Problems of the American Prosperity Gospel

Cover-of-Blessed-A-History-of-the-Amerifan-P“Outsiders call it baptized materialism. Followers call it living in the overflow” – Kate Bowler

This is my 3rd post on the American Prosperity Gospel (APG). My first two posts were primarily descriptive. These next two will be primarily evaluative as I seek to answer the first of My Top 20 Questions, “What is Wrong with the American Prosperity Gospel?” To begin with, Kate Bowler explains how this movement centers on four themes:

  1. Faith (which leads to…)
  2. Wealth (which leads to…)
  3. Health, (which leads to…)
  4. Victory

This movement conceives of faith as the activator, a power that unleashes spiritual forces and turns the properly spoken word into reality. This “faith” is then understood to be demonstrated in wealth and health. In this way of thinking, material reality is the measure of spiritual “success.” Predictably, all of this is to to lead to a “Victorious Life!”  They see a straight causal line beginning with #1, leading to #2 & #3, and ending in #4. As well, virtually all Prosperity Gospel adherents agree on three theological ideas:

  1. Healing is God’s divine intention for humanity
  2. Jesus’ work on the cross earned not only redemption from sin but also deliverance from its penalties: namely, poverty, demonic interference and sickness.
  3. God set up the laws of faith so that believers could access the power of the cross.

So in my response I will seek to show how:

  1. The above four-part process of the American Prosperity Gospel is un-Biblical.
  2. The above three core theological beliefs of this movement are un-Biblical.

By doing so, I hope to show why I am justified in believing that the American Prosperity Gospel is un-Biblical and should ultimately be rejected.

My Problems with the Above Four-Part Process of Faith Supposedly Leading to Wealth, Health and Victory:

In constructing this four-part process, American Prosperity Gospel (APG) preachers seem to ignore virtually every narrative text in Scripture (which is the largest genre of Scripture, mind you). In arguing for its validity, APG adherents utilize a very few selected verses which are always removed from their respective contexts (My next post will cite the main verses they use and why I believe their interpretations of those verses could not be correct by any reasonable or responsible stretch of the imagination). Predictably, APG proponents take these few Scriptural passages and they place them into their own system of thought. Once these passages are torn from their contexts, APG preachers then infuse these passages with their own interpretations which have no part of the original meaning in any way. All Biblical scholars agree: This is a hermeneutic nightmare. This is eisegesis at its worst. This should never be done with the Bible in the way this should never be done with any text, ever. This is never fair and it is never right. To use a text for your own benefit in this way is to commit the act of textual rape.

It should be striking – We never once see the full APG process in action in any of the stories of Scripture. Why does God never explicitly make all these promises to any one of His people, ever? This is an argument from silence, but the silence should be deafening. If the APG four-part process is a summary of what can happen in the lives of God’s people (and who wouldn’t want it to happen to them?), why does it rarely ever happen in the lives of God’s people today? Why does this process never happen in the pages of Scripture? Furthermore,  the majority of narratives within Scripture (if not all of them) are examples of the opposite. For Abram, it is disobedience (not FAITH) which leads to wealth (Genesis 12:16). The same is true for Solomon: disobedience leads to wealth and worldly “victory” (I Kings 11:1-14). For Joseph, faithfulness leads to a 12 year imprisonment term (Genesis 39:11-20). Job remains faithful, but as a result he is caused to deal with some of the most dramatic examples of un-health and un-wealth one could potentially imagine. All under God’s divine hand. Habakkuk’s faith is the one that is true, “even when there is no fruit on the vine” and that is the faith Paul constantly alludes to.

Speaking of Paul – As faithful as he was yet he never experienced wealth or health or victory (II Corinthians 11:24-31). In fact, Paul boasted about his sufferings – his un-healthiness and his un-wealthiness. And what about Jesus? Sure, Christ was given a few gifts when He was born, but it’s impossible to argue from Scripture that His life could be defined by the words, “health,” or “wealth” or “victory” in any of the ways the APG adherents define those terms. Most of Christ’s immediate disciples were reported to be martyred. The early church dealt with all sorts of accusations and trials and persecutions. It would seem Christ’s promise that if you follow Him, “You will have many tribulations” (John 16:33) is the overwhelming example of the narrative texts of Scripture. How do APG adherents respond to this discontinuity between their theology and the examples of every story in Scripture – both in the OT and the NT?

