A few months ago I watched the Tinder Swindler on Netflix. I sat there slack-jawed in horror at the incredible web of deceit one person was able to create. It seemed almost impossible to believe that anyone could fall for such outrageous lies but it reminded me of a few personal encounters I’ve had with scammers. Unfortunately, these were fraudsters I met through church life. Yep, ‘Christian’ scammers are an actual thing!
I can’t remember the exact year but as a child, I recall how a new family moved to our town and joined the church I grew up in. They were ‘well-to-do’ (whatever that means), big car and nice lifestyle all seemingly funded by the dad’s job as an ‘entrepreneur’. He said he’d sold a previous business and had moved to our area to open a new factory. I remember that people were excited, partially because someone of ‘means’ had moved to our wee town but also because he was promising to create new jobs and that in turn meant hope and prosperity.
The problem is, when pressed, the details of the factory were just a little bit sketchy. He couldn’t tell you exactly what the factory would be making or where it’d be located but there was definitely, definitely a factory coming…soon…just wait…honestly, it was definitely, definitely happening. Of course, he then ran into ‘temporary cash flow problems’ and was looking for ‘investors’. Somewhat predictably, the whole thing eventually collapsed and the man and his family moved on. Not surprisingly it transpired there was no ‘factory’, there’d never been a previous business and as for the nice car and lovely life, we could only speculate how that had been funded.
In the years since, I’ve sadly come into contact with several more ‘Christian’ scammers. From the church worker who spun me a huge tale about his former life as a violent ex con (not true) to the aspiring pastor who said he’d worked for a global TV network, these people were desperate for attention, prestige and on at least one occasion, money. To be fair, both stories were vaguely believable but both pretty much fell apart within a few minutes of googling. Funnily enough, many years later one of the chaps was (sadly) featured on one of those rogue trader TV programmes.
However at the time, I was really surprised at how quickly people in churches accepted the stories as ‘gospel fact’. Maybe they wanted to believe that God could save violent convicts and bring media stars into the church (which he obviously can and does!) but lots of people accepted the stories, presumably because the people involved were Christians. And Christians don’t lie. Right?
In church life, I think we have a massive duty to be discerning. If someone tells me a huge story with specific details, yep I’ll probably be googling. If someone wants me to support their charity, I’ll be checking it out on the Charity Commission website. Top tip: if someone says they’re a charity and they’re not on the Charity Commission website, then they’re not a charity. All of that might come across as cynicism but honestly, it’s not. I absolutely believe (and have experienced) the miracle-working power of God. I know he can radically change lives, heal people and work in ways that defies my comprehension, but I also know the capacity of the human heart to deceive.
Jesus spoke about the need to be discerning in Matthew 7. The chapter begins with a swift reminder to ‘not judge’.
“‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
Matthew 7:1-2 NIVUK
It’s probably worth pointing out that being discerning isn’t ‘judging’. According to my Bible notes, the Greek word for ‘judge’ used in this chapter is κρίνω (yeah, yeah, I’m doing the Greek thing!!) and it means to ‘judge harshly’. That’s not the same as discernment! Discernment is what Jesus talks about later in the chapter (v 15) when he says that we should actually watch out for false prophets.
“‘Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognise them. Matthew 7:15-16 NIVUK
Christians can (rightly!) be lovely, trusting people but it’s important to discern what’s going on around us. Many times I’ve had what we jokingly call ‘a spidey sense’, just a gut feeling in my ‘knower’ that something doesn’t add up. I have definitely learned to listen to that. I don’t actually have to act on it but I can listen, tuck the feeling away safely but lean on it if I ever have to make decisions about the person or situation.
If something, like a person or a story doesn’t feel right, chances are you’re feeling that way for a reason. It might be an overactive imagination but at the same time, it might also be God giving you a warning, a heads’ up to be cautious.
There are scammers, fraudsters and liars in the church, just as there are everywhere else. Hopefully they’re few and far between (!) but if we don’t use the spiritual tools we’ve been given, we’ll never know. At least not until it’s too late.