a different gospel - dangers of prosperity gospel
One of the most pervasive and disturbing trends in charismatic Protestant Christianity today is the prosperity gospel, a movement associated with preachers as diverse as Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, Benny Hinn and Joel Osteen. The prosperity doctrine simply states that material wealth and possessions are the rights of every Christian. God has put certain universal laws in place which, when correctly applied by the believer, can make him rich beyond his imagination. The essence of prosperity teaching is clearly stated by one of its most revered gurus, Kenneth Copeland in his book, Laws of Prosperity: ‘There are certain laws governing prosperity in God’s Word. Faith causes them to function … the success formulas in the Word of God produce results when used as directed’. Prosperity teachers believe that God wants believers to enjoy life to the fullest extent and to achieve financial and entrepreneurial success. Living in poverty (and sickness) violates the will of God.
The influence of prosperity teaching among contemporary evangelical Christians should not be underestimated. In its 2006 poll, Time magazine discovered that although only 17% of the Christians in America surveyed identified themselves directly with prosperity theology, 61% believed that God wants people to be prosperous. Also noteworthy is the fact that prosperity teaching is not only popular among Christians in affluent countries like America. In a survey conducted in the same year by the Pew Research Centre on Christians in the continent of Africa, 9 out of 10 Christians believed that God would grant prosperity to ‘all believers who have enough faith’. The reception of prosperity teaching in Africa has generated such interest that Christianity Today and The Christian Century – Christian magazines representing evangelical and ecumenical persuasions respectively – published articles about the phenomenon in 2007.
Prosperity teachers present a formulaic, cause-and-effect connection between giving and prosperity. Mark 10:29-30 is often used as the scriptural basis for this teaching. In that passage, Jesus said: ‘I tell you the truth … no-one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will not receive a hundred times as much in the present age … and in the age to come, eternal life’. Prosperity teachers interpret this passage as providing an investment strategy that guarantees substantial returns. Gloria Copeland boldly asserts that believers who make a contribution of $10 by faith should expect a return of $1,000. On the basis of this universe principle, Kenneth Copeland exhorts his readers to ‘Invest heavily in God; the returns are a staggering 100 to 1! … Every man who invests in the Gospel has the right to expect the staggering return of one hundredfold’. Lack of faith is cited as the reason why Christians are not getting the returns allegedly promised in the Bible. Jerry Saville, a prosperity teacher, could therefore write: ‘If I am not prospering … it is not God’s fault, nor the fault of the Word of God – it is my fault’.
The chief problem with prosperity teaching, therefore, has to do with its interpretation and application of Scripture. Prosperity teachers pepper their doctrine with numerous texts from the Bible, giving the impression that what they say is firmly grounded in the Scripture. But closer inspection would reveal that not only are their interpretations of these texts idiosyncratic and outlandish, prosperity teachers often ‘twist’ the Scripture by plucking passages out of their original contexts and employing them as proof-texts to support their theories. As a result, Bible verses are made to say things that are quite alien to what their original authors had intended. In addition, prosperity teachers often preface their interpretation of a text by the words, ‘The Lord spoke to me’, thereby giving the impression that what they say is revelatory, Spirit-inspired and authoritative. But the prefatory declaration in fact simply gives them the license to manipulate biblical texts to substantiate their erroneous doctrines.
The emphasis that prosperity teachers constantly make on the importance of faith in the Christian life would no doubt impress many Christians unacquainted with their doctrine of faith. Although prosperity teachers do on occasions speak about faith in God, it might surprise some readers to learn that their main emphasis is actually ‘faith in faith’. In his influential book, Having Faith in Your Faith (the title says it all!) Kenneth Hagin presents the fundamental axiom that is repeated and underscored by faith preachers from Kenneth Copeland to Benny Hinn. To have faith in your faith, Hagin explains, is to have faith in the words that you speak. This is the basis of concepts such as ‘positive confession’ and ‘creative faith’ espoused by all prosperity preachers. Kenneth Hagin borrowed and adapted the idea of ‘positive confession’ from E. W. Kenyon who in his book, Hidden Man offers a terse statement of the doctrine: ‘What I confess, I possess’. This understanding is inimical to what the Bible means by faith: a quiet trust in God amidst the vicissitudes of life.
Finally, by placing so much emphasis on material wealth and its acquisition, prosperity theology endorses materialism and legitimises greed. This inordinate acquisitiveness is exemplified in the writings of the New Thought proponent, Ralph Waldo Trine, whose influence on some prosperity teachers is evident. In his book, In Tune with the Infinite, Trine writes: ‘Suggest prosperity to yourself. See yourself in a prosperous condition. Affirm that you will before long be in a prosperous condition … You thus make yourself a magnet to attract the things that you desire’. Some prosperity teachers argue that it is perfectly legitimate for Christians to pursue prosperity because Jesus was wealthy, and he has left us with an example to follow. In a series of ‘Believer’s Voice of Victory’ broadcasts by Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), John Avanzini made the following outrageous claims concerning Jesus: ‘Jesus had a nice big house’, ‘Jesus wore designer clothes’, ‘Jesus was handling big money’. Prosperity theology encourages an idolatrous materialism by privileging wealth and material possessions to the point that they become Mammon (Matt 6:24).
There are many more troubling doctrinal and theological issues related to the prosperity gospel that cannot be treated in this short article. Taken as a whole, the prosperity theology in all its various permutations is a perversion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The cult of prosperity centers not on God, but on man, especially on his insatiable desire to acquire material wealth and comfort. Faith becomes a technique to either set certain universal laws into motion to generate wealth, or to render God subservient to man, answering to his every beck and call. The popularity of the prosperity cult is not at all surprising, since it blends so well and seamlessly with the prevailing consumerist and materialistic culture. With its focus on greed, materialism, and worldly success, the prosperity theology is in fact a subtle secularisation of the Christian Faith. The New Testament scholar Gordon Fee has therefore justly described the prosperity gospel as an ‘insidious disease’ which has ‘very little of the character of the Gospel in it’. And the only way to immunise the Church from this disease, according to Fee, is with ‘a good healthy dose of biblical theology’.
Author: Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine and Dean of the School of Postgraduate Studies at the Trinity Theological College, Singapore.
First published in The Courier, January 2011.