- October 16, 2006
- By John Rutledge
Prosperity gospel promises
material blessings to faithful
By Ken Camp
A recent TIME magazine cover story raised the question: “Does God want you to be rich?” The answer from many pulpits, best-selling books and television evangelists seems to be, “Not only rich, but healthy and happy, too.” The implications of that response trouble some Baptist pastors, theologians and ethicists.
The prosperity gospelalso known as “name it and claim it,” “word of faith,” “positive confession” or “seed-faith” theologyteaches that God wants his children to prosper and be in good health. It calls on followers to step out by faith and claim the prosperity that is the birthright of every Christian.
“The Bible says, ‘God takes pleasure in prospering his children.’ As his children prosper spiritually, physically and materially, their increase brings pleasure to God,” Joel Osteen, pastor of Houston’s Lakewood Church and popular TV preacher, writes in his best-selling book, Your Best Life Now. “Your lot in life is to continually increase. Your lot in life is to be an overcomer, to live prosperously in every area.”
Proponents of the prosperity gospel present it as a positive antidote to the negativism and judgmentalism they say drives some people away from Christianity. They point to Old Testament passages that seem to equate material wealth with God’s favor and to New Testament teachings about abundant life.
Critics of the prosperity gospel call it shallow and superficial, at best.
The God of the prosperity gospel is too small, said Suzii Paynter, director of the Christian Life Commission, the moral concerns agency of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
“One of my pet peeves about the prosperity doctrine is that it limits God,” she said. “It makes him into a behavioral psychologist who resorts to external rewards to manipulate the ‘rat race’ human beings. That’s in contrast to the transforming God C.S. Lewis describes in Mere Christianitythe God who overhauls our hearts so that we truly desire his goodness and his will on behalf of others, not to accumulate for ourselves.”
|Joel Osteen, pastor at Lakewood Church in Houston and author of the bestseller Your Best Life Now, preaches that God wants Christians to be prosperous and happy. (RNS photo courtesy of Lakewood Church)|
Some have even harsher words for the prosperity gospel. At the recent meeting of the National Baptist Convention USA in Dallas, President William Shaw labeled the teaching as “blasphemy” that entices people to follow “mammon”material wealth and physical wellbeingrather than follow the self-sacrificial example of Christ.
“Material goods may satisfy, but they do not fulfill,” Shaw said in his presidential address to the nation’s largest African-American Baptist group.
Javier Elizondo, vice president of academic affairs at Baptist University of the Americas, believes prosperity gospel preachers pervert the true gospel and distort biblical teachings.
“The proponents of the prosperity gospel ignore a big chunk of the Bible that speaks favorably about the poor, the stranger, the orphan and the widow and all the judgments made on the rich,” he said. “Their Bible consists of a few isolated verses which they take out of context and misrepresent.”
The prosperity gospel appeals to many people because “we all love a feel-good theology,” said Chris Simmons, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in inner-city Dallas. “But it gives false hope.”
Good feelings must translate into good deeds if the gospel is genuine, Simmons insisted.
“Any gospel that focuses on getting more for me and not on my responsibility of giving more to others is errant,” he said. “If you have been blessed, you need to allow that prosperity to flow to others and become a channel of blessing, not a reservoir of blessing.”
An unhealthy focus on material prosperity also can cause the wealthy to view poor people judgmentally and tempt Christians to live beyond their meanspresenting the false appearance that God has blessed them, Simmons noted.
“Equating a genuine relationship with God to the amount in a person’s checkbook is very dangerous,” he said.
The prosperity gospel has roots deep in the Pentecostal Holiness movement. But church historian Bill Leonard believes Baptists also provided fertile ground where the teaching could grow.
“It’s somewhat implicit in small but significant ways in the old tithing testimonies Baptists used to have,” said Leonard, dean of the divinity school at Wake Forest University. “The message was that tithing brought blessing. It was not the major message, but it was present.”
Revivalism in the 19th and early 20th centuries also promoted an early form of the prosperity gospel, he noted, saying, “It was presented in the message that salvation meant benefits not only in the world to come, but also in this one.”
Leonard views evangelist Oral Roberts as a significant influence on current prosperity gospel preachers through the “seed-faith” teaching he promoted on his television programs, in his crusades and through the school he built in Tulsa, Okla.
Roberts taught his followers a three-step process for success: Recognize God as the source of your total supply. Plant a seed of faith. And expect a miracle.
“Anytime you give, think of it as Seed-Faith. Then a wonderful new attitude will possess you. No longer will you think of your giving as a debt you owe, but rather as a seed you sow,” Roberts wrote in How to Live a Successful Christian Life. “It will put joy in your giving and help you shift your mind into expecting to receive a miracle harvest from a good God.”
Prosperity gospel preachers who have inherited Roberts’ mantle often urge followers to “plant a seed of faith” by giving to their ministries, quoting the words of Jesus recorded in Luke’s Gospel: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
The most crass and manipulative TV evangelists present a simple formula, saying God will multiply and return to the giver whatever amount is given to a particular ministry. Leonard equates this to playing “a spiritual lottery.”
“It is an understanding of faith that says if we do certain things, God will deliver for us,” he said, comparing it to the medieval church’s practice of selling indulgences.
Christians whose faith rests on the shaky foundation of promised material prosperity may become disillusioned and bitter when reality doesn’t match the promise, Leonard observed. “The landscape is littered with people who gave money and got nothing, ”he said.
Preachers who promise material blessings have “a built-in escape clause in the contract” because they can always say a giver lacked sufficient faith,” Leonard noted. “But a lot of people don’t read the small print.”