by Femi Aribisala
The armed robber takes your money from you with a gun in his hand: the pastor takes your money by brandishing a bible.
Jesus berated the mercenary religious leaders of biblical days. He told them: “‘It is written, my house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’” (Matthew 21:13).
This word remains pertinent to pastors in the churches of today. They come up with all kinds of schemes designed to squeeze money out of their church-members. They search the scriptures, looking for quotable quotes that can be used to make merchandise of men. Some of their favourites are those scriptures dealing with giving first-fruits to priests.
Fleecing the flock
Those months with names ending with “ember” in English are sometimes referred to as the “ember” months. These include September, October, November and December. Strictly-speaking, October does not fit this bill; otherwise it would have been called “Octoember.” Nevertheless, it is conventional also to include it as one of the “ember” months.
In these months, there is a definite change of emphasis in the messages preached by pastors in many of today’s new generation churches. If you have been paying attention, you would have noticed this already. In the “ember” months, pastors start to talk repeatedly about the need to give “first-fruits;” laying down the foundation for a major robbery routinely planned for January.
In the Old Testament, first-fruits were required to be given to priests. Ezekiel says: “The best of all the first-fruits and of all your special gifts will belong to the priests.” (Ezekiel 44:30). This scripture is seized on by today’s money-grubbing pastors who now insist that the “first-fruits” of all the members of their congregation must be handed over to them.
This is disingenuous because, in the New Testament, there is actually no longer an exclusive priesthood. Instead, Jesus has made all believers: “kings and priests to our God.” (Revelation 5:10). But this fact is conveniently ignored by today’s first-fruits collectors.
First-fruits were given to priests because they were not allowed to own landed-property in Israel. God said: “I am to be the only inheritance the priests have. You are to give them no possession in Israel; I will be their possession.” (Ezekiel 44:28-29).
However, the pastors of today are men of means and property owners. In no way whatsoever do they fit the bill of a people without inheritance who only have God as their possession. Indeed, some of today’s mega-pastors are multi-millionaires who drive around with bodyguards in a cortege of Jeeps and even fly around in private jets.
Fruits of money
As the word indicates, first-fruits were strictly-speaking agricultural produce. Moses says: “The first of the first-fruits of your land you shall bring into the house of the LORD your God.” (Exodus 23:19). This shows first-fruits were crops. Indeed, money was never regarded as first-fruit in the bible; neither was it ever paid as such.
However, today’s pastors would not find it funny if you were to bring your first-fruits to them in bananas or pineapples. First-fruits are now only acceptable in cash or cheque. If you ask why, don’t be surprised if you are told that: “Money is the answer to everything.” (Ecclesiastes 10:19).
Scripturally, first-fruits were only required from Jews living in Israel because God gave them their land. First-fruits were inapplicable to Israelites living in foreign lands. This also means first-fruits are inapplicable to today’s Christians who are mostly non-Israelis and do not live in Israel. Nevertheless, pastors hoodwink Christians by claiming there are special blessings attendant upon giving first-fruits to pastors anywhere.
In biblical days, first-fruits were not required from those in non-agrarian trades, such as carpenters or fishermen because these professions were not tied to the land. However, today’s opportunist pastors collect first-fruits from anybody and everybody.
It should be clear from the foregoing therefore that pastors who insist on collecting first-fruits in the churches of today are nothing but thieves and robbers. The armed robber takes your money from you with a gun in his hand: the pastor takes your money by brandishing a bible.
It used to be the case that first-fruits were defined as a Christian’s first salary after leaving school and securing gainful employment. But some pastors quickly realised that this only gives them the right to a Christian’s salary once in a lifetime. Therefore, this soon became inadequate, leading to more ingenious and more financially lucrative biblical “revelations” about first-fruits.
Many pastors now insist that since the January salary is the first in the year, it legally falls under the definition of first-fruits. Therefore, they now require that all church-goers hand over to them their entire January salaries in the name of first-fruits. This makes the first-fruits boon far more profitable than the tithe; which is just a tenth of the Christian’s salary. Moreover, the tithe is nominally given to “the church.” The “first-fruits” is a far more rewarding scam because the money is specifically addressed to the pastor.
If this “godliness” is taught effectively, a pastor can make a bundle of money at the beginning of every year. Just do the maths. Imagine a situation where the pastor gets the January salary of every single member of his congregation. Depending on the size of his church, he can get in one bonanza enough money to last him a lifetime. Is it any wonder, therefore, that pastors are very zealous in preaching about first-fruits in the “ember” months?
Many even refuse to be limited to their churches. Turn onto Christian television such as the Trinity Broadcasting Network in the “ember” months, and you are likely to find Paula White or Steve Munsey extolling the blessings of giving first-fruits. Of course, the first-fruits must be sent to them and to no one else.
In one of Nigeria’s big churches with a large branch-network, the pastors were making a killing collecting first-fruits. But one of them used the money to put up a church building. This went a long way to endear him to his congregants. Other pastors who had nothing to show for the first-fruits they collected became concerned that the pastor would soon bring them into disrepute. So they decided to take “appropriate” action.
They reported him to the General Overseer of the church. His transgression was that he put up an entire church building single-handedly. So doing, they claimed, he prevented others from getting blessed by not taking contributions from them. The General Overseer wondered where he got the money to erect the entire building by himself. So they told him the money came from the first-fruits he collected from his church-members.
The General Overseer became even more curious. Just how much first-fruit were these pastors collecting? He was astonished to discover the sums involved. It was unacceptable that such lucrative business was taking place in his churches without due recognition for his position. Therefore, he fired a memo to all his parishes: henceforth, all first-fruits must be forwarded intact to headquarters.
However, his memo backfired. Thereafter, his subordinate pastors noticeably lost all interest in collecting first-fruits. “Let everybody shout hallelujah.”
“They are greedy dogs which never have enough. And they are pastors who cannot understand; they all look to their own way, every one for his own gain, from his own territory.” (Isaiah 56:11).
Femi Aribisala is a scholar and international affairs expert. He is currently an iconoclastic church pastor in Lagos. He is also a syndicated essayist for a handful publications in Nigeria.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.