How do you assess a prosperity gospel church?
The first nine years of my walk with Christ were spent in such an environment, followed by two years in theological rehab, which prepared me for the next six years of pastoring in the urban context. What’s become clear to me is that the nine marks of a healthy church provide a useful grid for assessing any church, including those that teach the prosperity gospel.
And what we find is that a prosperity gospel church is a purely anti-nine marks church.
Some of the examples in what follows are specific and may not identify with you the reader. Many however are universal and are propagated by preachers on the internet, radio, and television. Since the prosperity gospel movement is inter-denominational, the teachings expressed in this article are not to be associated with any one denomination within evangelical Christianity.
1. EXPOSITIONAL PREACHING
Preaching in prosperity gospel churches is far from expositional. Instead, the purpose of preaching is to motivate hearers to give financially, and you give to get. Preachers exploit the passages that deal with the sacrificial giving of tithes and offerings week in and week out. They instruct hearers to activate their faith by sowing a “faith seed,” thereby taping into God’s law of reciprocity and leading to their own financial breakthrough.
Isolated Old Testament passages are often used as examples of God's abundant reward for faith giving. One passage often used to manipulate hearers into giving more is Malachi 3:10. Prosperity preachers highlight two points from this passage. First, they tell hearers they are robbing God by not tithing. Second, they assure hearers that God wants them to test him by giving more, so that he can give them more.
But consider Malachi 3:10 in its proper context. The Israelites were robbing God by not giving enough food to the national storehouse that was used to feed the priests of Israel. So the priests were having to leave their priestly duties and take up farming to survive (see Neh. 13:10-13). God therefore exhorts Israel to test him by giving obediently. If they did, he would reward them as he did in the past (2 Chr. 31:7-10). The point of this entire passage concerns a historically specific episode in the life of Israel. Preaching it as a Christian sermon, however, requires more than transferring its commands and promises to Christians on a one-to-one basis. Yes, there are larger applications for the Christian concerning giving, but first one needs to account for the differences between old covenant and new, especially the nature of God’s promises to Israel and the manner in which they are fulfilled for the Christian in Christ.
A healthy church uses preaching to communicate God’s words to his people. It confronts the hearer with God’s truth and leads to conviction, encouragement, clarity, and a call to action. It also centers every text around the gospel in order to show the hearer how central and necessary Jesus Christ is to the believer living in obedience to God's word. A healthy church will inform believers that the results of holy living will not necessarily be financial gain but rather godliness that honors our Lord.
2. BIBLICAL THEOLOGY
Prosperity gospel theology rests upon the foundational error that man shares a form of deity with God, such that our words carry the same creative power as God’s words. Psalm 82:6, Proverbs 18:20-21, and Romans 4:17 are popular proof texts used to support this falsehood. It is often said that man is a “lower-case god” and possesses the power to demonstrate deity by speaking things into existence, creating and controlling our destiny with words, and even mandating a frustrated and limited God to act on our behalf for our benefit.
But none of these proof texts support these prosperity teachings. In Psalm 82:6, the Psalmist is crying out to God regarding the immoral judges who were governing the nation of Israel. God speaks directly to the erring judges by addressing them as “gods” to highlight the fact they were judging the nation in his place. They were to use his word as their standard of judgment. In the very next verse God reminds them they are not eternal beings. Instead they are mere men who have failed to live and judge righteously. This passage is not elevating man to a demigod status. Neither is it providing man with the ability to act with sovereign authority. Instead, the only true and living God is judging the immoral actions of these judges.
Proverbs 18:20-21 is a principle, not a promise, and it outlines two truths. The first is that our words do not dictate our destiny; rather, they display the conditions of our heart. Secondly, there are times when our words will cause us to endure consequences. This passage does not promise us the power to declare the length of our life. Neither does it pronounce God powerlessness to save us if we curse ourselves to death, as some prosperity teachers have taught.
In Romans 4:17 Paul teaches that God justified Abraham and declared him the father of nations while Abraham was still childless. This passage has nothing to do with saints speaking into existence more money, job promotions, or even the salvation of lost loved ones. This passage is in fact championing the truth that God is the only one who can call things into existence.
A healthy church teaches its members sound doctrine that is rooted in Scriptures that are kept in context. Sound doctrine is healthy teaching that provides the hearer with the biblical nutrients needed to grow to maturity in Christ (2 Tim. 3:16-17). In order for a church to be healthy, they must teach the whole Bible, in the context of the whole Bible, and root all of their doctrinal convictions in the whole Bible, instead of pulling passages out of context (1 Tim. 1:5; Titus 2:1-10; 2 John 1-6).
3. THE GOSPEL
In many prosperity gospel churches the message of the gospel is identified with the material blessings of the Abrahamic covenant. Although Christ’s perfect life, death, burial, and resurrection are proclaimed, and salvation through Christ alone is championed, many prosperity gospel preachers say the evidence of a person’s belief in the gospel is whether they receive the blessings promised to Abraham by God (Gen. 12-15).
I’ve found this teaching leading people to one of two conclusions. If someone has prosperity and health, they conclude that they are saved because they’re enjoying the promises of Abraham. But if these blessings are not seen in the life of the believer, they don’t have enough faith. They’re in sin. They need to give more tithes. Or perhaps they have not fully trusted in Jesus Christ and need to become born again in order to receive the blessings of Abraham.
In contrast, healthy churches unashamedly proclaim the whole counsel of the biblical gospel. This includes the truth that we were created in God's image (Gen. 1:26-27), we once had open fellowship with God (Gen. 2:7-25), and yet because our first father Adam sinned all of humanity was separated both physically (Gen. 3:1-19) and spiritually (Rom. 5:12) from the holy and righteous God who created us. Since humanity has been separated from God because of sin, the penalty to atone for sin is the shedding of blood and death (Lev. 1:3-17). The beauty of the gospel is fact that Jesus Christ, who has eternally existed as God (John 1:1), became a man (John 1:14), lived a perfect life according to God’s law (Heb. 7:26), and shed his blood while dying in the place of sinners (Mark 10:45 and 2 Peter 2:24). Jesus was buried in a tomb for three days (Matt. 27:57-66) and on the third day rose from the grave (Matt. 28:1-8). Now he calls all people to repent of their sins and trust in him in order to be reconciled to God and receive eternal life (Jn. 3:16).
The biblical gospel does not promise that Christians will be wealthy and prosperous in this life in fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham. Instead, Christians are “blessed” in Abraham in that we receive the Spirit (Gal. 3:14), and we will receive not just land, but the entire new creation, in the age to come (Rom. 4:13, Rev. 21-22).
Conversion in a prosperity gospel church involves an uneasy mix of opposites: easy-believism and salvation by works. Prosperity preachers are known to teach a sinner is “saved” when they finish reciting the “sinners prayer.” After this simple salvation takes place, the new believer is to submit him or herself to the leadership and teachings of the church, tithe regularly, give offerings often, and strive to serve on a continual basis in ministry at the church. As long as a person does these things, he or she maintains salvation. But if one stops them for an elongated period of time, one can lose it. In order to advance this teaching, pastors have been known to use psychological and scriptural manipulation to get the members of the church to do various acts of service in the name of ministry to the Lord. Their service, he promises, will prevent them from “falling from grace” and losing their salvation.
Some prosperity gospel adherents burn out and become angry with their leaders. They begin to question the ministry’s methods and refuse to comply with its demands. I’ve watched pastors who sensed they were losing control of this type of person respond by claiming that the member is in rebellion, causing division, and on a trajectory to lose their salvation unless they repent and begin serving again. In these cases 1 Samuel 15:23 was used as the proof text to point out the consequences of the person’s actions and to dissuade others from following. But this verse speaks of King Saul’s direct disobedience to a command of God, not a genuine believer who questions unbiblical teaching or church practices.
A healthy church lovingly teaches the biblical view of conversion. In the Bible we read that conversion takes place when the biblical gospel is preached (Rom. 1:16-17, 10:9-17) and the sinner repents of their sins and puts their trust in Jesus Christ (Acts 3:19; Rom. 3:21-26). Conversion happens when God the Holy Spirit causes the sinner who is dead in sin to become alive in Christ (John 3:3-8; Eph. 2:1-10). Biblical conversion puts the focus on repentance and belief in the work of Christ, not simply saying a prayer and serving to the point of exhaustion for fear of losing one’s salvation.
Prosperity gospel churches often teach evangelism must be coupled with a demonstration of signs and wonders. When these two elements are combined it is said that sinners will repent and believe in Jesus. I’ve heard people say in pre-evangelistic times of prayer that sinners will not repent unless they see physical evidence of the supernatural work of God the Holy Spirit as listed in Mark 16:15-16.
