America’s Premier Heresy

The “most influential work of popular theology published this century…” What is it? I disagree with Ross Douthat’s answer (in his book Bad Religion) to this question because I don’t think that book has been influential even if it has been wildly popular. The issue here is how to define “influential.”

By now you may wonder what book he had in mind and if you guessed Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now you would be right. We’re only twelve years into the century, so there’s not much to go by … but still, no one can doubt that 4 million sales, plus all the stuff around it, says something about (bad) religion in America.

If you could offer a better theology to proponents of prosperity theology, what would it look like? How does an economic theory work into your critique or your offer?

America’s premier heresy is the Health and Wealth gospel, and Douthat probes here and there in what has to be seen as a violent disregard of major themes in the Bible. But more of that later in this post. Osteen “comes as close to Billy Graham’s level of popularity” and his “cultural empire is arguably larger” and more than “200 million people around the globe tune in to his broadcasts” (182, 183). Comparing him to Billy Graham, Douthat observes Osteen’s message is “considerably more upbeat” and that his “God gives without demanding, forgives without threatening to judge, and hands out His rewards in this life rather than in the next” (183).

Overall, this approach is about “the refashioning of Christianity to suit an age of abundance” and a “marriage of God and Mammon” (183). It’s attractive to many: “millions of believers reconcile their religious faith with the nation’s seemingly unbiblical wealth and un-Christian consumer culture” (183).

Now a quick sketch of his quick sketch: Tocqueville saw it; Russell Conwell preached it and it became “New Thought” — the belief that the mind could control matter and Christianity had to learn to think through this New Thought grid. It led to Mary Baker Eddy and E.W. Kenyon and then came of Christian age with Kenneth W. Hagin and the Word-Faith Movement, and the “name it and claim it” theology … and Joel Osteen’s father bought into this at levels, and we see it in Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, Reverend Ike, Creflo Dollar, Fred Price, Benny Hinn … he sees this batch as “enthusiastic to a fault, crassly materialistic, lachrymose, and tacky” (187). And Joyce Meyer, in a more subdued form, and Joel Osteen, also subdued but every bit a health and wealth gospel guy.

What the Health and Wealth gospel does is eliminate the anxiety Christians have about money and possessions and Mammon. Turns it inside out and embraces it and then says use it for God … with no critique, no warning, and no sensing of its potent temptations.

So there are moderations, like T.D. Jakes and Douthat thinks Rick Warren fits in here and also Bruce Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez and Larry Burkett and he sees it in the “more money, more ministry” mentality … and James Dobson and Pat Robertson.

He pushes against his Catholic Church too though in a different way. There is the loss of vocations and monasticism and the vision of the purity of poverty and self-denial and asceticism. He weighs in on Michael Novak’s marriage of Catholicism and capitalism.

Douthat suggests the uncertainties of a capitalist economy might make the church and faith stronger; in this he is following such voices as Rodney Stark.

Can the church marry capitalism and wealth to its faith in such a way that the faith still stands?

In one penetrating paragraph, Douthat shows that prosperity theology and Christian socialism are often on the same page: “an emphasis on the social utility of belief, an eagerness to define spiritual success in worldly terms, a hint of utopianism, and an abiding naivete about human nature” (204-205). What do you think? Is the Christian Left and the Christian Right guilty of coming at the same landing spot from different angles?

But what is being lost? “Shorn of these aspects of the faith [renunciation, suffering], Christianity risks becoming an appendage to Americanism” (205). He’s right about the implication; his theory of what it is leaving behind or losing is too shallow. Yes, there is an optimism about human nature in prosperity theology, on that we agree.

Douthat’s perception of Catholicism comes to the surface too easily here, and it is a Catholicism of poverty and monks and nuns but not a theology of the cross, of self-denial, of obedience to the Jesus of the gospels or the sacrifice of gospeling the world that we see in Paul and Peter. But he’s probing, if only a first time, in the right direction.

There’s a nasty problem at work too often in criticism of the health and wealth gospel — it looks like this: The Bible singularly promises blessing to the obedient, and there are thousands of verses about this in the Bible, and there is a lack of an economic theory at work in so much of the criticism. That criticism tends to hold up some kind of life of sacrifice without a robust theology of the cross (and resurrection) and society and kingdom and economic theory and ecclesiology.

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  • James Petticrew

    “God gives without demanding, forgives without threatening to judge, and hands out His rewards in this life rather than in the next” Devastating critique, perhaps applicably more broadly than those normally connected to the “name it and claim it” brigade. I for one am slightly uneasy about many of my own sermons when seen in the light of that statement. Before I turn my attention to Osteen and co, seems to me those words point out a very large plank in my own eye that needs dealt with.

