Scandal of Evangelical Dishonesty

Note from Randy: I am painfully aware that the subjects I address in this article are uncomfortable and controversial. Some of my good friends will think it inappropriate to raise these issues publicly.

I want to emphasize that I don’t think most of the deceptions that have become common practice among Christians are perceived as deceptions. Nor do I think they were originally intended as such. Some practices, such as ghostwriting, have developed gradually, with a slow desensitization to standards of truthfulness that authors and publishers never anticipated nor desired.

I do not wish to be or to sound self-righteous, as though I have never been tempted by nor succumbed to some of the common deceptions I refer to, and others as well. I don’t call anyone else to a standard without calling myself to the same. If I am wrong or unfair, I am open to correction, and I invite it.

Honored historians plagiarize. Politicians invent war records. Coaches embellish resumes. Employees call in sick when they’re playing golf. Advertisements promise intimacy with someone beautiful if you buy this car or drink that beer.

We’re so used to being lied to, and so prone to self-deceit, it’s hard to discern what’s true and what’s not.

As followers of Christ, we are to be different. We’re to walk in the truth (3 John 3), love the truth, and believe the truth (2 Thess. 2:10,12). We are to speak the truth, in contrast to “the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Eph. 4:14). We’re to speak the truth “in love” (Eph. 4:32).

Truth is far more than a moral guide. Jesus declared, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no man comes to the Father but by Me” (John 14:6). He didn’t say He would show the truth or teach the truth or model the truth. He said He is the truth—Truth personified. He’s the source of all truth, the embodiment of truth, and therefore the reference point for evaluating all truth claims. Jesus came full of grace and truth (John 1:14). He takes the truth personally, because it’s part of who He is.

The phrase “I tell you the truth” appears 79 times in Scripture, 78 times spoken by Jesus. He is the truth, and He tells the truth. We can fully trust everything He says. If we are His representatives, people should be able to trust everything we say.

The Holy Spirit leads men into truth (John 16:13). Christ’s disciples know the truth (John 8:32), do the truth (John 3:21), and abide in the truth (John 8:44). We are commanded to handle the truth accurately (2 Tim. 2:25), and avoid doctrinal untruths (2 Tim. 2:18). The “belt of truth” holds together our spiritual armor (Eph. 6:14).

God “does not lie” (Titus 1:2). He is “the God of truth” (Ps. 31:5). “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?” (Num. 23:19).

Unlike God, the devil promises but doesn’t fulfill. He’s always denying, revising, or spinning truth. Jesus said “there is no truth in him” and called him a “liar, and the father of lies.” He said, “When he lies he speaks his native language” (John 8:44).

When we speak the truth, we speak Christ’s language. When we speak lies, when we mislead and give false impressions, we speak Satan’s language.

Consider fundraising strategies where Christian ministries make their mailings look like IRS mailings, or use a handwriting font to make it appear that the director wrote a note he didn’t. Isn’t that misleading?

No matter how we rationalize it, all deception within the evangelical community dishonors Christ, and serves the devil’s agenda. We need to identify deception, repent of it, and embrace the truth of Christ which will set us free to represent Him accurately to a world sick of being lied to (John 8:32).

Truth in the Pulpit?

As it turned out, I flew 3,000 miles to not preach in a prominent East Coast church.

When I was shuttled from hotel to church, a Christian leader rode with me. He’d been accused of dishonesty and financial improprieties. I asked him about these charges.

“Did you really graduate from Harvard, as you say in your messages?” He said he’d taken a class at Harvard once, but no, he hadn’t graduated.

He admitted saying other things that weren’t true, but this didn’t seem to bother him. I told him, calmly, that I thought he should repent and publicly ask forgiveness for his dishonesty.

Five minutes after we arrived at the church, I was escorted to the private office of the senior pastor, where we were to pray before I preached in the service. When I stepped in, the pastor slammed the door and screamed at me. His face turned scarlet, veins showing. He poked his finger at me. I honestly thought he was going to hit me.

Then, out of the corner of my eye I saw the man I’d just confronted. The pastor told me I’d had no right to do this. “No way will I let you preach from my pulpit!” he said.

I tried to explain, but he wouldn’t listen. He was aware of the man’s reputation but thought it none of my business. We went straight into the service. The pastor took the microphone. His voice suddenly sounded sweet and spiritual. He introduced the man I’d confronted, who then conducted the offering, challenging people to give generously because he knew their wonderful pastor. The pastor then told the church he felt “the Holy Spirit’s leading” to dedicate the service to sharing and healing, so regretfully there wouldn’t be time to hear from the guest speaker.

