The cruelties of the Prosperity Gospel – a very modern heresy
Prosperity Gospel. It is an affliction. And it is a cruel hoax. And I saw first-hand the damage it does to believers in Uganda during the 4 years that we were there. But it is STILL gaining influence and credibility – and it is not just in the poorest countries in the world (which is where the exploitation is at its worst). It is creeping beyond the shores of the USA (where its modern incarnations originate) and across Europe and Australia.
This was why I felt the need to speak about it in a sermon 10 days ago at All Souls. It certainly raised eyebrows – and a little bit of consternation. I guess the issues will rumble on. You can download/listen to the sermon and make of it what you will: Acts 8 – Shaken but not stopped. It was certainly a sermon that caused me great trepidation and is not the sort of thing that one could, or should, do every week.
But let me give a few explanations.
1. What is The Prosperity Gospel?
As far as I can see, the prosperity gospel is a spiritualisation of the American Dream. Quite what the American Dream is precisely is a moot point, but this definition from the relevant Wiki page seems helpful enough:
The package of beliefs, assumptions, and action patterns that social scientists have labelled the American Dream has always been a fragile agglomeration of (1) individual freedom of choice in life styles, (2) equal access to economic abundance, and (3) the pursuit of shared objectives mutually advantageous to the individual and society. 
When you start saying not only that this is available to you, but that it is precisely what God wants for you, you have the lethal cocktail of a Prosperity Gospel. No wonder it sounds like good news! No wonder it is attractive!
1. Turning a divine might to a divine ought
This is how Andrew Heard (at the start of the paper mentioned below) describes it:
In some Christian circles at the moment another gospel is making itself known. It looks a lot like the gospel that we received—the gospel of Jesus Christ who died and rose again to bring us reconciliation with God—but it has an emphasis upon physical healing, material blessing and success that is very different from traditional evangelicalism. The difference doesn’t lie in the conviction that God can and does bless his people with physical healing or material prosperity as this has always been accepted as biblical; the difference lies in the conviction that Christians OUGHT to expect God to bless them physically and materially here and now.
The problem is that when the realities of life kick in – through sickness, redundancy, bereavement etc etc etc, who do people start to blame? Instead of blaming the person who related these promises to them in God’s name, they blame God himself. That is both unjust and tragic. It is a huge slur on the character of God – whereas it is the prosperity preachers who should have to answer for these problems, not God. And supremely, it completely bypasses the centrality of the cross of Christ – both for our rescue and as our inspiration and lifestyle blueprint (see Philippians 2:5-11).
2. Twisting a divine word for an idolatrous church
On a slightly different note, prosperity teaching can only thrive where a woeful mishandling of the Bible takes place, and in particular with a literalistic and unnuanced reading of the Old Testament. For sure, there are elements of the Old Covenant of Abraham and Moses which resemble a prosperity type view – for the covenant people were to enjoy material blessing when they lived in the Promised Land, which was, after all, flowing with milk and honey. But you can’t draw a straight line from those Moses promises to the contemporary disciple – without taking into account, for example the Book of Job (from the OT); or the call of Jesus in Mark 8:34-38 and his radicalisation of what the Kingdom of God actually is in John 18:33-37 (from the NT). Furthermore, the nature of Christian new covenant experience is one of ‘now and not yet‘ – we don’t have all the blessings of God yet, but that is not to say that they will never come. It is all a question of timing – God’s timing.
As John Piper pointed out, Christ warned the apostles that they would suffer great persecution for the sake of his name. In a January 2006 sermon entitled “How our suffering advances the gospel”, Piper stated bluntly that “the prosperity gospel will not make anybody praise Jesus; it will make people praise prosperity”. (quoted on Wiki)
3. Lining the pockets by fleecing the poor
All of this needs a whole load of unpacking – and there are plenty of places where this is done well – see below. But I hope it is beginning to be clear (at least) why this is so serious and dangerous. This is no minor aberration – this is unfortunately a different gospel which is no gospel – it is a pipedream which in the end is not good news at all. And what is not addressed enough is the practical impact all this has – especially in the poorest countries in the world like Uganda.
I have never forgotten Bob, a dear Ugandan friend and former student, describing how his fingers got burned in a prosperity gospel church in Kampala. He described one sermon in which the preacher was sharing some “wisdom” about marriage. He was advising the single women on who would qualify as a suitable husband. He had this to say: If the man you are interested in does not have a wardrobe in his room, then take that as a sign of the lack of blessing from God. God has not blessed that man. This man has not trusted God to provide him with a wardrobe. Marry him and you will share his curse.
