Christianity and Multi-level Marketing
Is there anyone who has not been accosted by a multi-level "marketeer"? Perhaps in Bora Bora, but in North America we almost have to fend them off. As if Amway devotees weren't enough, we now have to face multi-level cosmetics puffers, multi-level vitamin poppers, even multi-level water-purifiers. Multi-level marketing's end is not in sight. Years ago, my personal ministry's was.
Yours truly accepted the invitation of another minister to jump into the multi-level pool. I stayed in just long enough to nearly drown. During that time (and the drying off period which followed), I've done much thinking about the nature of multi-level marketing ("MLM"), with particular concern as to whether it is compatible with a lifestyle of devout obedience to the Christ of the Scriptures. My conclusion? One-dimensional involvement in such a scheme, without compromise, is possible, but it is extremely unlikely that one can be a multi-level conquistador without great cost to his Christian character, possibly his eternal wellbeing.
Thriving in a multi-level marketing organisation requires a commitment that conflicts at many points with Biblical values. I submit several areas below which should cause you to pause before you "aim for the stars." Heeding these caveats might help you to be content keeping your mind on things above the stars, where Messiah is seated at the right hand of God.
The first and deepest area of conflict lies in multi-level marketing's competition with the church. From this one grand problem flow many others. This competition is undeclared, but it is quite real. Consider, for example, that MLM literature is often liturgical in form. It contains praises for the company and/or its leaders, thanksgiving for its products, testimonies to the greatness of both, confessions of doubts, and even songs of adoration (no kidding). "Church" can meet in small groups (devotionals?) or large auditoriums. In the latter the atmosphere is truly reminiscent of tent revivals in both program and intensity. Of course, you are urged to bring anyone you can con(vince) to attend. Every day is "Friend Day" in MLM.
Furthermore, their agenda includes fantastic goals which, if truly representative of the organisations' objectives, are frightening. They are out to "change the world". Having made "a covenant with life" they are seeking to "infuse ... lives with some measure of grace and beauty and purpose and joy". MLMers are told that they are the "comfort and hope, promise and dream" of the world. Despite attacks or setbacks, these organisations will "survive and prevail(!)" Their enthusiasm is positively postmillennial in intensity.
The MLMers call each other "family". They are urged to make a 100% commitment to the organisation (something God alone can demand). They are encouraged to believe that the more they devote themselves to the plan, the closer they will be to tapping into "a life force of unlimited power". People claim to have been "born-again", either through the use of the company's products or through participation in the multi-level programme. They have been "set-free", made "brand new", delivered from fears, and are no longer able to hide their joy. Small wonder they can't resist "sharing the good news"!
The list could go on, but this tiny sampling of MLM rhetoric is sufficient to show the Messianic self-consciousness of these organisations. They are out to save the world. The problem, though, is that in their view salvation is primarily economic. People are unfulfilled or repressed or depressed because they haven't got enough money. MLM claims to be able to show you how to get it. Their method is (allegedly) guaranteed. If you don't get saved, it's your fault. The impression is certainly given that the scheme is faultless. When I confronted an MLMer with the fact that he seemed to be saying his organisation was perfect, he quickly retorted, "Oh, no". But in hours of talking, he yielded no ground. He could not (would not?) see any drawback or downside to his company. The church should only fare so well when scrutinised by even her most loving critics!
To review our first point, MLM organisations set themselves in competition with the church by claiming the same mission (they are out to change the world – cf. Mark 16:15), by borrowing heavily from Biblical evangelical terminology (grace, born again, set free, covenant, joy, hope, comfort, sharing, the good news, etc) by pushing an economically based soteriology (another gospel, my friends – Galatians 1:9), and by presumptuously arrogating to themselves invincibility ("we will prevail" – cf. Matthew 16:18) and possession of the keys to omnipotence ("a life force of unlimited power" – cf. Ephesians 1:18-23).