On the long flight home I considered how Christian leaders, who should be guardians of God’s truth, could have such disregard for truth.

This isn’t new. “‘Do not let the prophets deceive you. Don’t listen to their lies. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,’ declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 29:8-9). Various Christian celebrities, including John Todd, Mike Warnke and Lauren Stratford, were proven to have lied about their experience with Satanism, and sold millions of books and entertained countless evangelical audiences in the process. The world scorns the church for serving as a platform for such lies.

A speaker can be popular, a book can be a bestseller in Christian bookstores, but can still be full of lies.

I do not intend the preceding story to reflect poorly on pastors. Most pastors I know are men of honesty and integrity. I tell the story as an illustration that the Christian community isn’t immune to the dishonesty that plagues the world.

Celebrity Endorsements

A disturbing recent fundraising development is purchasing celebrity endorsements of charities given at conferences and concerts. A speaker or musician gives an appeal for a ministry’s child sponsorships. For every child sponsored as a result of the appeal the performer receives $25 to $50. (In the secular world, this is called a kickback.)

A pastor’s wife attending a popular women’s conference heard a speaker strongly endorse a ministry working with needy children. On a hunch, the pastor’s wife asked the speaker afterward if she or the organization had been paid an endorsement fee. “Of course,” the speaker replied.

Speakers have been paid as much as $10,000 for a single large-event endorsement. A friend of mine learned at a ministry board meeting that the organization was “negotiating” with a popular musician to get his endorsement. “What’s there to negotiate?” he asked. “Either someone believes in this ministry and is willing to give his name to it, or he doesn’t.” If someone is paid money by a ministry for asking an audience to give money to that ministry, it doesn’t qualify as a heartfelt endorsement. It’s more like a payoff.

Satan is a master at twisting good things and perverting acts of grace and kindness into profit-seeking ventures. It’s commendable when speakers or musicians believe in a mission so much they sacrifice to support it. It’s wonderful that they’d take an offering for that ministry. But to be paid for doing so—to take for themselves any amount of money given by those intending it to go to help poor children—is unethical. (If the audience knew, they would be heartsick and perhaps angry. God does know. Is He heartsick? Angry?)

I know a fine group of young musicians who were approached by a major missions organization asking them to promote its ministry. The mission offered them a 20 percent cut of all funds collected at their concerts. Suppose a singer made this public statement: “Eighty percent of tonight’s offering will go to feed the hungry in Haiti; the other 20 percent will go to us as payment for bringing this to your attention.” If the truth was divulged, people would be able to act in light of it. But most ministries, musicians, and speakers wouldn’t agree to such a disclosure. Why? Because it would look bad for everyone. But if it looks bad, isn’t that because it is bad? If those involved would be embarrassed by disclosure, isn’t that an indication it shouldn’t be done in the first place? Ministry leaders should be ashamed of themselves for putting this kind of temptation in front of young Christian musicians who need examples of integrity, not offers to compromise their integrity.

I have no problem with a ministry presenting its vision to a speaker or group and then asking them to pray about calling attention to their cause. I have major problems with offering them a percentage of “the take” (the offering). Unless this is done with full disclosure, unless clear verbal or printed recognition is made of this financial arrangement, the offering is a deception. Anything less than full disclosure to potential donors constitutes fraud. Such arrangements will inevitably promote abuse, and sometimes lead to public scandal. Consider the temptation to overstate or misrepresent needs or to speak with artificial enthusiasm for the poor, while thinking of the larger kickback they will get for doing so. Our enemies dish out enough temptations without us dispensing them to our friends. Think of a Christian speaker appealing to people to give to starving children, knowing what the audience doesn’t—his personal wealth will increase directly in proportion to what he says and how convincingly he says it.

Imagine your pastor asking the congregation to dig deep and give to a mission to plant churches and give medical aid to the needy in rural Colombian villages. Hearts are moved. The church takes an offering of $50,000. Praise God! Now imagine it’s a week later, and a church board member mentions that the pastor was paid $10,000 for making the plea and only $40,000 actually went to the mission. How would you respond? It may sound absurd—but that’s exactly the deal arranged by some Christian ministries with musicians.

Some say, “We don’t publicly disclose this arrangement, because people would get the wrong idea. They’d misunderstand.” The real danger isn’t that people would misunderstand—it’s that they would understand. If they understood that part of the offering was going to the celebrity, not to the cause, they would see it for what it is, and probably not support it. (If I believed in the cause and knew of these arrangements, I would send my check directly to the organization, so more would go to needy children instead of to the celebrity. Shouldn’t I be given the information to allow me to make that choice?)

