How to Spot a Fake

In the latter months of World War II, as the Allies were closing in on Germany, the Nazis developed a ruse that worked well for a while.

They would find German soldiers who spoke English well and dress them as Americans. They would arrange for them to be “lost” and to rejoin the Alllied forces as they moved forward. Their task: to infiltrate the American troops and assassinate Generals Eisenhower and Patton.

In time, the good guys developed some tests for exposing the fakes. One German was cut down by the Americans when they saw how he was walking. He was ramrod straight whereas all our troops slouched when they walked.

Another group learned to address the soldier using “pig Latin.” If he was stymied by that, he was exposed.

And they developed questions. Two, I recall, were: Who is Betty Grable? and What position did Lou Gehrig play?

The answers were: movie star/pinup girl and first base for the Yankees. It was understood that every GI in the world would know this.

If you have been in the warfare against the forces of righteousness and the enemies of all that is good and holy for any period of time, you have come up against counterfeits and pretenders, fakes and shams.

The question is, how do you tell? And what should we do about them?


Across the world, untold millions of Christians cannot afford a Bible and have trouble feeding their families. And yet, here in this country, some preach that following Jesus is the road to great wealth. They drive expensive automobiles, live in million-dollar homes, and think nothing of investing a small fortune in clothing and jewelry. They give a pittance to missions overseas and when confronted, will drag out a few children they have assisted to silence critics.

Are they fakes? Absolutely.

There are serial adulterers and child-abusers in the ministry. There are priests and preachers who use their positions of influence to satisfy the lusts of the flesh. Fakes? It’s hard to come to any other conclusion.

I have personally known of people in the ministry deciding to become well-known and build large congregations by whatever gimmicks it took in order to gain the perks that notoriety brings. Shameful? Ugly? Awful? That and so much more.

Jesus said of the religious leaders of His day, “Beware of the scribes, who desire to go around in long robes, love greetings in the marketplace, the best seats in the synagogues, and the best places at feasts, who devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. These will receive greater condemnation” (Mark 12:38-40).

On the phrase “devour widows’ houses,” John MacArthur writes, “Scribes often served as estate planners for widows, which gave them the opportunity to convince distraught widows that they would be serving God by supporting the temple or the scribe’s own holy work. In either case, the scribe benefited monetarily and effectively robbed the widow of her husband’s legacy to her.”

Ministers sometimes spot “fakes” and “counterfeits” as the ungodly, carnal people in the pews who try to work their church membership to financial or other advantage. There is that, of course.

But even more pervasive and deadly are the preachers who fleece the sheep in the name of the Lord.

I will make a confession here.

For too long, I have been silent on this issue. I have looked the other way when preachers in my community achieved celebrityhood and cashed it in for all it was worth.

I’m not alone either. Most of my pastor friends hesitate to mention this cancer on the Body of Christ.

We don’t want to be divisive. There’s enough of that within the church without our adding to it. We do not want to attack a brother or sister in the Lord. We don’t want to lay stumblingblocks before weaker believers who may actually be finding Christ through the ministry of these charlatans.

But it’s high time.

There are two groups of fakers and charlatans, counterfeits and shams, we have to deal with.

The obvious kind and the insiduous kind.

The obvious are those who brag about their ungodly ways and clearly violate the teachings of Jesus without apology.

The insiduous are the less obvious ones who work undercover and are known only to God.

The first, we should take on and speak out against.

The second, we leave to the Lord.

The parable of the tares in Matthew 13 applies here.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way. But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’ But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, ‘First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.'” (Matthew 13:24-30)

If the person’s apostasy is clear and overt, then we should address it.

If the character of the impostor is not so clear and if attacking him would hurt large numbers of believers, leave him for the Lord to deal with in His own good time.

Two scriptures come to mind to help God’s people identify the fakes and shams….

“By their fruits you shall know them” (Matthew 7:20).

“They went out from us because they were not of us” (I John 2:19).

What kind of fruit are they bearing in their own personal life and in the lives of those who sit under their ministries?

