Is the “Prosperity Gospel” Heresy?

Recently I talked with a reporter for a major metropolitan daily newspaper about Pentecostalism. He called me after interviewing (he said) many scholars about Pentecostalism. He said that the people most enamored with Pentecostalism were non-Pentecostal religious scholars; none of them would say a bad word about Pentecostalism. He had read my article on the dark side of Pentecostalism in Christian Century and knew I could say some negative things about the movement.  Most of the negative things I have to say about it relate to the independent Pentecostal evangelists and entrepreneurial pastors–not the leading Pentecostal denominations.

One thing that shocked  him and me both was the responses he received to questions about the so-called Prosperity Gospel of health and wealth that is rampant among independent Pentecostal and Charismatic ‘Word of Faith’ churches and evangelists. He told me that one sociologist of religion explained it to him as nothing more than Pentecostal pastors and evangelists trying to teach their followers how to handle money responsibly. Needless to say, I filled him in on what it really is from first hand experience with it.

As some readers here already know, my first full time teaching position was at Oral Roberts University (1982-1984). I accepted that position because, returning from my studies in Germany, I had no other option. The tenure track position was in the undergraduate theology department. For those of you ‘in the know’ I succeeded Chuck Farah who moved to the graduate school of theology. (Chuck was a leading critic of the then-budding health and wealth, word of faith ‘gospel’ then being proclaimed by Kenneth Hagin and Kenneth Copeland. His book From the Pinnacle of the Temple was, to the best of my knowledge, the first book length critique of it.)

I was already aware of this teaching before moving to ORU to teach in the summer of 1982. I was raised Pentecostal and there had long been a ‘lunatic fringe’ of the movement that promised physical and financial blessings in response to prayers of faith. They were our lunatic fringe because almost to a person they prayed for people’s teeth to be filled with gold. One of them came to our town (where my father was pastor of a Pentecostal church) set up his tent, and proceeded to pray for people’s teeth to be filled with gold. Several people from our church claimed to have had their teeth so ‘healed’ by the prayers of this evangelist. When my father strongly suggested that our people not go to those meetings, the evangelist ‘prophesied’ that my father would be struck down with cancer for opposing him. That kind of thing was well known and common along the fringes of the Pentecostal movement in the 1950s and before.

While attending seminary I served as assistant pastor at a Pentecostal-Charismatic church. Several of our members drifted away to become followers of television evangelists. Again, the pastor of that church openly opposed the television evangelists who preached the then new version of the gospel of health and wealth that denied the sovereignty of God and made God a slot-machine (words of faith in, healings and financial blessings out). We were just seeing the end of the so-called ‘Shepherding/Discipleship Movement’ (Derek Prince, Don Basham, et al.) when Jim Bakker and PTL went on the air with people like Kenneth Copeland and Kenneth Hagin receiving the spotlight to proclaim that God is bound to heal and bless with riches those who spoke the word with faith. You had to speak it; you couldn’t just ask for it.

Mainstream Pentecostal leaders were slow to respond, but eventually they did respond with ‘position papers’ denouncing the more extreme versions of the Word-Faith movement and doctrines.

When I went to ORU in 1984 Oral Roberts was still a United Methodist. While I was there he left the UMC and joined Billy Joe Dougherty’s church that met on campus. It was an independent charismatic congregation with leanings toward the prosperity gospel. Then Oral began inviting Word-Faith preachers to speak in chapel. I will never forget the day a California-based African-American preacher of positive faith and prosperity (he boasted of owning several Rolls Royces) spoke in chapel. We were all required to attend. With students in wheel chairs in attendance he shrieked “You can’t be a good witness for Jesus from a wheel chair!” Dead silence fell over the nearly five thousand people in the Christ Chapel. Then he asked “Well? Am I right?” One usually quiet and very humble professor stood to his feet and shouted through cupped hands “NO!” Then he sat down. Many, many chapel speakers were from that wing of the Charismatic movement. Oral himself did not teach or preach an extreme version of the so-called Word-Faith message he allowed surrogates to do it for him. And when Farah’s book was published, strongly criticizing it, Oral called him on the carpet.