It might be said that the organisations don't really mean these things, that this is just the kind of hyperbole required to be competitive. But if they don't mean these things, they should not say them (and they say them over and over and over again). If they do mean what they say, it necessarily makes it exceedingly difficult for Christians involved with the organisations to distinguish between things that differ. Sharing so much vocabulary necessarily cheapens the meaning of the words. When we remember that it is by means of some of these words that we are saved and sanctified, the precarious position of the Christian in MLM becomes clearer.
Conflict in Social Relationships
A second area of conflict for the Christian in MLM is social relationships. There would be little or no problem with the simple retailing of the products offered by these companies. They are usually as good, or better (though more expensive) than comparable items available in ordinary retail outlets. But, as you're quick to find out, retail ain't where the money is. No, the pyramid is climbed primarily through recruiting. One Christian MLMer told me it was "just like making disciples" (there we go again). You see, in MLM you get a cut of the sales of those recruited by you, and potentially, of those recruited by them, and so on, ad pyramidium. Needless to say, you are at least as concerned to bring in the salesmen as you are to bring in the sales.
Soon after you catch the vision (or the fever), everyone is viewed as potential timber with which you can build your little empire. Family members and close friends become the prime targets for you to "bring in under you". Friends you have not called for ten years, and casual acquaintances, who have to be reminded how they know you, come next. A new dimension is seen in old ties: exploitation. In MLM, propinquity = profit. But, of course, you are never to think of yourself as exploiting someone. Perish the thought! (It's actually your conscience that's perishing.) No, you are "sharing", "caring", "helping", freeing people from a bondage they may not even be aware of (perhaps because they are not bound?). MLM flourishes because of the successful inculcation of this dissemblance in its devotees, who, in short order, become an army of unctuous Pecksniffians out to enlist the world.
But, by grace, the Christian MLMer should know he is in real trouble when, upon making new acquaintances, he doesn't know which gospel he should seek to share first. If the company's "support system" has indoctrinated him properly, he will consistently choose to first tell them about his new life in MLM. He hopes that it might lead to an opportunity to share God's good news sometime in the future. The rationalisations one offers one's self for this infidelity to God are myriad: "I feel led to share MLM first" / "If this person is among the elect he'll be saved anyway" / "I'm going to use the money I make for God's glory" (that was my favourite) / "If we share a business interest I'll have more opportunities to witness," etc. A prostitute can be very creative when comforting her conscience (see Proverbs 30:20).
To review: MLM is bad news because (1) It seeks to usurp the role of the church, and (2) Relationships become exploitationships.
Greed, Mammon, Moola
A third area of difficulty is the fundamental principle of MLM. What is it that truly motivates an MLMer to talk to more and more people about this business, and less and less about the Gospel? The answer is simple. Greed, aka Mammon, aka Moola. From the time of your first introduction to the world of MLM, money becomes the motivator. (See Proverbs 21:6; 16:8; Mark 4:19; Luke 12:15; 1 John 2:15.) Covetousness reigns supreme in MLM. It is rather remarkable how few MLMers will be frank about this (though some are). The buck becomes almighty, the prime mover, as Aristotle would say. One's thoughts, words and deeds, which previously had been increasingly consecrated to Messiah, become increasingly directed toward the MLM organisation and its product line. All the while you are told that this leads to "freedom" (John 8:44).
The money can be significant, though – even astronomical, (for a few) – and it is possible to build a profitable business rather quickly. The greedier you are, the quicker you'll get there. This is because for MLM, when the people "under you" make money, you make money. The more they make, the more you make. Everyone is constantly "encouraging" everyone else to go for it. It is impossible for greed not to find its way in when the door is open so wide. In an MLM environment, one easily forgets that covetousness is idolatry (Colossians 3:5). Thus, a Pyrrhic success is sometimes attained: you gain some of the world and lose some of your soul.
