Reflections on the Hermeneutics and Practice of the Prosperity Gospel

Editor’s Note: This Cape Town 2010 Advance Paper has been written by Femi Adeleye as an overview of the topic to be discussed at the Multiplex session on “Poverty, Prosperity and the Gospel.” Responses to this paper through the Lausanne Global Conversation will be fed back to the author and others to help shape their final presentations at the Congress.

Introduction

The ‘Prosperity’ or ‘health and wealth gospel’ which has also been referred to as the ‘Name it, claim it’ gospel, or ‘Gospel of greed’ is a rapidly growing emphasis within churches. The key emphasis is focus on material possessions and physical well-being. This may include financial resources, good health, promotion at work, success in examinations, success in business, success in any endeavour of life, or material well-being – as in good clothes, good housing, cars, etc., etc. It also includes victory over perceived enemies who may be responsible for one’s material lack of progress. The focus on material well-being and acquisition is often used as a sign of one’s approval or standing before God. The ‘health and wealth gospel’ cuts across denominational barriers and is more defined by its features and emphases.

1. The Hermeneutics of Offering Time in Some Churches

The time of offering or giving is often the defining moment for the prosperity gospel in many churches. In the past the central part of the worship hour or two was the proclamation of the Word. Today in many churches the centerpiece is now the ‘offering time’ and not a few churches have specially skilled and designated people to be masters of this significant ceremony. The popular saying is ‘Offering time is blessing time’, not least because for many it is viewed as investment time. It is often regarded as sowing time, which looks forward to significant returns. The Word itself is often twisted to back the centrality of offering time, and in some churches there is a mini-sermon to ‘urge’ the congregation to give. (1) However quite often there can be as many as five or six different collections taken in a single service. One cannot but feel a sense of the flock being fleeced bare.

From this writer’s observation the most popular verse used in motivating or mobilizing the congregation to give is Luke 6:38, which says, “Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you”.(2) This verse is quoted with relish and often backed by a mini-sermon on the benefits of giving. Its use, however, is often not faithful to the text or context. Its context is Jesus’ teaching on love and mercy and how we relate to and treat others.  The paragraph begins with “Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven”. (3) Following in God’s example, love and mercy should produce a hesitation in judging others, as believers realise that God will treat them in the same way they have treated others. The passage is therefore first and foremost about relationships – not treating others or judging them in the way we do not want to be judge – for in this regard, “with the same measure that we use, it will be measured back to us.”

The passage is therefore not about giving to God financially and expecting returns. It has more to do with loving and forgiving as well as being of service without expecting anything in return. This has, however, been twisted to indicate that God will return in double or hundred-fold whatever one gives in offering. It is common for several collections to be taken in a single service. Songs like “I am a millionaire” and “Let the poor say I am rich” became popular in anticipation of God’s reward with material blessings. Positive confession was encouraged for good health, wealth and other blessings. (4)

Very few people who use this passage as a basis for motivating or mobilising people to give may have observed that it is preceded by some very strong words of the Lord Jesus Christ on wealth and resources. For example in the very same chapter Jesus says in Luke 6: 24-25, “But woe unto you that are rich! For ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full! For ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! For ye shall mourn and weep”. (5)

This appeal however has had significant impact on average members of various churches, particularly those in struggling situations and who go to Church ‘expecting their miracles’. With more people losing confidence in the countless government promises to eradicate poverty by so many dates that have passed and left them poorer than before the promises were made, and with non-governmental organizations seeming to spend more money on their fuel guzzling four-wheel drives than on the desperate situations they are expected to rescue, many have turned to the church as the place to find relief from poverty. Perhaps it is the realities of our context that make the desire for financial reliance or success so contagious or all-consuming. This will include situations of acute poverty – low wages (non-living wages) creating dependency, high inflation etc.

The situation has definitely contributed to making this gospel, variously called the ‘Prosperity’ or ‘Health and wealth’ gospel one of the fastest growing attractions in the context of the African Church as well as other parts of the world. Initially closely associated with the Charismatic Renewal and churches or ministries related to it, ‘the health and wealth gospel’ or the ‘prosperity gospel’ has since spread significantly beyond diverse church and denominational lines.

2. Suggested Defects of this Gospel

One may ask what is wrong with this gospel?

