Prosperity preaching is an infamous thing in the Church. It is particularly associated with Word of Faith preachers within the Charismatic Movement, where many of its top proponents are themselves very wealthy. Now I do not want to take the usual route of either being for or against it. I want to critique the very notion of a prosperity gospel.
Having been deeply involved in ministries that offer this message I am no stranger to its intricacies. People must recognize that prosperity teaching is actually complex. There are different kinds and they all do not agree. It will take a more qualified person than myself to properly address these subtleties.
In Ghana prosperity preaching is usually a rehash of what wealthy American ministers teach. As usual their hermeneutics is suspect but I do not wish to dwell on that. The “Americanness” of the teaching is something many miss and it starts with an illusory dream.
The American Dream is a product of enlightenment thinking. The immigrants who came to the New World believed in progress, that the future was always going to be better. The very fact they called it the New World, somehow implied new meant better. Hundreds of years down the line it is evident that for most people it only remains a dream.
However, the work ethic behind the progressivist motto is actually Christian. Max Weber in his famous paper 1905 paper, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism points out the influence of the Reformation on modern Western capitalism. The notion that God will bless the fruits of your labour if you work diligently is very noble and Biblical. In light of American cultural history, prosperity preaching is more or less the Christianized American Dream. It is an unyielding faith in eventual progress for all given the right opportunities. In Word of Faith terms it is the promise that correctly applying certain “spiritual laws” will guarantee you wealth and health. It is an alluring message to the masses who live in poverty and disease in the world. Instead of journeying to a physical land mass they flock to the Churches and auditoriums that trumpet this ideal.
Prosperity preaching is culturally influenced. The weakness of its influences also bear on it. The idea of progress because we are enlightened e.g. knowing some Biblical principle for wealth, does not always work out. The biggest criticism of prosperity preaching has been its practical results. It simply has not changed the economic status of its adherents. In spite of numerous faith confessions most of its adherents are nowhere as prosperous as their revered teachers.
Most, if not all of the big names in prosperity teaching are very wealthy. They seem to embody the message they teach so naturally people assume that it works. I personally have no qualms with anyone being rich as long as it is through legitimate moral means. If it is a pastor who is wealthy I thank God. Many ministers have to battle with hardship so the message of prosperity is often greeted as a welcome change.
The rise of nouveau riche men and women of God is a relatively a recent phenomenon. The Church, even the world at large, does not really know what to make of it. There have been wealthy Christians from the beginning but not many wealthy ministers without the support of the state. As one friend of mine admitted to me, the Church is now a lucrative area. The rise of megachurches is an important factor in this new trend. Despite what you might popularly hear, Christians have historically met with in small gatherings. The megachurch is actually an anomaly among Christian congregations the world over.
As I have already said I have no problem with wealthy ministers. Furthermore, I do not see anything wrong with them encouraging people to be financially prosperous. What I do take issue with is using the scriptures to justify a person’s wealth. The scriptures do not justify wealth or make it imperative on the believer. Conversely, the word of God does not justify or command poverty. It simply does not tells us to be either rich or poor. There were poor people in the Bible (who made up the majority) just as there were also rich people. When it comes to material gain the scriptures are not naïve. People need money but it will not condemn you for your lack of it neither will it commend you for your abundance.
Most of the passages that are interpreted as a God given mandate to be rich do not really tell us that all. They tell us that material gain, no matter how big or small, comes by God’s gracious hand. The material substances and processes we require for our physical existence like air and sleep come to us without conscious effort. They are things that God in his wisdom has equipped us with. If he provides for our most basic of needs, it is no stretch at all to think he also supplies us with every other material thing. To think that our worth or importance is based on things we can acquire is quite ridiculous. When the scriptures warn us about wealth it is not condemning wealth. It is rather the hubris of the human heart that thinks life is made up of what you can get without realising your own life is a precious gift you cannot acquire. In fact, Jesus told a parable to that effect (Luke 12:15-21.) The reason I believe the scriptures emphasize the dangers of wealth is because they are less obvious. The challenges of poverty are glaringly stark but the subtle deceptions of wealth are known by only a few.
I do believe that poverty was taken away on the Cross. Jesus died in the nude but he arose as Lord of all. However, this does not mean the old ideas of wealth were retained. As with all kinds of power, material wealth is completely reimagined in the resurrection. As I spoke about in The Right Side of the Cross, the symbol of our weakness is transformed into the banner of our strength as we parade our defeated foe (Colossians 2:15.)
There are those who think if the Gospel means good news then to the poor it would be wealth, as good news to the hungry is the promise of food. The idea of preaching wealth naturally flows from this logic. I would have whole heartedly been in an agreement if not for how it is preached. Part of the mystique of the Gospel is that it challenges and revolutionises our perception of wealth. Instead of it being an individualistic affair it is transformed into something human society should enjoy because God has equipped us with a new vision of what it means to be human. Social welfare as we know it is not an invention of politicians but something the Church first championed in the Book of Acts. There was no one who lacked among them (Acts 4:34.) No political or economic theory, from Capitalism to Marxism, has been able to achieve this. The Church embodied the new vision of human society in God’s ever advancing kingdom. This was a foretaste of the world to come where poverty will be no more.
The Christian vision of prosperity is far more radical than the most outlandish claims of any false prosperity teaching. It is more revolutionary because it is really true. It is the good news that Jesus’ resurrection has changed everything, even the very nature of wealth. Instead of top-down we are doing it bottom-up with the most unlikely candidates. Instead of taking mundane for or against positions on “prosperity preaching”, we need to get down to the actual business of understanding what wealth means in God’s new creation.