The “Gospel of prosperity” is the belief that God wants Christians to be financially rich. It is promoted by many conservative evangelists, especially tel-evangelists. This gospel appeals to people from various incomes. It confirms to the wealthy that their wealth is proof God loves them, and that it’s OK to pursue wealth, even to make it top priority. It appeals to the poor because it seems like a way out of poverty.
But, like Santa Claus, the gospel of prosperity is a lie for the poor. When poor children are good, Santa still does not come for them.
This new gospel teaches that poor believers are doing something wrong, which blocks them from God’s financial blessings. It’s a downward spiral: Perhaps the poor do not love God enough, or don’t have enough faith or are not giving enough money to support “God’s work.”
This gospel is quite different from Jesus’ teachings about abundance, which urges us to share instead of hoarding our many blessings. Abundance is ultimately based on the people being willing to share, on building community, on God’s grace. Prosperity is ultimately based on the self, a "me-and-Jesus" theology.
Many tel-evangelists have become rich preaching the gospel of prosperity because their followers support them financially to keep the message coming.
The gospel of prosperity feeds directly into the worst parts of The American Dream with its focus on possessions as signs of success. It can lead to serious debt, even bankruptcy. It disregards Care of Creation.
The Word-Faith Movement
The gospel of prosperity is part of the fastest growing segment of Christianity today — the Word-Faith Movement, also known as the Positive Confession or simply "Faith" movement. Its growth is at least partially due to the massive amounts of money the leaders are able to extract from the faithful. This influx of cash allows for the construction of huge buildings, extensive ministries, and more importantly, wide exposure on television, which translates into more followers. Not only do many Word-Faith preachers broadcast their services and campaigns, but Word-Faith leaders Paul and Jan Crouch, own the largest Christian-based television network in the world. The Crouch’s Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), with an estimated net worth of $600 million dollars, is capable of televising all over the world.
The prosperity gospel is spreading widely Latin America, especially Mexico, Africa and Asia, especially Korea.
Well-known personalities within the Word-Faith Movement include Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland, Robert Tilton, Benny Hinn, Joyce Meyer and Frederick K.C. Price.
According to Word-Faith teachings, you can command, and God will make you healthy or wealthy. Followers are encouraged to give a financial offering to the preacher’s ministry as a “seed” to grow into their desired health or wealth.
The Bible and the gospel of prosperity
Elwood "Woody" Rieke, a hunger activist and retired Lutheran pastor (ELCA) living in LaCrescent, Minn, described how the Bible being used to support a gospel of prosperity:
“You can always pick and choose the verses you may select from your Bible…. If you only read those portions of the scriptures that make you feel comfortable or affirmed, you could easily come to believe in such a gospel of prosperity.
“But I would call it cheap grace, as Luther and Bonhoeffer did."
Mr. Rieke said the Gospels and some of Apostle Paul’s writings demonstrate that God in Jesus the Christ offers preferential treatment to the poor and the marginalized.
“Our culture is caught up in a God of power and/or prosperity,” he said. “That is not the God shown in II Cor. 12:8-9, ‘My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made known in weakness.’"
Mr. Rieke believes the gospel of prosperity dovetails with the mantras of a consumption-oriented society. When people believe in a gospel of prosperity, then the more they can spend –- whether or not they need what’s purchased — the more they have been blessed.
“To use a baseball analogy, it’s been said, ‘People of privilege are those who have been born on third base, but feel as if they have hit a triple,’” Mr. Rieke said.
This differs from the Gospel of Jesus Christ, he said.
“Jesus says in Matthew 6:19-20, ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’”
A theology of the cross
Theologian Douglas Hall is author of The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World. In that book Mr. Hall questions if Christianity has taught us to love consumption and waste. Mr. Hall writes:
“Is there some link between our trust in God and our astonishing prosperity, our being ‘first,’ our superpower-dom? Many avowed Christians think so, and they can count upon a whole hoary tradition … to back up their argument.
“But can we, who have at least some niggling consciousness of the victims that have been created by our abundance, continue to draw upon that argument? Can we, who have had to face the racism, classism, sexism, homophobia and other once-hidden realities of our ‘Christian’ culture, still avoid the crisis that ‘begins with the household of God’(I Peter 4:17)?”
Mr. Hall contrasts a “theology of glory” with a “theology of the cross,” phrases first used by Martin Luther and then by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Mr. Hall wrote:
"A theology of glory confuses and distorts because it presents divine revelation in a straightforward, undialectical and authoritarian manner that silences argument, silences doubt — silences, therefore, real humanity…. The theology of the cross is first of all a statement about God. And what it says about God is not that God thinks humankind so wretched that it deserves death and hell, but that God thinks humankind and the whole creation so good, so beautiful, so precious in its intention and potentiality, that its actualization, its fulfillment, in redemption is worth dying for."
