Ethical Dimensions – Part 2: Holiness and False Idols

Heritage and heroes

When I registered as a theological student at London Bible College in 1972, I walked into a culture shock which is still on-going. What was, up to that point, a sheltered sub-culture of Black classical Pentecostalism, opened out into a much wider evangelical world which occasionally seemed apostate.

It was, in fact, a process of re-education.  Theological giants, who were known and revered across the evangelical world, were strangers to me.  Conversely, some of my most influential heroes such as, A.A. Allen, Morris Cerullo and T.L. Osborne often came up for condemnation.  Since that time, my pilgrimage has been about covering wider ground without losing my Pentecostal orientation.1

This journey took me to the heart of British evangelicalism in 1988 where I served for over 20 years.  As a director of the Evangelical Alliance UK (EAUK), one of my most troubled moments was presiding over the expulsion of Morris Cerullo World Evangelization Ministries in 1996.   The trauma led to a theological consultation on the Prosperity Gospel and subsequently, to the publication of Faith Health and Prosperity2 in 2003. This turned out to be a central reference point in preparing this paper.

Evangelical compliance and contradictions

Given the inextricable relationship between belief and practice, at least a passing reference to the Faith Movement’s theological premise is unavoidable. And the difficulty is that, “ much of the Movement is evangelical”.3 As Perriman suggests, its success may be due in part to the extent to which it has “embraced certain core elements of Christian truth … that evangelicals have simply not taken seriously enough.”4 In fact the basis of faith for the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God UK5 would not preclude it from membership of the Evangelical Alliance.

Despite the close similarities between the Prosperity Gospel and earlier cultic movements, it also shares historic roots with ministries such as George Müller, Keswick6 and the Holiness/Faithcure/Pentecostal ideals.7

Moreover, the Weberian link between prosperity and the Protestant work ethic has also been applied to the roots of the Prosperity Gospel.  In his ethnographic study of the Prosperity Movement and its use of mass media in the Swedish context, Simon Coleman suggests that, “secular creeds of progress have combined with a shift from broadly Calvinist to more Arminian doctrines,” to opened the way for the positivist, self-affirmation of the Prosperity Movement.8

Whitney Griswold’s reflection on the famous 18th century American Puritan, Cotton Mather, reminds us of the relationship between Mather’s attitude to (earned) prosperity and serving God.  Coleman is right to point out that Mather’s dichotomy between, ‘doing Good for others’ and ‘getting Good for himself’ is “the paradox which pervades the ethics of Protestantism,” as well as the difficulty in discerning between “man’s impersonal social usefulness” and “his own individual economic success.”9

In his ethnographic study of Prosperity in the Tanzania Faith Gospel, Hasu also links Weber and the Protestant ethic, but with the important caveat that, whereas Calvinism was not consumerist, in the Tanzanian setting, wealth, choice and security were bound together in such as way that being ‘born again’ meant “the true believer has the right to health and wealth and the possibility of consumption.”10

Prosperity ethics should also be located in its socio-ecclesial context.  It is clear that the Faith Movement and its subsequent Prosperity message was in part, a reaction to the spiritual lethargy of the late 19th century church, destabilized by secular rationalism and losing ground to the New Thought movement.11 With its roots in Pentecostalism, the Faith Movement, commercialized to become a gospel of wealth, set itself the task of transitioning from the “via negativa” of faith to a “via positiva2 faith rooted in a re-reading of the New Testament and a God who acts empirically in the material world.

With this in mind, perhaps McConnell is right to pronounce the Prosperity Gospel as “material” rather than “formal heresy”13 which is going through a productive and yet, hazardous theological adolescence:  an adolescence typified by ethical tantrums.  In this stage, it remains committed to evangelical distinctive, whilst wrestling to deal with the dichotomy between spirit and matter, faith and finance.  The horror is that it seeks to do so with a myopic ecclesiology and without a serious grasp of historical theology.  This, together with an over-realized eschatology, has huge implications for its attitude to holiness, its ethical code and its understanding of idolatry.

