Q&A: The prosperity gospel – 'pagan teaching with a Christian face,' prof says
WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP) -- A dangerous "egocentric gospel" that omits Jesus, neglects the cross, and instead promises health and wealth is being promoted by some of America's most well-known preachers today, and their teachings are readily available on cable TV and in local bookstores.
That's the conclusion of two seminary professors whose new book, "Health, Wealth & Happiness" (Kregel), critiques what is often called the prosperity or "health & wealth" gospel -- the claim by some of America's most well-known preachers that God desires all Christians to be materially wealthy and physically healthy.
The prosperity gospel is dangerous, the professors say, because it contains just enough truth to make it appear biblical but more than enough distortions to make it heretical. That, they say, has led Christians to become discouraged in their faith or angry at God, or worse, to walk away from the church for good. After all, if a preacher says that enough faith can make a sick person well, and no healing ensues, then -- according to the preachers -- that person's faith is weak.
One study quoted in the book found that 50 of the 260 largest churches in America promote the prosperity gospel.
"If Christianity is supposed to be about God and His glory and is supposed to be about Christ, and we're making it about us -- that's the worst thing we could do," one of the authors, David W. Jones, told Baptist Press. Jones is associate professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. "It is so catering to the flesh and it so exalts man that it gets to the point where you obscure Christ."
The prosperity gospel, Jones says, is a "pagan teaching with a Christian face."
The book, co-authored with Russell W Woodbridge, a missionary in Eastern Europe who is an adjunct professor at Southeastern, gives the history of the prosperity gospel movement, interacts with quotes from some of the most well-known prosperity gospel preachers, and ends by giving a "corrective" -- that is, an explanation of the historical, biblical teaching on suffering, wealth, poverty and giving. Jones and Woodbridge distinguish between what they consider soft advocates of the prosperity gospel (Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer) and more staunch advocates (Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland).
Baptist Press recently spoke with Jones. Following is a partial transcript:
BAPTIST PRESS: Why has the prosperity gospel grown when, as you argue in the book, its teachings are overtly unbiblical and contrary to historical Christianity?
JONES: It caters to the fallen human flesh. All of us want Christianity to be about us, and we want to focus upon our own wants and desires and needs. And since our heart is already bent that way, when the prosperity gospel comes along and says, "Christianity is about you, and if you just believe in Jesus you'll be healthy, wealthy and wise," that just resonates with our fallen flesh. People are already primed to hear that message -- especially those in our churches that don't know much of their Bibles.
BP: One question people might have is: Are you saying that God no longer heals and that God does not want to bless His people?
JONES: That's a very common question. We don't want people to over-learn the lesson that we're trying to teach in the book. Of course, God still does bless His people, but what it boils down to is this: What is being rich? Is it wealth, having a lot of money, a sports car and a trophy wife? Or is wealth being content with whatever it is that we have? I have five kids and I have a teacher's salary, and so I don't have much but I feel like I am an incredibly wealthy man. So God does want to bless us, but we need to define blessing on God's terms and not on materialistic man-centered terms.
BP: And healing?
JONES: There are several different kinds of healing in Scripture. There is miraculous healing, there is healing that we could say comes through medicine. There is healing of emotions. And there is also ultimate healing -- which comes through the death of the believer. When we die, we're in God's presence, and we await a redeemed, resurrected, glorified body; we'll no longer have aching backs, broken legs. It's also a matter of timing: Is it now that we can expect these things or is it later; is it in the resurrection that we can expect these things? We need to first of all properly define health, wealth and happiness, and then we need to say what Scripture has to say about the chronology of it as to when we'll get it. We would say it's later, not now.
BP: What are some of the basic biblical or theological errors of the prosperity gospel?
JONES: First of all, there's a distorted view of God -- God is sort of like a cosmic bellhop that we can call upon and He's there to serve us as opposed to us being here to serve Him. No. 2, there's an exalted view of man – [it teaches that] Christianity is ultimately about us and not about Jesus and God's glory. No. 3, there's this idea of mind over matter -- if you just believe it, it will come true. No. 4, there is an overall fixation upon health and wealth and the idea that if you're just a good person and you love Jesus and tithe, you can expect to have a full wallet and perfect health. No. 5, there is a false idea of salvation itself. [According to the prosperity gospel,] it's not so much that we're saved from eternal damnation, saved from God's wrath, but rather we're saved from the unfulfilling, unprosperous life.
BP: In terms of how the prosperity gospel has spread, what role has TBN played?
JONES: You can just flip on cable television and see preachers saying a message that might be a little bit different than what your pastor is preaching at your church, but it's a message that resonates with your desires. And they seem to have packed churches full of people, and they seem to have lots of money -- which seemingly endorses their message. Of course, there's a lot of good preaching on TBN. There are some solid guys on there. But let's say you have Charles Stanley or Adrian Rogers and then the very next hour [TBN shows] Kenneth Hagin or Joel Osteen. How do you know when to turn the TV off?
BP: Would the prosperity gospel be as popular without TBN?
JONES: When TBN took off and cable and satellite television took off, that seems to have really been a milestone in the prosperity gospel movement. If you go back to the 1970s to the early days of Hagin or [Kenneth] Copeland, it was almost easier to spot the prosperity guys; they're the guys driving the Rolls Royce who have the big hair and the white suits. Whereas today, if I tell people in my church that Joel Osteen is a prosperity gospel preacher, folks are like, "Really? I had no idea."
BP: In the book, you differentiate between what you call "soft advocates" of the prosperity gospel such as Joel Osteen and more well-known advocates such as Kenneth Copeland and Kenneth Hagin. Explain the difference between the two types of advocacy.
JONES: Soft advocates are those who come from more of an orthodox background. At one point, if you go back far enough, you might find less prosperity preaching in their ministries. And even today in their preaching, they still try to get the Gospel in there and they give the Gospel lip service. Whereas, some of the more hardcore advocates -- Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland, even Creflo Dollar, these are guys that you very rarely hear them try to preach what looks like the traditional Gospel. It's almost all about avoiding suffering, avoiding losing your job, avoiding being poor. And you find the more egregious statements coming from them, as well, where they say poverty is a sin and Jesus had designer clothes.
BP: Would you say the prosperity gospel has harmed the name of Christ?
JONES: I think it really has -- not only in the effect that it's had upon believers, but when the lost world hears about the prosperity gospel, they lump Jerry Vines and Adrian Rogers in there with Kenneth Copeland and Joel Osteen, because to a lost world, these are all people who claim to be Christians. Many people in a lost world can see the hypocrisy of people who go on TV with their Rolexes saying, "Send me some money and I'll pray for you." They can see it's just a big scheme. But, unfortunately, that undermines the true Gospel. It's happened to both of us [David Jones and Russell Woodbridge] numerous times in the pastorate. You're out there talking to lost folks coming to your church, and an objection is raised, "I've seen you guys on TBN, and I know what you're all about, and all you want is my money."
BP: You devoted an entire chapter showing how the prosperity gospel has its foundation in New Thought philosophy [a late 18th- and early 19th -century quasi-Christian heresy that promoted the belief that the mind has power over movement]. Why did you think it was important for Christians to understand the foundation of the prosperity gospel?
JONES: We thought people need to realize that the prosperity gospel is not just another variety of Christianity. It's a baptized form of a secular heresy. It's not just Christianity that's a little bit off. It's pagan teaching with a Christian face. We thought that if folks can start with that and grasp that, then some of the objections we'll raise later in the book will be easier to process. We're not trying to say that every advocate of the prosperity gospel knows the roots of their own belief system. But the movement as a whole and its core teachings, that's where it comes from.
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press.