How is Prosperity Theology Penetrating the Theology and Practice of Mainline Churches?

The topic assigned to me was: “What Are the Different Types of Prosperity Theology? Or, in other words, in what ways Prosperity Theology is penetrating the theology and practice even of mainline churches? The idea is to make a self-critique.”  This is a key issue but to answer it would require more than just one presentation. In a way, many of the other speakers deal with some part of this question from different perspectives. Prosperity Theology (PT) has been a movement which has morphed so much and has developed many expressions that resemble little its predecessors. I divide this presentation in two main parts: a historical approach and a theological one. But first, a prolegomenon.

Introduction

Have you ever wondered why John the Baptist has not been the favorite saint of Prosperity Theology (PT) preachers?  John the Baptist’s gospel: Commit yourself to God, serve God unconditionally, and get beheaded. In PT’s lingo: sow for God, make a covenant with God, and then… There is actually no category in their scheme to explain what happened to John. Beheading is beyond comprehension.

Jesus considered John the Baptist “the greatest man ever” (Mat. 11:7-15). Jesus had great respect for his cousin John; Jesus set him up as an example for his disciples. However, for PT preachers John’s life goes exactly against their get-rich, happy-forever message. Instead, the hero for PT could be the successful farmer who had to build new storage units for his crops. Here is someone who, without any doubt, received more than a hundred times what he had sowed. He planned for the future, he had good managerial skills, he even had enough vision to grow and expand his bank account. This farmer’s life is a dream-come-true, the message of wealth and happiness we hear so often these days. John the Baptist represents for PT a failure, the rich farmer is their perfect example. Strangely enough Jesus had an opposite evaluation of these two men: John was a winner and the rich farmer a loser.

How is it that our current worldview has lead us to reject John the Baptist and embrace the rich farmer albeit Jesus’ opinions? When did we change our Christianity for a “Happy Meal”? What made us swap our Bibles for secular self-improvement programs? All of this is part of a complex phenomenon with sociological, economic, political and even philosophical factors involved. What I want to explore today is some elements of the theological-historical process that have made it possible for conservative-fundamentalist-biblical evangelical leaders to become promoters of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” ecclesiastical shows.

First, let me tell you where I am coming from. I had the blessing of growing up in an evangelical home. My dad became evangelical in his mid-twenties. His evangelistic zeal turned him into a bi-vocational pastor of a small congregation he started. He represented the typical Latin American pastor: little formal education; school and theological studies were a luxury in families trying to get enough food to harvest, sell, or eat.  But that never was a handicap for him. He worked as a truck driver for a concrete company during the day and at night and weekends his efforts went into the congregation. Even though his salary was meager and his family was growing he never considered the cost too high to serve his Lord. We had a house but our financial situation was not easy. Things worsened after my Mom died leaving behind a widower with six kids, ages twelve to one. But God took care of us. We all finished high school, two of us graduated from university. When I became a missionary, twenty-nine years ago, I never demanded anything from God. “Here I am, send me wherever you wish.” The Lord took that prayer seriously. I have served him in Colombia, Ecuador, Uruguay, Bolivia and Paraguay among many other places. According to PT I should be a billionaire by now! But I count my blessings otherwise: the Lord has given me the education my dad never had, a wonderful wife, three kids, and many opportunities to serve him and others. So, why am I not buying the PT gospel? And how can we help our brothers and sisters in Christ to keep that virus out of their systems?

A little bit of history

In the past many writers and pastors have pointed out the lack of theological development of Latin American evangelicals of all denominations including mainline churches. Historically theology was considered secondary to action. “There is a whole continent to win for Christ, we have no time for theology!” Furthermore, “theology was already done in Europe and North America, what else do we need?” This pragmatic approach served its purpose at the beginnings of the church. However, evangelicals in Latin America needed to think through their faith in order to address the questions, situations, and cultures of the continent. For example, the great Mexican writer, journalist, and theologian Gonzalo Baez-Camargo asked in 1929: “Maybe our Protestantism does not adapt well to the temperament of these peoples, it does not satisfy their religious aspirations, neither does it fulfill their spiritual needs, in a word, it does not take roots, it does not stick, it does not identifies with them?” He concludes that “perhaps we have been unable to connect with our people. We are estranged from our race.” Instead of finding the causes in external elements, Báez turned his look into the Protestant movement to reevaluate and reorganize it.

