(RNS) — Once upon a time, evangelical leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention (and beyond) were an unwavering group. Touting the authority of Scripture and an emphasis on Christ alone, they’d pound the pulpit, the radio airwaves, and print publications with the gospel of Jesus Christ. They were people of the Book and people of conviction.
Even if you didn’t like what they had to say, you had to respect the clarity they spoke with. You knew where they stood. If there’s one thing we human beings appreciate, it’s having our expectations met to some degree. From LGBTQ liberals and democratic politicians, to hard right conservatives, we knew our differences and where we stood respectively.
What’s more, there was, for the most part, agreement within evangelicalism and within denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention that certain false teachers were to be marked and avoided, as the Apostle Paul says in his Letter to the Romans. No matter the political differences or denominational differences, evangelicals could rely on one thing: we’d not promote prosperity charlatans who exploit desperate souls and make Christianity look horrific on a global level.
Those days are gone.
This week SBC adherents watched in (near) terror as prominent Southern Baptist pastors, including Franklin Graham, Jack Graham (no relation to Franklin or Billy), Robert Jeffress and Greg Laurie, tweeted their approval of a new book by Paula White, President Trump’s spiritual advisor. In another time, these long-respected gospel preachers and conservative leaders would never have risked reputation and religious conviction to promote her.
Franklin Graham has since deleted his tweet.
White has been called a heretic in the Christian tradition by SBC leaders and repeatedly brings reproach on the gospel, Jesus Christ and the church. She’s been married and divorced more than once and is alleged to have had an inappropriate relationship with prosperity gospel preacher Benny Hinn. Even after photos showed them apparently holding hands outside a hotel, they both denied having a “fling” — though family members like me know the real story.
She has preached a false gospel, taken contributions from poor and desperate souls, and influenced her way onto Trump’s spiritual advisory board. While the public storyline she sells is a tale of “rags to riches,” the real storyline is simply that false teachers like White climb to the top because they spend their entire lives chasing power and money; deceiving people until they get to the “there” they are after.
Some of you might be thinking: Didn’t Jesus forgive sinners? Is not his grace enough for even Paula White?
The answer is a resounding yes. But genuine Christianity teaches that in order to receive God’s grace for salvation, you must repent of your sin and turn to Jesus Christ. This is the message that Franklin Graham’s father, Billy, preached. This is the message that Jack Graham has preached. This is the message that global evangelist Greg Laurie has preached.
Yet, White has not once repented publicly for any of her sins. She has not confessed deception; she has not confessed false teaching or abuse of the gospel. Instead, she continues to creep her way into the mainstream circles of evangelicalism under the false guise of empty grace.
The question then remains: why would these respected leaders waver in their convictions and promote a known false teacher?
I suggest three possibilities.
One: They are “Trump-Drunk.” A leading voice in the SBC and popular speaker, Beth Moore perhaps said it best in a recent tweet:
Nothing on earth can make sober people drunker than being invited to a table where they can sip on power. It is a drug like no other.
— Beth Moore (@BethMooreLPM) October 15, 2019
While Moore is no stranger to controversy in the SBC, she’s spot on here. The “drug” of power intoxicates the human heart in ways that are undeniably stronger than anything on this earth. And what do the men who endorsed Paula White have in common? They are avidly involved in Donald Trump’s presidential efforts.
By and large, there is nothing “sinful” about that. It is good and healthy for evangelical leaders to want to influence the president of the United States. It is good to fight for the rights of the unborn. It is good to seek to do justice.
However, just like someone who has had a few drinks too many, political power can make leaders do really foolish things.
Two: They are just showing their true colors.
The Bible does, in fact, teach that certain people will defect from Christianity in the end (see the First Letter of John in the New Testament). These could even be church leaders who once appeared to be “for the truth” but ended up being for themselves.
I’d argue that it is very premature to make this case against all of these leaders, but we’d be naïve to discount it altogether. Sure, denial is easier to swallow but will only choke us to death.
There may come a day when evangelicals need to wake up to reality and empty the pews that these pastors preach to each week.
Three: They made a really stupid mistake.
With a collective age of over 200 years old, the combined wisdom and experiences of these men should make them smart enough not to get caught up in this tidal wave of political drama. In short, they should know better than to promote a false teacher simply on the basis of political prowess. Still, who hasn’t done or said something stupid?
If someone publicly repents and changes their ways, as Zacchaeus did in the Gospel of Luke, we must show grace and move on! But until then, these men must be called to lead with clarity and conviction. Promoting false teachers in the name of politics is a big mistake.
If they realize it was a mistake, perhaps they can model the kind of open confession that can help their friend, Paula White.
(Costi W. Hinn is the pastor of Redeemer Bible Church in Gilbert, Arizona. He is the nephew of prosperity preacher Benny Hinn and is the author of “God, Greed, and the (Prosperity) Gospel.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)
This story has been updated to note that Franklin Graham deleted his tweet about Paul White’s book.