This is the introduction to an essay I’ve written on the prosperity gospel:
The gospel of health and wealth proclaims that God promises physical healing and financial prosperity in this lifetime to those who trust and follow God’s ways. This message is powerfully alluring for Zambia and surrounding countries, where people face poverty and sickness beyond what much of the world has ever seen. From what one observes at the grassroots level, the gospel of health and wealth may be becoming the most popular and core message of the Christian faith, so that the prosperity gospel becomes the gospel of this part of Africa.
This situation may seem alarming or hard to believe for Christians in Europe and North America, but it must be remembered that a large chasm lies between the daily experience of most Africans and most Westerners. Zambians are hungry for development, progress, and success; in comparison, most Americans and Europeans have already experienced these things. Europeans and North Americans tend to take it for granted that their physical needs will normally be met, so they hardly connect the meeting of these basic needs with their life of faith. In contrast, Africans tend not to take it for granted that they will have access to such basic needs as food, medical care, and education, and they connect the obtaining of their needs with their newfound Christian faith. Sufficient access to food, health, and education has tended to elude Africans, but they are beginning to believe that it is possible to flourish, and that God cares to give them what they need to be able to do so. Africans have long observed the relative wealth of Westerners living in their countries, and many Africans have also grown wealthy in recent years as their nations’ economies have grown. These realities stir curiosity about just how much success God might wish to provide. In such an environment, striking the right balance between the belief that God cares for their well-being, and the belief that believers’ prosperity is the point and promise of the Christian life, is a considerable challenge. To serve the ongoing dialogue toward teaching truth in the African church, what follows will address two major concerns regarding the prosperity gospel.
One concern is that the message of prosperity does not reflect what Scripture really teaches, and that most believers’ level of skill in reading the Bible for themselves does not equip them to recognize this problem. Unfortunately, the debate regarding whether or not the message of prosperity is biblical tends to remain at the level of each side lining up proof texts for its own point of view and hurling them at the other side. This article seeks to take the debate to a higher level by inviting believers to look not just at proof texts but also at the main aims, themes, and lines of thought of biblical books and of the canon of Scripture as a whole. The wider literary context of biblical verses clarifies their meaning and places responsible limitations on their use. This article will propose that the prosperity gospel must come to terms with, and be greatly adjusted by, Scripture’s key themes, aims, and lines of thought, both within individual biblical books and, more broadly, in the biblical canon as a whole. Training African believers to read the Bible in its own literary context, so as to recognize the main themes and lines of thought, will help them to see weaknesses in the prosperity gospel and come to a balanced view of what Scripture teaches about suffering and flourishing.
The other concern is that, in its reliance on proof texts for its point of view, the prosperity gospel neglects a theme which is absolutely central for the Christian life: believers’ union with Christ and the impact of Jesus’ death on the Christian life which results from this union. Christ’s death brings a union between Christ and believers that leads believers to follow Christ’s own pattern of life, and that pattern tends to involve suffering and self-renunciation. In its teaching on the Christian life, the prosperity gospel fails to take the cross of Christ into account. This essay points to the neglect of the cross and union with Christ as a critical example of how the prosperity gospel makes frequent use of Scriptural proof texts but tends to miss the spirit of the Bible as a whole.
Finally, the essay will suggest that the weaknesses of the prosperity gospel argue for investing in rigorous theological training on the African continent that highlights teaching believers to interpret Scripture in its literary context. This will lead to responsible interpretation of the Bible and a realization of the significance of Christ’s death for the lives of believers. The upshot will be Scripture-shaped teaching and living among Africa’s Christians.
To see another post on the prosperity gospel, and another section of this essay, see the entry from 3/15/2013.