Back in the 16th century, the Dominican monk Tetzel, to fulfill the pope’s demands, preached from village to village how the faithful could shorten the time of their loved ones in purgatory with a few shekels. According to Roland Bainton’s classic life of Martin Luther, Tetzel would say to the villagers:

“As soon as the coin in the coffer rings/
The soul from purgatory springs.”

Tetzel was so good at raising money this way, he began to sell indulgences that would forgive sins and keep sinners from the horrors of purgatory and hell.

This really got under Luther’s skin. He had come to believe, from his reading of the New Testament, that God alone could forgive sins and then only to repentant sinners. Luther’s fiery response to monk Tetzel’s hypocrisy shook the European world of religion. The Protestant Revolution blasted into history.

Tetzel and the many like him could not deliver on promises of fewer days in purgatory or the forgiveness of sins. But the people flocked to him and would even give their last farthing in hopes the old Dominican was right. Tetzel was treated more like a celebrity than a man of God. Sounds like some 21st century TV preachers.

Promising something you cannot deliver is as alive and well in America as it ever was in the old Europe.

Recently I watched the televangelist Paula White as she all but promised the moon to those who would phone in with cash donations. To not do so was dangerous to my soul and the end of any hope for a prosperous life. She does a great job of “out-Tetzeling Tetzel!” Give, give, give and you will receive!

Ms. White, recently divorced from her husband Randy, remains as the leader of Without Walls International Church and Paula White Ministries. She keeps her financial information a very closely guarded secret. So you the viewer have no way of knowing where the money goes.

Two weeks ago Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) sent letters about alleged donator abuse to Ms. White (and five other TV preachers) about their use of finances.

The TV ministries are to report by Dec. 6 on the use of donations. The senators are scrutinizing, among other matters, where all the fancy cars and jets come from and credit card statements for expenses paid by the Whites’ tax-exempt entity, including cosmetic surgery.

Ole Anthony, president of the Trinity Foundation of Dallas, calls the televangelist’s blatant parade of gimme gimme gospel of greed as pagan. To prey on the elderly, the poor and the desperate is bad enough, but to do it in God’s name is the bottom of the sin barrel.

The Trinity Foundation reports that TV and radio evangelists are working a donor pool of about five million people. Fifty-five percent of these people are elderly women. Another 35 percent is made up of what they call the desperation pool–those whose child has AIDS, whose spouse has cancer, the homeless. Some are so needy that they send in their food stamps (no longer stamps, but plastic cards) and wedding rings. A few upper-middle class give wanting spiritual justification for their greed.

Baird Helgeson and Michelle Bearden of The Tampa Tribune quote Pete Evans of the Trinity Foundation, that it is going to take an uprising from the pews before churches agree to any kind of transparency regarding finances. “When the scandals erupt, everyone starts calling for change,” he said. “But then it dies down for a while. We shouldn’t be surprised that it keeps happening.”

Britt Towery is a retired missionary who writes for the Brownwood Bulletin in Brownwood, Texas. He is pastor and writer.

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