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What Does the Bible Really Say about Prosperity?

By worldview
Created 10 Nov 2006 - 08:43
You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to trace the origins of the Prosperity Gospel to the United States, where advantageous tax laws for religious institutions and a prosperous economy has been favourable soil for the growth of rich religion. The secular values of capitalism have merged with an affluent church to produce this hybrid consumer-oriented syncretistic version of Christianity that somehow manages to ignore all of Jesus’ teachings about the dangers of wealth.  

by Allan Weatherall

To look at the contemporary church today you would conclude that the days of humility and self-denial were gone. Today well-paid prosperity pastors wear expensive suites and drive expensive cars, dine at expensive restaurants and stay in luxury hotels — and all this is viewed as a sign of God’s blessing and is celebrated by followers who similarly aspire to the external trappings of success.

So pervasive is the influence of these prosperity teachers and so seductive to the masses has their message been, that their teaching can be found right around the world.

Although the prosperity doctrine is really nothing new it has become more evident in Australian churches and throughout Africa in recent years. Many believers feel uncomfortable about this trend, but often can’t quite explain why. And with such views being strongly expressed by high profile charismatic Christian leaders, many are reluctant, or maybe even afraid, to question or criticise.

Of course the people most vulnerable to this half-truth deception are the poor who are desperate to escape the ravages of poverty. Rather than being taught the way out of poverty through wisdom and hard work, the poor are promised the quick and easy path to prosperity. All they have to do, they are told, is give money to the preacher and then expect a hundredfold return from God.

What makes this false teaching so compelling is that it contains a few elements of truth. God does promise to provide for his people. But he does not promise that they will be rich in this life. Prosperity teachers base their doctrine on carefully selected Bible verses which speak of God’s promises to provide, but they often quote verses out of context and apply contorted interpretations to justify their presuppositions. One example of this was the assertion that God wanted us to have expensive cars because Jesus rode a donkey. A donkey, this teacher claimed, was an expensive form of transport in biblical times. The stupidity of this statement ought to be self-evident.

The major focus of prosperity teaching is on faith and these teachers encourage their followers to show their faith through giving (often to their ‘ministries’) in the form of tithes and offerings.

Prosperity teaching seductively appeals to the flesh. Many people dig deep into their pockets in the hope of a multiplied return, or simply feel obligated to support their church. It’s not uncommon to hear prosperity teachers give prolonged appeals for money, teaching at great length on the principles of faith applied to finances. In Africa, believers have even been threatened with the fearful prospect of hellfire and curses if they continue to ‘steal from God’ by withholding their ‘tithes and offerings’.

Yet it may come as a surprise to many that ‘tithing’ is only mentioned twice in the gospels. In both instances it is when Jesus is rebuking the Pharisees for emphasising it to the exclusion of ‘the weightier matters of the law’ such as justice, mercy and the love of God. It would appear that the same distortion of God’s word is happening in the churches today. Whilst the New Testament does teach about giving, the tithe was an Old Covenant practice which was setup to support the Priest and Temple system which has now been superseded by the New Covenant. Tithing was never part of New Testament teaching or practice at all. Instead, 2 Corinthians 9:7 says, ‘Each one must give as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.’ (ESV)

Preachers who continually compel and coerce believers to give have much to answer for. They are distorting the teachings of the Bible and are misrepresenting God! It is they who are stealing from God’s people.

But the Bible does contain promises that God will care for and supply our needs. Where teaching on prosperity goes astray is not in the promise of prosperity itself, but how prosperity is defined. If we take biblical promises and apply modern western capitalist definitions of prosperity, we are in danger of being deceived.

Making Sense of God’s Word

Some confusion about prosperity stems from the fact that we have examples in the Bible of Old Testament patriarchs who were blessed with great material wealth. On the other hand, we have examples of Jesus and his followers who had few worldly possessions and lived very simply and sacrificially. This has led to some confusion and division in the church over the issue of wealth and the role it plays in our lives.

To make sense of what God is saying, it’s important that we avoid the temptation to listen only to those verses which appeal to us. We must be careful to listen to all of what scripture says about prosperity and the dangers of wealth. To fail to do so is not only bad hermeneutics — such careless use of scripture will invariably result in damaged people as well.

What many prosperity teachers fail to realise is that the very concept of individualistic personal wealth, as we know it in modern times, was nonexistent throughout most of human history. Today it is possible for even a moderately wealthy person to live with minimal dependence on others. They can have their own house, hoard their possessions and bulging bank accounts, travel with freedom and independence and have almost everything they need. Security devices and insurance have replaced the need for guards and watchmen to protect their riches; washing machines and dishwashers are replacing household servants; cars and public transport have replaced camels and horses and the staff needed to care for such livestock. Consider Abraham. When God blessed Abraham with wealth he was also blessing Abraham’s extended family and a host of servants and slaves who constituted his extended family. When Abraham was blessed, he became a blessing to all those around him who shared his life. Abraham’s wealth was shared wealth, not personal wealth. Abraham’s wealth also brought with it the responsibility to care for, protect and provide justice for all those who where part of his extended family. The same was true of King David and Solomon. When the Bible speaks of blessing in the form of material wealth it is speaking into a cultural context in which the extended family was the norm and in which the concept of separate and individual wealth was virtually nonexistent. Personal wealth and independence is the aspiration of many today—and yet this definition of prosperity is fundamentally at odds with scripture.

