The story of Creflo Dollar starts out as an inspiring version of the American Dream. From small beginnings to a large ministry to excess of proportions large enough to incite a public outcry, Dollar offers a fascinating view of both the hypocrisy and narrow focus of the American megachurch.
Dollar has been in and out of national media for years—over whether the Internal Revenue Service or Senate Finance Committee should oversee the finances of his ministry, a domestic dispute about corporal punishment of a teen daughter, to the recent kerfuffle over a fundraising campaign for a $65 million Gulf Stream jet. Dollar is an adherent to the so-called “prosperity doctrine”—the idea that God desires believers to be wealthy and that enthusiastically supporting a ministry is the way to receive mass financial benefits.
The most recent outcry started over an event from November 2014. Dollar’s previous private jet ran off the runway and crashed, leaving him with an option that may feel familiar to the rest of us: flying on a commercial flight with the other masses of travelers. There’s also the more posh option of chartering a flight.
The Simple Life Versus Living It Up
The Bible presents a certain image of prophets and preachers. In case Dr. Dollar is unfamiliar with it, I can lay it out pretty quickly. The examples stretch from the Old Testament to the New with men like Moses and John the Baptist, the first going from adopted son of an Egyptian princess to desert wanderer, and the second known for eating locusts and honey and wearing camel hair. Jesus himself rebuked His followers for thinking that He was there to set up an earthly kingdom, and tradition says most of the disciples died martyrs’ deaths after wandering and preaching across the ancient world. The Apostle Paul has a strong word on this, as well: “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (1 Timothy 6:10).
This is where Dollar’s ministry diverges so strongly from the men he claims to come after. On his site, Dollar lists his core statements of belief, including “giving alms to the poor, sick, homeless and others in despair.” One wonders how his plea for a jet falls in line with this statement of belief.
The public reaction from both Christians and non-Christians has not favored Dollar’s call for a second jet. And it’s really not hard to see why. Worldwide, Christians are dying for their faith. Here, in America, the economy is still rebounding and people are cutting back personal finances. Asking for church members to shoulder the cost of a wildly expensive luxury item feels antithetical to the mores people more commonly associate with Christianity. Consumption becomes immoral when it’s selfish.
Me First, or Others First?
Now, this isn’t to say that wealth is incompatible with Christianity. But this story is about more than someone who is independently wealthy choosing to spend some on a jet. It’s about a preacher fleecing the flock in pursuit of personal convenience and status. It’s about people who trusted him, his teachings, and are now in the uncomfortable position of seeing their pastor dragged through the court of public opinion. Dollar’s success and wealth aren’t the problem here. His call for giving hits those who very well may not have had a spare $300, but sent him money anyway.
Giving for gain is a false hope in a sort of religious pyramid scheme that builds up the personal wealth not of the people on the bottom but the one on the top—Dollar himself. This kind of teaching takes people’s good intentions and insidiously uses their desire to help both the church and others against them.
God isn’t against private ownership or keeping what’s yours—the commandment against stealing brings that into focus. But God doesn’t give wealth so people can use it selfishly, instead to benefit the neighbor (including those neighbors living in right in our own homes). The balance between the gift of possessions and using them for others is a hard one for people to find, and Dollar’s personal example certainly seems off-kilter. Dollar’s theology doesn’t look like it’s serving others so much as serving him.
A Theology Fit for Rich, Unpersecuted Westerners
The prosperity gospel rose to prominence in the 1950s and increased wildly in the 1980s with televangelism. More recently, it has shifted to the charismatic movement in American Christianity and internationally is popular in Africa and South Korea with churches like Yoido Full Gospel Church, which boasts in excess of 800,000 members. The faces of the teaching and the intended audiences have shifted, but the general message remains the same.
Prosperity theology is tempting to human nature. It’s attractive to think that certain controllable behaviors—such as throwing a large portion of income at a specific church—carry direct correlations to giver’s eventual financial well-being. It’s comforting to think that we can have some control over God and what happens in our lives. All of us are at times easily susceptible to greedy gain, especially if it’s packaged in a spiritual veneer.
But, as the story of Job teaches, God’s ways are often not ours. We can often end up broken spiritually and financially, not through a specific sin, but through the world’s general brokenness. The Gospel in the Bible isn’t about money or earthly blessings, but about eternity and Heaven. There’s a large measure of peace and comfort in the Gospel that we can share with ourselves or friends or family who have become entangled in churches and ideas like this. It’s Jesus who saves us and helps us. For free.
How Christian Is the American Dream?
Prominent pastors, including Rick Warren, have had some strong words for the prosperity gospel, such as, “This idea that God wants everybody to be wealthy? There is a word for that: baloney. It’s creating a false idol. You don’t measure your self-worth by your net worth. I can show you millions of faithful followers of Christ who live in poverty. Why isn’t everyone in the church a millionaire?” However, this new fiasco has been met with marked quiet from mainline Christianity.
Most of the outcry has actually been from secular news sources and people outside of Dollar’s own church. It appears that a once-vibrant and growing theology is now being marginalized, and has quietly become something to distance oneself from.
Creflo Dollar rose from obscurity to prominence in a meteoric fashion—he’s achieved the American Dream. But his American Dream story has become one of personal excess and overt materialism. Instead of helping needy people within the church and outside it, Dollar’s theology preys on the desires people have for a better life.