“A lie can travel half way around the world.” observed the renown Baptist minister Charles Spurgeon, “while the truth is putting on its shoes.” And that was in 1859, long before the internet, even before electricity!
Yesterday several friends, some members of Christ Church, posted on Facebook the remarkable story of Pastor Jeremiah Steepek along with his photo. It seems that he attended his first service as the newly appointed pastor of an American mega church posing as a homeless person. “He greeted people to be greeted back with stares and dirty looks, with people looking down on him and judging him.”
The story reaches its moving climax when, as his appointment is announced, Mr Steepek moves to the altar to reveal his true identify.
“He looked towards the congregation and told them all what he had experienced that morning. Many began to cry and many heads were bowed in shame.”
Deeply moving story – what a pastor!
Except the whole thing is a fraud, even the photograph – which, as it happens, is of a authentically homeless man. Someone somewhere made the whole thing up and it went viral.
And not just in cyberspace. Yesterday evening Peter Chalk emailed me with a link from the Evangelical Alliance concerning the ministry of evangelist Tony Anthony. Some of you may remember this three times kung fu world champion from his appearance at Ormskirk Civic Hall in 2006, sponsored by Ormskirk Churches Together. The meeting I attended was for ministers held at Cottage Lane Mission, in which he tried to organise our outreach.
A powerful testimony. Some of you bought his book “Taming the Tiger”
still on sale at Amazon at £5.24 (still delivered free if you can wait for standard delivery!).
Sadly, a fraud. The EA’s somewhat restrained statement reads: “The panel produced its report on 26 June 2013 and concluded, based on the evidence submitted to it, that large sections of the book Taming the Tiger, and associated materials, which claim to tell the true story of Tony Anthony’s life, do not do so.”
Such fraud has dogged my ministry. Even at my ordination as deacon in Liverpool Cathedral, all those years ago in a more innocent age, one of my fellow candidates was a complete fraud. He had totally deceived the Diocese about his background to become a non-stipendiary minister in Formby. I was totally taken in by him; there was no reason to doubt his word. He was eventually exposed by his employer, Liverpool University – but never un-ordained, as it happened.
I guess it boils down to human nature, to our need to impress, our longing to be someone else. It’s down to the big three: money, sex or power.
The early church was bedevilled with so-called disciples pretending to be more than they were. The apostle Paul was continually hassled by rivals making exalted claims for themselves in order to gain status and influence. He makes so many references to false apostles, even those who deceived for financial gain (2 Corinthians 2:17).
Such was the problem that these early churches had to rely on letters of recommendation. You can’t be too sure. So Paul writes: “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone.” (2 Corinthians 3:1f).
So we need to be cautious, even if it comes across as being cynical.
I have to regularly check people out, sometimes with the Diocese.
It’s a sound practice to google key phrases from some remarkable story. Christians can be a soft touch.
And yet Jesus could not have made it any plainer. “‘Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognise them.”
He warns us: “For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.”
And for ourselves, as children of light, we simply cannot exaggerate claims or distort the facts, even for the sake of the Gospel. So easily done. You can’t be too diligent: the truth is too important.
For as Jesus promises us: “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)