"That You May Prosper in All Things"
by Shayna L. Lear
"Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers" (3 John 1:2). This greeting to John's friend Gaius has been a foundational scripture for preachers of the prosperity gospel. According to prosperity teaching, it justifies the belief that God wants us to prosper both in our health and our personal economy and will reward us with these things according to our faith. To prosperity preachers, poverty is both a curse and a sign of weak faith.
To many of us, equating financial success with faith sounds absurd or, at the very least, simplistic. Yet millions of believers around the world hear and subscribe to this belief in some way. The prosperity message is disseminated via churches, television, internet, iTunes, and bookstores. Regardless of the language or medium that delivers it, the message is the same: "God wants you to be healthy and rich. And all you need to do to get there is remain faithful to the commands of the Lord—especially in giving financially."
Prosperity teachings are, in fact, Christianized versions of the New Thought Movement, which has its roots in the 19th century.(1) New Thought teachings encouraged adherents to see their external circumstances as manifestations of their thoughts. New Thought teachers widely publicized their teachings in print, yielding authors such as Napoleon Hill, who wrote the still-popular Think and Grow Rich in 1937.
In 1954 Kenneth Hagin, known as the father of the modern prosperity movement, began preaching on how the faithful should handle money. "Don't pray about money," he said. "Claim it."(2) In 1974,
he founded the RHEMA Bible Training College for those interested in learning the biblical path to a life of faith and prosperity. Since its inception, RHEMA has graduated 60,000 students worldwide, and its alumni preach, teach, and serve the message of "faith" and the power of the "spoken word" of God. Hagin and RHEMA represent just one segment of the prosperity gospel movement. Other early influencers include Asa A. Allen, E.W. Kenyon, and Oral Roberts. Each founded training schools that cumulatively send hundreds of thousands of students out to heal, teach, and preach prosperity as they know it.
Today, the number of adherents to the prosperity gospel is hard to calculate with any precision. Although they may not attend or affiliate with a known prosperity gospel ministry, many Christians in various denominations may believe some of its tenets. While 17 percent of all American Christians openly identify with the movement, "two-thirds of all Christian believers are convinced that God, ultimately, wants them to prosper."(3)
The most common seeker of the prosperity message in the United States is older, African American, less educated (associates level degree or less), and evangelical (or born-again).(4) Yet the prosperity gospel has also become an export of America to the world. According to John Piper, "This distorted gospel is one of the largest and most tragic exports that America takes to the two-thirds world, especially Africa."(5) In communities where the prosperity gospel is accepted, we will find that the communities are often the marginalized of society. These groups seek out churches that proclaim a message of hope for life in this world that manifests in the form of material prosperity.
The pastors who preach these messages present themselves as the embodiment of the success of their "system." They often own private jets, drive expensive cars, wear expensive clothing, live in palatial mansions, and house their ministries in multi-million-dollar facilities. While their congregations rarely reflect such outward appearances of wealth, it is the contributions of their congregants and "partners" that build these ministers' lifestyles.
When we examine the incomes of the prosperity gospel preachers, we find income disparities similar to the secular corporate world. Fulton County, Ga., home to the ministry of Creflo Dollar, reported an average income of $62,682 in their 2008 census. Dollar's salary, benefits, and other compensation from the ministry was $3,120,000, almost 50 times the average income of the people he serves in Fulton County.
Median household income in Los Angeles County, Calif., the home of Frederick K. C. Price's Ever Increasing Faith Ministry, is $55,452. Price's salary, benefits and other compensation from the ministry was recently reported as $3,250,000—58 times that of the median income of his immediate community.(6) One might argue that these ministries serve people all around the world and not just in their immediate community. However, when we consider that the majority of the world lives on less than $2 per day, or $730 per year, we see an even greater disparity between what these pastors earn and the median income of their overseas adherents.
While earning a great deal of money in and of itself is neither sinful nor unethical, how that money is earned certainly can be. If it is earned through offerings elicited by unfounded promises from a vulnerable population, purveyors of deceit will have to deal with the divine wrath that is promised to "sons of disobedience" (Eph. 5:6). Not being willing to walk away from the money is also a problem. Jesus did not condemn the rich young ruler for having accumulated wealth; he simply said that if the young man wanted to follow him into eternal life, he needed to give it up (Mark 10:17-22). Preachers of the prosperity gospel cannot release their earnings, for to do so would be to call their own theology a lie. After all, they are rich because God wants them that way, and who are they to argue with God?
Some people of undeniably deep faith live in equally deep poverty. Others contract diseases and die before their time. How can they and those who love them cope if they believe their misfortune is the result of a lack of faith?
The Scriptures paint a very different picture of the life of faith. Far from eliminating suffering, God offers us comfort in our suffering, so that we may then learn to comfort others (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). Prosperity gospel preachers do not teach people how to suffer in Christ but instead use the hope of deliverance from suffering to entice people to support them financially. But Christ taught us that no matter what we go through or how little we have, God will never leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). And if we suffer with Christ, we will also reign with him (2 Timothy 2:12). So in our difficult circumstances, we take comfort in knowing that God is there and gives us grace to endure it all.