2.1. Escape from Reality

First, it offers an unhealthy escape from reality. The quest for deliverance from present challenges has brought about almost a denial of reality. For instance when one has a headache it is considered unspiritual to say “I have a headache”. It is considered more spiritual to deny that one has a headache and believe that one is healed. Rather than admit that one has a neck pain, it is considered better to “confess” that “I am strong” (“Let the weak say I am strong”). To admit otherwise is considered unspiritual. All things related to discomfort, pain, suffering, poverty and death are considered to be of the devil and therefore to be rejected. The underlying theology is that Christians must not suffer, or misreading Romans 8:28 to mean, “Only good things happen to those that are in Christ Jesus”.

2.2. Misinterpretation of Purpose of ‘Giving’

Secondly, it deliberately fails to see that all forms of giving to God, whether tithes or offerings, should be acts of worship.  Instead it teaches that tithing or giving to God is an investment.  It also motivates people to give with wrong motives.  Essentially, the motive of giving to God is for the primary purpose of expecting special returns from Him.  The person who gives to God appears to be the one in charge.  His or her measure of investment is expected to dictate God’s level of reward.  It suggests that people have the initiative and God the response.  This contradicts the whole understanding of our salvation and worship being God’s initiative and God’s response.

Furthermore, this gospel suggests that we must have our rewards or inheritance here and now in material form.   Ultimately all that matters is material prosperity here and now.  The pursuit of this is contrary to biblical faith and blurs our vision and understanding of God. Stephen Eyre says,

‘Materialism blunts a living faith’. A vibrant sense of the presence of God becomes dead orthodoxy.  The reality of the Christian life becomes a shadow.  Our experience of life in Christ becomes hollow.  Our knowledge of God becomes empty.  If we can’t see it, taste it, smell it or measure it, then we doubt that it’s real; therefore, we come to doubt that God is real. (6)

2.3 A Misunderstanding of Jesus

Thirdly, those who teach this gospel have misunderstood Jesus and His mission.  It is so rare in any of the meetings to hear preaching or teaching on the love of God reaching out to save people from their sins.  Could it be that they are ignorant of all that Jesus had to say about wealth and prosperity?  Was Jesus really as rich materially as these teachers would have us believe?

While Jesus was not destitute, we know from scripture that he was not as materially prosperous as the ‘health and wealth’ teachers make him out to be.  His home situation was as modest as can be.   We know his parents did not have the means to avoid his being born in an animal manger.  We also know that when his parents, Joseph and Mary, went to the temple to dedicate him, all they could present as an offering was a pair of doves instead of a lamb and dove as required by the law (7) (see Luke 2:21 and Lev. 12:6).

We are also aware that in his ministry Jesus often depended on the resources of other people because he did not have his own.  He taught from a borrowed boat, rode into Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey, ate the Passover meal with his disciples in a borrowed room and was buried in a borrowed tomb.  If Jesus were as materially wealthy as we are made to believe, where and how is this reflected in his life and ministry?  One thing is certain.  Jesus did not preach or teach a prosperity gospel.  All of Jesus’ teachings about earthly possessions come as warnings to us.  He taught very clearly, “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses”(Luke 12:15) (8). Unlike our modern day preachers, Jesus warned against the deceitfulness of riches (Matthew 13:22). In fact he refers to it as “unrighteousness mammon” (Luke 16:9). As an end in itself money has the tendency to compete for our loyalty that belongs to God.  It has the tendency to become an idol that rules our lives.  This is why Jesus warns against relating to money as we relate to God. “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and mammon” (Luke 16:13).

To the Pharisees, who loved money, Jesus gave the warning,“What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight”(Luke 16:15). The ‘health and wealth’ gospel does not appear to have taken the warnings of Jesus seriously.

3. Prosperity Gospel and the Challenge of Poverty in the African Context

The inequitable distribution of resources and the resultant gap between the rich and poor in Africa has always been a concern for government and churches. In the past, most people looked to governments for the remedy. However, increasingly with the rapid growth of Christianity, more and more people are looking towards the church for succour. The prosperity gospel, which is increasingly becoming part of the identity of Pentecostal/Charismatic churches, has very strong appeal to those seeking material and physical well-being. In the milieu of socio-economic and political instability and their impact on society, churches with the prosperity emphasis have become the fastest growing face of African Christianity.

Africa is still believed to be the richest continent in the whole world in spite of droughts or other natural disasters that limit production or productivity. Yet significant numbers of our people still live in abject poverty, and many below recognized poverty lines. Describing the challenge of poverty, particularly in the African context, the former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan has said, “For all too many… life is a continuous struggle against hunger, malnutrition, polluted drinking water, infectious disease, ignorance, oppression and violent conflict”. (9)

It must be added that in most contexts, there exists the paradox of the affluent rich in contrast to the poor. This reality often fuels an unlimited ascent of greed. Very often the most affected people are the younger generation (Africa’s population is mostly young). As national resources are plundered, it is the future of young people that is compromised. When the Nigerian or Angolan oil resources, Cameroonian mahogany or Zambian copper is plundered and traded at give-away prices to the highest bidder, it is the future of the younger generation that is being mortgaged.

