A Biblical Ethical Assessment of Prosperity Teaching and the Blessing Movement

Introduction:

I am asked to evaluate the teaching and practice of the Prosperity Gospel against Christian Ethics. I approach the topic as one who spends a significant amount of time with economically poor and low income Christians in India and some parts of Africa. Nearly all of them seek God’s blessing for their material well-being. They do give the highest priority to their spiritual well being but do not see material well being, good health, deliverance from illnesses even chronic ones, housing, a secure adequately paying employment as part of their Christian aspiration, even entitlement.

I have not heard them seeking riches/prosperity a type of wealth that will make them rich and comfortable. They seek deliverance and victory over forces they believe are seeking to control their lives but not flashy riches. Even the aspiring middle class Christians in my city of Bangalore where aspirations are not unrealistic do not articulate a desire for wealth but seek God’s blessing for economic, personal and family well being.

Christian children in India grow up reading the psalms where being blessed by God are a significant theme. To be blessed by God says Psalm 1is to flourish and be fruitful. Seeking God’s blessing daily is seen as a natural Christian right. Groups and families may give different content to the blessings they seek. Growing up in a reformed Calvinistic evangelical environment I would rarely include anything economic in my prayers and would even be embarrassed to ask healing for an illness and in case God misunderstood my petition I will firmly conclude the prayer by saying Thy will be done. I was eager to underlie that in such matters I trusted in God’s sovereign will that should automatically operate for my good. Then I married a girl who was brought up in an Assembly of God Church; the content of my prayers began to change!

I would prefer to talk about the Blessing movement I am familiar with rather than the preaching on the Christian TV channels. I am not convinced that such channels where preachers appear to be borrowing their messages from the west influence peoples daily lives significantly in India. Joyce Meyer has good-sized audience but what listeners seem to find helpful is the self-help/ soft prosperity advice. Even some non-Christian listeners have said to me that they find it useful as spiritual advice.

The economically struggling and low income Christians I work with find their lives hampered by regular ill health, fear of evil forces and financial struggles. It is their daily existential reality. They seek god’s blessings daily for healing. Protection from evil and financial security.

In my presentation I assume a distinction between descriptions and evaluations. My approach is to make an evaluative examination of the teaching and experience of blessing from a Christian ethical framework. An ethical framework assumes norms, laws. Judgments and choices. An ethical framework is a way of structuring our deliberations about ethical questions in relation to real human experiences.

While I will be informed by general ethical frameworks like utilitarian ethics, consequential ethics, deontological ethics, rights based ethics and virtue ethics I will primarily use biblical/theological ethics in my evaluative exercise.

A.  Biblical Theological ethical frameworks

I have drawn on a number of scholarly works that inform the summary that I share below. Karl Barth’s magisterial work “Ethics”, published in English in 1981 shaped many of us in seeing three key themes of a biblical ethic: Creation. Reconciliation and (the eschatological) Redemption. Among evangelical scholars Oliver O’Donovan’s work is an important model of evangelical ethics. Stanley Hauerwas’ work is also significant as he makes the cross central to any Christian ethic. Instead of examining the work of Christian ethicists I am taking the liberty to present my summary that owes much to their scholarship. This paper is not written for the Academy.

A biblical ethical framework that makes the cross central stresses self denial, sharing Christ’s suffering, turning one’s back on the world and an ascetic life. It tends to set the Church against the world as an alternate society and counter culture.

An ethical framework with the resurrection at the center stresses the victory of Christ over all that has despoiled God’s creation and purposes. The nature of the resurrection as bodily and material affirms that Christ’s death and resurrection restore creation to its original purpose. It calls for living in the light of the resurrection where the starting point is Christ’s victory and the Christian life is lived by the power of the Holy Spirit gifted to his disciples by the resurrected Lord.

The ethics of the Kingdom stresses the finality of kingdom values and gifts but places he them in the framework of the yet and not yet looking to Christ’s return and the fulfillment of God’s plans and promises. It centers in the gifts of the kingdom experienced now albeit in a down payment/ installment mode.

The ethics of the Incarnation centers on the call to the individual Christian and the Church to conform to the image of Christ the second and new Adam. The Incarnation reveals the Christ who lived on earth and became like us and yet without sin. Our call to be like Christ and seek to be like Christ is the norm of Christian Discipleship.

