This is how the Lausanne Theology Working Group, Africa chapter, defined the prosperity gospel at its consultations in Akropong, Ghana:
“We define prosperity gospel as the teaching that believers have a right to the blessings of health and wealth and that they can obtain these blessings through positive confessions of faith and the “sowing of seeds” through the faithful payments of tithes and offerings.”
So where does the prosperity gospel come from? And, more importantly, is it true?
For starters, there’s a good bit of wishful thinking behind it. After all, who doesn’t want to be healthy and wealthy? It’s easy to see why this theology is popular. And if you’re poor or in a state of chronic ill health it must appear particularly appealing. But wishful thinking is no basis for truth.
Support for the prosperity gospel is usually given by a reading of Old Testament promises to the Israelites as if they apply directly to us. The problem with this is that the Old Testament promises were directed specifically to the nation of Israel at a specific point in time. Moreover, the material wealth and prosperity promised to the Israelites was a mere shadow of the greater spiritual wealth and spiritual prosperity promised to Christians in the New Testament and of the complete renewal of all things which Christ Himself will bring about in the New Heavens and New Earth. To fixate on the shadow instead of the thing it foreshadows is to make the same mistake as liberation theologians who see physical liberation as an end in itself and forget that the physical liberation of the Israelites foreshadowed far greater liberation from bondage to sin.
The prosperity gospel sometimes seems true because there are indeed certain blessings which are to be had from living life God’s way. Those who work hard are, on average, better off materially. Those who live chastely are less likely to contract STDs or HIV. Loving one’s neighbour leads to a more harmonious society. The list goes on. And God also often blesses His people with material wealth and health. The problem comes in when we feel that we are entitled to such blessing and when we feel cheated if we do not receive it. We need to remember that Jesus also told His disciples that there would be troubles they would face in this life – specifically because of being Christian. The early Christians often faced hardship, not prosperity. Being thrown to the lions by Nero wasn’t much of an advert for health and wealth. In many countries today persecution to the point of death is still a reality. Even in countries with religious freedom, hardworking Christians still get retrenched, health conscious Christians still get cancer, and frugal Christians still lose their savings in a global economic meltdown. These things happen to people who love God. Suffering is not a sign of weak faith.
Prosperity teaching is advocated by a brand of “pastor” who does not deserve the title. Such teachers are in ministry for all the wrong reasons. Their kind has been around for a very long time and Jesus roundly denounced them. The prosperity gospel provides them with an opportunity to fleece the flock by demanding monetary “seed” for God’s blessing. This is a gross perversion of the pastor’s role as shepherd of those entrusted to him.
The prosperity gospel doesn’t stand up to good biblical exegesis and it doesn’t stand up to the reality of experience. Its popularity is attributable to wishful thinking on the part of churchgoers and to avarice on the part of unscrupulous “pastors”.
That said, there are many genuine Christians who are taken in by this “hollow and deceptive philosophy” (Colossians 2:8). We should not dismiss all who fall prey to this teaching as fakes. However, we should do our best to show them its emptiness – because it has serious consequences.
The prosperity gospel undermines the witness of the Church in a world which is already cynical with regard to Christianity. Non-christians see the hypocrisy of teachers who teach it and the gullibility of those who follow them. This further confirms their bias against the true gospel and makes them dismissive of the real thing before they’ve heard it.
Moreover, a fixation on material prosperity as the measure of their faith makes Christians weak when hardship strikes because their unrealistic, unbiblical expectations are not met and they feel let down. Worse still, their appreciation of the core blessings of Christianity (eternity in the presence of God, salvation from sin and judgment, complete renewal, etc.) is dulled by finding their primary joy in peripheral blessing. Most seriously, the teaching of blessing in exchange for sowing a “seed” or some other work undermines the fundamental teaching of grace: the unmerited favour of God towards sinful man.
The supreme irony about this thing called the prosperity gospel is that it actually leads to spiritual poverty in the life of a Christian. We need to stamp it out to restore the joy of the Christian’s salvation, so that in all circumstances of life they can find their meaning, their purpose, and their joy in Christ alone.