In the past, most people would have looked to the government for the remedy. However, this trend is changing fast as government leadership can hardly meet the needs of the poor. Among young people in particular, there is growing loss of confidence in political leaders.

Tired of Government promises and inability of leaders like these to deliver, young people resort to at least three things.

First, some give up and commit suicide, as happened recently with a twenty-one year old in South Africa. (10) Denied a much-needed permit to secure work in his own country and having been rejected in derogatory terms, this young man took his own life. Even though the Home Affairs minister wept when she heard the news, her tears were too late to remedy the situation.

Secondly, those who do not commit suicide find ways to take flight to greener pastures.  Thousands of African young people migrate to Europe or North America because home is no longer safe or conducive to a promising future. In 2006 alone, 31,000 illegal immigrants from West Africa are reported to have crossed into Spain’s Canary Islands (11). One would suggest that issues like these are critical enough to be among the concerns of African churches. Rather than address issues like this, the health and wealth gospel fuels it.

Thirdly, and not least, many young people as well as the old turn to churches who are or should be the custodians of good news. Ordinarily the Church, and especially those who have embraced the prosperity gospel, should be good news to the poor. While some are, others are not. This is primarily because of some contradictions. Some have, as Schuller suggested many years ago, become a place where “Christianity has impressed many as being largely a social organisation capable of worshipping God and mammon simultaneously, and demanding payments for the symbols of membership, the administration of the sacraments”. (12)

Especially there are issues with the affluence and lifestyle of some prosperity church leaders. Some are known to be afflicted with greed, using greed to fleece their flocks. Others are known to use the promise of miracles to gain more affluence. While many churches claim to be concerned about alleviating the needs of victims of poverty, they may have raised another category of victims – victims of prosperity. Victims of prosperity are people within the African context, including some in churches, who are so materially prosperous that they have become blind to the needs of others. While the focus on various victims of poverty is critical, there are many ‘victims of prosperity’ who need a different kind of attention, calling them to renounce their affluent lifestyle for the sake and benefit of the poor.  If the needs of those that are materially poor are to be met, there is a great need for those that are materially affluent to be better stewards of their resources for the benefit of those less privileged. Therefore victims of material prosperity, wherever they are, need attention as well, particularly within churches that have embraced the prosperity gospel. This of course would mean calling pastors and bishops to set the example by living more simply.

The tendency for all people, when prosperous and comfortable, is to be less aware of the plight of others around us. And this is where greed steps in. Lamin Sanneh indicates how Chevalier de Jaucourt, a leading voice of French Enlightenment, wrote in 1765 about how “avarice and greed, which ruled the earth, never allowed the cry of humanity on behalf of slaves to be heard”(13). It is easy to say because we are a people of God or ‘men of God’ we are above such blindness.  But as Lamin Sanneh warns, religion itself “could easily be enticed by profits and worldly gain to bend conscience into compliance”.(14) There is much work to be done in this area.

4. Is the Prosperity Gospel Good News for the Poor?

The Message of God’s Kingdom has been called ‘Good News’. The Kingdom is about Good News (Luke 4:18). The emphasis on repentance is about restoration (Luke 3). With all that has been described above, where the shepherds appear to be fleecing the flock, one cannot say the prosperity gospel, as it is now, is good news to the poor. Many poor people who go to church always expecting their own miracle cannot help but feel a sense of abandonment. Some African women have been known sometimes to skip going to church because they do not feel they have the right attire, or because they have nothing to put into the multiple offering time collections. As they see others dancing to the front, they feel a sense of diminished self-worth, even though they know that some who dance to the front only go through the motions without putting anything into the offering basket. Outside church, the pains of poverty give them a diminished sense of dignity as they struggle to make ends meet. One cannot therefore say this gospel, as it is, constitutes ‘good news’ for the poor. What can the Church do to alleviate the situation?

Remembering the Poor

Do prosperity preaching churches really remember the poor? How do we help the Church to remember the poor in a context in which many do not see the promises of ‘men of God’ to them fulfilled? Paul, in writing to the Church in Galatia, says,

James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews.  All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do. (15)

In another letter to the Church at Colossae, Paul writes,

So put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within you. Have nothing to do with sexual sin, impurity, lust, and shameful desires. Don’t be greedy for the good things of this life, for that is idolatry. (16)

These passages suggest that greed is as much an affliction of the rich as it is of the poor. It takes people who have renounced the greed for the good things in life to really remember the needs of the poor. Are there things the Church can do to focus on the needs of the poor? How many churches are actually creating opportunities for vocational training or other means of helping the poor?  There are other issues related to this.