    I am just starting Ben Witherington’s Jesus and Money, hoping that he might shed some light on the whole subject

  • JoeyS

    My biggest complaint about the health and wealth gospel: if you are materially blessed because you believe correctly then the inverse is also true – if you are poor it is your own fault, or you are living in sin, or you lack belief.

    This makes the prosperity gospel so anti-Jesus that I can barely stand to think about it. It subjects those in poverty to the oppression of guilt and blames poverty on the sin of the person suffering rather than on the economic systems and choices of the wealthy that perpetuate building wealth on the backs of the poor.

  • DRT

    JoeyS is right, the flip side of being blessed is lack of blessings. Does that make the poor guilty?

    Scot says:

    “The Bible singularly promises blessing to the obedient, and there are thousands of verses about this in the Bible

    This bothers me tremendously. Any help here would be appreciated.

  • You could probably argue that the prosperity gospel is the most common heresy in the world. Just a few weeks ago, I was talking with an indigenous missionary from India who explained how devastating the prosperity gospel is there. This is Augustine Assir, a man who has translated for Mother Teresa and Billy Graham and who has dedicated his life to working with the lowest castes in India (folks with leprosy, HIV/AIDS, special needs etc.), but he says he cant’ draw a fraction of the kind of crowd that the prosperity teachers an draw.

  • RJS

    I think we need more sermons on Psalm 44 and the like.

  • Another angle of critique of health and wealth (in addition to your community-cross-kingdom-ecclesiology answer) is a good read of Proverbs, such as Michael Fox in the Anchor-Yale series. Wisdom literature is self-correcting. The eudainonism (happiness-formula) of the secular proverbs in the book is corrected and offset by the religious proverbs. Fox does a great job of explaining why wisdom comes forth with both happiness-formulas and ethical-spiritual calling.

  • scotmcknight

    Derek, but the major text behind this is Deuteronomy 28.

  • Isn’t Deuteronomy 28 given specifically to the ancient nation of Israel as part of the terms of —their-covenant with God? I don’t understand those promises a being given to us. And I could be wrong.

  • Josh T.

    Scot #7… It seems to me that part of Prosperity gospel stuff is other things like proof-texting and eisegesis, such that interpreting passages such as Deuteronomy 28 that are directed specifically to the nation of Israel (and other oft misapplied and taken-out-of-context passages such as Jeremiah 29:11). I think it’s going to be pretty hard to counteract the poison of prosperity thinking while the underlying hermeneutical method and treating Biblical passages as independently magical outside of their context is still in play (“power of life and death in the tongue”… “All God’s promises are Yes and Amen in Christ”… etc.). Maybe discussing the proper interpretation is more important than the usual battle of quoting verses which seems to be the usual evangelical way to debate ideas. Of course, bringing the big story into it will certainly have to happen eventually, but it may not work as a first step, but I feel like I’m just guessing here.

  • phil_style

    @Josh T. “I think it’s going to be pretty hard to counteract the poison of prosperity thinking while the underlying hermeneutical method and treating Biblical passages as independently magical outside of their context is still in play”

    An excellent, concise summary, which I think has impact beyond just the prosperity gospel.

  • Scot, isn’t the prosperity gospel just another iteration of the gnosticism St. Paul found so toxic to authentic faith?

    Your essay makes me think of my NT teacher Frank Stagg’s colorful line: “If they come like hogs to slop, it ain’t the Gospel.”

  • Scot #7:

    Amen on diagnosing the problem as people misapplying the Sinai Covenant (Israel as an ideal community in the land mirroring the world to come with agricultural abundance) as prosperity for anyman. But I pointed out what I did about Proverbs because it too is part of the problem and I think many people are unaware of the value of Wisdom literature. The secular proverbs rankle a sophisticated reader who finds them simplistic and naive. But that is part of the point in the whole context. A better reading of Proverbs could be part of the solution and anyway, just doing what I can to let people know there are better ways to read the Hebrew Bible.

  • Michael Teston

    After many years of pastoral ministry, I was stopped in the hall way of the church I serve and asked if I had listened to “Joel O.” I had been going through a very difficult season when this question was asked and I had to use every bit of strength to say nothing more than, “I never listen to Joel O.” As we consider the pandered “theologies of Joel O” and the likes it is astonishing to me that those who find themselves under the umbrella of the USofA no matter how fiscally and economically oppressed they/we might feel make up the 1% of the worlds 99% economically. I recognize the mesmerizing nature of Joel O theology even in other parts of the world, but only in the USofA could you read Holy text from this perspective without getting laughed at, which is so often what I want to do after a return trip from Africa, Haiti, Cuba, Dominican Republic etc.

  • I have appreciated Craig Blombergs approach to the antithesis of the prosperity gospel in two books he wrote. Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. (Proverbs 30:8), Neither Poverty Nor Riches and his commentary on the book of Matthew.

