When Pastor Paula White came out aggressively last week against a Senate financial probe into her multimillion dollar ministry, she again brought to light the question of whether the government should step in to ensure that churches and ministries are not misusing money.
Dan Busby, who heads evangelical accreditation agency ECFA, said concerns over excessive entanglement when the government brings inquires upon the church are appropriate. But Christians should conduct themselves and their finances in a way that reflects the Lord, he commented.
Busby referenced ECFA’s guiding passages, 2 Corinthians 8: 20 and 21, showing that financial transparency is a fundamental principal rooted in the Bible. “As Christians, we are representing the Lord,” he emphasized. As such, Busby said Christian leaders should seek to comply with the law and govern their finances in a way that does not mar God’s name before the public.
White broke her silence on a three-year probe that was launched by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and concluded in January. Her ministry, Without Walls International Church in Tampa, Fla., was among six media-based ministries that were investigated after Grassley received requests from members of the public to review the organizations for alleged opulent spending and possible abuse of nonprofit status. The groups were also being questioned by ministry watchdogs and the media.
Of the so-called Grassley six, only two fully complied with the government investigation – Benny Hinn's World Healing Center Church and Joyce Meyer Ministries. The latter not only complied with the probe but also reformed its operations and joined the ECFA.
White, along with her husband Randy, were among the other three (including Eddie Long's New Birth Missionary Baptist Church and Kenneth Copeland Ministries) who provided incomplete responses to Grassley’s questions regarding their personal and organizational finances. Creflo Dollar's World Changers Church International declined to provide any information.
White defended her decision not to cooperate with the investigation as she addressed participants at Bishop T.D. Jakes’ 2011 Pastors and Leadership Conference last week.
“The church better recognize. It should be thanking six ministries for fighting for the body of Christ for saying 'we are not going to let you dictate to us how we interpret Scripture,'” she asserted, noting that she spent millions to fight the probe.
ECFA’s Busby said it is appropriate for ministries like White’s Without Walls to make charges against the probe but stressed that ministry leaders should also be mindful of God’s reputation when handling their finances.
Christians, he said, are called to do what is right in the sight of both God and men. “We need to do both, not just what is acceptable to God and what is acceptable to men so we can protect the reputation of our Lord.”
White also told the audience last week that she chose not to comply with the financial probe because it violated their First Amendment rights and would eventually lead to more government entanglement.
Coming out strongly, she stated, “You can't tell us 'because Jesus rode in on a donkey' because if you start telling us how to interpret Scripture in one way, you'll tell us how to interpret it in every way!" She was responding to Grassley’s comparison between Jesus' humble entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey and ministers today driving Bentleys and Rolls-Royces.
“We pay taxes. We work hard. We do it by the books. We have integrity. But you're going to make a public misery and mess out of it like something's wrong!"
Busby acknowledged concerns of the government overstepping its boundaries to check churches’ financial information. Churches, as non-profits, are exempt from paying taxes and do not have the same donor financial disclosure requirements as other charitable groups.
Charles Haynes, senior scholar for the First Amendment Center, explained the difference saying, "Our framers of the First Amendment understood that religion is different. It needs special protection from governmental interference. To interfere with the internal affairs or to entangle government in financial affairs, the great danger is that we will lose religious freedom."
Busby noted that while Grassley's investigation was implemented out of sincerity, most churches are managing donors’ money in a financially responsible way and don't need additional regulation.
“These outliers are not the common experience of people in the church,” Busby said of the recent probe. “Some examples simply do not represent the church as it relates to handling funds.”
Still, Grassley’s investigation was appropriate, Busby said, and revealed that there is room for improvement among America's churches.
The investigation detailed concerns about the financial governance of church ministries but did not hand out any penalties. Grassley's staff recommended that the IRS sponsor an advisory committee comprised of representatives of churches and religious organizations, including practitioners or other experts, and that would consider only issues related to churches and religious organizations. The ECFA was also asked to take action.
The ECFA has been working to form a national committee to address concerns unearthed by the now concluded probe and plans to release committee members' names soon. Busby said the ECFA will also release the format by which it will begin to implement the reforms proposed in Grassley’s concluding report.