Prosperity and Poverty in the Bible: Search for Balance

Preamble: Expensive Christianity

Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!  Come buy wine and milk without money and without cost (Isaiah 55:1).

Christianity has become economically expensive in Africa today and that is partly because of the shortfalls in what has come to be known as the prosperity gospel.  In this article I focus on contemporary Pentecostal prosperity gospel and its implications for the materially poor.  To appreciate some of the developments consider recent initiatives by Bishop Eric Kwapong who is widely acknowledged as a gifted charismatic worship leader in Ghana.  Kwapong functions as a professional consultant on Pentecostal/charismatic worship.  He holds periodic gender-based worship services for professionals at the Holiday Inn near the international airport.  Worship services are advertised either for professional men or for professional women and held on Friday evenings.  The target groups are invited to come and experience the presence of God.  There are no gate fees to be paid but the specified target groups and the location means the worship services automatically rule out any underprivileged and materially poor participants.  They simply would not have the requisite outfits expected and the levels of offerings required.  In short Christianity, in this case corporate worship, has become expensive and tailored to reach a certain privileged class in Ghana.

The development I have described above, I argue, is symptomatic of the commercialization or commodification of Christianity that comes with the prosperity gospel.  To understand the prosperity gospel, I wish to point out, one does not have to look only at the appearance of preachers, their personal acquisitions, or just the messages preached.  Prosperity gospel must be understood as a package or brand that reflects in the choices of preachers, places of meeting, texts used in preaching, and the sorts of associations that are encouraged within particular Christian communities.  In this paper, I first place the prosperity gospel within the context of contemporary Pentecostalism and then from a biblical viewpoint discuss its implications for the poor and marginalized in society.  The religious and socio-economic context of the discussion is Christianity in Africa with a disproportionate number of my examples coming from Ghana.  The professionalized worship services I describe above are symptomatic of wider developments within contemporary African Pentecostalism for which the gospel of prosperity is an important theological issue.  In these churches some have formed billionaires and millionaires clubs and the message itself, is carefully targeted at those who are either up or already on their way up.  It is not uncommon for pastors to openly boast about the numbers of rich and powerful people that their ministries attract.

There are some contemporary Pentecostal churches that have designed social intervention programs for the poor.  On the whole however, a proper theology that deals with poverty as a social and theological issue is missing.  Related to that is the weak theology of pain and suffering in contemporary Pentecostal Christianity.  Those going through problems are seen generally as either targets of demonic activities with their situations sometimes interpreted as self-inflicted for the non-payment of tithes to the church.  Thus the contemporary Pentecostal focus on money and material things would form important basis for the discussions that follow. What I critique in this presentation is not simply a lifestyle of prosperity because to prosper in health, wealth and material circumstances are not evil.  Nevertheless the spirit of materialism, which sections of this type of Christianity appears to endorse in an uncritical manner raises questions regarding what the Bible actually teaches about the poor, poverty and the marginalized of our societies.  We need material things to live our lives, I argue, but materialism flows in tandem with greed and covetousness.  These go against the grain of biblical truth on how Christians are expected to handle wealth.  The Bible does not endorse poverty but it enjoins those who have the power to do so to pay attention to the needs of the poor.

Regarding the focus on money consider some new fundraising methods that are directly linked with people’s prosperity.  Several years ago I visited one of the new Pentecostal churches in Ghana associated with the prosperity gospel.  The church was holding a one-week revival meeting to which a Nigerian charismatic leader in London had been invited as guest speaker.  He preached what I thought was a good message over three days talking about various physical and spiritual kingdoms and how Christians were expected to function within them.  At the end of the second meeting, I thought he was going to make an altar call for people to give their lives to Christ.  Instead he said God was going to perform a twenty-four hour miracle and anyone wanting to benefit from it was to pay $240.  Most of the people at this program were either students or young adults.  A few people responded.  The next day, the amount was reduced $120 for a 12-hour miracle: “if you gave $240 yesterday”, the preacher declared, that was yesterday’s blessing.  For today’s blessing, step forward and pay $120 even if you paid yesterday.  My thoughts were: if somebody gave $240 the blessings had not expired.  Why was the person expected to pay more when perhaps the full benefit of the earlier payment had not been delivered?  In a more theological sense, why do we have to pay money for God’s grace?  We were in the midst of pre-reformation sale of indulgences, I thought.

