The “Prosperity Gospel” Controversy Part 1

Jesus taught more about money than He did on any other topic. In a world of extremes, how can we find a Biblically balanced approach?

The first thing, of course, is to search the Scriptures. This must include both Scriptures that show prosperity in a positive light, as well as the passages that give the other side and call for balance. Whether you agree with all of my conclusions or not, I hope you will see that I have endeavored to take the whole counsel of Scripture on the subject.
Also, my focus in this article will be doctrine, not personalities. Some of the criticism directed toward individual teachers in the movement has been quite justifiable. Nonetheless, for reasons I have discussed in a previous post, I do not believe personal blogs are the best avenue to address these matters.

Like the term “Christian Right,” “Prosperity Gospel” is largely a pejorative expression. It is intended to provoke a negative response regardless of context. The popularity of the film “American Gospel” has heightened that considerably.

To be honest, I find much of this vitriol to be rather hypocritical. The reason being that “prosperity” is a very subjective term. Furthermore, I propose that most western Christians, loathe as they may be to admit it, do hold to at least a moderate form of the prosperity doctrine. I would like to ask those who attack the prosperity message, Do you have a home? A car? A television? A computer? A cell phone? For that matter, do you eat three meals a day and have clean water to drink? If so, then you are lavishly wealthy compared to much of the world’s population. Also, while I will refrain from naming names, if you research the net worth of some of the better known anti-prosperity preachers, you might be shocked. It seems that there is a great deal of money to be made in telling people why they shouldn’t have it, but I digress.

I personally try to take a middle ground approach to this issue, so whichever side of the debate you may be on, you may not like some of the things I have to say. I am a charismatic Christian coming from a Word of Faith background. Nonetheless, I have always spoken against the excesses within the movement. I am also well aware of the questionable financial practices that sometimes do occur and I have also addressed them in a previous post. I have seen up close the kind of damage that unbalanced teaching on this topic can do.

At the same time, excesses in the opposite direction can be just as harmful. In His Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30), Jesus teaches us how proper stewardship of our material goods can lead to tremendous blessing, and how God is actually displeased with us when our lives are not productive.

The church has always grappled to find balance in these issues. When the Roman Empire was supposedly “Christianized” in the wake of Emperor Constantine, some other Christians fled into the desert and formed the early monastic communities. This is large where the “poverty is spiritual” mindset was developed. But the bottom line, as always, has to be what was Jesus’ heart in the matter?

Drawing on a faulty interpretation of Jesus’ statement that He “had no where to lay His head” (Luke 9:58), it is generally concluded that Jesus was a poverty stricken intenerate preacher who lived His life as a homeless beggar. However, the Scriptures show us that quite the opposite is true. As we shall see, Jesus lived His whole life in the Father’s abundant provision for Him. The context of the above mentioned Luke passage is seen in verses 52-53: He had entered a Samaritan village, and they would not receive Him. In this instance, He had no where to stay, i.e. “Lay His head.” This does not imply that Jesus had no home at all.

In John 1:35-39, someone asks Jesus where He lives and He replies “come and see.” If you ask me where I live and I say “come and see,” it stands to reason that I would take you to my house.

Further, Jesus also had a donor base of people who “ministered to Him of their substance (Luke 8: 2-3).” He had a treasurer, Judas (John 12:6; 13:29), which would indicate that His ministry handled large sums of money. He had numerous wealthy followers including Joanna, a woman whose husband worked for the King (Luke 8:3), and Joseph of Arimathea, who provided Him with a burial place (Matthew 27:57-60). Being an observant Jew, Jesus also honored the Old Testament patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Matthew 8:11; 22:32; Mark 12:26), all of whom were fabulously wealthy men (Genesis 13:12; 26:14; 33:5).

This is certainly not to say, however, that Jesus held an irresponsible, self-indulgent view of riches. When a rich young ruler approached Jesus seeking the way of eternal life, Jesus boldly confronted the young man’s idolatrous attachment to his possessions (Luke 18:18-23). In an act that stunned His disciples, Jesus told the young ruler that in order to become His disciple, he must sell everything He had and give the money to the poor.

With this in mind, it is important to note that Jesus did not make this a requirement for everyone. For example, in Matthew 8:14 we see that Peter still had a house. In fact, Jesus even followed this statement by saying that, had the rich young ruler obeyed His command, he would have received bountiful return IN THIS LIFE, not just in Heaven (v. 29-30). The young man’s problem was not simply that he was wealthy. Rather, by walking away from Jesus’ call, he showed that money was more important to him than following Jesus.

With that in mind, let’s look at a few common misconceptions about biblical prosperity

I. Biblical prosperity does NOT give us license to be greedy or materialistic.

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

Hebrews 13:5 ESV

I personally believe that every “God wants you to prosper” sermon needs to be counterbalanced with a sermon on a passage like this one. It was said of the early Pentecostals the “Heaven was more real to them than Earth.” I do hope that as we learn more about living victoriously here on the earth that we don’t lose sight of this eternal perspective. Have you ever heard of people being “so Heavenly minded they are no earthly good?” Well, that’s nonsense! Friend, the more Heavenly minded you are, the more earthly good you will be!.

II. Prosperity, in and of itself, is not necessarily a sign of God’s blessing.

As this understanding of biblical prosperity has rightfully taken hold within the Body of Christ, an unfortunate consequence has been that some people don’t look any further than that to determine God’s blessing. They say “Oh, brother so-and-so has a new BMW. God is really blessing him!” Not necessarily. Don’t misunderstand: There is nothing wrong with the BMW in and of itself but there are also drug kingpins, mafia bosses and other criminals who drive them too! Its dangerous to measure God’s blessing in strictly material terms. Lets look at one of the most sober warnings about this in all of Scripture. In Revelation 3:14-18, Jesus gives a harsh warning to the church in Laodicea. First, He calls them out for being lukewarm in their devotion to Him and warns that He will “spit you out of my mouth” because of it!” He further warns them:

You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.

When we become so prosperity minded that we lose our eternal perspective. When everything we do has an ulterior motive. When we forget about the poor. Friends, if we don’t keep our priorities in order, this verse could very easily be talking about us!

III. Biblical prosperity does NOT mean that there will not be times when we have to live sacrificially for the Gospel’s sake.

We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things. 1 Corinthians 4:10‭-‬13 ESV

These are very strong words from the Apostle Paul. However, does this describe the whole of Paul’s life? I don’t believe so. In Acts 24:25-26, we see Felix trying to solicit a bribe from Paul. It would have been pointless to do that if Paul didn’t have a considerable amount of money! Further, in the little Book of Philemon, read about a man named Onesimus, who was a runaway servant Paul’s friend, Philemon. Paul meets Onesimus, leads him to Christ, then writes a letter of commendation to Philemon. But in verse 18 of that book, Paul offers to repay Philemon all of Onesimus’ debts and back wages. This was no doubt a great deal of money. In order to make an offer like this, Paul must have been a man of substantial means.

But in spite of this, when the “rubber met the road” material wealth was no obstacle to Paul’s mission. When the situation called for it, he was ready and willing to lay it all down and do without the luxuries of life, even clothing and shelter and endure horrible persecution for the sake of the Gospel. Unfortunately, we don’t often hear about this side of it.

This is why true prosperity is tied so closely with proper stewardship of the resources God gives us. Martin Luther said that “There are three conversions necessary: the conversion of the heart, the mind, and the purse.” We will discuss this further in part 2!

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