Some Thoughts on Prosperity Gospel

I know this is a hot topic right now, and I have less to say about it than many others do… but as one who is in missions, it is a concern.

  • I see speakers from the US, Korea and other countries come over here to the Philippines and preach Prosperity Gospel.  Others, including some that have hardly deserved a cup and string, use microphones and cameras to beam their messages all over the world.
  • On one occasion we did a ministry project with a full-blown stereotypical Prosperity church, who saw our team as their way to God’s material blessing. It soon became quite obvious that we could not work with them ever again. More common than this type of church are the churches that are a bit schizophrenic. One day will say that we can name and claim any promise we want, and God will do it. Then on another day, will they will talk about endurance in difficult times and God’s sovereignty to bless or not bless. I used to be a member of such a church here in the Philippines. I recall one time my plan to preach on suffering (our call to follow in the example of Christ’s suffering). The senior pastor suggested I choose a different topic because “Here in the Philippines, people don’t want to hear messages like that.” While I am not a great preacher, my experience is that people want to hear messages that are true and hopeful, and also resonate with the world they experience.
  • Missionaries have been charged with promoting Prosperity Gospel, sometimes unwittingly, in places like Sub-Saharan Africa as well as some places in Asia. The tendency of past missionaries to connect (Western) Civilization with Christianity led many to see economic prosperity as tied to Christianity. The Cargo Cults of Papua New Guinea are perhaps the most obvious example of this. Additionally, there is often a tendency to OVERSELL SALVATION. This sounds crazy…. but if you listen to some evangelizers, you get this sort of message…. “All you got to do is accept Christ… just this one little thing… and EVERYTHING will be better.” Some Muslim evangelizers do the same thing. But what does “everything” mean? Hardly surprising if some think they will have more stuff.

But I want to make different points here.

First Point. My argument is that Prosperity Gospel (PG) tends to promote Wealth Disparity. After all, if PG states that Christians are more materially blessed than non-Christians, and Good Christians over Bad, then things break down if Wealth is pretty evenly distributed. Suppose, for example, that owning a cellphone is evidence of prosperity (God’s special favor), this view fails if everyone owns a cellphone.

You may think that it would also break down if there is a wealth disparity that does not line up with the tenets of PG. That can be true in some cases, but in many cases the disparity reinforces PG. I will get to that in the second point. But for now, PG really needs Wealth Disparity. As such, it can, at its worst, promote a certain “survival of the fittest” mindset where people who fail economically are getting what they deserve— the ugly side of unregulated Capitalism. Such a view make officially disparage it, but in practice support the quote from the movie, Wall Street, “Greed is Good.”

Point Two. As long as there is Wealth Disparity (and if one chooses to take Jesus statement in Matthew 26:11 prophetically, not just rhetorically, I suppose wealth disparity will always be with us) PG can be supported and justified as a Bed of Procrustes. That is, if good people become rich materially, materially rich people must be good. Yes, not all PG groups take it quite that far, but I have had many utilize their own success as evidence of their righteousness, and their rightness.

However, PG can break down when it comes to non-Christians. A rich Christian can be argued to have deserved their wealth over a less rich Christian. But how can one argue that a non-Christian who is rich is more “deserving” than a Christian (in this theological pespective).

Point Three. In its extremes, PG shows itself in ugly ways in addressing the issue of non-Christians having greater wealth than Christians. An interesting case study is in Spain in the early years of the Inquisition. When the last Moorish stronghold was driven out of the Iberian Peninsula in 1492, Spain had to come to terms with its identity as a (governmentally) Christian people. Leon Poliakov in “The History of Anti-Semitism” in Volume 1 speaks of this time. Jews and Moors (Muslims) were discriminated against, and eventually expelled or forced to convert. Noble ranks were given to “Old Christians,” people who have no known non-Christians in their ancestry, while “New Christians,” people who converted to Christianity or have non-Christians in their family tree, were granted no such honor. In Spain, as well as its colonies, the land-distribution was done so as to ensure that people in power were Christians, not non-Christians.

Jews in Europe commonly could not be landowners because of their oppressive laws, so they went into trades that did not require land— particularly mercantile. And the mercantile business became the parent to banking. Since mercantile and banking are typically better at creating wealth than agriculture, it was hardly surprising that this form of discrimination actually resulted in many Jews doing quite well in Europe. This triggered new laws and discrimination that, as we know, grew rather in hatred and violence that is, frankly, hard to fathom.

Christians are not the only one’s to do this. Many Muslim countries have utilized the tax on non-Muslims. While, this is actually a matter of doctrine, it serves also as a way to work against the power of non-Muslims. In some Muslim countries, non-Muslims were required to dress in a certain way, or maintain a certain lifestyle that stigmatized them. Frankly, however, it is not my task here to convince you that, “They are worse than us.” I am concerned with how we as Christians live out our faith here and now, while learning from the past.

The point here is that the underlying theology of Prosperity Gospel:

  • Needs disparity of wealth for it to mean anything, and so often does little to promote a more economically just society. (I must note than many non-PG conservative Christians also do little because of the presumption that unregulated capitalism is part of the Christian faith. But that is a different conversation for a different time.)
  • Deals comfortably with seeming discrepancies when it comes to Christians. The wealth evidences their deservedness of that wealth. (“Trump has power, so he must deserve to have that power.”)
  • Struggles sometimes with discrepancies between Christians and non-Christians. Historically, and I would argue today as well, rich non-Christians has been an area of struggle for many of these people, and there is the temptation to “set things right” through bigoted laws, behaviors, and social structures.

I would argue that the Bible starts from the presumption that Christians are more likely to be poor and powerless than rich and powerful. That hardly means that it has to be normative. However, it seems like the doctrine of Common Grace, and the understanding of Genesis 12:1-3 that shows Abraham’s seed is responsible to act as a blessing to all peoples, serves as a better understanding. We bless as we are blessed.

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