Friday, 19 September 2008

The abuse of the Bible by prosperity teachers

It is my contention that prosperity teaching is not biblical but an abuse of the Bible. Prosperity teaching is a false gospel and is based on false foundations. It exploits the vulnerable and it promotes an unhealthy materialistic outlook. It has the spirit of Gehazi rather than the Spirit of God. Those who profit from it often live luxuriously without real concern for the needs of others and without a commitment to a true Christian life of discipleship and taking up the cross daily to follow Christ Jesus as Lord. The prosperity preachers seem to be more concerned about their own bank accounts, cars, mansions and even private jets.

The following theological reflections may be helpful.

The definition and background of the Health and Wealth Gospel Groups

The key teaching can be summarized as follows: it is God’s will for all Christians to be prosperous, spiritually and materially, and to experience health and miracles in their walk with God. An important aspect of prosperity teaching is the doctrine of seed-faith.

According to Hummel, the four main teachings of the Faith movement are revelation knowledge, positive confession, divine healing, and material prosperity. McConnell believes that in its infancy the Faith movement was known for its radical emphasis upon healing, but today the Faith movement is one of the major sources of prosperity teaching among modern charismatics. Those in the Faith movement therefore believe that God works miracles in providing healing and finances.

The movement’s roots have been traced back to E.W. Kenyon, and through to the healing evangelists of the post WWII era and twentieth century materialistic American Protestant Christianity. In some ways the doctrine of prosperity seems to be a gross example of the Church’s cultural accommodation to the worldly values of American materialism.
It is my contention that these Pentecostal/Charismatic Christians use, and abuse, the Bible as a source, inspiration and ultimately an authoritative text to endorse their teaching. All the leading exponents in the Word of Faith movement, those promoting the prosperity teaching, would claim to be preaching a truly Bible based message and would claim to be faithful ministers of the Word of God, the Bible. They would all maintain that they are correctly handling the truths of scripture and God. All of them quote the Bible as a proof text and supreme authority; they normally operate in an environment where the Bible is believed to be the rule of faith and final court of appeal in matters of doctrine. They usually have a very high view of scripture and are brought up in a tradition of Bible proof texts, which amounts to quoting Bible verses, arguably often out of context, to strengthen a point or to back up a doctrine. It is expected that any “anointed” preacher will be able to refer frequently to Bible texts and quote relevant portions from the Bible. In some cases it is claimed that the teaching comes by special revelation and direct inspiration from God.

A key text in support of the prosperity theology is 3 John 2:

Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.

The Authorized Version is preferred because it has the phrase “above all things” which prosperity teachers use to stress that health and prosperity are God’s highest wish and priority for his children. However, to extend the author’s wish for Gaius to refer to financial and material prosperity for all Christians is totally foreign to the text. What was in fact a standard form of greeting in a personal letter in antiquity[1] has been twisted to support a prosperity theology.

The spread of the Gospel does not necessarily involve huge sums of money or extra wealth among Christians. It can be spread in the normal course of daily living and personal testimony. It does not have to involve expensive methods, miracle wealth transfer and mass evangelism. In Latin America and parts of Africa the advance of the Church has occurred among the poor and by the relatively poor; the history of Christianity does not link wealth and the success of the Church. The end-time wealth transfer teaching seems to be based on the prosperity gospel’s obsession with finances and money rather than sound Biblical teaching. One prosperity preacher believes that according to Deuteronomy 8:18 there is an end-time transfer of wealth coming to the people of God.

He asserts that it can be brought to pass through good will gifts, but there is nothing about an end-time transfer of wealth in the New Testament. It is another case of the prosperity preachers finding their pet doctrines in ambiguous texts, and then claiming that it is a legitimate use of the Bible because of a revelation or prophecy. It is also coveting the world’s money and wanting to operate in a materialistic way.

There seems no good reason to link rather obscure texts in Proverbs and Deuteronomy with eschatological doctrines and prosperity. Richard Roberts claims that God gave him “a powerful revelation concerning breaking the spirit of debt”. He bases his revelation on the story of the miracle of the floating axe head in 2 Kings 6. According to Richard Roberts, the passage teaches us principles to remove debt, finance the end-time Gospel, and remove people from the devil’s kingdom. Roberts makes the connection that debt is borrowed money and the axe head was borrowed and lost. To find the missing item the young man had to be specific about the location, tell the whole story and then put something in (a stick) to retrieve the axe head. Roberts sees seed-faith as the answer. He writes:
… Elisha realized that you must put something in first as an act of your obedience, as God directs, if you want to get something out. You must sow a seed to God.

When you put something in and add your faith to it, God can take those things that have sunk to the bottom of your life and cause them to float to the TOP!