Well, I ask you! Of course that is a ridiculous example and you can’t tar everyone with the same brush. But what do you notice about this? Firstly it shows a hopeless and devastating approach to pastoring human relationships, which are fragile and fraught at the best of times. Secondly, it shows the level we’re talking about here. I know exactly which church this was preached in – and it is in a particularly poor area of Kampala. A wardrobe can be picked up on the side of the road from the myriad of carpenters for a handful of US$. That’s all. So these are people who can’t even afford that. Thirdly, it actually demonstrates a total degradation of what God’s blessing actually means. I mean, honestly, is that all God can muster?! Is a $10 wardrobe the best God has in store for us?! To think in such terms is to insult the unimaginable scope of divine generosity.
However, it wasn’t until Bob suddenly woke up to what was really going on at his church that he finally left. The congregation had been promised Mercedes Benzes (or at the very least BMWs) if they believed God enough. No wonder then that when their church was built, it was equipped with a spacious car park, despite being located in a Kampala slum. No one had cars. Or at least, no one apart from the pastors. And that was the shock – people who were so poor that they were barely able to pay the nominal taxi fares to get to church were being manipulated into supporting the excesses of the pastors’ lifestyles. All in the name of sowing seeds for God. That is sickening. And so Bob left – and for a while couldn’t face going back to any church at all. Thankfully he is now himself in full-time ministry in Uganda because he saw that there was another way.
2. Whys and Wherefores
So having spelled out why this is such an issue, i need to touch base on one or two issues relating to the sermon itself. I was questioned by one or two people about the wisdom of mentioning people by name (in particular Benny Hinn, and at the end of the talk Hillsong in parenthesis). This is a potted summary of my response:
1. Mentioning No Names?
- Firstly, it is not something that was done at all lightly nor unilaterally. It was something discussed beforehand with a number of colleagues (including at our weekly All Souls preachers’ breakfast, which happens every Thursday morning – each week the preachers for the coming sunday have to present the outlines of their sermons to the rest of the ministry team for discussion, crits and suggestions – a scary but excellent discipline!).
- Secondly, there is biblical precedent, both for dealing with the problems of prosperity teaching and for mentioning individuals by name. Intriguingly, the closest NT precedent for both issues occurs in the same place in 2 Timothy 2:17-18. Hymenaeus and Philetus are claiming that the resurrection (i.e. the second resurrection and therefore the full and final promises of heaven) has already occurred (thus making a sinlessness / perfectionism possible as well as, presumably, a truly blessed life). Paul describes such teaching as gangrene and something which has wandered away from the truth (v18) – and that ‘destroys the faith of some’. What’s more, Paul is explicit about their names! And it is not just because it is a private letter to Timothy – he does the same on many other occasions (eg Philippians 4:2-3 etc). Sometimes, people need to be warned about these things in explicit terms.
- This does not imply I have apostolic pretensions! I am by no means claiming to know everything, nor to have a Pauline authority! But it seems to me that we do from time to time have to be quite clear about things especially where they are dangerous. Isn’t this precisely the role of the pastor teacher – 2 Timothy 4:2: in and out of season (i.e. including the times when things are most uncomfortable), and that includes both encouragement and rebuking (the latter being something that in Britain we shy away from far more than we should). Of course we don’t want the opposite extreme – it would destroy people if there was nothing but rebuke and correction (and far too many preachers err in that direction).
- Would such actions cause division in a church? Well perhaps. But while we should wish to do everything we can to preserve relationships and pastoral concerns (of course), there is still the need to raise awareness when this sort of thing is being actually taught, even if people get upset about it. No one said that ministry was easy – nor did they say that a faithful preacher’s ministry would be a short cut to popularity!
2. Mentioning Benny Hinn?
I’m afraid (and I say this with all tentativeness!) I am not apologetic about talking about Benny Hinn – not least because what is inescapable is the appallingly lavish lifestyle and hypocrisy that are features of his ministry. That, it seemed to me, made him a legitimate parallel to Simon the Sorcerer in Acts 8 – a desire for God’s power for the purpose of developing one’s own ministry and even personality cult (hence in Acts 8, Simon’s desire to pay the apostles for the ‘use of the Holy Spirit’ – presumably in his eyes that was a good financial investment).
What we see in Benny Hinn is a frightening cynicism about his lifestyle. This is not hearsay – for this is a matter of current USA Congressional Investigation (you can’t get much more serious than that); and it is the subject of a sober and thorough report by MinistryWatch.com. This organisation seeks to hold Christian organisations in the US to high standards of financial transparency. This is what the report alleges about Benny Hinn. Should these be the sorts of things that a pastor’s lifestyle, consistent with the ministry of Jesus, be noted for?