Holiness and Prosperity 

A movement, which has emerged from the Holiness/Pentecostal traditions of the late 19th and early 20th century, will inevitably be concerned about morality and holiness, and as Perriman reminds us, it has attempted to link righteousness and prosperity.14

In his study of Apostle Guti’s, Zimbabwe Assemblies of God, Africa (ZAOGA), David Maxwell has demonstrated precisely this dichotomy – particularly for the movement in Africa and Latin America.  Once saved, the individual is brought into a pietistic community where a double makeover takes place: first to renew ‘inner purity’ and also to serve the church’s needs both within and beyond the congregation.  This entails Bible studies, prayer and discipline. Believers are called to a higher ethical code, avoiding addiction, infidelity and debt, drawing them to an environment in which the “new Pentecostal male becomes less predatory, more able to care for the children of his marriage.”15

In this regard, even anecdotal evidence suggests that the very broad stream of prosperity communities have very active family enrichment ministries in which couples are encouraged to build positive families.16

In a more recent sermon, Apostle Guti could not be clearer in his sexual ethics.  At the celebrating of his 90th birthday, his Message to Young Preachers stated:

You must have God – not just the words of the Bible. You must have God. I’m saying to the servant of the Lord, we must seek God…We must be born again. When you’ve been born again you’re afraid to touch the breast of a woman. You’re afraid to touch the bottom of a woman. You’re afraid to touch the church money…. The servant of the Lord must not be begging money from the people. He must preach the Kingdom of God and the money will come.17

In this brief exert from a public sermon Guti conveys the core of his practical theology and ethics.

In the African context, Maxwell also draws attention to the rejection of traditions strongly associated with ancestral practices, cultic behaviour and witchcraft. 18 Prosperity offers security19 by diverting its adherence away from poverty and “slipping over the edge.”20

Pastor Enoch Adeboye, general overseer of one of the fastest growing churches, the Nigerian based, Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), presides over churches in over 170 nations.  Adeboye promotes a clearly moderate prosperity across the movement with all the accessories of the Prosperity Gospel.  But the concept of holiness and integrity sits at the very heart his teaching.21

During a formal interview he linked integrity and holiness to anti-corruption:

If your number one goal is heaven, then your number one goal is holiness… The more we impress on the people the need for holiness, then they will begin to see that you cannot claim to be holy and corrupt at the same time.22

But the Prosperity Movement has an Achilles heel:  a faith which measures its success in material health and wealth, nurtures its own ethical failure.  The ‘right to wealth’ ethos has created entrepreneurial environments with poor accountability, poor governance and short-cuts in fundraising ethics. In many instances they have charitable, non-profit status whilst operating in a corporate ethos.

In a news broadcast discussing the undisclosed financial settlement which followed allegations of sexual abuse against Bishop Eddie Long, the commentator was clear that money from the church funds was used to pay the settlement because, “That church is Bishop Long. In fact he owns it.”23

It also transpires that Bishop Long was one of six leaders investigated by Senator Charles Grassley on behalf of the Senate Finance Committee Investigation in 2011 for inappropriate use of church funds.  Bishop Long was one of four who did not respond to the recommendations for stronger accountability.  Recently Dr. David Yonggi Cho also came to public attention on charges of fraud.24 All too often, claims of fraud and exploitation have become associated with wealthy Prosperity preachers such as Brazil’s Bishop Macedo, international head of the UCKG.25

There is no suggestion that Prosperity preachers are intrinsically less moral than any other section of the Christian community; but the real cause for concern has to do with the lack of accountability which makes them – and their followers -more vulnerable.  And all of this is of particular importance at a time when faith communities in general and the Christian community in particular have become a part of a growing culture of corruption.  It’s a sad indictment that ‘ecclesiastical crime’ has mushroomed from an estimated US$300,000 in 1900 to US$32b in 2010 with predictions that it will rise to US$60b in 2025.26

In addition to this, the apparent absence of ‘lessons learned’ in the aftermath of their failure runs against the biblical demand for public integrity as an expression of inner holiness.27 But it’s also likely that the triumphalism associated with the movement’s realized eschatology, may have a tendency to neutralize its rhetoric about ‘sin’, holiness and financial integrity.

