10/08/2012 03:55 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2012

Sexual Misconduct and the American Prosperity Gospel

Every Sunday, millions of American Christians attend a megachurch that preaches a "prosperity gospel" of health, wealth and happiness. But in this era of supersized banks and corporations, prosperity megachurches have become just another organization that assumes it is too big to fail.

Victory Christian Center in Oklahoma is shaken by allegations that five of its employees failed to report the alleged rape of a 13-year-old girl by another church employee on church property. Tulsa police have accused a 20-year-old man of raping the girl in the stairwell of the megachurch Aug. 13 before a church service. Police say that youth pastors John and Charica Daugherty -- the son and daughter-in-law of the church's famous founders -- and three other employees waited two weeks before notifying police.

It's hardly the first time that prosperity megachurches have been reluctant to disclose sexual misconduct within their walls: Everyone remembers Jim Bakker's tryst with Jessica Hahn and the downfall of the Praise The Lord empire.

But ministries have stumbled for far less. And far more.

Bishop Eddie Long and his multimillion-dollar ministry has been stalled by allegations that young men in his church were coerced into sexual acts.

The Atlanta Archbishop Earl Paulk Jr. and his Cathedral of the Holy Spirit evaded decades of lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct and financial impropriety until he finally resigned in 2006. (A year later Paulk revealed he had fathered a child with his brother's wife.)

Earlier this year, Bishop Joseph Walker of the 25,000-member Mount Zion Baptist Church in Nashville was hit with multiple lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct with congregants.

Though churches of all kinds weather ethical storms, few seem as committed to secrecy as prosperity megachurches. Why? The answer lies in part with the magnified role of the senior pastor. Prosperity pastors exist as larger-than-life figures. Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, Creflo Dollar and many others are living proof of their message that God does bless people with finances, health and all-around success. Their biographies (always available at the church bookstore) are understood as spiritual revelations of how to put divine principles into action.

The prosperity gospel breeds a culture in which pastors are too important to be human, let alone to make mistakes. Their personal lives are their most valuable asset and are protected as such by church employees and congregants alike. Video surveillance of church property is prominent and pervasive. Ushers frequently double as security guards.

I have spent almost 10 years earning interviews with these pastors, and it can certainly be said that large organizations must naturally limit personal access. But prosperity megachurches breed a culture of cultivated distance. Office hours are virtually nonexistent. Even longtime church members cannot expect to have a personal interaction with a beloved leader who they refer to affectionately as "The Bishop," "Brother So-and-So" or sometimes "Daddy So-and-So." Most believers seem to accept this distance as part of the price of following someone so important.

But when rumors swirl about sexual impropriety, why don't church members speak out?

The prosperity gospel's emphasis on positive thinking and positive speech makes it difficult to raise critical issues from the inside. I have heard hundreds of sermons castigating "complainers" as unspiritual. Some pastors take this even further; riffing from Psalm 105:15, they curse opponents as doubters who speak against the Lord's anointed. People who speak up run the risk of ostracization. Further, they might simply not have a theological framework by which to separate their faith in the message with their faith in the person.

Charismatic newspapers have struggled with this issue for years. Is it unfaithful to report the moral failings of religious leaders?

In 1993, the editor of Charisma magazine begged his pentecostal readership to respond to the Earl Paulk scandal with a call for greater accountability and transparency in church leadership. More than a decade would pass before Paulk's ministry finally caved under the weight of the allegations.

In 2012, it is difficult to see how these questions of accountability have been thoughtfully adjudicated. One reason may be is that these organizations' trustees and church boards are often stuffed with friends and family members, making them far less willing to risk the consequences of whistleblowing.

In the case of Victory Christian Center, Tulsa investigators fear that more victims will surface but are concerned they may be too reluctant to speak out. When a police detective contacted some of the victims, at least two parents refused to cooperate, saying the church was "handling the situation" and they would "continue to pray about it."

In an era of supersized organizations, it is time to hold prosperity megachurches to higher standards and demand a healthy dose of accountability.

Kate Bowler is Assistant Professor of the History of Christianity in the United States at Duke Divinity School and author of 'Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel' (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2014).