Answering Questions about Televangelists
by James Patrick Holding
The Christian apologist is accustomed to answering for the historical “sins of the church,” such as the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem witch trials. Our technological world has brought us another category of sins that are trivial by comparison, but they continue to gain public exposure: the excesses of “televangelists.” During the 1980s, almost every week the news media reported on some new immoderation, such as Oral Roberts’s promise that he would be “taken home” if his ministry did not receive sufficient funding and Jim and Tammy Bakker’s purchases of luxuries like air-conditioned doghouses. Televangelist scandals reached their pinnacle in that decade. Today, while the secular media is no longer as interested in televangelists and both Roberts and the Bakkers have retreated into relative obscurity, other personalities have emerged to take their place, and less spectacular excesses and abuses continue.
Be Prepared. The best approach to answering those who are bewildered or angered by the activities of televangelists is to be proactive. Become familiar with the activities of prominent televangelists. The Christian who cannot offer at least a perfunctory response to the latest “scandal” may leave the impression of being apathetic toward abuses in the church. It is, of course, impossible to predict when the media will expose a televangelist or when a televangelist will raise eyebrows with his or her ostentatious behavior. If we familiarize ourselves with some of the major televangelists’ names and their activities, however, we will at least have some ground on which to answer questions. Apologetics organizations such as the Christian Research Institute provide information on specific televangelists and their activities.
The nature of this subject brings up a relevant point: those who inquire about televangelist behavior often are only trying to provoke an emotional reaction from the defending Christian. Our reaction should always be the same, however, whether we are presented with an honest question or a harassing query about a televangelist: provide an evenhanded and sensible response that is rooted in fact. Falling prey to the bait of a harassing inquirer will serve only to justify in their minds the judgment that Christians are irrational sheep who are unwilling to criticize their leaders’ errors. Our model, rather, should be the apostle Paul, who stood up to Peter when he was in the wrong and publicly charged him with error (Gal. 2).
Money Matters. Televangelist scandals may be roughly divided into three types. The first, and probably most frequent, issue that arises in these contexts is financial scandal. Questions about televangelist finances fall into the categories of general objections against fundraising (“Televangelists are always begging for money”) and specific objections against their use of funds (“Televangelists use donations to purchase frivolous luxuries”). General objections against fundraising present little difficulty for the Christian. It is enough to reply that there is no offense in merely asking for funding; all types of organizations fundraise, including those that are antireligious in nature (e.g., the Freedom from Religion Foundation), those that pursue political or social advocacy (e.g., People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), those that provide educational and entertainment services (e.g., public television and radio), and those that provide health and emergency services…
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