Since I don’t attend myself, I’m not the best person to ask what impels people to belong to megachurches. A welcoming community, a chance to reflect, uplifting music, a sense that you’re doing the right thing to be a good person—all probably play some part. I doubt, though, whether a burning desire to be threatened with extortion is a prominent motivator for most ordinary folks. But that’s exactly what the congregation at Rev. Paula White’s New Destiny Christian Center in Apopka, Florida, received at the New Year’s service this year.
First, they were treated to a harangue about the concept of “first fruits,” which she says means they must fork over their first earnings of 2018—perhaps as much as a month’s wages—to God, via her. This is in addition to all the tithing, which the Bible couldn’t be more clear about. “All ‘firsts’ belong to God,” White told her flock. “When you honor this principle it provides the foundation and structure for God’s blessings and promises in your life; it unlocks deep dimensions of spiritual truths that literally transform your life!” Then came the kicker: “When you don’t honor it, whether through ignorance or direct disobedience, there are consequences.” Or, as Vito Corleone once put it, “I’m gonna make you an offer you can’t refuse.”
This is not Rev. White’s first threat. Back in 2016, while praying for her presidential pick Donald Trump, she warned that “any tongue that rises against him will be condemned according to the word of God.” I’ve been periodically examining my tongue in the mirror ever since. President Trump, in turn, named her the chair of his evangelical advisory board.
Then there was Easter of 2016, when she told her followers that the way to escape a spiritual death sentence was to contribute a “resurrection seed” in the amount of $1,144. Those of you who puzzle at that precise figure obviously don’t know your Bible verses. It comes from John 11:44, where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. If I were a biblical scholar, I might argue that it means $11.44, but I’d fizzle in that field for any number of reasons.
White is not popular with her evangelical peers. In part, this is because she’s a woman, playing what’s supposed to be a man’s game. In part, it’s because she’s so darn successful at it, putting most men to shame. In part, it’s because she didn’t work her way up through divinity school like they did; she simply used her good looks (so they’d say) to marry someone who had, then pushed him out of the way and took over the ministry once the marriage ended. Her current (third) husband is rocker Jonathan Cain, who co-wrote the song “Don’t Stop Believin’” as a member of the band Journey. (I do not have the imagination to make something like that up).
At least for public consumption, though, what many of her male competitors object to is her promotion of the so-called prosperity gospel— the idea that if you give God a little money, especially if it passes through a charismatic preacher’s deserving hands, God will reward you with much more money in return. Give a little, get a lot. Even many otherwise right-wing Christians cannot stomach that. Back in 2007, buttoned-down Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) held hearings on the prosperity gospel ministries. The object was to help Congress decide whether it’s a good idea to continue the tax exemption for outfits like White’s church, that raked in $150 million in the preceding three years, enabling her among other things to purchase a $6.5 million Trump Park Avenue condo. White responded with a 100 percent stonewall, flatly refusing to cooperate with the committee in any way. She got away with it. Russell Moore, perhaps the most prominent Southern Baptist official today, minced no words when he said that “Paula White is a charlatan and recognized as a heretic by every orthodox Christian, of whatever tribe.”
Some of us non-Christians don’t care for her either. What I find most intriguing about her latest threat, though, is the original meaning of “first fruits.” It had nothing to do with handing over your January paycheck, and everything to do with the human sacrifice of your first-born son. The term comes from Exodus 22:29: “Thou shalt not delay to offer the first of thy ripe fruits, and of thy liquors: the firstborn of thy sons shalt thou give unto me.” God had to remind Abraham about this rule, and only gave him a special waiver from murdering Isaac because God is such a nice guy. Note that Abraham expressed no surprise or shock that God would request such a sacrifice; in fact, archeological digs indicate that sacrifice of children was all the rage around the Dead Sea back then. Nor was it only inhabitants of this territory (whatever you want to call them) who practiced this; human sacrifice occurred around the world. One of Israel’s longest-reigning kings, Manasseh, burnt his son as a sacrifice. So did King Ahaz. The later Bible writers disapprove of Manasseh and Ahaz, but not of Jephthah. Long after the time of Abraham and Isaac, Jephthah cut a deal with God: if he could just win glory in battle by butchering lots of the innocents who stood in the way of Israel’s expansion, he would happily sacrifice the first living thing he spotted once he returned home. God held up his end of the deal, and lots of enemies were killed. But when Jephthah returned home, eyes peeled for a suitable goat, what should he spy first but his lovely daughter, his only child. Too bad—a deal’s a deal, so off came her head.
So now Paula White decides to invoke this lovely “first fruits” history to further line her pockets. If I weren’t already happy to be a humanist, learning more about her would make me so.