  • Diane

    The prosperity gospel is distorting and upsetting, but I have met it in places where I understand it–particularly as a gospel that lends confidence to members of oppressed groups. That being said, why not just rely on Jesus? I don’t know. The gospel has been distorted in other ways to keep the downtrodden down and feeling sinful and undeserving, I imagine is the answer.
    Key to the prosperity gospel is redefining prosperity/abundance in Biblical terms–as enough plus a small margin (manna, loaves and fishes), not grasping for limitlessness, which creates another form of enslavement.

  • Thanks Scot! God has spoken powerfully through you. Such a timely post. I had a diner guest last night who eventually into the evening dropped some serious name it claim it, health wealth stuff onto me, masking it as wise advice from a older fella. Normally I respect this guy and his wisdom, but then he name dropped some of our brethren you mentioned above and I could see through what he had to say. I’ve had this stuff spoken to me many times, started praying into it this morning, then bam here’s your post backing up God’s whispers about heresy and christianity mixed with western capitalistic thought. Thank you! Your post is a good confirmation of God’s word to me, and was his word to me as well.

  • T

    My problem with the typical critique of health and wealth theolgies is, as Scot hinted at, that they prove too much, and too little, all at the same time.

    Re: the “too little” the central teaching of the larger evangelical world on money seems to be stewardship, and a “more money more ministry” idea. Meanwhile the NT’s central concern regarding money is idolatry/attachment/addiction. I’ve said many times that the American church is being counseled to steward the object of their addiction before breaking or even admitting the addiction.

    But part of the reason for this is that for a western Church that really doesn’t accept huge swaths of the power of the Spirit displayed in the NT, what power is there for ministry except money and human charisma? H&W folks are pushing all these forms of power (ignoring the warnings about worldly attachments and accumulation), while the larger western church acts like all the warnings about money had been given about the power of the Spirit.

    In a nutshell, bashing H&W can make us all feel better, but often in a way that pays ourselves on the back instead of seeing what we’ve ignored about money & the Spirit in the NT.

  • Phil Miller

    I was a member of a primarily African American congregation for a number of years until recently moving (my wife and I are white, and they adopted us, I like to say). The pastor and the leadership of the church would denounce the prosperity gospel, but I know that many of the members still liked people like Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyers. The thing was, though, that this congregation was probably a lot poorer on the whole than the average white church in the area. There were a good number of successful people in the church, but there were also a lot of poor people. One thing that attracted me to that church, though, was that there was more unity and solidarity in the congregation across socioeconomic lines than I have seen elsewhere. People seemed to be more generous with time and money, and I felt like there was no shame for people who were not as well off.

    One thing I’ve not really heard people address in a completely satisfying way is the fact that the these people seem to give people hope in a way that other forms of Christianity can’t. I’ve often wondered if it isn’t because many of the people decrying it really don’t know that type of hopelessness that comes with living in poverty or under oppression, so it just comes off as hollow rhetoric. Someone like Joyce Meyer gets up on stage and talks about how she used to be poor, hopeless, etc., but God was faithful to her, and He lifted her up. Well, that’s powerful stuff to people wanting to hear that there’s hope.

  • There is indeed a speck/plank dilemma here. As long as job-security prohibits us from truly venturing out and finding ourselves dependent on a day-to-day basis, we ourselves foster “un-Christian consumer culture.” It’s just that Joel and cohorts are not as subtle and shy.

  • Wait… Scot, if you disagree that Your Best Life Now is “the nfluential work of popular theology published this century,” what are you thinking is? All I see here is discussion of that work, and the theology behind it, and the tone seems to be one of agreement with Douthat insofar as YBLN represents a popular American heresy.

  • Rob

    Got to disagree with JoeyS at least in principle. It is not the fault of all the wealthy that every poor person is poor (I’m using the term poor in the economic sense). It is also not true that every wealthy person built their wealth on the backs of poor people. This argument is tired. Who says being poor is “bad” anyway? We always talk about it like it’s the worst thing. People make choices in life, you can choose to be less productive, but the tradeoff is less wealth…that’s just the way it is. You can have a perfectly acceptable lifestyle if you are more interested in things other than wealth…like having free time.

  • The repulsiveness of the prosperity ‘Gospel’ may be something that both conservative and progressive Christians can abhor together. Is this a new opportunity for Christian unity?

  • phil_style

    @Rob, 21, to be fair to Joey S, he did not write what it appears you think. This ” the economic systems and choices of the wealthy that perpetuate building wealth on the backs of the poor” pins the blame for poverty on a wider net than all of the wealthy being responsible for all of the poor.

    That being said, the greatest single contributor to poverty, globally, is geography at birth – that is, being born into a location where resources are already concentrated in the hands of a few.