- Hinn’s salary is somewhere between half a million and a million dollars per year (+ huge book royalties)
- Personal perks for Hinn, family and his entourage include a $10 million seaside mansion; a private jet with annual operating costs of about $1.5 million; a Mercedes SUV and convertible, each valued at about $80,000
- What the church termed “layovers” between crusades included hotel bills ranging from $900 per night to royal suites that cost almost $3,000 for one night’s stay. Layover locations included Hawaii, Cancun, London, Milan and other exotic locations.
- Beverly Hills shopping sprees; Receipts showing Hinn’s daughter receiving $1,300 in petty cash; her boyfriend getting $2,550 for babysitting; $23,000 in cash dispersed to Hinn and his wife; and, $25,000 in cash for expenses for a crusade – 30 minutes away from Hinn’s home;
- Hinn continues to espouse the theologically-suspect self-serving Word-of-Faith or “prosperity” gospel. Jesus and his followers never amassed personal wealth through their ministry and instead lived a clearly sacrificial life. Hinn would be wise to follow this example and encourage his followers to do likewise as this would lead to much greater spiritual prosperity, the value of which far exceeds anything material
- Hinn employs two primary methods to manipulate those that watch him – promising healings to those afflicted with chronic or terminal illnesses, and claiming that donations are “seeds” being planted by the donor that will result in the gift giver enjoying financial blessings;
- Television producer Nathan Daniel, a former BHM employee who was hired to improve the public image, instead reported to NBC, There was never one complete record that would suit the criteria for documented miracle healing.
3. Mentioning Hillsong?
This is a much trickier area – and in some ways I wish i hadn’t mentioned them, not least because they are very close to home geographically (their London venue is a stone’s throw from All Souls). This is not because there are no issues there, but because the issues are slightly different and not as clearly drawn from Acts 8. I certainly do not wish to imply the sorts of impropriety and lifestyle that Benny Hinn is alleged to characterise. The problem is that when you analyse mainline Hillsong teaching (and indeed some of their song lyrics) it is clear that they are following the same tradition. Their founder, Brian Houston teaches a prosperity gospel which gets lapped up and is spreading fast. I have been to London Hillsong – and I honestly went with a real desire and openness to hear from God (quite apart from the fact that I actually enjoy a lot of their music). What’s more, I have read some of their stuff. And to my great sadness, nothing I’ve heard or read has given me any reason to change my mind. Take this one example, quoted by Andrew Heard:
the Scriptures … [are] full of promises of prosperity. … Is it God’s will for you to prosper? … the answer is undoubtedly “YES”
Fair enough, perhaps – but it all depends on what we mean by prosperity. According to Heard, there is no doubt Houston meant material prosperity, given the book’s premise:
If you and I can change our thinking and develop a healthy attitude toward money, I believe we can all walk in the blessing and prosperity that God intends for us. We will never have a problem with money again.
Now, please understand, I am VERY willing to sit down and chat with people who think differently. I certainly do not wish to malign or misquote – if I have been unfair or unkind, then I do seriously want to know. There is plenty of scope for responding thru this blog or directly with me at All Souls. Furthermore, we all have our blind spots – and I’m sure there are areas where I/we here need to be confronted by the challenges of the word. None of us is immune or perfect (in theology or lifestyle).
But I cannot escape thinking that the issues raised by prosperity teachers are so serious that they demand people speak out and point out the emperor’s new clothes.
Some Follow-up Resources
- Time Magazine – Sept 10th 2006: DOES GOD WANT YOU RICH?
- Ben Witherington III: Just In Time – GOD WANTS YOU WEALTHY?
- Andrew Heard (Sydney, Australia): Prosperity Gospel
- MinistryWatch report: MinistryWatch recommends donors withhold giving to Benny Hinn Ministries
- MinistryWatch report: Reflections on Benny Hinn – ‘Not A Preacher’s Life’
- Ship of Fools report on visiting the London Hillsong Church (although we have to be careful – their mystery visitor wasn’t too complementary about All Souls, even though it was a few years ago!)
Also, there’s this (if you like things in your face)
- John Piper – video montage by a student in USA
This video is based on a sermon by John Piper given at the University Christian Fellowship (Birmingham, Alabama, USA) which you can listen to HERE. I’ve not yet had a chance to hear it all myself but from what i’ve listened to, Piper is his passionate and in your face self! His style is not everyone’s cup of tea (esp in the UK) but his challenges are never without a point.