The Gospel in Ethiopia
Mr. Rieke saw the two theologies juxtaposed last year while ministering at a youth conference in Ethiopia, where the average annual income is $100 per person. Two congregations in the area where the youth conference was convened had lost 272 people to malaria in a year’s time.
After Mr. Rieke spoke, a young man stood up and asked, "How do you expect us to believe in this God you talk about when we have experienced so much death and disease, and we have so little money on which to live?"
Mr. Rieke responded:
“Not for one minute do I say that I, a person coming from the United States, can really understand what you have gone through, but I do know I believe in a God who in the person of Jesus hung on a cross and before he died, he cried out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken’ –- abandoned — `me?’ My God has come down and identified with me, and he has experienced this kind of abandonment. I believe that this God will never leave me nor forsake me.’
“I hope I spoke to this man’s heart, but I can only trust what I said somehow got through to him.
“All of our consumption only continues to increase the tremendous divide that exists between the rich and the poor in our world. The poor feel it every day. The rich often are insensitive to that reality.”
Mr. Rieke believes the gospel of prosperity forces several questions:
- Who is the God who meets us in the cross?
- Who is this one who has died for us?
- What do the scriptures say? Who do they reveal?
- What we do we believe, a theology of glory or a theology of the cross?
People striving to be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ need the support and encouragement of other Christians to wrestle with the scriptures, and to pray for the Lord’s wisdom and strength to persevere. They also need to be informed about the issues in today’s world.
An alternative: living more with less
Christian discipleship as lived out in voluntary simplicity is the way of Jesus. It’s voluntary –- for the moment — because we North Americans can choose to live within our financial means, and the carrying capacity of the Earth, or not. Two-thirds of the world’s people live simply involuntarily. They have no choice.
Living simply goes far beyond frugality. It’s not just about pinching pennies. Voluntary simplicity is a total lifestyle that:
- Puts Care of Creation above tribalism or nationalism;
- Seeks peace and justice;
- Is generous beyond tithing;
- Would rather give money to worthwhile causes than to have it collected as taxes and spent on militarism.
Voluntary simplicity works to build community and strong family bonds through volunteerism, not through status. Voluntary simplicity is based on the life of Jesus.
Three levels of simplicity
Voluntary Simplicity or "Living More with Less" is about a life of integrity. It works on three levels. The first level is the personal — our individual and family purchasing and consuming decisions. Examples of personal level simplicity include:
- Eating organic, locally grown food; using public transportation, walking and biking;
- Doing all we can to keep our water and air clean by using alternative energy or using as little natural gas and conventionally produced electricity as possible;
- Using as little fresh water as possible. For example, some families collect rain water and use it to water yards or even to flush toilets.
Second level is the interpersonal — giving as much time and money to people in need and worthwhile causes, and spending a whole lot less on ourselves, especially at Christmas. Examining the past three months of your check book registry is a good place to start this level. Are you happy with how you’ve spent my money? Do your financial investments match your verbal intentions? More than 3,000 verses in the Bible deal with the poor. God is showing us a priority!
The interpersonal level includes sharing insights on the Gospel of Christ with the "privileged needy" — North Americans who don’t realize or won’t accept the fact that our excessive lifestyle has a negative impact on people around the globe. We are causing the most trouble, and we can do the most good. Work to influence the decisions of the privileged needy.
Charity is meeting people’s short term, immediate needs. That’s different from the third level, which is justice –- working to change systems, primarily corporations and governments, that are not working for the benefit of the Earth and its creatures, people, plants and animals. This can include positive and negative letter writing, protests, stockholder actions, boycotts, etc.
All three levels are vital. We can work on all three at once. We do not have to be personally perfect before we speak up at a meeting.
The five life standards of voluntary simplicity are:
1. Do Justice.
2. Learn from the World Community.
3. Cherish the natural order, Care for Creation.
4. Nurture people, not things.
5. Non-conform freely.
"Living More with Less" is a life of joy, not of deprivation. It is such a relief to get the burden of stuff off our backs, to get free of the distractions of collecting, maintaining and securing stuff. It frees us to serve God and our worldwide neighbors. It is a true and viable alternative to the "gospel of prosperity."
Gerald Iversen is national coordinator of Alternatives for Simple Living, a 32-year-old nonprofit educational organization.