It assumes that we know what it is to be Christ like in our life on earth. At the heart of this ethic is a biblical anthropology the understanding of what a human person is in God’s creation. The focus then is on the character of a Christian that will reflect the transformation process into Christ likeness. Thomas Aquinas uses the language of our habits image. Our habits and dispositions are both intellectual/rational and affecting/ desiring. The Christ we know and seek to conform to be present with us through his spirit.

In conforming to Christ we conform to his suffering and so deny ourselves. We accept the suffering that God allows in our lives and we do not we resist conforming to the world but seek to transform it.

In conforming to the resurrection of Christ we embrace the victory that Christ accomplished over forces that broke creation and seek to restore the moral order of the resurrection. We accept victory and overcoming as God’s norms for the Christian life.

In conformity with the ethics of the Kingdom, we seek to experience all its blessings: identity in Christ, abundant life and a hope for the future. We live by the empowering gift of the kingdom-the Holy Spirit of God.

In the Gospels the ethic of the kingdom is the ethic of the kingdom community. Contemporary society even in the west and many traditional societies have a community ethic that regulates life and legitimates practices and desires. A transcendental, universal ethic is dominant in Christianity, Islam and Judaism. However even in these religions many of their communities develop a community ethic and live by it. In such communities the communities acceptance of a practice or an ethical/moral interpretation has far greater salience and influence than a received universal ethic. The Kingdom ethic integrates the Universal/transcendental and community dimensions of an ethical framework.

B. I will attempt to evaluate the teaching and experience of the prosperity teaching in contemporary Christianity in relation to the following themes: Justice, faith, power and human personhood.

My reflection will draw on the teachings and experiences of the churches in India that give a central place to claiming the blessings of God and to indigenous television preachers. I will also relate my own knowledge of the phenomena in India with the narratives described in the excellent work of Kate Bowler on the prosperity gospel in the United States.

1.Blessing and Justice

Justice is at the heart of the ethical framework of the whole of scripture. The center of Kingdom ethics in the Gospels is Righteousness/Justice. God’s justice shapes the order of the kingdom Jesus inaugurates. Blessing is also a key part of the gospel account of the kingdom of god. But it is clear that the blessings of the kingdom fit into the order shaped by God’s justice. The blessing of the kingdom must express the justice of God. Blessing and justice are integrally related as shalom and justice in the Hebrew bible.

In the bible equality is the other side of justice. Equality is rooted in humans being made in God’s image. Equality also means that no one gains if all do not gain. The blessing teaching relates this view of justice by affirming that all in Christ have the right to his full blessing. Those who meet its conditions of faith and claim it receive the blessing; others will have to wait till they get it right. Justice insists that there is a social dimension to blessing. Personal blessings must contribute to the common good and impact beyond the individual. This is where the blessing teaching is incomplete and needs to change.

The teaching about the Kingdom of God in the gospels presents two foci. One is the individual invited to enter the kingdom on the basis of repentance and faith, the other is the Lordship of Christ exercising God’s rule that restores God’s spoiled creation. The prosperity teaching stresses the faiths of the individual to not only enter the kingdom but also claims its gifts. This stress on personal benefit without the teaching of the social dimension of all gods’ gifts undervalues the mission of the kingdom to bring social change.

Churches in India where the prosperity teaching dominates are mostly churches of the poor. The churches that attract the aspirational new middle class focus on softer blessings of happy marriages and family life and rewards for honest and hard work. There is no neglect of the poor in these churches. Kate Bowler in her study of black Pentecostal churches notes that many foster economic programmes and mobility. In 1978 when I launched a Micro enterprise Development programme in India the most enthusiastic first adopters were Pentecostal churches and then the Roman Catholics. Mainline Protestants and evangelical churches did not think economic empowerment was part of the mission of a local church.

Entrepreneurial energy was unleashed in these churches in India as among black churches in North America. Enterprise among the poor is generated by the sense that one has to help oneself. External factors are not inclined to assist you on the contrary they place obstacles in your path. Faith is the great asset that the poor bring to the table. It is faith tested under severe conditions. It is a dedicated and hard working faith. The gospel that values faith above all else (can move mountains) must deliver to that faith.

