You’ve stumbled across them flipping channels on the TV. You’ve seen their books hawked in sections devoted to Christianity and spirituality in bookstores. You may have seen them on the news offering comment on an event as a representative of the Christian faith. Prosperity teachers have been a constant fixture on the American religious landscape
For a long time, evangelical Protestants seemed reticent to speak against the so-called prosperity gospel and its peddlers. The radio station on which I first heard R. C. Sproul notably played prosperity teachers as well. Our reluctance to speak against such teaching resulted from several different factors.
1. Prosperity teachers often will use language such as “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” in their teaching. Though such language fell out of vogue in evangelical circles in the recent past, it existed as part of the backbone of American evangelical language in describing the exclusivity and centrality of salvation in Christ.
2. Many, if not most evangelicals appreciate someone speaking with zeal about spiritual things.
3. Hesitation to call out false teaching/heresy due to the seriousness of the charge or the desire not to seem mean or curmudgeonly.
4. Openness to God’s working of actual miraculous events in people’s lives.
None of those four reasons involves any mustache-twisting or calculated evil plan. For many of us, they spring from the experience of watching a preacher or vocal Christian lambast something or someone completely undeserving of such fiery criticism. After all, Galatians 5:22 tells us that patience, kindness, and peace help form the fruit of the Spirit. However, Galatians also tells us in 1:8-9 that all preachers and teachers of gospels contrary to what Paul preached deserve a curse.
Prosperity preachers dwell among the best salespeople on the planet. They took on the popular language of evangelicalism, using the warmest of phrases “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” and used it to sell their wares. They dress immaculately, speak positively, and display an air of confidence where ever they go. Long ago, they mastered the ability to deflect criticism from orthodox evangelicals.
The idea of God’s primary interaction with his people consisting of material blessing in physical health and financial wealth proves completely unbiblical. God did indeed save the children of Israel from physical bondage in Exodus, but he did so after 400 years of their toil. Jesus certainly healed many during his ministry, but Acts records Stephen suffering the brutal death of stoning, and the book’s final chapters dedicate themselves to telling the story of Paul’s imprisonment. Both Stephen and Paul served as bold and unashamed evangelists, yet they both suffered painfully despite the favor they received from God.
While the reader may desire a list of noted prosperity preachers to avoid, such a list has a limited usefulness. Moreover, in recent years, prosperity preaching became much more insidious. In an era where where 18% of American adults suffer some sort of anxiety disorder and social media usage erodes mental health to a newsworthy level, newer prosperity preachers hone in on these needs. The new prosperity preaching promotes positivity for oneself and assurance in who one is. Now, one need not look for the new car claimed in faith, only the feel-goodery of a charismatic speaker’s claims.
Rather than make a list of people to avoid, a list promoting discernment of a teacher or teaching would prove more helpful. The teachers themselves will come and go, but the false teaching itself always finds a new way to seep up through the locker room floor drain. Here are four things to ask when assessing if someone preaches prosperity rather than Christ.
1. Who does the teacher glorify? Historical orthodox Christianity points to Christ, not the preacher or teacher. John Calvin, for example, carried great influence in his life, but he sought burial in an unmarked grave to deflect interest in himself. If the preacher only recounts his own accomplishments, beware.
2. What is the end goal of the teaching? Paul’s resolution was the communication of Christ crucified. If the purpose is something else, some sort of gain you can have (and have today!) and not the work of Christ on the cross, consider what the motive of the preacher might be.
3. How does the preacher define faith, and what is its use? Romans and Galatians certainly uses the word “faith” an awful lot. However, in Romans and Galatians, faith is the trust and belief in Christ’s sufficiency against the sufficiency of works for salvation. It is a belief in Christ Jesus in order that one be reconciled to him. It does not serve as a vehicle to supply a material desire. James writes of planning to receive something from God by faith, but that which James instructs his readers to request in faith is immaterial—it is wisdom, not reward!
4. Could this individual help you understand Daniel 3:16-18? Can he unpack Jeremiah or Lamentations for you? Can the doctrine he promotes stand up to the constant suffering of the people of God in Scripture?
The list is not exhaustive, certainly. However these questions need answering when we seek to discern such things. May God protect his church from those who promise goods which fade rather than invite the spiritually dead to meet the living God.