Televangelist Creflo Dollar is famous for his promises that God wants every aspect of life to prosper. Especially the family. His book series entitled The Successful Family tries show readers not only how to find domestic bliss, but how to build families that show God’s principles at work. But in this conservative religious world obsessed with “family values,” nothing seems harder on the family than the prosperity gospel.
Last week, charges were dismissed against Creflo Dollar for allegations that he choked his 15-year old-daughter during an argument over her attending a party. The famous televangelist and leader of the 30,000-member World Changers Church International, according to one court solicitor, must take anger management classes and pay the court fees associated with the charges of simply battery and cruelty to children.
From allegations that Eddie Long’s coerced sex with minors, to Paula and Randy White’s divorce, and Juanita Bynum’s assault by her husband and fellow prosperity pastor, it has been a tough few years for the families of prosperity preachers.
Millions of American Christians profess a form of pentecostalism that teaches that faith can unleash wealth, health, and total victory over life’s circumstances. My research has tracked the growth of over a hundred prosperity megachurches across the country.
One of the prosperity gospel’s key claims is that every believer should be living proof that God’s promises work. It is a religion of demonstrations, where faith can be measured by every Christian’s finances, health, happiness, and family togetherness. Only a few dozen pastors ever achieve the kind of supersized celebrity of Creflo Dollar or Eddie Long. And yet so many of those who preach a form of the prosperity gospel continue to find themselves at the center of a public domestic breakdown.
In recent years, families have become one of the most important advertisements of the prosperity gospel.
The church orbits around the pastor’s success. Every time the media criticizes a prosperity pastor’s mansion or private jet or pocket square, they miss the point entirely. The message is true because you can see it preaching to you every Sunday in a three-piece suit.
To be sure, every successful pastor shoulders the almost crushing weight of constant scrutiny. Any whiff of humanity or moral failing meets with accusations of hypocrisy. But the prosperity gospel invites much greater scrutiny. Pastors and their families are lifted up as the closest thing on earth to Jesus’ saving example. Their mansions, town cars, and immaculate wardrobes only confirm that they are the highest example of their own prescription for prosperity. As Creflo Dollar once boasted that the devil would have a hard time distinguishing between successful Christians and Jesus himself “because we look so much alike!”
Pastors usually rise to fame because they are charismatic, tireless, and have a strong sense of being chosen for this work. Families often struggle to feel quite so called. In the 1990s, pastors tried to solve this problem by promoting their wives to the role of co-pastor and placing their family at the center of the ministry. There would no longer be any competition between the church and the family because the church was the family.
In the last few decades, aging prosperity pastors have continued the family focus by promoting their sons (and sometimes daughters) to leadership. Fred Price chose Fred Price Jr.; Robert Schuller picked Robert Schuller Jr. then Sheila Schuller; Marilyn Hickey tapped Sarah Hickey, and so on. Of course, the most famous example is Joel Osteen, whose dimpled smile and cheerful sermons multiplied his father’s congregation almost six times over to make Lakewood Church into America’s largest church. But not everyone has a Joel Osteen in the wings. And not every husband or wife likes being the ministerial plus one.
When the church is a family business, a failing family is a failing business. Even so, pastors accused of moral failing rarely change course. Even after televangelist Zachary Tims was divorced by his co-pastor and wife Riva for a yearlong affair with an exotic dancer, his billboards still featured his image with the byline: “A Family Church Meeting Family Needs.”
The turmoil of these media stars turns shockingly public when reputations hang on family secrets. Too often, pastors flock to the nearest microphone to tell their side of the story. Given that the majority command vast television and Sunday audiences, a listening ear is never far away. When Benny Hinn’s wife filed for divorce in 2010, Hinn took to the airwaves to decry her as having “no biblical grounds to do what she did.” This past fall Hinn jubilantly announced their reconciliation and asked donors to financially recommit to his ministry. In doing so, he exposed his wife’s struggle with dependency on prescription drugs, while he recounted that his error had been in being too devoted to the ministry.
Families are delicate organisms. As the story of Creflo Dollar reminds us, the First Family of any prosperity church can wither under the searing heat of life in the public eye. Not every teenager wants to give up going to a party because their family business depends on it.