This post is a companion to the Heretics podcast found on the Podcast tab at the top of this page; and a continuation in our series of looks at the ancient heresies of the church and a refutation of them using good theology and hermeneutics.
Today we get a personal favorite of mine; we get a theology that if you asked the average non-Christian on the street to name a theologian, they would name a proponent of this theology: the Prosperity Gospel.
You know it, you hate it; let’s deal with it. Arising from a worldview conglomeration at the end of the 19th century; the Prosperity Gospel typically (although not exclusively) has its roots in the churches of Pentecostalism. The combination of Pentecostal theology with various new post-Industrial Revolution worldviews from the early 20th century gave rise to the modern Prosperity movement.
This movement grew during the mid-20th century in large part to the “healing revivals” of some of its better known teachers. Post World War II America was ripe for “better days”; and the Prosperity Gospel was the perfect companion to the newfound American middle class materialism burgeoning across the country.
In the latter half of the 20th century however, the Prosperity Gospel moved to the airwaves and its leaders became the pioneers of “Christian television” (I’m looking at you TBN). It was during this phase that the reigns of notoriety shifted from men like Oral Roberts and William Branham; to the likes of: Joel Osteen, Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, T.D. Jakes, Creflo Dollar, and Joyce Meyer.
The major doctrinal distinctives of this health & wealth teaching are subtle shifts to orthodox Biblical exegesis. The Prosperity Gospel holds to the substitutionary atonement of Jesus; but extends it beyond the realm of the believer and his sin before God to include the “sins” of illness and poverty. Therefore, within the atonement, is the provision for both health and wealth.
This movement also builds upon the idea of the Imago Dei (Genesis 1:26 – 27) to include the creation of man not just in the image and likeness; but after the “kind” of God. Whereas dogs and cats and horses and whatnot reproduce “after their kind” (Genesis 1:20 – 25); so God must also have made His people after His kind; since that is what everything in creation does. With this idea as the foundation, people’s words matter; God created by a word, therefore His kind can and should do likewise. Welcome to the justification of what is referred to as “name it, claim it”; all of which is based upon the idea of believers being “little gods”.
There is also a heavy emphasis upon the principle of sowing and reaping (2 Corinthians 9:6 – 9) within Prosperity churches; as it relates to God “blessing” the faithful, tithing believer. This principle, walking alongside that of “positive confession” (speaking only good things about oneself) are the main drivers that enable the Christian to receive the blessing of God.
Since this movement has some actual Biblical theology (woohoo), our evaluation of it should be based upon their handling of the Biblical material; in both our understanding and corrective.
So our starting point is with Scripture. An oft quoted justification for this theology is Malachi 3:10, wherein the people of Israel are commanded to tithe completely in order to test God’s faithfulness as He will bless their obedience. Even if we ignore the obvious context of Malachi chapter 3 (the Messiah and His arrival); we cannot possibly move this text directly to the New Testament church. For starters, we have no land that we are to possess, and we have no tithe we are commanded to give (2 Corinthians 9:7); therefore we cannot be blessed for giving, and/or cursed for withholding.
A better realization is the allusion of Malachi 3 to repentance and faith. Here the Prosperity adherent goes off the rails of Biblical theology. The Messiah is coming in judgment upon a rebellious people (Malachi 3:1 – 6). God is warning them to return to Him and He will bless them (Malachi 3:7). God then points out their sin (Malachi 3:8 – 9), and invites them to return to their trusting of Him for both mercy and provision (Malachi 3:10). If they do this, God’s mercy will show and His provision will be sufficient (Malachi 3:11 – 12). God then accuses the people of speaking against Him (Malachi 3:13 – 15), and some hear this and repent (Malachi 3:16); they are then recorded in God’s book and set aside as righteous (Malachi 3:17 – 18). This has nothing to do with crops, but rather; the heart of the people before God. A wicked heart will be self-centered, greedy, arrogant, and proud; these will be cast out. A pure heart will be God-honoring, generous, humble, and faithful; these will be saved by God.
In John 10:10, Jesus proclaims Himself the giver of abundant life. This is good and it is awesome; but it must be defined. If we define this as worldly: pleasure, progress, and provision; we have defined the work of Christ for this life only; and I think there is a warning about that in 1 Corinthians 15:19. Rather we have to understand the abundance of life in Christ as commensurate with all that He has promised (Luke 4:18 – 19): freedom, sight, restoration. These ideas are the fruits of the Gospel in the believer; never material possessions or health in this life.
Likewise, we have the prayer of John for the church pastored by Gaius (3 John 2) for their health and prosperity. First off, it’s a prayer; if John could just decree it, why didn’t he? If Gaius, the elder of the church, could just proclaim it; why didn’t he? Second, yes we would love for our fellow believers to be blessed by God in this life with prosperity of a material nature and good health; that is a duh. But we do not live our lives in the hope that we will receive such blessings; instead, we live devoted lives of humble service to God.
