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John Oliver takes on televangelists

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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U.S. tax law allows television preachers to get away with almost anything. We know this from personal experience. (Credit: Last Week Tonight via Youtube)

John Oliver is the host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight.” Prior to taking on that role, he was one of the most popular correspondents on The Daily Show. In many ways, his ability to take a candid look at culture and report it in a way that is both humorous and thought provoking, though not always safe for work, is similar to that of his former boss, Jon Stewart. On this past week’s episode, Oliver aimed directly at televangelists who abuse the trust of their followers in order to pay for the kinds of lavish lifestyles usually reserved for Hollywood’s elite. However, perhaps that is only appropriate considering their “spirituality” is often more the result of a carefully scripted performance than the genuine work of the Holy Spirit.

Oliver wanted to be very clear from the start that he was not targeting all religious bodies by affirming that “Churches are a cornerstone of American life. There are roughly 350,000 congregations in the United States, and many of them do great work, feeding the hungry, clothing the poor. But this is not a story about them. This is about the churches who exploit people’s faith for monetary gain.”

From that point, Oliver focuses on the work of people like Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, Robert Tilton, Creflo Dollar, and Mike Murdock. To demonstrate the nature of their ministries, he discussed exploits like Dollar’s asking his congregation to buy him a $65 million dollar jet, Tilton’s correspondence with individuals where he asks them to send money on an almost weekly basis with the promise that they’ll be blessed when they do, or Murdock telling people with credit card debt that God will wipe it all out if they have the faith to add another $1,000 to it by donating to his ministry. In the end, it seems clear that these “preachers” possess an uncanny ability to twist the gospel message for personal gain.

However, perhaps the most tragic example Oliver gives is the story of Bonny Parker. Bonny did not seek medical help for her cancer because she believed that by giving repeatedly to the Copelands, God would heal her. Given the Copelands’ teachings on healing through faith (they have a 5 step program on their website), it’s understandable that she would have come to that conclusion. And while they stop short of saying that if such healing doesn’t work it’s because you haven’t believed hard enough, that is really the only logical conclusion when they tell people with such certainty that “There’s no question about it, God’s perfect will is for us to be healed” and that if you will pray with faith “Healings manifest – every time!”

To be clear, the Copelands’ error is not in saying that God can heal. He absolutely does still heal and sometimes in miraculous ways. However, more often than not he chooses to use doctors to help. But even then, there are times where that healing simply doesn’t come and to imply that it is because the infirmed lacked the faith to claim the supernatural healing that was offered is both presumptuous and ill-fitting of the kind of mercy and love that should define us as Christians.

Ultimately, each of the individuals who gave money to these people made their own choice and must take some measure of responsibility for their actions. However, the fact remains that claiming scripture to justify one’s beliefs is often enough to convince others even if, like these televangelists, your statements blatantly distort the true gospel. That’s why it’s so important for us to know and spend time in God’s word.

To begin, knowing God’s word allows you to test the teachings of others to make sure they are true. In Acts 17, Paul praises the believers in Thessalonica because “they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). Because they went to God’s word for proof that what they were hearing was accurate, seeking a full understanding of the things being taught, they were able to recognize the truth in what Paul was preaching. Moreover, had he been teaching something false, they would have been able to recognize that as well.

Secondly, knowing God’s word will keep us from preaching a false gospel. It seems doubtful that the televangelists discussed above set out to deceive people. They may even truly believe the message that they teach. But at some point, their flawed understanding of scripture became more important than God’s truth and they have hurt countless people as a result. While you and I may not have the same platform they do, and thus the same potential for causing harm, we still have the capacity to draw people away from God’s truth by saying something about the Lord or from his word that simply isn’t true.

In taking the time to read the Bible and allow the Holy Spirit to instruct us in its meaning while at the same time always checking our understanding of specific passages or ideas against the larger context of scripture, we position ourselves to both better recognize false teaching and keep from disseminating lies about the Lord ourselves as well. Never underestimate your capacity to fall prey to such falsehoods or Satan’s desire to see you do so.

A day will come when we will no longer see through a glass darkly but rather know God as fully as he knows us (1 Cor. 13:12). But, until then, know that the only dependable defense you can have against false teaching is found in the correct understanding of God’s word. Have you sought that protection yet today?

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