And, do they persevere?

Tony Campolo, right about so many of the issues he addresses from pulpits and through his books but brutal in some of his assessments, says no Christian should drive a BMW. (I think I’ve heard him say that, but it could be I’ve heard others say that about Tony.) By “BMW,” he clearly means expensive automobiles of any make. And the point of that is that God’s people should not spend money foolishly on themselves just because they have it. He gives that we might be generous.

Over ten years ago, a friend who had joined a large Texas church asked what I thought his pastor made in salary. I had no idea. He said, “A few years ago, it was $300,000. I don’t know what it is now.”

Is that outrageous? Personally, I think so.

It’s justified, his supporters would probably answer, in that he has to live in the neighborhood of the church where the homes cost one million minimum. The cost of living is so high, he needs the money. And after all, the pastor is administering a mega-church with a zillion-dollar budget.

My response is: let’s give that the ultimate test….

Tell that to the believers in Malawi who meet under a mango tree for worship. Let me know what they say.

Tell it to the missionaries who have been told by our International Mission Board that we will have to delay your appointment indefinitely because the money to support you is not there. Let me know their response.

Tell that to the pastors of years past who labored from early to late for poor pay, often letting their children go to bed hungry and to school shoeless because this is what it meant to serve the Lord’s people.

It’s all relative, I know. The home I live in, humble by most standards, is a mansion to many across the globe. The car I drive, bought with departing gifts from churches as I retired last year, may as well be a Lear jet to millions of believers for whom a bicycle or their bare feet is their mode of transportation.

Twenty years ago, as I left a high-profile pastorate for a church that had been severely wounded and was just trying to keep its head above the waters, I made the Lord three vows: I would live simply, give generously, and encourage pastors.

To what extent I have kept those vows and am still keeping them, we will leave to the Lord. They still loom large in my mind.

Character, they say, is what you are in the dark. When no one is looking and only God sees, that’s who you are.

God help us to be genuine, the real thing.

10 thoughts on “How to Spot a Fake

  1. Amen! I wonder sometimes if the wealth of the American Church, etc. is comparative to the bleating of sheep and lowing of oxen in 1 Samuel. Live simply, give generously. I like that Dr. Joe. Thanks for the challenge.

  2. I attend a church where members are asked to vote on the budget with no staff salaries disclosed!

    Personally I believe that when someone is asked to pay a salary as part of the budget numbers should be in the open.

    The question is “Why not disclose salaries to the people paying them?”

  3. Gail, I can understand your frustration as I have been in the pew and had the exact same thought. However, now being on the “other side of the pulpit”, my husband is now one of those staff salaries that I prefer not to be disclosed. We lump them all together. It just doesn’t do the heart good for every believer to be able to criticize and pick apart a pastor’s salary. I certainly do not believe that he should be living way above the means of the average church member. I am not implying that. You must trust your financial team that is elected to be godly enough to make good decisions for the church. I also do not like the idea that the church members are paying a pastor. Church members are tithing to God’s storehouse and the leadership is taking that storehouse and dispensing it according to how they feel led by the Holy Spirit. By your standard of thinking, I could say, why not disclose the tithes of the people paying them? No one would want that! Just something to think about. By the way, Joe, thanks for ministering to pastors. You have been a great Barnabas to my family, personally.

  4. Before reading Angie’s comment, Gail, I answered your letter directly–saying much the same thing she did. But now I see the computer service has kicked your letter back as undeliverable. I think you left us only part of your email address. But thanks for the note. Please, please take what Angie said to heart. Every church should elect faithful leaders as finance committee and deacons and trust them to do their work well.