It is urgent to examine carefully our Protestantism; to review our way of presenting the message, our organization, the forms of our meetings; our methods; our attitude toward the social longings of our peoples; our elements, our physiognomies.

Our Protestantism does not have any roots or any relationship with the spiritual traditions of our race… It is a pity that in our dealings with Catholicism we have gone so far as to reject even whatever is Christian, and glorious, of the religious experience of our race.

Consequently, Báez proposed to “Latinize” Protestantism. Camargo’s words reflect the fact that evangelical faith came to Latin America from abroad and from the get-go Latin American evangelicals received a theology packed in European or North American boxes. We translated those theologies, copied and memorized them, and taught them as sacred. We worried little with the question of how to “Latinize” them. It became comfortable and easy to just repeat “theologies.”  We learned to copy. “Whatever came from abroad was surely better than our local product”, we thought.

Later in the century some people took notice of Baez’ agenda to Latinize our faith. It was not an easy process to overcome the many bumps and hurdles.  However these efforts felt on hard soil, tiny seeds wishing to grow.  Contextual evangelical theology taking root, a wonderful idea, but, it did not happen; the enticement of foreign theologies (and largesse) overpowered. There were evangelical theological proposals that biblically addressed our issues of poverty, corruption, injustice, income inequality, etc. but most evangelicals did not pay attention to them because these ideas did not come from abroad. So, a first answer to our question of why PTs have been adopted by conservative evangelicals, or mainline churches, is that they lacked theological depth that would have protected them from accepting such gross distortions of the gospel. Theologies made and prepared in capitalistic, affluent societies did not and could not prepared Latin Americans to combat trends like PTs. Consequently, in order to regain our ground and return to the true biblical evangelical faith we need to overcome our theological illiteracy and become theologically wise. We cannot afford to remain ignorant of our theological predicament.

Theology

Jesus matters. PT has dethroned Christ, it has removed him from the right hand of God and has converted him into a servant. He is not the Lord of the universe and the Head of the church anymore. He exists only to fulfill my dreams, to attend my needs, to grant my wishes. He has no other purpose than to be ready to take our orders and do exactly as we tell him. For PT Christ is mostly an investment broker in charge of a celestial bank guaranteeing good profits to investors. But this is not the Christ of the Bible.

Argentinean Methodist theologian Jose Miguez said: “A reduced Christ will always result in a reduced Christianity and a rachitic witness.” PT’s Christology has left our people with a powerless Christ. PT proposes a faith that we control, a deity we manipulate. This is similar to animistic or pantheistic religions where the gods exist to give us what we want because we perform some rituals which are supposed to appease them and to convince them to act in our favor. But the Christ of the Bible is not such a little puppet. He is the sovereign Lord of the universe, the firstborn of all creation, his power is limitless, his actions do not depend in any shape or form upon us. He acts alone. We need to recover the majesty of Jesus Christ. Our only response to him is to kneel down and confess that he is the Lord and by his grace we are his servants. PT has confused the roles in our relationship with Jesus. For PT he is our slave but for the Bible it is the other way around. The prayer should not be “Jesus, I am sowing this much and you better give me back 100% times more.” Rather, “Everything I have, everything I am, everything is yours, take it. Not my will but your will be done.”