Another problem: The way the APG adherents define the term “blessed” is very different than how “blessed” is used in Scripture. God’s constant promises of blessing in Scripture to His people do not equate to God saying, “If you have the proper form of “faith,”…then I will give you lots of health, wealth and victory.” If that were true, then Christianity would simply be a system of (failing) morality – but that is what Christ came to destroy. Because morality always disappoints. Systems of morality always fail. Instead, Scripture says that God’s people are blessed by being “ministers of reconciliation” (II Cor. 5:21). In Scripture, to be “blessed” is to give our lives for our enemies. This means the way God loves and blesses His people is by sending them into a dark and hurting world in order to make known the light and hope of the Gospel which makes it clear that this life is so much bigger than just-me-right-now. This is a very different definition of “blessed” than what the APG preachers are talking about.

God’s blessing to His people does not mean that God will always heal us or even shield us from having to come face-to-face with the pain and sickness and evilness of this world. Instead, God’s love for us is the kind that propels us into the evil world to proclaim God’s love for all humanity for all times. Since we have first been loved by God while we were still sinners, then we can accept that love, live in that love and then can go love others in the same way. That is the Gospel. That is the pleasure of serving Christ. That is a Biblical understanding of what it means to be “blessed” by God. According to Jesus’ sayings and according to the narratives of Scripture, to be “blessed” is not to receive wealth, health or victory.

To be blessed is to have the opportunity to suffer for the sake of God’s name – to take up our cross, to deny ourselves, and to follow Him so that others can come to experience the same joy of Jesus we experience in the midst of pain, and trials, and confusing tribulations. That is the blessing the Gospel invites us into. The full Gospel is always bigger than me. It always pushes me past myself. All other “blessings” are counterfeit, temporary, and ultimately un-fulfilling. The APG process doesn’t even come close to representing any of the major meta-narratives of Scripture, nor any of the narratives in-between. This is a serious problem. The APG four-part process is un-biblical because it doesn’t come from Scripture.

My Problems with the Three Core Ideas of the American Prosperity Gospel Movement:

1. “Healing is God’s divine intention for humanity.”

Really? How is that statement not simply hedonism dressed up in religious language?

2. “Jesus’ work on the cross earned not only redemption from sin but also deliverance from its penalties: namely, poverty, demonic interference and sickness.” 

Really? Why do we have virtually no examples of this in post-cross Scriptural history?

Unfortunately healing isn’t the reality that most faithful humans live in, myself included. As Kate Bowler states, “In a spiritual cosmos dominated by possibility thinking, funerals mark a true ending” (174). APG preachers believe healing is God’s divine intention for humanity because they believe Jesus’ death and resurrection abolished not only sin and disease, but also poverty and sickness. For them, poverty is a demonic force that separates people from their godly inheritance. Thus poverty, as an evil spirit, requires a spiritual solution. In Leroy Thompson’s words, “Jesus took your place in poverty so you could take His place in prosperity.” To be sanctified is to be rich like Jesus! For them, sanctification is all about earthly wealth. But I’m curious, if this is true, how come so few of the people we look up to in Scripture end up attaining earthly healing? How come earthly healing hardly ever happens in Scripture? Why such a high void of examples?

Many APG adherents believe that in the “Fall,” Satan gained legal authority over Adam and became humanity’s spiritual father, the consequences of which were sickness, poverty and death. They say that at this point, without Christ, humans could not perceive the storehouse of blessing God intends for us. But then, Christ’s resurrection united humanity’s spiritual nature with God’s own, resorting their spiritual vision and “legal rights” to dominion over the earth. Supposedly the resurrection of Christ shifts believers’ ontological status so-much-so that it makes them legal shareholders of certain divine “rights” and “privileges.” Thus faith is the “confident assurance based on absolute knowledge that everything is already provided through the operation of certain immutable laws” (19). Many APG adherents believe we can all be healed because healing is simply the logical conclusion to us following the rules of Scripture… Just work harder, and you will make God notice you! “Appropriate your words” correctly, and God will fix you all up!

