The Preachers of LA: How Much Should A Preacher Make?

Birmingham, 1963, Bill Hudson took a photo of a young black boy being attacked by a German Shepherd during the civil rights protests.  This picture would go onto be one of the most iconic photographs ever taken.  As it circulated across the country gracing the covers of newspapers, politicians took note and began to move.  Within two years of this picture the voting and civil rights acts were signed and a whole new way of life for African American’s came into existence.

But look closer at the picture and what you will see is surprising.  The boy isn’t what he seems.  A hard look shows him pulling tight the leash on the German Shepherd, and kneeing him squarely in the jaw.  The policeman said that this young black boy actually broke the dogs jaw.  What was once perceived as a docile young man non-violently being bitten for the sake of the cause, was the polar opposite.  Looks can be very deceiving.  Until you see the whole picture judgment should be reserved.

Oxygen’s new reality show, The Preachers of LA has caused a firestorm of reaction both within and outside the evangelical community.  At the center of the controversy is the perceived opulence of these preachers and pastors.  But is this another case of looks not being what they seem?

To be clear, I am not defending the show, neither am I in agreement with much of their theology.  My years in Los Angeles put me into contact with several of these men, where I listened to many of their sermons.  Their theology is more than problematic, some of what I heard was actually heretical (I have not heard all of them preach).  I also know that most of the preachers adhere to the “prosperity gospel” (as do most believers, even those who would classify themselves as conservative evangelicals.  Show me someone who believes that good deeds on one side of the equation should equal good- and by good I mean tangibly/immediately/materially favorable outcomes- and I will show you someone who has subscribed to prosperity theology).  One of the nice “amenities” of being a preacher who espouses prosperity theology is that you have to be the visible demonstration of what you want your people to buy into, meaning you have to have the best of the best. But this is not the purposes of this post.

In essence, I want to ask, is it wrong for a preacher to make a certain amount of money that allows him to purchase a Bentley, multi-million dollar mansion, private jet, etc?  At what point does too much money and possessions become, well, too much?  In other words, is our natural resistance to the show founded in the Scriptures?  We need to tread carefully.

We all have what’s called a hermeneutic, which simply means a way of interpretation.  For the follower of Jesus Christ our hermeneutic must begin  with the Scriptures.  So what does the Word of God say about money, wealth and possessions?  On one hand we would have to conclude that you can be wealthy and godly at the same time.  Abraham, the father of the nation of Israel and a picture of godly fidelity is an example of this.  So is his son Isaac, grandson Jacob and great-grandson Joseph- you don’t become second in command of the Egyptians without being wealthy at the same time.  These men are the patriarchs of God’s covenant people, who were  wealthy.  David and Solomon were men of enormous financial means.  So was the entrepreneurial Lydia.  Philemon’s home was so big that a church could meet inside.  He also owned slaves which would put him in a much higher “tax bracket”.  A case could even be made that the entrepreneurial virtuous woman of Proverbs 31 was of financial means.  Jesus didn’t say that it was impossible for the rich to enter into the kingdom, just that it was difficult.  Paul condemned the love of money, not the possession of it.  So a fair reading of the biblical record would lead me to determine that wealth and godliness can be congruent.

But that’s not really our problem when it comes to The Preachers of LA.  What strikes against the grain of our soul is the thought of preachers and pastors making a lot of money, and using that money in such “extreme” ways as we see in their reality. 

So how much do the Scriptures say a preacher should make?

You won’t find any specific amount or percentage mentioned.  Instead, what you’ll see as you mine the text are general principles.  We preachers are worthy of double honor, Paul says.  As those who sow immaterial things through the proclamation of God’s eternal truth, we should reap the material.  The ox is not to be muzzled.  All of these are very general principles, and here is where I can sometimes find myself frustrated, because what would be easier is to establish a set amount, or better yet a set percentage.  If you find it in the Bible let me know!

