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.
Three cheers to The Gospel Coalition for posting two articles on church government last Friday. Congregationalist Hunter Powell and his Presbyterian friend Mark Jones put on their wrestling shoes and went after it.
Evangelicals have long been reluctant to tussle over the issues that divide us, like church government. And surely it’s right to prioritize the gospel that unites us. But if the Bible does actually address polity, we should learn how to wrestle over these kinds of issues, and then walk off the mat as friends.
9Marks does not take an official position on polity since we expect the nine marks will benefit Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Anglicans alike. Still, perhaps you will permit me a moment to join them on the mat as a congregationalist? I’ve been kicking these arguments around for a while and hope to publish on them soon.
HALF-BAKED NON-CONGREGATIONALIST CRITIQUES
What I appreciate about Mark Jones’ argument is that he doesn’t lob the typical, half-baked critiques of congregationalism one so often hears. For instance, a favorite critique is that “There is no accountability for autonomous congregational churches.” Right. And what accountability is there for an entire presbytery that goes awry? Or general assembly? Or bishopric? That one cuts both ways, friends.
In fact, didn’t both the OPC and PCA have to break from larger Presbyteries because there was no foolproof internal accountability structure? More significantly, can you name a connectional denomination that has remained orthodox for more than a few generations? I’m sure the church historians could dig out a few examples, but how many hands would you need to count them? I can think of a number of churches that have remained faithful this long, starting with my own. But the Church of England? The PCUSA? The Evangelical Lutherans? The United Methodists? What were you saying about accountability?
Then there is the whole school of worst-case-scenario critiques. A Presbyterian friend of mine recently offered a batch of these when he characterized the congregational ordination process as shallow, open to anyone who is hip and can turn a phrase in the pulpit. And then he argued that congregational churches are functionally episcopalian because of their celebrity pastors. All this, of course, is like using the example of an abusive marriage to condemn the institution of marriage. Hunter’s quip about fear being a bad motivator for polity is spot on here.
As for the critique of “voting,” don’t presbyteries vote? And the assembly of laity and bishops in the Church of England? And even Rome’s college of cardinals? Everyone holds a vote. It’s just a question of who votes.
A UNIVERSAL VISIBLE CHURCH?
But like I said, Mark Jones doesn’t go there. He instead offers a positive case for a Presbyterian form of government. The basic gist is that there is a universal visible church is the goal of ecclesiology. And to be clear, “universal visible” means an authority structure which exists between churches and which, were it not for sin and finitude, would be global.
The idea of a universal visible church “arises from the scriptural idea of church unity,” which the Nicene creed mentions and which the “Scriptures are clear about” in passages like Ephesians 4:4-5 and John 17:20-23. So says Jones.
EXCEPTIONAL ACTS 15
Of course, those two passages don’t really say anything about a unified authority structure. Take a look. No matter, there is still Acts 15 and the council of Jerusalem, where representatives of different churches make a decision about circumcision that is binding on all churches for all times.
Congregationalists like myself will typically quickly observe that the apostles were present in Acts 15, which makes it unique, not normative. Presbyterians like Jones just as quickly dismiss the point because, as Jones himself observes, the apostles had “to discuss” the matter. They didn’t simply receive supernatural apostolic guidance. Never mind for the moment that divine inspiration in Scripture typically came through ordinary means, such as Luke’s own work of research in authoring his two books.
Now, I confess I understand why people are shy about discussing polity. With a text like Acts 15, you have at least two groups of people looking at the same data, but coming to different conclusions. So the sheriff and the private detective look at the same crime scene and the same evidence, but one says the butler did it, and the other says the estranged wife did it. It’s tough.
But let me suggest this: if the Bible really did intend for there to be a universal, authority-wielding institutional body, wouldn’t we see more examples of it, and not just this one-off? Wouldn’t examples of presbyteries binding local churches be normal, not exceptional? Might not we even see occasions of it where no apostles were present? I’m arguing from silence here. Still, the absence of any other passage like Acts 15 just might make you wonder if there’s a different explanation, and whether we want to build an entire structure off one passage.
Both Jones and Powell are correct to refer to the keys of the kingdom mentioned in Matthew 16 and 18 as the decisive passages for the topic of church government. And both understand that the question of who holds the keys is what divides presbyterians and congregationalists. As a congregationalist, I believe that the apostles held the keys, that local churches hold the keys, and that the elders of a church ordinarily direct the church in its use of the keys. So what we see in Acts 15 is the apostles, together with the churches and elders, using the keys of the kingdom to establish doctrine once for all (Acts 15:4, 22).
