Is it possible for Christian ministries to learn lessons from Benny Hinn?
For those of us who care about the Christian worldview and operating our organizations with integrity, the question might seem humorous, or ironic. After all, just this week, according to the Associated Press, “federal agents descended on the North Texas headquarters of television evangelist Benny Hinn and took boxes out of the offices.”
This incident is not the first time Benny Hinn has had run-ins with the law. According to London’s Daily Mail, Brazilian police arrested “the son of American evangelist Benny Hinn . . . after allegedly beating up a deaf and dumb man during one of his father’s rallies. . . . Hestephenson Araujo, 21, reportedly needed hospital treatment after the incident during one of Hinn’s crusades in Manaus, in northern Brazil. Police detained Joshua Hinn, 21, along with two of Benny Hinn’s bodyguards, on suspicion of torture after the three men allegedly locked Araujo in a trailer and physically assaulted him.”
Araujo later said he had approached the stage hoping to get a blessing from Hinn. The bodyguards say they did not know Araujo, a local pastor, was deaf. The Daily Mail’s report said Araujo agreed not to press charges following an agreement that involved “a large sum of money.”
And, of course, Hinn was one of six television evangelists investigated by the Senate Finance Committee in 2007. Sen. Charles Grassley led the investigation of the so-called “Grassley Six,” which included Hinn, Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Copeland, Eddie Long, Paula White, and Joyce Meyer. After three years of investigation, the committee made no definitive findings of wrongdoing. But many observers of the investigation believe the financial crisis of 2008 distracted the attention of the Finance Committee before it could get to the bottom of the issues involved. In a story I wrote about the committee’s findings in 2011, Rod Pitzer of MinistryWatch.com said Grassley’s conclusions were “far less than we could have hoped for.”
I should admit straightway that Benny Hinn is well outside the mainstream of evangelical Christianity in both his theology and practices. Many inside the world of evangelical Christianity might say that what he does has nothing to do with what “we” do. But to a watching and skeptical world, the theological and ethical differences between a Benny Hinn and those who follow much more biblical models of behavior are difficult to discern. And that’s the first lesson we can learn: We should be more direct and straightforward about “calling out” organizations that do not follow biblical models of behavior and ministry. Defending the Gospel does not mean merely defending it against the Richard Dawkinses and Peter Singers of the world, but also against the Benny Hinns and Creflo Dollars.
Secondly, Christian organizations should be models of transparency and financial disclosure. Currently, the law requires tax-exempt organizations to file Form 990s. These forms have basic information about an organization’s financial condition. The law also requires organizations to make these forms available to the public. (A great source for 990s is www.guidestar.com.) However, churches are exempt from this requirement.
I think this is a good thing. I don’t think the government should require churches to release their 990s to the public. However, many organizations—such as Benny Hinn’s—claim to be churches in order to thwart this disclosure requirement. That’s why I would call on large churches to voluntarily release their 990s, at least to their members and donors. Let the church be above reproach in these matters, and allow the world to see it is so.
Another positive step for some ministries would be to join The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA). The ECFA requires member organizations to conduct audits, and the ECFA itself reviews member organizations periodically to ensure that these organizations remain in compliance with the ECFA’s Seven Standards of Responsible Stewardship.
Let me be quick to add, though, that organizations such as the ECFA need to do even more. To begin with, only about 2000 of the nearly 1 million Christian ministries in this country are members of the ECFA. ECFA membership is so rare among Christian ministries that non-membership carries no stigma. The ECFA could help to change this by speaking out when organizations such as Benny Hinn’s get raided by federal authorities. They could simply say that their members have to adhere to standards that make such raids much less likely. Such a statement is a reminder to members, and a warning to non-members, that financial standards matter . . . and the world is watching.
Finally, if what I am suggesting sounds extreme, consider this: The typical publicly traded company has far more requirements for transparency and accountability than even our largest Christian ministries. Publicly traded companies must file quarterly, not annual, reports. They must notify the public when senior leadership changes occur. They must file detailed executive compensation reports. I would not advocate that the government require ministries to file such reports, but I would ask ministry leaders this: Shouldn’t our standards be higher than the standards of the cutthroat, dog-eat-dog world of Wall Street? What does it say about us and our witness to the world when Gordon Gekko, the character who brought “Greed Is Good” to the pop-culture lexicon, had to adhere to a higher standard than our pastors and ministry leaders?
We can indeed learn from Benny Hinn. We can learn what not to do, of course, but we can also use what is happening to him and his ministry this week as encouragement to do what effective Christian leaders from Jesus to Augustine to Chuck Colson have done: Be transparent and vulnerable before a watching world.
Image courtesy of halduns at iStock by Getty Images.
Warren Cole Smith is an investigative journalist and author as well as the Colson Center vice president for mission advancement.