The New Covenant

People have always been selfish — even in biblical times. But what is interesting is that when the Holy Spirit came on the day of Pentecost the resultant transformation attacked the very root of selfish individualism. People sold their possessions and gave to any who had need as the love of God compelled them. See Acts 2:43-47. Individual wealth was redistributed to the poor for the good of the community. This is one of the most powerful signs of the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God.

Some verses that you are unlikely to hear prosperity teachers use:

‘Sell your possessions and give to the poor...’2
There are times when God requires us to make difficult and sacrificial choices in following Christ. How many possessions do we have that would be better sold and the money given to the needy? (And I don’t mean the church building program!)

‘Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness...’3
This is from Jesus’ sermon on the Mount where He taught that we should not be concerned with the things on which ‘pagans centre their interest.’ What does ‘seek first the Kingdom of God’ mean to someone in business? What does ‘and His righteousness’ mean to a used car salesman? Our priorities and our integrity are often the things which are most challenged when we venture into the commercial world.

‘Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have...’4
In a recent interview on ABC Radio one prominent leader of a church in Australia was asked to comment on the statement that ‘the overwhelming emphasis of the Bible was on the danger of riches and that it’s better to live simply.’ I was astounded to hear this leader reply, ‘That’s a tragic view, it’s a very tragic view... sadly its usually people who hold that view that actually take scripture out of context.’ This is a prime example of how beguiling prosperity teaching can be. They actively encourage people (often young, poor and impressionable people) to ignore the clear counsel of scripture and to aspire to pursue wealth as if doing so were virtuous—the exact opposite to God’s word!

‘But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and have pierced themselves with many griefs. But you, man of God, flee all this...’ 5

‘Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or, I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of my God’6

‘Though your riches increase do not set your heart on them.’7

‘Whoever trusts in his riches will fall but the righteous will thrive like a green leaf.’8

‘Cast but a glance at riches and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle’9

‘It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God’10

‘You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion...’11

‘Command them [the rich] to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share...’12

‘Woe to you who are rich for you have already received your comfort’13

‘Now listen you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you.’14

‘You say, ‘I am rich, I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.’15

As you can see, it requires quite a bit of theological gymnastics to turn the general emphasis of scripture: ‘It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom...’ into a message that says, ‘God wants you to be rich.’ Yet this is exactly what prosperity teachers today are doing. But perhaps this should not surprise us. When the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy he warned of, ‘ of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.’16

It should be noted that none of the scriptures quoted above imply that it is wrong to be involved in business. Nor do they convey the notion that poverty is somehow virtuous. But making the acquisition and accumulation of wealth one’s primary focus — even the focus of one’s faith — is a very spiritually dangerous thing to do. Prosperity teachers almost universally ignore such warnings.

The Dangers of Wealth
As our wealth increases we can be subject to seductive influences which have the potential to undermine our faith. The rich often feel no sense of practical dependence on God. We can be deceived by a sense of self-sufficiency and we may not be wise enough to manage the temptations that come our way due to increased wealth.

The writer of Proverbs 30:8-9 prayed, ‘...give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.’

Wealth also brings with it increased power, responsibility and increased accountability to God. If we have the means to assist the poor we are accountable to do so and we need to seriously and prayerfully consider our obligations to those in need.

Of course it is good and desirable to have resources to give, but we should not forget that the godly management of great wealth requires a level of maturity and consecration that is rare. The rich clearly have a sobering responsibility towards those that are poor. Rather than seeking wealth Jesus advised us to ‘...provide for yourselves purses that do not wear out...’

Prosperity: A Biblical Definition
Perhaps true prosperity could be defined as having our basic needs met. If we have health, peace, joy; food and shelter; wisdom and knowledge of God; healthy relationships; children who love God; time to spend with God and to serve him; opportunity to use our gifts and talents; protection from enemies; enough to pay our debts; wisdom to live within our means; then what more do we need? People lacking these things are not necessarily lacking faith. In this fallen world any of these good things can be snatched away from us. God allows us to go through various trials, but in such trials and tribulations we can be more than conquerors. Like precious gold, our faith is tested and refined by fire. Our faith, which pleases God, is refined when we continue to trust him even when our circumstances indicate that all blessings are gone.

Prosperity teachers would have us believe that faith will allow us to triumphantly ride a wave of economic success, while those who do not reach such splendid heights of plenty are somehow lacking. Such teachers are deceived. The scripture says, ‘God has chosen those that are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised...’18

If anyone is preaching a false message we need to pray for them. Such people are often enjoying material wealth at the expense of others and are blind to the damage that they are causing.

God does promise to show us his faithfulness by providing for our needs. The scripture says, ‘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.’ ’ 19

But ‘those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.’ 20

Instead of seeking wealth, Jesus taught that we should ‘seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.’ 21 That’s a promise that we can surely bank on.

Scripture References:
1. Acts 5:1-11; 2. Luke 12:33; 3. Matt 6:33; 4. Heb 13:5 5. 1 Tim 6:8-11; 6. Proverbs 30:8,9; 7. Ps 62:10 8. Prov 11:28; 9. Prov 23:5; 10. Matt 19:23,24; 11. 2 Cor 9:11; 12. Luke 6:24; 13. James 5:1; 14. 1 Tim 6:18 15. Rev 3:17; 16. 1 Tim 6:5; 17. Rom 8:37; 18. James 2:5 19. Heb 13:5; 20. 1 Tim 6:9; 21. Matt 6:33

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