Principles of Prosperity

The developments I have described here, lead me to certain so-called biblical principles that inform the prosperity gospel.  First is the teaching on sowing and reaping and second, is claiming God’s promises in Scripture.  We will dwell mostly on the first principle.  It relates to Christian giving, especially in tithes and offerings. On the second principle, contemporary Pentecostal Christianity believes very much in the spoken word as enchanted.  Thus whether through prayer, claims or declarations, words are believed to possess a certain performance effect and this works both in cases of blessing and cursing.  The believer is said to possess a certain authority in Jesus Christ.  This includes confessing positives and possibilities into being.  Contemporary Pentecostal prayer thus very much avoids anything that is negative.  Contemporary Pentecostals do not pray for forgiveness of sins as part of corporate liturgy.  Prayer simply entails knowing what God has promised his children in Scripture—good health, long life, material riches and general prosperity—and claiming these in “the name of Jesus.”  There is a relationship between this principle and that of giving because the “power of life” in the mouth of the believer means that tithes and offerings can be addressed to accomplish certain purposes or breakthroughs.  Elsewhere, I describe this sort of giving as “transactional” because of the supporting worldview that giving to God is always reciprocal.  There are huge returns to be expected from him.1 It is not uncommon to hear people praying over their money in church instructing their offerings to return to them in specific material blessing.

In the principle of sowing and reaping, God supposedly blesses people according to their levels of giving, especially in tithes and offerings.  The common expression is that giving opens doors, which means, it creates opportunities.  What one gives is the “seed” and the returns in blessings are what the sower “reaps”.  When seeds are sown, the faithful are taught to expect various forms of harvest, understood in terms of money, jobs, promotions, health, children (fruits of the womb), and other such blessings and breakthroughs.  African prosperity-preaching churches have attracted considerable numbers of upwardly mobile youths and middle to upper class professionals.  The resources that these groups of people generate in terms of tithes and offerings are enormous.  Members testify to coming into wealth by rechanneling resources away from wild living into constructive purposes following their Born-again experiences.  In other words these churches are very economically empowered and viable communities because of the culture of giving and the resources that are generated for whatever programs that are carried out.  The emphasis on giving within charismatic Pentecostalism needs to be lauded because it helps indigenous churches to remain independent.  Their extensive influences come through media usage.  Televangelism, radio, religious advertising, extensive use of technology in worship and the maintenance of Internet websites require huge investments.

This means some level of fundraising is inevitable.  The founder of the ICGC, Pastor Mensa Otabil of Ghana claims a divine mandate to challenge the church in Africa to be financially self-sufficient:

When the Lord called me to pioneer a church, He impressed on me strongly to found a church that would not be tied to the apron-strings of a foreign mission board. The Lord called me to teach my congregation to stop looking to Europe or America as their source of supply but to cultivate a new spirit and ethic of national development. I fully believe that wherever God puts you He has enough resources in place to take care of your needs. As a result of that conviction, our church has pursued a vigorous policy of indigenous financing and government.2

Many of the churches are rich and so are the pastors with access to money.  The high profile leaders live very comfortable if not extravagant lifestyles that include the building of palatial homes and the use of luxurious cars. In Nigeria some like Bishop David Oyedepo of the Living Faith Church Worldwide, also known as Winners’ Chapel, have followed the example of American televangelists by purchasing personal jets. Bishop Oyedepo preaches that God called him specifically to make his people rich, and one way of doing so is to teach them about the blessings that come from faithful tithing. It is now fashionable for the average contemporary Pentecostal pastor to travel first or business class and for his children to be born and educated abroad.  Lifestyles that may otherwise be described as scandalous in conservative evangelical churches because they are extravagant would be lauded in prosperity preaching churches as signs of divine favour and breakthrough.  The United States of America is the destination of choice for international travel and preachers are often welcomed back to the podium from this or that international location with loud and extensive clapping.

