(This article originally appeared in the November. 16, 1998 issue of Christianity Today.)
It doesn't matter if you are a retired person on a fixed income with little knowledge of the world of high finance or if you are a college president accustomed to handling a budget of millions. You can get suckered into a scheme that will cost you dearly. It doesn't matter if you are an Evangelical Friend in Camano, Washington, a Nazarene in Wichita, Kansas, or a Dutch Calvinist in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can get suckered, swindled, taken for a ride, and given a bath by a charming, Christian confidence man.
Jesus told us that the "children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation that are the children of light" (Luke 16:8, NRXV). And our news sources bear out his judgment. Our advice to you is this: Wise up. Don't get suckered.
Over the past few years, CT has published multiple news stories about godly people who have lost millions because they believed what were essentially unbelievable promises. Some of these losses have been the result of Ponzi or pyramid schemes in which high return on investment is promised over a short period of time. The illusion is created and sustained because new investors are constantly sought whose investments are used to pay handsome rewards to earlier investors. The trouble is, the universe for any such investment scheme is always limited, and when the point is reached where not enough new investors can be found, the pyramid collapses under its own weight. Thus, when the New Era Philanthropy scheme came crashing down, $551 million in liabilities were initially reported in 1995.
Sometimes such schemes fail when federal indictments bring them to a halt, as they did in the case of the Productions Plus "matching gift" ploy that drew in organizations and individuals in 21 states. Other losses result form market reversals, bad management, or inadequate oversight.
Two factors lie at the heart of all these tragedies: first is the level of trust we Christians exercise as we deal with one another. This is important, and often healthy, in congregational life. Many Christians, skeptical of anything the unsaved have to offer, trust Christian publishers for "Christian" books on financial management, weight loss and child discipline. They trust Christian record companies to provide them with "Christian" entertainment. And, unfortunately, they are sitting ducks when approached with "Christian" investment schemes that promise the moon. While we need to trust each other in our congregational lives, a dose of skepticism is always warranted whenever anyone stands to profit from our trust.
The second factor is the enticing promise of something for nothing, or at least something big for something little. In this sense, the allure of the Ponzi schemes is not unlike the allure of gambling. But in investments as in gambling, those who are foolish in small things often get caught being foolish in big things. Contentment is the cure for the gotta-have-it itch. Saint Paul preached contentment in material things (1 Tim. 6:8) and Jesus preached trust in Divine providence for what we eat and what we wear (Matt. 625f).
Today's "radical simplicity" movement is a secularized strain of that message—which sorely needs to be informed by the gospel and its age-to-come dimension. But first, Christians need to refresh their own souls with the simplicity message of Scripture. Those who don't are making themselves marks for con men. Remember, having clean hands and a pure heart does not require getting taken to the cleaners.
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