There is understandable skepticism about structural change efforts by the church. There is skepticism about whether political action actually delivers the change that makes a difference to their lives. There is awareness that he middle class succeed not only due to their habits of hard work and discipline but also due to the endowments they inherit and the support they receive from their networks.

The positive effect to the poor of a blessing teaching is the conviction that they are not excluded from economic security and abundance. They can not only aspire but also claim it as a right.

Apart from the stress on individual action to address material need many churches that stress blessings also develop institutional responses to social need. In the United States Kate Bowler notes churches develop initiatives in education, housing, job banks and social services.

In India there is increasing investment by upwardly mobile Pentecostal churches in social ministries from their own resources. There is a strong motivational message in these churches. You are expected to see improvement in every area of your life.

The liberation from a sense of exclusion from economic upliftment that prosperity teaching enables is an expression of God’s justice at work and needs to be recognized as such. It also needs to be harnessed to work for community transformation. I have seen this work in Bangalore with indigenous independent churches.

It is right to note that among some prosperity teaching churches of the aspirational new middle class there is fascination with riches. They see riches as no longer beyond their reach, the preaching rarely if ever guarantees riches but encourages the aspiration. In my view this diverts the believers energy from growth in discipleship and Christ likeness and channels the spiritual energy and capital primarily for material goals. This needs a sharp and urgent corrective.

We can see justice as just order and as inherent rights. Some prosperity preachers present prosperity as a God decreed and designed order. They also assert that the Bible teaches prosperity as an inherent right of the believer. This transfer of the framework of order and inherent right from justice   to prosperity leads to proposing laws of blessing that like justice are backed by God’s power. This shift cannot be supported with adequate biblical evidence. Justice is a legal category and blessing is a grace category.

That God blesses his people and all created things is incontrovertible. But what are the criteria that God uses to bless his children? Are there no meaningful criteria in the bible? Is it all up to the free will of God? Does it not seem arbitrary? Prosperity teaching offers its answers and they must be assessed against the ethical framework of biblical justice.

2.Blessing, Faith and Power

The language of power is significant in the churches that preach prosperity and blessing in India and in parts of Africa where I have had long-term involvement. Faith and power are integrally connected in such preaching. The one asset the poor believe they can acquire quickly is faith, faith in the promises of God and in a God who fulfills his promises. Faith in God’s active intervention in all areas of life personal and social and small or big. Prosperity teaching offers ways in which faith can be converted into a power that delivers God’s promises of health, wealth and victory. The relation between faith and power is presented as causal.

Some surprising results have come out a study among enterprising poor in Bangalore India. Nearly all of them attended indigenous Pentecostal churches that preached a blessing message regularly. The study called” Holy Avarice” examined the tithing of the worshippers. While there is a confidence that God honors your faith and your obedience in tithing any blessing is not considered a guaranteed entitlement. The preacher may say so but they recognized the reality was different. It was still down to God’s grace. They, at least will not presume to tell God what he has to do .It is still God’s free act of grace that cannot be manipulated and made dependent on your actions. Thee are two, sometimes more narratives here. The preacher’s narrative of causality and guarantee and the believer’s narrative of submission to God’s will and waiting on his grace. The preaching of some of the pastors still presents faith as an inherent actualizing power than can create and materialize concrete blessings, the worshipped fervently believes it but also hedges his bets but leaving it to God’s grace. In private conversation the believer admits that it is God’s grace he banks on and not a formula.

The way in which the concept of power is used in prosperity teaching shows it transcends the separation between the physical and the spiritual. Isaiah 53:5, by his stripes we are healed, are interpreted to mean both spiritual and physical healing.

In the earlier Keswick movement and other victorious Christian life movements the language of power was also used a good deal. Christ’s presence in our life means that Christ’s life is released into our lives and empowers us to live a victorious Christian life. The normal Christian life it was taught was a victorious life .God fulfills promises, overcomes sinful habits, helps us to endure suffering and heals our illnesses. These movements also preached principles (law like truths) with regard to the victorious Christian life.

