IFES staff and students are often confronted with false values and worldviews that can draw them away from the purity of the gospel and weaken the impact of the IFES movement on the university. In contexts as diverse as Africa, Latin America and North America, the prosperity gospel has had a deep effect on the body of Christ, elevating money to compete for a space in our lives that only God deserves.
What is it?
The prosperity gospel asserts that believers have the right to the blessings of health and wealth, and that they can obtain these blessings through positive confessions of faith and through the faithful payments of tithes and offerings. It is one of the fastest growing false gospels, cutting across denominations.
The bible affirms that God does bless his people and provide for their needs, but also that there are legitimate ways to work for such needs to be met. The prosperity gospel, however, often makes the pursuit of material things and physical well-being ends in themselves.
What’s wrong with the prosperity gospel?
- It refocuses the primary mission of Jesus. Jesus came to save us from our sins not to make us rich.
- It distorts the person of Christ. It misleads people, turning them away from the simplicity of Jesus’ lifestyle and portraying him as materially wealthy.
- It feeds on the greed of the teachers and the gullibility of their followers. Both either ignore or refuse to take seriously the warnings of Jesus about material wealth.
- It gives no explanation for suffering. It is often silent on the subject or equates the experience of suffering as not having faith or living in sin.
- Often the poor are exploited. This swells the money bags of those who are already rich. While advocacy for the poor and poverty alleviation has become a multi-billion dollar business, the poor in many contexts often hardly benefit.
- It pressures people to give with wrong motives. By teaching that giving to God is an investment that must yield returns, it deliberately fails to see that all forms of giving to God are primarily acts of worship.
- Too much energy is spent on raising funds. Instead, we should be working to present a gospel that saves people from sin and nourishing the spiritual health of God’s people.
But doesn’t it quote the bible?
Scripture is often interpreted or manipulated to promote the main emphasis of the ‘prosperity gospel’. Several scriptures passages are often cited but I will highlight only one of commonly used ones here.
The most popular verse used in mobilizing a congregation to give is Luke 6:38: ‘Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.’
The use of this verse, however, is often not faithful to the text or context. Luke 6:38 is found in the context of Jesus’ teaching on love and mercy and how we relate to and treat others. It is preceded by a verse exhorting us not to judge or condemn, but to forgive because, ‘with the same measure that we use, it will be measured back to us.’
Those who use this passage to motivate people to give rarely refer to the unusually strong words of the Lord Jesus Christ on wealth and resources. In fact, Jesus says in the same chapter of Luke ‘But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry’ (Luke 6:24-25).
It is clear that Jesus did not preach or teach a prosperity gospel. His teachings about earthly possession come as warnings to us: “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses” (Luke 12:15). He also cautions us about the deceitfulness of riches (Matthew 13:22), referring to it as ‘unrighteousness mammon’ (Luke 16:9).
How should we respond?
Examine our own lives. 1 Timothy 6:6-10 warns us about the traps we can fall into when we want to get rich, and how love of money can cause us to wander from the faith. It also presents the antidote: ‘godliness with contentment’. We should respond to the prosperity gospel first by looking at our own lives and making sure that we ‘flee from all this and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness’ (1 Timothy 6:11).
Challenge those who believe the prosperity gospel. We all should feel a sense of pain to see Christians drifting away from sound doctrine in this way. We need to study the bible passages used by proponents of the prosperity gospel and be prepared to challenge them on their interpretation of God’s word.
Care for those in need. We need to take the plight of the poor seriously enough to reject this gospel and work at better ways of meeting their needs rather than offering false shortcuts. The poor are very much with us in the faces of street children and other children at risk, HIV/AIDS orphans, slum dwellers, marginalised women, the rural poor and other often forgotten ‘nobodies’ of our world. How can we bring lasting changes in a society that neglects these people?
If the love of money is the root of all kind of evil, the love of material property, mansions, and other accumulations in the dragnet of money must follow closely after. In very easy ways – more subtle that we often think – any of these things can become idols that dim our view of God and diminish our passion for him. We must be defined, not by what we have or own, but by who we are in Christ.
Discuss and add your voice…
- Have you, as a student, encountered people who believe in the prosperity gospel in your movement? How have you responded?
- How can we lovingly help those who are tempted to seek material blessings instead of spiritual blessings?
- How can we guard against the lure of the prosperity gospel in our own lives and in the lives of our IFES movement?