Giving, Prosperity and Devourers

It is important to understand how the theology of tithing and offerings is linked directly to the theology of prosperity in contemporary Pentecostalism.  Pentecostals have popularized tithing within Christianity, turning it into some sort of sacramental duty. Tithes and offerings are not mere Christian responsibilities but means of securing God’s graces in the endeavours of life.  Tithing is the only topic taught in contemporary Pentecostal churches for which the biblical support comes overwhelmingly from the Old Testament. The cardinal passage is Mal. 3:8-12 which reads:

Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, “How do we rob you?” In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—the whole nation of you—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit,” says the Lord Almighty. “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the Lord Almighty.

In almost every case, however, it is taught that the non-fulfilment of such a sacred responsibility has negative consequences in the affairs of the Christian, sometimes even in the form of generational curses.  Thus giving and prosperity are closely related. In a very interesting book entitled The Coming Wealth Transfer, the Nigerian charismatic pastor of the London-based Kingsway International Christian Centre makes the connection between giving and prosperity as follows:

Giving is a principle of prosperity in contradiction to secular opinions, but which provokes the blessing of the Lord … It opens the windows of heaven, it rebukes every financial devourer, and it stops them dead in their tracks. Giving becomes your powerful seed for a future harvest.3

Pastor Ashimolowo considers that freewill offerings and tithes perform different functions: “The freewill offering is what determines the inflow of blessings after the tithe has opened the windows.”4 In other words, payment of tithes may not be enough to ensure the outpouring of God’s blessing. It must necessarily be accompanied by a regular freewill offering. In contemporary Pentecostal prosperity discourse, need, lack, misfortune, affliction, and poverty are constantly linked to lack of faithfulness in tithing and freewill offerings. The pastors and their spouses and children have become real-life examples of the faithfulness of God to those who give towards his work in tithes and offerings.  The evidence for this is usually their privileged material circumstances.  Ashimolowo had in mind the Malachi passage when he referred to the “financial devourer” in the statement quoted above.

In typical and traditional African interpretations, such devourers would include witches and wizards, envious relatives, demons, and those with evil supernatural abilities to derail others in their financial affairs and other forms of progress in life. Traditional witchcraft beliefs generate popular stories about money mysteriously disappearing from wallets, money safes, and closets, for which people seek supernatural intervention, some from shrine priests and others from deliverance Pentecostal pastors. When Christians are faithful in their tithing, God insulates them and their endeavours from devourers, so that they can prosper in health and in wealth. Paul Gifford quotes one Ghanaian charismatic bishop as preaching:

God has always forbidden mankind from taking everything. God has given us everything, but he sets limits. Achan (Joshua 7:21-25) brought trouble upon Israel by taking what was God’s: if you don’t pay your tithes you are bringing trouble on yourself … When you take God’s tithe you bring yourself under a curse. You prevent God from being able to bless you … If you tithe, you will succeed … As you pay your tithe, people will look at you and say “You are blessed” … If people are going to give a job, you are the one they look for because you are not taking what belongs to God.5

In an article that deals with factors accounting for growth in Pentecostal movements, Luther Gerlach and Virginia Hine cite reciprocal giving as an important factor. They explain the nature of such giving from a North American standpoint as follows: “Pentecostal financial activity is personal and reciprocal, in the sense that money is given as a ‘love-offering’ in direct proportion to the importance of the non-material gift that the donor feels that he has received through a particular evangelist or teacher in a specific group situation.”6 This means not only that Pentecostals give tithes and offerings to the church as an institution, but also, that giving directly to a man or woman of God generates blessings for the giver. This idea is founded on the principle of sowing and reaping through which contemporary Pentecostals articulate their understanding of giving.  “The bigger the seed”, it is taught, “the bigger the harvest.” Pastor Ashimolowo therefore teaches that “giving increases our credit account with God” and that “the force of financial blessing is released as we give money”.7 In his words, “giving is the planting of a financial seed in order to experience a financial harvest”.8 Ashimolowo justifies such statements by appealing to Paul in 2 Cor. 9:6, “the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (NRSV).

