Forbes recently came up with a list of the top ten richest pastors in the world. It includes such TV evangelists as Bishop TD Jakes (estimated worth £93 million), Bishop David Oyedepo (£93 million), Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Matthew Ahimolowo of KICC, Joseph Prince, and the wonderfully implausibly named Creflo Dollar
It is deeply sad that five of the top 10 are from Nigeria, where the poor are being fleeced by those who use Christianity as a get-rich-quick scheme. Oyedepo, nicknamed the Pastorpreneur, owns his own private jets and has homes in the UK and the US. His British church received £16.7 million in donations after followers were allegedly told that God would give them riches in return.
It's nice work if you can get it and if that's what you think life is about. Paul warns Timothy about those who think that "godliness is a means to financial gain" (1 Timothy 6:5). It's clearly a warning that has not quite penetrated the minds and hearts of some Christian leaders.
On a slightly more mundane level, the average salary for a US mega-church pastor is $200,000 plus health insurance. Incredibly, some even get bonuses. The mind boggles. What would qualify as a reason for a bonus? Increase in church attendance? Improved quality of sermons? Conversions?
In the UK the average Anglican vicar's salary is £23,000 (plus housing). There are of course other pastors who get considerably less and some who get considerably more. However I have a confession to make. I believe I am one of the richest pastors in the UK. Here's why.
It's not because of my fantastic salary. I belong to an evangelical Presbyterian denomination that is very egalitarian in how it pays its ministers. It aims to provide 74 per cent of the national average wage (I'm not quite sure how they arrived at that but I doubt it was from some complex biblical numerology). They have not quite achieved that so at the moment we all get paid £21,500 plus free use of a manse until we retire. Moreover we all get paid the same whether we are in a congregation of 500 or one of 50.
Don't get me wrong. I am not complaining or pleading poverty. I am fabulously wealthy in terms of most of the world's population. I don't live a subsistence lifestyle, I drive a car, have lots of books and can occasionally enjoy going out to a nice restaurant. In that sense I am indeed rich – and thankful to the Lord for all his gracious gifts.
It's not because of the private pushbike or the leased car. It's not because I have three bottles of excellent malt sitting in my study (kindly gifted by those who think fine preaching should be rewarded with fine whisky). It's not because I live in a wonderful city in the 'best small country in the world'. No, here are the reasons I consider myself to be one of the richest pastors in the country.
1. I am rich in terms of my family. My wife is a gracious and godly partner and my 'quiver' is filled with three wonderful children. Each of us are broken people in a broken world and our family is certainly not the Brigadoon version of the Waltons or Little House on the Prairie, but we are real, and truly blessed.
2. I am rich in terms of the congregation I serve. The church leadership are converted people who have a real hunger for the Word of God, the members love the Lord and they are a diverse, growing and stimulating bunch. As I prayed for covenant children on Sunday morning it astounded me that there were 46 names. In a day of declining churches it was wonderful to have to open the balcony because the downstairs was so crowded. I know that numbers are not everything but it helps.
I love the diversity in the family of God. One man who described himself as a pagan told me that he hated everything that I taught, but wanted everything we had in the church. His plea was wonderful: "Could you not just do it without Jesus?" I know that some churches do try just that; Christless Christianity is as old as the Church. I know that some of our atheist friends have equally tried to mimic the Church and set up their own godless communities. But the bottom line is that what enables us to be such a diverse, messed up and yet united group of sinners, is simply Jesus Christ. Without Him, we have and are, nothing.
3. I am rich because of Jesus. The cattle on a thousand hills are his. As are the cars in a thousand garages. He is the creator of all things. All things exist because of, through, in and for him. I am his brother. I am a Son of God. And I have millions of brothers and sisters. I was asked by an atheist in a Chelmsford coffee shop once: "Who do you think you are? You are just one of seven billion people on a tiny planet in a vast universe." My response? "You are right. In the terms of atheistic materialistic humanism I am, in the words of Bertrand Russell, a blob of carbon floating from one meaningless existence to another. But in the words of God, I am fearfully and wonderfully made. I am a fallen and weak sinner, deeply wounded. I was dead in sins and trespasses but I am so loved that the one who created the whole shebang gave his one and only Son for me, and now I truly live! I am re-born. I am a new creation. All things now work together for good for those who love the Lord. I will live forever in a renewed universe of infinite variety, beauty and depth." I am rich.
Paul goes on in Timothy to tell us that "godliness with contentment is great gain", but that "the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs."
Our God is not a stingy God. As Paul goes on to remind Timothy, "He richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment." The trouble is that there are far too many false shepherds who go after the gifts and not the Giver. Perhaps if we all laid up more treasure for ourselves in heaven, rather than hoarded it on earth, we would have fewer heresies and fewer griefs. It is little wonder that some who have professed have departed from the faith. I would say to my brethren whose theology is this way inclined: if you want to fly, don't buy a private jet with the sacrificial gifts of the Lord's people; wait for the Rapture. Meanwhile the rest of us should just get on with living, learning and loving Jesus. Until He comes.
David Robertson is Moderator Designate of the Free Church of Scotland, and director of Solas CPC.