    “You can have a perfectly acceptable lifestyle if you are more interested in things other than wealth…like having free time”
    The suggestion that the world’s poor have a blessing of free time on their hands is somewhat insulting. I’m sure the poor who spend all their day in the trash piles of Lagos, simply to find enough scrap material to get food, are far from lazy.

  • Rob

    Oh yes, winning the ovarian lottery is certainly the biggest contributor to wealth. I was speaking more about the poor in the so-called “first world” areas on the planet. All that being said, I’m not sure how you are supposed to legislate “luck”. The truth is, people need more opportunities, the biggest myth in all of economics is that the pie is fixed, the pie is not fixed, unlike in sports every one can win, you don’t need to have win-lose scenarios for the economy to work. A lot of people lose sight of that.

  • LFDS

    I agree with RJS #5.

  • phil_style

    @Rob, OK, I see where you are coming from. Sure, in a resource plentiful area, with a strong community/ state welfare system in place there should be (and is) a lower rate of poverty.

    However, there is enough to go around. And there are more people ready to work hard to survive than there is a commensurate distribution of even the most basic resources. So there are structural economic problems at the global scale.

    This is something I don’t think Osteen/ H&W teaching picks up on. Some people get sick and die in poverty before the age of 5. How could anything they “believe” possibly result in them achieving what Osteen claims? How can Osteen’s 7 steps give any comfort or justice to them?

    Osteen’s is (essentially) a theology of promoting memetic desire, worked out through the erroneous promise of resource abundance. This is completely at odds with the example of Jesus who alone we are to imitate.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Very good analysis, IMHO. 

    You point out,

    “Comparing him to Billy Graham, Douthat observes Osteen’s message is “considerably more upbeat” and that his “God gives without demanding, forgives without threatening to judge, and hands out His rewards in this life rather than in the next” “(183). 

    Seems to me that Douthat is being shallow here, if correct in pointing out the twisted nature of PG. Graham also preached a Saviour who died for us while we were yet sinners, demanding nothing but our acceptance of his great gift. God does freely forgive and Jesus did say “neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more”. And, the follower of Christ does receive many rewards in this life, the greatest of which is the love of Christ in our hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit.”

    It’s not that the things Osteen preaches do not exist, in very real, even essential forms, it’s that he twists them beyond recognition by passing them through our self-centeredness. It’s essentially the same process that always leads us far astray – take the good word of the Lord, mix thoroughly with human pride and passion and – violà.

    You say much the same thing in your concluding paragraph. 

    And elsewhere you ask,
    “Is the Christian Left and the Christian Right guilty of coming at the same landing spot from different angles?”

    Easily. I remember, back in the ’50’s or early ’60’s seeing a chart in a book comparing extreme right and extreme left thinking. The author drew a circle. National Socialists and Communists met at the bottom of the circle. Less extreme views were found up each side and, at the top one found the most reasonable centre. From a Christian perspective, in the case of both extremes, when they meet is basically a question of how quickly they proceed in their run away from the Centre – where they will meet is fairly predictable. Sort of like a curvature of social space, with human pride at the bottom.

    But then Phil #18 says,
    “One thing I’ve not really heard people address in a completely satisfying way is the fact that the these people seem to give people hope in a way that other forms of Christianity can’t. I’ve often wondered if it isn’t because many of the people decrying it really don’t know that type of hopelessness that comes with living in poverty or under oppression…”

    And you are correct Phil. We live in southern Mexico half of the time these days. Though changing, the culture is so far ahead of us in many ways – but many do desperately need more hope for the present. A serious commitment to Christ indeed brings that hope, in the here and now, for many. Behaviour and thought patterns change, leading to greater confidence and assurance, even in earthly things, even in the face of poverty. It’s the excessive overextension of this reality that is so objectionable. Everywhere, balance seems so difficult to maintain. Could be that balance is one of the greatest gifts the Holy Spirit offers.

  • T


    I think you’ve made an important point. Teaching that God promises riches is a problem. But teaching that God knows what we need and does work to provide for us is important, especially for people who are in poverty of various kinds.

  • T (#17) wrote:
    “But part of the reason for this is that for a western Church that really doesn’t accept huge swaths of the power of the Spirit displayed in the NT, what power is there for ministry except money and human charisma? ”

    And even among the classical Pentecostal denoms that believe theologically in the ongoing move of the Spirit’s power, one tends to see less manifestation of that power the more affluent the congregation. Whereas the churches made up primarily of immigrants who work lower-paying or seasonal/fluctuating jobs (farm labor or construction) demonstrate more dependence on God coming through. But then I also see some of the financially-blessed churches giving away a lot, like one congregation here in my city that gave away $100,000 to 10 local organizations making a difference in the community ($10,000 each) for its 100th anniversary, and recently took up a $105,000 offering to dig wells for clean water in African villages. They seem to get it that “to whom much is given, much is required.”

