The Prosperity Gospel: Its Concise Theology, Challenges and Opportunities
THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL: Its Concise Theology, Challenges and Opportunities
A Presentation at Gafcon Jerusalem Conference 2018 By Bishop Mwita Akiri
The Pentecostal movements that began in the 19th century have evolved over time into various strands that we encounter in global Christianity in the 21st century. One of these strands is the prosperity gospel. This paper explores the concise theology of the prosperity gospel, the challenges and opportunities it brings to the true Gospel of Jesus Christ as understood and practiced by most mainline churches worldwide.
2. A CONCISE THEOLOGY OF THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL
2:1 Early Origins
The Prosperity Gospel can be traced as far back as the late nineteenth century in the United States. At this early stage the focus was on the belief in the power of the individual’s mind to unlock God’s blessings through correct thinking and speech. This teaching found a catalyst in some of the assumptions of Christian Science, for example the claim that reality is purely spiritual and the material world is an illusion, and furthermore, that disease is a mental error that can be corrected not necessarily through medicine but through prayer.
2.2 The New Thought Movement
The first important stage in the history of the prosperity gospel was what was known as the New Thought Movement. The New Thought movement emerged in the 1880s and centered its basic teaching on three things. First, high anthropology, which is to say that if elevated to the maximum, the human potential could achieve salvation even without a person connecting with God. Second, the movement centered its teaching on the power of positive thinking in which the material world is not a reality but mere thought that exists only in the mind. Third, believers have a share in God’s creationist power meaning that they can acquire the same power that God used to create the world and can use it to attain all that God promised through the atonement.
E. William Kenyon (a Baptist minister, 1867–1948) is credited with the popularisation of the New Thought Movement. He blended the late nineteenth century evangelicalism with the teaching on the power of the mind. He emphasized the authority of the Bible in all matters of faith, justification by faith, the experience of new birth, sanctification, and the missionary nature of the Great Commission.
Yet, Kenyon’s views were significantly different from the 19th century evangelicalism. He argued that the Fall cancelled the guarantees that God gave Adam and Eve. This resulted in poverty, disease and death. The atonement restores the lost rights and privileges and makes the believer a legal shareholder of the divine rights, notably the right to perfect health.
For this reason, believers should demand God’s blessings including physical healing because through the atonement, already they are entitled to receive whatever they ask. It is no longer a matter of seeking God’s will when you pray. Rather, it is about proclaiming by faith the unseen reality and receiving tangible blessing from the Lord. Some of the favourite texts used for supporting the argument include Matthew 7:7, Mark 10:24 and Romans 10:17.
Key to this teaching was a strong belief in the power of speech in which speaking in tongues became prominent in many Pentecostal and Charismatic movements. Equally the practice of invoking the various names of God as well as the name of Jesus gained prominence.
2.3 The Faith Movement
What began as a New Thought Movement developed into the second stage, namely the Faith Movement, variably known as ‘Word of Faith Movement’ or the ‘Positive Confession.’ This development became more evident from the post World War II revivals (1940s and 1950s) onwards but reached its maturity in the late 1970s.
According to The Faith Movement, faith is a spiritual law. This law is capable of binding God’s word into legal guarantees and can be demonstrated and measured by health and wealth. We shall take a brief look at these two elements in the prosperity gospel.
Good health is the ‘barometer’ of your faith and demonstrates the power of your faith. However, you can only acquire God’s healing power if you activate your faith and follow the spiritual law.
The prosperity theology teaches that Christ’s atoning death does not release believers from spiritual sin only. It frees them from physical disease as well (Cf. Isaiah 53:5). You maintain this freedom through intense prayer, regular fasting and positive thinking which means one believes that the healing has taken place. If someone is prayed for but does not get healed, then it is their fault because they lack faith or they have some form of God’s judgement due to sin or sins they have committed but not confessed.
There is a huge emphasis on the need to clear all generational sins committed by one’s parents or grandparents and all kinds of social, economic and political misfortunes. For this reason, there is a need for deliverance. According to the prosperity gospel theology, a person needs deliverance not just from the generational sins of the parents or grandparents, but also from the evil spirits. The use of the ‘blessed’ and ‘anointed’ objects for healing is common. These include but not limited to oil, water, handkerchiefs, and food products. More often than not, these objects are sold at high prices to those seeking healing and deliverance.