Since the inclusion of this passage in the original and oldest most trusted manuscripts is disputed, it is unwise to build one’s doctrinal stance on this passage alone. Further, mandating that people demonstrate the signs in this passage in order to be effective in evangelism is dangerous and manipulative.
Biblical evangelism is proclaiming the gospel and calling sinners to repentance. The gospel needs no upgrades, bells, or whistles in order to be effective (1 Cor. 15:1-4). The Bible is clear that the preached gospel is powerful to save sinners (Rom. 1:16, 10:17).
6. CHURCH MEMBERSHIP
Prosperity gospel churches often equate church membership with regular attendance, tithing, and service—with or without a formal commitment. People are often “grandfathered” into church membership if they do these things long enough. In one case I recall a person who attended the church for over two decades, received the benefits of membership, yet never formally joined the church. They felt no need to since they gave financially and served weekly. I’ve watched people in such circumstances live in open sin and avoid church discipline.
A healthy church presents church membership as a blessing and mandate for the believer. The blessing is that the church affirms the believer’s faith and builds the believer up in love (Eph. 4:11-16). The mandate is that Jesus requires Christians to submit to his authority by submitting to the church’s authority. You’re not truly a member of the body if you can simply detach at will.
7. CHURCH DISCIPLINE
I’ve witnessed church discipline in prosperity gospel churches land on one of two extremes. The first was an informal excommunication where the biblical protocol for church discipline was not followed (i.e., Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; 2 Cor. 2:6; 2 Thess. 3:6-15). The individuals said to be living in sin were “disfellowshipped” from the church in private only to be spoken of in public as those we were not have contact with because of their rebellion.
The second extreme was for leadership to completely ignore the sin of either another leader, popular member, or both. When this approach was used, the leaders who knew the person’s unrepentant habitual sin willfully refused to acknowledge and deal with it. Sadly, I witnessed leaders members who brought up the sin of other members with statements like, “God forgives and his love covers the multitudes of your sins,” and “only God can judge them.” In the case of sinning leaders remaining in ministry, it was said “the gifts of God come without repentance” a distortion of Romans 11:29. Prosperity preachers often use 1 Chronicles 16:22 (“Touch not my anointed ones, do my prophets no harm!”) as a repellant for questions from members of their congregation. Sometimes prosperity gospel churches have been known to cover the sin of a leader by sending them on a sabbatical in place of practicing 1 Timothy 5:17-20.
Healthy churches embrace God’s desire for a pure, holy church. As they help their people grow in Christlikeness, they will shine like stars in the world (Eph. 4:11-32; Phil. 2:1-18). Healthy churches understand that leaders are not exempt from temptation, lapses of judgment, and sin. Healthy churches then teach and follow the biblical prescription for church discipline, including discipline of leaders (1 Tim. 5:17-20).
Discipleship in prosperity gospel churches often tends toward co-dependency with the pastor or another prominent church leader. The entry level of discipleship is known as the “armor-bearer” stage. An armor-bearer in Scripture was a person who carried the weapons of their leader and protected them (1 Sam. 14:6-7 and 2 Sam. 18:15). But in prosperity gospel churches, armor-bearer has become an unofficial office. New converts who want to grow in their walk with God are placed in a cohort. This cohort is trained to serve the emotional, physical, and spiritual needs of the pastor or church leader. The pastor will often commission armor-bearers to engage in activities ranging from carrying his Bible to paying his bills, all in the name of “ministry.” In some extreme cases I’ve counseled ex-armor-bearers who were instructed to give the pastor massages after he preached, and even sexual favors.
If an armor-bearer sticks around long enough, they can earn a promotion that comes with a title, licensure to preach, and even ordination. Most often, the pastor does this to pad the stats of his ministry as many of these ordained men (and sometimes women) sit on the sidelines cheering the pastor on while he preaches. I’ve known some pastors to boast in having dozens of ordained men sit under them for decades. Rarely are these ordained ministers sent out to plant churches, revitalize dying churches, or engage in vocational ministry overseas. Sadly, in one instance I counseled someone who sat under a pastor for over fifteen years as an ordained minister and was never once instructed about the biblical qualifications of an elder.
A healthy church disciples its people to depend more on Jesus, not a pastor or church leader. Believers grow by deepening their knowledge of Jesus (2 Pet. 3:18), and, by the power of the Spirit, imitating Jesus (1 Cor. 4:16, 11:1; Eph. 5:1). Biblical disciples produce more biblical disciples, not dependents (2 Tim. 2:2; Titus 2:1-8).
9. CHURCH LEADERSHIP
Prosperity gospel preachers often receive undying support from their members because the people live vicariously through their pastor. If the pastor’s platform and bank account grow, the members of the flock celebrate as if the prosperity were their own. Some congregations want their pastor to have the newest top-of-the-line car, wear expensive name-brand clothing, and live in a large home in order that God’s blessings would trickle down to them. I was once told, “If my pastor is living large, he's paving the way for me and my family to live large.”
In many cases, the pastor is said to be God's voice to the congregation, and therefore has unquestioned authority. The leadership structure varies between a C.E.O. model and a monarchy. I’ve often seen others appointed as pastors or elders not based on biblical qualifications but because of their occupation and closeness to the pastor.
A healthy churches champions biblically qualified leaders. 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 are passages that clearly lay out qualifications for the men who would lead God’s church. The qualifications emphasize the man’s character, not his occupation or friendship with the pastor. Elders are to shepherd the flock, feed them with healthy doctrine, lead in humility, and defend them from false teachers.
SHEEP WITHOUT A SHEPHERD
There is unceasing grief in my heart for people who are under all or some of the teachings highlighted here. They are like the weary, scattered sheep without a shepherd on whom Jesus had compassion (Matt. 9:36). These precious souls of Jesus’ day were being abused, distressed, and harassed by their leaders. They knew no other way of life since it was their own religious leaders who treated them this way. Jesus responded by telling his disciples to pray for the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.
The grief I share for the weary and scattered sheep of today drives me to do two things: pray for the Lord to send out laborers who will seek and serve these scattered sheep, and labor to lead a healthy church in order to reach the sheep in my city. I pray this article has helped kindle a fire in your heart for seeing healthy churches serving cities across the globe.
D.A. Horton is executive director of ReachLife Ministries, the non-profit ministry of Reach Records. Prior to serving at ReachLife, D.A. was an urban church planter in Kansas City, Missouri.
I’m in a bathtub. I can’t get up. I feel like I’m about to die. Mercury poisoning.
The water in the tub has grown cold. Maybe that’s why I feel so cold. I’ve been marinating in my own soup stock for the past two hours. I’m floating in and out of consciousness. Whenever I can concentrate I begin to pray.
“Jesus, please, save me. Please, heal me. I repent, I put my whole heart into prayer right now, and I cast out any doubt or fear. I know you can heal me. Please heal me!”
My mom’s keys are rattling in the doorknob now, and I hear the door thud shut in the distance. I hear her purse sliding across the counter and her keys landing next to it. I barely recognize her figure as she tries with all of her wiry might to pull me out of the tub. I spend the next two days in the hospital. My mom wants to know why I didn’t let her know, why I didn’t want to go to the hospital, why I didn’t do something.
“Mom, Jesus is my doctor. I’m blessed, and I know that he would have healed me.” This is me trying to live out what I think is true Christianity.
I had just gotten saved two months prior. I’m fresh out of jail and I’m walking around the projects where I used to stomp like a tiny teenage giant. I’ve got a bare back, a few tattoos, and a Bible in my hand. I’m just praying for the opportunity to share the Christ with someone.
I meet a man named Roger who invites me into his home. He buys me lunch and we spend all day talking about the Bible. This guy knows way more than me. I’ve never heard anyone spout off so many Scriptures in such rapid-fire succession. “This guy is legit...” I say under my breath.
Over the course of the next six months, this man indoctrinates me with the prosperity gospel. Just a few months earlier, I’d never even opened a Bible. I have no idea that I’m being given arsenic in my kool aid. I take it all. I believe it all. I know it’s true. It has to be. It’s all right here in Scripture. Look, she touched the hem of his garment and was healed. Look, Jesus couldn’t heal them because they didn’t have enough faith. Look, all throughout the Old Testament you see curses for sins, and blessings for righteousness. Prosperity for the good, pain for the bad. It’s so plain. So obvious.
But stuff isn’t making sense. I’m still without a job. I can’t pay my rent. My mom isn’t getting saved, and I keep getting cold sores. None of these things should be happening. There must be sin hidden somewhere in my heart.
