economics

The Inauguration, Paula White, and the Pitfalls of the Prosperity Gospel

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“To live with the object of accumulating wealth is anti-Christian.”[1]

Charles Spurgeon uttered these words over a century ago to the then-largest congregation in all Christendom. Over the years, however, the message preached in some of the largest churches in the world has dramatically changed. This new gospel has been ascribed many names, such as the “name it and claim it” gospel, the “blab it and grab it” gospel, the “health and wealth” gospel, the “prosperity gospel” and “positive confession theology.”

No matter what name you use, though, the essence of this new gospel is the same: God wants believers to be physically healthy, materially wealthy and personally happy. Listen to the words of Robert Tilton, one of the prosperity gospel’s most well-known spokesmen:

I believe that it is the will of God for all to prosper because I see it in the Word [of God], not because it has worked mightily for someone else. I do not put my eyes on men, but on God who gives me the power to get wealth.[2]

The prosperity gospel is in the headlines now because one of its more famous proponents, Paula White, will be one of six religious leaders to take part in the Presidential inauguration on January 20. How should we think about Paula White’s prosperity gospel? Is the prosperity gospel only a mildly different teaching, or is it an entirely different gospel?

Russell Woodbridge and I wrote a book to examine the claims of prosperity gospel advocates, Health, Wealth, and Happiness[3] To answer this question, let us review five theological doctrines that we cover in our book — doctrines on which prosperity gospel advocates err.

Error #1: The Abrahamic Covenant is a means to material entitlement.

One of the theological bases of the prosperity gospel is the Abrahamic covenant. Prosperity gospel advocates are correct that much of Scripture is the record of the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, yet they do not maintain an orthodox view of this covenant. In particular, they hold to an erroneous view concerning the application of the covenant. Researcher Edward Pousson explains,

[According to the prosperity gospel,] Christians are Abraham’s spiritual children and heirs to the blessings of faith. . . . This Abrahamic inheritance is unpacked primarily in terms of material entitlements[4]

In other words, God’s primary purpose for the Abrahamic covenant was to bless Abraham materially, they claim. Since believers are now Abraham’s spiritual children, they have inherited these financial blessings of the covenant. For example, prosperity teacher Kenneth Copeland writes,

Since God’s Covenant has been established and prosperity is a provision of this covenant, you need to realize that prosperity belongs to you now! [5]

To support this claim, prosperity teachers appeal to Galatians 3:14, which refers to “the blessings of Abraham [that] might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus.” They conveniently ignore the second half of the verse, which reads, “That we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” In this verse Paul was reminding the Galatians of the spiritual blessing of salvation, not the material blessing of wealth.

Error #2: Jesus’ Atonement extends to the “sin” of material poverty.

Prosperity gospel advocates also misunderstand what happened on the cross. Theologian Ken Sarles wrote that “the prosperity gospel claims that both physical healing and financial prosperity have been provided for in the Atonement.”[6] This seems to be an accurate observation in light of teacher Kenneth Copeland’s comment that “the basic principle of the Christian life is to know that God put our sin, sickness, disease, sorrow, grief, and poverty on Jesus at Calvary.”[7] This misunderstanding of the scope of the Atonement stems from two errors that proponents of the prosperity gospel make.

First, many who hold to prosperity theology fundamentally misunderstand the life of Christ. For example, teacher John Avanzini proclaimed, “Jesus had a nice house, a big house,”[8] “Jesus was handling big money”[9] and He even “wore designer clothes.”[10] It is easy to see how such a warped view of the life of Christ could lead to an equally warped misconception of the death of Christ.

Second, many prosperity gospel teachers misinterpret 2 Corinthians 8:9, which reads,

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.

A shallow reading of this verse may lead you to believe Paul was teaching about an increase in material wealth, but a contextual reading reveals Paul was actually teaching the exact opposite. Indeed, Paul was teaching the Corinthians that since Christ accomplished so much for them through the Atonement, how much more ought they to empty themselves of their riches in service of the Savior? This is why just five short verses later Paul would urge the Corinthians to give their wealth away to their needy brothers, writing “that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack” (2 Corinthians 8:14). Jesus did not die to save you from material poverty.

The prosperity gospel is not just a different teaching; it is a different gospel.

Error #3: Christians give in order to gain material compensation from God.

One of the most striking characteristics of the prosperity theologians is their seeming fixation with the act of giving. Students of the prosperity gospel are urged to give generously and are confronted with such pious statements as, “True prosperity is the ability to use God’s power to meet the needs of mankind in any realm of life,”[11] and, “We have been called to finance the gospel to the world.”[12]

While these statements appear to be praiseworthy, a closer examination of the theology behind them reveals that this emphasis on giving is built on anything but philanthropic motives. The driving force behind this teaching on giving is what teacher Robert Tilton referred to as the “Law of Compensation.” According to this law, which is purportedly based on Mark 10:30,[13] Christians need to give generously to others because when they do, God gives back more in return. This, in turn, leads to a cycle of ever-increasing prosperity.

As Gloria Copeland put it, “Give $10 and receive $1,000; give $1,000 and receive $100,000;… in short, Mark 10:30 is a very good deal.”[14] The prosperity gospel’s doctrine of giving is built upon faulty motives. Whereas Jesus taught His disciples to “give, hoping for nothing in return” (Luke 10:35), prosperity theologians teach their disciples to give because they will receive a great return.

