The Abuse of Authority in Prosperity Gospel Churches
Throughout the duration of my service in the pastorate, I’ve regularly encountered believers bearing scars from wounds caused by church leaders. On a few occasions, these grievances occurred because the person ran to escape accountability for their sinful actions. But most of the time, these injuries happened because of their former leaders’ abuse of authority.
In almost every story, I saw a common thread: this abuse of authority took place in prosperity gospel churches.
A few years ago, I wrote an article called “Nine Marks of a Prosperity Gospel Church.” My comments on the last mark, biblical church leadership, struck a chord with more than a few readers who contacted me about their stories. These conversations—both in-person and online—grieved my heart deeply.
It became clear there’s not been enough reflection on the abuse of authority in prosperity gospel churches. I hope this article will jumpstart a worthwhile discussion that will ultimately recalibrate hearts toward a biblical understanding of authority as a good gift that God intends to be expressed in the context of a healthy local church.
In my assessment, there are three convictions in the hearts of abusive leaders that, in their minds, justify their abusive actions. These convictions are an over-realized eschatology, an improper interpretation and application of Scripture, and a prideful heart that desires self-worship.
After I unpack each of these convictions, I’ll conclude with a biblical rationale that considers the role of authority in the life of the believer, focusing on three of its God-intended sources: our sovereign God, the Scriptures, and biblically qualified under-shepherds.
Leaders of prosperity gospel churches proclaim an over-realized eschatology in their podcasts, sermons, and television programs. An over-realized eschatology is simply an insistence that God will answer fully in the present what he intends to fulfill fully in the future. For example, a pastor with an over-realized eschatology might teach God has promised the Christian—starting now—that he will put an end to all their financial, physical, or emotional difficulty.
Often, they’ll mishandle texts such as Proverbs 18:21, Jeremiah 29:11, Isaiah 53:5, Malachi 3:10, 2 Corinthians 8:9, or James 4:2. They’ll corral these passages together to form proof texts that allegedly support the idea of heaven’s riches being received in the lives of Christians today. When leaders of prosperity gospel churches thrive financially, it’s often attributed to their faithful walking in the promises of Abraham (Gal. 3:14) and used as a model for their followers who are then invited to share in similar blessings . . . but only if they serve their leader faithfully.
The implications of this teaching damage people in at least three ways. First, the doctrine is believed to be biblically-based if the leader financially prospers. Second, members who aren’t living prosperous and healthy lives are assumed to be lacking in faith or failing to pay the right amount of tithes/offerings or living in rebellion against leadership. Third, it provides warrant for leaders to pursue material gain through any means possible (legal or illegal) in order to prosper.
MISINTERPRETATION AND APPLICATION OF SCRIPTURE
Fundamentally, an over-realized eschatology is built on misinterpretation—and it results in a collapse of faith when trials come. To better understand how an over-realized eschatology relates to an abuse of authority, it would do us well to work through the popular phrase, “touch not the Lord’s anointed” in 1 Chronicles 16:22 (cf. Psalm 105:13–15). When the sins or false teachings of leaders in prosperity gospel churches are in conflict with 1 Timothy 3:1–7 or Titus 1:6–16 and members question them or attempt to hold them accountable, touch not the Lord’s anointed is often the rebuke shared by leaders or their armor-bearers. The application of this passage offers church leadership an impregnable hedge of protection against accountability or discipline.
In context, the words of David are meant to praise to God for his sovereign protection of Israel’s patriarchs from physical harm in order to preserve his holy nation. This passage is most certainly not creating a special class of God’s “anointed” who are exempt from biblical and congregational accountability. David himself was not exempt, as 2 Samuel 12 makes clear. In addition, 2 Corinthians 1:20–22 and 1 John 2:20–27 identify the Lord’s anointed as every believer the Holy Spirit indwells, not church leaders alone. Lastly, the prosperity gospel idea of leaders being exempt from accountability and discipline is in direct conflict with 1 Timothy 5:19–21.