  • Evan

    Prosperity Gospel in my mind proves that people will only listen to what they really want to hear. Whether it’s the truth or not, they will embrace it. I can not in my studies of scripture find enough evidence to get even the slightest amount of traction to a prosperity Gospel. The life and ministry of Jesus has a lot of traction if you asked me about how God views the poor. Embracing a prosperity gospel is like choosing to neglect the life Jesus choose to live. Anyways I’m feeling a little negative this morning so this pissed me off.

  • I mean “his “God gives without demanding, forgives without threatening to judge, and hands out His rewards in this life rather than in the next” (183).” Is this really something to be upset about? Any more upset than we are at any other opportunist? How is this a worse heresy than “God hates you”? If you ask me, Osteen is just holding a mirror up to American ideology and we don’t like what we see. His brilliance, if you can call it that, is EXACTLY nailing how we live, and feeding us back an ideology that matches it. Who among us is not “Married to mammon?” Our problem with Osteen is just that we can’t handle the truth, we can’t handle someone taking the subconcious ideology we all have and talking about it and even preaching it. Christianity, especially Protestant theology with its emphasis on “faith” and “grace” over works lends itself to our shared delusion that allows us to ignore our material reality and the dissonance between it and our consciously held beliefs/theology.

  • Luke Allison

    Bo Eberle #31:

    Now there’s a critique I can get behind. In some sense, I have less problem with Osteen trying to give people hope than with conservative evangelicals constantly lying about inerrancy, apologetics, archaeology, and especially hell.

  • Jennifer

    I was a social worker for a couple of years and now that I’ve been exposed to other types of poeple I can actually see where ministries like Joel Osteen fits in. It was unfathomable to me that people CHOOSE to give up in their lives and live on welfare or CHOOSE to smoke themselves to death, but they do. Joel’s message is perfect for ministering to people like that because they really can make the decision to be healtheir this year or be more wealthy. Sometimes what holds poeple back is self-esteem issues/ cycle of poverty issues and his message suggests, with the help of God, you can have a better life than that and God wants a better life for you.

    As a second point, there are famous pastors who are really severly embarassing Christians and misrepresenting God (earier this year one wrote a degrading, sexual abuse manual and called it “real marriage”) so I think it’s important to not rip apart the few good leaders representing Christ to an unbelieving world. He has his faults, but his ministry is overall positive even if it’s not technically orthodox when applied to the economic class that is likely reading this blog.

  • Marshall

    What Diane #15 said, the problem is that “prosperity” is being defined incorrectly. The bad kind of PG sees it as a blessing to an individual whereas it should be a blessing that applies to a nation. Despite what it thinks of itself, the head can’t be healthy when the legs are gangrenous. The one thing that gets God angry over and over is oppression of the weak for personal advantage. Wealth isn’t the problem … I can’t imagine that God wants individuals or nations to be unhealthy and poor … but there’s supposed to be a spiritual trickle-down and it isn’t happening. The Rich Young Ruler went away unhappy; although he was doing everything “right”, he failed.

  • Basically, Osteen shatters our delusion that our “faith” supersedes our “works” in a meaningful sense, i.e. is challenges our ability to live in a way that is totally dissonant to our conscious beliefs because it raises our material reality to the level of what is supposed to be comforting abstract discourse- and some people (who arent so privileged) like it that way! Who are we to judge? Should we go after the Liberation theologians, too?

  • (of course Prosperity is a cheap, vapid, form of liberation theology, just for the record)

  • phil_style

    @ Diane #15 and @Marshall, #34, The bad kind of PG sees it as a blessing to an individual

    Good observations about the individualistic nature of PG with respect to wealth accumulation. In the biblical narratives God’s intent for Israel is clearly that wealth would be abundant for ALL and as a blessing to other nations. God demands that the rich distribute their wealth among poor. Jesus reinforces this in his advice to the rich merchant. This does not mean that the wealthy cannot build wealth, it’s about the purpose of that wealth – to ensure ALL people are able to attain a level of safety.

    PG plays into the hands of the self seeking (aka, all of us at the individual level). It promises us some special keys to accumulation of various things, many of which are scarce. Does PG demand that the wealthy distribute their wealth? Is there the cry of woe for the rich, who have already inherited their reward? Do the writers of PG material dedicate any time to reminding us that the kind of fasting God desires is one where WE share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter ?

    What about this as a “key” to God’s blessing?
    and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
    then your light will rise in the darkness

    Seems to me that God has some high standards with respect to how society should use it’s wealth….

  • @Bo, how exactly, the prosperity gospel a “cheap, vapid, form of liberation theology”?

    That seems to be quite an unjustifiable slur to me and a gross misleading caricature of “liberation theology*…

  • This issue is not simple.

    John 6:26 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.

    We can certainly proof text this issue extensively in either direction but it requires a discernment of compassion.