  5. Gail, the idea that we “pay” a pastor or any staff member is at the root of the issue. Angie, your assessment is correct. I have personally given to well known ministries and felt the sting of betrayal as men failed. Perhaps this may help. When you sow a seed you give as unto the Lord. When the seed leaves your hand it does not leave your life. Giving is an act of obedience and faith, God honors both. Your heart in the matter is what you are accountable for. Pride is an equal opportunity destroyer. Pride in poverty is the same pride as pride in wealth. I do believe a servant is worthy of his hire, but wealth cannot buy wisdom. It is a sad reproach on the Kingdom when men and women who are called to serve get lost in the dazzle of money. Sadder still the contortions of Scripture to justify a change of heart (as in the Lord no longer reigns and has been displaced by the pursuit of $). By the way, I am a pastor.

  6. Joe, It is naive to take what Angie said to heart. A faithful, godly man is not immune from corruption. Need I say more than King David. The last pastor who told me to trust the collective wisdom of the elders was gambling away $90,000 in the building fund. The elected people knew what he was doing and did nothing to stop him. A church secetary and her father asked a Pastor from another church to intervene. If you work for the federal goverment, your salary is public. The President of the US makes $400,000, the Vice President makes $200,000. My husband is a GS 11 federal employee. You can go to the OPM website and find out how much he makes because his salary is public. Every federal employee from the President to federal judges to my husbands salary is public knowledge. So what is the churches problem with having the same transparency? Are the children of this world wiser than the children of light?

  7. First, when every single church member wants their salaries published, then maybe they can ask for the pastor (who lives under a microscope as it is) to reveal his. Can the pastor not have the same privacy as his flock? This shows a very low view of the pastorate. He doesn’t work for the government. Government workers work for the people. Pastors are not employees of individual church members. Church members who think that way also typically think they are the boss of the pastors.

    Also, as a pastor, my salary package was public in a former church. My insurance and retirement were part of that, and I pay all of my social security (most employers pay half, but the church is not allowed to do that). My package looked much bigger than the reality of my take-home. However, no matter how many times we tried to explain that, people would still say, “But he makes more than me. That’s a lot.” One lady actually thought I should make the same amount as her former pastor did–in the 1950’s! Maybe that seems absurd, but she had a vote and a voice (a loud one), and she caused division.

    Also, think of this. Is it really a good idea for all the employees of the church to know each others’ salaries? That can cause great conflict. Some things should be confidential.

    Respect your pastor and his family. Give them some privacy. Hebrews 13:17 says that it is to God that they will give account. Trust your leaders. Trust your pastors.

  8. My husband is a minister, not a lead pastor, but a pastor nonetheless, with a good education and almost twenty years of experience. In the business world someone of his education and experience could make ten times what his current salary is. Four years ago, he took a position at a new church plant with no starting salary. We lived on savings for a couple of months until salary funding was available. Even then the salary was half of what he made at our previous church. We have seen our church grow by leaps and bounds; we have led the county in baptisms for two years in a row. It has been an amazing journey, and I am so blessed because of it. However, we have had to live on faith, trusting God to provide what the salary did not. He has been faithful.

    I have decided that it is far better to rest in the untold riches of God than to wish my husband would make more money. I don’t say this to sound super-spiritual but simply because I have experienced this truth. Has it been a difficult lesson? Absolutely! We have not put into retirement in four years. We have two young children, and I have no idea how we will put them through college. But the blessings keep coming. Last year I lost my beloved grandmother, but I “inherited” her nearly new car. (My car was almost fourteen years old!) We haven’t had a vacation in a few years, but my father-in-law has given us a week at his timeshare this summer. Shingles have blown off of our very old roof during spring storms this year, but the insurance company is getting us a new roof. The point is that I have learned to see God’s hand at work. It’s beautiful and so humbling.

    When a minister–or anyone else–follows God, whether his salary is disclosed or secret, there’s no way to measure the blessings that will pour out from the hand of the Father.

  9. This is an American church issue. The Kingdom of God is not a democracy, rights (personal, to know) are irrelevant. Nothing more than attempts to control in the guise of, “right to know”.

  10. Wow! I thought the post was “How to Spot a Fake,” not “How much do we need to know about what pastors/staff members make!” Here’s how I spot a fake (wisdom gained from my grandmother Lois): JUST WATCH ‘EM! They’ll reveal themselves.