Rightly so, wealth is regarded as blessing from God the Provider (Jehova Jireh). The prosperity gospel teaches that the invisible faith should lead to tangible financial rewards. The prosperity gospel would go further and claim that the size of your wallet tells the size of your faith. Most prosperity gospel preachers would argue that prosperity is governed by a spiritual law of positive confession.
Here is the basic premise of positive confession as far as the Bible is concerned. The Bible has promised the believers prosperity, so the believers should speak in faith about that promise. Indeed, the Bible is a faith contract between God and the believer. In this contract, the believers must fulfill their part of the contract. If they do this then they will receive God’s promises of financial security especially if they make the financial miracles an everyday prospect, and invoke the name of Jesus which unlocks God’s material blessings. Whoever does this becomes the beneficiary of the legal benefits (including the rights and privileges) that the substitutionary atonement of Jesus secures (cf. Mark 16:17-18, Malachi 3:10 and Matthew 25:14-30).
Some prosperity gospel preachers would argue that poverty is a spiritual evil that must be confronted through positive confession. Indeed, others would claim that God has promised to transfer the wealth of the wicked into the bank accounts of the righteous. Others would add that the Old Testament is full of people who enjoyed abundant wealth such as Adam and Eve before the Fall, Abraham and King Solomon.
However, wealth does not come unless one adheres to some rules. One of the key rules is faithfulness in giving directly to the preacher or church leader even more than giving to the church for God’s work. In this context, faithfulness means you sow or give abundantly in order to reap abundantly (cf. Malachi 3:10 and 2 Corinthians 9:6-8) and make sure you give the first fruits for God’s work starting with your first earnings be it salary, car, loan, farm products, business profit (and so on) and then you continue to give faithfully and unceasingly during your lifetime. This leads to victory because God is a Victor (Jehova Nissi).
Victory is a spiritual and legal right that atonement secures for the believer, but one needs total victory which comes from total commitment. There is a frequent use of the word breakthrough. Nothing can stop you from becoming the winner. Moreover, nothing can keep you down. Nonetheless, you must follow the spiritual law of giving faithfully, fasting regularly while also invoking the name of Jesus.
What I have described above does not cover all aspects of the prosperity theology in full but least it presents its basic teaching. We may now look at some of the common practices among the prosperity gospel churches and the methods they use in ministry.
3. COMMON PRACTICES AND METHODS USED
3.1. Non-Denominational Congregations
Many Prosperity Gospel congregations tend to be non-denominational. Some of those who join them come from the mainline churches. A good section of these become permanent members. Others attend on a regular basis but as semi-permanent members seeking healing or other solutions to their life challenges.
3.2 Urban-Based Congregations
Most prosperity gospel churches thrive better in urban centres. Indeed, they draw much of their memberships from the urban middle-class especially in the West and from the well-to-do as well as the urban poor in many parts from the Global South. Given the better level of income among the urban dwellers, the followers can support the work of the prosperity preachers and their ministries. In addition, urban centres enjoy better means of communication both in terms of transport and the phones.
3.3 Good Networking, Mentorship and Intimacy
The well-established prosperity gospel churches are good at building networks and mentorships. Seminary training is one of the chief means of building their networks. A good number of the rich prosperity gospel preachers have their own theological college and seminary. They also connect well with all who attend church services through phone calls, emails, newsletters and the social media.
With regard to mentoring, more often than not, the senior leaders tend to allow the younger and upcoming leaders to use the name of their church or ministry. In terms of intimacy, most prosperity gospel preachers know how to cultivate on-screen and off-screen intimate relationship with their members and audiences just like the celebrities do. Some often share details of their ‘perfect’ family life experiences on TV shows. Also, they tend to wear custom made colourful clothes.