A HEART THAT DESIRES SELF-WORSHIP
Since every human heart is attracted and often addicted to idolatry, it’s foolish for church leaders to consider themselves immune to this struggle. However, I’ve found leaders in prosperity gospel churches uncover their desire for worship when they employ a savior’s mentality toward their people. I’ve seen this in situations where they posture themselves as God’s sole agent of distribution when it comes to blessing and direction. Members are then coaxed to seek out their leader, not Jesus, as their mediator in times of need.
This teaching gets woven into the tapestry of ministry through the creation and exploitation of the pseudo-office of armor-bearer. Prosperity gospel leaders build cohorts of disciples known as armor-bearers who are expected to submit to the demands of the pastor in order to be a blessing to the “man/woman of God.” Demands for the purpose of ministry may range from personal massages, sharing meals, paying bills, or rendering words of praise after the leader has preached. As a reward for the armor bearers’ “faithfulness,” they often receive promises of sharing the pastors’ mantle when he’s promoted in the kingdom/denomination, greater ministry opportunities, or even an inheritance of the church.
If an armor-bearer refuses or is unable to complete a requested task, the leader may guilt-trip him or her, set them against a more “faithful” armor bearer, remove them from the cohort, or even question their allegiance to Jesus. So, out of guilt and a desire to be in a right standing with the leader, which implies a right standing with God, these armor-bearers either comply or leave the church. Sadly, this departure often means leaving the local church altogether.
A PASTOR’S BIBLICAL RESPONSE
Too often, I’ve sat across a table from wounded hearts as they describe narratives similar to those above. Shortly after our initial meeting, alongside my fellow elders, I’ll begin walking these people through a process of biblical and theological rehabilitation. In most cases, I start with an introduction to a biblical understanding of authority—how its voiced by God, how it’s communicated to us through his Word, and how biblically qualified leadership in the local church plays a role in all this. More than anything else, I want them to see the baseline, that God himself is our perfect model of authority.
Because many Christians have earthly father wounds due to absenteeism or abuse. It’s wise to carefully shepherd hearts by presenting everyone with a gospel-saturated view of God’s attributes. Teach them that Christ’s finished work projects God the Father as being both just and the justifier (Rom. 3:26), who faithfully extends his perfect love of us (1 John 3:1–4), and therefore his sovereign authority over our lives can be trusted (Eph. 1:11) because it results in our good and his glory (Rom. 8:28).
Next, remind them that our perfect and loving heavenly Father is incapable of lying (Num. 23:19; Heb. 6:18) so we can fully trust what he’s revealed in his Word (1 Tim. 3:16–17; 2 Pet. 1:19–21), which provides the voice of authority about what we believe and how we live.
After this, walk them through particular authority structures God has placed in society for order and stewardship; parents/guardians (Eph. 6:1–4; Col. 3:20), society/government (Rom. 13; 1 Tim. 2:1–5; 1 Pet. 2:13–17), school/work (Rom 12:9–21; Col. 3:23), and the local church (1 Thess. 5:12-13; Heb. 13:7-19).
Then take time to show the submission of Jesus to the Father’s good and right authority (Mk. 14:36; John 6:38); as in many things, he serves as the model for every believer. After this, show them how Jesus himself has received all authority from the Father and that he now calls his church to obedience (Mt. 28:16–20).
Lastly, patiently express the headship of Jesus over the church (Mt. 16:18; Eph. 1:22–23), highlighting the ways he generously distributes gifts to her (Eph. 4:11–16) in the form of leaders who are called to equip the saints for the work of ministry, while also living within the framework of qualification (1 Tim. 3:1–7; Titus 1:6–16).
At this point, Lord willing, the relationship between an under-shepherd and a church member will have been developed and deepened. This enables the leaders’ nurture and care to more likely lead the people into a corrected and biblical understanding of authority. There’s no greater evidence of trustworthy leadership than leaders who have a high view of the biblical qualifications and a low view of self.
In closing, if you’ve been wounded by abusive church leadership, it’s my prayer that you won’t throw out the local church and all its God-intended benefits due to your previous abusive experience. Instead, I pray you’ll seek out healthy churches with leaders who are biblically qualified to shepherd you into a place of spiritual health.
May the fruit of this process provide you with an enjoyment of God’s grace; may you mature in your walk with Christ, as you link arms alongside fellow members and leaders of your healthy local church.