Passages of the American Prosperity Gospel

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This is my fourth concluding post on the American Prosperity Gospel (APG). I will now show how all of the passages APG preachers use to perpetrate their (faulty) theology are taken out of context via the blatant misinterpretation of Scripture. I believe the main danger of this movement is they twist the Gospel into a Religion. But “Gospel” and “Religion” are two very different things. The Gospel says, “I am accepted because of what Christ has done for me.” Religion says, “I obey, therefore God blesses me.” The Gospel is based on joy. Religion is based on fear. According to the Gospel, I obey God to get God. In Religion, I obey God to get good things. The Gospel is the best news in the world. Religion is boring, impossible-to-fulfill moralism.

APG preachers make the Gospel into boring moralism and that is why it is so dangerous. To overly simplify this with some Christianese – According to the Gospel, Sanctification (what we do through Christ) is based on Justification (what God did for us). But the APG switches it. In essence, they claim justification (what God does for us) is based on sanctification (what we do through Christ) – and this is where it is clear the APG is NOT the Gospel of the Bible.

To review, you may want to check out the following three links including my previous posts on this subject:

1) Pervasiveness of the American Prosperity Gospel

2) Portals of the American Prosperity Gospel

3) Problems of the American Prosperity Gospel

Now, to my specific critiques. In reading Kate Bowlers’ book, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, I ran across 12 passages that APG adherents most-often cite. The following are those passages (from the earliest to the latest as they show up in the canon) and after each passage I give my own explanation for why none of those passages should be understood to back up a prosperity Gospel theology. This movement misinterprets every one of the following passages. Thus, from a Biblical perspective, we should seriously doubt the validity of the APG movement.

Hosea 4:6a: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge… APG preachers use this verse to argue what the sick require most is knowledge. They argue If believers ferret out the “lying symptoms from the gospel truth” – then they will be healed of any sort of infirmity they are currently dealing with. But if we see this passage in its context then we realize this could not possibly be the meaning of this passage. Hosea 4:6 is right in the middle of lots of words of God aimed at the people of Israel during the monarchy when they were actively and flagrantly rebelling against God. During the monarchy (1050-586BCE) God’s people were adulterers, constantly adulterating themselves to the Godless culture of sex and death. Hosea chapter 1 is a picture of this. Thus Israel is condemned for their sins in chapter 2 yet God commits to righteousness, justice, lovingkindness and compassion (Hosea 2:19-23). God concludes that chapter by saying, “I will say to those who were not My people, You are my People!” Wow, God’s grace never gets old!

Chapter 3 is only five verses where God promises that one day in the future His people will finally return. But in the meantime, God says He will love His disobedient people “even though they turn to other gods…” (Hosea 3:2). But none of this divine mercy erases the fact that God’s people at that time were hardcore rebelling. So in Chapter 4, God reminds His people of the litany of things they are doing wrong, including the fact they have no faithfulness or kindness or knowledge of God (4:1). They are also “swearing, deceiving, murdering, stealing and committing adultery. They employ violence, so that bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns and everyone who lives in it languishes…” (4:2-3). Finally in 4:6 God’s people are rebuked for ignoring God’s knowledge again and they have forgotten the law of God. Hosea 4:8 says God’s people are feeding on their own sin, directing their desire for iniquity. 4:10 says they play the harlot, they stop giving heed to the Lord. 4:11 shows they are drunkards which is primarily why they are lacking knowledge and wisdom in the first place. Furthermore, at this time in history, God’s people are continually consulting wooden idols, and the list goes on and on. After chapter upon chapter of lists of their blatant sin against God, God asks, “How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I surrender you, O Israel…I will not execute My fierce anger…For I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” (Hosea 11:8-9). So, the point of this entire book is to show how horrible God’s people are acting, and how strong God’s lovingkindness still is.

Hosea 4:6 has nothing to do with the reason anyone is sick today. Hosea 4:6 was one point in an argument to show why Israel at this time was so deserving of punishment – and at the same time the book of Hosea shows how strong God’s love was since one day it would overcome all these things. Ah, the steadfast committed love of God! That is the focus of this book! This book is not about Religion. It is about the Gospel.

Proverbs 18:21, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof.” APG preachers base much of their speech-act ideology on this verse. Many APG preachers stress the fact that speech creates power and “Faith’s confessions create realities.” So, we are to speak good things and good things will happen! This is where “seed faith” and “name it claim it” ideas are derived. Of course, it’s interesting that in the very same passage we find out “A rich man’s wealth is his strong city, and like a high wall in his own imagination” (Prov. 18:11). Just a few verses before Proverbs 18:21, God talks sarcastically about wealthy people… The next verse says, “Before destruction the heart of man is haughty, but humility goes before honor” (Prov 18:12). This whole chapter contrasts foolish rich people with wise humble people. So we should ask ourselves, what does it mean to have a powerful tongue in this chapter and in this book? Does it mean we are to be demanding health, wealth or prosperity so that we get what we want? Or is a “powerful tongue” one that humbly speaks the fact that riches or earthly success could never satisfy in the ways the Gospel satisfies? In the context of the chapter and in the context of the Gospel – their interpretation of this passage makes no sense. It is a direct contradiction to what the Gospel tells us about this life and the next.