3.4 Effective Media and Publications
A good number of the well-to-do prosperity gospel preachers use media and publications effectively and skillfully. Televangelism which became prominent from the 1960s has flourished since then. Most of the rich prosperity gospel preachers own a television station of their own and have a publishing house that publishes the books authored by the preacher. The less rich often buy slots on television to broadcast pre-recorded church services. The preachers often make good money from their publications including books, CDs, DVDs and other material.
4. SOME CHALLENGES OF THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL
The prosperity gospel poses many challenges to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to the mainstream churches in general. It would be impossible to discuss every challenge here. Therefore I would like to focus on a few general ones.
4.1. Understanding of the Christology and Healing
One of the challenges that the mainline churches face with regard to the prosperity gospel is how to teach the Christology especially in relation to healing and material prosperity.
In fairness, the prosperity theology does well to emphasize healing, deliverance and empowerment of believers spiritually and economically. It pays attention to the need for total restoration of the person leading to personal health and physical blessings. Some scholars support this and argue that Pentecostalism in general and the prosperity gospel in particular is a necessary response to ‘cerebral Christianity’ found in a number of the mainline churches. Such ‘cerebral Christianity’ pays too much attention to rationalism and ignores the value of ‘non-rational religion with its emphasis on experiential aspects of faith.’ I think there is some merit in this argument.
However there are questions to ask. Is the Cross and the suffering of Jesus a symbol of ungodly weakness? Should believers expect no sickness and suffering of any kind after coming to faith in Jesus Christ? Or is disease and suffering part of everyday reality in this fallen world?
Should a person prayed for but not healed be blamed because as most prosperity preachers would suggest, such a person either lacks faith or has not followed well the spiritually law of sowing abundantly, or both? There are occasions in the Bible when Jesus told those whom he healed ‘go, your faith has healed you’ (e.g. Mark 5:34, Mark 10.52, Luke 17:19). Yet even here, Jesus does not make faith a pre-requisite for healing people. He does heal them and then applauds their faith.
So the claim by some prosperity Gospel preachers that those who are prayed for but do not get physical healing lack faith in Jesus or are victims of generational sin is a distortion of the nature of the ministry of healing as Jesus practiced it. In the Gospel of John, the disciples asked Jesus a question about a man born blind, “…Rabbi who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him” (John 9:2-3, RSV).
The testimony of Apostle Paul who lived with some form of physical illness may help here too. Paul says “And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weakness, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:7-9 RSV).
So one must be cautious with a prosperity gospel Christology where suffering is unthinkable and the faking of healing miracles is common in order to popularize ministries.
4.2 Social and Economic Insecurity
In most parts of the West, good income, savings and insurance are some of the common ways to ensure security for oneself against unforeseen future perils. Normally, social insecurity is dealt with within the state structures or private systems. That is not the case in the majority parts of the world where millions experience social and economic insecurity. Christians are part of the multitude experiencing such insecurity.
A good number of the prosperity gospel preachers take advantage of this and promise financial security and good instant returns to those who follow the spiritual law of positive confession. They also promise their audiences victory over a host of social issues such as marriage, exam, and work (especially getting promotions). Success in business and political life also depend on the level of sowing or giving. This has become like a ‘spiritual lottery ’game and like all the lotteries, the poor tend to be prime victims.
One of the disturbing things is that most prosperity gospel preachers own small, medium and big businesses and do so with money donated by the members including the most vulnerable. In this sense they stand accused of playing lottery with the physical needs of the vulnerable who have real life issues and are looking to those in positions of ‘power’ for help not for reap off. It is amazing that those who attend the prosperity churches are not bothered at all by the level of the wealth enjoyed by most prosperity gospel preachers, the promotion of personality cults, and the idolatry of money.
The fact that a section of members of the mainline churches attend the prosperity gospel churches and give money to have their social and economic problems fixed is a challenge that needs to be taken seriously by church leaders.
4.3 Dealing with the Supernatural Worldview
In some parts of the world scientific advance and secularism prevent people from believing that the supernatural world that Paul refers to in Ephesians 6:12 exists. This is not the case in the majority parts of the world where people are open to the supernatural worldview. For this reason, misfortunes tend to be interpreted only spiritually. Those affected (including some Christian believers) seek remedy from the diviners, fortune tellers and witchdoctors. They do so secretly for fear of ridicule or rebuke. This is a challenge.