Taking an offering should be an opportunity to serve the needy, not a means to make money off the cause of the needy. The only way to know one’s motives are right in making the appeal is not to profit from the arrangement. Those in ministry should seek to serve, not to be served. (Isn’t that what ministry is about?) They should look for the right organization to support—which would not be the one that offered them the kickback.

“But speakers are paid an honorarium—what’s the difference?” The difference is that people assume the speaker is being paid. If you attend a seminar, it’s understood that part of the cost goes to the speaker. If you pay for a concert, it’s understood that funds go to the music group. No one’s being lied to or misled. But in the case of paid celebrity endorsements, people are being misled. Poll those attending and you’ll find that most believe the speaker or musician is voluntarily endorsing the ministry because God has touched his heart by it. The audience has no clue that the first several thousand dollars given, or a percentage of the total, goes not to the cause but to the speaker or musician.

The ministry may argue, “It costs money to make money. If we put a full-page ad in a magazine, or if we produce an infomercial, it may cost us a higher percentage of what’s given than if we pay 20 percent to a music group. If people realize it’s okay to spend money to advertise in a magazine, why isn’t it okay to pay to get the endorsement of a speaker or music group?”

The operative word is “realize.” Everyone knows that it costs money to put an ad in a magazine. But unless it’s explicitly disclosed, they have no clue that a speaker or music group is being paid for its endorsement.

“But the poor get more help than if we didn’t do this.” Who says we have to choose between misleading people and helping the poor? Believing that honest fundraising can’t be productive is an insult to God and His people. I believe that speakers or musicians who are endorsing a ministry and receiving nothing in return should make this clear. Doing this would be a great example to other speakers and musicians and would reassure the audience (who might become cynical as they learn of deceptive practices). Best of all, the speaker or musician’s reward would then come not from the ministry but from the Lord. We’re not to serve those who can benefit us, but those who can’t—and then God Himself will reward us in heaven (Luke 14:12-14).

Selling the Spiritual

Opportunism and attempts to buy and sell the spiritual are not new. Simon Magus was the first entrepreneur to see “money” written all over ministry:

When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”

Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart.” (Acts 8:18-22)

What makes us think that God has changed His opinion of attempts to profit under the veil of ministry? Every church and ministry leader should ask, “What are we doing that would make us embarrassed or uncomfortable if people knew it?” As I write this, I am asking myself that very question concerning our own nonprofit ministry. If we think of something—and I just did—isn’t that a good indication we should stop it now? (We did.)

Donors should ask the ministries they support whether they are paying to get celebrity endorsements or are spending their funds in some way other than it appears. If the answers aren’t ethically and biblically satisfactory, donors should say that until the ministry’s policies change, they can no longer in good conscience support them and must give their money to ministries that are operating at a higher level of integrity. For everyone’s sake, including their own, ministries need to be held accountable by their supporters—and so do Christian musicians and speakers.

We should be stimulating each other to love and good deeds, setting ethical examples, raising the bar for each other, not lowering it. Jesus will examine the motives of our hearts—including our truthfulness and the sincerity of our words spoken on behalf of the poor and in support of kingdom ministries (1 Corinthians 4:5). If we have given to the needy for their good and God’s glory, He will commend us. If we have taken from them for financial gain, He will not.

Imagine standing before Christ someday and hearing Him say, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for—yourself!”

The Ethics of Ghostwriting

Ghostwriting is when someone else writes a book that is credited to a celebrity as if he or she wrote it. The rationale is that because the real writer’s name isn’t well-known and marketable, the book won’t sell well unless it’s released under the celebrity’s name.

This is so commonly practiced that many Christian publishers, authors, and celebrities see no ethical problem with it. Some of these people are sincere in their beliefs—I know because I’ve talked with them. I have great respect for my publishers, and many others too, but all of us, including me, naturally become desensitized. Sometimes those of us who are on the inside of publishing—including authors, agents, and publishers—fail to see what those on the outside immediately recognize as unethical.

I’m not talking about the legitimate process of coauthoring, in which authors invest varying levels of work and expertise into the writing. Nor am I talking about books that, after being written, need substantial editing provided by the publisher. By ghostwriting, I’m talking about when the actual writer’s name is not on the cover, or when a person’s name is on the cover (even as a coauthor with the real writer) who did little or nothing to write the book.

I know of cases where the celebrity didn’t write a word and only skimmed through the book for the first time late in the editing process. Is this honest?

Consider what this practice does to immature believers who are athletes, musicians, or public figures made prominent through tragic or newsworthy events. “Here’s the offer: We will make you a lot of money, and you will get to take credit for doing something you really didn’t do.” We feed their ego, and set them up for deception and pride, which is bound to cause them to fall (Proverbs 16:18). They’re under enough temptation already—why do we feel compelled to add to it by making the false claim that in addition to everything else they’re writers?

