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Q. It really bothers me that Bernie Madoff exploited many Christians. Furthermore, another false teacher and his fraudster kids took Christians for millions, too, while giving prayers and quoting scripture in the church buildings. It's all over the news. Just how can the church protect itself against this kind of fraud and Ponzi schemes?
Madoff made off with more than Money
Great question! It's clear that Madoff "made off" with more than money when he indulged in swindling charities and Christians of their funds. Sadly, he exposed the naivete and perhaps greed at the root of some Christian ministries. He stole the dignity and good intentions of many church members, too.
Christians are a trusting lot. They think that if someone speaks from the pulpit he or she must be a servant of the Lord. If a church speaker throws in a few Christian phrases and quotes the Bible it is all the more compelling. If speakers conclude their financial sermonettes with calls to "good stewardship of God's money," the money spider-web is complete. Christians may then fall into well-planned snares and traps.
In the case of a news story regarding former pastor Isaac Ovid, a son of the church's founder, church members were conned into giving millions to him by refinancing their own homes and raising money through other offerings.
In both cases congregants were told that these schemes made them good stewards of God's money. They were assured that investors might get high returns as much as 75% (which should have been a clue that something was wrong). In reality the investment managers pursued buying a Bentley, jewelry and other personal riches.
The apostle Paul warned us that "those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction" (1 Timothy 6:9, NASB).
Yet, we consistently fall for money making schemes and snares. We become foolish and greedy just like the world.
Stop Loving the World
The apostle John told us in plain language:
"Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions" (1 John 2:15-16, NLT).
In other words, we are told to avoid craving physical pleasures (food, alcohol, sex, drugs). We shouldn't necessarily have or covet everything we see (cars, boats, fancy houses, fashionable clothing). Nor should we strive after prideful achievements such as success in our careers, advanced degrees, a "trophy" wife or husband and so on.
The apostle James warns,
"For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing" (James 3:16, NASB).
Making Merchandise of Believers
The Apostle Peter warned of these false teachers who will "make merchandise of you" (2 Peter 2:3, KJV). Zondervan's study bible explains these false teachers "will be motivated by a desire for money and will commercialize the Christian faith to their own selfish advantage" (KJV Study Bible 2002, 2545).
There are a number of tricks false teachers use to ensnare Christians into destructive money schemes.
In the case of Mr. Madoff investors believed they were part of an elitist club when they were "allowed" to invest with mighty Madoff. Some believers sought out connections with Madoff by attending meetings or clubs where they might meet the maestro in action.
Yet, we know better! God doesn't show partiality and neither should we. James tells us, "if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors" (James 2:9). We must quit trying to "hobnob" with the rich and famous.
Some assumed Mr. Madoff must be a good man because he said a little prayer or quoted the Bible to his listeners (just like the false teachers Peter warned about who are"making merchandise of you" - 2 Peter 2:3).
A "Calling to Ministry" is not Superhero Status
Former pastor Ovid used the authority of the pulpit to gain the trust of Christians (making Christians into merchandise and exploiting his hearers - 2 Peter 2:3). Too often a speaker who claims a "calling to ministry" is granted access to the resources of church congregants without question.
Church members must understand and learn that pulpit authority does not constitute authority from God. Christians must become more discerning and cautious of those they invite into their churches to speak or teach. As noted author Tony Pinn summarizes, "The preacher's collar or robe isn't the sign of a superhero."
A Life that Counts
Like you or me many ordinary Christians want to make their lives count for something by doing good things. For example, in an Indiana church a former pastor and his sons were implicated in a multimillion-dollar scheme "aimed at church members who thought they were helping build churches but were actually buying the men planes and sports cars" (Wilson, June 30, AP).
Let's look at how they did this.
According to the article, "The Reeveses allegedly targeted their victims through their faith, and then exploited their religious convictions in order to hide their elaborate Ponzi scheme from potential investors."
"Investigators believe that the men assembled teams of church members to sell bonds to other church members. They were given training materials that instructed them to open sales calls with a prayer and to quote scripture. As the scheme progressed over about five years, the Reeveses shuffled incoming money between various accounts to hide defaults by churches and their own thefts so they could make scheduled interest payments to investors."
"People trusted their life savings to these men," Sullivan County Prosecutor Robert Hunley II said in a statement. "Investors felt they were helping to build churches, not buy the Reeveses expensive homes, fancy cars, airplanes and swimming pools" (Wilson, A.P., June 30-09).
Fund Raising for Building Projects
This was clearly an elaborate scheme. Yet, it isn't unlike churches raising funds for a new building project - training core groups of church members and supplying printed-materials to make key points to various church members.
Money Answers Everything?
We have even heard some "Christian" speakers on the economy and personal finances proclaim that the Bible states "money is the answer to everything" (Ecclesiastes 10:19).
This is a scary example of false teaching!
Gospel according to Ponzi
Yet, just three verses before the phrase, "money is the answer to everything," the Bible reveals that it is a foolish young king who through "insolence" brags that "money is the answer to everything!"
Hmmm…let's learn to be discriminating in our use of Scripture and not fall for the Gospel According to Ponzi.
In order to avoid the devastation of church schemes and con artists it is important to remember that the Lord advises all believers to "Divide your portion to seven, or even to eight, for you do not know what misfortune may occur on the earth" (Ecclesiastes 11:2, NASB).
In other words, we should not "put all our eggs in one basket."
- Don't leave all your money with one investment manager.
- Don't donate all of your money to one fund-raising or charitable cause.
- Don't believe a speaker at church must have godly authority to invest your money wisely. Only you can do that.
- Spread your money among different investments and utilize the wisdom of "diversification."
ERA not IRA
Paul gives us wisdom to invest wisely for our future. He tells us to invest in an "Eternal Retirement Account" (ERA):
"Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy."
"Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed" (1 Timothy 6:17-19, NASB).
Pinn, Anthony B. 2009. Cosmic lessons: When the ministry pulls a Madoff. 4 May. Available from:http://www.religiondispatches.org/dialogs/print/?id=1399.
Wilson, Charles. 2009. Ex-pastor sought in Ind. multimillion-dollar fraud. 30 June. Available from: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090630/ap_on_re_us/in_fallen_church_financier/print.
Zondervan KJV Study Bible. 2002. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
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