(This is the second part in a mini-series on the health and wealth gospel and what a missional response might be. Here is part one [CLICK HERE] and here is part three [CLICK HERE]. Be sure to check back for more! Or just subscribe to my blog using the sign-up form on the right or at the bottom of the page if you’re using your mobile device.)
Why does the health and wealth gospel matter? Who cares if some folks distort the message of Jesus? The adherents to the prosperity gospel are consenting, thinking people, so why should anyone say anything about what they are doing?
These are all good questions. And the answer to them is simple: the health and wealth gospel is famous for exploiting the poor. And exploiting the poor is terrible. Therefore, those who engage in the exploiting, whether purposefully or not, should be called out.
Exploiting the Poor with the Prosperity Gospel
Admitting that more demographic and ethnographic research needs to be undertaken, the roots of the health and wealth gospel are found in the soil of poor evangelicals in America.
Sociologist Peter L. Berger from Boston University says this:
The prosperity gospel probably originated among the poorer elements of the evangelical community in America. It is now a global phenomenon, especially among the rapidly spreading Pentecostal churches in Africa, Latin America and Asia.
He also claims that…
Far more attractive to poor people, who are a majority of its adherents, is the “prosperity gospel,” a version of Christianity asserting that material benefits will come to those who have faith, live a morally upright life and, not so incidentally, give money to the church.
[SOURCE for both quotes]
Putting those quotes into my own language would look like this: The health and wealth gospel started among under-resourced Americans in the past. Its theology, hopes, and values are attractive to poor people. And this distortion of the Christian message, namely that blessing = material possession and/or money, has very successfully been exported to Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
In other words, the health and wealth gospel has been built upon the backs of the poor. Prosperity gospel preachers, who very often brag about their wealth openly, seem to be guilty of exploiting the poor. And even if the demographics of a particular prosperity gospel church or people who seem to adhere to prosperity principles include a mix of folks, rich and poor, the fact that money is taken from any who are poor with the unenforceable promise of a fabulous return on investment is insidious.
You can see this in action in the video below. Paula White is the speaker. She is a famous health and wealth preacher.
She calls for every single person to “sew a seed” of $126 dollars, which she admits is a sacrifice for many. Sacrifice? Who is $126 a sacrifice for? It’s a sacrifice for the poor! And did you notice how many times she continues to ask people to pass their offering (AKA, their seed) down down the aisle? Did you hear her say several times “Has everybody given?” Then when she mentions that someone may not have yet she says “Oh no.” Her little speech is patently manipulative.
And Paula White’s brand of begging is typical of many of the prosperity gospel preachers. Speeches like these are one of the tools used to exploit the poor.
And don’t get me started on the blatant misinterpretation of passages in the Bible about sewing and reaping harvests, especially the Parable of the Sower! That will have to be for another time…
Exploiting the Poor: What’s Wrong with That?
This question shouldn’t need answering. Every person, whether a follower of Jesus or not, knows that taking advantage of the poor is wrong. Exploiting those without access to resources is horrible.
We all know that taking the little bit someone has and adding it to our huge pile is selfish, immoral, and just plain despicable.
Not only does exploiting those with little feel wrong to almost everyone, it is called out as wrong all over the place in the Bible. From beginning to end, the Bible is full of calls to care for the poor and denouncements of the abuse of the poor.
Here are some examples:
- Leviticus 19.10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am theLord your God.
- Deuteronomy 15.11: There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.
- Psalm 12.5: “Because the poor are plundered and the needy groan, I will now arise,” says the Lord. “I will protect them from those who malign them.”
- Psalm 35.10 My whole being will exclaim, “Who is like you,Lord? You rescue the poor from those too strong for them, the poor and needy from those who rob them.”
- Psalm 82.3: Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
- Proverbs 14.31: Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.
- Proverbs 29.7: The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.
- Isaiah 3.14 The Lord enters into judgment against the elders and leaders of his people: “It is you who have ruined my vineyard; the plunder from the poor is in your houses.”
- Isaiah 32.7 Scoundrels use wicked methods, they make up evil schemes to destroy the poor with lies, even when the plea of the needy is just.
- Ezekiel 16.49: Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.
- Luke 4.18: The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free
- James 2.5-6: Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?
Normally I wouldn’t engage in Bible bludgeoning like this. But there is a time and a place for it.
Now is the time and this is the place!
It is obvious that a central message found in the Bible is that God cares for the poor and calls his people to do the same.
Exporting the Exploiting of the Poor
Now if the exploiting of the poor that goes on in some health and wealth circles was only happening in the US or in North America, that would be bad but perhaps it would be somewhat manageable. Folks in North America can be connected to decent social services that can help, etc., etc.
But when the exploiting of the poor by the prosperity gospel has been exported into very impoverished parts of the world, then a new low has been found.
I remember the last time my wife and I were on a short-term mission assignment in Cambodia. We met some local Christian workers and shared prayer times with them often. In one of these prayer sessions they asked that we would pray about the Joyce Meyer event that was coming up.
Joyce Meyer is another famous prosperity gospel preacher. I was a bit nervous. Did my new friends want me to pray for the success of her event? Or did they have something else in mind?
They then shared that she has been to Cambodia many times and that people will give all the money that they have to her ministry in response to her preaching and financial promises, leaving their families with no money for the necessities of life.
So we prayed and prayed and prayed!
But truth be told, Cambodia is not alone in this story. The health and wealth gospel, and the exploiting of the poor that comes with it, has traveled all over the world. It has found many places where it is popular, especially in Africa, Latin America, and Asia (Matthew Clarke’s overview in Handbook of Research on Development and Religion is helpful [pages 170-174]).
Similar stories to the one I told about Cambodia have proliferated all over the world now.
While there are plenty of detractors out there, it seems to me that most people either don’t really know the reality of the problems caused by the health and wealth gospel or they simply choose to look the other way.
Brothers and sisters, it’s time that we stopped looking the other way and started confronting this distortion of God’s message of unconditional love!
It’s time that we remember that Jesus himself was a homeless preacher. His first followers lived lives of deep sacrifice and poverty, and everyone of them died in some non-prosperous way (e.g., crucified upside down, boiled alive, etc.). And every true follower of Jesus has a deep and abiding concern for the poor because they see it in the life that Jesus lived and they want to do the things he did in his human life in their human lives.
Exploiting the poor is wrong. And exploiting the poor in the name of Jesus takes wrongness to the next level!
What do you think? Is the apparent exploiting of the poor that goes on in prosperity gospel circles as bad as I (and others) make it seem? What should we do if it is? Let me know in the comments below!