The Gospel of Prosperity
Prosperity 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. 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 gospel' 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 humans and human society, but are created by the Devil to keep people from the financial and material 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.
The Prosperity Gospel 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.)
Prosperity Gospel on John
Another key verse for the prosperity gospel 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 for prosperity preachers 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 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 Gospel On Hebrew Scriptures
The prosperity gospel 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 preachers who make it an individual thing you can bank on.
Prosperity Teachings and Poverty
Let's make no mistake about this: poverty is not what God wants for us, as a whole, though some individuals might need to go there to learn what they need to learn. Most Christians are called to live simply, but not to the point of becoming needy and impoverished, especially not to the point of being a burden on others. To state the obvious: being poor is not a good thing, and the poor want no part of it. It limits your freedoms, stifles opportunities, and breeds anger, and fear. Poverty "entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression... It means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships" (J.K. Rowling, 'Harry Potter' author, July 2008 Harvard commencement address). Their access to essential services is very limited, because they can't pay for it. The poor are powerless, which leads to their being oppressed by those who have power. They keep hearing those with advantages chant at them the mantra that it's their own fault that they're poor. For millions of people, poverty's relentless frustrations and disappointments have caused them to give up on themselves. And in most places and situations, the children of the poor also become poor, and the gruesome cycle goes on. Poverty as an overall situation is caused more by greed, racism, and distorted economics for rich and powerful people than by action or inaction by poor persons.
God's Answer For the Poor
But the New Testament answer to poverty wasn't to name it and claim it. God's answer was the community of Christian believers, acting not as ATMs or promise-machines but as friends, guides, cheerleaders, entrepreneurs, mentors, teachers, advocates, and trainers. These believers are entrusted with the duty to help you find your gifts from the Spirit, so you can most effectively be a full part of this community not a dependent of it. They're there to help you develop the inner strength, insight, knowledge, networks, and skills to make a living and to spend according to a budget. They cheer you and spur you on with your hard efforts to no longer be poor. Instead, prosperity preachers siphon away what little their flock owns to pay for the pastor's ranch or private jet fleet or the new church campus/empire or the church-corporation's stock portfolio. Read the letter to the Hebrews, 10:24, which calls on us to "consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds". Wealth accumulation is nowhere to be seen when the New Testament describes what the believers are to build up in others. Look at James, who in 4:3 states that "You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures". Or, take the apostle Paul in the Corinthians passage mentioned earlier: the context is his taking up a collection for believers in Palestine. His objective is a fair balance (v. 13) between believers who have (in Corinth) and those who have not (in Jerusalem). Paul even cites Exodus 16:18 (the distribution of manna in the wilderness) as to what the community is aiming for :
The one who had much did not have too much
and the one who had little did not have too little.
That is not a prosperity gospel, but a community, taking on the work of the Lord and loving each other.
"Jesus was born poor, and he died poor. During his earthly tenure, he spoke time and again about the importance of spiritual wealth and health. When he talked about material wealth, it was usually part of a cautionary tale.
------- Cathleen Falsani in *"The Prosperity Gospel", her article in the "Worst Ideas of the Decade" series, in the *Washington Post*, originally from Dec. 2009.
Where Does the Prosperity Gospel Take Us?
A prosperity gospel can't help itself. It can't avoid building up the wrong things. In it:
- getting takes the place of giving,
- guarantees and a sense of entitlement take the place of possibilities and dreams,
- 'I' takes the place of 'we',
- being in command takes the place of obedience, service, and duty,
- being served takes the place of serving,
- self-indulgence takes the place of discipline and self-control,
- the blessing of material wealth pushes all other blessings aside.
The prosperity gospel attracts the wrong sort of leaders: the totally corrupt, and those deceived by other prosperity preachers. It brings out the worst in elders and other church leaders, because they're vigorously encouraged to think of wealth before anything else. The dreck rises to the top.
Prosperity Preachers and Dis-Evangelism
In a prosperity or health-and-wealth gospel, I am what it's all about: my needs, my wants, my wealth, my success. I me mine. The only 'blame' I have is not from my selfish behaviors, but from the act of not withdrawing from the unlimited bank account that God has given me. Push the Gimme Button and expect it to come. The desperate and the gullible get sucked into it. The most desperate and the most selfish alike will even borrow money to give to the preacher, using their homes and possessions as collateral. (True devotion is so hard that even some of the poor find it easier to give money instead.) But when wealth still does not come, and for nearly all it won't, eventually they walk away in bitterness, believing that Christianity is a con job. This undermines the witness and credibility of those whose faith is anything but a con job, who really do love and care and do not abandon anyone, and who don't promise what's unlikely to be delivered. There's no justice in this, in fact it's wrong in a dangerous way, but it is what is happening. The prosperity gospel is the anti-evangelism. And that turns prosperity preachers into dis-evangelists.
Promises of health and wealth have a great attraction to those in poverty, especially those who see no hope for a change in their status. That's why prosperity preachers are so often found in poor and developing countries in Latin America and Africa, notably Nigeria and Kenya, where it plays into aspects of long-standing political and cultural values. Not as much as some writers have been claiming - the churches there are made mainly of strong believers who don't live by a prosperity gospel - but the impact of prosperity gospel preachers is obvious, undeniable, found all over their society, and is very highly visible to the public. It's also damaging, as the number of people it embitters keeps rising.