Non-Tithing Christians and Poverty

An important and fascinating book on the difference that tithing makes in life comes from the publishing stable of Bishop Dag Heward-Mills of Lighthouse Chapel International, headquartered in Ghana. Heward-Mills’ theology of tithing can be read from the cover image on his book Why Non-Tithing Christians Become Poor and Tithing Christians become Rich.9 In this illustration of two halves, the top half is a picture that looks like a Haitian slum after its heaviest earthquake; the bottom half is a picture of a new gated neighbourhood with a posh house smarting a swimming pool. The top picture represents poverty and devastation and the lower picture wealth and wellbeing. Heward-Mills opens his book on tithing with the following revealing statement:

Prosperity in its basic form consists of someone sowing a seed and later harvesting the returns. Not paying your tithes separates you from this most basic principle of sowing and reaping. When you do not pay your tithes you harm your finances because you take away the foundations of your prosperity.10

The statement is followed by a list of reasons why non-tithers become poor. Non-tithers become poor because they have nothing to harvest; they do not attract blessings into their lives; they are cursed; “devourers” constantly eat their wealth; the fruits of their fields are constantly destroyed; and they lose their fruits before they get a chance to harvest. Bishop Heward-Mills does not discount hard work and the rewards that accrue from it. However, for him, even hard work can fail to produce the needed returns, if the person working hard does not fulfil tithing obligations. He concludes from his analysis that “tithing is a major key to real prosperity”, because God promises to sustain the gains that those who tithe make from their hard work.11

The second part of Heward-Mills’ book contains a number of ideas important for our purposes too. Those who tithe “activate the laws of sowing and reaping”; chapter fifteen is dedicated to this understanding of tithing. Chapter sixteen teaches that those who tithe “make God build a house for them”, which means they receive material rewards for their “investments in tithes”. Chapter seventeen records that those who tithe “provoke God’s graciousness”. Here graciousness is understood in terms of kindness, benevolence, generosity, compassion, lenience, understanding, and mercy.12 In the same chapter, the author notes:

To be gracious to someone is to show charm, kindness and a warm generosity of spirit. God will show you kindness and generosity when you help to fulfill his vision. Graciousness speaks of the kindness and warm courtesy shown by a king to his subjects. God will extend warm courtesies to you as you take up His greatest task.13

One of the “greatest tasks” referred to here relate to the payment of tithes and offerings in support of the work of ministry. Against the backdrop of rising unemployment, poverty and the severe economic circumstances under which people subsist in Africa, it is difficult to come to terms with the fact that not even the poor are exempted from the principle of giving to God if they wish to reap their blessing.  Bishop Duncan-Williams put it this way:  “even in impoverished condition, God needs something from you in order to bless you.”14 Yet Isaiah’s invitation was directed at those who had no money.  The main reference for the teaching that even the poor must give if they expect to receive from God is Elijah’s encounter with the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:7-16).  The thinking is that just as Elijah requested the widow to invest her last pot of oil in the welfare of the prophet, irrespective of her importunate circumstances, so does God expect the poor of today to invest whatever they have as a test of his faithfulness.  According to one pastor “is valid under all circumstances.  Whether you are poor or rich, if you practice it, you get blessed, but if you don’t, you are not blessed.”15

Prosperity, Materialism and Proof-Texts

In recent years, I have used the expression “prosperity gospel” very cautiously.  There are two reasons for this caution.  First there are aspects of the so-called prosperity gospel that can be very empowering.  The sort of charismatic Christianity that preaches prosperity has in many instances moved away from a simple “name-it-and-claim-it message. In Africa many of its current leaders notably Pastor Mensa Otabil of Ghana emphasizes hard work, education, investments and visionary thinking as the way to godly success.  He openly criticizes those who blame all their problems on demons and warns Africa that prosperity is not going to come through binding the demons of poverty.  Rather it will come through hard work, honesty and taking our destiny into our own hands and look up to God.  In a recent sermon marking the 30th anniversary of his church in February 2014, Pastor Otabil observed that receiving funding from the Chinese to build a headquarters for the African Union in Ethiopia was inconsistent with the biblical text underneath the imposing statue of Kwame Nkrumah in front of the building.  The text comes from Psalm 68:31, “…Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands to God” (KJV). Second, prosperity is not alien to the Christian Scriptures.  In much of the Old Testament in particular, material success is made the result of obedience to God and in the New Testament there is reason to believe that the Lord rewards faithful Christianity.