Of course, the difference between greed and simple financial success is not in the amount of dollars amassed, but in what one has exchanged for those dollars. One MLM convention or large rally would reveal what some of these poor souls have lost to gain what they now, temporarily, have. Superstars in MLM are often unabashedly ostentatious self-aggrandizers. Many of them, sorrowfully, have given up, or reprioritised (which is, after all, the same thing – Exodus 20:3) their first love for baubles, trinkets and the way of death. It is very sad.
A fourth area of concern is that you'll find, sharing the foundation space with greed, her ubiquitous sister, deception. Like the leech's two daughters (Proverbs 20:15) they always want more and they concoct ways to get it. One MLM organisation's practices are notoriously misleading (shifty?). These self-styled entrepreneurs will do or say almost anything to get you to a "presentation". They will avoid mentioning the name of their organisation at all costs, even when pointedly asked what it is. The Moonies use a similar evasion tactic. Their common rationale is saturated with overweening arrogance: "People don't know what's good for them; if not telling prospects the name of our organisation results in their having an opportunity to hear of our plan without prejudice, it will result in their own benefit". The Apostle considered it slander when someone accused him of using such methodology (see Romans 3:8). Paul prided himself on his utter transparency and sincerity. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul says, "The appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary ... we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed." (2:3-5) If the truth be known, representatives of a Michigan-based outfit practice deception because they have a well-earned reputation for being obnoxious. People simply would not agree to go to their meetings if they knew beforehand who sponsored them.
Deception and Arrogance
A fifth concern is that greed, deception and arrogance join forces to draw MLM devotees into an unholy alliance which acts as an independent subculture. For Christians, MLM involvement is, in some respects, akin to membership in a lodge. MLM is intrinsically and increasingly esoteric. The fellowship of the saints is usually seen as inadequate. It's nice to be with God's people, yes, but nicer to be with God's greedy people. A new club is formed and the password is not the blood of Jesus but the name of your MLM organisation. Uninitiated Christians, sensing the competing claims of MLM, instinctively put space between themselves and their recalcitrant brethren who have their noses in the air and their hearts reposing in dreams of multi-level wealth (Matthew 6:21). The wall between MLMers and "regular" believers can be more formidable and debilitating than the one between Jew and Gentile which was obliterated by Messiah. Man is ever finding new ways to put asunder that which God has joined together.
There is a solemn warning in 1 Timothy that tore at my conscience the whole time I was involved in MLM. I actually avoided looking at this passage because it got too close, penetrating my soul, judging the thoughts and attitudes of my heart. Rather than submit to this passage, I was considering leaving the ministry! Oh brothers, listen to the Word of God. Don't give heed to the siren song, no matter how sweet if its lyrics contain an invitation to disobey the tiniest commandment of God. The devil is seeking to devour us, but God has given us His Word for our good and for our protection. Obedience to God's Word is life!
If we have food and clothing we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many grief's. But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.1 Timothy 6:8-11
Beware of giving heed to the voice of seducing spirits. God has called us to peace, which is found in the pursuit of Himself – not gold.
By all means, work hard. By all means, bless Jehovah for the increase he grants the labour of your hands. But never make money your chief pursuit, or you're dead. Abraham Kuyper was certainly correct when he said,
If you are truly subject to God, money will be subject to you and will not harm you. But Kuyper demonstrated his balance and wisdom when he added, "If, on the other hand, you undertake to defend yourself against the fatal influence of ... money and its seductive power, you are lost before you know it, and deeming that you are your own master you have found your master in the money-power.
If you or someone you know is considering entering the world of MLM, wait before committing yourself to such a lifestyle (for that is what it is), take your time and pray. Consider the points made in this article. If they were made too strongly, modify them, but be sober and judge with right judgment. Look beyond surface claims; look for truth in the inward parts. MLM organisations usually offer excellent products and most operate with a great degree of internal integrity. But product and corporate reliability, while important, are not the only factors which a child of the Living God should consider before biting at a ten-tiered carrot. If you're not very careful, you may bite off more than you can chew.