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06 June 2018

The “prosperity gospel”: Mammonism disguised as Christianity.

When we’re not pursuing Jesus so much as all the stuff he might give us.

PROSPERITY GOSPEL /prɑs'spɛr.ə.di 'gɑs.spəl/ n. The good news that God doesn’t just want to save his people, but bless us materially.

That’s not an ironic definition, folks. That’s legitimately how the prosperity gospel is defined by those who proclaim it. God doesn’t just want us to come live in heaven’s kingdom with him. While we’re headed thataway, he wants us to be materially successful and comfortable.

For totally legitimate reasons, they claim. Remember when Moses was advising the Hebrews to follow the Law in Deuteronomy, and how he said part of the blessings they’d receive for doing so would be material? Oh you don’t remember that bit? Fine; I’ll quote it.

Deuteronomy 28.1-13 KWL
1 “If you happen to listen to your LORD God’s voice,
so as to observe and do every command I instruct you about today,
your LORD God will give you power over every country on earth:
2 All these blessings will come to you and overwhelm you, for you listened to your LORD God’s voice.
3 You’ll be blessed in city, field, 4 the fruit of your belly, the fruit of the ground,
and the fruit of your animals—what your cattle births, or your flocks produce.
5 You’ll be blessed in breadbasket, in yeast; 6 when you enter, when you leave.
7 The LORD will have your enemies which rise against you be struck down in front of you.
They’ll come at you from one direction, and run away from you in seven.
8 The LORD will teach you about blessing in your storehouses, in everything you undertake.
He’ll bless you in the land your LORD God gives you.
9 The LORD will raise you to himself: A holy people, as he swore you’d become.
So observe your LORD God’s commands. Walk in his ways.
10 All the earth’s peoples will see you call upon the LORD’s name, and fear you.
11 The LORD will give you a good surplus, fruit of your belly, beasts, and your ground,
in the land the LORD swore to give your ancestors.
12 The LORD will open his good, heavenly treasury for you:
He’ll give rain to your land in its season. He’ll hand over every deed.
Many nations will owe you, and you’ll never borrow.
13 The LORD makes you the head, not the tail. You’ll go upward, not downward.
So listen to your LORD God’s commands. Observe and do what I’m instructing you today.
Don’t dismiss any words I command you today. Don’t go right or left, to follow or serve other gods.

This passage was addressed to the ancient Hebrews, and applies to whether they as a nation followed the Law in the land he gave ’em. Does it apply to present-day gentiles, not as nations but individuals, who live in all sorts of other lands, Christian or not?

Well, the prosperity-gospel folks certainly believe so. This, they figure, is why God’s made the predominantly-Christian United States so profoundly rich. (Ignoring the fact we’re up to our eyeballs in debt.) So if they individually follow God’s commands, refuse to turn right or left away from them, and serve no other gods but the LORD, they’re counting on God blessing them with growth and surplus.

Well… okay, they don’t always figure they gotta follow God’s commands necessarily. But if they follow God’s general principles, and believe really hard, they expect God’ll make ’em prosperous just the same.

Well… okay not all God’s general principles. Plenty of them have no problem with being as dishonest, covetous, and promiscuous as any pagan. They’re kinda focused on a few principles. Namely it’s these three:

  • ACT LIKE GOOD CHRISTIANS. In public, anyway. God wants to make his people rich so that pagans’ll get jealous and wanna become Christian. But it doesn’t work when his people don’t act Christian. So behave yourselves! Quit sinning. Get rid of the negative attitudes, and let everything which comes from your mouth be encouraging and confident.
  • GIVE, AND IT’LL BE GIVEN YOU. Loosely based on Jesus’s teaching about generosity Lk 6.38 but only applied to giving to one’s church. If you give sacrificially large amounts to your church, God’ll reward you tenfold. Or more, depending on the preacher. But giving to the needy isn’t so necessary. God doesn’t wanna give them wealth unless they practice these principles, so no going around him, okay?
  • NEVER EVER DOUBT. Unless you wanna lose your blessing, don’t ever, ever question prosperity beliefs. Not in your mind, not in public, not ever. You gotta believe, and keep believing, that God’s gonna enrich you. Even when he doesn’t. Even when he hasn’t for years or decades.

Stick to these three principles, and watch the riches come pouring in. Guaranteed.

