J.Lee Grady didn't wait for an economic recession to battle the prosperity gospel. He has been fighting it for years.
Grady is the editor of Charisma, the magazine that serves as a gathering tent for Pentecostal and charismatic Christians. Its columns and advertisements feature some of the most prominent names in the movement—and some of the most frequent targets of Grady's criticism.
Other evangelicals have long criticized the teaching that God promises his followers wealth and happiness. But few within the movement have made their calls for repentance so public.
"Martin Luther had to say something, or they were going to keep selling indulgences. Now we have that going on in our midst," Grady told Christianity Today in his Orlando office. "If someone says, 'Send your $100 to be saved,' that is selling indulgences, and there are people doing that on Trinity Broadcasting Network." The TV corporation's fundraising appeals have been among Grady's most frequent targets.
"I don't want to lump all of those people and everything they teach under the umbrella of indulgences," Grady says. "But if they're doing manipulative things to get people to open their wallets, and twisting Scripture just like it was done during medieval times, we ought to challenge that. All we know to do is to get on the housetops and shout for reform."
Many within the charismatic movement are hearing Grady's shouts and applauding.
"Lee gives a corrective word to some of the excesses that none of us want to be identified with," says George O. Wood, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God. "We've always valued the prophetic word, and part of a prophetic word is correction."
In recent years, Grady has attempted to correct some of the movement's most high-profile names amid both their financial successes and public troubles, including divorces, foreclosures, and investigations.
"Many unbelievers now associate ministers with wife-swapping, wife-beating, no-fault divorce, gay affairs, and $10,000-a-night hotel rooms," he wrote in a 2008 column. "We need a Holy Ghost housecleaning."
A Troubled Movement
The author of a weekly column titled "Fire in My Bones," Grady doesn't look particularly fiery behind his computer. Dressed in khaki pants and a green button-down shirt, he speaks softly and slowly with a thick Atlantan accent as he explains his love and concern for the movement.
"I've read enough history to know that even in the Pentecostal movement, there's always been a tendency for people who embrace the life of the Holy Spirit to go off on tangents," he says.
But the past few years have been particularly tumultuous for some of the most recognizable names in the movement. Grady has deemed such tumult indicative of "a charismatic meltdown":
- Bishop Thomas Weeks III married Christina Glenn in October 2009, just two years after being charged with assaulting then-wife Juanita Bynum in an Atlanta hotel parking lot.
- The Cathedral at Chapel Hill in Atlanta, one of the most celebrated Pentecostal churches in the United States, sold its property in August 2009. The church's founder, the late Earl Paulk Jr., faced accusations throughout his career of coercing women into having sex and molesting children. In 2007, dna testing revealed that Paulk had fathered a child with his brother's wife.
- Florida megachurch pastor Paula White returned to lead Without Walls International Church in July 2009 after she and husband Randy divorced in October 2007. The church faced foreclosure in November 2008 but renegotiated its loan.
"All of us should be trembling," Grady wrote that November. "God requires holiness in his house and truth in the mouths of his servants.
"Let's examine our hearts and our ministries. Let's throw out the wood, hay, and stubble and build on a sure and tested foundation. It is the only way to survive the meltdown."
Grady goes deeper in his calls for reform in his new book, Fire in My Bones: Recovering the Genuine Power of the Holy Spirit in an Age of Compromise, set to release in April 2010.
"We have this genuine, authentic power that God wants to give his church, but we don't want it mixed with other stuff: sexual impurity, theological fuzziness, or racism," Grady says. "The charismatic movement needs to be purged so it can claim the Holy Spirit in our generation."
A Sympathetic Observer
Grady was an 18-year-old Southern Baptist when a Sunday school teacher encouraged him to pray for the ability to speak in tongues. Grady did, and by the time he left for Berry College in northwest Georgia (where he met his wife through its campus ministry), he was swept up in the charismatic movement of the 1970s. But even then, Grady saw problems in the ministry in which he served. Its leader had a controlling leadership style, so others in the ministry voted to disband.
"Those leaders, as zealous, gifted, and passionate as they were, also had a lot of blind spots, and nobody could tell them that because they were so young and unaccountable," says Grady, who wrote about the events in his 1994 book What Happened to the Fire? "It was definitely an authoritarian issue that brought the ministry down, which is still a problem in charismatic and Pentecostal churches."
The Pentecostal movement is more than a century old and encompasses denominations that encourage speaking in tongues, healing, and prophesying. The broader charismatic movement emerged four decades ago when Christians in non-Pentecostal denominations and congregations began adopting similar emphases.
Grady is part of both groups. He was ordained in 2000 in the International Pentecostal Holiness Church (IPHC) but attends New Covenant Church, which left the Episcopal Church in 2004. (IPHC was appealing for several reasons, Grady says: The denomination included many of his friends, it didn't require seminary training for ordination, and it was not the Episcopal Church.)
And he's not leaving IPHC anytime soon. "I still believe the core values of the movement, a belief in the Holy Spirit's work," he says. "I know the Holy Spirit is alive and well. I see how he's working in powerful ways in other countries. I'm not going to leave this movement because some people hijacked it. It wasn't theirs to hijack."
"[Grady is] not known like Oral Roberts, T. D. Jakes, and some of the preachers who are on television, but he's influential," says Vinson Synan, professor of church history at Regent University and a leading historian of Pentecostalism. "He promotes the strengths of the movement but also warns about the weaknesses. He's a voice for sanity, even though he's strongly committed to the movement."