I find it ironic that a magazine, from Oral Roberts University (ORU), offered a revelation concerning breaking the spirit of debt, and advertised a tape and book about “blasting debt out of the body of Christ”, yet also mentions in another article that a man had pledged $1,000 towards debt reduction at ORU. The man asserts, “God delivered me from debt as I gave toward ORU’s debt!” Surely this “powerful revelation” should have removed the debt from ORU! This revelation was not powerful enough to help ORU miraculously, or by other methods, to remove their debt. Perhaps these “miracles” take time for the gullible to buy the books and tapes, and to make sufficient donations in seed-faith giving to remove the debt. The use of 2 Kings 6 to teach miracle debt reduction principles is an example of eisegesis, where the obsession with the seed-faith concept has been transported into passage in the Bible. It seems that this teaching, in the context of the magazine, plays on the many vulnerable people who have debts. It puts pressure on them to give to Oral Roberts Ministries in the hope that through this giving they will get money miraculously, as the testimonies in the magazine allege. No doubt those who read the magazine will be finding testimonies by people who will allege that they have had their debts miraculously removed through applying this teaching through seed-faith giving - probably to ORU or Oral Roberts Ministries. The magazine has regular accounts of money coming to people after seed-faith giving.

The Faith teachers are now promising freedom from poverty and sickness. This is certainly the message of Oral Roberts’ book on the subject. In it he proclaims, in a catchy sentence: Sow a seed against the need.

Hickey, Roberts and Osborn have all been key expositors of “point of contact” miracles. This controversial teaching is based on their use of Acts 19: 11-12:
God did extraordinary miracles through Paul. Handkerchiefs and aprons that had been touched by him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.

Faith teachers claim that healing and other miracles can take place through a point of contact with the healer/miracle worker. The passage in Acts 19:11-12 refers to extraordinary miracles yet the practice of using items like handkerchiefs for healing and working miracles is seen as normative in some healing ministry today. It has been used to justify some unusual practices and fund raising methods. Hickey has claimed that her mother was healed of breast tumour by a point of contact miracle by putting her hand on the television set.

Marilyn Hickey has since used the text in Acts 19 to raise funds for her ministry through various “point of contact” articles, which are given to effect healing and miracles. For example, the healer asks for a donation, a seed sown in faith, to be sent for articles, such as a cloth or handkerchief, which are then forwarded to the person requiring healing. Hanegraaff gives details of Hickey’s manipulative methods:

In one letter, Hickey promised to send a special anointing if the enclosed prayer cloth, along with money, was sent back to her immediately. Hickey promised that if it was returned “right now,” she would have it “anointed with an Acts 19 kind of anointing for ‘special,’ ‘unusual’ and ‘extraordinary’ miracles.” Hickey assured the reader that the Holy Spirit had been dealing with her about the entire matter and that she was excited about it.

Looking at the evidence from Hanegraaff and the Internet, this point of contact teaching seems an appalling example of exploiting the sick and making money out of the needy. It is abusing the Bible, preying on the fears and vulnerability of people needing healing and help. To exploit these people financially seems totally against the spirit of the Gospel of grace, alien to the New Testament teaching and closer to promoting a form of magic and superstition than genuine Christianity. These activities bring dishonour to the Church and are a disgraceful attempt to merchandize “miracles”. This form of religion has more in common with the Temple moneychangers than Jesus and the Apostles. It is more in tune with the spirit of Gehazi than the Spirit of God. It is utterly repellent to people outside the Church who see it for what it is, an attempt to gain money easily. There is really no honest endeavour involved. This abuse of the Bible has made the Faith teachers richer and the poor and the sick financially poorer, though I have met a few who have claimed to have prospered through seed-faith but not as much as the Faith movement leaders; they have the best cars in parking lot and some have their own jet planes!

There is no mention in Acts 19:11-12, or anything other passage, that healing miracles involve any financial arrangement or giving generously to a ministry or a minister. Paul the Apostle never asked for funds to be sent back to him with the handkerchief as a point of contact. Yet this text is used to promote healing ministries and the appeals for money when various items are sent out to heal the sick. In Acts 2 the crippled beggar at Beautiful Gate was not asked to sow a seed-faith gift to Peter and John before healing took place. Unlike the Faith teachers, Peter’s confession was “silver and gold I have not.” It was, ironically, a negative confession that certain Faith teachers condemn.

Some Faith teachers are now urging their followers to utter the positive confession “Money cometh to me, now! I’m a money magnet.” This seems more like using a mantra or magic spell, not genuine Christianity. These “faith confessions” are based on a verse from Isaiah 55: 10-11 where it says:
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth; it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I send it.

Clearly this text is taken completely out of context to be used to teach positive confession and a seed-faith approach. It is quite false to use this verse to suggest that our words are invested with some power from God to accomplish what we confess.

The health and prosperity gospel promises so much but on closer inspection it delivers so little, because it is based on two false premises:

It is always God’s will to heal everyone.

God intends every believer to be wealthy, to prosper financially.

It tells people what they want to hear, that they can be wealthy and healthy, rather than what the Bible actually says.

[1] Gordon D. Fee, The Disease of the Health and Wealth Gospels, Vancouver: Regent Bookstore, 1996, p.6. Fee refers to the collection of ancient letters in Select Papyri, New York: Putnam, 1932, pp. 269-395.

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