However the worldview of the gospel of prosperity seems to be founded bon a selective hermeneutical method that does not pay sufficient attention to the biblical teaching on poverty and the warnings against materialism.  Gordon Fee is therefore right to identify the interpretation of Scripture as the basic problem of prosperity teachings.16 Selected texts from the Bible are often used to prove that God wills all believers to prosper in this life.  In proof texting people use biblical texts to support arguments regardless of context.  The selected texts are then taken as sufficient proof of God’s mind and purpose on particular issues.  In this way whole sermons can be built around single words or phrases within Bible passages.  One of the main weaknesses of proof-texting is that the Bible, God’s word, could be made to say things that the interpreter wishes it to say and not what the Holy Spirit might actually be saying or directing.  For, according the Lord Jesus, it is the Spirit who must lead us into the truth of God’s word (John 16:13).

Let us begin with the constant reference made to the “blessing of Abraham” in Galatians 3 as meaning blessing in material things.  The blessing of Abraham, contrary popular prosperity hermeneutics, hinges on the theme of St. Paul’s letter.  This has to do with the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s agenda of salvation.  Such inclusion, Paul endeavors to show, comes through faith in Christ and not through the law.  To drive home his point, Paul builds up the argument much earlier.  He notes that in sure knowledge that justification comes not by observing the law, but by faith in Christ,

We, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not observing the law, because by observing the law no one is justified (Galatians 2:15-16).

In the epistle to the Galatians, Paul vigorously advocates the doctrine of justification by faith and not works.  In doing this, he reprimands the Galatians for overlooking the fact that God’s Spirit was received by grace and not by human effort through the observance of the law (Galatians 3:1ff.).  In citing Galatians 3:14 in particular, exponents of the prosperity gospel often omit the phrase, “so that by faith we might receive the Spirit.”  What becomes evident in St. Paul’s epistle to the Galatians is that the key element in Christian conversion is the dynamic experience of the Spirit as the fulfillment of the promise of Abraham.   Indeed elsewhere in Ephesians 1:13 and 14, “the seal of the promised Holy Spirit’ is the pledge of the inheritance of Christians ‘toward redemption as God’s own people.”

In effect Galatians 3:14 has nothing to do with material wealth.  Paul’s argument was that just as Abraham’s faith in God was counted to him as righteousness, so does faith in Christ render redundant confidence in the law to effect salvation (Romans 4:1-3).  For Paul, the indication of the fulfillment of the promise of Abraham is the experience of the Spirit.  Through the outpouring of the Spirit, even those previously considered to be outside of the Abrahamic promise become included by faith in Christ Jesus.  The blessing of Abraham in the Galatians passage is thus not simply justification by faith, but also refers to the eschatological life now available to Jews and Gentiles alike, effected through Christ’s death, but realized through the dynamic ministry of the Spirit—and all this by faith and not by formulae.17

Pentecost: Spirit of Inclusion

For a movement based on a shared experience of the Spirit, Galatians 3:14 should have been understood as a key passage legitimizing Pentecostalism as a move of God in the current generation.  In Africa’s new Pentecostal movements and churches today, many ordinary people are becoming integrated into God’s agenda of salvation through their experiences of the Spirit.  For as Joel prophesied, a consequence of the outpouring of God’s Spirit would be the experience of salvation by all flesh irrespective of sex, race or social status (Joel 2:28-32).  In fulfillment of the promise, enquirers came from every nation under heaven for the Pentecostal experience in Acts.  When the day of Pentecost arrived, people responded from “every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5): Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Lybia, near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs.  They all heard the apostles declaring the word of God in their own tongues! (Acts 2:9-12).

