In South Korea, a 78-year-old pastor was sentenced to three years in prison after being found guilty of embezzling millions of dollars. He was the pastor of the largest church in the world. Pastor John, I know you’ve been following this situation, and you wanted to say something about it here.
Yes, I do. Every public dishonoring of Christ and every public dishonoring of his word and his gospel and his church makes me angry and makes me sorrowful.
I once heard David Hubbard, the former president of Fuller Seminary, say, “We pay people according to how many dishes break if they drop the tray.” And I thought at the time, “That is right.” I guess in American culture, that is what we do. And here I say yes, the more dishes that break when you drop the tray, the more indignation the restaurant owner has or the people have who depend upon the waiter to carry the tray right. So, when a pastor drops the tray again — well, here are the facts.
Maybe people don’t really know about the situation. David Yonggi Cho is the pastor of the largest church in the world, a Pentecostal congregation in Yoido. It is called Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea, with a million members. He has been sentenced to three years in prison for embezzling about twelve million American dollars in church funds. His son was found guilty. As far as I know, his son is already serving his sentence and the sentence of David Yonggi Cho has been suspended for five years.
And my response to this is not to pile on any additional condemnation of David Yonggi Cho, but rather to respond for the rest of us in a way that prevents this kind of thing as much as possible.
Five Pleas to Pastors
Paul said in Galatians 6:1, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.”
“Secrecy around money is deadly. It is a sign that something is not right.”
Now, that is what I assume is happening with David Yonggi Cho’s elders and leaders. I can’t do that from America. I am counting on the church there to do that. But then Paul says, “Keep watch on yourself lest you too be tempted.” Now that we can do. That I can do, and so I want to keep watch on myself, and I want pastors to keep watch on themselves.
So, I am going to give five pleas to pastors. My hope is that pastors will listen to this and take this 68-year-old pastor’s heart aching that we not bring this kind of reproach upon the name of Christ.
1. Kill desires for riches.
Plea number one is to kill every desire to be rich and get rich. Don’t want this. If you see the desire in your heart, take aim at it with the words of Christ and the words of Paul, and put it to death with the swift blow of the sword of the Spirit. Jesus said, “Only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:23). In other words, don’t want this.He continues, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). Why would you want to be rich?
And Paul said those who desire to be rich have “pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:10). So that is number one — kill every desire to be rich in the ministry.
2. Grow your giving.
I plead with pastors that if you see your income starting to grow, set a governor on it. Keep away from accumulating more and more and communicating to your people that you lay up treasures on earth.
I think one of the best ways to do this is to grow the percentage of your giving. I am not impressed with pastors who give thirty percent of a one-million-dollar royalty check and keep seventy percent of it to buy luxuries. I have heard pastors boast that they give thirty or forty percent. I am not even impressed with giving ninety percent of a ten-million-dollar royalty check and keeping one million dollars to play with while you look like every other millionaire and think you have done a virtuous thing because you have given away ninety percent of your money. That is just not the issue.
Money is insidiously deceptive. We have seen it over and over again and I am pleading with pastors to be content with what the church pays you, and give the rest away with joy and strategic wisdom.
3. Be transparent with other church elders.
And, number three, I plead with pastors to be totally transparent with your fellow elders from inside your church so they know what your income is from all your sources.
“Handle money in a way you would like your people to handle it: with a view to showing the world that Christ is your supreme treasure.”
These elders should not be the wealthy, powerful peers or friends from outside the church. That is an unbiblical way to lead your flock. It has no biblical foundation, and it communicates distrust for your local leaders and pride that you are above their local accountability.
Let all the books of your income be open to any member of your church who asks the elders. Secrecy around money is deadly. It is a sign that something is not right. So, work to give your ministry the flavor that we are not like peddlers of God’s word (2 Corinthians 2:17).
4. Live simply.
I plead with you to live simply and to model for your people a way of showing that your treasure is in heaven and not on earth. Please, don’t write this off by calling it pauper theology. There goes Piper again with his pauper theology. That is absolutely ridiculous. The kind of distortion that that makes of what of I am saying is a sign of fear that what I am saying just might be true. You must distort it with pauper theology to escape the truth. I said nothing about being a pauper.
I am talking about getting a car that works and gets you where you need to go. Get a car that doesn’t break down on you every few months. I am talking about a modest entertainment budget that doesn’t involve eating out every night. I am talking about a refreshing vacation, not an exorbitant one. I am talking about clothes that are unremarkable and undistracting both for not being shabby and not being brand driven. I am talking about a home that accomplishes your family and your ministry purposes — leaning toward ordinary folks in your congregation, not the wealthiest.
Peter says to the shepherds — me and all the pastors — “Shepherd the flock of God . . . not for shameful gain, but eagerly . . . being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2). In other words, handle money in a way you would like your people to handle it: with a view to showing the world that Christ is your supreme treasure.
5. Adopt an appropriate leadership structure.
And lastly, I plead with pastors to put in place a leadership structure of a plurality of elders — a council of elders in which you, pastor, have one vote. You are a chief among equals in that you have the direction of the pulpit and the leadership by the word of God, by persuasion — not by having veto power over everything your lay people say, not by maneuvering with organizational power.
“Oh, for every pastor to be ready to cut off his hand before he uses it to bring reproach on the name of Jesus by grasping for money!”
I am so jealous for these things because I am jealous for the name of Christ. Paul said, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Romans 2:24). And what was he referring to? He said, “You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?” (Romans 2:22). What was that? That was hypocrisy to the core. Calling idols bad names and pretending to be jealous for God’s name — all the while, what you really want is money. He said the Pharisees were lovers of money and, thus, the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles (Luke 16:14). That is what is happening today, because of pastors who love money. Oh, for every pastor to be ready to cut off his hand before he uses it to bring reproach on the name of Jesus by grasping for money!