Isaiah 53:5 “…By His stripes we are healed…” APG preachers argue that Christ’s atonement achieved at the cross was for our earthly health. Of course, when Isaiah talks about healing, he isn’t talking about our earthly health. In fact, the passage is titled, “The Suffering Servant.” It’s almost laughable that they could make a verse in this passage about earthly gain. In one of the most descriptive chapters in all of Scripture of what Christ’s suffering would be like (“The Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief if He would render Himself as a guilt offering” 53:10), they somehow believe this will lead to our earthly health. Well, actually, Isaiah 53:11 makes it clear the end goal in all of this is not earthly health – but spiritual justification! As if God suffered so we never have to… What? Paul couldn’t be more clear about how wrong they are. In Philippians 1:29 He says God’s people are granted two things: 1) Belief in God and 2) Suffering for Christ’s sake. To argue Isaiah 53:5 is referring to earthly healing is to ignore every other verse in that passage and it is to ignore the Gospel message.

Matthew 18:19-20 “Again I say unto you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that you may ask, it shall be done for them by my Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” Many APG preachers talk about the “power of agreement” and it is this verse that they use. The idea is simple – get some people together, all agree on what you’d like to happen, and if you pray hard enough, God will grant it. But that is not what this passage is talking about. This chapter begins by the disciples foolishly asking who is going to have the greatest rank in heaven and Jesus responds, “Unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus then talks about people who are stumbling blocks and how bad it is to cause others to stumble, especially children. After all, God is always keeping in mind the outcast (18:12-14) which leads to Jesus concluding the chapter in talking about how to discipline someone in the Church (18:15-20) which leads to the famous command to forgive others “seventy times seven” (18:22).

Matthew 18:19-20 is sandwiched in that section about church discipline and God’s willingness to allow forgiveness as God commands His people to deal with sin, and then forgive it as God forgives them! This passage is a promise of God to extend forgiveness as His people forgive. It has nothing to do with health, wealth or prosperity. It has nothing to do with earthly, or especially heavenly rank! It has everything to do with earthly human justice and the need all humans have for God’s forgiveness. Praise God, He is always willing to forgive although we often are not. This passage is Gospel, let’s not make it into moralism.

Mark 11:23-24 “Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says is going to happen, it will be granted him. Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you.” APG preachers take this to mean that faith is the force that actuates what we want. They fail to quote the next two verses which show what all of this is leading to – forgiveness! Like the above passage, these two verses are not talking about health, wealth or prosperity. This passage is about God’s willingness to forgive us! And I can’t bear to not mention the passage that shows up just a few verses before all of this: Mark 10:29 where God promises tribulations and sufferings to all His true followers.

In these two chapters God is saying, “If you follow me, you are going to have a difficult life…and when you get frustrated… when you fail… I’m going to forgive you every time!” If you ask me, that’s a cooler message anyways. Yes, I know the “cool” factor has nothing to do with the truth and meaning of a passage but I’m just trying to show how we should be glad the Gospel is not the same thing as moralism. The truth of the matter is that In the end, this passage is all about forgiveness which is something that brings a much deeper health than all that other earthly immediate stuff. God is always about reconciliation – in the very moment we deserve it least!

Luke 6:38 “Give and it shall be given unto you.” This is one of the most popular verses for the APG preachers. Another one that is used in conjunction with this one is Luke 12:31 which says, “Seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.”  Again, these passage are not talking about everything. they are talking about judging, condemning and forgiveness. The verse right before Luke 6:38 makes this crystal clear. God is saying if you judge others, you’ll likely get judged. If you condemn others, you’ll likely be condemned. If you have a problem forgiving others, others will likely have a problem forgiving you. The passage right after this one is the parable about judging the speck in someone else’s eye while you’ve got a huge issue yourself. Luke 6:38 is not about earthly health, wealth or prosperity. It is, again, about forgiveness. The funny thing about the way APG preachers use Luke 12:31 is that Luke 12:13-34 is a passage about covetousness denounced! How ironic…

John 10:10 “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” APG preachers say this passage means God wants us to experience earthly health, wealth or prosperity right now. But that is not how Jesus describes an “abundant life.” In the very next verse Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.” Later Jesus repeats Himself for good measure, “I lay down my life for my sheep” (John 10:15). Jesus then says, “For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative…” (John 10:17-18). An abundant life is the life that is given for others. It is not to live in health, wealth or prosperity.