Thus, they never pray like Jesus did, “Lord, help me if it be thy will” – since the qualification “if it be thy will” supposedly mars God’s self-imposed promises with “doubt.” Their prayers are not requests – they are demands…contracts guaranteeing miraculous results. Much of the tele-evangelists then-and-now speak of this as the “divine law of compensation.” Give money to my organization, and you will be financially compensated by God! Plant that financial seed so you can grow into a healthy person…

Ironically, the core beliefs of the APG make Christ smaller. Their beliefs make less of Christ by making less of the “Fall,” less of the Cross and less of the doctrine of Sanctification. Their theology is a minimization of both the doctrine of the “Fall” (for them, apart from Christ we are broken, but not dead) and a minimization of the doctrine of sanctification (sanctification as primarily about our material health as opposed to our spiritual renewal). This leads to them unduly simplifying God’s message to be primarily concerned with our earthly experience. This goes squarely against the words of Jesus who said, “My Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Their theology makes less of Christ!

We read in Scripture that as children of God, we are to be “transformed by the renewing of our mind…and give our body as a living sacrifice.” But never is the early church ever commanded to be “healed.” Sure, God is pleased to heal people at different times for different reasons (and He does). But earthly healing is never the primary focus of the Gospel message. To focus on healing as if God will always heal us when we have “faith” is to create a false expectation – it is to ask God to do something He never promised He’d do. It is to make the Gospel into something it isn’t. Yes, the cross destroyed the power of death, (“Oh death, where is your victory, O death where is your sting?“) but still, the Gospel cannot get rid of every immediate consequence of sin or the Fall (For the wages of sin is death…but the gift of God is a healthy life eternal life for those who believe in Christ Jesus).

Ultimately, God never says in Scripture that earthly healing is always His intention – nor do we always see faithful people experience earthly healing. To pretend earthly healing is a central component of the Gospel message is to greatly minimize the scope and hope of God’s eternal plan for humanity. Not to mention the way this theology pits the mind against the body leaving us with a deficient view of the nature of humanity (Plato was cool but we should have moved on by now!). Perhaps the worst part of these beliefs are their proposed remedies. As if all health problems can (and should) be overcome by prayer, thanksgiving and positive confession. If only it were that easy. Simplistic remedies to complex problems don’t usually lead to permanent solutions. Disappoinment is the inevitable end.

What is true about “blessing” is also true for God’s promises of victory, and even justice. Those things are promised in Scripture, but never as if they could ever be fully realized this size of heaven. They misappropriate these promises to an age they are not intended for. To summarize, the first two core ideas of the APG effectively minimize the doctrine of the Fall, they minimize the doctrine of the Cross, they minimize the doctrine of Sanctification and they minimize the doctrine of the End. In contradicting Christ, they make less of Him. The first two core ideas of the APG bring us backward, not forward. And their last core idea is stated as the following:

3. “God set up the laws of faith so that believers can access the power of the cross.”

Really? But I thought our faith in Christ was based on His fulfillment of the law, not his re-institution of it? Not so here. In the APG system, Christianity is only an updated version of an older moralism since faith is not a part of our experiencing Christ’s fulfillment of the law. Instead, faith as a law in itself is an activator to the promises of Christ – which are, apparently, also law. In the APG, the law is for the sake of the new law… This is legalism back and forth.

In the APG movement, faith is understood as an absolute law, and as such it operates as a universal and uniform reality (46). For them, Faith is “the switch in our hand to turn on all the omnipotent power of our Lord” (Gardner). But Scripture never describes faith that way. According to Scripture, faith is the response of a repentant and regenerate heart to the love of God on our behalf. Faith is the response of people when they realize they can’t figure it out on their own. It is our acceptance of God’s grace, love, mercy and justice for our sake, “not of ourselves, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

To make faith into a law is to go back into bondage to what God came to save us from. This is a step backwards, not forward. If their third core idea WAS true, then Christianity is legalism. But we know Christianity is not legalism. Therefore, we should doubt the validity of their third core idea.

