My first disclaimer: the purpose of this post is neither to defend nor attack the people involved nor the church. Again, I have many friends who attend City Harvest and my heart goes out to them during this period of time. All I want to do is to contribute some theological reflections. Hopefully, there will be some benefit to this to any person reading this post. So, here goes nothing!
Theology affects and instructs methodology. Which is why there is frequent and urgent emphasis in Scripture, particularly in the New Testament, that we get God’s Word right. One of the things Pastor Kong Hee has been accused of is preaching the prosperity gospel. Now, I’m quite sure the members of City Harvest would protest that, and would say the Bible does not teach poverty. Without going into detail, I’d say there are merits on both sides of the equation. Put simply, God does not call all believers to material prosperity, nor material poverty. Neither state implies being blessed of God, nor the lack thereof. What God calls His people to is stewardship: being a good steward of whatever He deems wise to bless us with.
Now, before I go on, I’d like to ask my brothers and sisters in City Harvest to forgive me for speaking my heart. I am not a member of City Harvest, so I cannot claim to know the going-ons in the church in detail. I have visited City Harvest a couple of times and I always get a positive vibe from there, the messages are always encouraging. So are the people. I’ve listened to Pastor Kong Hee’s messages online as well. However, if I were being honest, it seems to me that, perhaps in the zeal for the Lord, something has been compromised. Would you allow me to share some concerns?
1. Prosperity theology
When members of the body of Christ (especially well-respected pastors) in Singapore highlight this as a concern, I really do pray for my brothers and sisters in Christ in CHC to consider if there’s any truth to this. And the way about it is to come to Scripture without any coloured lenses. Perhaps for so-called traditional churches, the lens has been that poverty equals spirituality. But the opposite is equally damaging. I have heard sermons by Pastor Kong Hee that borders on butchering the text (just pick up any respected commentary and compare the interpretations); one for example trying to justify the notion that Jesus Himself was rich materially. If that were really the case, Judas (Jesus’ disciple who was in charge of the purse and used to pilfer from it) would not have betrayed his Master for not a large sum of money.
I have heard the appeal to the patriarchs of the Old Testament and their wealth and possessions. But that is not a strong appeal because for one thing, how many patriarchs are there in the Old Testament anyway? Few. And the people of God? Many. Of course, then the appeal would be to extend it to the people of God generally. And certainly there were periods of great prosperity amongst God’s people. Think the raiding of the Egyptians during the Exodus. Or the height of the glorious reign of King Solomon. But that appeal again is weak because the blessing was tied closely with the obedience of God’s people. And we all know how the Old Testament pens out. Mostly a downward spiral.
When we approach the New Testament, things get even harder to justify… meaning, if you do a cursory survey of the New Testament, the overwhelming image you are going to get about material wealth is negative. Now, that does NOT mean that wealth itself is evil. But the reason why the Bible speaks so much against wealth is because it has a power to tempt us to idolatry. Which is the basis of perhaps the most commonly known verse about money, Mathew. 6:24 “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
2. Implications of prosperity theology
When prosperity theology takes root, at the risk of oversimplifying, what happens is people believe material success equates to spiritual success. Money then matters. Numbers then matters. Size then matters. Again, to be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with money, numbers and size. But when that becomes the chief indicator of God’s favour and blessing, it seems to me that the danger is that spirituality becomes measured by the external rather than the internal. And Scripture has much to say about the heart.
Now, I do not know Pastor Kong Hee personally. And I don’t have the opportunity to dialogue with him. But he has been quoted as saying, “I do not want City Harvest to be just a normal neighbourhood church.” That statement causes dissonance within me. Two things: first of all, I’d really like to know if it’s a personal goal and ambition or a burden of the Lord. Second of all, it seems to imply there’s something wrong about being a “normal neighbourhood church”.
Once again, to be clear, there is nothing spiritual or unspiritual about size. It is after all, about the calling of the Lord. If God calls a church to be large but it chooses to be lazy and not work at growth, then that’s disobeying Him. But if God calls a church to remain small but it chooses ways and means to grow that’s not in a manner that befits Him, then that’s disobedience as well.
3. The ends do not justify the means
Here I come to something really controversial: the Crossover Project. There is so much that has already been said that I’m not sure if what I add will be useful, but again my appeal (especially to my brothers and sisters in CHC) is that you will hear me out.
Now, I am not an expert in the case; I don’t know all the details, my knowledge comes mainly from what news reports have thrown up along with reading what my City Harvest friends have shared from their perspective. Let me begin by saying this: no-one can judge absolutely the intentions of the heart, only God. If this is the case, then we really do not know for sure what the motives of those implicated in the court case are.
Putting motives aside, the main issue I think is important to note is this: even if the motive was to get the gospel out, the method and process was questionable at the very least. The principle is this – you cannot compromise the gospel in order to share the gospel. Years ago, way before the court case, I remember reading Pastor Kong Hee justifying the Crossover Project by quoting Daniel making a difference in a foreign, pagan kingdom. And I remember thinking, “Well, yes he did. But first of all, he didn’t choose to go into that kingdom. It was the Babylonian captivity. Second of all, the way in which he made a difference was he did not compromise his faith in order to do so. In fact, the reason why Daniel stood out was precisely because he refused to compromise and God blessed him.” The ends do not justify the means.
I have heard many people point to the good CHC has done: both in the blessing of Christians as well as good works towards non-Christians. And I rejoice in and acknowledge this. However, the reason I bring up the ends do not justify the means, also has this implication: all the good the church has done does not mean the breaking of the laws of the land can therefore be somehow mitigated or excused.
While I am personally sad at the ordeal my friends in CHC are going through, I’m also grieved that the name of Christ has been marred before a watching world and the work of the gospel has been hindered because of this case. It may be inadvertent. It may be simply fall-out. But it’s reality. And it could possibly have been avoided.
4. This is not persecution
It may certainly feel like it for those in CHC, but our state is not persecuting the church, although there may be people who are making use of this case to do so to Christians (which would be unfortunate). Persecution is that which happens as a direct result of preaching the gospel. The court case happened because laws were broken, not because the gospel was being preached. I do hope the distinction can be made. The reason why this is important is this: in persecution, the proper response is faith and perseverance. In the breaking of laws, in my humble opinion, the appropriate response is repentance. Now, I don’t say this flippantly nor lightly, nor do I intend to judge my fellow brothers and sisters involved in the court case, but this seems to be the elephant in the room.
To be thorough, I would state that not all breaking of state laws constitutes a moral wrong in God’s sight. For example, it is illegal to share the gospel in some countries. As Christians, we are commanded to share the gospel with all peoples, so we would be going against the laws of the land if we choose to do so there. However, the laws that were broken in this case can’t be reasonably held as morally wrong in God’s sight. Therefore, the reasonable expectation is that we obey those laws. Didn’t God command us in Scripture to obey our authorities?
Some concluding thoughts
This post was not meant to be exhaustive; it was borne out of a desire to reach out to particularly Christians, that we may dialogue and think through the issues of our day. The honour of our Lord and the mission of His gospel is at stake. I will be praying for you brothers and sisters in CHC, that God would bring something good out of this (as Pastor Kong Hee or Sun have shared); and the good Romans 8:28, 29 talks about is being conformed more and more into the image of God’s Son, Jesus Christ.