I’m going to put my response to Dr. Boa aside for a while, as I have had a few other things come across that require my attention and I don’t want it to be rushed or incomplete. I also wanted to take time to respond to another issue, one that I have had on my mind frequently due to it being a common one in my area. It has weighed heavily on my heart and I felt like it was appropriate to spend time writing about it.
A friend of mine on Facebook pointed me to this article at Gawker by Hamilton Nolan, about whom I know literally nothing except what’s written here, wherein he goes to a revival featuring a variety of names from the prosperity gospel/Word of Faith movement, such as Kenneth Copeland, and the man who is apparently over the organization running this particular revival conference, Morris Cerullo. Naturally, the author goes for vivid descriptions of every grandiose and bizarre experience, from the very excited attendees there seeking the “double portion” of God’s favor, to the lady spending half the conference waving a flag in the back of the room. But there is a certain starkness to the most detailed moments: the hope and dreams of so many who, multiple times over the course of the revival, make their way up front upon the call of the speakers to give money–large amounts of it. I can only imagine how much money changed hands there.
My friend wanted me to tear the article apart, and produce what would no doubt be an entertaining screed. I began a blog post, but got sidetracked and it ended up being put by the wayside. Yesterday*, however, I encountered another article posted in a few places around the web: Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me, written by Kate Bowler and published in the New York Times, certainly no bastion of conservative theological discussion. But her article was heartfelt and hit right at the heart of the same issue I saw on display in the first article (albeit in a more satirical style): no matter its claims, the prosperity gospel has at its core idolatry and a human desire to hope that our own works will get us what we want.
Both articles resonated with me not because I stood on similar theological grounds with the authors (as far as I can tell, neither is explicitly a Christian), but because of a recognition of the damage this teaching was doing to their view of the true purpose of the church and the cynicism it breeds among those who come to realize that they will not find what they desire this way.
First things first
I want to start by saying that, while many Christians within my theological camp have no problem cracking wise when it comes to Joel Osteen’s pearly-white smiles or Benny Hinn’s coat-swinging antics (and I will certainly admit to my own guilt in that from time to time), I have no intentions of resorting to mere mockery. That does nothing but please those already convinced. No, my intention here is to demonstrate the seriousness of this issue, not to cloud it.
I want to discuss the promises that these teachers make, and contrast them with the Scriptures they claim to use to support them. I also want to talk about the damage the prosperity gospel/Word of Faith movement does to, not simply the “image” of the church as though this were simply a PR issue, but to the preaching of the Gospel itself, in making a mockery of the truth by reducing it to a message rooted not in a heavenly Kingdom, but in an earthly hunger for the material. Scripture is used, or rather abused, to make this claim, but there is no true reflection of the Christlike call to humility and service, to the concept of faith as being a hope in that which is not yet seen, or to the truth that for those who follow after Jesus, our lives will involve sacrifice and even suffering. The prosperity gospel claims not only muddy this, but outright deny it, and therefore if we love Jesus, we must see these claims for the danger that they are and reject them.
Only one Gospel
In Galatians, the apostle Paul writes to the church of Galatia and begins very stridently calling them to repent of their embrace of a false belief brought to them from teachers who have been called “Judaizers” by subsequent generations:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.–Galatians 1:6-9
It is clear that the Bible does not leave room for negotiation on the matter of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God will not share His glory with another, and toying with changing or adding to it is dangerous. The Judaizers were teaching that in order to truly be saved, the Galatians needed to first become Jews by way of becoming circumcised. Paul refutes that idea and reminds his readers of his past life as a zealous Jew engaged in persecuting the church, and of his transformative encounter with Christ that produced in him a true understanding of the Scriptures he had memorized for so long. Paul also talks about his encounter with Peter when the leader of the original disciples found himself stumbling as the Galatians were, in withdrawing from being with the Gentile converts in an attempt to appease certain Jews who believed there was still an innate value to their birth. Paul completely refutes any such belief and preaches the true Gospel in response:
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.–Galatians 2:15-21
I write all this because before discussing a false gospel, we must first be reminded of the true Gospel as well as the dangers of embracing what is untrue. Jesus came to live the perfect life that no one can live due to our enslavement to sin, and yet He died as the perfect sacrifice for the sins of His people. All those who trust in Christ find exactly what Paul talks about above: justification, their lifetime of sins paid for and instead, they are wrapped in Jesus’ perfect righteousness. When God looks at a believer in Christ, He sees someone who is perfectly clean, not by His own deeds but by the work of Jesus on the cross.