Now I have the flu, and I don’t have any money to buy groceries. I just need to claim it. I just need to rebuke Satan and his lies, and believe that what I have proclaimed in the name of Jesus will surely come to pass. Maybe I’m not tithing enough. Time to double up. I’ll get it back one hundred-fold. Maybe more. I just need to sow in faith.
But it’s still not happening. “Roger, hey man, I don’t understand. It seems like this stuff isn’t working. What am I doing wrong?”
“Dude, I don’t know exactly what it is, but I know the problem ain’t with God or his Word. It’s got to be something in your heart, or in your life. Let’s pray about it.”
Fast forward a year. I’m nineteen and married now. We’re struggling hard. I can’t pay the rent or the electricity bill, and I just lost another job. My wife wasn’t saved when we met. She gets saved during the course of our friendship, and somewhere in there, she starts listening to me and taking in all of the “truth” I’m giving her. She does wonder, though, where the disconnect is. When the ATM receipt says we’re negative forty dollars, I rebuke myself, the ATM, and the receipt. I claim my blessing even in the face of this lie from Satan. I know that Jesus is looking down on me, proud of my strength in the midst of such persecution and adversity. “In the name of Jesus!”—I keep claiming what he’s promised me.
The prosperity gospel and word of faith movement are basically the same thing, but I’ve never heard anything about any of those things before. All of the good Bible-loving Baptists around me are afraid of me because I probably robbed their sons, stole their cars, or vandalized their church. Yet because of my powerful testimony, scores of churches invite me to come and share. I preach a false gospel every time I go. Not once does anyone ever sit me down and talk with me about the danger that my soul is in. Not a word. Not a peep. Not to my face, anyway. I now know that they waited respectfully until I left, and then talked amongst themselves about how sad it is to see such passion so misdirected.
All I know, the only thing I know, is that I love Jesus. He saved me. I was destroying myself and anyone who was unfortunate enough to be caught up in my gravitational pull. I was dying, and I was going to die twice. One night, on an empty road in the middle of nowhere, in a scene so strange it has to be true, Jesus saved me. He saved me from sin, and death, and hell. I want to spend the rest of my life serving Jesus with all of me. I think that this refuse called “gospel,” this message of prosperity and proclamation, is what I must do. So I obey. In my mind, this is what it means to be a Christian. This is all I’ve known. I think this is what God wants of me. So I continue in white-knuckled obedience. I keep pressing, keep pushing. And one random day I join Myspace.
I like to argue on Myspace. I’m nineteen and I have a big mouth. The internet offers me a perfect avenue to express myself and condemn those who can’t see the truth that I see, obey the law as well as I do, and lack the faith I radiate like a fiery sun. I’m perusing this wasteland one evening in Seattle, and an old man pops up on my QuickTime video player. He’s really bringing the thunder. He’s preaching on holiness like no one I’ve ever heard. I’m hooked. I go to the next video.
Amazing. I’ve never heard anyone preach like this. I go to the next one. It’s says “John Piper: Prosperity Gospel Sermon Jam.” I’m excited. He’s going to really give the jolt I need to keep going.
But after the clip I’m furious. I close my computer. Another wolf. Another preacher who just has it so wrong. The video was the worst attack on my faith that I’ve ever seen or heard. I stop watching right after he says “this crap called gospel!” Unbelievable.
I carry on with my life, but I just can’t help it. I keep going back to YouTube, and eventually I go to this website that has all of his teachings. I tell myself that I’m just going to read or listen to or watch his other stuff. I’ll avoid the stuff I don’t like; the stuff that’s wrong. The other stuff is just too good, though. It’s breathing life into my soul.
I don’t remember much about the night the truth took over. Most of the really painful events that we experience are deadened in our memories, right? Our brains are protecting us from the trauma of having to relive the pain over and over again. But this night, I’m crying. I’m devastated. I’ve been considering the possibility for months now, and it finally clicked about five minutes ago. Almost everything that I think I know about God, the Bible, the cross, and the gospel of Jesus Christ is wrong. Dead wrong. I feel it now, down in my bones, and it burns with the pain that only God can give.
Repentance begins. “Amber, baby, we need to talk. Everything I’ve ever taught you about Christ is wrong. Can you ever trust me again? Can we start over? Will you give me another chance?”
I feel like an adulterer. I begin undoing everything that needs to be undone. I failed as a husband, and by the grace of God I’m trying to fix it. I have no one and nothing. I don’t have any non-prosperity gospel friends, because I ditched them if they couldn’t get with the program. They were only holding me back and hurting my faith. That’s what I told myself. Now I’m alone. I do have the internet, though…
So I’m watching Paul Washer videos and spending hours on DesiringGod.org. I’ve never even heard the word “reformed,” and I can’t find one single book about the prosperity gospel. Not one that’s attacking it, anyway. That’s what I really want.
I’m hurt—badly. I don’t trust anyone, and I’m angry at everyone—at Christians, anyway. Why didn’t anyone tell me? How could I have been so blind? I’m angry at myself. I’m broken, but the Spirit is carrying me.
God did heal my mercury poisoning, but it wasn’t because of my power to proclaim that healing into existence. And he accomplished a far greater rescue when he delivered me from the prosperity gospel. It’s been nearly six years since the Lord saved me from myself and the damnable heresy that had ensnared me.
I’m writing this from Peru where my family and I are trying to reach a people group who do not have the gospel. I’m still picking up the pieces. I still have a hard time praying for healing, or prosperity and blessing, both of which are thoroughly biblical. I still feel my diaphragm twitch whenever someone says “In the name of Jesus.” I know the truth now, and I try to walk in line with it every day. The white-knuckled discipline that I once devoted to the prosperity gospel, I now devote to trusting fully in the finished work of Christ and the grace that I breathe in to survive.
Here’s the bottom line: I was a heretic. But Christ had saved me from my sin, and he saved me from my heresy too. When it comes to embracing the prosperity gospel, I doubt that you would have found anyone more dedicated or ruthless than me. I was the chosen one. But I was ensnared in a false gospel. And so is everyone else who is trusting in this “crap called gospel,” to borrow a phrase from that old man’s video.
Brothers, call it what it is. Pastors, call it what it is. Don’t let even a hint of this junk live in your church. Preach against it, and preach a gospel that shines so bright and burns so hot that any other gospel that tries to approach it burns up upon entry. Don’t treat this like an asymptomatic sniffle in an otherwise healthy body; treat it like the cancer that it is. Preach, teach, counsel, shepherd, and pray a clear and true gospel, and leave no room for anything less glorious or true.
If you meet someone who is lost in this false gospel, please, please, please love them and tell them the truth. Sit them down, buy them lunch, and open up your Bibles. Speak life. Be brave. Odds are, no one has ever loved them enough to tell them the truth about themselves. The truth is that they cannot be saved by a false gospel, and the prosperity gospel is certainly that.
Jesus saved me from the prosperity gospel, and he can save more. He will save more. How could he not?
Sean DeMars is currently serving the peoples of Peru by preaching, teaching, and living God’s Word. He is a husband, an artist, and quite possibly the worst missionary ever. He and his wife were sent out by Decatur Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Decatur, Alabama.
Detroit’s freeways are framed by dozens of billboards featuring happy, young, successful people enjoying a night of games and entertainment at one of the city’s casinos. The sleek, enticing images preach an alluring message: “Greatness awaits you in the casinos.” “You were born to be lucky.” On and on it goes. A closer look reveals the 1-800 number for Gambler’s Anonymous. And if you ever went to a casino, you would find that the reality does not quite match the billboard.
For years, potential casino operators attempted to get gambling legalized in Detroit. On three different occasions, they got an initiative on the ballot, but there was one pastor in the city who stood in their way. He knew what gambling would do to this city. He organized and educated, and each time the initiative was defeated. Then this pastor had a serious heart attack, and the initiative for casinos in Detroit was back in play. This time, the organizers did not have the pesky pastor to contend with. But they did something else. On this fourth attempt, the organizers gathered a number of pastors from Detroit together and offered them stock in the casinos in exchange for their support from the pulpits. They were told to sell this idea to the people as something that will be good for the economy and will save our city. The pastors did, and on the fourth try, the initiative passed.
Today you can visit the casinos. Go to the slot machines and watch the glazed-over faces of old people whose reverse mortgages freed up some money so they could buy tokens for the slot machines. Hour after hour, they pull the one-armed bandit, awaiting the glory the billboards promise. Fear sets in. They think, “If I get up from the machine, the next person will come and win.” So they sit, hour after hour, until their clothes are soiled and their tokens are gone. Next month, after the social security check arrives, some of them will be on the first bus back to try again.