If we teach them it’s okay to lie by taking credit for a book they didn’t write, why should we be shocked if we discover they lied when they claim to have graduated from a college they didn’t, or to have fought in a war they didn’t, or to have done a job they didn’t? Isn’t it ironic that Christian publishers would consider it an ethical breach if they discovered an “author” gave them a resume containing false information, when the same publisher has knowingly led the public to believe this person wrote a book he or she really didn’t write? Which is the bigger lie?

Nothing is more uncomfortable than hearing an interview with those who are asked about their experiences writing a book they didn’t write. Their temptation is to pretend and cover up the truth. Sometimes they pretend long enough that they convince themselves they’re writers, becoming better liars all the time.

Publishers sometimes approach prominent pastors and Christian leaders whose greatest temptations are toward pride and pretense and then help them pretend they wrote a book, taking pride in something they didn’t do!

Putting musicians, writers, speakers, and others on pedestals goes way beyond healthy respect for role models. It borders on idolatry. It’s not good for anyone, but certainly it’s not good for the young, the immature, and those already struggling with pride, pretense, money-loving, and other temptations that are fed by “I wrote a book” celebrity status.

Ask the average person what it means when a name is on a book cover, and they’ll tell you it means the person actually wrote it. That’s what book buyers believe. Hence, the book is sold to them under false pretenses. I’ve been told “the ghostwriter knows what he’s agreeing to, and if he doesn’t need to see his name on the book, that’s up to him.” But the question isn’t what the ghostwriter or celebrity believes, it’s what the potential book-buyer believes. Ghostwriters may receive far greater royalties than if they were known as the book’s true author. They may have a vested interest in the falsehood just like everyone else involved.

Some of my editor friends are excellent writers. They are sometimes paid their normal salaries by publishers to do the actual writing—not just editing—of books where 100% of the royalties go to celebrities who did no writing.

Why not tell the truth on the cover, saying who really wrote the book and leaving off the names of any who didn’t write it? The answer is simple: “It wouldn’t sell as well.” If the response is “the book is just as good or better than if the celebrity wrote it,” that may well be true, but people should be allowed to decide that for themselves, shouldn’t they? How dare we mislead and deprive readers of accurate information about who actually wrote the book they are considering buying? This isn’t just patronizing and insulting, it’s downright dishonest. Why do we imagine this is any different than withholding information about the used car we’re trying to sell, for fear that if we told the truth people wouldn’t buy it? Is our goal just to sell books, or to honor Jesus?

The same principle applies to columns and articles—including those in many ministry and Christian college publications—that are not actually written by the Christian leaders listed as authors. Some college presidents never write their own articles in school publications, yet their names are always attached to them. If students at the same college put their name on papers written by someone else, this would be grounds for expulsion. So why is it all right for the president to do it? Similarly, ministry fundraising letters signed by the president or CEO frequently aren’t written by him.

In 1990 a scandal occurred involving Milli Vanilli. The singing group’s name became a synonym for dishonesty and hypocrisy simply because the people doing the singing for their recordings weren’t the ones getting credit for it. (So why is this recognized as wrong, but it’s considered acceptable to take credit for a book, article, or letter someone else wrote?) A class-action suit was filed against Milli Vanilli and their recording company. Purchasers of Girl You Know It’s True were given the opportunity to request a rebate for fraud damages. Are readers of books not written by their stated authors entitled to a rebate for exactly the same reasons?

Someone could argue that the real singers sounded better than Milli Vanilli. So what? The whole thing was a lie, and customers were outraged.

It’s ironic that Christians would stoop to ethics that even most non-Christians, who don’t believe what the Bible says about truth, immediately recognize as wrong.

Isn’t it reasonable for both Christians and non-Christians to be able to buy a Christian book with the confidence that the person identified on the book and publicized as the author actually wrote it?

“But ghostwriting is a well-established practice.” Many things are well-established practices, but that doesn’t make them right. I’ve seen people heartsick, disillusioned, and angry when they discover that various popular Christian books weren’t written by the person whose name is on the cover. We who supposedly esteem the truth so highly should be the last ones to participate in such deceit.

Every argument I hear for ghostwriting is pragmatic. Of course people make money by ghostwriting. People also make money from prostitution, theft, and drug dealing. The real question is not whether ghostwriting is profitable but whether it is moral. I never hear people offer biblical and ethical justifications for it, only practical ones. Why? Perhaps because there simply is no moral justification.