In India and other traditional societies there is a talismanic use of power in religious cultures that stress deliverance from evil spirits and forces. Healing is offered by addressing the spirits that are said to be behind an illness. Protection against the power of curses is offered. Power packets are provided in talismanic forms. Spiritual power can be packed in material objects and transported, carried and used. Shaman and witch doctors have long practiced such use of spiritual power.

A lack of a carefully considered biblically understanding of power is obvious among many prosperity preachers. It is possible that some knowingly use unbiblical practices of delivering power but most appear not to understand the complex and clear teaching of spiritual power in the Bible. Such preaching and practice about spiritual power is at times in danger of connecting with the very forces of evil the preacher is attempting to attack. There is also the real danger that the preacher believes he has a right to spiritual power and gets lifted above accountability for his actions and attitudes. The moral havoc such a view and practice of power produces is all too evident in the scandals about financial and sexual immorality that plague the practitioners. It is her we need to encourage a biblical understanding of power to develop in the blessing movement.

There is a clear contrast in the bible of the power exercised by a Pharaoh who was considered as divine and the power exercised the true divine Lord Jesus. Christ’s power is from the cross and is from below. Even in heaven he is bears the marks if the lamb slain. A Christian preacher a or believer must follow that model of power.

We turn to the theme of grace and its relation to the way in which faith and power are connected in prosperity teaching. Paul develops his understanding of God’s grace against a Jewish understanding of reward and merit. In Paul our faith is not a merit we bring to God to be rewarded by him. It is more a sign of our repentance than an asset we place before God to show we deserve his salvation .Our Faith is place where we stand to gain entry to God’s kingdom and receive our identity as God’s children and citizens of his kingdom. The rewards of the kingdom are not proportionate to ones faith or service. They are given due to God’s free grace unmerited by the recipient (Matt 19:29,24:27,25:21,23, Luke 7: 48)

There are passages that show that a disciple’s sacrifice, persecution for righteousness sake; loss for following Christ will be compensated beyond any proportion to ones faith. It is grace rather than faith reward causality that is at the heart of the Kingdom of God.

Blessing is presented in Prosperity teaching as a right an entitlement .It is a state one owns and can live in continually.. In the New Testament blessing is not an entitlement based on the assets of faith of a disciple. It is linked to the promises of God, backed by his sovereignty and covenant faithfulness. It is integrally related to God’s freedom to bestow what he will and chooses and not conditioned by the recipient’s faith assets or status. God’s gifts are neither mean nor follow a legal formula. They reflect his generous character. On the contrary the believers desires are still subject to sin and his desires of blessing cannot be automatically fulfilled. They may put his spiritual well being at risk. It is better to trust in the blessing God will give freely while continuing to petition as a child does his parent.

3. Blessing and Human Personhood

John G Lake (missionary to South Africa) expounded John 10:34 to mean that God intends us to be gods notes Kate Bowler. She also quotes Kenyon “Jesus death and resurrection has shifted the believers ontological status. Divine union with God is not a distant goal but a starting point.”

The believer becomes a creator like God himself and can employ faith filled words to bring things into being i.e., to create blessing and prosperity. A believer has verbal power as God’s child. Prayer is not a petition but a claim even a demand that actualizes what is claimed and demanded.

Such an assumption of a believers transformed personhood enables a turn to the techniques the believer needs and the habits of faith she must develop. One such habit is tithing that can unlock and release blessing, success and prosperity.

The common experience of many struggling under a multitude of oppressions is not God’s intention for his people. It is to be set free to live in victory, health, wealth and joy. The believer must aspire for and experience material and spiritual blessings.

Another aspect of this view of personhood is that believers can have a revelational knowledge that is often very different from sense knowledge. Sense knowledge may say you are ill. Revelation knowledge gives you the conviction that you are healed.

Another stress is the possibility of human transformation through one’s own efforts. One’s faith builds character and gives hope to overcome the challenges of an uncertain world and unpredictable markets. The believer must take responsibility for her future and act in optimism as this is God’s will and plan for her (Bowler p227)

There is a high anthropology in prosperity teaching. In places it overlaps with the “theosis” doctrine in the Orthodox tradition.

The high content given to human personhood in prosperity teaching is, however, not related to Christ’s life on earth but only to his death and resurrection. Christ is the second Adam whose entire incarnate life is before us to imitate. His humility, his meekness must also be emulated by the believer while celebrating Christ’s victory and power.