“But the prosperity gospel doesn’t deny that,” you may say in objection. “They just believe that God loves His people so much that He wants to give them the best!” This is the most common thing I hear in response to my criticism of preachers like Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes, or Creflo Dollar. Certainly, no one believes that God wants His people to be poor, do we? But it is important to understand the biblical view of the life of a Christian and the role of suffering.
The Bible is full of suffering for the people of God, from 400+ years of slavery for the Israelites followed by 40 years in the wilderness, the intense suffering of Job when God gives Satan permission to bring misery into His life, the destruction rained upon Israel by the Assyrians and on Judah by the Babylonians in invasion and explusion from Israel, and much more. More personally, we see the suffering and frustration of David and others in the Psalms as they endure many pains in their lives from many different causes, and of course, the greatest suffering in Jesus on the cross as He is forced not only to endure the great pains of earthly punishment but also the full measure of God’s wrath that would have poured out upon me and every other person who instead, now stands free and righteous in Christ. Suffering is an undeniable element of Scripture.
But it didn’t end with Christ. His disciples went into the world preaching the Gospel faithfully, seeing the Holy Spirit using their words to turn the world upside down through the transformation of hearts. But every step of the way, they met opposition, both spiritual and physical, and the church following after them saw official persecution for its first three hundred years of existence. Even after the end of Roman persecution and the declaration of Christianity as a religio licita and eventually the state religion, that did not end both group and personal suffering experienced by Christians for one reason above all others: their belief that they should love God more than the world, and the resulting change of perspective on what is truly important.
Jesus spoke to the disciples about what to expect from the secular world for following after him, saying, “It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.” (Matt. 10:25) The Gospel does not take believers out of the world, but it does set us at odds with the values of the world. I would challenge those who believe the words of prosperity preachers to look at their teachings: are they setting you at odds with the love of material gain, or are you being encouraged in it? Are your eyes being turned to the cross, or to yourself?
The prosperity gospel is not the Gospel of Jesus
Prosperity preachers tell their followers that if they exercise enough faith, they can get their every desire, even twisting Scripture to make such claims. The Gawker author summarizes the difference in his own vivid way:
What does god want for you? Does he want you to abandon worldly goods, and dress in rags, and live as a monk? Or, on the contrary, does he want you to enjoy all of the prosperous things that this world affords, as a reward for your faith and obedience to him? Those who preach the prosperity gospel argue the latter, and few have argued it longer or more successfully than Morris Cerullo. For half a century, he has travelled the world, preaching before crowds that routinely number in the tens of thousands, promising that the sick will be healed and the poor will be rescued through sheer faith in the power of Jesus. Taking in many millions of dollars in donations from believers, Cerullo has built a worldwide ministry that includes a publishing arm, extensive TV broadcasts, and an entire family of televangelists and megachurch preachers across the world who call Morris Cerullo “Papa” and credit him with being their “spiritual father.” His ministry is in the midst of raising money to build an 18-acre “Legacy Center” in San Diego that will include corporate headquarters, a gospel training school, gardens, a museum, a movie theater, restaurants, and 127 luxury timeshares. He has been derided by secular types as a fraud, and even blamed for the death of an epileptic girl who stopped taking her medication as a result of his faith healing, but his popularity with true believers persists. Each year, thousands of the faithful gather for an annual conference: five days of marathon preaching, worshiping, miracles, and—most prominently—requests for donation. For it is only through reaping that we may sow; and it is only by giving past all reasonable bounds of generosity that the faithful can hope to win enough of god’s favor to collect on the double anointing that Papa so confidently promises is waiting for us.
It is clear, firstly, that Nolan (the writer) is no Christian. The dichotomy in the opening of the paragraph is a false one; devotion to God is not a question of having vesus not having. There is no piety in poverty, and God can and will save His people from among every class. Jesus warned the disciples of the dangers of seeking after wealth and letting money be your master, however, and a love of money with the name of Jesus pasted over top of it is not the same thing as believing Jesus Christ is Lord.