And in case you haven’t heard, Detroit is bankrupt.
The promises of the prosperity gospel are like the billboards of Detroit’s casinos. It looks so good. It seems so appealing. One of its most influential voices is Joel Osteen, the pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas who recently released a new book called Break Out! If Disneyworld was a church, Joel Osteen would be the pastor. Break Out! is basically a combination of “When You Wish upon a Star” and “A Whole New World.”
The problem is, Joel is a pastor, and his sermons and books are presented as truth, not fairy tales, and thousands of people really believe what he says. Some may be in our churches.
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I hate to say it, but my impression is that much—most?—of what goes by the name of expository preaching isn’t actually expository preaching. More like expo-lite.
Expo-lite is a subtle variation on exposition, harder to spot than the standard alternatives. Topical preaching is obvious. “Textual” preaching—where the text is more diving board than driving force—is a shade more subtle, though still plain enough. But what I’m calling expo-lite is well camouflaged. The sermon is on a biblical text, and usually the sermon series works through a biblical book. The preacher will read the text. Usually he’ll explain it to some degree. But here’s the catch: the point of the text still isn’t the point of the sermon. The real meat of the sermon comes from somewhere else: the gospel versus religion, the emptiness of idols, how the gospel changes us, finding identity in Christ versus performance, and so on.
Don’t get me wrong: many texts of the Bible talk about these things, and faithfully applying the Bible will lead you to address these things. But I hear a lot of preaching that means to be expositional, but instead filters the text through whatever tidy grid the pastor is most taken with at the time. If the sermon’s a meal, the text is more spices than steak.
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Why has the prosperity gospel prospered? Anyone involved in ministry today is aware of how widespread this new teaching is. It has reached almost every nation. I was surprised to find it even in Cuba on one of my many trips to that Caribbean island.
WHY THIS HERESY? AND WHY NOW?
It would be easy to say that the spread of the prosperity gospel is simply the result of a lack of biblical knowledge, and certainly no one can deny that. The movement misinterprets Scripture, selectively uses biblical texts at the expense of others, missing the balanced view of the whole counsel of God on health and wealth. And in an era when many teachers of the Word are not preaching expositionally, all kinds of heresies would arise.
But two questions remain: why this heresy? And why now? I would suggest that there are deep evil roots in people’s hearts and strong secular ideas in the heart of our society—and even in the church—that serve as fertilizers for this harmful seed.
1. My way!
First, fallen creatures desire to be independent from God. If you think it through, the message of the old serpent was a version of the prosperity gospel. What could Satan offer to a couple that had been given the entire planet to use and to rule? Nothing! Well, nothing material. But the craftiest of all the beasts of the earth still had a card up his sleeve…spiritual prosperity: “You will be like God” (Gen. 3:5). Satan offered a way to improve their already-blessed condition, achievable independently of the Creator, so they could say “I did it my way.”
Today, Satan offers material prosperity to fallen and destitute creatures: “You can be richer.” And you can do it your way, right now. The initial disobedience of the first couple, and the subsequent disobedience of their descendants, seems to be a cry for independence of their Maker.
Satan knows well how to exploit this aspect of our humanity. He found Christ in the wilderness, after he had left behind his glory, his rights as the second person of the Trinity, and after he took on the weakness of the human flesh. In that condition, what did the old serpent offer him? “Riches, glory, power achievable your way, Jesus, and right here. You don’t have to wait, you don’t have to work for it, you don’t have to suffer to obtain the kingdoms of this world, and you don’t have to depend on your Father. Just worship me, Jesus!” The Son of God resisted, but mankind has bowed time and again to mammon. Fallen man thinks that money is the source of happiness, power, comfort and even health. Perhaps that’s why Gordon Fee says that, “Indeed, the theology of this new ‘gospel’ seems far more to fit the American dream than it does the teaching of Him who had ‘nowhere to lay His head.’”
The hunger for independence (Gen. 3:1-7), the hunger for riches (Jos. 7:16-21), the hunger for immortality (Eccl. 3:11) and the impatience of the creature (1 Sam. 13:8-15) make man particularly susceptible to this kind of heretical gospel. As we can see, Satan’s offers then and now are similar in content, but he is a master at changing the wrapping paper of his “gifts.”
2. Narcissism and the Entitlement Culture
Having dealt with the nature of the human heart, let’s deal with the heart of our generation. Narcissism is a term many use to describe people whose pursuit in life is the self-gratification to which they feel entitled. Indeed the entire advertising industry is dominated by this sentiment: “you deserve the luxury of this car”; “Take care of yourself, because nobody else will”; “You deserve a resort vacation,” and hundreds of other similar phrases. If people are willing to believe such lies, imagine how they would feel when they hear a pastor preaching that God wants you to be rich and healthy, or that you should have your best life now. Members of the entitlement culture may conclude that even God believes that we deserve unconditional riches and health. So the believer doesn’t approach God with a humble and contrite heart, seeking his grace, but rather with a proud attitude, expecting well-deserved blessings.
There was a time when even the general population in the West believed in the providence of God to orchestrate history and even to provide for people. But this is not where the culture is today. We now feel that we should have what we want when we want it because it is my constitutional right to be happy. If the government can’t provide it, then others should. And if they can’t, then the God who created me should be that supplier. Some even get angry with God for not providing what they desire. Ravi Zacharias writes, “We are living at a time when G.K. Chesterton’s dictum has proven to be true. Meaninglessness does not come from being weary of pain, but meaninglessness comes from being weary of pleasure. We have exhausted ourselves in this indulgent culture”.
3. Skepticism and Pragmatism
At the same time as this entitlement culture has sprung up, the postmodern movement of the past few decades produced a vacuum of truth, doing away with absolutes. In the absence of truth, people became more and more skeptical and therefore more pragmatic. Many preachers have embraced this mindset. Rather than calling us to follow Jesus as the truth, the way, and the life at whatever cost, they proclaim a pragmatic, “how to” gospel that tells us how to solve our problems, especially those related to finances and sickness.
When pragmatism invades the pulpit, exposition is pushed aside and biblical ignorance becomes its fruit. Now the sheep become more vulnerable to all kinds of lies. Pragmatism aims at man and his convenient life; exposition of the Word aims at God and his glory.
Read carefully what Joseph Haroutunian, a Presbyterian theologian of the recent past (1904-68), said: “Before, religion was God-centered. Before, whatever was not conducive to the Glory of God was infinitely evil; now that which is not conducive to the happiness of man is evil, unjust, and impossible to attribute to the Deity. Before, the good of man consisted ultimately in glorifying God; now the glory of God consists in the good of man.” Our society has become utilitarian at its core.
Now, in some ways this is not new, since there are no new sins under heaven. But the removal of certain restrains like shame, guilt, and duty from society has left the field open for these tendencies of the human heart to run rampant. For a generation as self-centered and greedy as ours, the prosperity gospel is the right recipe.
When members of this society get converted, they need a total worldview transformation which only the gospel can accomplish. Unfortunately, many preachers have concluded that non-Christians today would not listen to the gospel of Christ with all of its demands. “Who would like to hear a message about the cost of discipleship?” they reason. “Who wants to hear about the fact that in this world you will have tribulation?” The real gospel has been substituted for one that would be most appropriate for our generation: a gospel of wealth, health, and happiness. And many people are buying the “gospel” these preachers are selling.
4. A Greater Distribution of Wealth
In 1999, Angus Maddison, professor emeritus at Groningen University, published an article titled, “Poor until 1820,” in which he explained that “after the fall of the Roman Empire, the West entered a recession that lasted about a millennium. After the industrial revolution, due to mass production, per capita income began to grow steadily.” This is true even of the African continent, although to a lesser degree. As expected, a greater income created a greater demand. As production increased, so did the alternatives to satisfy people’s taste and choices.
Without a doubt this fostered materialism. Again, marketing strategies were designed to sell products based on the satisfaction they would bring to the consumer. Therefore the more I have, the happier I would be. But I need money to buy the products I select, and if it can be provided by God via the prosperity gospel, then I would not only be rich but also feel blessed. “Why not?” many would ask. After all, we are the children of the King and therefore we deserve to live as his princes. Anyone familiar with prosperity preaching will have heard this common line.
As Solomon could have testified, greater income does not always result in greater satisfaction, but only in the possession of more stuff. However, many people do not conclude that things can’t bring happiness. Instead, they see the problem as not having enough of whatever it is they want. Here is Solomon’s advice for those who are still not convinced:
He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep. (Eccl. 5:10-12)
Imagine living in a very deprived neighborhood, watching rich people living very differently than you. The conclusion in the past was, “I need to work harder so that, one day, I could live that way.” Today, many would want the same dream, and they want it to come more easily. The greater distribution of wealth has not produced a better work ethic, but simply a greater appetite for more.