After all, look at the preacher. He follows these principles, and as a result, his church is flush with cash, he has a seven-figure income, he has a Bentley and a Gulfstream and a really nice house, he wears expensive suits and gold jewelry—he’s been blessed! Follow his example, and you’ll be blessed too.

If this sounds like a giant scam to you, that’s because of course it’s a scam.

Stuck in the scam.

And it’s a very-well crafted scam too. It’s had about two centuries of development and fine-tuning, as Americans tried to figure out how to reconcile their riches, or their mad pursuit of riches, with Christ’s teachings.

Since a lot of Pentecostals have adopted it, a number of people think we came up with it. Nah; the Pentecostal movement started about a century after the health-and-wealth gospel arose. But Pentecostals have been pioneers in multimedia, which is why a lot of Christian TV and radio shows are Pentecostal—and of course, all the health-and-wealth preachers who happen to have TV and radio shows, also happen to be Pentecostal.

Like most scams, it works quite well for the person on top. The pastors who preach prosperity are frequently gonna be prosperous once everybody starts giving to their ministries—and, they hope, giving a lot to their ministries. Way more than the traditional 10 percent; sometimes as much as 60 percent. I’m serious.

It’s designed to discourage questions and criticism. If you’re legitimately wondering how these “promises” of wealth work, considering the bible verses don’t appear to apply to present circumstances at all, you’re gonna be condemned and rebuked by both the leaders of these churches, and the people who are striving for prosperity, for your “negativity” and doubt. Even though it’s exactly the right kind of doubt. You’ll be told your doubts cancel out your blessings; you’ll never be prosperous so long that you question the system. And some of ’em are a little worried your negativity might affect them somehow; that if God decides to smite you, he might accidentally hit them too. So quit doing that!

It’s unintentionally designed to encourage undisciplined financial behavior. People imagine their windfall from God is gonna arrive any day now, so they don’t plan ahead. There’s nothing in the savings account. The credit cards are maxed out. They’re already buying all the accoutrements of wealth. They got that ridiculous mortgage and that ridiculous second mortgage. America’s in debt to its eyeballs; their debt level would be up to the eyeballs of someone standing on their shoulders.

Undisciplined financial behavior also extends to their churches. They give loads of money, but pay no attention to how the church, its board, and its leadership handles the money. The pastor’s salary is wholly inappropriate for a person who runs a nonprofit organization. The pastor’s wholly unnecessary entourage is also well-paid, but idle. The church gives far too little to charity, benevolence, and missions. Large sums of money are regularly wasted on frills and perquisites.

The system is also designed to encourage hypocrisy. ’Cause you gotta look good! But you don’t necessarily gotta be good.

If you’re wondering how people can fall for this scam, you gotta remember things look very different from their point of view. Every Christian they know has fallen for this scam too, so its theology and practice appear to be, as far as they can tell, “normal.” Since they don’t know how to look at the scriptures in context, as far as they can tell the proof-texts are totally solid: Isn’t this what every true Christian is supposed to believe? So those folks who claim prosperity teaching is bunk: They’re the ones who’ve been scammed. They’re doomed to live without victory, without prosperity, without success, because of their negative, pessimistic mindset. Of course they don’t believe in a gospel of wealth; at this rate they’re never gonna see wealth.

Yeah, it’s pretty cultlike. So much so, certain Christians claim the prosperity gospel is heresy. But technically they’re not heretics. Prosperity churches (unless they’re oneness churches; some of ’em are) don’t really teach anything contrary to the creeds.

Well, unless you count the fact they’re worshiping Mammon instead of Jesus.

Well they are.

Mammonism is of course the worship of wealth. We call wealth “Mammon” because it’s a convenient way of making it crystal clear we’re talking about idolatry. In the United States, where we’re taught every American has the potential of gaining great wealth, Mammon’s a popular god: Americans devote our lives to getting rich, by hook or by crook; by compromising every other thing we claim to believe in, because everything else takes a back seat to wealth acquisition: Friends, morals, family, even our own freedom. Even, ironically, our own wealth.

And if people identify themselves as Christian, that’s often gonna take a back seat to wealth acquisition too. We’re gonna join a stingy church, which doesn’t give, and doesn’t expect us to give either. Or we’re gonna join a prosperity church, which demands we give, but promises God’ll pay us back in bucketloads. As a reward for our trust and faithfulness (and our silence when we discover it has problems), we’re told God will give us full, unrestricted access to Mammon. All the Mammon we can eat, and rub all over our bodies.