The New York Times article by Kate Bowler is likewise a personal reflection, but on a larger scale and motivated by a deeply personal event: the discovery of a brain tumor. Bowler is a longtime chronicler of the history of the prosperity gospel movement in the US, and found this discovery in the aftermath of the release of her book Blessed to be, sadly, ironic. That word, “blessed,” is one that has become ubiquitous in American evangelical culture, and has come to mean a view that equates material gain with God’s good pleasure:
One of the prosperity gospel’s greatest triumphs is its popularization of the term “blessed.” Though it predated the prosperity gospel, particularly in the black church where “blessed” signified affirmation of God’s goodness, it was prosperity preachers who blanketed the airwaves with it. “Blessed” is the shorthand for the prosperity message. We see it everywhere, from a TV show called “The Blessed Life” to the self-justification of Joel Osteen, the pastor of America’s largest church, who told Oprah in his Texas mansion that “Jesus died that we might live an abundant life.”
One wonders where that “abundant life” was for the first 1900 some odd years of the church’s existence, especially in those first 300 years when people were being thrown to lions or set on fire for refusing to recant the truth: Ἰησοῦς κύριος. Jesus is Lord.
The prosperity gospel is deadly to the church
If you have read this far and feel offended that I have criticized one of your favorite teachers, or feel it’s not fair of me to go after these big churches and their theology because “they do good for a lot of people” or “God can use anyone” or “some people are just really good at encouragement” or any of the other defenses of prosperity teachers I have been exposed to over the years, I would ask you to stop for a moment. Scroll back up, and read the section above where the Gospel in Scripture is laid out. Better yet: take a look at these two videos below. Yes, watching both will eat up over an hour of your time, but you’ve already been reading me ramble on for two thousand words now, so clearly if you’re here you have time on your hands:
Still with me? I hope you saw the marked difference between these two sermons: in the subject matter, in the handling of Scripture, and most importantly, in who is the center of attention. Prosperity preachers gain many followers because they talk about who we are most interested in: ourselves. A preacher of the Gospel calls us to take our eyes off of ourselves, and fix them on God: His glory in creation, His great love in the incarnation of Christ, His mercy and judgment in the cross, and His great defeat of sin and death in the resurrection and the coming return of Jesus to set all things right.
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions,and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.–2 Timothy 4:1-5
So Paul warns his disciple Timothy, and that a mere few decades after Christ’s earthly ministry. If even then dangerous teaching lurked about, how much more should we be on guard? How much more should we pray for discernment, and call our brothers and sisters in love to avoid such false teaching? The church is the bride of Christ, and the bride should look to the coming of the Bridegroom.
“Are you saying God doesn’t want Christians to be happy?”
No. Of course not. I may be a particularly boring person, but I derive a great deal of joy and pleasure from the good things God has put in the lives of my wife and myself. But those good things are fleeting and, as C.S. Lewis would say, a mere shadow of the weight of glory we are to know in Christ. Anyone who would hold up our current happiness as the ultimate thing to pursue in life right now is holding up a distraction from the cross. Such a message is deadly, and I must oppose it. The true Gospel is so fulfilling, healing, and life-giving, that no substitute will ever suffice.
I want to end with two more videos. Stop, stop, these are a lot shorter. You can even skip the first one if you want, especially if direct criticisms of the prosperity gospel are offensive, but the first sets the second up very well:
Listen to this man speak. He has lost the person most dear to him, and in an incredibly tragic and utterly avoidable event, a car accident where the other driver was driving almost 100 miles per hour in a 40 mph zone. But this man knows exactly what the truth is: even this pain, this loss, this complete upending of life, will serve God’s glory and our good:
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.–Romans 8:26-30
This is the promise we have to hold on to: God will save His people perfectly and everything we walk through, both uplifting joys and the deepest tragedies, will be but a little pinprick compared to knowing the living God for eternity in perfect harmony and companionship! If you have made it this far my brothers and sisters, I thank you for your patience, and I hope that you will set aside whatever offense you may feel and look at that truth, the truth of the Gospel, and rejoice in it! This truth is why it is my great joy to read 100+ year old sermons into a microphone: because Jesus is more beautiful, desirable, and worthy of our love than anything else. I ask you: please, put down your mud pies, your broken cisterns, your faux glory that so many seek after in shiny earthly things, and instead worship the true, living God, by knowing His Son Jesus Christ and being indwelt by His Spirit.
When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.–John 17:1-5
*”Yesterday” being relative since it took me a few days to actually finish this.