I have no love for the so-called “prosperity gospel.” Not even a little bit. But I do love the many thousands and thousands of people who belong to churches that preach the “prosperity gospel.”

We can so easily mistake opposition to an idea with opposition to people. Nevertheless, we can oppose a person’s deeply held ideas or beliefs while at the same time wishing only good for the person. In fact, opposing someone’s false or wrong ideas is itself an act of love that works for their…well…prosperity. If we leave people in error then we’re at least guilty of benign neglect. We may even be guilty of a kind of hatred.

I suspect I’ll oppose prosperity theology my entire life. But I hope with all I am to love people in those churches until Jesus calls me home. And, though folks in my camp rarely admit these things, there’s a lot we can learn from and admire in people who belong to prosperity preaching churches. Since we comment a lot on the negative aspects of this aberrant theology, I thought it might be good to say a couple of things about the people we appreciate.

They Believe God

First, it seems to me that many people in prosperity churches seek to believe God. They don’t just believe in God; they believe God. They take him at his word. They expect that God will do what he says he will do. They exhort one another and push themselves to put their trust in the God who speaks and never lies. I admire that. Especially since it’s so easy to see that many in our camp believe a lot of things about God but sometimes fall short of believing God.

“We can so easily mistake opposition to an idea with opposition to people.”

Ambition

Second, my friends in prosperity circles are filled with ambition. They want to do things. They want to achieve. They dream dreams and they believe God for their fulfillment. Whether it’s a desire to own a business, grow wealth or succeed in ministry, they train themselves to ask great things of God. They lay their desires open before the Lord and expect things to come to pass. There’s an entrepreneurial spirit among them that leads them to take risks or try new things in the Christian life. Again, my camp can learn something from this. We’re “reasonable” and careful not to mistake certain texts for promises. Sometimes it seems we whittle the generosity and greatness of God right down to our level, where we feel safe and where we can “reasonably” expect to see “results.”

 

Steadfastness

Third, the brothers and sisters I know who attend prosperity churches are steadfast in their belief. They don’t toy around with people who lack faith. They refuse to be distracted by naysayers. They resolve to continue in the doctrines they’ve been taught despite all odds and circumstances. They’re unmovable. They believe what they believe and they see themselves in a fight to remain true to their teaching. The innovations that happen in their theology all work to confirm and deepen theology. My camp plays around with core doctrines, speculates unhelpfully about key issues, and too often welcomes folks who depart from our convictions.

Joy

Fourth, I find a great deal of joy among my friends in prosperity churches. They’re glad to be Christians and it shows. They look for the best in life and they enjoy it. They refuse to be glum and dour. Even when they’re not happy, they fight for joy by faith. By contrast, lots of people in my camp seem to be happy only when they’re arguing. We claim to hold the deep truths of the faith but it doesn’t excite us. Some even come close to treating unhappiness as a badge of faithfulness.

Encouragement

Fifth, my friends at prosperity churches tend to excel at encouragement. I don’t find them critical or negative. They seek to build people up. They believe their words matter. They look to impart grace and life to their hearers. And usually it works. When I leave the company of my friends in prosperity churches I feel built up, helped, and refreshed. That’s not always the case when I leave the company of my friends who share my theological convictions.

As I said, I’m no friend of the so-called “prosperity gospel.” I believe it does harm to a great number of people. I believe it distorts the true gospel in critical ways. And I fully realize that the virtues I listed above can be misguided, built on bad interpretation of biblical texts, and manipulated by false teachers. Yet, the truth needs to be told. There are Christ-loving, joy-seeking, biblically-thoughtful persons in these churches from whom we can and should learn a lot. I know I’d be a far more compelling Christian if I could more consistently marry the virtues above with what I think is a better reading of the Scripture. After all, what’s a better reading of the scripture if it’s not matched with a better living of the Scripture?

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27 Comments

  • Avatar Frank says:

    Thabiti, I love you! I really really really do. I am continually encouraged by things you say. Though, I’m just not sure I can agree with you on your first point. Especially when Paul said this….

    “Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” (Gal 1:8-9 ESV)

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t love them. Rather we should, and we do that by pleading for their repentance.

  • Avatar Thabiti says:

    Hey Frank,

    I love you, too, brother! Thanks for sharing the love on the porch!

    I don’t think we’re in any disagreement at all. I completely agree with Gal. 1:8-9. That’s why I hate the “prosperity gospel” and would certainly call people to abandon it. No disagreement whatsoever.

    And, yet, I’m certain God has people in churches where that message is preached–just as he had people in Galatia where Judaizers had infiltrated with a false message. I’m learning that as long as folks like me and you oppose the error, we should also be quick to note God’s work among His remnant in those places. It’s good for my balance, the flourishing of my love, and hopefully part of the gentleness that aids in repentance:

    “And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will” (2 Tim. 2:24-26).

    We don’t give in for even a moment to the falsehood so that the truth stands (Gal. 2:5), but we stand in gentleness instruction hoping to win as many as we can. Just as our Lord was “full of grace and truth” may we bo so as well in increasing measure.

    T-

  • Avatar Michael says:

    Thabiti,

    Greetings brother, I appreciate your positive spin on an otherwise sad situation. I totally agree with you on the point that we should (as Matt Chandler would put it) “love on” followers of the prosperity gospel. However, I do partially disagree with two of the points you bring up.

