Like many other apartment renters in the world, I spend a great deal of time coveting other people's houses. Or homeownership in general. So this local religion story out of Detroit caught my eye. Reporter Doug Guthrie of The Detroit News wrote about a $3.65 million parsonage bought for a pastor, Ben Gibert, by his church. The story begins in my least favorite way for religion stories: with a political angle. The hook for the story is that the town in which the home is located will lose $40,000 in property taxes since churches don't pay taxes on churches or parsonages.
Not that such political tidbits aren't interesting, but have you ever noticed how reporters use politics in most of their stories? I get the feeling that many reporters think that political solutions are the first resort rather than the last resort. I think I might notice this more than most East Coast reporters because it's not quite as common in the West. In other words, you can have a dozen precious little girls get lost backpacking on the same trail and you wouldn't hear too many people suggest a government solution. You may hear people suggest that children attend survival school.
Anyway, despite that quibble, I loved the story. Guthrie spoke to folks in town who were not pleased. But then he gives the church's perspective:
Detroit World Outreach Church isn't apologizing. In fact, members say the mansion is proof God has blessed them.
The 4,000-member church is part of a growing movement that preaches prosperity. Also known as "health and wealth" theology, the ideology preaches that God wants followers to do well, be healthy and have rewards -- such as the $50,000 Cadillac Escalade the church bought the Giberts, who have four children.
Ben Gibert said God surrounds the faithful with beautiful things.
One of the leaders of his church agrees. "God's empowerment is to make you have an abundant life," said Elder Marvin Wilder, a lawyer and general counsel for the church.
"In this country we value rock stars, movie stars and athletes. They can have a lavish lifestyle, and a pastor who restores lives that were broken shouldn't? When our value system elevates a man who can put a ball in a hole and not a man who does God's work, something is wrong."
Yeah! If Jesus lived in a mansion and had every worldly pleasure, why can't we? Oh, wait . . .
Guthrie says prosperity theology was born in the 1950s (born is a strong word to use here) and that it's popular with Joel Osteen and various other megachurch pastors. But he also quotes a scholar who points out that most Christian denominations oppose it.
The church goes on to say the parsonage is both a reward for the pastor and necessary for security. As the pastor says:
"I am an African-American man who became pastor of a multi-ethnic church. Some people don't agree with that," he said. "I have not received death threats, but people have followed my children to school."
The sidebar listed the Bible verses used by supporters and detractors of prosperity theology. It actually worked well, although I think the risks of such sidebars are legion. My Lutheran people don't really quote verses in isolation -- we believe that Scripture interprets Scripture and that a lone verse is easily misinterpreted. While other Christian denominations might not have exactly the same view, I know that many do take a more complex approach than just pointing out verses out of context. In essence, a sidebar with a few verses from each side in a theological debate might be biased toward groups that use solitary verses to justify various teachings.