Examining the Prosperity Gospel #1: Why Address the Prosperity Gospel?

What do Joel Osteen, Kenneth Copeland, Paula White, or Benny Hinn all have in common with each other? Different as they may all be in their approaches, they are all promoters of the prosperity gospel. Over the next several weeks, I will be presenting a series of posts examining the errors of the prosperity gospel and providing explanations of how it distorts the true gospel and Christian teaching. I write this post to explain why we need to address the prosperity gospel and to serve as a preview for what I will be covering over the next few weeks.

For my theological rationale for addressing the prosperity gospel, I would direct you to my previous post on addressing false teaching.

Our Modern Heresy

I don’t think it would be unreasonable to say that the prosperity gospel is the great heresy of our day. Just as the church dealt with the great heresies of the past such as Docetism, Gnosticism, or Arianism, so now we must deal with the great heresy of the prosperity gospel. 

In using the term “heresy,” I do not do so lightly. Heresy is a term that is applied to teachings that are ultimately sub-Christian and subvert the true gospel. This is exactly what the prosperity gospel does. It makes a caricature out of Christian teaching and so shifts the message to the point where it can no longer be accurately called Christian. 

Now if I am to speak of the prosperity gospel, I need to define what I mean. When I use the term “prosperity gospel,” I have in mind a system that emphasizes health, wealth, and general wellbeing as a central benefit to being a follower of Jesus Christ. Some systems emphasize monetary prosperity, others physical health, while others general success; most are typically some combination thereof. Regardless of the greater emphasis, the presuppositions remain the same and both serve to distract from Christ himself and instead point to the material blessings that he purportedly gives. The prosperity gospel is ultimately a syncretistic theology, as it has mixed many elements from a metaphysical cult known as New Thought and promotes them as benefits of the gospel.

The prosperity gospel is not a systematized theology and belongs to no particular denomination. Be that as it may, we may still trace common points of this theology, primarily through what is called Word of Faith theology, which is the primary driver of the prosperity gospel. As I go through this series and examine the theology of the prosperity gospel, I am assuming the context of Word of Faith and will be critiquing these elements. For the purposes of this study, the terms “prosperity theology” and “Word of Faith” will be used synonymously. 

Of the myriad of errors that are found in prosperity theology, I could boil the most prominent errors down to these main factors:

  1. Redefinining faith as basically a state of mind and considering it to be a force.
  2. Exalting man and the power of his words.
  3. Incorrectly asserting that the Abrahamic Covenant includes material blessings.
  4. Overemphasizing material blessings, whether they be health, wealth, or success.
  5. Teaching that Christ’s atonement bought present physical healing for all believers.

The prosperity gospel primarily comes in two forms, what Kate Bowler labels as “hard prosperity” and “soft prosperity.”[1] Hard prosperity typically has a direct emphasis upon wealth and being generally prosperous and is embodied in preachers such as Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, and Creflo Dollar. This form of the prosperity gospel appears to be becoming less mainstream. Soft prosperity, on the other hand, while based on the same presuppositions and theological system, is typified by a more subtle approach that focuses on general wellbeing and self-help, what Bowler calls “therapeutic and down-to-earth Christian self improvement.”[2] This latter type of the prosperity gospel is taught by popular preachers such as Joel Osteen or Joyce Meyer.

This softer form of the prosperity gospel is mainstream. Simply look at the Christian section of a bookstore or the Christian bestsellers list and you will likely find books authored by soft prosperity preachers. Because of this pervasiveness, I will give more focus to soft prosperity preachers, particularly to Osteen since he is most representative, but I also intend to show that their theology ties back to their hard prosperity counterparts. The soft prosperity gospel is just as much rooted in Word of Faith theology as the hard prosperity gospel, it simply tends to be less explicit about it.