In 2000 Kenneth E Hagin published, The Midas Touch: A Biblical Approach to Balanced Prosperity.28 The study aimed at ‘avoiding abuse and false practices’29 in the Prosperity Movement, included Hagin’s ‘list of priorities for holding meetings’ designed to encourage integrity in public gatherings.30 Its not yet clear just how influential this document has been.

Idolatry and the Superman Syndrome

Let me begin this section with Tim Keller’s definition of idolatry:

Psychologically – from our point of view an idol is something you get your identity from…. There are some things you look at and you say, ‘If I can have that I won’t be a bum. That’s what an idol is…31

The Bible is unequivocal in its condemnation of idolatry.32 Overwhelmingly, this condemnation is leveled at the use of totemic symbols of Yahweh or ‘false gods’.  Essentially, the biblical injunction has more to do with reducing God’s ineffable nature to material things, and exchanging his glory for inanimate objects.  Simply put, idols diminish and desecrate God’s sovereignty by displacing him in the human heart.

This internalized idolatry is hinted at in the Old Testament33 and explored more fully in the New Testament.  Curiously, there is an absence of references to idols in the Gospels although Jesus does explore the idea of internal pollution34 which is further taken up in Paul’s writings.35 These texts powerfully explore a catalogue of moral and ethical failures in which idolatry is associated with ‘greed’ and ‘witchcraft’.  In Peter’s letter, greed is also associated with ministerial abuse.36

Ironically, the Prosperity Movement shares a Reformation tendency towards an iconoclastic theology.  And yet, it glories in the presence of high profile, powerful charismatic leaders.  The Word of God is undoubtedly venerated, but it is usually mediated by an eclipsing personality. As Coleman graphically describes it, “the most significant objects are the lectern, from which the sermon is preached, and the television cameras.”37

This Nietzschean ‘superman syndrome’ which appears indispensible to Prosperity preaching has substituted the liturgical priesthood, for the charismatic teacher of Revelation.  McConnell’s impatience with claims of ‘Revelation Knowledge’ versus ‘Sense Knowledge’38 and the ‘delusions of grandeur’39 which follow, are understandable, but not entirely justifiable. It is not enough to dismiss the idea of ‘revelation’ as cultic leftovers of the New Thought movement without seriously wrestling with those biblical texts which also validate the idea of revelatory spiritual insights.40 Presumably, this is the reason evangelical preachers pray before starting their sermons.

But even so, Prosperity preachers have a tendency to present themselves as unique conduits of insider information coming directly from God and providing new awareness and liberation for the listener.  This dynamic inevitably elevates the preacher to a status and authority without which, the Bible itself remains little more than interesting literature.  This is precisely Guti’s meaning when he tells his young preachers,  “You must have God – not just the words of the Bible.”41

This needs-based theologizing is a two edged sword.  On the one hand it clearly has precedents in Scripture. God is a God who supplies our needs42 – and invariably through other human agencies.43 Horton is not entirely correct in condemning the idea of ‘felt need’ as a distortion of the gospel.44 Quite clearly Jesus responded to the felt needs of many who came to him, and for whom his miracles of healing would have had significant socio-economic and societal implications.45 Personally, I struggle to find biblical justification for a cessationist theology and I don’t fully share McConnell’s anxiety about the Faith Movement’s teaching of delayed healing.46 But his concern that the Faith Movement too often turns healing into a “cultic obsession” is certainly valid.47

We should applaud ministries meeting ‘felt needs’; but idolatrous ministries begin when our personality deflects from the Lordship of Christ, or superimposes itself on the authority of the Bible.

