It might be a little surprising to see book recommendations for Richard Wurmbrand and John Stott, for example, in the same place as strong endorsement of Kenneth E Hagin, who is sometimes referred to as a prosperity teacher, and others who write in a similar vein. You will also find reference on this site to teaching about the need for social justice – there is an intention to discuss, for example, The Gospel in Solentiname, a book which presents another side altogether to this issue. I discuss specific books by Hagin in the article Money.
Here is Stott: “the unbiblical ‘prosperity gospel’ (which guarantees success)”. Wurmbrand, who suffered greatly in Communist jails before being ransomed to the West and living in the USA, inveighs (briefly) against ‘health and wealth’ – ‘some preach easy salvation…if you believe, you will not only have heaven in eternity but also health and prosperity here…this false western teaching is around the corner to destroy your spiritual life’. He adds that he has ‘repeatedly’ received healing from God’s hand ‘by faith’; no doubt he has also received help financially too.
I would point to one verse in this vein, Rom 14:17 —the kingdom of God is not meat and drink but righteousness, peace and joy and the Holy Spirit. This verse is not in context really talking about prosperity type teaching per se but it does have something to say about it, the same direction as Matt 6:33 — seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
So, there are fine people who speak against ‘prosperity teaching’, not the vicious rants which appear in a few books and nasty internet articles attacking such as Hagin; there is a reality here, and I understand that there has been a strong movement in American churches in particular which tends to equate worldly success with spirituality and hugely emphasizes the financial; a movement that says that ‘God will make you wealthy’ and, when you come down to it, avoids the cross. (There is a very nice look at the negative side of things in this footnote.) 1
Also there is an important way in which ‘the church’ sometimes positively sides in with financial exploitation of the poor and sometimes by its acceptance of the status quo acquiesces in this; social justice is not a concern to be found in Hagin or others like him. However I think there are three points to be made here.
1. Prosperity per se is not unbiblical; far from it. Firstly, with regard to prosperity; it is clearly the case that throughout the Old Testament, the prosperity of Israel is tied to their godliness. This is first of all because the ‘blessings of Abraham’ (Gal 3.14) includes financial well-being; loss of well-being is tied to sin; tithing is tied to the ‘opening of the windows of heaven’ etc. Is this some kind of guarantee of individual prosperity? A lot depends on what is meant by prosperity; if it means not having problems then Paul fell badly short of biblical standards, suffering as much as he did, and indeed ‘seeking to fill up the sufferings of Christ’. But Jesus taught us to pray, ‘give us this day our daily bread’; heaven is a place of full provision; this means that provision is God’s will. The preliminary point is that we need to be careful about speaking against ‘prosperity’. Stott’s point about ‘guarantee of success’, though something of a caricature, may well point to the effect of some of the teaching and so is well made, as is Wurmbrand’s ; but ‘prosperity’ is not wrong per se, so neither is teaching it. (I think a very important point here is that OT prosperity is far more communal than it is individual; the same most surely applies in the NT and to us today. A very valuable look at the connection between godly, biblical principles and communal prosperity is to be found in the writings of Vishal Mangalwadi, who looks, for example, at the way corruption and poverty go hand in hand, and are the result of non-biblical ideas.)
2. The excesses that may be apparent in American church life and in some versions of ‘prosperity’ have no place in Hagin. What he says about finances and prosperity, discussed in detail elsewhere ( see Kenneth Hagin on Money), has a very consistent basis and application. As a young man and pastor he was taught that poverty was in some sense godly, keeping you humble; he found out that this was not so, that God would help him have a nice car and nice clothes in order to faithfully represent the ministry, and put food on the table for his family; reliance on God for provision was a better way of being humble. His position is very much that of Hudson Taylor – “God’s work, done God’s way, will not lack God’s supply”. Here too we can do with being careful. Richard Wurmbrand quotes Taylor as saying – ‘I have no trouble remembering that my children need breakfast and dinner. Is it possible to imagine that our heavenly Father is less tender and mindful of His children than I am?’ Wurmbrand comments, ‘beautiful but romantic. I have had no breakfast for 2 years.’ But I hope we can accept in some form that financial prosperity, in the case of Hagin and Hudson Taylor, is tied to serving God and cannot be separated from it. This emphasis may not be what happens in some of American, in particular, church life, and some of this will have arisen through misuse of the sort of principles Hagin propounds; my concern, however, is not with the abuse, which I have personally encountered aplenty, but with the good stuff! In the western world we need a biblical approach to money and it can be found in Hagin, though I think it should go further in terms of ‘remembering the poor’ — a sort of footnote, but an important one, in Paul (Gal 2:10). There are many, numerous, uplifting wonderful accounts of God providing as people pray: George Mueller is a good one, never asking for money and praying in large sums over the years to support his orphanages. This does not apply just to ‘ministry’ however, since some people are evidently gifted to make money to support ministry; but it goes further because it must surely apply to everyday life – ‘my God will supply all your need according to his riches in glory.’
