The curious case of pastoral infallibility

Two years ago I refrained from commenting on the (at that time) news of over 18 people from City Harvest Church (CHC) who were called up in a probe. We didn’t really know the details of the probe, so naturally we can’t comment without the data. Well, just over two years from the original probe, we do have the data. Read the complete statement from the MCYS Commissioner of Charities (COC) here or see the infographic below from CNA (which, admittedly, might not be really helpful; I would recommend you to read the whole COC statement):

And the charge today is identical with the original probe two years ago.

CNA, 16/06/2010: “The police probe into the church concerns specific incidents that could involve the possible falsification of accounts and criminal breach of trust, involving millions of dollars and transactions that date back years.”

CAD statement, 26/06/2012: “Five persons arrested by the Commercial Affairs Department for Criminal Breach of Trust and Falsification of Accounts.”

So you could say that the CAD have built up a strong case for the original probe. And, to put this into perspective, it took them two years to investigate this case before they press for the charge. They don’t play play one.

(To put it in a larger context, the CPIB and CAD have been very prolific, arresting so many people recently. You name it: SCDF, CNB, MFA, SPH, and now CHC. So kudos for the two institutions.)

I’m not really concerned about the eventual outcome of the trial. The law will run its course by itself. But I just want to highlight a few things:

1. This is not about the Crossover Project in itself, where the church tries to carry “the message of the Cultural Mandate across continents through Sun Ho’s pop music career.” The #IBelieveInTheCrossover trend in Twitter might be well-meaning and truly sincere, but it misses the point. It is about the misuse of some of the church funds for the project. I have one analogy. Supposedly my pastor misused some of the church funds, which have been earmarked to build a new building for our church. But instead my pastor used it for a gospel rally that our church holds every year for our church outreach. It doesn’t mean that the gospel rally in itself is wrong. What’s wrong is the misuse of the church funds.

Moreover, it is not only about the funds for the project. The COC statement consists of four points, and only the two points are related to the project. The remaining two points are about other church money handling issues. So, to sum it up, it is more about the money (mis)management in the church.

2. Of course, some of you might want to argue that the project in itself is wrong and shouldn’t be used as a method of church outreach. But that’s beside the main issue here and you should move your argument elsewhere. The point is it is not about the project itself but about the misuse of the church funds which were used for the project. At most, you could only argue that the nature of the project doesn’t really help CHC in this case, since it inevitably blurs the line between the church outreach using Sun Ho’s pop music with her other activities which is not used for church outreach and purely for profit (if there is any).

3. More importantly, I am very surprised at the very defensive tone of, not only the churchgoers, but also other Christians who quickly come to blindly defend Kong Hee and co. Naturally, you would want to stand for your pastor, not to mention that there is a high degree of personality cult involved in this case (and that you should expect this kind of thing happening in the wild wild world of Twitter), but still, if you read the COC statement, the data are pretty damning to me.

(By the way, just to be clear, I am a Christian myself.)

4. The deeper issue that I see here is not only about the misuse of church funds (which is an important issue and shall be looked into later in the post), but also about how, practically, many of us believe in the dogma of pastoral infallibility. And this is not exclusive to CHC churchgoers. I see this mentality in other churchgoers elsewhere, who think that their pastor simply can’t do any wrong (GRII comes to mind). And of course, this is totally nonsensical. In fact, I would argue that the Protestant spirit is exactly to always be critical to any human authority, and that includes the pastoral authority. I seriously wonder whether those Protestants who abhor the dogma of papal infallibility realize the irony when they themselves practice the dogma of pastoral infallibility. If you believe that your pastor can’t do anything wrong, you are simply making your own pope.

5. I am also appalled at the stark display of “us vs. the world” mentality. Quotes like “if God is for us, who can be against us” (Rm 8.31) are, honestly, foolish and irrelevant here. It assumes that the world is always conspiring against and looking to attack the Christians whenever such opportunity comes, and that the world is always wrong while the Christians are always right. Well, not really. This kind of blind siege mentality must stop. If you are arrested for your own faults (and proven to be guilty), it is not called persecution. It is called justice.

6. On the general issue of managing church money itself, I guess it is pretty common sense that we need to be as professional and transparent as we can when it comes to managing the church’s money. Indeed, if you believe that the money is in fact not ours but God’s, you need to be accountable to him and his people. It is sad, really, to see how the world demands highest standard of accountability while we are pretty lax about it. Tweets like, “if the amount of money ‘cheated’ equates to the magnitude of lives being changed, then ‘cheat’ me”, are plainly horrible. It exposes our disconnect between the What and the How of the Gospel. We don’t really care how the Gospel reaches the people, we only care on the fact that ‘the Gospel’ does reach the people. Again, horrible. If you want to keep believing in this kind of way of proclaiming the Gospel, you will only keep discrediting yourselves in the eyes of the world. Church governance does matter and is not a trivial issue at all.

7. Finally, on the megachurch phenomenon in Singapore. I have heard several comments that the megachurch phenomenon in Singapore was still in its honeymoon period, which is the first phase of any institutionalization process. Then comes the second phase, the shock therapy that awakens everyone that, well, the megachurch is not as idyllic as you hoped to be. In the beginning you might be in denial, but eventually you will need to accept that a megachurch is just like any other church, full of its own weaknesses as well. But it doesn’t mean you will abandon the ship and form a new entity, as eventually the whole process will repeat by itself and hence exposes the futility of forming new churches endlessly. Your expectations will be tempered, but you will stick by your church, reform it from within, and continue to serve God from there. All of us are heretics, anyway, and the difference lies only in its manner and extent.

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