproul and John MacArthur as "guest preachers", the sort of huge footprint and fawning praise that the Paulk's were driven by. "Preaching" is seen as a job and who doesn't want to be successful at their job? Of course according to the Bible and history being a successful preacher doesn't mean a full sanctuary and nice compensation package, it probably means being burned alive or drowned.

The sad story of D.E. Paulk is a cautionary tale. This guy was under a ton of pressure, surrounded by liars and manipulators all of his life. He lived a life of unattainable expectations. What he was told was Christianity was actually a perversion, so it is little wonder he ended up where he is. The caution for us as the church is this, when we place men on a pedestal and expect of them things that no one rightly could expect, we set them up for failure. Not all will be as spectacular as this but the steady grind of little disappointments wears on them all. Making it worse is the reality that they can't tell anyone because no one wants to hear that from their pastor. What they want to hear is an entertaining sermon in the right flavor and a warm greeting accompanied by a handshake as the church heads out of the door to get back to their regular lives. The church doesn't want them to be real people because that is uncomfortable and if "church" as we practice it is about anything, it is about comfort.

There are too many proto-Paulk's in our pulpits and in our house churches and everywhere in-between. For their sake, the sake of their families and the sake of the Gospel we need to end this love of money, privilege and prestige. We need cautionary tales like this one as reminders but we also need to realize that stuff like this doesn't just happen to "those people" but it is probably happening on a smaller scale right where you are. The same temptations that brought down and continue to bring down the Paulk's are lurking everywhere, seeking an opportunity. It might be time to salt the earth to take away any fertile ground for these errors and that might mean a pretty radical (really radical, not put an extra $10 in the offering plate radical) change in the church and in ourselves.


Aussie John said...


Your article needs a much wider audience!

"There are too many proto-Paulk's in our pulpits and in our house churches and everywhere in-between."

The problem is neither the proto's nor the followers are aware this statement is so true!

Anonymous said...

BRAVO!! your post sums up Donnie Earl as succinctly as I've seen it. thank you.

Jan Royston

Anonymous said...

Thank you.