  • When we first started cruising, the cruise line had a pastor who jumped on and off ships to conduct the worship service. Then, the cruise line asked for volunteer pastors from the guests. Then, the duty fell to the cruise director. Now? They run a tape of Joel Osteen and call it a non-denominational worship service. Seriously.

  • @Naum my comment was supposed to imply that Liberation Theology, broadly speaking, is extremely valuable and important, and that prosperity Gospel turn a dictum like “God is on the side of the oppressed” into “God is on your side and you will get rich.”Not to mention many who should be reading liberation theology are instead conned by the likes of Osteen and Jakes.

  • DRT

    I just watched “This week’s message ”

    and was struck that he sounds just like the Calvinists to me. They are both touting the supremacy of god, that god is in control, that god has a plan for you, that god sometimes gives us what we ask for and sometimes doesn’t.

    The difference is that the one group feels that god is trying to give you riches, while the other feels he is trying to condemn you to hell, well, that’s not quite it but close.

  • Josh T.

    Jeff Stewart #19… I’m not sure if this fits in with what you mean by “finding ourselves dependent on a day-to-day basis,” but after I lost my job over two years ago, I’m still in a position in which I can barely make ends meet as I’m still underemployed and looking. One thing I have noticed is how very distracting–in a spiritual sense–my family’s situation is for me. Being dependent and unable to spend much beyond the bare essentials has not seemed to be a help to me in not feeling dependent on money, though I’m not particularly ambitious, nor do I have any long wish list of stuff. Oddly enough, I think that the Prosperity mentality, despite not being based in reality, may actually give people a more positive outlook in the midst of economic difficulties; it’s a light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak, and I can see how it could be tempting for people in poor situations to subscribe to it, but tempting in a different way for those who love their wealth and wish to justify themselves. As for myself, I abandoned most of my former prosperity-leaning ways of looking at Scripture many years ago, so I’m well past thinking that God “owes” me anything if I pray enough or have enough faith or “stand” on a particular promise, and I always keep in mind the the saints referenced in Hebrews 11:13 who did not receive what was promised, as well as all those in the world who are living in truly poor conditions with little hope of things changing. If anything, perhaps I’ve swung too far the opposite way in my thinking.

  • The same crowd that exalts Rick Warren and Beth Moore are also big fans of Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, Pat Robertson, Benny Hinn, Joseph Prince, etc.…

    …and the same folk who find N.T. Wright dense and incomprehensible — maybe this ties in with the other recent thread on “juvenilization” of American Christianity.

  • CGC

    Hi Normon #39,
    Things are not so simple as you say . . . you mentioned compassion as an important (and unfortunately, missing component too often). I was reading something I believe by Allan Bevere the other day where he said if I remember correctly (?), ‘the church needs both more compassion and holiness.” I could not agree more . . . Shalom!

  • JoeyS

    Rob, from reading your comments we are much closer than you first assumed. My job is to work with the church to help people who are in poverty so I end up being pretty close to those in need. In “first world” poverty, like you said, the pie is not evenly sliced. Most people in need had a lot less opportunity and resources than I did growing up. Most of the wealthy here don’t exploit our poor to make their wealth (though they do often make their wealth by selling to those of lower incomes but that’s just how the economy works).

    I was speaking in a global sense. Very few people live and gain wealth independently of cheap overseas labor and military insured low oil prices. Everything from the shirts we wear to the coffee we drink to the toys we play with tend to have dark pasts. We get our oil by use of force (both violence and economic pressure) we drive down the price of commodities because we consume, and are depended on too consume, more than anybody else (like Wal-Mart does very well). If you trace back our infrastructure, our commodities, our food, and anything else you can think of that help us perpetuate our lifestyle and security more often than not somebody was exploited at the bottom. I’m guilty of participating in this system too. All an of us can do is make changes when we are exposed to our own complicity.

    We build an infrastructure that depends on cheap labor and then bemoan poverty. Peter Rollin’s calls this our release valve – we bemoan poverty so we feel good about ourselves and our guilt for living how we do is emotionally absolved. It’s easier than changing or facing reality. The prosperity gospel is a great heresy because it convinces us wealth is God’s blessing rather than making us face the realities on which our wealth is built.

  • Patrick

    Larry #8.

    Concerning that Deuteronomy verse above, that looks to me like one of many promises Yahweh offered ancient, ethnic Israel IF they could be perfect.

    They couldn’t, so Jesus did it for them and Gentiles and now we, the Church, are that nation because of Christ. In His eyes, we are elevated above all because of our association with Christ.