So Pentecost, among other things, was an experience of gentile inclusion.  The Spirit of God, in a forceful and dramatic way, brought this message home to Peter during his vision and the subsequent experience during his pastoral visit to the home of Cornelius.  Peter thus became aware through the Pentecost of Cornelius and his household that, God “accepts people from every nation” (Acts 10:34-35).  In the event of Pentecost, God appears as the God of the nations because the nations were reconciled to God as people heard the message of the gospel in their own languages.  Abraham is the “father of nations”, so the blessing of Abraham is the blessing of the nations.

John the Baptist consistently warned that with the coming of the Lord, entry into the kingdom was no longer going to depend on natural Abrahamic ancestry, but upon the purifying presence of God’s Spirit (Matthew 3:7-12).  This is an argument that is consistent with the message of salvation as presented by St Paul.  In Paul’s argument, Christ redeemed humankind from “the curse of the law” in order that through him, the blessing of Abraham might be available to all by faith. By editing out Galatians 3:14b, and interpreting the blessing of Abraham in a materialistic sense, exponents of the prosperity gospel not only misinterpret and misapply Scripture, but also, they miss a crucial message underlying the fresh experience of God’s Spirit that I believe explains the move of God in the rise of these new movements within African Christianity.

Hermeneutics of Sowing 

There is also some difficulty with the idea of sowing and reaping as outlined in the prosperity gospel.  The view that God takes money from unbelievers to enrich believers is misplaced.  Jesus placed restrictions on the material logistics the disciples needed to carry out evangelistic duties (Matthew 10:8-10).  The ministry of the apostles was directed simply at allowing the Spirit to work through them in order to reach those who were hurting.  In prosperity teachings, God’s ability to carry out his missionary agenda is sometimes presented as if it depends solely on money.   In thinking this way, prosperity exponents not only challenge biblical principles on evangelism, but also the basic right of the unbeliever to own wealth.  The Bible does not discount entirely God’s ability to bless his people in concrete terms.  The Bible has not said that material abundance is evil.  However riches are often denounced as a potential distraction that prevents people from putting God first in their lives (Mark 10:17-25).

This theology of giving could also be manipulative.  During offering time at one charismatic service, the pastor held a separate bowl in her hand and requested all those offering above 20,000 cedis (about £5 then) to drop them in her bowl.  The impression created was that higher offerings gave worshippers the chance of enjoying greater blessings than others.  The lesson from Jesus’ commendation of the widow who gave all she had, though much smaller than others, is an indication that with God the spirit with which one gives takes precedence over how much is actually offered. In Malachi 3 the prophet draws attention to Israel’s responsibility on which she seemed to have reneged.  If Israel would fulfill her part by faithfully discharging her obligations of tithes and offerings, God promises to prove himself faithful and he expects believers not to forget this.  However it is also true to say that God’s faithfulness issues more out of his unconditional love, grace and mercy than from works.  So Isaiah could cry out to those without money inviting them to come, buy and eat without cost (Isaiah 55:1-2).  The problem is that Malachi 3 and related passages have been translated into formulae in which people have a right to expect God to deliver once they gave.

Poverty, Kingdom and Prosperity

What I criticize in prosperity gospel therefore is not material success in life but rather materialism.  Materialism means to live for material things as if they were ends in themselves.  There are a number of things that Jesus said about materialism.  Of the lot the following reveals what the mind of Christ is on materialism:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. …No one can serve two masters.  Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve both God and Money (Matthew 6:19-21, 24).

In effect people are thought to be poor because they do not give money to God.  Although some preachers of prosperity acknowledge that some of the causes of poverty are beyond the control of the poor, this realization may often be overshadowed by the insistence on material and financial prosperity as primary indicators of true Christianity and God’s blessing.   If the teaching does work, one wonders why the churches themselves do not cater for the poor in their midst in order to be beneficiaries of God’s prosperity.

A popular text cited in support of the principle of sowing cash and reaping cash plus other material blessing is Jesus’ word that those who give will reap in abundant measure (Luke 6:38).  This passage is also applied wrongly.  In the context of the Sermon on the Mount the passage seems to be a logical conclusion to his admonition to the disciples to refrain from judging, condemning or holding the offences of others against them.  So to read that it refers to putting money in someone’s ministry is to read it out of context.  This is better placed in Matthew where the saying “the measure you use, it will be measured to you” is linked directly with the warning against judging others (Matthew 7:1-2).  In fact Matthew seems even to give a reason for the need not to judge or condemn others by suggesting that everybody has a fault: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3; cf. Luke 6:41).