3. Different times require different emphases of teaching. What is important in prison, under persecution, or for campesinos in Nicaragua is much less important in the burgeoning ‘prosperous’ West. I think particularly of the fantastically prosperous USA in the 50’s and 60’s when Norman Vincent Peale was widely known as ‘America’s pastor’. One may have, as I do, important reservations about what he says, but in certain respects his books, notably The Power of Positive Thinking, are excellent. (Indeed, in the process of reviewing these posts, re-reading Peale suggests how very valuable much of what he says is.) A lot of his material is about dealing with prosperity, living in the midst of it. He addresses himself to business people whose personalities are out of whack, that is they lack peace, balance, and he endeavours to bring Christ to such people. There are a lot of questions that arise here; Peale was in favour of the American dream, building a great country and so on; he loved New York ( I dislike it); there are a lot of real questions! But he was addressing real needs and talking to people about Jesus in a way they could hear. His approach has a very therapeutic angle, and one of his therapies is most certainly giving; it is quite clear that he could envisage going a very long way with that. Prosperity is a subject that has to be addressed.
I was in a small meeting recently and asked the Father to tell me why the people flocked to hear Jesus. As I was walking home, clear as a bell, the thought came to me that it was because he affirmed people where they were; he didn’t, initially at least!, make big demands on them; he affirmed them in their jobs, in their social roles….and as they received his kind affirmation, then the Spirit would start working on their….sins! When money was a problem, then and then only did he tell somebody, one man,to cut free from it (Mt 19.16 ff); the people he told to quit their jobs were very few. It is true that it was the poor, the ‘common’ people who are recorded as hearing him ‘glady’; he had a social message; nevertheless, he ‘committed himself to no man’; he came fundamentally to give his life a ransom for many. For this reason, I understand that fellowship with God is the first thing; if money gets in the way either because there is too much or too little, then it is a problem. I recommend books by Kenneth Hagin because this principle is central with him. I fear that the lack of positive endeavour to help the poor may result in the principles espoused being abused; I have good reason to think this is the case, but this does not negate the central message of fellowship, intimacy with God and of the potential for salvation to include material prosperity.
In conclusion, I hope this look at an important topic brings some balance to things. I believe that there is a natural consequence in terms of social ‘lift’ when people turn to Christ – they are likely to become hard-working, reliable people, they stop smoking, they don’t gamble . . . Long centuries of superstition brought India to penury – see Mangalwadi – and the gospel brings light and uplift. This is part of prosperity. Then there can be answered prayer bringing debt cancellations; how many times have I seen this? Then there is simply God’s provision. Smith Wigglesworth said to God something like, “If I am ever down at heel and my shoes are worn out, I will know that I am not in the right place preaching your word and I will go back to plumbing.” Then there is also persecution and prison . . .
- This is an excerpt from Fight the Good Fight by Gilles Boucomont, translated from the French.
So called prosperity teaching is having its day in the sun at the moment, particularly among those who are seeking to better themselves socially. It is based on a bad form of Calvinism in which the doctrine of double predestination eventuates in the following strange equation: God has saved us by grace, and also, as his elect, he makes his salvation visible in particular not just by raising us up spiritually but also materially. Our wealth is one of the manifestations of our salvation. When someone like Calvin spoke about money, his purpose was to call on the rich to be generous towards the poor; when he advocated active predestination in heavenly places and on earth, he was inciting Christians to lead exemplary lives. However, when his teaching is revisited in a time of extreme capitalism, the theology becomes occasion to believers to think of God as just an associate, a banker, who must make my affairs prosper. This God is no longer the God of Jesus Christ but mammon. Just like satan, mammon too can cite biblical verses. Jesus never spoke about these things in the way the false prophets of prosperity do.
Lifting up his eyes on his disciples, Jesus said: Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours! . . . Woe to you, you rich, you already have your reward! Woe to you who are full, because you will be hungry! (Luke 6:20; 24–25)
The word of faith doctrine has wrought ravages in some quarters because it has led some simple people to think that merely the mention of their desires, spoken in the name of Jesus, will bring their fulfillment. This is a form of magic incantation, the thought that there is a strict match between what God does when he speaks, creating by his word, and what we do. Here again, attention to the will of God takes second place. Once more, this is a theology of the consumer age. ↩