5. The American Dream on Display
Every heresy is born somewhere. The prosperity gospel was born in America, and there is something in the history of this country that helped promote this movement. In his 1931 book The Epic of America, James Truslow Adams stated that the American dream is “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” That national ethos created a prosperous nation.
Years ago people heard of the prosperity of America and wanted to come and see it just like the queen of Sheba wanted to see Solomon’s kingdom (1 Kings 10). Today, you don’t have to come to America to see it, you can just turn on your TV set no matter how remote and poor your place of residence. The TV show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” became very popular, not only in America, but also outside of the U. S., not just because of curiosity, but because it gave people the ability to dream for a moment.
Powerful countries export many goods, but they also export their beliefs and cultures. And in our day, we even export the gospel of truth and the gospel of deception at the same time and through the same channels. Since the USA is such an affluent nation, where everyone seems to prosper, any message that comes from there must be true, especially this message of prosperity. That is the mindset of many in Latin America, and I suspect in many other places as well.
Unfortunately, when people watch television, they not only dream about having a lifestyle they cannot afford, but they become greedier. Greed is a quality of the heart that clouds the understanding and enslaves the will. When that mind is exposed to the prosperity gospel, it finds a fertile ground for that evil seed. Producers know the effect of the screen on people’s lives, so they spend large sums of money to serve us images. Producers know that very well, consumers do not. If a church member adopts the same TV habits as the person in the street, in the end he might end up looking more like a pagan than Christian. This may help explain why even true believers have fallen prey to these false teachers.
WHETHER THEY HEAR OR REFUSE TO HEAR
The prosperity gospel is the result of the desires of a fallen heart, living in the midst of affluence, in a culture that claims “me first,” that values comfort, material goods and choices, in search of the enjoyment of the life of the here and now. Once this non-gospel “gospel” was born, it was easily disseminated due to globalization. Every means of communication and transportation has been used to carry the good news and this bad news. Today we have to say not only that ideas have consequences, but also that ideas travel quickly. We also need to remember that it is easier to disseminate a lie than to undo its damage.
To make things worse, all of this has been accompanied by a famine of the Word of God in the pulpit, and a lack of confidence in the Word to destroy the idols of the heart and to change the minds of the people. Instead, many have done what Aaron did in the desert: he gave the people what they wanted, a golden calf to worship.
So what are we to do? Preach the gospel “whether they hear or refuse to hear” (Ezek. 2:4), and trust the power of the word of God to do again and again what it has always done: convert the soul, enlighten the mind, break the yoke of sin and bring joy to the entire person.
Miguel Núñez is the senior pastor of the International Baptist Church in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic and the founding president of the Wisdom and Integrity Ministry.
 Gordon D. Fee, The Disease of the Health and Wealth Gospels (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2006), kindle edition, Loc 28.
 Ravi Zacharias, “An Ancient Message, Through Modern Means to a Postmodern Mind,” In Telling the Truth, edited by D.A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 28.
 Quoted by Erwin Lutzer in 10 Lies about God and the Truth that Shatter Deception, (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2009), 8 .
 Per Capita Income in World History, http://www2.econ.iastate.edu/classes/econ355/choi/rankh.htm; accessed Nov. 15, 2013.
 The American Dream; Library of Congress, (http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/lessons/american-dream/students/thedream.html), accessed November 15, 2013.
One clear winter morning, I was sitting at my favorite coffee shop reading the Scriptures and journaling. A man walking past my table noticed I was reading the Bible and began to engage me in conversation.
He shared that he was a member of a large church in our area (one that preaches the prosperity “gospel”), and that he believed the Bible was primarily a book about God’s intentions to bless us.
I replied that the Bible is actually a book about who God is, who we are, and what God has done to reconcile us to himself. I began sharing the gospel, and noted that Christians were promised suffering as part of following Jesus.
He responded by saying that as long as we have faith, God will bless us and keep us from suffering. I referred to several verses where God promises that believers will suffer ordinary trials as well as specific persecution, at which point he put up his hands defensively and said, “I just don’t receive that for my life.”
My wife and I had recently suffered a miscarriage, and I felt compelled to share that with him. I explained that when we encounter trials like those, we can’t simply say, “I just don’t receive that for my life” and make them go away. I also shared the good news that Jesus has overcome the world, and that he promises never to leave us or forsake us in our trials—promises that comforted us in our suffering.
I believe my openness and the weightiness of my trial caught him off-guard, so he quickly expressed his condolences and excused himself from the conversation. But the whole experience left me wondering: how can we better prepare ourselves to evangelize those who
have believe d the prosperity “gospel”?
WHY IS THIS SO HARD?
Sharing the gospel with people who have bought into the unbiblical message that Jesus died to make us healthy, wealthy, and successful is challenging for many reasons, but I believe two are primary.
1. The message of prosperity appeals to the flesh.
First, the message of prosperity appeals to the flesh. The prosperity “gospel” capitalizes on natural desires for health and wealth and promises what our sinful hearts desire. There is no call to repent of sin; there is no call to deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow Jesus; there is no call to die (Mk. 10:34-35).
As a result, when we share the gospel with someone who has bought into the prosperity “gospel,” we are calling him to forsake his belief in a message that appeals to the flesh in exchange for belief in a message that doesn’t.
2. They use the same words we do, but with different meaning.
Second, prosperity “gospel” adherents use the same words we do, but with different meaning. For example, when I use the word faith, I mean a gift God has given me to believe that his Word is true and that his Son is the Christ (1 Cor. 2:14; Jn. 6:44, 65). When many prosperity “gospel” adherents use the word faith, they mean a tool we use to place God in our debt. Faith is simply the currency we use to get what we want from God.
As another example, when I use the word gospel, I mean the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (1 Cor. 15:1-4; Gal. 2:10-14). When many prosperity “gospel” adherents use the word gospel, they mean the “good news” that God desires us to be healthy, wealthy, and prosperous.
FIVE TIPS FOR EVANGELIZING PROSPERITY GOSPEL ADHERENTS
Paul is clear that all Christians, especially pastors, should do the work of evangelism, and that we should “be ready in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:1-5). How, then, can we
prepare ourselves for this work?
1. Humbly recognize that apart from the grace of God, we too would believe a false gospel.
Humbly recognize that apart from the grace of God, we too would believe a false gospel. If it’s true that the prosperity “gospel” appeals to the flesh and we were born dead in sin (Eph. 2:1), then the grace of God is the only reason we recognize it as a false gospel. This should lead us to speak humbly with those who believe the lie of the prosperity “gospel.”
2. Affirm what is true in the prosperity “gospel.”
Let me be clear: the prosperity “gospel” is a counterfeit gospel. But the thing about counterfeits is that they have to look enough like the real thing in order to be believable. So affirm what is true in the prosperity gospel.
The prosperity “gospel” is based upon a theistic worldview. It correctly asserts that there are blessings from following Jesus—even in this lifetime (Mk. 10:29-30). It is based upon a firm belief that God hears and answers prayer (Jas. 5:16), and it affirms the truth that God rewards faith (Mt. 9:29).
The prosperity “gospel” isn’t completely devoid of truth, and to pretend otherwise is neither accurate nor helpful in evangelism.
3. Confront the lies and flaws of the prosperity “gospel.”
Confront the lies and flaws of the prosperity “gospel.” One dangerous lie of the prosperity “gospel” is that the quantity of your faith determines what you receive from God. However, the Bible is clear that it is the object of our faith, not the amount we have, that matters. If we have great faith in idols, they will not save us; if we have even small faith in Jesus, he will save us (Jn. 14:1-14).
A fatal flaw of the prosperity “gospel” is that it provides no help when suffering inevitably comes (Jn. 16:33). If we believe that our faith in God will exempt us from suffering, we will be forced to conclude that God lied to us, that he doesn’t exist, or that we simply didn’t have enough faith—none of which are true.
4. Hold out the hope of the biblical gospel.
Hold out the hope of the biblical gospel. The gospel tells us that we do not deserve good from God. We deserve to be eternally punished for our sin. And yet God, who is rich in mercy, justifies us through faith in the person and work of Jesus.
Whether we receive many apparent blessings in this life or not, the good news is that through faith in Christ, our sin is forgiven and we have been adopted into God’s family. That knowledge will keep us from idolizing good things or becoming unnecessarily discouraged when we don’t receive good things in this life.
