Prosperity Gospel Preachers: The Antidote to Apostasy

A recent article published in the New York Times highlighted the continuing success of prosperity preaching during our current economic downturn. While many businesses and virtually all charities are struggling to maintain services in the face of diminishing revenues, prosperity gospel preachers are doing remarkably well, according to the article.

The Times article focused on the Southwest Believers' Convention in Fort Worth, Texas, where the usual cast of prosperity gurus delivered their predictable pitches to an estimated 9,000 followers seeking a share of the financial success clearly enjoyed by the event's headliners.

The Symptoms

The speakers, many dressed in expensive designer clothing, paraded across the convention stage making frequent references to their country club lifestyle and their private jets. While crediting God for their "blessings," the prosperity teachers intentionally provoked envy among their followers, who eargerly responded by funding a "seed" for their own future properity.

Sadly, for all the attention this conference generated, there's truly nothing new here. The love of money is the root of all evil, as Paul declared long ago, and a love for money combined with a talent for manipulating the naïve and gullible have long been the calling card of conartists the world over. Regrettably, the Church has been a favorite target of this heresy over the centuries as well.

Centuries ago, Martin Luther famously initiated the Reformation when he objected to Rome's acceptance of indulgences, or donations offered by grieving relatives hoping to hasten a departed loved one's acceptance into Heaven.

Indulgences were big business in Luther's day, because the Church had discovered that preying on fear and grief could be hugely profitable. When Luther exposed the heresy, he threatened much more than Catholic dogma or authority: he was meddling in the Church's financial lifeblood.

Centuries later, itinerant preachers and salesman traveling across nineteenth century America perfected many of today's methods for parting a fool from his money. Peddled bogus medicinal cures and promising miraculous Holy Spirit healing in tent revivals, these charlitans showcased their own wealth and success to validate their message, and eager crowds readily accepted what they saw. Few victims ever recognized the obvious: the personal wealth enjoyed by prosperity preachers wasn't the product of a truthful message but of dishonest methods.

To be fair, the Bible - and particularly the New Testament - does have much to say on the topic of wealth, but the message is far different than the one preached by prosperity gospel proponents. From the parables of Jesus to the Apostles' letters to the warnings in Revelation, the Bible consistently refutes the claims of these false teachers.

(If you are interested in what the Bible says on the topic of money, I recommend you listen to The Love of Money Part 1 & Part 2).

The Diagnosis

If the Bible's teaching on money clearly denies the prosperity gospel's claim that God desires to make believers rich in material terms, then why have so many people in our "enlightened age" fallen prey to this nonsense?

Besides the message's obviously seductive appeal, the real answer is found in the Church's growing ignorance of the Bible. Greed and materialism have always existed, of course, but as George Barna and others have documented, the Church has experienced an alarming erosion of Biblical knowledge over the past fifty years among professing Christians, and a fool and his money are soon parted.

Many churches are facilitating this trend by downplaying within their programs the importance of a deep and abiding knowledge of God's word, thus becoming satisfied with (at most) a superficial understanding of Scripture in their congregations. Even more alarming, ignorance of the Bible is now moving beyond the pews and into pulpits, as increasingly pastors themselves are becoming unfamiliar with the core doctrines and history of our faith.

This trend is largely to blame for the remarkable inroads prosperity preachers have made into many prominent congregations around the country, and it almost certainly explains many other ills within the Church.

The Church's ignorance of Scripture has done much to prove true the old adage that "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing." Dangerous, indeed, and costly.

The Cure

Of course, God isn't taken by surprise over all this. The writer to the Hebrews warned specifically of just such a situation, when he wrote in Chapter 5:

Concerning [Melchizedek] we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil. - Heb 5:11-14

In this passage, the writer clearly connects the Christian's ability to discern good and evil (e.g., to discern good teaching from false teaching) with seeking a deeper understanding of God's word (i.e., the "meat"). Conversely, when a Christian fails to progress in this way, he will never acquire this important ability, and eventually he becomes a willing victim for the enemy's schemes - including the fleshly appeal of the properity gospel.

What is the best antidote against the Church's slide into apostasy? Again, the Bible gives us the answer:

I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. - 2Tim 4:1-4

Don't you wish that every problem in life had such an easy answer? On second thought, maybe they do.