We must note the practical implications of such a high view of personhood for the believing poor. It energizes and builds up their agency and responsibility. For people who for generations have been slaves and servants of the powerful it is very empowering to know that you are released from that status and identity. But the prosperity teaching fails often to stress the servant hood that Jesus displayed even as the Lord of creation.

We need to draw on the framework of incarnational ethics. God’s purpose in creating humans in his image is revealed in the incarnate life of Christ In the believers character traits, her judgments, deliberations, choices and emotions that Christlikeness is formed. The chief end of discipleship is not being endowed with blessings but to conform to Christ’s image and partner him in his mission in the world. Christian personhood must have this understanding of discipleship at its center. Focus on only the victorious Christ enthroned in heaven where we occupy ruler ship with him and ignoring the life of the sinless Christ here on earth embracing suffering, simplicity and servant hood is to promote a sub Christian and sometimes dangerous version of discipleship.

C. Conclusion

I make a few concluding comments.

1. The projection of a blessing order or right is incompatible with biblical evidence. Blessing is a reality and is based entirely on God’s grace. The teaching on blessing must be shaped by a biblical view of God’s grace that is freely and generously given. That grace also prevents any gift made to God from becoming a merit that God must recognize. Our gifts can only be responses to God’s continuing providence in our lives. We can and will respond with gifts. We are created to gift. But we do it as thanksgiving and as acts of worship and love responding to God’s gracious dealings with us. It is much easier to thank God when you are economically comfortable and socially respected.

But where should the poor find the grace of God in their lives. Our teaching must identify the reality of God’s grace in every believers life in the new identity he gives and the agency and dignity he enables and the sense of his abiding presence all display God’s grace in our lives. But it is in the knowledge that we have a God whose ear is inclined to our prayers and we can pour our petitions to him in the sure and certain knowledge he hears and will respond that the poor in our ministry recognize God’s grace in their lives. It enables them to thank God for his grace before any dramatic answer to prayer and even when that expected answer does not materialize.

2. The not yet understanding of the Kingdom is necessary to correct the view that all gifts of the kingdom can be accessed in full measure in the yet. It is true that many Christians are too shy and diffident to claim many gifts of the kingdom even in small measures. They accept a weak, struggling faith and discipleship as the norm this side of heaven. We need a holy dissatisfaction with our discipleship and develop openness and even an eagerness to desire that entire God can give us. We must seek and find. But this must be accompanied by the knowledge that we are in the not yet and we need to groan as God’s children recognizing that only when Christ returns will there the fulfillment that will truly satisfy us. The spirit not only pours God’s blessings on us but also generates a groaning in us that will keep us looking and waiting for the assured God’s future.

The Kingdom has some provisional dimensions as we await the permanent. There are penultimate experiences of the Kingdom as we look forward to the ultimate. Our Kingdom citizenship is lived in the midst of those tensions enabling us to address the sufferings and uncertainties of life with patience and hope. This needs to be a key part of any blessing teaching.

3.  In my experience the poor understand the importance of justice. They recognize that resources and endowments are asymmetrically distributed. They hesitate to judge them as unjustly distributed. To enable them to see it that way is not a solution. It is only an analysis.

The poor we work with in India believe that the solution to unjust distribution of resources will not come from the State or its systems. They see systems as people with power anyway. Prosperity teaching asks them to find a solution personally in their relationship with God and god’s resources promised to his children. They seek God’s action to deal with their poverty.

I do not see many credible models where action against systemic injustice has brought extensive returns to the poor. It has provided jobs for the activists hardly different from the alleged exploitation of the poor by prosperity preachers. I speak as one who is not to stranger to the social action industry.

The challenge remains to enable the poor to continue to find their own solutions to their poverty, empowering them to draw on all ethical means. They must also be enabled to be not recipients of the common good but its co creators and so contribute to the larger social transformation.

 

This is a paper presented by the author at the 2014 Lausanne Global Consultation on Prosperity Theology, Poverty, and the Gospel. You may find a video version of this paper in the Content Library. The views and opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the personal viewpoints of Lausanne Movement leaders or networks. For the official Lausanne Statement from this consultation, please see ‘The Atibaia Statement on Prosperity Theology‘.

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