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.
For more on what the Bible specifically says about Christian ideas on blessings and prosperity, please read our page on that.
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 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 to poverty was the community of Christian believers, acting not as promise-machines but as friends, guides, cheerleaders, teammates, entrepreneurs, exemplars, mentors, teachers, advocates, representatives, and trainers. They are to use their gifts from the Spirit even for those who are not a part of the believing community, as acts of love. 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, self-respect, insight, knowledge, networks, and skills to make a living, and spend according to a budget. They take action so that you're treated justly by the society around you. They cheer you and spur you on with your efforts to reach higher. And, yes, through that context and sometimes beyond it, God provides surprising things.
Instead, prosperity preachers siphon away what little their flock owns to pay for the preacher's ranch or private jet 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 prosperity preaching, but a community on a mission, 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 health and wealth gospel can't help itself. It can't avoid building up the wrong things in us. In it:
- getting takes the place of giving;
- guarantees and entitlement take the place of possibilities and dreams;
- 'I' takes the place of 'we';
- being in command takes the place of service, responsibility, and duty to those in need;
- being served takes the place of serving;
- self-indulgence takes the place of discipline;
- narcissism and self-obsession take the place of self-control;
- projecting one's own big image becomes more important than bolstering the image of God in each of us;
- doing things to get blessed replaces God's grace given freely to all as God sees fit;
- the blessing of material wealth pushes all other blessings aside.
The prosperity theology attracts the wrong sort of leaders: the totally corrupt, and those easily 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 urge to cover up mistakes, lies, and sins get amplified by the need to project a prosperous, clean image. The dreck rises to the top.
God's hand of blessing cannot be forced by our wimpy version of 'right believing' or 'right living'. But neither does God owe us anything in return because of our material donations. What kind of killer hubris does it take to even hint that we are in any kind of position to tell God how it goes down? Or be angry when God's actions are obviously not going our way? Especially when 'our way' and our sense of self-worth are clearly caught up in the same wealth-and-adulation obsession as the rest of the world? We are not wrong to have the hope that we could have foretastes of what is to come, signs of the Kingdom that is to come in full. But it must be a hope, not a command.
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 are magnetic to those in poverty, especially those who see no hope for a change in their status. That's why health and wealth 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 health-and-wealth practices - but the impact of prosperity preachers is obvious, undeniable, found all over their society, and is very highly visible to the public. They are, to many all over the world, the image of Christianity. But the number of people it makes bitter keeps rising.
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').