5. Live a generous life that shows our greatest joy is found in God, not in the material blessings God gives us.
Finally, live a generous life that shows our greatest joy is found in God, not in the material blessings God gives us. If we argue convincingly against the prosperity “gospel” from Scripture but then live
our lives to acquire and hoard money and possessions, we undo with our lives everything we may have accomplished with our lips.
When we live generous lives, giving out of the abundance God has given to us, we create opportunities to share the biblical gospel. Paul writes, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
Giving generously shows others that Christ is our greatest treasure, and that we value him and his work on our behalf above anything God will ever give to us.
Allen Duty is the preaching pastor at New Life Baptist Church in College Station, Texas. You can find him on Twitter @AllenDuty.
Psalm 23 is the most loved passage in the Bible and therefore perhaps the most cherished piece of writing of all time. Its promises and encouragements are so clear that it hardly needs interpretation. At most, Bible teachers have had to remind believers that the shepherd Lord spoken of by the psalm is the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus laid down his life for his sheep and makes it possible for the psalm’s promises to be fulfilled.
However, in the hands of those who teach the Bible for selfish gain, the opening verse promises that no believer should ever want for anything at all: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
On their interpretation, believers have access to the treasures of God, freeing them to have whatever they want. So name it and claim it!
TO GET, GIVE…ESPECIALLY TO THE TEACHER
But these teachers go further. Again misinterpreting Scripture, they explain that this promised abundance requires certain conditions to be realized. God’s abundant sharing is based on the person’s own generous giving, usually to the teacher! And here Scripture after Scripture is used:
Give generously to him [the poor in the land] and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. (Deut. 15:10)
Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine. (Prov. 3:9-10)
One person gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty. A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed. (Prov. 11:24-25)
The generous will themselves be blessed, for they share their food with the poor. (Prov. 22:9)
“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.” (Mal. 3:10)
Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written: “They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor; their righteousness endures forever.” Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. (2 Cor. 9:6-10)
It is clear why the prosperity gospel has taken such a foothold in the church. Not only is it fueled by the sinful greed of both teachers and hearers, it seems to be the clear teaching of God that giving results in receiving.
So how do we set about to combat this false teaching that is ravaging the church?
WICKED UNBELIEVER OR UNINFORMED BELIEVER?
In my own South African context, as no doubt elsewhere too, one must first consider whether the false teacher is teaching this way as a wicked unbeliever or as an uninformed believer.
Many prosperity teachers preach this way as the enemies of God. They do not have orthodox views of the Godhead, or teach that the way of salvation is through Christ alone. Those who fall into this category require our prayers and evangelistic witness. They are leading themselves and their followers to hell as they preach that which is no gospel at all.
But there is another very common group (in South Africa, at least): uninformed believers.
These uninformed preachers believe and teach the prosperity gospel more out of ignorance than wickedness. Their earnest desire is to uphold the Word of God, but their strict wooden reading of the Scriptures, uninformed by the rules of genre or a text’s place in the larger biblical storyline, results in them drifting from the truth.
WHAT’S NEEDED: BIBLICAL THEOLOGY
What is it that this second group needs? They need to be taught biblical theology.
The phrase “biblical theology” can simply refer to theology that’s biblical. But I am using it here in a more technical sense to refer to a way of reading the Bible as one story, by one author, about one Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Biblical theology teaches us to read every passage of Scripture in light of the person and work of Christ (see, for example, Luke 24:27, 44-47; John 5:39).
The seemingly literal way of reading any given Scripture such as “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” is seen by many to be the mark of true discipleship. But if such readings do not respect the rules of genre or place those texts within the larger biblical storyline, they will distort God’s Word. Such readings need to be lovingly exposed as an inadequate way to interpret the message the Bible.
A BIBLICAL THEOLOGY OF WEALTH AND PROSPERITY
For instance, what does the Bible teach about wealth and prosperity?
The opening chapters of the Bible clearly teach that, as Creator, God is the owner of all things (Ps. 89:11). All wealth therefore belongs to him (Ps. 50:10) and is to be used to rule the earth and bring glory to him through the worship of his Son and service to his people.
As the owner of all, God desires that we, his creatures and rulers on earth, desire relationship with him, rather than fixating on the things he created to serve us (Matt. 6:31-33). However, mankind has consistently worshipped created things rather than the Creator, and used material things for selfish purposes.
This has the been the norm throughout history, so it came as a huge surprise when God acted graciously towards Abram, promising him and the generations that followed a magnificent kingdom which he would bless materially, so that they could do what God intended for Adam: to rule over creation for the purpose of worshipping God and serving others, as well as being a light to the nations (Gen. 12:1-3, 15:1-18). The nations were meant to look at Israel and see them as a wise and blessed people, and then turn to their God for inclusion amongst his people (Deut. 4:1-8).
To prepare them to be this light, and to prepare them for life in the Promised Land, God gave his people the Law (Ex. 19-20), after which he promised that those who submitted to his rule would receive material blessing, while those who rejected his rule would face his curse, often described in terms of material poverty (Deut. 28:1-68).
However, despite that warning, the prophets were still required to preach words of warning to those who chose to pursue their own wealth rather than being rich towards God (e.g., Isa. 5:8-10). Even after they suffered the punishment of exile for refusing complete allegiance to God, the people of God continued to choose their own comfort and pleasure over the glory of God (Hag. 1:4).
Throughout the Old Testament period the wisdom writers taught God’s people that there was no wisdom in choosing anything over the Creator. Wisdom, based on the character of God, dictated that generosity would have positive outcomes in the giver’s life, while self-centeredness would result in futility.
Only one man heeded the warning and had the wisdom to obey God’s call to obedient submission. Jesus, despite Satan’s temptations, lived in perfect obedience to the law of God (Matt. 4:1-11). As a result, he exercised perfect dominion over all creation as seen in his calming of storms (Matt. 8:23-27), healing of the sick (Matt. 8:14-17) and even by having dominion over death (Matt. 28:1-20).
Jesus’ call to people was, and is, that we act wisely and obediently and submit to God’s plan for our lives: repenting of sin and exercising faith in Jesus, God’s revealed King. His death on the cross offers the forgiveness that self-centered humanity so desperately needs and his resurrection assures eternal life with him.
The New Testament writers echoed Jesus’ teaching, who, by his perfect obedience had become Israel’s wise man and prophet. They warned of the love of money and urged God’s people to pursue contentment and generosity for the sake of the growth of God’s kingdom (1 Tim. 6:6-10, 17-19). Through their teaching, we know that those who gather around Jesus (the church) are promised God’s daily care and provision (Phil. 4:19). But this promise of material provision and even blessing is not assured in the same way as it was with Israel, who revealed that material possessions were not an indication of their faithfulness or obedience. In fact, Jesus taught that he may lovingly call the church to suffer for his glory as a witness to a self-obsessed world, by displaying its desire to treasure him above all else (Matt. 5:3-12). For any believer, this suffering will be a joy, for he knows that Christ is his treasure, and that nothing can ever separate him from Christ (Rom. 8:35-39).
For the believer, eternity is the enjoyment of Christ his treasure, which even surpasses God’s promise of great abundance and blessing being poured out on his people forever.
Any teaching that goes beyond this simple Bible overview, promising more prosperity than the Scriptures, needs to be corrected. Christ alone is our treasure. He is our blessing! Those who teach and those who listen must understand that no part of Scripture can be taken as contradictory to this overall message of the Scriptures, or offer a blessing other than Christ, or from a source other than Christ.
As a discipline, biblical theology forces one to ask questions of the text that are critical for every believer to come to terms with. “For whom was this text written? When was it written? Why was it written?” Only once those questions are answered should the teacher move from “them, there, then” to “us, here, now.”
BIBLICAL THEOLOGY THE GREATEST CORRECTIVE
The study of biblical theology—or simply: reading every text of the Bible in its context—is the greatest corrective to uninformed prosperity teaching.
It demands that we do not read the Bible selectively.
It demands that we submit every thought or idea we may have to the Word of God.
It demands that we recognize that the focal point of the Bible is Jesus’ rule and glory, rather than our own comfort and prosperity.
It demands that we consider who the intended, original audience was and what situation they found themselves in, before we move too quickly to ourselves in the twenty-first century.
And it demands that we consider the present in the promised light of eternity, not allowing our present light and momentary troubles to cloud the eternal weight of glory.
Michael Schäfer is the Director of Training for ENTRUST, a South African organization working to train Christians for ministry. He is a member of Christ Church Umhlanga near Durban.