In the absence of biblical, historical theology and an abject failure to relate to theological reflection beyond itself, the Word of Faith Movement has established its own magisterium in which ‘revelations’ which may or may not benefit the listeners, certainly have a tendency to elevate the spiritual status of the preacher. This happens in all religious communities, but the idolatry which ensues with some Prosperity ‘options’ has everything to do with the merchandising of this status to such an extent, that ‘payment for service’ leads to significant levels of wealth generated entirely from within the internal trading systems created and sustained by its leaders.  And invariably this practice is sustained by the extra-canonical  ‘laws’ and ‘principles’ invented to maintain the aura of authority which is then traded on.

Hasu’s ethnographic study of Prosperity in Mwakasege’s ministry in Tanzanian, helpfully analyses this internal economic system:  the biblical ideas of sowing and reaping are applied in such a way that the teacher receives financial rewards in exchange for the revelation she gives to her followers.  These revelations may not result in immediate material blessings, but ‘empower’ the listener to gain wealth, health and prosperity in due course. This “three-way win” he suggests,  “gives the income to the evangelist, a true gift to God and a promise to the Christian about hundred-fold return in the indefinite future.”48 And in Coleman’s view, this is fueled by “persuasive” and “performative roles” in which “an evangelical economy is constructed wherein the cultivation of faith involves the mass consumption of goods in the form of books, cassettes, and videos.”49 It is what Horton rightly describes as a “technology of power”.50 In this environment it is difficult to extricate the idolized personality of the preacher from the content of the material.

Idolatry becomes likely in such a synthetic environment where totem poles of personal identity are created.

Even if one allows for an element of biblical ‘revelation’, there is no place for the culture of fideism which runs rife throughout the Prosperity message.  The danger of a ‘faith in faith’ movement in which this new magisterium of ‘laws’51 and ‘principles’ emerge, creates huge dangers for our understanding of how ‘inspiration’ truly works in relation to the canon of scripture. Perriman summarizes this well:

In constructing spiritual laws we take what is intrinsic to the character and mind of God and purpose of God and externalize it. We take such essential qualities as faithfulness and compassion and translate them into legal apparatus that may in principle be operated without dealing directly with God .. In effect it produces a form of deism differing from classic deism only in that it incorporates the miraculous into the system; but the God of the system is pushed into the background.52

In grappling with the dichotomy between the material and spiritual world, Prosperity preachers have, unwittingly found themselves dancing between very old theological landmines.  From views on Christ’s spiritual death, to our life in Christ, the theology has courted a series of ‘material’ heresies.  This confusion has resulted in some defective views of the Trinity, as much as a confused anthropology.   Neither Copeland’s famous exhortation that, “you are all God” and Cerullo’s outburst, “You’re not looking at Morris Cerullo; you’re looking at God. You’re looking at Jesus!”53 are both worrying.  This is not because these men set out to diminish the character or sovereignty of Jesus Christ; it is simply that by accentuating Christ’s indwelling through the power of the Spirit, they have oversold a realized eschatology and a confused anthropology.

This emphasis on power avoids the ethical struggles54 of our now-not-yet life in the Kingdom, and substitutes this tension for an un-Christian, triumphalist anthropology which fails to prepare believers for the inevitable moments of vulnerability, and leaving them ill-equipped to deal with it in other people.  Its idolatry is that, inadvertently, it makes us self-appointed champions and we lose the thrill of God’s power at work in our weakness.55

Lessons from Jethro?

Given the rapid growth of the Faith and Prosperity Movement and its growing impact across poor and wealthier Christian communities there is an urgent need for profitable conversation.  I know of very few settings in which there has been a genuine or sustained effort to reach out across the divide.  I suspect that this is both a theological as much as a cultural stale mate.  Many Prosperity communities are thriving and have biblically induced evidence to suggest that they are right. They operate successful ministries and limit their conversations to avoid theological cross-currents which throws them off course.