In Their Own Words

A major part of my methodology in addressing the prosperity gospel will be to look specifically at various purveyors of the prosperity gospel in their own words. This serves a twofold purpose for me: 1) It demonstrates that I am not creating a strawman and arguing against something that does not truly exist; these are real errors that exist.  2) It provides documentation of the types of errors these teachers engage in and so provides you as the reader a baseline for judging their teaching.

For the most part, I will be engaging with what prosperity preachers have printed in book form. This allows me to more adequately document their teachings as books are more permanent and accessible. By not focusing on the spoken word, such as in sermons, I can more adequately make my case that they are not misspeaking or were unclear at the time. If it goes into print, it was intentionally written and it is the words that the author intended. There will be several times I diverge from printed books, but those will not be normative. 

Motivations For Addressing the Prosperity Gospel 

I write this series out of a deep concern for the doctrinal purity of the church and a desire to purge this heresy out from our midst. I have several motivations for writing this series: to provide a defense against false doctrine, to refute a false gospel, and to set the record straight that this is not true Christian teaching.

1. Defense against false doctrine. 

My desire is for members of the church to be innoculated, as it were, against Word of Faith theology. This is a false teaching that has infiltrated the church and it is my duty as an elder to guard the flock against it. By pointing out the errors in this way, members of the church are better able to detect the false doctrine for themselves and so prevent it from affecting their thinking.

2. Refute a false gospel.

This is a false teaching that has originated here in my home country in America and it is currently being exported abroad. Millions of people are falling victim to this false gospel. This teaching is not authentic Christian teaching and is leading many astray. It is giving many people false assurance that they are believers, for it teaches them to chase after things, rather than the Author of life. 

3. To correct the record.

Many outside of Christian circles see no difference between prosperity preachers and orthodox preachers such that a Kenneth Copeland might be seen to represent Christianity. I want to set the record straight that prosperity preachers are outside of right Christian teaching and draw a clear boundary between them and true Christianity. 

Why the Prosperity Gospel is Dangerous

The late Myles Munroe, himself a prosperity preacher, captured the essence of why the prosperity gospel is dangerous. I present to you these two lengthy quotes from him:

I’m going to step out on a theological limb here, so please read very carefully: Jesus never said, “Seek Me first.” He said, “Seek first the Kingdom.” If we put our prime minister’s photograph, biography, and personal profile on all of our tourism advertisements, no one will come to the Bahamas. That’s not to say anything against the prime minister, but that is not what the tourists are interested in. They don’t want to know about the government or the political leadership; they want to know about the country. If we want to attract tourists to the Bahamas, we need to tell them and show them things about our country that will whet their appetite and stir up in them the desire to come visit. 

Jesus never told us to seek Him first. And yet the church, for the better part of its 2,000- year history, has done precisely that. The church continuously preached about the King, and taught about the King, and bragged about the King, and told people how they should love the King, and give their hearts to the King, and follow the King, and serve the King, and live for the King. And while all of this is true, it is probably not the best place to start, because in all the talk and attention given to the King, very little focus has been given to the Kingdom He reigns over.[3]

He continues even further and says:

Jesus said, “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it” (Luke 16:16). Why aren’t people forcing their way into Christianity? They don’t want Christianity because Christianity is built on a door, not on the Kingdom beyond the door. Muslims don’t want Jesus. They are satisfied with Muhammad and Allah. But talk to them about the Kingdom of Heaven and its riches, abundance, prosperity, and joy, as well as a Personal God who loves them most, and compare that to the barren austerity in which most Muslims live, and you may get a listening ear.