Two days after Thanksgiving, Paul Crouch met his Maker. Along with his wife Jan, Crouch established the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) in 1973 and built it into a media empire with 84 satellite channels, more than 18,000 television and cable affiliates, an amusement park, and much more. TBN broadcasts around the clock to every continent except Antarctica, with much of its content promoting the prosperity gospel that made Paul and Jan Crouch so wealthy. This message clearly appeals to many people, which raises the question of how it has taken root in our age.
While the prosperity gospel comes packaged in a number of different forms—Word of Faith, Positive Confession, and so on—the core product is consistent. At its heart is the conviction that human words and faith shape reality. We are empowered to speak life into being, but regrettably few of us are aware of this great privilege. The reason we do not have the financial security, health, and success we want is that we do not call it forth and draw it unto ourselves. Beneath this claim rests a high anthropology, which regards human beings as fundamentally good and ultimately powerful.
One need not look far to see that this message has resonated with a massive audience, both in the United States and abroad. Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, Joyce Meyer, T.D. Jakes, Benny Hinn—the list of celebrity prosperity preachers is seemingly endless, with many of them broadcasting on TBN. These preachers hawk their television ministries, books, podcasts, CDs, and retreats to hungry consumers eager to find out how they can maximize their potential to live a life of fullness and well-being, to “break out” of the desperation of broken dreams and dashed hopes (as Osteen’s latest book instructs).
It is a tempting and intoxicating brew, appealing to basic human inclinations and culturally conditioned desires, offering a quick high but a nasty hangover. And it’s extremely lucrative for its purveyors, since one of the principal ways to demonstrate faith is to sow financial seeds, which is to say, give gifts to prosperity preachers or purchase their products. The resulting fleets of luxury automobiles, massive homes, and Italian suits might strike critics as garish, but prosperity preachers retort with a smile that their lives and bank accounts merely verify the truth of their messages.
How did we get to a place where such a clearly debased form of Christianity holds sway with so many people?
ANCIENT SEED, MODERN SOIL
The prosperity gospel is the bitter harvest of an ancient seed planted in modern soil. This seed is as old as Adam and Eve and as enduring as humanity itself. From the Fall onward, human beings have sought to make gods of themselves, make idols of the good things in life, and domesticate the true and living God so that we can (ostensibly) enlist him in our schemes of enrichment and aggrandizement.
The fertile soil, meanwhile, is composed of several features of modernity.
Historians debate the periodization and meaning of the term “modernity,” but most conclude that the human effort to radically enhance our control over all aspects of life has been central to the modern project. We see this in the scientific realm, where new methods and tools have produced enormous capacities to harness the powers of nature for good and ill. We see it in the political sphere, where our Enlightenment-inspired Founding Fathers declared it a novus ordo seclorum; as Thomas Paine proclaimed in Common Sense, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” We see it in the technological realm, where handheld devices now provide common people with capacities unimaginable just decades ago.
But we also know that these promises come up short. Science produces medical cures but also eugenics. Political revolution produces democracy but also totalitarian tyranny and devastation. Technology produces the internet, which we proceed to fill with pornography, to say nothing of the ever more ingenious mechanisms human beings have devised to slaughter and terrorize one another.
The nightmare horrors of the twentieth century produced backlashes against the hubris of modernity, resulting in a crisis of confidence and existential anxiety that has been called “postmodernity.” If modernity asserted our collective capacity to improve the human race to the point of possible perfection through the application of our powers to the problems we faced, postmodernity has cast doubt on all “metanarratives” that would seek to guide our path. This has thrown the individual back upon himself in a world of fragmentation and incoherence.
But as many commentators have noted, postmodernity is not as “post” as its advocates would like to think. If it has jettisoned the grand vista of modernity, it has extracted the individual pictured therein. We no longer believe that human reason is a universal trait that, when applied correctly, can produce unanimity and guide us to first principles. But culturally, we still adhere to modernity’s distrust of external authority and tradition. We may despair of collective advancement, but we are deeply committed to personal advancement through individual empowerment and liberation from constraints. The prosperity gospel finds a ready hearing in this setting.
This stark individualism has been fomented by many factors, not least the consumer culture that drives late modern capitalism. Given sufficient money, the consumer is sovereign, slaking his desires and improving his life. Or so the advertisers tell us.
The logic of consumer culture requires us to want ever more and to continue believing that those purchased products and services will make us better—sexier, healthier, happier. If enough of us call the bluff, the GDP stagnates and the whole enterprise goes up in smoke.
What consumer culture cannot tolerate is contentment, a sense that our provision is sufficient, that I have more than enough, even if what I have is far from perfect. Instead, it requires restlessness, endless striving, eternal competition and insecurity.
Yet with all its faults, capitalism has produced enormous wealth and improved standards of living, something readily overlooked by its critics. It works better than other existing options, even if it is a deeply problematic system. Particularly susceptible to its allure, and particularly vulnerable to its empty promises, are the upwardly mobile, the aspiring middle class, including immigrants and ethnic minorities. It is not accidental that this is the prime audience of American prosperity preachers.
Capitalism not only generates wealth but also raises expectations for material well-being. If he is debt-free and financially comfortable, why not me? If she has the creature comforts of life without the awful drudgery of a dead-end job, why not me?
Likewise, advances in health care have raised expectations for our physical quality of life. Life as a “vale of tears” made more sense in a world of smallpox, tuberculosis, and cholera, without reliable analgesics. We live in a rare epidemiological epoch in the advanced world, such that barring accidents and unusual afflictions we can reasonably expect to reach old age.
But of course pain and misery endure, debilitating disease remains all too common, and this side of heaven our embodiment entails suffering. So prosperity preachers leverage our longing for purity, for redeemed bodies and minds that will no longer afflict us. If you have sufficient faith, it will be so.
Globalization has enabled the prosperity message to spread abroad with alarming ease. As capitalism has conquered its competitors and as communications and transportation technologies and costs have improved, large markets have opened for prosperity preachers.
We might applaud the spread of Christianity in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America, but it is daunting to recognize how much that marches under the Christian banner is in fact the prosperity gospel. Some of the most prominent churches and most recognizable leaders preach prosperity in poor countries, such as Edir Macedo, founder of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in Brazil, and Enoch Adeboye of the Redeemed Christian Church of God in Nigeria. Unlike the aspiring working- and middle-class Americans who watch Joel Osteen or Creflo Dollar on their flat-screen TVs, many Brazilian and Nigerian prosperity adherents can ill afford even the few dollars they give in the hope of reaping their own personal blessing.
WATERING THE SEED: PENTECOSTALISM AND THE CHARISMATIC MOVEMENT
Finally, if the ancient prosperity seed of pride, greed, and idolatry found fertile soil in modernity, it has been watered by Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement. In their hunger for signs and wonders, early Pentecostals sought the presence and power of God in divine healing and other tangible blessings. In teaching healing in the atonement, parallel to a salvation offered to all and receivable by faith, early Pentecostals diminished the mystery of suffering and God’s providential care. They taught that God willed all faithful Christians to be healthy, and Christ died that it would be so; believers simply had to receive it by faith. If healing didn’t ensue, it was a clear sign that the believer had not exercised faith. This transferred power from a transcendent God who has his own purposes to human beings who desire to be healthy and prosperous.
This theology overlapped in key ways with the mental healing promoted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century New Thought movement. In particular, E. W. Kenyon harmonized Pentecostal and New Thought ideas, and in the postwar era Kenneth Hagin embraced his theology and spread it to many of the leading figures in the movement in recent decades.
By no means do all Pentecostals and Charismatics support the prosperity gospel; indeed, at various times leaders and denominations have sought to distance themselves from it, sometimes quite vigorously. But their founding ethos and spiritual sensibilities have nurtured it, as has an ecclesiastical environment that rewards and scarcely checks independent spiritual entrepreneurs.
QUITE A LEGACY
Paul Crouch died of degenerative heart disease at the age of 79. Reports suggest he and his wife have thirteen luxury homes, private jets, and a $100,000 mobile home for Jan’s dogs. He took none of it with him. Presumably he left his empire and wealth to Jan and their children. To far too many others he left a legacy of heresy, deceit, and heartbreak.
Jonathan Baer is an associate professor of religion at Wabash College and a deacon at First Christian Church in Crawfordsville, Indiana.
Eighty percent of South Africa is Christian, said the 2001 census. It is, from a statistician’s vantage point, a “churched” nation. There have been missionaries for hundreds of years. My own denomination started services in Cape Town 1794.
Yet numbers can be deceiving.
A churched nation is not the same thing as a “gospeled” nation, and the massive growth of the so-called prosperity gospel in South Africa suggests that my generation may be observing the rise of “parallel Christianity,” a Christianity that is effectively post-Bible.