My Last Critique – The APG is not a Relational Gospel: This proposed system including direct causalities and laws-upon-laws are the last sorts of components that come to my mind when I think of what ought to be primary in any relationship, especially my relationship with God. What genuine relationships are ever as rigid as that? To me it feels like the APG makes my relationship with God into a system of giving and receiving – all propelled by a simplistic system of rigid rules. Divine prosperity rests on a simple exchange – Give, then Get! But that sounds kinda weird because life never works like that – and if it did, it would be quite overwhelming. If what they say is true, total victory requires total commitment. But no one is always either totally victorious or totally committed in every moment. Especially me!

Why would I, an imperfect person, try to join a system meant for perfect people? I know myself well enough – this is a lose-lose. I prefer the Jesus I know – who doesn’t make unreasonable promises nor does He have unreasonable requirements. We kinda take it one day at a time, Him and I. And Christ doesn’t seem to be keeping track like all-a-that. I’ll admit, there is one thing going for the people of the APG movement: The constant opportunity to attend the “Treadmill of conferences promising to improve attendees’ lives and fix their marriages, finances and emotions” (196). But for what? So they can follow the rules better? Please…that is moralism. That is legalism. That is minimism. That is what Christ came to destroy. That’s the last thing anyone should like to crawl back into.

In the end, my opinion is that the American Prosperity Gospel is a religious version of a complex transcendent materialism. Yes, as American as apple pie, but it’ll give you a heart attack if its all you eat. Christians, beware! This theology is not healthy. It’s down-right Un-Biblical.

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Portals of the American Prosperity Gospel

Cover-of-Blessed-A-History-of-the-Amerifan-P

This is #2 of what will be 4 posts on the American Prosperity Gospel. I now want to focus on the “portals” of the American Prosperity Gospel. Or, in other words, what are the main marks of the American Prosperity Gospel? What are some of its’ distinguishing features? What are the phrases that are often used in this movement? Who are some of the important leaders of the movement throughout the last 100 years? Etc.

Hopefully this blog post will help people with the issue of identification – both for those who are within the movement (oftentimes without knowing it), and also for those who are purposely on the outside looking in. This can be helpful since on this topic there is an “Absence of a shared self-identifying label… Few want to be stereotyped as prosperity preachers” (249). So this list should be helpful in at least some sense. Not to stereotype, but to identify. The following are some of my findings as I read Kate Bowlers’ recent book, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.

But before you check out my list please note what Bowler says on page four of her book. “The prosperity gospel cannot be conflated with fundamentalism, pentecostalism, evangelicalism, the religious right, the so-called black church, or any of the usual suspects (though it certainly overlaps with each).” Her book (and also my list derived from that book) is not an effort to finger-point so-as to pretend all American Prosperity Gospel adherents fall into a single, same tradition. Or box. They don’t.

Like most religious movements that gain traction in our world – The roots of the American Prosperity Gospel are long and tangled as are its branches. So I doubt any one list could ever “do” as a completely satisfactory description of any movement – let alone this one. That is not what I am trying to do here. But a simple list like this can help in one sense b/c it may allow us to look on at this movement with a proper sustained attention. Identification has to be one of the first steps of that process… So the following is not a full description. It is simply one part of the larger process of my attempting to personally understand this movement with a greater sustained attention.

Oft-Used Phrases in the American Prosperity Gospel Movement: 

  • “Faith-Talk,” “Laws of Faith,” “Word of Faith,” “Faith as a Force”
  • “Just take God at His Word”
  • “Keeping your healing”
  • “Expect a miracle”
  • “Picturize, prayerize, and actualize”
  • “Speech achieves results”
  • “Expect Rewards”
  • “Hearing and Speaking Activates Faith”
  • “Say-It-Faith”
  • “Power of Agreement”
  • “Name it and claim it”
  • “Blessed to be a blessing”
  • “The Year of…”
  • “Successful Living”
  • “Living in the Overflow”
  • “God’s mathematics”
  • Faith yields results”

General Descriptors of the American Prosperity Gospel: 