In other words, elders as elders don’t hold the keys, per se, but they do lead churches in using the keys, and unless the congregation believes that the elders are departing from Scripture, they should generally follow elders’ leadership. Congregational authority, as I understand it, is an intermittent veto power. It’s an emergency break. How often do you use one of those to stop a car?
CASE STUDY: ISOLATED CHURCH IN THE MIDDLE EAST
But imagine for a moment a group of eight believers plus two elders meeting in an isolated house church in Saudi Arabia. So far as they know, they are the only believers within five hundred miles. Suppose then the two elders embrace heresy. What mechanism does Scripture give the eight believers?
Interestingly, Jones, like the PCA and OPC books of church order, concedes that the believers have the right to depose the leaders. And how can they do that? Two reasons: because the PCA and OPC are more congregational than they admit, and because (more to the point) you simply have to give final guardianship of the gospel to believers. Believers, when jointly gathered in congregations, inevitably hold the keys. (Yes, I’m speaking in terms of real politic here, not biblical legitimacy.) You have no split between the PCUS and the PCA or the OPC and the PCUSA unless this is true. If all the members of all the churches that became the PCA in 1973 didn’t want to leave the PCUS, they would not have left. Congregational authority, frankly, is a bit like gravity. It has an inevitability to it.
But there’s a biblical foundation for this, too: When a person is baptized into the name of Christ (Matt. 28), that person becomes responsible for the family name. And that responsibility is matched by an authority: wherever two or three are formally gathered in the name of Christ as a church to exercise the keys of the kingdom (say, through church discipline), there Christ is (Matt. 18:20). His reputation and authority stands behind it, like the authority of a king stands behind his ambassador’s declarations.
Don’t tell me that I formally wear Jesus’ name before the nations, but that I’m powerless to protect his name against false doctrine and false teachers. I’ll return to this idea below.
So again, what about those eight believers in Saudi Arabia, faced with the fact that their two elders are tearing down the family name? Are they stuck because it’s the elders who hold the keys? No, Jesus gave those eight the power to excommunicate the two.
THE INEVITABLE TENSION OF A “FINAL” AND "MEDIATING" AUTHORITY
But hold on, you say. What about all those passages that talk about submitting to your leaders, and elder oversight? Well, yes, ordinarily, the eight should submit to the two, assuming that the two are leading within the bounds of Scripture.
Which brings me to another point: We’re all anxious to establish where the “final” point of authority lies. But when we’re talking about different mediating authorities, the language of “final” or “ultimate” authority has its limitations. Jesus is the final or ultimate authority. We can all agree with that, right? But then Jesus authorizes different groups differently: parents one way, the state another way, the church another way, and so forth. The thing is, the authorizations and their jurisdictions overlap, and sometimes life in a fallen world brings them into conflict.
For instance, does God give the state “final” authority over a parent? Well, if the parent is beating the child, absolutely, because Jesus authorizes the state with the job of protecting its citizens, including that child. Suppose, however, that the state decides to protect the child by banning all proselytizing by evangelical parents. Does the state have final authority here? Well, again, yes, technically, but it’s using that authority wrongly, which means the parent should reject it, acting on their “final” authority over the child, or, more to the point, acting on their knowledge of the real final authority, Jesus, who will surely vindicate that act of rebellion against the state on the last day. In other words, both state and parent have been given a circle of jurisdiction and a set of authorizations, and both are called to do their best, knowing that Christ will either vindicate or condemn their decisions on the last day. All of which is to say, the word “final” is necessary but relative when we are dealing in the realm of mediated authorities.
Back to elders and congregations. Do congregations have the “final” authority? Well, yes, in a sense, because they have the final veto power. But on the last day they will have to give an account for every time they used that veto power over and against the elders. And if they got it wrong, Jesus will vindicate the elders.
So maybe the eight believers in Saudi Arabia are immature, ornery, and making false accusations against the two elders. If that’s the case, they retain the ability to remove the elders, but they will receive Jesus’ condemnation for that action on the last day.
STOP FIRING YOUR CHURCH MEMBERS!