Paul went to great extremes to not burden the people he lead financially.  He boasted on several occasions that he labored with his own hands so as not to abuse the people.  He did this through the making of tents.  To the Corinthians he even claimed that he had the right to take money from them, but didn’t.  But then he said to the Philippians that in his labors he had seasons where he went without, but there were also seasons where he had plenty- more than enough.  Paul, and this is interesting, hints at times in his life when his cup was overflowing with material blessings.  But before you say, See, Paul needs to be our example, are you saying that all pastors need to be bi-vocational?

So how much should a preacher make?

We love quoting from Charles Spurgeon, that great 19th century London preacher and pastor.  He is still looked to as a model of godliness and great evangelistic preaching.  But look closer, and you might be surprised at what else you see.  Spurgeon enjoyed the finer things of life.  He smoked great cigars, was known to drink wine as he read the Bible, vacationed annually in France, had a wonderful home and garden, and even rode the first class section of trains when he traveled.  Drummond, in his biography on Spurgeon, tells of the time when he was about to get into the first class section of the train when a poor preacher noticed him.  The poor preacher needled him by saying that he was getting into third class to save the Lord’s money.  Never one to be outwitted, Spurgeon responded that he was getting into first class to save the Lord’s servant!  Any fair treatment of Spurgeon will have to conclude that he not only had an abundance of money pass through his hands, but that he also enjoyed the finer things of life.

So how much should a preacher make?

We are all given to more than just biblical hermeneutics, but cultural hermeneutics as well.  Our upbringing, class, environment and experiences radically shape the way we interpret such things as The Preachers of LA.  I experienced this firsthand as our compensation committee, in the early days of our church, was trying to decide how much to pay me.  The two men who made up the committee were extremely godly men who also happened to be white.  As they were wrestling to find a framework for my pay they realized that their way of approaching things was limited, especially in the context of a multi-ethnic church.  And so without any prompting from me they began to call around to various African American churches within the city of Memphis to ask how their compensation was decided (notice they faced the same dilemma we all do, nothing is specifically prescribed in the Bible).  To their astonishment they were told that most of these churches gave ten percent of their annual budget to the pastor.  Now by no means am I saying this is normal for all black churches in Memphis or abroad, but what they realized was that there was a huge cultural difference when it came to a hermeneutic of money for the pastor (they decided on a different structure that has been very encouraging and affirming to me and our family).  Their investigation lead them to conclude what most of my African American colleagues had already figured out- ours (AA ethnicity and culture) is an honor culture.  So whose right and whose wrong?

While the bible doesn’t give specifics as it relates to compensation, it does have very clear and daunting details about what to do with money once it’s in our hands.  To the rich landowner in Luke 12, God doesn’t condemn him for his material and financial blessings.  Instead he is called fool and condemned to hell, because he sought to take those blessings and horde them in bigger barns and spend them on his epicurean pursuits, thus betraying an unregenerate heart.  Ananias and Sapphira met a similar fate over their greed.  While tithing is not mentioned in the NT, the whole spirit of the NT is to exceed that amount out of a generous heart.  We are stewards who are expected to give generously to the kingdom.

And this is my dilemma with the show, The Preachers of LA.  We see the cars, houses and bling, but we don’t see the giving record or random acts of generosity (supposing they exist).  What if I told you that I know of a pastor who has two Bentley’s, a multi-million dollar home in a very exclusive neighborhood…would you say typical and write him off?  Or what if you let me finish and tell you that at last count he gives over twenty-three percent of his income to the kingdom?  Is this another case of the boy kneeing the German Shepherd?

There’s a lot that’s wrong with the show, you won’t get any arguments out of me there.  When I see the cars and possessions my soul grimaces because everything within me says that’s wrong.  But is it?  Show me the verse.  Would I do it?  No.  I’m just concerned that our cultural hermeneutics maybe superceding our biblical hermeneutics, when instead we need to leave room for the Holy Spirit and our consciences to guide us through how we steward God’s money.