  • Focuses on the individual rather than groups
  • Use of physical objects as a means of blessing. Objects given a “talismanic value” (144)
  • “Senior pastor is the heart and soul of a prosperity church’s self-image” (254 – note that 71% of American prosperity megachurches use the image of the senior pastor as the primary advertisement on the church’s homepage)
  • Techniques of “binding and loosing spiritual power” includes using methods of “prayers of agreement, names of God, angels, and directional prayer” (187)
  • Emphasizes the power of the individual mind to “transform thought and speech into heaven-sent blessings” (11).
  • Pragmatic messages stressing “favor,” “abundant life,” and “positive confessions”
  • Focus and goal of community is upward physical or financial mobility
  • Using “points of contacts” for “releasing your faith toward God”
  • Physical manifestations or illnesses often understood as signs of a spiritual problem
  • Medicine as diagnostic but not curative
  • Assumes essential unity between God and humanity
  • Employs a high anthropology and high view of human perfectibility
  • Thought is understood as primary
  • Primary reality is made up of divine thoughts as opposed to material substance
  • Believe people share in God’s power to create and heal by means of thought.
  • Faith described as “dominating,” “appropriating,” or “victorious”
  • Healing explained as a spiritual “right.”
  • Signs and Wonders as evidence of true faith
  • Attempt to overcome illness through “the cultivation of faith” (19)
  • Focus on desire, prosperity, and materiality
  • “Spiritual insight backward from circumstance” (53)
  • Mechanistic formulas for spoken prayers
  • Leaders often known as a public persona rather than a “real person” (198)
  • Adherents learn to look for negative patterns in their lives and root out their spiritual cause
  • Theology includes an excess of excess
  • Straight line between life circumstances and a believer’s faith
  • “The prosperity gospel’s chief allure is simple optimism” (232)

Naming-Names: Main Figures in the American Prosperity Gospel from the Last 100 Years: 

Late 1800s:

  • E.W. Kenyon
  • A.B. Simpson
  • Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (Mary Baker Eddy used much of this to base her Christian Science thought-system)
  • John Alexander Dowie

Early 1900s:

  • Fred F. Bosworth
  • John G. Lake
  • Albert C. Grier
  • Napoleon Hill

1950s:

  • Granville Oral Roberts
  • Gordon Lindsay
  • Jack Coe
  • T.L. Osborn
  • William Branham
  • Kenneth E. Hagin
  • Norman Vincent Peale

1960s:

  • David Nunn
  • W.V. Grant
  • R.W. Culpepper
  • Leroy Jenkins
  • Kenneth Copeland
  • Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter
  • Lester Sumrall
  • John Osteen
  • Karl Strader
  • Tommy Reid

1970s and 1980s:

  • Pat Robertson
  • Paul and Jan Crouch
  • Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker
  • Brenda and Mack Timberlake
  • Robert Tilton
  • Benny Hinn
  • Marilyn Hickey
  • Daisy and T.L. Osborn
  • Frederick K.C. Price
  • Carlton Pearson

1990s-2000s:

  • Joel Osteen
  • Joyce Meyer
  • T.D. Jakes
  • Creflo Dollar
  • Noel Jones
  • Paula White
  • Eddie Long
  • I.V. Hillard
  • Bill Winston
  • James Robison
  • Bishop Jack Wallace
  • I.V. Hilliard
  • David Evans
  • Charles Blake
  • R.A. Vernon

My next two posts on this topic will be more evaluative in nature. My 3rd post on this topic will explore what I see to be the main theological Problems of the American Prosperity Gospel. My last planned blog on this topic will be on the Biblical Passages of the American Prosperity Gospel. What are the passages this movement often utilizes and are their interpretations of those passages correct?

Pervasiveness of the American Prosperity Gospel

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This will be the first of at least four posts on the topic of the American Prosperity Gospel. I recently finished Kate Bowlers’ (Currently Assoc. Prof at Duke) book titled, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (Oxford University Press, 2013). This is the first book to fully explore the origins, unifying themes and major figures of the movement. It is quite thorough as it is essentially a shortened version of her dissertation. I love her writing style – she’s literature-aware-and-savvy and her writing is steady yet lighthearted and smooth. I found myself surprised to be smiling almost all the way through. Nuanced, clear, concise and upbeat…she brought me right into a world I had never been. She woke me up. Good… because I’ll admit that before this, I never took the American Prosperity Gospel seriously. I just shrugged it off. But no longer.

