The Gospel According to Rich People

It’s getting harder to tell the truth from a lie. A few years ago, a friend of my family lost her husband to a terminal disease. She and her children had trusted in God for healing. They received words, signs and confirmations that God would heal him. But when he died, God was in the dock. A spiritual contract had been violated and a family was distraught and disappointed. Somehow, something had gone terribly wrong.

Tragically, there was an imbalance in their theological diet. They were fed with a strong theology of healing, but a weak theology of suffering and a weaker theology of death. In a nutshell, that’s the trouble with the present and popular, prosperity Gospel.

The Lausanne Theology Working Group (Africa Chapter), defines the prosperity Gospel as “the teaching that believers have a right to the blessings of health and wealth and that they can obtain these blessings through positive confessions of faith and the ‘sowing of seeds’ through the faithful payments of tithes and offerings”.

Widely known as Word of Faith, Health and Wealth, Name It and Claim It and Prosperity Theology, the instant appeal and increasing popularity of the prosperity Gospel is understandable.

Christianity Today says, “Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, a prosperity-tinged Pentecostalism is growing faster than other strands of Christianity, as well as all other religious groups, including Islam”.

The Economist reported that one million Kenyans attended a T.D. Jakes conference in Nairobi. Though Jakes has been called a prosperity preacher, he claims to teach God’s blessing holistically.

In India, GOD TV has brought the teaching, and its most popular American proponents, to more than 30 million homes—a potential 100 million viewers in about 200 towns and cities of the nation.

As for its origins, Christianity Today records, “The earliest proponents of positive thinking were spiritual innovators like Phineas P. Quimby and Mary Baker Eddy, founders of the New Thought movement and Christian Science, respectively. By the turn of the 20th century, Essek William Kenyon, a pastor and founder of Bethel Bible Institute, had incorporated similar ideas into his preaching on the finished work of Christ. In the 1930’s Kenneth Hagin added Kenyon’s teachings to his Pentecostal beliefs to create what would become the Word-Faith movement.”

In his booklet, How to Write Your Own Ticket with God, Hagin claims that Jesus appeared to him and told him to write four things – Say it, Do it, Receive it, Tell it – and said, “if anybody, anywhere, will take these four steps or put these four principles into operation, he will always receive whatever he wants from Me or from God the Father.”

Today, Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Benny Hinn, Bishop Eddie Long and Joel Osteen are some of the most popular teachers identified with prosperity teaching.

L.T. Jeyachandran, Director RZIM Asia-Pacific, often teaches that there is no error in the truth, but there is always some truth in every error. This should discourage us from dismissing every error without due respect to the truth within the error.

With that in mind, if the prosperity Gospel is erroneous, we must diligently discover the truth from which it has departed.

Kenyan Pastor David Muriithi leads an upscale congregation called House of Grace. Though he avoids Word-Faith and Health-and-Wealth teaching, he says the word prosperity needs clarifying.

He told Christianity Today, “People have a shallow definition of prosperity. It is a very big word. It is not just about money; it is about a whole life. You can have a million dollars, but if you are sick and dying or your marriage is falling apart, is that prosperity? Proper teaching about prosperity leads to transformation.”

There is a deep need for discernment when it comes to prosperity teaching. While some demand jet planes from God, others simply teach believers to trust in God’s provision for basic needs. In villages in India, believers pray for healthy cows and God answers their prayers. J. Lee Grady, editor of Charisma magazine, says, “When you look deeper, you see God moving in the details and in spite of the greed of certain individuals.”

The Bible often speaks of material blessing and physical health as rewards for faithfulness to God. Abraham, Joseph, Job and David were blessed with riches, wealth and power. We are spiritual descendants of kings, rulers and rich men.

Clearly, money and spirituality are not at odds with each other. What troubles the critics, however, is the idea that we can demand, purchase or claim blessings by financial offerings and faith confessions.

Most begin by saying that prosperity teaching is half right. It’s true that God is generous and wants us to enjoy the material world, which He declared to be good. But there is growing concern that God is being reduced to a cosmic genie, a celestial ATM.

Ben Philips, a theology professor at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, told TIME Magazine, “God becomes a means to an end, not the end in himself”. We seek His hand at the expense of His face.

As a matter of deeper concern, prosperity teaching seems to have under-taught the role of suffering to conform us into the likeness of Christ; and over-taught the blessings of health and wealth as a sign of God’s favor.