While I was teaching at ORU a graduate theology student was conducting research into the origins of the Word-Faith teaching and found word-for-word parallels between the writings of E. W. Kenyon, an early 20th century Pentecostal healing evangelist who had been influenced by New Thought, and Kenneth Hagin, the then leader of the Word-Faith movement. He published his findings in A Different Gospel. His name was D. R. McConnell and his critique of the ‘name-it-and-claim-it’ movement and teaching was devastating. He proved its genesis in New Thought and demonstrated its unbiblical character while also strongly hinting that it is downright dangerous to people’s health and financial well-being (insofar as they were being taught to act like they were well and rich even when they weren’t). McConnell succeeded me when I left ORU (with a huge sigh of relief) in 1984. (Some day maybe I’ll tell more of what I saw and heard during those two years at ORU, but I don’t want to in any way hinder the work being done there since Mart Green took over a couple years ago. For now I’ll just say that before I went I read Give Me That Prime Time Religion by Jerry Sholes and couldn’t believe what it said about Oral Roberts was true. After two years teaching there I believed every word of it.)

Recently I saw a billboard a few blocks from my house on a major thoroughfare. It says “Never sick, always well; never poor, always rich–Guaranteed!”, or something like that –it has since been removed. It cited a web site so I went there and found that a new Word-Faith church was starting up in a store front near my home. Over the past 25 years this movement has exploded in America and around the world.

The essence of the movement is this: God promises that if you have positive faith and truly believe AND speak that faith with your mouth in positive affirmations (e.g., “God is my source of healing and prosperity; I am well and rich”) God is obligated to heal you and give you financial blessings beyond your wildest dreams. It isn’t always stated that baldly, but that’s the essence of it–especially as it is HEARD by its many adherents. There are, of course, degrees of it. Oral Roberts’ version was called ‘Seed Faith.’ It was mild compared to some of the chapel speakers’ messages. But the essential message is that God will give you abundance, meaning well-being in every sense, if you exercise faith in him for that abundance by speaking it into existence.

Now, this is a perfect example of something I recently blogged about here–that there is really little new under the sun. Anyone old enough and who was paying attention will remember ‘Reverend Ike.’ And before him was ‘Father Divine’ and ‘Daddy Grace.’ And it all goes back at least to the New Thought movement started (?) by Phineas Quimby in the early 19th century. Its main promoters were Mary Baker Eddy, Ernest Holmes and Charles and Myrtle Fillmore (founders of UNITY). Its main popularizer was Napoleon Hill whose book Think and Grow Rich is still in print. A mild version of New Thought was popularized by Norman Vincent Peale and, through him, by Robert Schuller. New Thought entered into the fabric of American folk religion as positive thinking. But the Fillmores taught that true faith that works to bring healing and financial prosperity must be spoken in positive affirmations.

Ultimately, it goes back to the Puritans who taught that financial success was a ‘sign of election.’ From there it entered into the American ethos and prepared the way for New Thought and the Word-Faith movement.

My point is that, in my opinion, the Word-Faith ‘prosperity gospel’ is little more than New Thought with a Charismatic veneer thrown over it. It is heresy because it makes God into a cosmic slot machine and turns salvation into a self-centered acquisition of physical blessings. It is the perfect example of ‘culture religion.’ The cross plays almost no role in it whatsoever–except that (according to some of its leading preachers) Jesus died spiritually before he died physically (a very gnostic idea) so that he died a mere man abandoned by his divinity. He died a ‘sin slave to Satan.’ He descended into hell to exercise his power of faith to conquer sin, sickness and death and rose from death by the power of that faith. (I heard this all the time from students who transferred to ORU from a leading Word-Faith Bible institute across town.)

This doctrine of guaranteed healing and financial prosperity through the ‘spoken word of faith’ ought to be opposed with all might by all evangelical Christians. In my opinion, churches and evangelists who teach it are proclaiming a false gospel.

By Roger E Olson

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