Here in the great state of Iowa, Senator Chuck Grassley is generally well-liked. The guy has been in the Senate for 30 years and counting, so he must be doing something right to continue to get re-elected. But I have to say, I think it was a major overstepping of his bounds when he launched an investigation into the financial affairs of 6 different ministries; all of which happened to be of the pentecostal/charismatic persuasion, I might add. The news today is that after starting his investigation in 2007, his review of these 6 ministries has finally been released.
As with with the farce that was the investigation into major league baseball regarding steroids, the government once again involved themselves in another silly sort of McCarthyism. Whether you think it is right or wrong, if people want to pour their hard-earned money towards their pastor’s private jet or pay the cost of admission to see gargantuan-sized sluggers, that is their own darn business.
But my purpose for this post isn’t so much to scold the senator for investigating these churches, but to give a modest defense of the so-called prosperity gospel, with caveats, of course. Flamed as heresy by most of the church at large, I think the God’s people have been too quick to throw the baby out with the bath water.
Obviously, there is no denying that there has been excesses taught by some wild-eyed televangelists. Just turn on certain christian TV networks, and you can still see these ministers using silly gimmicks and emotional appeal. The gullibility that keeps these people on the air is breathtaking as well as disheartening. But I believe in trying to distance ourselves from some of these so-called ministers, the church has forgotten that the same Jesus who taught “blessed are the poor” is also the same Jesus who told Peter to “let down your nets for a catch”.
James K.A. Smith, a philosopher and professor at Calvin College, points out that one of the core (and often neglected) elements of a pentecostal worldview is a non-dualistic affirmation of embodiment and materiality. In non-philosopher speak, the full gospel affirms the value of the whole person. This platonic or gnostic idea of materiality is evil runs counter to the story presented in the creation account. When God created the world, he called it “good”. Too often Christians have fallen into these faulty, dualistic ideas about soul and materiality, spiritualizing biblical texts that tell us Jesus came to preach the gospel to the poor (Luke 4:18-19) and that Christ became poor so that through his poverty we might be made rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).
Believers who dismiss the prosperity gospel as un-biblical really need to re-examine their beliefs. There is a thread of wealth throughout the entire Bible. For example:
- God told Adam to have dominion over all he created. He even told him where to find the gold and called the gold good. (See Genesis 2:10)
- Job was “the greatest of all the people of the east” and while he experienced tremendous trials of poverty and disease for a time, God restored him fully, giving him even twice as much as before. (Job 1:2-5, 42:10-12)
- Abraham and Lot were so rich, they had to part company because their possessions were so great (see Genesis 13.)
- The children of Israel left the land of Egypt with silver and gold (Psalm 105:37).
- The blessings in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 all included wealth on the condition of obedience to the law.
- The estimated cost of Solomon’s temple was about $140 billion in today’s money, according to the measure of talents recorded in the New International Version. That does not include the stone, wood, animals used for the sanctuary services, precious stones, and labor. God told Solomon His name would be there, so he was obviously not offended by such extravagance. In contrast, he honored them with His Shekinah glory. Solomon and his father David were also both extremely wealthy.
- The Magi gave the young Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
- Jesus worked several “provisional miracles”, including the feeding of the 5,000.
- Paul taught the Corinthians that because of their generosity, “God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” (2 Corinthians 9:8)
- Revelation 21 speaks of the nations of the earth bringing their wealth to the New Jerusalem.
Smith suggests that perhaps where the “prosperity gospel” is out of balance in that it is a form of realized eschatology. In other words, the total fulfillment of these promises is not for now. And really, how could they be in the light of the new heavens and new earth? According to the christian worldview, we live in a fallen world of injustice and depravity, and there is opposition against the people of God from getting wealth that the ungodly rich squander. Jesus said that until he comes, the poor “will always be among us”, but on the other hand, God also speaks of “days of heaven upon the earth”. (Deuteronomy 8:21). For those of us who will be diligent and persevere in faith, I believe we can have a glorious foretaste of our future wealthy place in God in the life that now is, and that in an ever-increasing measure.
Oral Roberts, one of the famed pioneers of the wealth message (and perhaps a polarizing figure in his own right) provides a good definition for the type of reconstructed prosperity gospel with a “love thy neighbor ethic”:
Prosperity is the possession of everything you need for yourself and loved ones with enough surplus to give to those who need help. If you have only the bare necessities, you are not prosperous. And if you have all the sufficiencies of life but no more, that is not prosperity. But, if you have everything you need with something left over for the poor, that is prosperity. If, after you have paid the tithe, you have enough for offerings to spread the gospel and help the needy, that is prosperity.
This is the type of balance the church should be embracing. But even beyond that, I also do not believe that God is against extravagance being poured out on the lives of his servants, either. Consider Christ’s anointing by Mary Magdalene at Bethany, as recorded in the 14th chapter of Mark. According the scripture, the oil and the jar containing it cost 200 denarii. That would be something like $45,000 today! The disciples murmured, saying “Why this waste? …this should have been given to the poor!”. But Jesus wasn’t impressed with their pious indignation, saying “Leave her alone” and “wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” That’s a lot of props coming from the King, I’d say. In light of this story , Christians need to look at their motives before judging others. Rather than ask “why this waste?” we should focus inward and ask “what percentage of my income am I giving to help others?”
I’m not a big fan of the band Everclear, but I think they strike a nerve in their song, “I Will Buy You a New Life:”
I hate those people who love to tell you,
“Money is the root of all that kills.”
They have never been poor,
They have never had the joy of a welfare Christmas.
It’s the love of money that is the root of all evil. (1 Timothy 6:10) Covetousness kills. The essence in the “wealth” gospel, when not distorted, is that there is a recurring theme in the bible that God cares deeply about the material conditions of the poor. God’s economy does not just include some “bare necessities”, but abundance. The church would do well to realize this and embrace balance. We should avoid this gnostic view that substance and material is bad and understand that God wants to bless us financially, while simultaneously holding to an ethic that values the sharing of wealth above the mass accumulation of possessions to satisfy individual lust. Tall order, I know.