“CHRISTIANS” WHO DON’T KNOW THE GOSPEL
This claim isn’t based on statistics. I haven’t gathered those. I have gathered people. I have human beings who have attended the well-known bigger churches for years, and then somehow found their way into the church where I serve. Then, after attending for a little while, they tell us they are surprised to regularly hear in the preaching and the liturgy that they are sinners. It’s a new thought for them.
They tell us—tragically—that in our church they feel like they are hearing the gospel for the first time. They become anxious for their friends in their former churches. Then they even get angry at those churches. I understand.
Why refer to the prosperity gospel phenomenon as a “parallel, post-biblical Christianity”? When you stop to look inside these churches, you hear Christian-like things and you see Christian-like activities.
So there is preaching.
But often the preaching is just motivational speaking, waterless clouds blown by the wind that offer inspiration without information (Jude 12). Sermons aren’t built on biblical theology, but employ an occasional verse to springboard toward the preacher’s pre-chosen point. They don’t point people to the biblical gospel of what Christ has done, but call them to the burdensome “gospel” of what they must do.
Surely, biblical preaching should be inspirational, but what I am speaking about here is the overplay of tugging the heart and a failure to engage the mind. People are confronted with suggestions and incentives, not the living Lord Jesus Christ through his ever-relevant word.
In such churches, there is talk of “sin,” “grace,” and “faith.”
But these words are no longer used according to their biblical categories and context. Instead, their meanings are vaguely assumed, or are informed not by theology but psychology. For example, “sin” might be described as the failure to achieve your goals, not as rebellion against an Almighty God.
Once you have redefined sin, it’s a short step to redefine salvation. Salvation is no longer the rescue from God’s wrath by the wrath-absorbing, vicarious death of Jesus for the forgiveness of sin; it is the rescue from the temporal effects of sin. Jesus will rescue you from poverty, depression, mediocrity, and so on.
In short—and using the nine marks—these churches offer motivational talks, not biblical sermons; proof-texts, not biblical theology; applications of the gospel, not the gospel; moral improvement, not conversion; calls to social justice and giving, not evangelism; status in the community, not accountability-affording membership; flattery, not discipline; lessons in getting busy, not discipleship; professionalism, not leadership.
All this produces nice people instead of godly people. They don’t come to read, mark, and learn the Scriptures, they come to learn self-help. They don’t encounter God in his Word, they encounter themselves. The Bible is seldom more than a stage prop, and atmosphere takes the place of a real redeemed community, grappling with the loving and wounding word of God.
These churches, as I say, are post-biblical. Their “Christianity” is a parallel one.
A THEOLOGICAL AND SOCIO-ECONOMIC SPECTRUM
Might these descriptions not fit any number of evangelical seeker-sensitive churches? In fact, that’s part of the problem.
Prosperity gospel churches vary considerably along the theological and socio-economic spectrum. My own city of Durban, like South Africa generally, offers three worlds in one. There are sophisticated middle class and wealthy suburban areas—historically white but with a growing Indian and African emerging middle class. There are high-density, high-crime peri-urban areas called “townships”—historically black, and far removed from the suburbs. And there are the abjectly poor, underserviced rural areas, where subsistence farming and unemployment dominate existence. As you move between these three worlds, you find different brands of prosperity gospel, ranging from a “lite” prosperity gospel in the seeker-sensitive business-driven churches in the middle class suburbs all the way over to a more blatantly heterodox Trinity Broadcasting Network and Benny Hinn prosperity in the poorer areas.
Prosperity-gospel lite offers fulfilling jobs and satisfying marriages for you and your children. Prosperity-gospel heavy promises that your cows will give milk and that your barren womb will open.
Whether in the lite or heavy versions, this parallel, post-biblical Christianity is spreading throughout South Africa. Superficially, it looks alive because it’s vibrant and growing.
But the gospel is assumed, personal godliness is optional, and theological education is held in suspicion. I know that nothing, not even the gates of Hades, will prevail against Jesus’ church in the end. But right now in South Africa, in my worst moments, I sometimes feel that the true church’s day is over.
ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM AND ANTI-AUTHORITARIANISM
The suburban church-scape in Durban City is perhaps the context I understand best, having ministered there for 17 years now. These middle class suburbs are marked by anti-intellectualism and anti-authoritarianism. People are functionally illiterate: they can read, but don’t. Maybe it’s our gorgeous weather?! Leisure, sport, and television have won the day in the city that positions itself for the domestic tourism market with the tag-line, “The playground of South Africa!”
Western South Africans have also learned to be suspicious of authority, establishment, and tradition. Under apartheid the Dutch Reformed Church was considered to be the theological lap dog of the apartheid government, providing the moral compass and theological justification for its policies. This brought massive shame on organized religion in the aftermath of apartheid, with the DRC all but falling apart. It is now far down the track of theological liberalism (at least in its training institutions).
The twin attitudes of anti-intellectualism and anti-authoritarianism in turn shape the kinds of churches that thrive in my city and around the nation. While some of the larger charismatic churches aren’t against formal training, they prefer to offer in-house classes, providing vague and historically unmoored home-branded theology.
Others take the view that formal theological education is unnecessary, even harmful. Learning about God from books is essentially seen as unspiritual. A false distinction is made between the written word of God and the prophetic or uttered word of God—the Rhema. (Indeed, Rhema is the name of the country’s biggest church in Johannesburg. Its name is taken from links with Kenneth Hagin Ministries and boasts a membership of over 40,000. Sadly, it has sold out to the prosperity gospel.)
Combine this pervasive anti-intellectualism with rabid anti-authoritarianism, and you have a churchscape dominated by independent charismatic churches. Their leaders are exceptionally gifted, invariably young and powerful motivators and predictably trendy. Yet I cannot think of one that I know of who has had any formal theological training.
A REVIVAL OF THE ANCIENT HERESIES?
As I’ve observed these trends, I have wondered if we are seeing the ancient heresies revived. Others have argued that aspects of the modern charismatic movement are essentially Gnostic in the movement’s dualistic understanding of the world.
Add to that a basic anthropology among prosperity gospel’s leaders that is semi-Pelagian, and one understands why the former members of their congregations find that the sermonic emphasis on their sin is a new idea.
Perhaps there is a new form of Docetism here, too? If first-century Docetism was a Platonic embarrassment of the incarnation of Christ, there seems to be a tacit embarrassment of the written word of God as pedestrian, unspiritual, and intellectual. Hence these churches neglect publically reading and preaching God’s Word.
GETTING THE DOCTRINE OF THE SON WRONG
It is my conviction that the greatest danger posed by these prosperity gospel churches is not only that they get the doctrine of the work of the Holy Spirit wrong, which they almost always do; they get the doctrine of the work of the Son wrong.
On any given Sunday in Durban in many churches, you will be tempted to believe that you can draw close to God in intimate relationship through an experience during the singing, rather than through the death of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. While I would be surprised if any of these leaders would explicitly say this, their gatherings create the impression that the cross is not the only way to friendship with God. Instead, you can be ushered into relationship with God by the worship leader who effectively acts as a priest—one qualified to lead you into the presence of Almighty God.
Surely this is an implicit denial of Hebrews 9:24: “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.”
TIME FOR A STATEMENT OF AFFIRMATIONS AND DENIALS?
At some point the evangelical churches in South Africa may need to state their credo in such a way that more clearly distances them from church leaders who deny the historic faith through these historic heresies.
Maybe that means calling together a council among reformed evangelical churches in South Africa in order to write a statement or a creed that doesn’t only affirm what we believe, but also denies what we don’t believe.
THE NEED FOR GOSPEL PREACHING CHURCHES
While a clear statement may help on a macro-level, it won’t much impact ordinary South Africans. As I said earlier, the fact that South Africa is a churched nation doesn’t mean it’s a gospeled nation.
Thankfully, the solution to that problem is revealed to us in the New Testament. It is not macro-organizations or reformed evangelical denominations, as helpful as those may be. It is gospel-preaching local churches.
Our prayer then must be that God would raise up more churches where the clear gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ remains front and center—come what may! May he do that in South Africa, and may he do that in the world—as he has always done, and will continue to do long after we are gone!
Grant Retief is the rector of Christ Church Umhlanga just outside of Durbin, South Africa. He and his wife have three children.
 REACH SA: Reformed Evangelical Anglican Church of South Africa—formerly The Church of England in SA. This is not to be confused with the larger liberal Anglican Church of SA.
 I am grateful for this observation made by my assistant, Graham Heslop.
 See for example Victor Kuligin Ten Things I Wish Jesus Never Said (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 22-23.