  • The framework for the law/covenant of Moses (Exodus-Deuteronomy) for the kingdom of Israel is: keep the commands/laws of this covenant, and God will bless the nation with a prosperous (promised) land, abundant harvests, big families, etc.; if Israel disobeys the commands, God will curse the nation with exile (from the land) and suffering in foreign nations. American theology commonly thinks it is a special nation in God’s sight, and so Israel’s covenant should apply to it. So the prosperity gospel goes back to the beginnings of our nation, even to the Puritans (and their ethnic cleansing, and stealing, of the “promised land”).

    The framework for the new covenant of Jesus for the kingdom of God (heaven) involves different blessings for disciples who follow Jesus’ new commands. For example, unlike the law of Moses, which calls for Israel to kill enemies in their land so they will not be led astray, Jesus blesses the meek disciples (the patiently gentle), for they will simply inherit the (whole) earth (in the end). Jesus’ international kingdom (of disciples) is a kingdom of peacemakers (making disciples all over the world, who will become a new family under one Father); their blessing is to be called sons (children) of God (who are gentle and inherit the earth from their Father).

    As for poverty, we tend to prefer the blessing for Matthew’s poor in spirit over Luke’s poor. In both cases, the blessing for poor (in spirit) disciples is being part of Jesus’ new kingdom of God (heaven). The rich cannot enter this kingdom, except with God’s help, who can empower someone like Zacchaeus to give half his goods to the poor.

    It’s possible to translate the “poor in spirit” as the “poor in the Spirit.” Such disciples would reflect the righteousness sought in Jesus’ teachings: being merciful (to the most destitute); being patiently gentle (to enemies); and being able to rejoice even when persecuted. Jesus promises to pour out his Spirit on his disciples and the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) looks a lot like the righteousness Jesus commands and says to hunger for (instead of better food and drink).

  • Mike M

    Brian Roden: that’s ridiculous. Have you even been to a Pentecostal church and witnessed the spirit of God empower the “denoms?”

  • If you could offer a better theology to proponents of prosperity theology, what would it look like? How does an economic theory work into your critique or your offer? …Can the church marry capitalism and wealth to its faith in such a way that the faith still stands?

    I’ve only read a few comments, so I’ll simply respond with some thoughts to your questions. Douthat’s analysis seems very individualistically oriented, at least as I see it described here & not having read this book myself (nor am I likely to). The individualistic worldview seems especially prone to health/wealth heresies, but also to a false image of the societal systems in which we live & move. On the social justice left, I’ve seen naivete about how corrupted gov’t policy and gov’t officials often are by power & proximity to wealth (sometimes from taxes and authority, but especially now, from the influence of unregulated money pouring into campaign coffers to influence policies). If you didn’t see the spectacle of the Senate Banking Committee senators fawning over Jamie Dimon after he admitted JP Morgan Chase lost ~$7 billion in the derivatives market on ill-placed hedges (aka, “bets” or gambles), it’s instructive to watch that display, while looking at the list of which senators received the most financial contributions from JP Morgan. Don’t forget that the money that is lost is that of JP Morgan’s stockholders and their customers’ deposits are used in the risk calculations. (Guess who bails out the depositors if too much money is lost?)

    On the capitalist (“free market” – although that’s a falsehood, by definition, due to power imbalances) & libertarian right, there is a strange unwillingness to examine how greed manifests in twisted financial system and products/services markets which drain wealth upward, by design. I’ve heard “christians” identify the invisible hand of Adam Smith’s writing as “God”. The smaller government mantra is repeated in the face of rampant fraud in the marketplaces, which only an orderly system of laws with enforcement and regulators can tackle – funded by taxes…

    Any theology – such as that of the “prosperity gospel” – which believes that blessing comes within the kingdoms of the world has misplaced faith. Our faith and our trust are not in these systems, and when we invest ourselves too deeply in their provision for us, then we cannot perceive our own complicity with the principalities and powers of this world. We take our eyes off love for God & neighbors, our own sinfulness and ongoing need to be washed and forgiven by God. Business and governmental systems are corruptible and corrupted because humans within those systems seek their own self-interest, too often. Behavioral economists and business ethicists are engaged in ongoing work to try to understand human behavior & formulate economic systems which more readily provide for the good of the greater society & environment, rather than facilitate the current system which increases inequities and which has been turned against the greater good, in the present and for our children’s future.

  • Tom F.

    So here’s my crack at Scott’s primary question. Open to feedback, this is sort of just off the cuff/work in progress…

    I think the major aspect that the prosperity gospel covers up is the good news of Christ’s church and the community of believers. Prosperity is a result of individual obedience/trust/faith, rather through identification with and belonging to the body of Christ.

    Theologically, the poverty that the gospel is interested in is not simply material (the “heresies” of the economic Christian left/prosperity), or simply spirtual (the “heresies” of the economic Christian right). Poverty is fundamentally relational; reflected in a broken relationship with God and with other human beings. The good news of the kingdom means that Isaiah is fulfilled, as Jesus preached in Luke 4 that the gospel is good news for the poor (not a “spiritualized” poor; the blind, lame, oppressed- yep, those who would be the most likely to also not have enough money or enough to eat, ect.). But the good news for the poor doesn’t mean that Jesus’s primary mission is to simply feed the people (although that is important and he considers it very worth doing), but to bring healing to them in ways that restore them to community, which means restoring them in every aspect of their lives.