John 14:14 “If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it.” APG preachers make this passage to seem like God wants to answer every single whim we have! Just ask God for something that you want, and you can be assured God will want to give it to you! Please… John 14:7-14 is a passage about Jesus’ oneness with the Father and how we are to be united with God. Certainly, if we are united with God, then our desires will be the same as His. But what is abundantly clear is that even the bestest Christians aren’t always living according to God’s will and so we shouldn’t think that every time we have a desire, that desire is coming from God. God isn’t just going to do whatever we want Him to because our desires are not always united with God’s desires.

We also shouldn’t ignore John 14:15 which says, “If you love me, you will keep My commandments.” In the context of this pericope, we learn from Jesus what are the results of a life lived when we are completely united to God. We also learn that we can know if we are in God’s fold NOT by our earthly success but by the measure of our obedience to God. If we are honest, we know in our own lives, we fail all the time. So, obviously, we shouldn’t expect a one-to-one correlation of our desires and God’s direct fulfillments of those desires. God is much more perfect than that. Instead of using this verse to make demands of God, we should use it for what it was intended for – as an encouragement for living according to God’s will and NOT my own.

Romans 3:27 – “Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith.” APG preachers utilize this wording, “law of faith” to mean that God has a sort of law: If we have enough faith, He’ll do what we ask. Unfortunately, this is not what this passage is talking about. In order to understand what Romans 3:27 is really all about – we have to know what Romans chapter 3 is about and how Romans 3 fits into the greater context of the first six chapters of the book. This helps us to rightly interpret God’s word and not make it into anything we want it to be.

In the first three chapters of the book of Romans the author Paul talks about the reasons God gave humanity a law through Moses… the law was to show and convict people of their utter weakness apart from Christ. In short, the law helps us understand our need for grace since the law is un-masterable by us. So there is lots of talk of sin and law and judgment in the first three chapters and then the tone of the book of Romans shifts in Chapter 3:20-21 when Paul tells us, “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile.” 

In these verses Paul brings us a step further in the redemption story – He explains that the promise of eternal life (NOT EARTHLY BLESSING) with God is actually not through the law, it is through faith in Jesus Christ. Then, in chapter 5 Paul starts getting a bit excited b/c he begins to explain the results of such outrageous divine grace as contrasted with the law. Paul says that when we are salvifically justified by faith we are set free to a new sort of life – one full of peace and hope! In Chapter 5:20-21 Paul says, “The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” All of this discussion of faith is about our eternal relationship with Christ – it is not to be used for my own earthly pleasure. Christianity is not hedonism. Christianity is the movement of the Gospel. 

Phil 4:19 “And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” Yes, this is true, but this doesn’t mean God will always give us health, wealth and prosperity. Or even that God always wants us to have these things. A few verses before Phil 4:19, Paul says, “Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity, in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. Nevertheless, you have done well to share with me in my affliction” (Phil. 4:11-14).

The chapter before, Philippians 3, Paul inverses the boasting process where he boasts about all the things the world counts as rubbish (3:4-8) since nothing the world has to offer could even remotely compare to “Knowing God and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead” (3:10-11). Those are the things Paul asks us to yearn for (3:17). The chapter before this, Paul exalts in Christ’s emptying of all His power for His people. To conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ (1:27) is to empty ourselves of fleshly desires, to die to self, and to live like Christ did. This entire book of Philippians is in fact a message in the opposite direction of the APG. The best way to rightly interpret this passage is to read the whole book and see how Philippians 4:19 fits into Paul’s bigger argument! The worst way to interpret this passage is to take it out of its context and place it into a foreign theology. Unfortunately that is what the APG preachers are doing. No Christian should be OK with this no matter how much they’d like it to be true. God is not all about our earthly health, wealth or prosperity. The Gospel is so much bigger than that.

Hebrews 11:6 “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” Yup, that is true! But that has nothing to do with earthly health, wealth or prosperity. The best way to understand what sort of life follows from a Godly faith is to study the lives of the people who are in the Hall of Faith which is what Hebrews 11 is. From what I can tell, none of these faithful dudes had a life of health, wealth or prosperity – so what gives? Of course Hebrews 11:1 makes clear that the triumphs of faith are in now way revolved around the here-and-now. After all, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Perhaps all this faith is about something much bigger… It is about salvation, it is about sanctification, it is about vocation, and it is about beatification. It is not about health, wealth or prosperity.

3 John 2 “Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers.” Does this mean God’s will is always that we prosper and are in good health? Of course not. This just means the guy who wrote 3rd John was inspired to tell the people he was writing to that this was a prayer of his for them. But for the author of 3rd John – there was one thing even more important than being prosperous and living a life of good health. He says, “I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth” (3 John 4). And what a way to conclude! More important than all that stuff we might like is whether or not we are believing in something that is true. We know the Gospel is always true. But the APG twists the Gospel into something that it is not. My explanation of these passages should have made this clear. Thus, the APG is not a true reflection of what Scripture says and we should reject it as outside the lines of orthodoxy.

The American Prosperity Gospel is not the Gospel. It is moralism. And as such, it should be rejected.

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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.

Portals of the American Prosperity Gospel

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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.