The natural outcome is that believers are unable to deal with the harsh realities of debt, sickness or death. Even prosperity teachers are unable to deal with people who don’t get healed, heaping guilt on their troubled souls with accusations of weak faith and secret sin. It’s this imbalance in theology that is most troubling to the critics.

The teaching is accused of giving attention to “prosperity passages” at the expense of deeper and more substantial teaching on suffering, death, temptation and the dangers of worldly wealth.

Former televangelist Jim Bakker, convicted of fraud in 1989, was a prosperity teacher who realized the error in his method and message.

In his book, I Was Wrong, he says, “The more I studied the Bible, however, I had to admit that the prosperity message did not line up with the tenor of Scripture. My heart was crushed to think that I led so many people astray. I was appalled that I could have been so wrong, and I was deeply grateful that God had not struck me dead as a false prophet! How could I have taught and even written books on the subject of ‘how to get rich’ when Jesus spoke so clearly about the dangers of earthly riches?”

Other more obvious concerns relate to financial management and responsibility. There is a disturbing divide between the lifestyles of prosperity teachers and the ones who feed their prosperity.

The LA times reported that “lower-income, rural Americans, are among TBN’s most faithful donors. The popular Christian television network says that 70% of its contributions are in amounts less than $50. Those small gifts underwrite a lifestyle that most of the ministry’s supporters can only dream about. Yet, devoted viewers say the ministry has nothing to apologize for. In fact, the ministry’s material success is part of its appeal to believers – proof that the ministry enjoys God’s favor.”

Creflo Dollar, who regularly reaches Indians on GOD TV, has been preaching prosperity for more than 20 years. He is reported to own a multimillion dollar home in Atlanta, a $2.5 million apartment in Manhattan’s Time Warner Center, a private jet and two Rolls Royces. Dollar claims that his wealth comes from the sale of books and inspirational tapes, not from church donations.
Whether that’s true or not, his wealth in itself is not of primary concern. In fact, it might fade in comparison to that of David, Joseph or Job. But in a cynical age like ours, it simply doesn’t go unnoticed. Milmon Harrison, author of the book Righteous Riches, says that “Outsiders often see it as another form of the church abusing people so ministers could make money.”
Financial integrity is the litmus test of an authentic ministry. Without accountability and transparency, even the good ones tend to go bad. The Bible tells us not to muzzle an ox while he is treading the grain. But perhaps we must be diligent to ensure that the ox isn’t gorging itself on grain that belongs to the hungry.

Each year, in the United States, produces a list of 30 ministries that engage in questionable practices that should cause donors to pause before giving. Some of the high profile names blacklisted by the group are the aforementioned Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Benny Hinn, Bishop Eddie Long and Joel Osteen.

India would be wise to be aware of this initiative, and even perhaps to imitate it in our nation. Our lawyers, accountants and technical gurus need to step up to the call to hold our teachers accountable and protect the interests of the poor and the misguided. Transparency gives greater credibility to the Gospel and it is something to be pursued and encouraged. The call to be blameless has never been more critical.

In India, particularly, prosperity teaching takes on a different twist entirely. There is a sense of hero-worship that is seared into the spirits of our nation. Sachin Tendulkar and Rajnikanth enjoy god-like adulation from their fans.

Much like the people in Lystra, who regarded Paul and Barnabus as gods, there is a danger for teachers in India to be regarded as Christian god-men. When evangelists and preachers are adored by their fans and protected by their followers, it should concern us all, given the harsh realities of pride, temptation and the sinful nature.

Jesus warned His disciples of people who heal diseases and cast out demons in His Name. We are told that, in spite of their heroics, they won’t have a place in the kingdom because their lives had no place for the King.

The New Testament warns us to be discerning of people who peddle the word of God for profit. Indian believers need to move from standing in awe of its teachers, to imitating the boldness of the Bereans. Christians will do well to love God’s word so much that they are not afraid to search the scriptures and question their teachers, even if they be as popular as Paul.

Prosperity is truly promised to those who are faithful to God. But our understanding of prosperity will need to be informed by the testimony of scripture and not by the growing consumerism and materialism that is plaguing the world and the church today.

The promise of prosperity teaching is its implicit faith in God’s provision. However, its serious neglect of suffering, transparency, and financial accountability could demand a price that even prosperity teachers might struggle to pay.

Perhaps if our hearts and minds are set on things above, we will experience eternal life below, with or without a Rolls Royce in the garage.

Published in Christian Trends Magazine

Image Credit: MTSOfan

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