Our last problem with the Prosperity Gospel is its misappropriation of the phenomenon of Scripture. Doctrines and teachers within the movement hyper-emphasize the unity of Scripture to the detriment of the context of the Old Testament (case in point Malachi 3). Within the movement there is no consistent hermeneutical tenet (unfortunately a hallmark of Pentecostalism that is borrowed and abused by Prosperity Gospel teachers); and both an ability and a willingness to point the Bible to the believer; rather than point the believer, through the Bible, to Christ.
Our correctives to these problems are obviously, in light of what we have discussed, going to be textual in nature. Right off the bat; we need to define our place in this world from a Biblical perspective. We can avoid the errors and pitfalls of the Prosperity Gospel if we simply remember the consistent teaching and warnings of Scripture.
We will give an account to God (Romans 14:12); but we may be called by God to give an account here in this world. Jesus warned of this very real outcome (Luke 21:12 – 19), and proclaimed it an opportunity for testimony and praise. The New Testament did not lose sight of this teaching from Christ; but instead, proclaimed it loudly. Peter tells us (1 Peter 1:6 – 7), that we will be distressed by various trials; the result of which is the revealing of our faith. James, the first written book of the New Testament, dives right into an admonition to bear up under trial (James 1:2 – 4); the result of which is the purifying of our faith. Paul in his most thorough and systematic letter tells believers to revel in their tribulation (Romans 5:3 – 5); which will bring about faith and hope and trust.
This is not new, because this is the consistent knowledge of the world for the believer. We, as redeemed believers in Christ, are not to be at home in this world (James 4:4). This world, in its current state, is given over to her sins (Romans 1:18 – 32), and guided by her spiritual head (Ephesians 2:1 – 2). That is why Jesus warns us, that as peculiar people, we will have trouble as He had trouble (John 15:18 – 20). Peter calls the church under persecution, to recognize their new, peculiar citizenship and live in this world as though they were aliens and strangers (1 Peter 2:9 – 12). Paul pointed the believer to a hope and a home and a revelation; that is not here, but in Christ (Colossians 3:1 – 4). And John clearly warned against the dangers of living for this world, over against the good world of God that is to come (1 John 2:15 – 17).
Our second corrective is to understand the Word rightly (2 Timothy 2:15). That means we have to understand what this book we call a Bible actually is. It has over 40 different authors, who individually wrote 66 different books. This writing took place over the course of over 1500 years, and was accomplished in 3 languages, while on multiple continents. That is a terrible recipe for a book; but it is the recipe God used (2 Timothy 3:16 – 17) to produce the 1 message of Scripture. That message is not one that is focused upon us; rather, it is one that is focused upon Christ.
Jesus is the end all be all of Creation and Biblical testimony (John 5:33 – 47). This is why in the midst of hardship (John 6:66); they did not leave (John 6:68). Jesus is the fulfillment of the ages, the culmination of the longing of humanity (Genesis 3:15), and in Him is the end of our suffering and sin. The Bible is a testimony to God and His work in us; not our work for ourselves. The Apostolic witness clearly saw this as they repeatedly proclaimed (see above), not their greatness; but His. They strove to push the church and the believers therein to a faith in God that went beyond this life and world and into the next; so that God would be praised and His people saved (Philippians 3:7 – 11). This was the purpose of their work and writing (2 Peter 3:14 – 18); not the glory of themselves or us, but the glory and praise of God for who He is; and the salvation He has brought.
This is important to know, because too many, otherwise solid Evangelical churches, have borrowed from this theology. Too many sermons in too many churches are devoid of Biblical basis for the “application” they espouse. We have become man-centered in our approach to preaching and teaching, and therefore have lost the perspective of God and His work in our world. This is the fruit of a small group starting out, growing to infect almost every aspect of the Christian world. If you are listening to teaching, supposedly from the Bible, and week after week you do not require any working knowledge of the Bible to understand it: run!
We have to be willing to be challenged, not just personally because “my toes were stepped on”, but Biblically; to think through the why and how I live day and day and see whether or not it is grounded in the commands and precepts of God. This is where the majority of the failures of the Christian come. We don’t need five keys to happier marriages; we need Biblically grounded understandings of dating, relationships, and marriage upon which to build our lives. Then our marriages will be sound.
Finally, we leave this heresy on a practical note: it doesn’t work. The Apostles, who had way more knowledge and faith than any modern day pastor/teacher: died. The Old Testament saints, save for Enoch and Elijah: died. Every current Bible teacher: died. Disease, death, devastation, and destruction are all a part of our sinful fallen world (Romans 8:18 – 25); and to deny that is to rob the departed saints and martyrs of old of the glorious testimony to God they rendered by cheapening their sacrifice as a lesser faith. Instead, our healing, life, security, and peace are to be found; not here: but in Christ in eternity (Revelation 21:1 – 9). There and only there we will be secure and at home with our God.