The Gospel of Prosperity
Prosperity teachings (also known as 'health and wealth' teachings) are nothing new. The promise that religious faith (as such) can take a person out of poverty is something in the records for hundreds of years and probably off-the-record for much longer. In Prosperity teachings, material wealth is seen as a sign of God's blessing and support. It is present in some leading figure at some time in most religions, even small ones and even ones with a tradition that otherwise is not at all like it. Its secular equivalent is found in most every political and philosophical persuasion, latching onto whatever utopian element it can. They show themselves most visibly in promises during elections. The stronger the faith/ideology/philosophy/movement is, the more prone to prosperity ideology it proves to be.
The form of 'prosperity theology' that most affects the Christian church right now is born and bred in the United States, where there are many rich people, and is then exported to other lands. In a prosperity gospel, illness and poverty are not daily realities of life caused by the disbalances and oppressions of human society or the biological fact of our physical needs. They are instead created by the Devil to keep people from the financial and societal blessings that are at their command.
Prosperity Teaching on John's Third Letter
Prosperity theology is rooted in interpretations of several passages in Scripture. One of these is in the Third Letter of John, where in the greeting John expresses hope that the readers "may prosper and be in good health, that it be well with your soul" (or in the King James Version, "even as thy soul prospereth"). In context, this is a blessing done as a welcome for the ones to which he writes. The prosperity gospel holds that this is more than just a greeting or a blessing: it is a way out of poverty. To wit: if you firmly put positive thoughts of material wealth, into your soul, God will make them bear material fruit. The prosperity gospel takes John's personal blessing and turns it into a prosperity teaching, a statement of theology.
Prosperity Teaching On Corinthians
A second verse used as support is 2 Corinthians 8:9 : "For you know what our Lord Jesus Christ gives freely, that though He was rich, for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich." To prosperity preachers, this means that Jesus' lack of material things was somehow 'flipped' through Jesus' resurrection so that his followers would become materially wealthy. Thus, real followers of Christ have a claim on this limitless material wealth, and all they have to do is stake the claim by asking God to deliver the goods. The truth of what that passage means is that the God-who-has-all came to live in our world, where we generally live most of the time without much conscious awareness of what God has given and how God cares -- that is, where we're spiritually poor. Jesus marked the beginning of the end of that. Jesus' resurrection was the coming of a Kingdom in which such things as material wealth don't matter -- not to you and not to others in the Kingdom, for everyone would have more of every kind of blessings than they could ever need. There would be no idol Mammon (wealth), just God. Followers of Christ are to live Kingdom-wise right now by chasing holiness, not wealth, as we live our earthly lives.
The immediate context of what the apostle Paul wrote, however, is very material -- he was trying to get his fellow Christians to give money for the sake of other believers who were materially poor in the Jerusalem area. Paul was telling them to give what material wealth they could give, so that those who were poor were not so poor that they would be in need. Does this sound like he wants them to claim wealth for themselves? Paul was not saying "claim it", he was saying "give it", as an act of love. Love is spiritual wealth. Be careful here: many prosperity preachers acknowledge the Bible's call to give freely, but turn it into a call to give to their ministry (which really means 'give it to me'). This is made worse by the idea of 'seed faith'. In it, God is said to give health and wealth in proportion to the amount of money given in blind trust to the ministry. Of course, it is the poorest who most need the blessings, so they are much more likely to scrape together all they own to place their bet on God by giving to the ministry. This has, in turn, proven very successful at bringing prosperity to prosperity preachers. (It's like videos on wealth-building; they only build wealth for the ones doing the videos.) The prosperity teacher will then pay an increasing amount of their 'pastoral' time and effort on those that are (or are becoming) wealthier. What of the poorer who attend services? Why would such a minister care about them? As the daily harshnesses of life in poverty batter them, they essentially have no pastor, just a preacher who tends to the needs of the blessed rich.
Prosperity Teaching on John
Another key verse for prosperity theology is John 14:13/14, "If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it". But the quote is used in isolation from what is around it. It is part of Jesus' final charges to his disciples after sharing the last supper. There, Jesus is handing off to the apostles his earthly ministry, because he's about to leave this world. Immediately before the verse, Jesus tells them that wonders will happen through them will be even greater that what he did. Then he states the purpose for it : "that the Father may be glorified in the Son." After the verse, he gives them the charge to live by his commands. Notice: there is nothing there about material wealth, or attainment of governmental power, or of fame. What's there is the call to mission, and Jesus is giving them the power to carry it out. Indeed, the gathered followers of Christ have done many marvels with great power, in service and love. To use the verses for the sake of self is to do violence to Jesus' purposes.