    So what does the prosperity gospel miss? It misses that God’s solution to poverty is within the church, through restoring relationships, and it buys into a flattened idea of poverty that equates poverty with material lack; something only half-true. Restored relationships start within the church, where members help each other to find work, to meet each other’s basic needs, and become relationally rich in knowing God and being connected to each other in the church. These relationships organically lead to advocacy by the church on behalf of those of its members who are marginalized by systemic problems in society, and they lead to discipleship and edification by those of its members who are economically disadvantaged because of their (mal)formation by the world and sin, whether the sin was theirs or someone else’s. The prosperity gospel completely misses the way these relationships need to be transformed, and instead focuses narrowly on the individual aspect. They correctly note that obedience to God means “enough” (though by no means excessive wealth), but this isn’t because of any great magic on God’s part, but because obedience to God means increased opportunities for relationship within the community, and that leads to economic flourishing. For example, Deuteronomy 28 is addressed to the whole community of Israel, not individual Israelites, and it is a misapplication to apply it to individuals without modification.

    I’m not an economist, but I have read that the “transaction costs” within a community go substantially down as people trust each other more. Since trust is only a function of relationship, broken relationships mean real economic costs. For example, lawyers and judges and police officers (as important as they are) do not directly contribute to the fulfillment of basic human needs. Instead, they are important in helping make sure that economic transactions go smoothly, and that violations of trust can be addressed appropriately. As people trust each other less, we need less of these sorts of folks, and the more there is for everyone. Other examples might include saving (hedging against individual misfortune is actually economically inefficient: modern banking partially addresses this through re-lending savings, but there are still transaction costs), and so on.

    In short, God designed us to need each other and Him. We prosper economically when our churches and communities reflect that.

  • Scott Gay

    Tom F.(# 51) Waited to respond on the prosperity gospel to read the over-all ethos of the posts. As so often happens to me, you have touched on the aspects of this issue that are currently affecting our family directly. And having had such a wise summarization gives me a peace and I believe ability to “relate” more effectively.

  • Rob Henderson

    Let me tell you that in times of hopelessness for those struggling immensely with health and financial distress the message of hope that gives one’s heart a positive outlook for their future with God is a wonderful message.

    Who doesn’t want to feel good about having a loving God who is on their side? Who doesn’t want to believe that there is something to hope for on the other side of cancer, heart disease, or foreclosure? Who shouldn’t believe that their God, their Father in heaven, cares about them just as he does the sparrow who falls?

    Getting saved from the fires of hell is not the only reason a person should come to Christ. We must also be able to believe that God does hear our heart’s hurts and is willing to see us through. Just because Joel Osteen and others preach a “prosperity message” doesn’t mean that they are entirely wrong.

    “I have been young and now I am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his descendants begging bread,” Psalm 37:25.

  • Patrick


    My beef with this crew is they give the impression money giving is primarily for earthly type rewards. The narrative does teach some of that in fact whether it’s acknowledged here or not, it’s just not supposed to be THE reason you give as if you’re an earthly mercenary.

    I just think the prosperity gospel crew way overdoes that aspect in an unbalanced way and ignores the possibility that earthly wealth may NOT be a sign of God’s pleasure. Could be the opposite in fact. Rome was mighty wealthy as they murdered Christ’s people.

    I think they should preach the prosperity Gospel with the prosperity primarily being wealth accumulated in the divine realm as Jesus taught and sometimes that overflows to us in an earthly sense. Jesus did teach that.

    He said if we seek the kingdom first, He would take care of our earthly concerns that are legit. Job was given great earthly wealth for obedience. Paul and Jesus didn’t have enough to lay their head’s down so to speak.

  • LastManStanding

    If you travel to Asia (S. Korea, Singapore, Indonesia, Phillipines) and you will see Osteen’s books everywhere. Travel throughout Africa (Liberia, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, South Africa, etc.) and you can’t miss huge posters hanging in shop windows touting Osteen’s books. He sells tens of millions of books in dozens of languages all over the world. He holds Christian crusades in the Jewish heart of Jerusalem and meets with Israel’s P.M. Netanyahu and President Peres. Muslim leaders complain because Osteen’s sermons are being watched by millions of Muslims around the world.

    I think Scot McNight better come up with an economic model Pretty Quick! Better yet, Mr. McNight: just give up and realize that God wants you to be poor and powerless. You are a weak worm of the dust, just like God wants you to be. Just sit back and bide your time “’til the Good Lord calls ya!”