Biblical Prosperity: Why the Prosperity Gospel Is Wrong

My grandmother and aunt were both charismatics, and they worked at the local Christian television station. There were many times when I was growing up that I would watch that television station simply out of curiosity. This was before I became a committed Christian, and some of the theology that I saw on this station seemed very strange to me. It was through this television station that I was first introduced to the Prosperity Gospel.

I came across many shows featuring Mike Murdock, Rod Parsley, Jesse Duplantis, and Joel Osteen. I distinctly remember being turned away by their preaching. I was a big fan of Jesus at the time, but I wasn’t comfortable with Christianity. And they were a big reason why. I remember seeing their fame and fortune, and I had a very difficult time reconciling that with the poverty and humility I read about in the Gospels.

Unfortunately, for the last one hundred years or so, the American Church has become captivated by the Prosperity Gospel. This has especially been the case within Pentecostal and Charismatic churches.

For those who are unfamiliar with the Prosperity Gospel, here is the definition from the New Dictionary of Theology:

With the core of its message often referred to as the ‘prosperity gospel’, prosperity theology is a system of thought within the wider Pentecostal movement, asserting that God wishes everyone to be healthy and wealthy. This theology asserts that if prosperity is not present in the lives of professing Christians, then God’s blessing may not be upon them.

This same dictionary also mentions that it “developed in extravagant ways in the USA during the twentieth century”. This is an important detail. The Prosperity Gospel is distinctly American. Its early foundations lie within several American sources — New Thought, the “Gospel of Wealth” (which was based in Muscular Christianity), and E.W. Kenyon. The Prosperity Gospel brings together several elements of American culture. We have a nominal Christianity, individualism, capitalism, and the American dream all coming together. However, it has not remained a solely American religious movement. It has since spread across the world to the many Pentecostal and Charismatic communities.

The Prosperity Gospel is a very young movement in the Church, and as such it is not based within the historic traditions of Christianity. Most prosperity preachers instead appeal to the Bible. They do have some Scriptural evidence to build their argument on. There are numerous places in the Hebrew Scriptures of wealthy men being called as prophets. Examples of this would be Abraham, David, or Solomon. There are some Scriptures that can be understood to suggest that material wealth is a result of divine blessing. For example:

Honor the Lord with your wealth,
with the firstfruits of all your crops;
then your barns will be filled to overflowing,
and your vats will brim over with new wine (Proverbs 3:9-10).

And another one, “And my God will supply all your needs according to His glorious riches in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19).

Regarding passage such as these, it is important to remember something that the Venerable Bede said regarding the passage from Proverbs above:

We are commanded to honor the Lord not only with the substance of money that we extend to the poor and with all the good works we do, with the substance or fruits of the universal heavenly grace we receive, which is to seek his praise in all things rather than our own. [Not only the aforesaid,] but one honors the Lord with his substance and first fruits who attributes every good work not to his own powers and merits, but to supernatural grace, mindful of the word: “For without me, you can do nothing” [John 15:5] (Commentary on Proverbs 1.3.9.).

Simply put, we may be fortunate enough to have wealth in our life, and that wealth should be seen as a gift from God rather than something we did for ourselves. And that wealth should be used for the benefit of others. It should be used in service of God and neighbor, especially our poor and sick brothers and sisters.

St. Augustine said the following on the same passage:

God approves of that alms which is furnished by just labors, as is written: “Honor the Lord with your labors and sacrifice to him with the fruits of your justice.” For God abominates and refuses that alms which is furnished to him at the cost of another’s tears (The Christian Life, 12).

The Scriptures go on concerning this subject. We may be gifted with money or power in this world, but we are called to do something with it. We are called to gain this justly and humbly and to give what we can to the poor. Ideally, as the Church, we would share all things in common so that income inequality isn’t a problem within Christian community. I only give a couple of Scriptural examples as my space is limited for one article, but there are many relevant passages.

Also notice too how in the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke, Jesus gives two different versions of blessings to the poor. In Matthew 5:3, the poor in spirit (i.e. the humble) are blessed. In Luke 6:20, the poor in general are blessed. In the Scriptures, God’s  blessing does not translate to health and wealth as the Prosperity Gospel claims. Our Lord Jesus was of working class background (see Mt. 13:55, τέκτων). He was overwhelmingly rejected by the world and died a torturous, brutal death on the Cross.

The same could be said with most of the prophets and ministers throughout Jewish and Christian history. In the vast majority of the examples passed down to us, they were tremendously blessed but materially poor. Regarding the exceptional cases who were both spiritually blessed and materially wealthy (e.g. Abraham, Solomon), they were given a unique obligation to care for vast sums of people out of their surplus. Abraham and Solomon were both commanded to care for a great nation of people. The Scriptures likewise command the rich to give in support of the poor (Prov. 19:17, Prov. 22:9 , Luke 12:33, 1 Tim. 6:17–19, 1 John 3:17).

In the Biblical and Apostolic faith, our health and wealth, our prosperity, do not exist for our own benefit. If we are blessed with these things, we are blessed so that we may bless others. We are not blessed simply for the sake of gaining stuff, as many prosperity preachers suggest.

If God has seen it fit to give you millions of dollars (as has happened with Kenneth Copeland, for example) he calls you to then turn around and use that money for the benefit of others. It shouldn’t sit in your bank account. It shouldn’t be used to buy a private island or airplane. Likewise, if you are blessed with good health, you are called by God to use that for ministry — like a strong man carrying groceries up a staircase for an elderly woman, or Christ and the Apostles using their spiritual power to heal the sick. You have that health and wealth so that it can be a blessing for others less fortunate than you.

The Preacher put it this way — “Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days” (Ecclesiastes 11:1). We are called to invest our wealth in one another. The Contemporary English Version translates the above verse — “Be generous, and someday you will be rewarded.”

Rev. Kevin R. Daugherty is an Elder (Priest) in the Convergent Christian Communion, Abbot for Kindling Fires: A New Monastic Order, and works as a clerk in Elizabeth, PA. 

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Pentecostals & Charismatics for Peace & Justice is a multicultural, gender inclusive, and ecumenical organization that promotes peace, justice, and reconciliation work among Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians around the world. If you like what we do, please become a member!

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