People really are not looking for Jesus. We keep telling them they are but they are not. They are looking for things. They are looking for a good life. But open their eyes to the reality of the Kingdom and their focus will change. Who wouldn’t trade the rat race pursuit of things for a Kingdom that guarantees all those things free and without frustration? That’s what Jesus meant when He said people were forcing their way into the Kingdom of God. Once a person understands what the Kingdom is, and the riches, benefits, and joys it affords, he or she will do anything to get in, even risk life and limb. Why is it that more and more Muslims are converting to Christ even though they know it may cost them their lives? Because they have discovered the Kingdom of Heaven and have realized that no price is too great to pay to enter it.[4]

Munroe was much more forthcoming with the actual implications of his message than many others are. Notice what he is advocating: don’t preach Jesus, preach the stuff and the benefits he can give. That is the real danger in the prosperity gospel: it teaches people to not pursue Jesus, but to pursue health, wealth, and happiness. It creates false disciples who really have no interest in Jesus, just in the stuff he can give. When this false gospel inevitably fails to deliver, it leaves people assuming that Jesus failed them, when in reality they were pursuing something that Jesus had never promised. Joseph Prince only serves to drive the point home:

My friend, there is no such thing as a “prosperity gospel.” There is only one gospel in the Bible and that is the gospel of Jesus Christ. However, when you believe the gospel of Jesus, which is based entirely on His grace, it will result in health and prosperity. In fact, the gospel of Jesus Christ leads to blessings, success, healing, restoration, protection, financial breakthroughs, security, peace, wholeness, and MUCH MORE![5]

That is not the gospel; that is a false gospel. That gospel will fail.

For Whom is this Written?

As I write these posts, I have several types of people in mind. I am thinking of someone seeking to understand what the prosperity gospel actually teaches, someone who has been unknowingly influenced by the prosperity gospel, someone who is caught up in the midst of prosperity theology, and someone who is actively teaching the prosperity gospel. To these different types of people, I have the following words as you read through this series:

To the Person Seeking to Better Understand the Prosperity Gospel

My hope is that this study may better equip you to respond to the claims of the prosperity gospel and to see just how deep its theological error goes. As you see the departures from true Christian teaching, I pray that you would take seriously the threat that this teaching is to the true gospel of Christ and would join in the fight against this heresy. 

To the Person Unknowingly Influenced by the Prosperity Gospel

If you find that you have been influenced by this false theology, do not despair. We all have blind spots and we often have influences in our thinking that we cannot trace and may even be completely unaware of. Now that you are aware of where some of this teaching has come from, my encouragement for you is to study the Scriptures more. Find where you have been influenced by unbiblical teaching and course correct. Once you have the origin of the teaching pinpointed, it is easier to view it objectively.

To the Person Immersed in the Prosperity Gospel

If you find yourself offended at some of the names I am presenting here, I would suggest that you have either been unknowingly influenced by the prosperity gospel or are immersed in it. If you are the latter, my prayer is that you would investigate my claims further and see if the teachings of these people can hold up to the testimony of Scripture. If they cannot, and I believe they fail miserably in this regard, then I would urge you to reject these teachers and their theology and root yourself more firmly in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

To the Teacher of the Prosperity Gospel

To you who are a teacher of the prosperity gospel, know this: I consider you to be an enemy of the gospel and to be one of the wolves I am to guard the flock against. So long as you continue in preaching a false gospel, it is my duty as an elder entrusted with the ministry of the gospel to warn against what you teach and to refute your doctrine. If you find yourself to have been preaching false doctrine, I urge you to repent and to excuse yourself from ministry, for you are not qualified to shepherd the flock of God. 

Conclusion

I hope this introduction serves to properly lay the groundwork for the topic before us. As I said at the outset, I would go so far as to label the prosperity gospel a heresy, and I intend to lay out specifically why I would make this claim in the following posts in this series. The next post to follow will give an overview of the history of thought that ultimately culminated in the modern prosperity gospel. 


[1] Kate Bowler, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013), 78.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Myles Munroe, Applying the Kingdom: Rediscovering the Priority of God for Mankind (Nassau, Bahamas: Destiny Image, 2007), 233.

[4] Ibid. 236.

[5] Joseph Prince, Destined To Reign: The Secret to Effortless Success, Wholeness, and Victorious Living (Tulsa, OK: Harrison House Publishers, 2007), 23.

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