In any event, most of them came from very humble backgrounds and have risen to enjoy power and status far in access of their more intellectual Christian cousins.  Indeed their personal success and prosperity embodies the very ‘rags to riches’ truth of the message they preach. They themselves have become the truth of the Prosperity they preach.

Most ‘traditional evangelicals’ who began their theological journeys from very different stables and who belong to affluent churches have less need of a God who acts vibrantly in the material world. The allure of the Prosperity Gospel and its audacious faith holds little cultural or theological attraction.

There is much to be very cautious and concerned about, but addressing the issue as ’Christianity in Crisis’56 is unlikely to open up the doors to progress and better understanding across the cultural and theological divide.

If there is to be a crossing of the divide, it will have to begin with the much older traditions who should be more at home with the ‘long game’.  And traditional evangelicalism should also be willing to learn from a closer conversation.

It seems to me that Prosperity preachers have much more in common with the New Testament than with New Thought.  And even where they have drawn from New Thought it is possible that this was done in order to copy the language rather than the conviction of New Thought ideas in the same way that the New Testament colonized Greek philosophy in the 1st century.57

But given the frequency with which scholars have linked Weber’s Protestant ethic with the development of the Prosperity Gospel, one wonders if the movement is comprised of instinctive neo-Reformers.  Indeed I would go as far as saying that Prosperity proponents may be regarded as children of the Reformation rather than Gospel detractors.

And given its Holiness/Pentecostal heritage, modern Pentecostalism still has more in common with Prosperity than we care to admit – both in terms of their ethics, as much as their paradigms of power and the lived existential life of Christ.

It’s very hard to write off the Prosperity Gospel purely as a cult. Their high profile love of media and public ostentation is the very antithesis of our worst fears about cults.  No one has any reasons not to locate Prosperity preachers!

But let me leave you with the best argument for further collaboration I have read to date.

The biblical argument is overstated, the eschatology overrealized, the idealism overblown. But this is the rhetoric of motivation – what we would call exhortation. It aims to engender among ordinary believers, often in the context of intense worship, an excitement and confidence in the powerful reality of God.  It drives us too far up the mountain of faith – to the point where the air becomes too thin and most of us struggle to breathe; but as inevitably we slip and tumble back down, we may yet find ourselves coming to rest further up than we were before.58

With that in mind, we should hope that if Moses was able to compare notes with his pagan father in law, Jethro,59 traditional evangelicals may find the fortitude to dialogue and ask questions of those who call themselves Prosperity preachers.

Endnotes

1Joel Edwards, Lord Make Us One But Not All the Same: seeking unity in diversity, Hodder & Stoughton, Great Britain, 1999

2Ed. Andrew Perriman, Faith Health & Prosperity, a Report on ‘Word of Faith’ and ‘Positive Confession’ Theologies, Paternoster Press, Cumbria 2003 p.x

3D.R. McConnell, A Different Gospel, A Historical and Biblical Analysis of the Modern Faith Movement,  Hendrickson, Massachusetts, 1988 p.19

4Perriman op.cit., p.17

5see website of UCKG UK http://www.uckg.org.au/about-us.aspx

6Perriman op. cit., p.60

7ibid p.76

8Simon Coleman, All-Consuming Faith, Language, Material Culture and World Transformation among Protestant Evangelicals, Etnofoor, Jaarg 9, Nr 1 Words and Things (1996) p.33

9Whitney Groswold, Three Puritans on Prosperity, The New England Quarterly, Vol. 7, No.3 (Sep., 1934) p.479

10Päivi Hasu, World Bank & Heavenly Bank in Poverty & Prosperity:  The Case of Tanzanian Faith Gospel, Review of African Political Economy, Vol. 33, No.110, Religion, Ideology & Conflict in Africa (Sep., 2006) p.680