Error #4: Faith is a self-generated spiritual force that leads to prosperity.

Whereas orthodox Christianity understands faith to be trust in the person of Jesus Christ, prosperity teachers espouse quite a different doctrine. In his book, The Laws of Prosperity, Kenneth Copeland writes,

Faith is a spiritual force, a spiritual energy, a spiritual power. It is this force of faith which makes the laws of the spirit world function. . . . There are certain laws governing prosperity revealed in God’s Word. Faith causes them to function. [15]

This is obviously a faulty, if not heretical, understanding of faith. According to prosperity theology, faith is not a God-centered act of the will, stemming from God; rather it is an man-centered spiritual force, directed at God. Indeed, any theology that views faith solely as a means to material gain rather than the acceptance of heavenly justification must be judged as faulty and inadequate.

Error #5: Prayer is a tool to force God to grant personal prosperity.

Prosperity gospel preachers often note that we “have not because we ask not” (James 4:2). Advocates of the prosperity gospel encourage believers to pray for personal success in all areas of life. In regard to the power of prayer, Creflo Dollar writes,

When we pray, believing that we have already received what we are praying, God has no choice but to make our prayers come to pass. . . . It is a key to getting results as a Christian. [16]

Certainly prayers for personal blessing are not inherently wrong, but the prosperity gospel’s overemphasis upon man turns prayer into a tool believers can use to obtain their desires from God. Within prosperity theology, man — rather than God — becomes the focal point of prayer. Curiously, prosperity preachers often ignore the second half of James’ teaching on prayer which reads, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3). God does not answer selfish requests that do not honor his name.

Certainly we should make our requests known to God (cf. Philippians 4:6), but the prosperity gospel focuses so much upon man’s desires that it may lead people to pray selfish, shallow, superficial prayers that do not bring God glory. Furthermore, when coupled with the prosperity doctrine of faith, the teaching upon prayer within the prosperity movement may lead people to attempt to manipulate God to get what they want — indeed, a futile task. This is far removed from praying to God to see his will accomplished.

Conclusion

In the light of Scripture, we see that the prosperity gospel is flawed. There is perhaps one general reason why the prosperity gospel is a wayward gospel: Its faulty view of the relationship between God and man. Simply put, if the prosperity gospel is correct, grace becomes obsolete, God becomes irrelevant and man is the measure of all things. Prosperity teachers seek to turn the relationship between God and man into a financial quid pro quo transaction. As scholar James R. Goff noted, God is “reduced to a kind of ‘cosmic bellhop’ attending to the needs and desires of his creation.”[17] This is a wholly inadequate and unbiblical view of the relationship between God and man.

On January 20, Paula White may pray at the inauguration. But we need to be careful about the message she (and others) teach. The prosperity gospel is not just a different teaching; it is a different gospel.

This article is a modified excerpt of Health, Wealth and Happiness by David W. Jones and Russell Woodbridge. Learn more>>

[1] Tom Carter, ed., 2,200 Quotations from the Writings of Charles H. Spurgeon (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), 216.

[2] Robert Tilton, God’s Word about Prosperity (Dallas, TX: Word of Faith Publications, 1983), 6.

[3] David W. Jones and Russell S. Woodbridge, Health, Wealth, and Happiness: Has the Prosperity Gospel Overshadowed the Gospel of Christ? (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2010).

[4] Edward Pousson, Spreading the Flame (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 158.

[5] Kenneth Copeland, The Laws of Prosperity (Fort Worth, TX: Kenneth Copeland Publications, 1974), 51.

[6] Ken L. Sarles, “A Theological Evaluation of the Prosperity Gospel,” Bibliotheca Sacra 143 (Oct.-Dec. 1986): 339.

[7] Kenneth Copeland, The Troublemaker (Fort Worth, TX: Kenneth Copeland Publications, 1996), 6.

[8] John Avanzini, “Believer’s Voice of Victory,” program on TBN, 20 January 1991. Quoted in Hank Hanegraaff, Christianity in Crisis (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1993), 381.

[9] Idem, “Praise the Lord,” program on TBN, 15 September 1988. Quoted in Hanegraaff, 381.

[10] Avanzini, “Believer’s Voice of Victory.”

[11] Kenneth Copeland, The Laws of Prosperity, 26.

[12] Gloria Copeland, God’s Will is Prosperity (Fort Worth, TX: Kenneth Copeland Publications, 1973), 45.

[13] Other verses that the “Law of Compensation” is based upon include Eccl. 11:1, 2 Cor. 9:6, and Gal. 6:7.

[14] Gloria Copeland, God’s Will, 54.

[15] Kenneth Copeland, The Laws of Prosperity, 19.

[16] Creflo Dollar, “Prayer: Your Path to Success,” March 2, 2009, http://www.creflodollarministries.org/BibleStudy/Articles.aspx?id=329 (accessed on October 30, 2013).

[17] James R. Goff, Jr., “The Faith That Claims,” Christianity Today, vol. 34, February 1990, 21.

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  • economics
  • theology
David W. Jones

Dr. Jones is a Professor of Christian Ethics and serves as the Associate Dean of Theological Studies and Director of the Th.M. Program at Southeastern Seminary. He is the author of many books, including Every Good Thing, An Introduction to Biblical Ethics and is the co-author of Health, Wealth, and Happiness. He comments on the Bible over at redeemedmind.com.

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