Envy and the Megachurch
“You shall not covet…” — Deuteronomy 5:21
“Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor” (Ecc 4:4). Really? All toil? All skill? All driven by envy?
What would that say about your ministry? It would say that your ministry (yes, yours), is in your own human, fallen way, driven by envy. You want reputation, or accolades, platform, or influence. In other words, you want the same things everyone wants, and ministry is a tool to get it. That doesn’t mean godly, Christ-honoring ministry is impossible, through God’s grace. It means that those engaged in Christian ministry (which, at some level, includes every genuine Christian) need to be aware of our covetousness and the direction it will try to see us.
The phenomenon of the megachurch serves as a useful foil in exposing the particular bent of our covetousness. The proliferation of megachurches in America, combined with the advent of the digital age has brought the issue of covetous comparison much closer than ever before. The country pastor can no longer pretend that he is the only voice that can be heard for miles around.
The country minister’s experience is much like living in a remote and forgotten suburb that is going through rapid gentrification. It is not as if there are suddenly more wealthy people everywhere, while your standard of living has remained flat. It is rather that you feel a heightened proximity to large amounts of wealth. Similarly, it is not as if there are suddenly more godly, brilliant, or charismatic Christian leaders in the world. It’s simply that the celebrities feel much closer.
Our visceral response to the megachurch kicks out in two directions. Either we wish to build what we have until it has more of the marks of earthly success, or we wish to torch what the other guy has, by attacking his method or his character. Often, it’s a little bit of both. Coveting always has two sides. We covet by wanting to add to our own stash, and we covet by wanting to bring the other guy down, so we look better by comparison.
Both coveting-driven responses wreak havoc on leaders and members. I Timothy 6:3-10 provides the diagnosis and the solution. Paul claims here that poor teaching stems from a bevy of character issues. What’s fascinating is that, among the character defects that produce distorted ideas in leadership, he lumps together a love of money and a love of controversies and quarrels. Though it may surprise many of us, Paul tells us that these problems are two sides of the same coin — a coin whose circulation churns out bad teaching.
Our coveting manifests itself in different channels based on disposition. Some church leaders will be tempted to chase the phantom of the bigger building, and the bigger platform. If that covetous desire becomes large enough, everything else may be sacrificed along the way: confrontational truth, Biblical commitments, family, friends, and other leaders who serve within the church. And it’s not as if it’s only in big churches, or churches on their way to becoming big where this happens. There’s no shortage of small, struggling churches with leaders who believe they are just one step removed (or one squashed opponent away) from breaking out to the big time.
On the other hand, some church leaders will manifest their coveting in more overt self-righteousness. Their church is one of the chosen few, the faithful remnant. Everyone else is a charlatan, a sell-out, a false prophet. Ministry covetousness breaks out in constant contention, factions within factions. Accompanying these are slander and evil suspicions (I Tim 6:4) And here, again, it is not only small, failing churches who resort to bitter jealousy because they have been left behind. There is much to be gained, and large followings to be amassed by claiming that you and your church alone distill the purest of pure doctrine around.
There is nothing inherently good or evil about church size. It is the coveting of size and status that is the wellspring of evil. The underlying deception is that godliness is a means of gain.
But Paul’s solution is to see that godliness is in fact a means of gain (I Tim 6:5-6). The question is, what do you want to gain? A life of faithful, godly ministry is loaded with gains. You gain life, immortality, joy, peace, and closeness with God. There’s no prohibition against wanting those things. You’ll never covet access to God, no matter how much you want it. In the end, the solution to coveting is wanting the right thing.
Read previous articles in this series here.
Justin Poythress (MDiv, WTS) is Pastor of All Saints Presbyterian Church in Boise, ID. He blogs regularly at Time & Chance.
"Envy in the Digital Age" by Brad Littlejohn
"Psalm 73: For the Soul Sick with Envy" by John Hartley
"Sodom's Great Sin?" by Aaron Denlinger
A Place to Belong by Megan Hill
The Envy of Eve by Melissa Kruger
P/C "Self-Portrait with Halo and Snake" by Paul Gauguin