Nowadays, those who fear ridicule or rebuke from their fellow Christian brothers and sisters have found refuge in the prosperity gospel congregations where the preachers refer to themselves as ‘prophets’ or ‘apostles’ or both. These individuals claim to offer solutions’ to every spiritual, social and economic problem in a manner not so different from the practices of the African traditional diviners and fortune-tellers. Both the so called the ‘prophets/apostles’ and the traditional healers, diviners and fortune-tellers often demand money (call it ‘faithful giving’) so that the prayers or medicines offered may produce maximum results! Yet, in my view, the majority of the so-called ‘prophets’ or ‘apostles’ are only a little less than the traditional religion priests and diviners on Sundays! This is a challenge that needs to be addressed. The mainline churches especially those in Africa need to appreciate the fact that many of their members regard misfortune and crisis in life as a result of some mystical causation.
5. CONCLUSION: SOME OPPORTUNITIES OF THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL
The challenges listed above present at least three opportunities for the mainline churches (and the list is not exhaustive).
5.1 Re-Claiming the Healing Ministry
One of the accusations that is often levelled against some if not most of the preachers and teachers of faith in the mainstream churches is that they tend to preach and teach about a ‘powerless’ and ‘remote’ Jesus who is not concerned with the daily needs of the whole person. The healing ministry is absent in many churches and where it exists it is a low key affair on Sundays, usually after the service. In much of the West, the level of healthcare offered by the state or by private institutions is such that few people may regard the church’s healing ministry as anything worth their attention. In the majority world, provision of healthcare is a major challenge. Multitudes who can’t access state or private healthcare are likely to turn to the faith healers.
This is one of the reasons why the healing ministry (real or faked) has gained such a huge prominence among the prosperity gospel ministers, almost like a business where you have to pay sums of money not as a thanksgiving offering to the Lord for your healing and restoration, but in order to ‘buy’ or invoke the powers that heal. This is why I say, some if not many prosperity gospel preachers behave like the ‘traditional medicine men and women’ or the diviners on Sunday.
In my view, it is high time for the mainline churches (of any strand) to offer the necessary space for those gifted to exercise their gift of prayer for healing and even exorcism in an unhindered. This should take place in a context of humility knowing that Jesus is the healer, and not the person praying for those seeking healing and spiritual restoration. In addition, the mainstream churches would do well to strengthen the ministry of counselling because those who live and serve in the Global South would know that in some cases, psychological trauma can lead to so many health challenges that do not require dramatic prayer for healing nor clinical medicine.
5.2 Evangelical/Orthodox Bible-Centred Teaching
The Prosperity Gospel focuses on the here and now of the human life notably physical wellbeing and financial security and ignores the consequences of sin including the eternal separation from God and spiritual death. This must be corrected. The mainline churches cannot afford to allow poor, often ‘dry’ ivory tower style of preaching and Bible teaching. Preaching and Bible teaching should focus on Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead (cf. Acts 2:32, 36). Preaching and teaching that presume the absence of sin in human life does the same thing that the prosperity gospel taught especially in its formative period, namely the elevation of the human potential to a point where salvation is achievable without connecting with Jesus.
The aim is to make disciples within the church who in turn will teach others the true faith in Jesus Christ, the risen Lord. This is important in light of the current liberal forces and teachings that scoop some church leaders until they believe nothing about the consequences of sin and the need for salvation in Jesus Christ.
