A couple of weeks ago a popular investigative tabloid, Inside Edition, posted a shocking interview with famous prosperity gospel preacher Kenneth Copeland. If you haven’t had the chance to watch it, here it is.
In the video, Copeland defends his lavish lifestyle which includes multimillion-dollar homes and his own private jets. The vast majority of his wealth comes from the donations of his congregation. In a telling response to this article, Costi Hinn—nephew to prosperity preacher Benny Hinn offers his take on Copeland’s “outlandish statements and patronizing remarks” which he believes “misrepresent the true Christian gospel.”
This compelling video and response force us to consider our position on the prosperity gospel. It’s well known that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not a poor church. Likewise, there are many scriptural attestations that indicate the Lord will prosper those who follow Him. Keeping this in mind, how can we respond to accusations levied against us, which have striking similarities to those charged to Brother Copeland. Let’s take a deeper look at prosperity and priestcraft as it relates to the Gospel.
The following story comes from Hugh Nibley:
“The group leader of my high priests quorum is a solid and stalwart Latter-day Saint who was recently visited by a young returned missionary who came to sell him some insurance. Cashing in on his training in the mission field, the fellow assured the brother that he knew that he had the right policy for him just as he knew the gospel was true. Whereupon my friend, without further ado, ordered him out of the house. For one with a testimony should hold it sacred and not sell it for money. The early Christians called Christemporoi those who made merchandise of spiritual gifts or Church connections. The things of the world and the things of eternity cannot be thus conveniently conjoined, and it is because many people are finding this out today that I am constrained at this time to speak on this unpopular theme.”
Now, wait just a second, didn’t that same Hugh Nibley “cash in on his training” and make money on his gospel based books? Is it the wealth itself or the way the wealth was garnered that we take issue with? Can we really be upset by the interview of Mr. Copeland when our own General Authorities are often “wealthy”? Perhaps we would be benefited by looking for keys that could be employed to justify our natural inclination to recoil from some ecclesiastical leaders and be drawn to others.
In looking for keys to understanding this issue we will first look to an episode featuring W.W. Phelps.
“And also let my servant William W. Phelps stand in the office to which I have appointed him, and receive his inheritance in the land; And also he hath need to repent, for I, the Lord, am not well pleased with him, for he seeketh to excel, and he is not sufficiently meek before me” (D&C 58:40-41).
Why was the Lord mad at Brother Phelps? Isn’t it good to try and make the most of our opportunities? The revelations explain that Brother Phelps was indeed called of God. Consider this view of the verse: The Lord may have been chiding Brother Phelps not because he was seeking to improve, but because he sought to improve at the expense of others. Everyone who has observed a school bully knows that the easiest way to elevate one’s position is to put others down. There’s almost a social gravity that makes pushing people easier than lifting them.
This is the first key to understanding the ramifications of those who are enriched in any way because of the gospel. Do they seek personal elevation through bully means? Do they elevate their own spirituality by condemning those around them as sinners? The scriptures add to this family of actions “grinding upon the face of the poor.” This kind of economic violence is comprised of withholding wealth and material that the Lord would prefer to be used to aid the poor.
As Brother Phelps was admonished, the commandment broken by people who have wealth and use it as a means to excel is that of being meek and humble. Being meek to the point where you humble yourself down to the dust of the earth brings with it a certain kind of equality—all dust is created equal. In the video, Brother Copeland was accused of superiority.
Copeland once explained that he needs the money for a private jet because he couldn’t stand to fly commercial. Being with the public in this way would mean being “in a tube full of demons.” He feels that his wealth elevates status above normal citizens.
Are we to understand that wealth and the gospel are incompatible? Remember, we are looking for keys to help us understand whether or not wealth held by disciples is okay. The Savior’s earthly ministry was marked with spartan economic considerations. A rich man and heaven are likened unto camels and the eye of a needle, right? Brother Copeland has a response to this that is worth considering: The Abrahamic promise dictates certain temporal benefits for being part of the gospel family. Let us consider more keys to understanding.
The Two Covenants
To decide whether wealth in a particular case is divinely approved we can ask the following question: where does one’s wealth come from? There are basically two sources of wealth, inheritance on the one hand and theft on the other. Because these two sources are guarded by covenants it is profitable to consider the covenants themselves.
Inheritance describes gaining something from the Father. The earth itself is His footstool and He possesses all attributes and power that exist. His covenant is that He will bless us as we accept Him to be our God. He gives the garden to Adam, a promised land to Abraham and Lehi and promises that “inasmuch as [His people] keep the commandments [they] shall prosper in the land.” We are therefore to be stewards over that which the Lord has blessed us.
Christ, the Father of the new covenant, having received all things from the Father, is in a position to dispense such temporal and spiritual commodities as He sees fit. The prophets are always found emphatically declaring that the kingdom of heaven is at hand and that the Lord is ready to pour out His blessings on the faithful. That is a key to understanding wealth in a gospel context: Proper prosperity originates with the Lord and is used to build the kingdom.
The other source of wealth originates with the devil. His covenant is to kill and get gain. Cain wanted Abel’s flocks and the devil was happy to devise a secret system to satisfy that desire. The robbers and murders of Gadianton so relied on this system of killing to get gain that when they were left in the Nephite plains with no one to steal from they were faced with starvation.