It is definitely not out of Christian character to give to good causes knowing that God expects the Christian to be a blessing to others in need.  The compassion shown by the Samaritan was meant by Jesus to be emulated by all (Luke 10:25-37).  Similarly, James also points out that “pure and faultless religion” acceptable to the Father must include caring for “orphans and widows” (James 1:27).  However it is not a similar principle that is perceived to be at work in prosperity teachings.  MacDonald has attacked this strategy as a modern form of the Gehazi-Simon syndrome in which attempts are made to put monetary value on the grace of God.18 Gehazi attempted to collect gifts originally refused by his master the prophet Elisha following the healing of Naaman (2 Kings 5:15-27).

Simon, the New Testament corollary, offered money to the apostles for the ability to lay hands to impart the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:9-24).  That in both cases the culprits were punished severely—Gehazi with leprosy and Simon with blindness—are indications of the seriousness with which their actions were considered. It is instructive for such a theology to note that in addition to the care of orphans and widows, acceptable religion according to James includes keeping one’s self “from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).  The insatiable desire for wealth does not make this possible and this forms the basis of St. Paul’s counsel that those “who want to get rich fall into temptation” as “the love of money is a root to all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:9-10). In Africa there have been instances in which preachers have caused themselves and their ministries not a little embarrassment when the “sowers” of some monies and expensive items like cars in their lives have later fallen foul of the law for underhand business dealings.  In other cases, tensions, separations and even divorce have been caused in marriages because one party has been seen as patronizing a pastor or his ministry with gifts and cash at the expense of the domestic budget.

The teaching on positive confession like the others does not stand up in the face of biblical evidence.  The difficulties raised by such formulaic theology of positive confession are not only theological, but also pastoral.  Theologically it presents a wrong view of God as being there merely to service the wants of humankind once the right principles or formulae are applied.  There seem to be no provision either for the will of God or adequate explanations for why things do not always get better.  The explanations offered for setbacks in terms of un-confessed sin, non-fulfillment of monetary obligations to God and the church, negative confessions, demonic activity and lack of faith are often simply inadequate, inappropriate and insufficient as far as the enigmas of life are concerned.  The result has been the pain, suffering and disappointment caused to many believers through these principles.  It is simply unrealistic, pastorally insensitive and unbiblical to preach that Christians could enjoy a pain-free, problem-free life merely by positive confession and payment of tithes.  In the experience of St. Paul, it is in carrying in one’s body the death of Jesus that the life of the resurrected Christ may also be revealed in the body of the believer (2 Corinthians 4:9-10).

When considered in isolation, biblical passages like John 10:10 and 3 John 2 seem to promise exactly what the prosperity message sees in them, that is, abundant life and prosperity in health and soul.  In the Old Testament as seen in Deuteronomy 28, material prosperity is often tied to righteousness.  In Psalm 37:25 for example, the righteous are not forsaken, and their children do not beg bread.  In Proverbs 10:22, “the blessing of the Lord brings wealth”, to which there is no trouble attached.  The series of blessing accompanying faithfulness to the covenant in Deuteronomy 28 includes fruitfulness both in terms of human fertility, agricultural produce and financial security.  There is thus a case for believing in God’s ability to bless those who trust in him.

But God’s blessing does not always come in the form of material blessing.  If is interpreted that way the poor will feel excluded from God’s economy just as we have professionalized worship tailored to the needs of middle class Christians.  Divine blessing also comes in the form of grace to cope with life’s afflictions and uncertainties.  A key principle in biblical interpretation is that theology must be based on the Bible’s total teaching on a subject and not on selective hermeneutics.19 For example John 10:10 cited by prosperity exponents to support the teaching has nothing to do with material prosperity as such.  The word that is translated life in this verse is zoe referring to eternal life.  What Jesus wished for believers therefore, was that they would super-abound in the quality of life that ensures the actualization of the kingdom of God in their lives.  In that case believers would not die eternally.20 Similarly Fee points out that the word translated prosper in 3 John 2, is a greeting meaning to “to go well with someone.”  It is a well wish and has nothing to do with financial prosperity.21 So faith in God does not exclude general well being.  It ensures for both rich and poor believers God’s love both in this life and in the next.