In this way God gets turned into a means to an end. The end, the true object of worship, would therefore be Mammon. We’re supposed to follow God because we want God; we wanna be with him in his kingdom forever. Not because we want mansions, streets of gold, riches, health, and comfort. Not because we expect that stuff in the next age, nor because we’re told we can have that stuff in this age. If you’re following God because you want peace, you’re unintentionally worshiping peace; if you want heaven, you’re worshiping heaven; if it’s ultimately about wealth, you’ve embraced Mammon.

Whoops.

Prosperity-gospel folks are entirely sure this isn’t true: They don’t worship wealth; they worship God! Who’s promised them wealth. And if he never comes through for them with the wealth, they’ll be disappointed, but they’re still gonna worship God. But here’s the thing: They’re entirely sure he will come through for them with the wealth. Maybe, in their heart of hearts, they realize he won’t pony up the dough in this age. But after they’re resurrected, after they’re shown their new home in New Jerusalem, they’re expecting the nicest of mansions. It’ll come eventually. It’s just they figure it’ll come much sooner than that.

So to their minds, wealth and God are a package deal: You get God, you get prosperity. You get the LORD, you get Mammon. Six of one, a half-dozen of the other. Jesus said we can’t serve both God and Mammon, Mt 6.24, Lk 16.13 but prosperity gospel folks figure why serve it when God’ll just give it to us, free? And thus we sorta can serve both God and Mammon. In your face, Jesus!

Okay, that “in your face, Jesus” bit is a lot more blatant than prosperity-gospel folks are willing to be. Instead they’ll just quietly undermine the gospel of Christ Jesus by adopting various views which run contrary to his teachings, but which suit the prosperity gospel just fine.

Disrespecting the needy.

Animals fight for survival and supremacy. The animals which win get to pass down their genes, and the animals which lose, don’t. Charles Darwin figured this was how evolution works: The better genes and traits survive, and improve the species. Capitalists figure the marketplace and workforce works the same way, and call this social Darwinism.

Here’s the thing: In nature, the better genes and traits don’t always survive. Ec 9.11 Quite frequently dumb luck, not survival of the fittest, is how things work. And in the marketplace and workforce, people likewise beat the competition through dumb luck. Or by cheating; there’s nepotism, bribery, blackmail, lowballing the competition, insider trading, rules violation, various unfair advantages, various disadvantages like institutional racism, sexism, ageism, and prejudices against the disabled or the previously incarcerated.

The prosperity gospel claims the only reason you’re needy is because you don’t believe hard enough. The only reason you’re poor, sick, disadvantaged, or in any way not successful nor prosperous, is all your fault. Jesus claimed the good news is for the poor, Lk 4.18 and the prosperity gospel would agree—but with a very different spin on Jesus’s meaning. The good news is for the poor only when you believe really hard. Otherwise it’s really not.

So when people actually are needy, or become needy—a hurricane floods a city, or a tornado or earthquake knocks its buildings down, or a volcano burns ’em away—the prosperity gospel really has nothing to say to such people. According to them, bad stuff doesn’t happen to God’s people. When it does, they can’t really be God’s people, can they? Not anymore, at least; they must be sinning. They stopped believing. Somehow they’re deficient, so God took their stuff away. (Like he did Job—but they consider Job a special exception to teach a special lesson.)

This blame-the-needy-for-being-needy mentality is a very old one. The Pharisees had it, which is why they were so quick to dismiss the guy born blind whom Jesus cured. Jn 9.34 Jesus’s students had picked some of it up from the Pharisees, which is why they initially asked Jesus whether the guy was blind because he or his parents sinned. Jn 9.2 Jesus had to correct them, Jn 9.3 because while we create a lot of our own luck, some of it we don’t. Some of it is just plain meaningless.

But the true gospel is that God loves the needy. That he came to meet those needs.

Prosperity-gospel folks suck at being aid and comfort to the needy. Not that some of ’em don’t try; that despite what their churches and preachers claim, they do know enough of Jesus’s teachings to recognize they need to be generous to everyone, and love everyone regardless of merit, just like their Father. They may not realize the practice of this love violates every principle of the prosperity gospel—that you’re supposed to merit God’s riches by believing really hard!—but it’d seem they follow Jesus a lot more than their teachers do.

And this is the route we need to take when we’re correcting the people who believe in the prosperity gospel: Emphasize the needy. God cares about the needy. They care about the needy. So what’s the deal with a belief system which condemns the needy?