There’s sometimes a fine line between ghostwriting and celebrity books written “with” others. Writing a book about people, with their cooperation, is certainly fine, as long as there’s no pretense or false impression about who did the writing. But when the cover puts the celebrity’s name first, followed by “and” or “with” the true writer, the implication is that the celebrity did most or much of the writing. If, in fact, the celebrity did nothing more than grant interviews, answer questions, pass on a few pages of a journal, or tell a couple of stories, then he or she isn’t the author and shouldn’t be promoted as such.

If this isn’t a book by Celebrity X but about Celebrity X, that’s fine—but shouldn’t this distinction be made clear by listing the real author’s name exclusively on the cover? The celebrity can still be emphasized as the subject of the book, but not as the author. The writer shouldn’t pretend to be a world-class athlete or movie star, and the celebrity shouldn’t pretend to be a writer. Sometimes the “name” person is a celebrity author who can write but didn’t write this book. If the celebrity didn’t write it but just supplied some suggestions or advice, he or she belongs on the acknowledgments page, not the cover. Ask yourself, “Given the amount of work the celebrity actually contributed to writing the book, if the name wasn’t well-known, would it be on the cover?” If the answer is no, then the ethics are clear—the celebrity’s name shouldn’t be on the cover as author.

I believe Christian ghostwriting is a scandal waiting to explode. If we in the Christian community don’t clean up our act soon, we’re going to face widespread loss of credibility. What a tragedy if 60 Minutes were to expose this practice we should never have tolerated. Can’t you see Steve Kroft or Ed Bradley holding up a book and asking well-known Christian authors, “Did you really write this book?” Envision the neatly edited scenes of embarrassment, head-hanging, evasions, rationalizations, and reports that “so-and-so author and publisher wouldn’t return our calls.”

This could be a major setback for Christian publishers and authors at the very time Christian books have made unprecedented inroads into the mainstream culture. We need to confess, repent of, and change our policies—and stop being driven by money-love and ego building.

If we’re not telling the truth about who wrote the book—on the cover, in large print—why should people believe what we say inside the book, in small print?

False Advertising by Christian Colleges

Many Christian colleges routinely print doctrinal statements in their catalogs that are not believed or taught by some or even many of their professors. The academic vice president of a major Christian liberal arts college confided to me, “If Christian parents actually knew what their children are being taught in our classrooms, they would pull them out of college tomorrow.” And, I would add, they’d never give another dime to that college.

If Christian colleges told the truth in their promotional materials, some would read like this: “Thirty-four percent of our faculty believe in the inerrancy of God’s Word. Twenty-one percent of our science teachers believe the biblical account of creation. No one in our psychology department believes in the doctrine of original sin. Two out of our three sociology teachers are proabortion and defenders of homosexual lifestyles. The director of our philosophy department is an agnostic. The head of our Bible department hasn’t attended church for ten years because he doesn’t believe in organized religion.”

Why not be honest and admit this publicly? The answer is simple: So Christian parents will keep paying to send their students there, and so the college’s major Christian donors will keep sending money.

I am a great believer in Christian higher education. But the doctrinal statements published in many Christian colleges, including some at which I’ve spoken, are simply false advertising (also known as lying). Much of the motive for this dishonesty boils down to money.

When students go to secular colleges, they and their parents should be prepared for the fact that most Christian beliefs will be argued against, marginalized and often ridiculed in classrooms. Many students are woefully unprepared to defend their faith, and end up abandoning it during their college years. But at least if they go to secular colleges they have no illusions they’ll be taught Christian beliefs. But many students go to Christian colleges assuming they will be taught biblical truths. They and their parents have the right to be told in advance what is actually taught at so-called Christian colleges. (I implore parents to do their homework and find this out.) If your goal is for your son or daughter to lose their faith, there are much cheaper ways to do this than sending them to “Christian” colleges that neither teach nor believe God’s Word!

Raising the Bar

I take no pleasure in addressing these issues. I hope it will serve Christ’s body by initiating some much-needed self-examination and dialogue.

Which Christian colleges, missions organizations, speakers, musicians, publishers, and authors will come forward and confess past misleading practices and commit themselves to the highest ethical standards before the Audience of One, even if it means forgoing financial gain? Who will, in the name of Christ, raise the bar of honesty, integrity, and truth?

Only when Christian leaders establish new and higher standards will others feel the positive peer pressure and accountability to do the same. Only then will reform be widespread, with direct unspun truth-telling becoming the established norm.

Only then will we gain the trust of both the Christian public and a skeptical secular culture accustomed to deception, but desperately needing the truth.

A reader response to the article “Scandal of Evangelical Dishonesty.”

Photo by Akshar Dave on Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries