by Michael Zwaagstra
News reports across Canada and the U.S. too frequently tell of Christians being involved in or exploited by illegal pyramid schemes that bilk investors out of thousands of dollars. Apparently, strongly Christian communities can often be prime recruiting areas.
The Problem With Pyramid Schemes
Pyramid schemes are relatively easy to identify. Simply put, a business is a pyramid scheme when it focuses more on recruiting new members than on selling an actual product. For instance, a company might sell travel packages that have almost no actual value. Investors make money by convincing friends and family members to buy packages of their own. The higher up you were on this chain, the money you made.
The problem with pyramid schemes is that people at the bottom are guaranteed to lose money. This is because it doesn’t take long to run out of new recruits. If each investor is responsible for recruiting at least two additional investors down the chain, it takes only 22 levels before you reach 33 million people—close to the entire population of Canada. Obviously, the scheme collapses long before then, but not before the people at the top make a fortune off the backs of those at the bottom.
Pyramid scheme organizers love to target communities where significant numbers of people are likely to fall for their scam. Unfortunately, fertile ground can often be found in areas with a relatively high percentage of Christians. Some of the perpetrators are Christians, as are many of the victims. Sadly, their Christian faith did not prevent victims from being swindled out of thousands of dollars by a pyramid scheme.
One could hope that pyramid schemes are an isolated example of Christian gullibility. They are not. In far too many cases, Christians fall for everything from faulty apologetics to Internet hoaxes.
One example is the decades-old urban legend that prominent atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair is launching a campaign to ban all religious programming from the airwaves. Recipients of this doomsday message are encouraged to sign a petition in order to preserve religious freedom.
The problem is that this story is completely false. Madalyn Murray O’Hair does not have any such campaign going on and has actually been dead since 1995. A quick Google search is all it takes to discover that there is nothing constructive to be gained from spreading this false rumour. As Christians, we look rather foolish when we allow ourselves to get suckered in so easily.
It is equally silly when we use bogus arguments to defend our faith. For example, it is not true that Noah’s Ark has been discovered on Mount Ararat or that human and dinosaur footprints have been found together at the Paluxy River in Texas. Nor is there such a thing as a “day missing in time” discovered by NASA scientists that proves that the sun stood still in Joshua 10:12-14.
By the way, there is also no evidence that Charles Darwin recanted the theory of evolution on his deathbed. And yet, these and many other bogus arguments are still used by well-meaning Christians when defending the faith.
The Value of Shrewdness
In Luke 16:1-9, Jesus tells his disciples a parable about a dishonest manager who cleverly ingratiates himself with his master’s debtors by quickly reducing their debts before being fired from his job. Without defending this manager’s dishonesty, Jesus notes that the master commended his manager for acting shrewdly (Luke 16:8). The Greek word translated as “shrewdly” is phronimos, which means prudent, practically wise, or sensible.
According to Jesus, his disciples can learn something from this dishonest manager. “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light” (Luke 16:8b ESV).
In other words, Jesus is telling his disciples that non-Christians often act more prudently and sensibly than Christians do in many circumstances. Suffice it to say that there is nothing particularly shrewd about falling for a pyramid scheme, spreading false Internet rumours, or using bogus arguments to defend our faith.
In a different context, Jesus gives his disciples some advice as to how they should handle themselves before he sends them out. “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt.10:16). Jesus knew that his followers would face serious challenges in the world so he reminded them that they needed to behave shrewdly without falling into the trap of emulating the world’s sinful ways.
How to Become More Shrewd
In Preaching the Parables (2004), New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg says that in far too many cases, Christians do the exact opposite and are “as wicked as servants and as dumb as doves.” Blomberg points out that Christians are often too complacent when it comes to planning Sunday School lessons, sharing our faith strategically, or running church committee meetings. Churches should be known as some of the best-run organizations in the country and yet we know that far too many congregations accept poor governance as a fact of church life.
Running a church effectively requires a lot of work and more than a little shrewdness. There is a reason why the Apostle Paul wrote letters in which he provided a detailed description of the qualifications for the roles of elders and deacons (1 Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9).
Paul even took the time to explain how churches should determine which widows to enroll in their support systems (1 Tim. 5:3-16). Details matter and Christians should not fall into trap of assuming that we need to do nothing more than trust in God. God gave us brains for a reason and he expects us to use them.
When it comes to evangelism, Paul acted shrewdly on more than few occasions. He made good use of his Roman citizenship to stand up for his legal rights (Acts 22:25-29) and chose just the right moment to identify himself as a Pharisee when standing before the Sanhedrin (Acts 23:6-10).
When speaking to the people of Athens, Paul quoted from one of their own poets and made sure to tailor his message in such a way that it was intelligible to his audience (Acts 17:22-34). In each of these circumstances, Paul exemplified what it means to act shrewdly.
Fortunately, we can enhance our shrewdness. Reading God’s Word regularly is one of the best ways to protect ourselves from foolishness. “Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation” (Psalm 119:98-99).
We should also put in the necessary intellectual work before making a decision. Do some research before you forward a petition. There is nothing virtuous about ignorance, especially when many of the answers are easily found.
Finally, we need to make better use of our God-given intelligence. If non-Christians can tell the difference between a legitimate business and a pyramid scheme, the same should hold true for Christians. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. In all our dealings, let’s seek to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.
Michael Zwaagstra, BEd, PBCE, MEd, MA (Theological Studies), is a public high school teacher, a city councillor, and an adult Sunday School teacher (EFC Steinbach).