In Conclusion:

There are few people today who can speak as authoritatively as Jim Baker on the prosperity gospel.  In an interview with Charisma shortly after his release from jail, Baker admitted that he had been building a 1980 style tower of Babel to make a name for himself.  His tower of Babel was a multimillion-dollar business that had a $30 million payroll and more than 2,200 employees.

Baker has since repented and apologised for the PTL scandal.  He has written a 647-page book titled I Was Wrong (Thomas Nelson) in which he confessed his sins.  Far from what he used to be, Baker now teaches about sacrifice and the cost of discipleship. In his interview with Charisma, Bakker says:

While I was in prison, the Lord showed me He wanted me to study the words of Christ in the Bible.  So I began to write out in longhand every word that Christ spoke.  I spent two years doing this.   I wanted to know Christ and everything He said.  And as I began to absorb the teachings of Christ, it changed my life.  Sometimes I would be moved to study 16 hours a day. (17)

After his years of study, what did Bakker discover about Jesus concerning wealth?

While I studied Jesus’ words, I couldn’t find anywhere in the Bible where He said anything good about money.  And this started to prick my heart.  Luke 6:24 says, ‘Woe to you who are rich’. In Mark 4:19, Jesus talked about the ‘deceitfulness of riches’.  Jesus told us not to lay up treasures on earth in Matthew 6:24.  In Luke 12:15, He said: ‘Watch out, be on your guard against all kinds of greed.  A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions’. (18)

This ‘health and wealth’ gospel is therefore nothing less than seduction into a false delusion.  It is an unrealistic solution to challenges of daily life in Africa and destroys the Protestant work ethic by offering shortcuts to material success. Besides, it reduces God to the ‘genie in the bottle’ whose main task is to respond to human manipulation.

To embrace it is to fall into the peril of the love of money that Paul warned Timothy about. (19) To embrace it is to be more earthly minded than heavenly minded.  It is to forget that the Kingdom of God is not just “of this world” and to assume that it is primarily meat and drink.

It is worth taking seriously the truth from John Stott that,

Life, in fact, is a pilgrimage from one moment of nakedness to another. So we should travel light and live simply. (20)

© The Lausanne Movement 2010

  1. I was in church recently in Lagos (September 21, 2008) where there were six different collections for various purposes including freedom from fear.
  2. The New King James Version. 1996, c1982 (Lk 6:38). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
  3. The Holy Bible: King James Version. 1995 (Lk 6:37). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
  4. I have observed this in Gabriel Oduyemi’s Bethel Chapel in Lagos as well as in other Churches.
  5. The Holy Bible: King James Version. 1995 (Lk 6:24-25). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
  6. Stephen D. Eyre, Defeating the Dragons of the World – Resisting the Seduction of False Values, p. 28
  7. See Luke 2:21 and Leviticus 12:6
  8. The King James Version.
  9. See Anan, Kofi, as cited in Source:  http://www.solcomhouse.com/poverty.htm
  10. See “Dlamini-Zuma weeps over ID Suicide” , as cited in http://www.iol.co.za/index (August 31 2009)
  11. See Martin Luther King, “Get Rich or Die Trying” in Africa Today Magazine, An Afro Media (UK) Publication, London, April 2008), p. 16
  12. See Schuller, S. J., ‘Conceptions of Christianity in the context of Tropical Africa: Nigerian reactions to it advent’, essay in Baeta, C. C., Christianity in Tropical Africa, (London, Oxford, 1968) p. 220 as cited in  Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy, (Second Revised and Enlarged Edition) Heinemann Educational Publishers, Oxford, 1969), p. 232
  13. Sanneh, Lamin,  Disciples of All Nations, Pillars of World Christianity, (Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 122
  14. Sanneh, Lamin,  Disciples of All Nations, Pillars of World Christianity, p. 122
  15. See Galatians 2: 9-10 in The Holy Bible: New International Version. 1996, c1984 (Ga 2:9-10). (Grand Rapids: Zondervan.)
  16. Holy Bible New Living Translation. 1997 (Col 3:5). (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House.)
  17. Jim Baker in an Interview with Charisma, (February 1997) p.48
  18. Ibid., p.28
  19. II Timothy 3:1-5
  20. John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today (Marshall Pickering, Harper and Collins Publishers, 1990) Page 246]
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