The prosperity gospel peddles hope based on the material improvement of our present circumstances. It hawks the "American Dream"—the promise that hard work and faith will get you what you want (and deserve)—across the globe. This dream can be very attractive to anyone weary of making great effort but reaping little reward on this earth.
While hoping for things to improve for yourself and your family is natural, the prosperity gospel heretically makes material success the ultimate hope and end goal of life on earth. This is in direct contradiction to the Scriptures, which tell us not to store up treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy and thieves steal (Matthew 6:19-21) but in heaven, where treasures have eternal value. They tell us that our hope is rooted in spiritual things (Romans 8; 2 Corinthians 4:18) and that the definition of eternal life has nothing to do with earthly possessions and everything to do with intimacy with God (John 17:3). Our hope is to seek God on earth and to one day see God face to face, to know that the God who created us is faithful to keep us (Philippians 1:6) and give us the grace to go through anything life can throw at us, without fear of death (John 14:27, 1 John 4:18, Psalm 23:4, Psalm 112:7). The goal of human life is not to own a mansion or a jet or a million dollars. As the Westminster Catechism puts it, based on numerous Scripture passages, the chief end of humanity is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever.
But we are flesh and blood. At our most vulnerable places in life, we naturally seek relief. And if we are ever to know the true comfort, peace, and joy of God, we also have to be honest about what we truly desire. Those used to being on the bottom rung of society want to move up the ladder. Those used to struggling to make ends meet want to live in financial abundance. Those suffering from chronic illness want to be healed.
Those desires are natural. Yet when we wrap our desires in a cloak of Bible verses in order to justify our own efforts to satisfy them, we subject ourselves to deception. God could have invited us up to heaven but instead descended to earth to meet us where we are. Let us seek out this God who promises to be with us in our vulnerability and to protect us from the dangers of seeking relief on our own. In the midst of our struggles, when we fully acknowledge God's presence in our lives, we discover true faith—the kind of faith that doesn't need money to prove itself, the kind of faith that doesn't need to be healed to remain steadfast. Jesus followers who live out that type of faith are the world's greatest witnesses.
We need churches built on that kind of faith. These churches will likely be small, both in membership and in budget. But look what Jesus did with just 11 motley friends and a few fringe folks. Look at how he praised the tiny mustard seed and urged us to be grains of salt rather than mountains! As the apostle Paul so beautifully expressed it, "God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty" (1 Cor. 1:27).
Set apart for the gospel
The prosperity gospel has distressing implications for justice work. When financial success is equated with good, oppressive systems and corrupt institutions are let off the hook—as long as they keep producing wealth. Victims are blamed for their poverty, enslavement, or sickness; after all, if they had enough faith they wouldn't be poor, enslaved, or sick.
Our Savior didn't let institutions off the hook. He turned over the tables of the temple moneychangers (John 2) and reprimanded the hypocritical religious leaders who took advantage of the people they were supposed to be shepherding (Matthew 23).
While the Jews wanted relief from Roman oppression, Jesus called them to freedom through following him. The authority of Rome would not have had the same impact had the Jews lived distinctively. When the children of Light function much like those in spiritual darkness, we validate their system. Prosperity churches often operate much like oppressive corporations. If we have a desire to overturn the tables of the broader society, we have to start with our own structures first. We may speak prophetically to the powers that be in our country about the injustices they inflict upon our communities, but when our churches look just like them, our witness is pretty flimsy. Like the apostle Paul, we are called to be servants of Christ Jesus, "set apart for the gospel of God" (Rom. 1:1).
The church must stop lying to people in order to promote the success of the few. The American church must stop exporting the prosperity gospel to even more vulnerable populations abroad. Like King Belshazzar of Babylon, the purveyors of the prosperity gospel have not humbled their hearts, they "have praised the gods of silver and gold," they "have been weighed in the balances and found wanting" (Dan. 5:22-27).
Shayna L. Lear is a financial planner and financial literacy educator in Philadelphia, Pa. She assists with the Urban Affairs Coalition and the City of Philadelphia's Anti-Predatory Lending Initiative, helping low- to moderate-income families find suitable home repair loans. Her book, Money on Purpose (Judson Press, 2012), gives insight into how to live a financially balanced life.
Also of interest: Looking for Latino/a Liberation in a Prosperity Church: A case study
1. Debra Mumford, Exploring Prosperity Preaching: Biblical Health, Wealth and Wisdom (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 2012).
2. Kenneth Hagin, The Midas Touch: A Balanced Approach to Biblical Prosperity (Broken Arrow: Faith Library Publications, 2000).
3. Kate Bowler, Blessed: A History in the American Prosperity Gospel (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
4. Bradley Koch, The Prosperity Gospel and Economic Prosperity: Race, Class, Giving and Voting (published dissertation) (Bloomington: Indiana University, 2009).
5. John Piper, "Prosperity Gospel: A Tragic Export to Africa."
6. M.L. Petty, God's Church, God's Money, False Profits: How to Know the Truth About Your Pastor According to the Word of God (Bloomington: Author House, 2011).