The idea of so-called prosperity preaching within the Christian Church is not as new as you might imagine. It started to creep into church teaching in the USA as far back as late nineteenth to early twentieth century. The basic idea is as follows: God will bless those who have faith in a material way, not just a spiritual way. The right amount of faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will result in financial prosperity and freedom from sickness. Sickness and poverty are ‘curses’, that can be broken by faith.
After the second world war, preacher Oral Roberts told his followers that money donations to the church would return to them sevenfold, calling it a ‘blessing pact’. The proponents of this doctrine insist that Christ’s death for the world frees us not just from sin, but from sickness and poverty as well. They described prayer as a binding legal act and insisted that Christians could demand what they wanted, not just ask for it. While early Pentecostals regarded money as being a threat to a person’s walk with God, once this message began to seep through churches that changed.
Televangelism put this message on tv. Followers were exhorted to send large sums, often beyond their means, to further ‘God’s work’. It would all come back to them with interest so they did not have to worry about their finances. The subsequent findings of misconduct against some of these people did not change anything – others would take their place. Books written by Joel Osteen and others have spread this still further. Followers are taught about the ‘word of faith’ – the power to speak something into being. One preacher claimed God had changed dollar bills into twenty dollar bills.
In order to back up what they’re saying, preachers of this doctrine will rely on non-traditional interpretations from the Bible. An example of this would be Malachi 3:10:
Bring to the storehouse a full tenth of what you earn so there will be food in my house. Test me in this, says the Lord All-Powerful. I will open the windows of heaven for you and pour out all the blessings you need.
Prosperity preaching insist these blessings are material, and tithing will ensure wealth.
John 10:10 says:
I am come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.
Prosperity preaching says this means you will have no sickness.
My God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus.
Again, this is considered to be a guarantee of wealth.
So, what’s wrong here? Let’s start with the fact that many of these ideas were lifted almost in entirety from the ‘New Thought movement’, which started in the nineteenth century. Today it is a loosely connected set of groups that share ideas about positive thinking, life force, law of attraction etc. You will find many of these ideas as a staple of self-help books. It is theist, but it is not Christian.
Next, many opponents have pointed out that it is absolutely contradicted by Scripture, and they have denounced the entire movement as heresy. The verses I’ve shown as examples have to be interpreted in a particular way in order to fit. I would point out that in two of those verses, the word ‘need’ is used. ‘Need’, not ‘want’. You might like a fancy house to live in, but what you need is decent accommodation. It’s a spectacular twisting of scripture to fit an idea that is inherently unscriptural.
The description of prayer as a binding legal act bothers me greatly. Aren’t we supposed to have respect for God? Aren’t we supposed to praise Him? But these people will say that God ha an obligation to give us money and so on, so we can stand up and just demand it. They reduce our relationship with God to a contract. God is not a vending machine.
Prosperity movements are unlikely to have any theological governing body. Pastors are often the highest authority, with no council of elders to hold them to account. Prosperity preaching thus justifies high salaries for pastors, who control congregations through claims of divine inspiration.
Church members are encouraged to make massive donations in order to increase their own material ‘blessing’. Some of these churches will run programs for the poor, but these are just lessons to help them get over their ‘victim’ mentality. The ‘Potter’s House’ ministry has stated unequivocally that poverty is a barrier to living a Christian life.
The biggest problem in my view is this: if God blesses you with wealth and health, then lacking either of those things means you lack faith. Followers of this doctrine tend to lack compassion for the poor – the idea is that if you’re in that boat you didn’t follow the rules, God doesn’t love you, and no believer is obliged to do anything material to assist you. You might get informed they’ll pray for you, but that’s about it. Prosperity preaching blames the suffering for their situation, smugly proclaiming that a ‘true’ believer will always be looked after. Any Christians who have been conned into believing this will blame themselves for their lack of faith if things don’t turn out the way they’ve been promised. It has become popular in some poor communities because of the hope it provides for material advancement. In Australia, the current Prime Minister attends a church that preaches this. He is happy to say that the poverty of the unemployed can be relieved if they all ‘get a job’. The fact that there are not enough jobs, and that his government has done nothing to rectify this, he doesn’t like to mention.
In conclusion, I think that what we’ve got here, under all the fancy language and wildly reinterpreted scripture, is greed. People are greedy, and if you can claim your wealth as a God-given right while ignoring those who suffer as being ‘cursed’, what more excuse do you need?
I previously discussed the law of attraction in the below post. You might be interested to see how similar they are.