Salvation matters. PT has also redefined soteriology. Salvation is material and not spiritual, it is to be free from having little to getting more. Hell is poverty and heaven is wealth. Salvation is achieved by giving to the church. In PT’s soteriology there is no need for the cross of Christ, no need for grace, no need for repentance or conversion. There are no demands for developing a Christ-like character, leaving behind worldly ways of life. There is no eternal punishment of sinners, no hope for an impending return of Christ. The only salvation offered by PT preachers is about getting wealthy. The Saviour is an investment firm, the church is the banking venue, and the preacher is your financial advisor. You save yourself depending on how much money you are able to give.

PT has another gospel of salvation. The sin is to be poor, the sinner’s predicament separates them from God’s blessings, the way to God is by positive thinking and positive declarations of change, the only way to be saved is by “sowing” money at the church, salvation bears fruit when you receive manifold times in material tangible ways what you sowed, and Christian life is equated to being wealthy. If you do not received such salvation, the problem could be you lack faith or you are not sowing enough. Together with wealth, salvation means to be healthy, happy, and in full enjoyment of this world’s amenities. Anything short of that needs to be spoken against by declaring victory loudly and in faith. Otherwise your salvation is not complete. We could say as Paul: “You crazy Galatians! Did someone put a hex on you? Have you taken leave of your senses? Something crazy has happened, for it’s obvious that you no longer have the crucified Jesus in clear focus in your lives. His sacrifice on the cross was certainly set before you clearly enough.” (The Message).

The idea that we are sinners, separated from God, guilty and condemned to eternal damnation, that only through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and his resurrection we are rescued from sin and its consequences, and that we are called to live in complete submission to God’s will following Jesus’ example, is totally foreign to PT.

Church matters. PT not only has given us a different Christ, but it has also redefined what church means. PT’s ecclesiastical model in Latin America is “church as a private company”. The successful and charismatic CEO’s (pastor’s) main goal is to increase profits and assets (tithes, offerings, radio and television stations, buildings, etc.) by enticing more costumers (members) to buy its product (message). In this model the strategy to market religious services becomes superlative and people are secondary. We see the return of a highly clerical model with a few “anointed” who claim to have exclusive access to an endless source of power. They dispense some favors to the lay people who have fulfilled some religious rite (monetary in this case). All kinds of techniques are used to ensure compliance.

Our ecclesiology is in serious need of redefinition. Nowadays anyone with the technical knowledge could start a church and make it grow just by applying the model without any spiritual influence. You do not need prayer, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, not even the Bible to become a megachurch. Just use the manual and follow the exact steps and you have a church. You only have to learn the lingo, the style, and the template. You do not even have to be a believer.

PT’s proposal has turned people into religious consumers without any ethical commitments. In today’s spiritual supermarket, the fewer the requirements on the people the larger the constituency. On the other side stricter demands discourage people to join. Therefore, we have more people going to religious meetings but no real discipleship. Not long ago I asked a friend serving in a Central American country with a high percentage of evangelicals what impact has the increase of evangelicals had upon the general situation of the country. This was his answer:

This is the situation: supposedly 3 out of ten people are evangelical Christians. Forty-six Christian radio stations emit music and sermons to the whole nation; seven television stations proclaim the gospel to the population. Churches of all sizes (mega, medium, and small) gather hundreds of thousands every Sunday and during weekdays. For many this evidences the strength of the evangelicals and the means to have their voices heard by the power structures.

No one can deny that the voices of so many people are heard: Statistics say that the police serve more demands for the high noise levels generated by churches, pubs, and discos! Currently evangelicals have direct access to the presidential palace and even to the higher military ranks. However, domestic and social violence, unemployment and poverty, infant mortality by preventable diseases like diarrhea, death of the mothers during delivery, all are increasing. Where are the voices of all those believers on the streets, at the factories and schools? Applying Jesus’ analogy, how come with so much yeast the dough is not growing?