Conclusion

What is striking about Old Testament law, Dewi Hughes notes, is that it recognizes the very strong human bias to self-interest and provides a legal framework to control it.  Thus the law, he points out, focuses on putting limits on the rich and powerful ostensibly so that the poor and helpless are not exploited.22 Jesus gave considerable attention to lepers, despised women, and other marginalized people and went to the extent of warning that those who do not give to those in need will experience eternal damnation (Matthew 25:31-46).  In effect Jesus wanted his followers to give to the poor not take from them.  In this vein Ronald Sider concludes: “if centrality in Scripture is any criterion of doctrinal importance, the biblical teaching about God’s concern for the poor ought to be an important doctrine for Christians.”23

The teaching that people are poor because they do not give to God is an antithesis to Jesus’ saying that people should forgive even their enemies since God does not discriminate between the righteous and unrighteous in the provision of rain and sunshine (Matthew 5:45).  In prosperity teaching, the problem is with the undue emphasis placed on material wealth.  In Jesus’ own words, ‘a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions’ (Luke 12:15; cf. 1 John 2:15-17; Proverbs 27:24; 22:28; Ecclesiastes 5:13; Psalm 62:10).  The Christian church must therefore be wary of giving undue attention to material things as signifying God’s satisfaction with one’s Christianity.

 

Endnotes

1J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, Contemporary Pentecostal Christianity: Interpretations from an African Context (Oxford: Regnum International, 2013).

2Mensa Otabil, Beyond the Rivers of Ethiopia: A Biblical Revelation on God’s Purpose for the Black Race (Accra: Altar Media, 2004), 8, 64.

3Matthew Ashimolowo, The Coming Wealth Transfer (London: Mattyson Media, 2006), 193–94.

4Ashimolowo, Coming Wealth Transfer, 196.

5Gifford, Ghana’s New Christianity: Pentecostalism in a Globalizing African Economy (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2004), 62.

6Luther P.Gerlach and Virginia H. Hine, “Five Factors Crucial to the Growth and Spread of a Modern Religious Movement”, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 1 (1968), 29.

7Ashimolowo, Coming Wealth Transfer, 190, 192.

8Ashimolowo, Coming Wealth Transfer, 192.

9Dag Heward-Mills, Why Non-Tithing Christians Become Poor and How Tithing Christians Become Rich (Wellington, South Africa: Lux Verbi. BM, 2009).

10Heward-Mills, Why Non-Tithing Christians Become Poor, 1.

11Heward-Mills, Why Non-Tithing Christians Become Poor, 7.

12Heward-Mills, Why Non-Tithing Christians Become Poor, 134.

13Heward-Mills, Why Non-Tithing Christians Become Poor, 135.

14Duncan-Williams, Destined to Succeed, 52.

15Eastwood Anaba, Breaking Illegal Possession: Dislodge the Enemy and Possess the Land (Accra: Design Solutions, 1996), 29.

16Gordon D. Fee, The Disease of the Health and Wealth Gospels (Beverly, MA: Frontline Publishing, 1985), 3.

17Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, 394, 395

18W.G. MacDonald, ‘The Cross Versus Personal Kingdoms’, Pneuma vol. 3, 2 (1981), 33.

19William W. Klein et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1993), 387-388.

20David Hill, Greek Words and Hebrew Meanings: Studies in the Semantics of Soteriological Terms (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), 196.

21Fee, The Disease of the Health and Wealth Gospels, 4.

22Dewi Hughes, Power and Poverty: Divine and Human Rule in a World of Need (Nottingham: Intervarsity Press, 2008), 75.

23Ronald Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1997), 64.

 

J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu: Trinity Theological Seminary, Legon, Ghana, [email protected]

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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