Bridling a galloping movement
"Usually criticism doesn't bother me," Grady says. "If it's just Mrs. Jones writing me and she's mad, it doesn't really get through to me or hurt me. But when I know the person and they are saying hurtful things, it does. Last year was pretty rough."
Grady said he lost several friends after he publicly questioned evangelist Todd Bentley's revival meetings, which attracted 30,000 visitors each week last summer in nearby Lakeland, Florida.
"The Lakeland revival was a four-month-long nightmare because of its divisiveness," Grady says. From the earliest days of the revival, Grady used his columns to question Bentley, who was often physically rough with those who came to the platform for healing.
"When we put bizarre behavior on the platform, we imply that it is normative," Grady wrote. "Thus, more strange fire is allowed to spread."
In March 2009, South Carolina pastor Rick Joyner announced that Bentley, whom he had sponsored, had divorced his wife and married a former intern. Joyner then appealed for funds to launch Bentley's new ministry. When Grady questioned Bentley's remorse, Joyner lashed out.
"If you are such [a] judge of this, what gives you the credentials? What moves of God have you led? What have you built?" Joyner wrote in an open letter to Grady. "I do think you have done at least as much damage to the church as Todd's fall has by your unrighteous and unfair judgments." (Joyner did not respond to CT's requests for comment.)
Grady says it was the most difficult stand he had to take because so many followers distanced themselves from him. But it was also a time when other leaders told him they had begun to rethink arrogance or showmanship in their own ministries.
Because of their strong emphasis on spontaneity and spiritual venture, the charismatic and Pentecostal movements rarely breed internal critics, says Russell Spittler, provost emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.
"If the movement is unbridled or unrestrained by common sense and well-seasoned, mature leadership, it can produce very strange things," Spittler says. "Grady's comments tend to lasso those galloping beliefs and bring them back to a more productive and sensible light."
There's also a fear in the movement of quenching the Spirit, something repeatedly forbidden by Scripture, says Candy Gunther Brown, a religious studies professor at Indiana University who researches the movement.
"Whenever there's a movement that's seeking to have Spirit openness, there's always going to be a tension—a fear of losing the vibrancy and of being regulated," she says. "There's a wide swath of scholars who have criticized the excesses of the movement. What's more unusual is that Grady is speaking not as an academic scholar but as someone who's writing a very popular magazine."
Dipping into Politics
That popular magazine seems conflicted at times about its movement's leaders. In November 2007, six televangelists came under scrutiny when the Senate Finance Committee began investigating charges of misspending and negligent financial accountability. One of the preachers investigated was Joyce Meyer, who writes a regular column for Charisma. Other subjects of the investigation—Paula and Randy White, Eddie Long, and Gloria Copeland—have also served as Charisma columnists.
So Grady's column surprised a few readers when he supported the committee's probe. "Perhaps the Lord is offended that our beloved gospel of prosperity has created a cult of selfishness," Grady wrote. "If so, our best response is to open our account ledgers and welcome correction."
Grady's supervisor, Charisma founder and publisher Stephen Strang, took a less supportive view of the investigation. "This demand should be a wake-up call to the ministries themselves," he wrote, "and a warning to the larger body of Christ about the possible repercussions of governmental regulation of church affairs—including the restriction of nonprofit organizations' privileges."
Strang says there is plenty of room within the magazine for both perspectives.
"We recognize talent, and it's been a good fit. Lee came to us as a journalist and now he's become a minister," Strang says. "He has been controversial sometimes, but I think the prophetic voice he provides is important and necessary."
The for-profit magazine's editorial and advertising departments face predictable conflicts, Grady says. "The people in the advertising department are scared that we're going to offend someone else, because ads will go away, and we need ads. But we want to maintain editorial integrity without putting ourselves out of business."
Leaders who advertise in the magazine must adhere to a statement of faith, but Charisma accepts ads from a wide array of ministries, including those of some of the preachers Grady has criticized by name. Grady says the designers have had to rearrange ad placements so that an ad won't sit across from a column that criticizes a person or group.
"We don't reject the advertisers because of some nuance of doctrine," Grady says. "That has made us a big tent. People can read my column, and they can read the ad on page 42."
After all, Grady named his column "Fire in My Bones" after the prophet Jeremiah's lament that he had become an ignored laughingstock (Jer. 20:9). Grady says he never set out to be the movement's voice of conscience. "But I did feel like I needed an outlet to say what needed to be said. In some ways, I got affirmation from people, and it grew and took on a life of its own."
Coincidental or not, Grady launched his column at the same time he took his ordination vows. "That was when I felt like I assumed a new responsibility to be more vocal. I'm not just a journalist anymore—I'm also a minister."
Sarah Pulliam Bailey is online editor at Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2009 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today also posted a sidebar to this article on J. Lee Grady's ministry to empower women and confront abuse.
Previous Christianity Today articles on Pentecostalism and Grady include:
Charismatic Character Clash | Journalist and pastor debate restoration for disgraced revivalist Todd Bentley. (March 23, 2009)
Prosperity Gospel on Skid Row | Difficulties of high-profile pastors may reorient movement—or reinforce it. (January 15, 2009)
Leaving Lakeland | The Florida Outpouring revival concerned Pentecostal leaders. (August 12, 2008)
Grading the Movement | Three leaders talk frankly about Pentecostalism: the good, the bad, and the unpredictable. (April 2006)
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