I learned that not-just-a-few but rather millions of Americans have fallen in love with the prosperity gospel and its new kind of preacher who preaches a consistent message: God desires to bless you. Dr. Fowler points to a recent Time poll which found that 17% of Christians surveyed identified themselves as part of such a movement. 31% believed that God increases the riches of those who give. A full 2/3 agreed that God wants people to prosper. One Pew survey reported that 43% of all Christian respondents agreed that the faithful receive health and wealth. Another 2008 Pew study found that three-in-four Latino believers across all Christian denominations agreed with the statement: “God will grant financial success and good health to all believers who have enough faith.” By 2011, almost 1/2 of all churches with more than 10,000 members preach prosperity from the pulpit. By 2011, a tally of self-reported membership showed that one million people were attending American prosperity megachurches. In the sidebar of the book I have written, “woa…shocking…”

This is evidence enough to warrant credence to Dr. Bowlers’ words when she writes, “The prosperity gospel, though much reviled by the media and academics alike, deserves sustained attention” (9). Already by the early 1900s the thought-forms spawning the American Prosperity Gospel were already lurking everywhere, “In Broadway plays, bestselling books, street-corner success manuals, and in the advice husbands heard from their wives when they look up from Good Housekeeping” (25). Apparently this movement is new, but it isn’t that new. As I learned, Osteen has predecessors. In the 1900s it was “New Thought” theology and by 1950 it was recast as “positive thinking” where people are implored to “see themselves as channels of divine energy and learn to be ready vessels for divine flows” (35). In these movements, “sweeping generalities buried the specifics” because of its theological thinness but “thick with guarantees of success.” The churches wanted “a winner, not only of souls, but of dollars and prestige” and this message was an answer for that ask.

The movement became even stronger after WWII as Americans’ optimism rose together with the burgeoning consumer culture. At this point, Scriptural truths began to be understood as “tools to solve problems…techniques waiting to be applied” (40). By the 1950s this trend could be described as a “wholesale revival that stirred the country with talk of faith – faith to heal, faith to deliver, faith to prosper, and faith to unleash God’s will by simply speaking true words aloud” (41). This is a danger of what can happen when we favor practice over philosophy or application over exegesis and that is exactly what happened. After all who needs hope (which says, “I will get it sometime”) when faith says, “I have it now!” When faith is the “switch in our hand to turn on all the omnipotent power of our Lord” then life is all about right-now. Right around 1950 when A.A. Allen wrote the first popular book on financial miracles this movement quickly moved from its’ adolescent stage into one of continued influence. As Bowler says, “It is a bizarre twist of history that this flowering of the prosperity gospel arrived in a season of withering anti-institutionalism.” A new institution was on the rise – arriving at the right time at the right place!

By 1971 a cluster of independent preachers (predominately prosperity folk) comprised 42% of the top syndicated religious programs on television. In 1981 the total jumped to 83%. Fowler notes how over time the scope of religious broadcasting narrowed, giving the prosperity gospel a market share that came close to a theological monopoly. Flipping from channel to channel on Sunday morning, viewers might think they were watching endless reruns (74). By 1975, 25 million people tuned in to Oral Roberts’ 1975 Thanksgiving television special. By the decades end, American religious broadcasting earned an estimated $1 billion in total revenue. The prosperity gospel truly exploded in the 1970s. Of course, its flashy reputation became a public relations nightmare in the late 1980s when the moral failures of a few tarnished the very idea of the “glamorous minister.” But the movement deftly refashioned itself for the postmodern 1990s as therapeutic and down-to-earth Christian self-improvement, tempering its hard prosperity with a soft prosperity image. By the 1990s, the prosperity gospel had become the foremost Christian theology of modern living in America. In this movement giving is turned into a public spectacle and it becomes the new liturgy for everyday people. It blends pop theology with pop psychology and the result is lots of empty pop-pop optimism that could never last. YIKES!

This is what happens when we deify and ritualize the American dream. As Bowler states, “The prosperity gospel consecrated America’s culture of optimism” (227). It is where “A cultivated cheerfulness is proclaimed” (232). One thing is sure – we shouldn’t turn our heads. We shouldn’t mock. We shouldn’t ignore. This movement deserves sustained attention.