It's not altogether unusual to hear of church elders using the trust placed in them to secretly rip people off. Two very recent examples in my life:
- I'm an attorney and represented a contractor/architect who did a shit ton of work for a church that was planning to expand. Pastor kept promising he would pay for the work. Pastor never did pay and was lying to his congregation to get them to give him more money for it, meanwhile falsely badmouthing the architect/contractor.
- There's an attorney I work with who told me some other folks in her church group recently discovered that their elder who handled accounting had been skimming a huge amount of the donations for himself. He got fired and has to pay restitution, but I think the church has agreed not to pursue criminal charges.
For the record, geographyteacher is not setting out to defraud anyone. He honestly believes he knows best and that he's helping these people. I did not set out to call him a criminal or a crooked church elder, just an arrogant fool. (Did I mention he leases his car and has explained to me how it's the cheapest option?)
The trouble is that money is changing hands and it's only a matter of time before someone gets hurt. If his shenanigans ever cross the line to the point where he's breaking the law, ignorance isn't going to be a defense.
I'm generally skeptical of people who use their religion as "evidence" that they're a good person, because it's a classic setup for what I call the high ranking insider play.
In the high ranking insider play, a person uses the fact he or she has credibility and social capital within a shared community to obtain the trust of a person in that community, to prey upon that person, and then to use the credibility and social capital to avoid what would otherwise be the predictable consequences of abusing someone. The status in question might be real, or fake. It's an old con technique that is still around because it still works.
"Trust me, I'm a good <religion name>" is the same as "Trust me, I'm a cop", "Trust me, I'm a doctor", "Trust me, I'm a teacher", "Trust me, I'm a Presidential candidate", etc., etc. That's the setup that gives a predator access to the victim. The victim sometimes even consents to something wildly inappropriate, out of trust. Then an exploitation or violation of that trust occurs. Why? Well, the predator might not think he or she is doing anything wrong. Perhaps he or she believes he or she has a special skill, or a higher level of enlightenment, or even magic powers. Maybe there's some deeper emotional truth or political agenda supposedly being served, and maybe the predator genuinely believes the victim likes, needs, or wants what the predator is doing. Heck, the victim might believe it too. It's bullshit of course.
After the exploitation occurs, the next thing you hear from other people in the community is: "S/he couldn't have done that, s/he's a <insert high-trust role here>". That's the other half of the trusted insider play.
There are people in high-trust roles who for whatever reason become corrupted by their own egos and misuse their authority to do things they shouldn't, and there are people who are attracted to high-trust roles because they give them access to victims and insulation from consequences. The fact that high-trust roles exist within a community (such as a religious community) isn't the fault of the community.
The toxicity isn't a feature of the religion, it's a feature of the pattern that's playing out in a religious context. The pattern exists in other contexts that have nothing to do with religion.