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Over the last week, the ongoing case of a Singapore pastor and his colleagues who were charged with conspiracy to commit criminal breach of trust and misuse of church funds have attracted a lot of attention in the local media.

I suppose when pastors get embroiled in scandal, it becomes big news because there is still the expectation that pastors need to live up to higher standards of morality and ethics than the rest of us. Fair enough.

In any case, pastors, like most of us, are not above the law and must suffer the consequences if they run afoul of it.

The pastors involved, from City Harvest Church, insist that they are innocent of the charges and have vowed to defend themselves in court. We shall have to await the outcome of the trial to hopefully know the truth.

Coverage of the story, however, went beyond the normal reporting of events and became an opportunity for pastor bashing and the journalistic equivalent of church burning.

While insisting that the pastors should have their day in court,  one Malaysian newspaper  boldly proclaimed that he was “guilty in the court of public opinion” and proceeded to skewer him, as well as mega churches in general, on a whole range of issues.

Much was made, for example, about the church’s “money generating prosperity gospel.” The pastors were literally accused of worshipping money and “cajoling” their congregation into donating generously so that they could live luxurious lifestyles.

The so-called prosperity gospel is undoubtedly a deeply divisive issue within the Christian community but the last time I checked, it was not against the law. If some people want to believe in the old adage, “give and it will be given you” what is that to the rest of us? Whether or not it is theologically sound, and I personally am not convinced it is, should the media set itself up as judge what constitutes biblical heresy? Who decides which gospel is right – the government, the court of public opinion, the media? Will it apply to all faiths or just the Christian one?

In a free society, individuals get to choose who, how and where they worship subject to the laws of the land. If people choose to attend City Harvest Church and support the church with their tithes and offerings, why should anyone be offended or upset? If they are fools to dispose of their hard-earned wealth in such a manner, what is it to the rest of us? Its their money after all.

Furthermore, while the alleged excesses of the pastor and the wealth of the church was played up, no mention was made of the sterling community work that the church is involved in both at home and abroad or the millions of dollars spent on charitable work and global missions. I guess these things are inconvenient facts when one is trying to pillory a pastor.

The pastor’s wife was also said to be wearing “sexy outfits” and, heaven forbid, a bikini even! The Taliban would no doubt be happy to join this conversation but since when has it been a crime for Christian women either in Singapore, Malaysia or elsewhere  to wear sexy outfits or bikinis? I myself would prefer more modest dressing but again, should a newspaper editorialize about what a pastor’s wife can and cannot wear?

Even the style of worship was somehow deemed to be wrong and made out to be  manipulative, hypnotic and somehow sinister. It was mentioned that church meetings were more like rock concerts than church services, that bright flashing lights, loud music and modern stage technology were used “to appeal to young Singaporeans bored by the quiet sermons of traditional churches.”

Again, what’s wrong with that? Is there an approved way for Christians to worship?  Must churches stick to pipe organs and solemn music to be acceptable? The fact is that Christian worship encompasses a wide range of formats from traditional to more contemporary. Worship is an intensely personal matter and worshippers are free to choose which style is best for them.

One person was quoted as saying that he was “shocked” by the deafening music. 24,000 members regularly attend service at the church in question but the negative comments of one man who didn’t like the music is highlighted. Is this fair reporting?

Mega churches in a multicultural society

It was even suggested that “mega churches posed a potential problem for a multi-religious country” like Singapore [and, I suppose, by extension, Malaysia]. So, now mega churches are somehow a threat to racial and religious harmony? Does this mean that mega churches should be closed down? How big can a church be to be acceptable? 

Perhaps the most surprising thing was the incitement to church members  to rise up against their pastoral leadership. Obviously upset and disappointed that the congregation choose to stand in solidarity with their pastors, a crusading journalist reminded congregants that pastors are mere mortals, that under their religious garb lurked sinful, greedy and selfish human beings. Accordingly, it was suggested that while the congregation should “stand firm in their belief in God, they should not be afraid to challenge their religious leaders if they are wrong.”

What business does a secular newspaper have inciting rebellion and discord in a church and suggesting that church members are somehow misguided, timid or immature if they don’t immediately turn against their pastor?

Besides, if members of a political party are free to not only stand by a leader who was caught in an adulterous sex scandal but elect him party leader as well, why shouldn’t a church congregation stand by their pastor at least until the court decides his guilt or innocence?

I cannot recall a major Malaysian newspaper ever reacting with such crusading zeal when it came to  corrupt local politicians and abusive public officials.  It is telling that a newspaper that has remained largely quiet over the loss of billions of ringgit of public funds to fraud at home should now rise up in holy anger over the alleged misuse of church funds in a foreign land.

I can only conclude that great courage is required to take on powerful public officials whereas none is required to pillory pastors.