Let me throw one more piece of loving polemic toward my gospel-embracing non-congregational friends: stop firing your church members. That’s what your polities are doing.
Jesus has given every member of the New Covenant the job—the office—of guarding the what and the who of the gospel. I don’t have time to make the case here, but this is how I understand the authority of the keys [see chapter 4 of The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love]. Whoever holds the keys has the authority to answer the questions, “Is that a true gospel profession?” and “Is that a true gospel professor?” just like Jesus did with Peter in Matthew 16. And what every non-congregational polity does is steal that job away from church members. They tempt Christians to complacency by saying, “It’s the elders’ job to guard the what and the who of the gospel, not yours. Sit down.” In the process, elders fail to do the very thing that Paul tells them to do: equip the saints for guarding the gospel.
So ordinary Christians pull back. The church weakens. And nominalism grows. Hello, fifteen hundred years of Christendom. (No, I’m not saying this is the only cause of nominalism.)
After all, you don’t strengthen soldiers by keeping them back in the supply tent. You push them out and tell them to guard the bridge.
To use the “m” word, which I don’t typically do, I’d even say that congregationalism, aside from being biblical, is most missional. Guarding the church and reaching the world are part of the same work. Equipping your members to do one equips them to do the other.
Yes, all this is at stake in matters of polity.
To conclude, here are nine reasons why I believe the keys belong jointly to the entire congregation based especially on Matthew 18:15-20.
1. The final court of appeal is the church. The whole church must address the unrepentant sinner (“if he refuses to listen even to the church”), and then the whole church must assent to any act of excommunication in order for it to work. (Even if the pastor says, “He’s excommunicated,” the congregation simply has to agree and to participate in the decision to make it happen. Their assent simply must be involved.)
2. There is no mention of bishops or elders in the text.
3. Nowhere does the New Testament explicitly connect the keys of the kingdom to pastors/elders, and nowhere do we see pastors/elders unilaterally excommunicating someone. Since the apostles did hold the keys, we do see Peter, for instance, unilaterally excommunicating someone (Simon in Acts 8).
4. Verse 19 offers an explanation for the activity of binding and loosing in verse 18 in which Jesus refers to “two of you” asking about anything (presumably in terms of binding and loosing). This activity can occur, it seems, wherever there is a church of two or more (less than two is not an “assembly”).
5. Saying the church possess the keys makes sense of 1 Corinthians 5, where Paul does not call upon the leaders of the Corinthian congregation to “hand this man over to Satan” (5:5). Instead, Paul exhorts the church as a whole to do this when they are formally gathered together in the name of Jesus and under his authority: “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of the Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan… (1 Cor. 5:4-5). Like Matthew 18, he is arguing that the Corinthian congregation is responsible to declare that this individual is no longer a citizen of the kingdom of Christ, but belongs to the world, where Satan rules (John 12:31; 14:30; Matt. 4:8-9; cf. Matt. 16:23). The same is true in Galatians 1 where he tells the churches not to recognize teachers teaching a false gospel.
6. It makes sense of 2 Corinthians 2:6-7 and the fact that Paul seems to say some kind of vote happened in an act of church discipline: “For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.”
7. This explanation has the advantage of corresponding more closely with the Greek conception of an ekklesia, which involved an assembly of citizens who shared rule together. Every citizen had a vote.
8. Moving authority of the keys away from the local church and to the presbytery divides authority from pastoral and relational care. Matthew 18’s example of discipline, for instance, could now be determined by a group of men with whom the offender shares no fellowship.
9. Keeping the keys in the hands of the congregation authorizes and equips the baptized believer to fulfill the job responsibilities he or she has by virtue of being a baptized believer and new covenant member.
Well, that’s enough time on the polity wresting mats for now. It’s time for me to go read some good theology from my Reformed and Lutheran friends.
You can follow me @JonathanDLeeman.
Throughout December, 9Marks is offering a special discount on Mark Dever's two Bible studies on 1 Corinthians. You can buy the set for $4.
1 Corinthians can be a difficult book to interpret and teach, since it touches on so many controversial issues. But it's a crucial book, since few other biblical books speak so fully and frankly to the realities of life in an imperfect church.
Each section introduces part of the book, works through key points of interpretation, and moves toward application and prayer. We hope these studies will be useful in teaching Sunday School, leading small groups, or even in one-on-one discipling.
May God use his Word to build up all of our churches in love, holiness, and unity.