11McConnell op. cit., p.47-48

12Perriman op. cit., p. 226-227

13McConnell op. cit., p.20

14Perriman op. cit., p.57

15David Maxwell, Delivered from the Spirit of Poverty?:Pentecostalism. Prosperity and Modernity in Zimbabwe, Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol.28, Fasc. 3 (Aug., 1998) p.353

16see website UCKG UK http://www.uckg.org.au/about-us.aspx

17ZAOGA Forward in Faith, Youtube 23 October 2013

18Maxwell, op. cit., p.354

19ibid p.366

20ibid p.370

21Adeboye’s most used text is Heb 12:14

22Interview, The Jesus Agenda, Part 2 programme 3,  June 2011

23Youtube upload 27 May 2011 /www.youtube.com/watch?v=NgRKahM3eDg

24In February 2014 David Yonggi Cho received a three-year prison sentence, suspended for five years for a breach of trust and corruption in which US $21million was misappropriated.  He was also ordered to pay fines of US$4.7million.

25Alex Caudros, 25 April 2013, posted Global Economics, 4 May 2013 http://dialogueireland.wordpress.com/2013/05/04/uckg-edir-macedo-brazils-billionaire-bishop/

26Todd M. Johnson, David B. Barrett, and Peter F. Crossing, “Status of Global Mission, 2010, in Context of 20th and 21st Centuries” published in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Vol. 34, No. 1 (January 2010), p. 34, by the Overseas Ministries Study Center, New Haven, CT.

271 Tim.3:7

28Kenneth E Hagin, The Midas Touch: A Balanced Approach to Balanced Prosperity, Faith Library Publications, Tulsa, 2000

29ibid p.115

30ibid p.122

31Tim Keller, Removing idols from the heart, The Ultimate Training Camp podcast, 22 October 1989.

32See Exod. 34:17;Lev 26:1; Numb 33:52; Acts 15:29; 17:16; 1 Thess. 1:9; Rev 9:20

33Ezek. 14:4,5

34Mark 7:20-23

351 Cor. 5:11; 6:9,10; Gal 5:20; Col 3:5

362 Pet 2:3

37Coleman, op cit., p. 35

38McConnell op. cit., P104-106

39ibid p.113

40See Col 1:9

41ZAOGA, Forward in Faith, Youtube 23 October 2013

42Isa 58:11; Matt 6:11; Luke 11:3; Phil 4:19

431Kings 17:1-16; Isa 58:10; Acts 27:3

44Michael S Horton, The subject of Contemporary Relevance, Ed. Power Religion, The Selling Out of the Evangelical Church? Moody Press, USA, 1992, p.331

45Matt 9:27; Mark 10:46-51; Luke 17:12

46McConnell op. cit., p.152  See New Testament evidence of where this took place in Jesus’ ministry Mark 8:22-25; Luke 17:14

47ibid p.158

48Hasu, op. cit., pp. 688-690

49Coleman op. cit., p.29

50Ed Horton op. cit., p. 327

51Of course Paul more than any other New Testament writers struggled with these ‘laws’ in constructing his Christian ethics and a New Testament Christian anthropology. However the Prosperity Gospel has appropriated these principles to construct new frameworks of reproductive laws in the cosmos and which take on a salvific life of their own

52Perriman, op. cit., p.138

53Morris Cerullo, The End Time Manifestation of the Son of God, Morris Cerullo World Evangelism Tape1

54Roms 7 and 8

55Roms 5:6; 2 Cor. 12:8,9

56Hank Hanegraaff, Christianity in Crisis, Harvest House, Oregon, 1993

57For example it is perfectly possible that Kenyon’s motivation in studying New Thought was both polemic and evangelistic see McConnell, op. cit., pp.47,48. I find it intriguing that after by McConnell’s own evidence, that at his death age 80, his magazine had a circulation of 20,000 and he had written 12 books, but at no point did McConnell provide any direct of primary source to convict him of being brainwashed by New Thought.

58Perriman op. cit., p. 136

59Exodus 18:9-12

 

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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