5:3 Re-Imagining Theological Education
The Prosperity gospel is often devoid of meaningful theology. If it has one, it is often a distortion of the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet, just as the contemporary liberal theology, prosperity theology is so attractive especially to the undiscipled ordinary Christians in many corners of the globe. More often than not, the task and the quality of discipleship will depend on the quality of training and personal relationship of the preacher/minister with the Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, I believe that the prosperity gospel presents an opportunity for the mainstream Evangelical and orthodox churches to ensure that theological training offered to the ordinands and lay people is of the highest quality and is focused on God’s mission. I believe that theological education is now a most single important battleground for the soul of the Church of Christ worldwide. If ordinands and lay leaders train in colleges and seminaries where the teachers believe nothing or less about sin and its consequences as well as less or nothing about the importance of the atoning death of Jesus and His resurrection then surely the product that one gets from theological training is most likely to lead to a lifeless ministry of the ordained and lay ministers. Consequently, ordinary and undiscipled Christians will turn to what the prosperity theology and its sibling the liberal theology offer. Unfortunately, much of what these two theologies offer is unfit for human consumption.
Appendix I: Some References
Kate Bowler, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). As the title suggests, the book explores the development of Prosperity Gospel in the United States and covers much of its important aspects practiced today in many parts of the world.
Candy Gunther Brown, Global Pentecostalism and Charismatic Healing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). Brown is more sympathetic to the Prosperity Gospel and argues that it is more than the bad things it is famous for especially the flamboyant tele-evangelists who promote wealth and health and sensational casting out of demons. The book argues that Pentecostalism is about divine healing and deliverance from evil spirits. It notes that today globalization has heightened insecurity including the threat and fear of disease. Consequently, there is a growth of religions and spiritual movements that focus on healing.
Ogbu Kalu, African Pentecostalism: An Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). The late Professor Ogbu Kalu (a renowned Nigerian historian) underscores the place of African Christianity. He argues that contrary to popular scholarship and opinion, Pentecostalism is not an American import into African religious scene. Rather African Pentecostalism is authentically and distinctly African and has many functions in African life.
Clifton Clarke, ed., Pentecostal Theology in Africa (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2014. An imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers). Clarke assesses the theological content of African Pentecostalism against the background of African traditional cultural, social, political and economic contexts. He also compares African Pentecostalism with Pentecostal theologies in other global contexts.
Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, African Pentecostal/Charismatic Christianity: An Overview. http://www.lausanneworldpulse.com/themedarticles-php/464/08-2006. Asamoah-Gyadu regards Pentecostalism (globally and in Africa) as a necessary response to what he terms as cerebral Christianity’, that is Christianity that pays too much attention to rationalism and fails to recognize the value of ‘non-rational religion that emphasizes the ‘experiential aspects of faith’ that are dominant in the prosperity theology.
Appendix II: Some Relevant Video Clips
Video 1 on Health: (3.33 minutes)
Video Clip 2 on Wealth (4.34 minutes)
Video Clip 3 on An Insider’s Critique (6.37 minutes).
1 Mwita Akiri (PhD, Edinburgh, UK), is the Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Tarime, Tanzania & Research Professor of Mission and African History at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto, Canada.
2 Norman Vincent Peale (1898–1993) is regarded as a key figure in the teaching of positive faith. As for the faith movement generally, E. Hagin, A. A. Allen, T. L. Osborn, Thomas Wyatt, Oral Roberts, Fred F. Bosworth, Jo Osteen and T.D. Jakes may be regarded as its key proponents.
3 Such names include God as Jehova Jireh (God the Provider), God as Jehova Rapha (God the Healer), and God as Jehova Nissi (God the Victor)
4 Some prosperity gospel preachers use Exodus 20:5,6 to support this teaching “…For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (NIV).
5 These include Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, T.D. Jakes in the USA; Cho Yong-gi (Yoido Full Gospel Church, Seoul Korea) and many Africans including David Oyedepo (Nigeria), Mensa Otabil (Ghana), and Matthew Ashimolowo (Kingsway International Christian Centre in London) who has the largest single congregation in Western Europe.
6 Norman Vincent, Kenneth Copeland, and Rex Humbard are some of the proponents of this form of Christology
7 A prominent Nigerian prosperity gospel preacher, David Oyedepo’s church, Living Faith Church International is famously known as ‘Winners Chapel International’. It is believed that this church has branches in 46 African countries. He is regarded as the richest church leader in Africa. His wealth is estimated to be over $150 million.
8 See for example, Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu article, African Pentecostal/Charismatic Christianity: An Overview. See http://www.lausanneworldpulse.com/themedarticles-php/464/08-2006.