Prosperity Teaching On Mark's Gospel
One more key verse used in prosperity teachings is Mark 10:30. This is used as the basis for the "hundred-fold blessing", the Ginsu Knife of the health and wealth crowd, where you put your money down essentially on a 100-to-one bet on God (or, more likely, the prosperity preacher). "But wait -- you'll also get salvation, joy, and the Kingdom to come! But to get this package, you must give now. Here's the phone number; operators are standing by." This verse in Mark is right after Jesus speaks of how hard it is for the rich to attain the Kingdom, and right before He says that the first shall be last and the last first. And He's not just talking about money -- he's putting out a call to leave behind our homes, livelihoods, families and family lands, the very things which people of that day (and many of today) considered far more valuable than money. And He's not talking about giving your material wealth for some leader to spend. He's speaking of dedicating your entire life to the purposes of Christ and His Kingdom. Do that, and God will generously meet your truest needs, by giving you back what was of real value in what you lost when you decided to take on the mission of Christ - and then some. That sort of total commitment makes even a $100,000 check seem like chump change.
Prosperity Teachings On Hebrew Scriptures
Prosperity theology also draws from the covenant with Israel. As part of that covenant relationship, God promises to provide the people with abundance as the people act in obedience to God's will. For example, in Malachi 3:10: "Bring all of the tithe into the storehouse, that there would be food in My house. Test me now on this,", says the Lord of multitudes, "to find out if I will not open for you the windows of heaven, and pour out for you an overflowing blessing." Or, for another example, Deuteronomy 8:18. "But remember the LORD your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth, so that He may confirm His covenant that He swore to your ancestors, as it is this day." They use Deuteronomy 28:1-14 in the same manner. God's blessings are not about getting upper-bracket financial wealth but freedom from need, of any kind. Yet, the idea of God giving material blessings is not the main problem. It is the context of those promises. Both verses are about the covenant nation, not the individual. It is about that nation's faithfulness to their God, or the lack of it. In Malachi, it is a 'holy dare' from God - 'you-all do your end of it, and I will do far more than mine, far beyond just wealth'. The point isn't about the wealth, it is about following God. To apply this to any one person, or any one congregation or other group within the covenant people if taken by itself, is to take the promise far out of its context. In Deuteronomy, it is God reminding Israel who gives the blessings in this covenant relationship -- 'anything you-all have that is of any worth is that way because of Me, not because of anything you do.' And fulfilling the peoples' part in the covenant includes treating the poor and the stranger justly. There is nothing about claiming anything as your own. Again, the whole context is for the covenant nation acting together in obedience to the God of their covenant, not any one part or person, unlike the prosperity teachers who make it an individual thing you can bank on.
Even more, the whole idea of God's covenant with Abraham was that through him would come a people who would be a blessing for the whole world. Through them would come God-with-us, Jesus, who would fulfill the promises God made to the covenant people, only He would do it for all people by drawing them into the covenant. What Jesus did is plainly not material; His Kingdom is not as earthly kingdoms are. His blessings are forgiveness and grace, and (through faith) the sending of the Spirit. He says nothing about giving out great jobs, musical stardom, jewelry, social prominence, sexy spouses, or big houses.
Lisa Robinson has an article on this aspect of prosperity teaching.
What Is 'seed faith'?
'seed faith': to entrust money or goods to a ministry so you can receive special divine benefit in return; the more you give, the more you get. If you are to believe the prosperity preachers, seed faith giving, and especially the 'hundredfold blessing', is the key to human happiness. They speak of 'seed faith' as if it slices, dices, splices and spices, and if you give now you'll also get a full set of screwdrivers and a 12-volume CD package of the greatest hits of 1982. In truth, it grinds and blinds and binds the minds. 'Seed faith' is not a biblical idea nor a biblical term, though many pentecostalists act like it is. Its everyday-language translation is 'gimme'. If a preacher says 'Build me up', pray that the Spirit grasps them, but don't send money. (By the way: 'this ministry' = 'me').