Consider the parable of the wicked husbandmen. The Lord leaves his possessions with husbandmen. After a while, the Lord sends representatives to check the possessions. The husbandmen seek to “excel” beyond their assigned roles as stewards and progress to sole owners. This can only be accomplished at the expense of the Lord, they have to steal it from him, so they kill anyone who comes in the name of the Lord. The Lord ultimately sends his son as he thinks they will reverence one of such dignity. But the husbandmen reject the son and kill him as well (Matthew 21: 33—46)
They kill to get gain. This is a shadow of the devil’s plan. He sought to excel beyond God, to take possession of all of creation and implement his own priesthood, all to justify calling himself a god. Let us note here that spilling of blood is only one way to kill someone. There are two deaths and the far more significant one is spiritual.
Understanding these keys, one is equipped to determine the divinity of wealth.
Are Church Leaders Paid?
The easy answer is no. The Church does not pay local leaders — meaning bishops, stake presidents, patriarchs, etc. do not receive any form of payment for their work. However, it is worth noting that those called to be General Authorities are given a “living allowance” if they need it. This allowance is clarified in a statement by Eric Hawkins, spokesman for the Church:
General authorities leave their careers when they are called into full-time church service. When they do so, they focus all of their time on serving the church and are given a living allowance. The living allowance is uniform for all general authorities [including First Presidency, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, First and Second Quorums of the Seventy and Presiding Bishopric]. No funds for this “living allowance,” the spokesman said, “come from the tithing of church members but instead from proceeds of the church’s financial investments.
This quote helps explain some of the misconceptions people may have about the “payment” of Church leaders. Honestly, it makes sense that leaders who are called to relocate their families and effectively retire from their jobs to serve in the Church are given an allowance to sustain themselves.
Why Would Someone Believe The Prosperity Gospel?
As illustrated in the aforementioned article written by Costi Hinn, who was raised in a prominent prosperity gospel family, the prosperity gospel promises its members will be made “healthy, wealthy, and happy” by fully supporting it. As they look at the tremendous wealth and success of their admired church leaders, it’s easy to believe these benefits may be available to them as well if they remain faithful.
Really, who doesn’t want to be prosperous? That said, as we’ve mentioned earlier, seeking prosperity by pushing others down, especially in a religious context, runs the risk of adopting priestcraft, something we should clearly avoid.
Wealth Amongst Church Members
The real challenge to answering whether or not the gospel will make us wealthier than we would have been without it stems from some members of the church being wealthy and others being poor. As discussed earlier, the clergy does not get paid, therefore this discrepancy is not caused by some clerical financial benefit. Scripturally, wealth discrepancy is caused by chances for learning, geographic location, and innate ability. As seen in the parable of the talents, everybody gets a certain amount of inheritance up front.
The church’s welfare system is a divinely appointed system for providing for everyone’s needs.
We are being led to adopt a law a consecration where all are benefited, through multilateral and mutual elevation. Priestcraft is the abomination of that system.Fa
What Are We To Understand Relative To The Financial Situations Of Our Church Leaders?
In the Book of Mormon, Nephi does a good job of defining the dangers of priestcraft:
“He commandeth that there shall be no priestcrafts; for, behold, priestcrafts are that men preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world; but they seek not the welfare of Zion” (2 Nephi 26:29).
When considering the financial situations of our Church leaders, it is important to look at what Church funds are actually being used for. Are they selfishly being used to “get gain” or are they being used righteously for the “welfare of Zion”?
An example of priestcraft in the Book of Mormon can be seen with Nehor.
And he had gone about among the people, preaching to them that which he termed to be the word of God, bearing down bagainst the church; declaring unto the people that every priest and teacher ought to become popular; and they ought not to labor with their hands, but that they ought to be supported by the people.
And it came to pass that he did teach these things so much that many did believe on his words, even so many that they began to support him and give him money.
And he began to be lifted up in the pride of his heart, and to wear very costly apparel, yea, and even began to bestablish a church after the manner of his preaching
Here we see a clear differentiation between the way the Lord would have leaders of His church behave regarding money versus the cunning wiles of the devil who would have those he influences tread upon the common church member for personal gain. Furthermore, just as Church leaders are not paid, their calling is temporary and restricted to a specific geographical location, helping to eliminate the risk of priestcraft even more. Put simply, this is priestcraft defined. Unfortunately, we can see this both in various scriptural accounts as well as in some of the organized religions of our day.
The prosperity gospel is an interesting topic as it pertains to the Latter-day Saint faith because it makes us feel like both the good guys and the bad guys. It is on us individually to support our leaders and have faith that they are using the wealth of the Church for righteous causes. We believe that God is at the helm, and He entrusts them with sacred funds which are not for their own personal gain, but the benefit of the entire body of the Church.
Believing that God is calling modern prophets is usually the foundation for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We trust leaders to receive inspiration from the Lord concerning matters of spiritual life and death. Because we trust them with the most important and sacred work it would be ironic to reject this pattern of revelation when it comes to matters of a more temporary, trivial, and temporal nature.