Economics

A multi-level warning about multi-level marketing

Multi-level marketing’s end is nowhere in sight. Years ago, my personal ministry was. Yours truly accepted the invitation of another minister to jump into the multi-level pool. I stayed 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? There is a way that MLM is commonly done that conflicts at many points with Biblical values. So in what follows I submit several cautions – several lessons I’ve learned – for you to consider if you are involved in or thinking about joining one of these organizations. These points could be summed up as how we don’t want to do multi-level marketing.

1. Competing with the Church

The first and deepest caution concern’s 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, how 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. Every day is “Friend Day” in MLM.

Furthermore, their agenda includes fantastic goals which, if truly representative of the organizations’ 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 organizations will “survive and prevail(!)” Their enthusiasm is positively postmillennial in intensity.

MLMers will often call each other “family.” They are urged to make a 100% commitment to the organization (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 program. 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 many of these organizations. 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. And this MLM organization will show you how to get it! Their method is (allegedly) guaranteed…but if you don’t get saved, it’s your fault.

The impression is certainly given that the method is faultless. When I confronted one MLMer with the fact that he seemed to be saying that his organization 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 as well when scrutinized by even her most loving critics!

To review our first point, Christians need to be wary of MLM organizations that 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 organizations 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 organizations 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 such an MLM group becomes clearer.

2. Using friends and family

A second concern for Christians involves how MLM can impact the way we view our 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. 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. One Christian MLMer told me it was “just like making disciples” (there we go again).

So the danger, then, is, that we start viewing everyone as potential timber with which we can build our little empire. Family members and close friends become the prime targets for you to “bring in under you.” Friends you have not called for 10 years, and casual acquaintances, who have to be reminded how they know you, come next. In MLM, propinquity = profit.

But, by grace, the Christian MLMer will 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 rationalizations 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 favorite) / “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 when:

1) it seeks to usurp the role of the Church
2) relationships become exploitation-ships.

3. The god of Mammon

Greed is can be a temptation in any business venture, but in MLM the amount of money you could make is mentioned again and again. That means covetousness is a real danger (see Proverbs 21:6, 16:8, Mark 4:19, Luke 12:15, 1 John 2:15). It is rather remarkable how few MLMers will be frank about this (though some are).

The money can be significant, though – even astronomical, (for a few) – and it is possible to build a profitable business rather quickly. This is because 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.

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 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 reprioritized (which is, after all, the same thing – Ex. 20:3) their first love for baubles, trinkets and the way of death. It is very sad.

4. Competing with the communion of saints

A fourth concern is that MLM devotees are drawn into 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. A new club is formed and the password is not the blood of Jesus but the name of your MLM organization.

Man is every finding new ways to put asunder that which God has joined together.

Conclusion

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 griefs. But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness” (1 Tim. 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 labor 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 inwards parts. MLM organizations 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.

A version of this article first appeared in “Messiah’s Mandate: UPDATE, Volume 2, Number 2,” and is reprinted here with permission of the author. Rev. Steve M. Schlissel is the pastor of Messiah’s Covenant Community Church (MessiahNYC.org) in Brooklyn, New York.

Questions to consider

1. This article presumes Christians want to talk about God with whomever we meet. But is that accurate – are we eager to talk about God? What stops us from talking about God?

2. How are the article’s four cautions applicable to other business ventures?

3. Pastor Schlissel says we should be wary of messianic, save-the-world language because it competes with the real Messiah, and the real Savior. So how should we respond when we hear it elsewhere? Like presidential debates? Or discussions about plastic straw usage? Where else do we hear this kind of language?

4. How would a Christian involved in MLM do it differently than non-Christians? What would that look like?

5. In a report posted to the US Federal Trade Commission website, Jon M. Taylor detailed how, in the 350 leading MLMs he’d looked at, 99% of sales consultants lost money. Taylor suggests that before you join any particular MLM you ask them for:

“the average amount of money paid by the company in commissions and bonuses to participants at the various levels in the compensation plan.”

If the organization won’t provide this information he suggests, “you should consider that a red flag.” While this isn’t a question, it is worth considering.


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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Cap Stewart

    August 22, 2019 at 12:32 pm

    I appreciate the care that went into writing this piece. As someone who makes most of his income from an MLM, I am saddened to see so much ignorant and negative diatribes against the network marketing business model. Most cautionary pieces are incredibly uncharitable, not recognizing that much of what they don’t like about MLMs is true about corporate America in general. And, of course, so many people equate MLMs with illegal “pyramid scheme” business models (again, not recognizing that much of what they hate about “pyramid schemes” is abundantly practiced–and accepted–in the corporate world). Pastor Schlissel did a good job of walking through some of the potential dangers of the network marketing world without demonizing the network marketing world. That is a rare feat!

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