GREENVILLE, S.C. — Relentless Church members roared approval for their pastor of seven months in services Sunday after social-media controversy erupted in wake of his $200,000 anniversary gift to his wife.
Sunday was at least the third time that Pastor John Gray publicly defended the lavish Lamborghini Urus SUV that he gave his wife for their eighth anniversary. He had made prior statements on Instagram and Facebook that he later deleted, but this weekend marked the first Sunday services since the issue made national headlines.
Gray, 45, mentioned the disagreement multiple times Sunday and alluded to it in his closing remarks of the second service when he called the past week "one of the most difficult of our lives."
Gray — who has revenue as a published author, the focus of a reality television show, and a television producer — said it was important for his congregation to know that the gift came from income outside his church salary.
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In the 8:30 a.m. service, Gray said he believed that God would deal with him spiritually "if I used one nickel from this church to do anything for her."
"I believe spiritual principles are in place for people who would intend to defraud the Kingdom of God for their own purposes," Gray told The Greenville News between services. "I have other streams of income, and I use that to bless my wife, not from (financial) sources the church provided."
Church members who spoke Sunday firmly supported the high-profile pastor, also remains an associate pastor at Joel Osteen’s megachurch Lakewood Church in Houston while taking the lead at Relentless.
Willie J. Smith, a member of Relentless, said he considered the controversy to be much ado about nothing.
"I think any husband wants to give his wife nice things," Smith said. "I've never understood this notion that Christians are supposed to be poor even though God has promised us blessings.
"Pastor Gray had been blessed financially long before he ever came to Relentless Church, and I think it's great that his wife doesn't have to drive a clunker," Smith said. "I think every man here feels that way."
The outcry began building after video taken at the Dec. 8 anniversary celebration was posted on Instagram. In the video, later deleted, Gray led his wife to a bow-wrapped SUV and handed her the keys while saying "Lamborghini Urus."
Many people on social media wondered what could've been done with the money instead, or why anyone would give money to Gray's church if the could afford such an extravagant gift.
Gerald Galloway of Simpsonville, South Carolina, seemed to reflect the mood of the Relentless Church campus as he entered the worship center Sunday morning.
"It makes no difference to me in my Christian walk," he said. "I'd give my wife one if I had the opportunity."
Karen Cleveland of Marietta, South Carolina, talked about scripture that mandated that the church "pay the pastor well":
The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.
For Scripture says, 'Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,' and 'The worker deserves his wages.'
— 1 Timothy 5:17-18
And her husband, Benjamin, said the controversy of the past week "has nothing to do with the Kingdom of God or our worship here."
Beyond church membership, Phil Begley of Greer, South Carolina, framed the gift not as a decision right or wrong but a lack of wisdom.
"It is not a matter of good or evil," Begley wrote in a letter to the editor. "It is not even a matter of whether Pastor Gray can afford the vehicle or has a clear conscience about it. It is a matter of making choices and living in such a way that does not draw criticism inside or outside the church" because his actions could become a stumbling block to others.
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Gray received an ovation from the Relentless congregation when he proclaimed his love for his wife, Aventer Gray, in both services. She was en route from her hometown of Dothan, Alabama, during the early service after leading a youth group seminar there in recent days.
She arrived in time for the 11 a.m. service.
"It's important to me because there should be integrity when it comes to finances of the church," John Gray said. "It's not the church's responsibility for me to provide for my wife. That's my responsibility."
Tonya Bethea of Simpsonville, another member of the church, said the incident gave her more resolve in her beliefs.
"If a pastor has the ability to bless his wife with a great gift and doesn't do it, something is wrong," she said. "Things like this are not common in our area, and maybe that's why so many have opinions on it, but I'm glad our pastor is blessed and glad he shows his love for his wife."
Between 8.000 and 10,000 worshipers come to Relentless Church each Sunday, staff member Travis Hayes said.
And fewer than 50 churches of about 300,000 across the USA average more than 10,000 worshipers each Sunday, according to a Hartford (Conn.) Institute for Religion Research analysis of Duke University's National Congregations Study. But the median household income in Greenville, which has about 500,000 residents, was a little less than $54,000 from 2013 to 2017, and that's about a quarter of the price of the Gray's Lamborghini SUV.
Smith, who attended the church when it was named Redemption and stretched across five campuses under its founding pastor but stayed when the main campus changed to Relentless earlier this year with John Gray, said the controversy could help Relentless in the long run "because they're reminded of how God's people are always going to face criticism."
"The people who criticize are people who are more caught up with religion than in a personal relationship with Christ," Smith said.
Follow Abe Hardesty on Twitter: @abe_hardesty