In the ecclesiastical marketing of PT those in need who cannot buy their products are excluded. The marginalized, people with disabilities, elderly, and unemployed among others are kept at bay because they do not have any means to participate in the financial system that keeps PT’s churches going. In other words, Christian compassion is absent in PT’s proposal. For example, the case of a lady in Bogota. After a year of unemployment, unmet needs and lots of tears, she decided to go to the pastor for spiritual assistance. Her situation was too burdensome and painful to face alone. Surely, she thought, the pastor’s prayers will get the Lord’s attention. The secretary typed her name in the computer and without blinking an eye, told her that she was behind in her tithing and the pastor only met with those who were up to date with their tithes.  If she pays up her back tithes she may come again to see him. Hard to believe, but it is a real story of what this ecclesiastical model has done to those burdened and in need of rest.

We need to rediscover the biblical model for the Christian community. The church should not be the private property of a religious entrepreneur. The church is God’s people called by him to be his instrument to manifest his kingdom in society. It is the community of those who have become, by the work of the Holy Spirit, a new creation with the power to be God’s agents of transformation. The church is the light and salt of the earth. It should provide the environment for people to experience God’s salvation, God’s justice and God’s redemption of the whole creation. God has not given up his property exclusivity of his church. There is no room in the Kingdom of God for another king.

Finally, the Bible matters. (Femi will explored this topic this morning). PTs have change God’s words for people’s theories and ideas. Sadly this is a general trend in many evangelical churches. Most evangelical liturgies do not include Bible readings any longer. Most churchgoers do not have the discipline of reading and studying the Bible in their homes and private life. This has been a constant concern of evangelicals in Latin America. We used to be called “the people of the book,” but not anymore. Bible illiteracy is the norm.

The argument could be made that PT preachers find their ideas in the Bible, that it’s all a matter of interpretation. That’s actually a more serious issue. In postmodern hermeneutics the reader has control over meaning, that is, any text can mean whatever the reader decides. Until recently, finding the author’s intention has been the hermeneutical key for biblical interpretation. The idea used to be you came to the Bible to find what God wanted to tell us since God is the author of the Bible. However, PT has bought into today’s hermeneutical tendencies. What we hear in their preaching is an imposed meaning over the text, a meaning that supports the preacher’s ideas and agendas. People go to church thirsty for God’s words only to receive lies.

We need to remember that there is only one infallible word: the Bible. All other words, regardless of who speaks them, are not to be equated to God’s Word. We need leaders who give the Bible the centrality it has lost in many so called “churches”. In Latin America the people of God need to re-encounter the Bible and their leaders are the ones who should lead them to do so. Everyone, even the pastor needs to submit to the Bible’s authority. It is the Word of God that has the power to change lives. It is not only sad but tragic when the Bible is replaced by human opinions. The biblical model is not a church centered in the leader, but the leaders and the congregation together centered in and under the Word. We need more Bible and less human words.

PT gospel offers happiness while Jesus offers persecution. They promise comfort but Jesus calls us to suffer for his sake. They guarantee prosperity when the Bible commands us be Good Samaritans. They sell success but Jesus demands that we take up our cross every day. PT assures people social status while the Lord calls us to lose our lives serving him and our neighbor. They offer a heaven without poor but we forget that blessed are the poor because theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Definitely this is another gospel, opposite to Jesus’.

We need to acknowledge that Latin America needs the real, true gospel, not fake ones. Our continent needs Jesus, the real Jesus, not pseudo-preachers with big names and checkbooks. Our people need the Word of God not counterfeit messages brought by religious gangsters. The message for Latin America today ought to be incarnated within the social reality of our people, sensitive to human needs and historical processes, faithful to the whole biblical revelation, committed, compassionate, saturated with the ethics of the kingdom of God, in the power of the Holy Spirit, hungry and thirsty for justice, centered on the cross and consistent with our life style. It has to be a message without dichotomies between evangelism and social action, spiritual and material, body and soul, individual and social, private and public, present and future. Only then will the true gospel be able to transform our continent and only then will the church become an instrument in God’s hands for the transformation and restoration of all things.

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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