“We don’t do prosperity theology” – or do we?

Jun 18, 2019 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

The handsome middle-aged preacher in the white suit paused dramatically, wiped his perspiring brow with a large linen handkerchief, and repeated again in a gravelly voice “praise the Lord!”. A chorus of Alleluias and Amens followed from the rapt audience. He continued: “now is the time to sow that seed of faith – the word says that whatever you give tonight, it will be multiplied in blessings and prosperity in your life. Thirty, sixty even a hundred fold. You’ll see miracles!” he shouted. The band began to play and the choir sang; more buckets were passed along the aisles as containers stuffed full of notes were whisked away by attendants…

It’s easy to caricature what the phrase ‘prosperity theology’ brings to mind. As a young Christian in the 1980’s, I like many others watched fascinated and appalled as celebrity evangelists from the US made international headlines with lurid stories of financial corruption and extra marital affairs. In my Church of England circles no-one had even heard of Jim Bakker or Jimmy Swaggart, and it was only when I went to South Africa later that I discovered how internationally huge the Pentecostal ‘faith’ movement is. The leaders at that time such as Kenneth Hagin, Oral Roberts, Morris Cerullo – were ageing, but satellite TV ensured a rising generation of preachers such as Benny Hinn and new names from West Africa, South America and Asia, promising blessings of health and wealth to a yet wider audience.

Culturally, the restrained and polite English (even most charismatics) consider the caricature televangelist style to be crass and vulgar. And we would surely never be taken in by the theology? I remember being amazed at reading a tract by Kenneth Hagin that I found in South Africa, where he expounded on 1 Tim 6:6 – “godliness with contentment is great gain” (Authorised Version), completely ignoring the context of warnings about love of money, to insist that godliness was the means to wealth and happiness.

Martin Ocana explains: “Their [the prosperity preachers’] ‘hermeneutics of the Spirit’ puts the emphasis on the interpreter, not on the Bible’s intrinsic authority”. This quotation comes from a chapter in a 2017 collection of essays entitled ‘Prosperity Theology and the Gospel’, an initiative of a Lausanne-sponsored consultation following the 2010 Cape Town congress, whose final statement referred to “unethical and unChristlike” distortions of the gospel in prosperity preaching. An eclectic mix of authors dealing with this issue include Anglican theologians Chris Wright and Vinay Samuel. The book contains really helpful summaries of some of the main components of ‘prosperity’ teaching, which include not only ideas of giving money to a persuasive preacher in order to receive material payback from God, but also a principle of ‘faith’ as a form of positive thinking, and especially in Africa, the use of material items such as oil or handkerchiefs blessed by the preacher which can ensure success for the user.

It’s not difficult for evangelicals to critique these practices and the erroneous teaching behind them. Prosperity theology misunderstands Jesus, emphasizing his miracles and not his atoning death (unless it is to take away the ‘curse of poverty’ and, of course, “by his stripes we are healed”). It has no theology of suffering, conflating the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’; it promotes idolatry of wealth, it taps in to pagan ideas of magic, and involves authoritarian and often abusive leadership. The Gafcon Jerusalem statement from 2018 equates prosperity teaching with theological revisionism as “recasting God’s Gospel to accommodate the surrounding culture”. For example, in the East this may take the form of borrowing elements of Buddhism and “cause-and-effect destiny”. In the West it can equate God’s plan for my life with “the American dream”, and material wealth and status with God’s blessing.

However, other authors in this Lausanne compilation take a nuanced approach to prosperity thinking, seeing some benefits in this “half-truth theology” (Joel Tejedo). The poor are empowered through giving rather than seeing themselves as dependent on others’ charity, and lifestyles are often genuinely changed as worshippers turn to Jesus, abandon drink, drugs, crime and contribute to the church’s mission rather than extortionate payments to traditional religious practitioners.

While charlatans can certainly mislead and fleece the gullible, it’s also true to say that heartfelt worship, prayerful dependence on God and generous giving to his work are good things according to Scripture. The Christian faith is supernatural: we cannot demand health or wealth from God, but then again he is our heavenly Father who delights to answer prayer and meet our needs.

Historically, among white British Christians there has probably been a more natural tendency towards emphasis on the stiff upper lip against adversity and even poverty rather than expectation of miraculous and abundant provision. There remains a suspicion of demagoguery; also, the huge improvement in living standards generally over the past 50 years has meant less fertile ground for the preachers appealing to those desperate for supernatural intervention in personal fortunes. As Joel Edwards comments:

“Most traditional evangelicals …who belong to affluent churches have less need of a God who acts vibrantly in the material world… the prosperity gospel and its audacious faith holds little cultural or theological attraction”.

But is this the whole story? Perhaps most challengingly from this book, experienced mission leader Eddie Arthur warns the British church against arrogance and complacency. We might not be taken in by the white-suited emotional preachers, but have we unwittingly swallowed other forms of prosperity teaching without realizing it?

Certainly we’re not immune from consumerism. When as lay people we drive half an hour to a large church, is it because of the “good teaching”, or the well-staffed kids work, excellent coffee, numerous programmes and sense of ‘success’? As clergy faced with powerful pressure to conform to new ethical norms, or making decisions about ministry, do we tend to prioritize personal comfort and steer away from sacrifice, rationalizing perhaps that the more godly approach is to keep quiet in the face of obvious wrong (for the sake of “continued opportunities for the gospel”) rather than speaking out?

Many Western Christians continue to be generous in their giving and humble and servant hearted in their leadership – these are good ways of counteracting greed and hunger for power in ministry. But as our affluence increases at the same time as the possibility of persecution and the temptation to avoid it through disobedience, the need is more pressing for us to learn from the disadvantaged and suffering parts of the global church which have not succumbed to the prosperity preachers.

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