    Ambition:

    I’m sure you agree that the followers of the prosperity gospel have their ambitions misplaced. Shouldn’t we be more focused on having that contentment in godliness? (1 Tim 6:6-7) Most of the adherents that I’ve engaged believe that you can do nothing for Christ without money while totally ignoring clear passages of scripture that contradict them. (e.g. Acts 3:6) Their ambition is clearly the ambitions of the world wouldn’t you agree? (1 John 2:16). Should we love that about them? <– honest question.

    Maybe I'm looking through "reformed eyes" and I need to be more ambitious. I have decided to attend seminary and pursue a doctorate so that might be a good start. I'll stop short of naming it and claiming it though, lol.

    Steadfastness:

    This one is a little tricky too. Those in the Reformed camp are very steadfast in the primary doctrinal matters (and rightfully so). However, I think with respect to secondary or tertiary doctrinal matters one area where I've found the reformed camp to be different (I've only been born again for a little over a year so I'm no expert) is that dialogue about those matters is encouraged. The prosperity camp seems to have a "put my fingers in my ears and scream la, la, la" type attitude toward disagreement. They rarely encourage dialogue with outsiders about the whole of scripture and are very good at proof-texting and eisegesis.

    Just wanted to offer my thoughts. I enjoyed the article and have really been blessed by your sermons.

    Grace and peace,
    Michael

  • Avatar Brian Crawford says:

    As a young man who spent the first twenty years of my physical life and a few years of my born-again life embedded in these doctrines, I really appreciate this article, Pastor T. I see some of these very qualities in a number of my friends who still hold to prosperity theology (much to my loving yet firm opposition). May the Lord continue to bless you with the courage to challenge us all in gracious yet gripping ways.

  • Avatar Thabiti says:

    Hi Michael,

    Thanks for joining us on the porch and for tuning in to the sermons. That’s kind of you, brother, and thanks for adding to the conversation.

    I wouldn’t disagree with anything you’ve said. Those are the negative sides of these qualities, and these negatives are there in spades! I’d only say these are, as you put it, positives that are misplaced by the theology and sometimes distorted to the point that it’s difficult to reach our friends in those churches. But if we don’t see the positive sides (as I have often failed to do) then we make it even harder to reach them because our hearts will not be for them as fully as possible.

    But I’m right there with you.
    T-

  • Avatar Thabiti says:

    Hey man,

    Praising the Lord for His work of grace in your life. You’re a reminder to me of two profoundly important things:
    1. The Lord has a people in those churches that we should love; and,
    2. The Lord does and will bring His people out of those situations for His glory and their true enjoyment of Him.

    Keep on preaching the cross, bro!
    T-

  • Avatar Rayshawn Graves says:

    Great article,Thabiti! Growing up in a WoF church,I always admired these traits about my church but so often they are seen and experienced at the expense of sound teaching.there certainly are things we can learn from those contexts.I mean, I somehow lost many of these traits when I came into the truth, foolishly thinking that they were products of my former beliefs.it’s good to realize that I was wrong and that these characteristics are things that all Christians should be marked by, especially those who have a rich understanding of what Christ has done for us

  • Avatar Christoph says:

    Regarding your first two points, I am right there struggling with that! I’ve been reading E.M. Bounds on prayer and am trying to change the way I pray, but I’m entering uncharted (for me) territory; I’m very comfortable in my head knowledge and doctrine.
    Looking at the prayer passages in the Bible, though, I find many “anythings” and “whatevers.” Where’s the line separating “name it and claim it” from “if you abide in me and my word abides in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you?” I don’t know. But I want to find out, so I am, to the best of my ability, abiding in him and letting his word abide in me, and asking whatever I wish, to see what happens.

  • Avatar Thabiti says:

    Amen.

  • Avatar Ray Munsaka says:

    Dear Thabiti,

    I am Ray from Zambia. Remember the conference in August? I did not attend but have listened to (and been greatly blessed) by your messages and those of Dr. Carson.Incidentally, I joined Twitter in the process of searching a few articles on you!

    One brother likes to say that “Baptists do not preach prosperity. They just practice it”. Quite true to a certain extent here in Zambia. Like our “prosperity” brethren, we do want to prosper except we do not make a doctrine out of it or make it sound like God owes us anything we want. (Or don’t we?)

    As you put it, your article is not meant to justify the prosperity gospel but to just point out some good qualities that our brethren have. Our brethren will at times believe anything and really live by that belief. We on the other hand will only believe what is true and quite live it out, too. The difference I think is that they seem to exhibit so much heat even for a dim light, while we tend to exhibit little heat for so much light we have.

    Both sides of the divide have something to correct, although I believe the issues on the other side are more serious and desperate. Those of “the gospel of prosperity” are enthusiastic but mostly it is for the things of this world. One at times fears that this life is all they care about. We of the “prosperity of the gospel” emphasize (and rightly so), the life to come and may unwittingly end up regarding anything of this life as irrelevant.

    I believe (as I am sure you also do) that the qualities mentioned of our brethren are actually also true of us on the other side. However, our doctrinal position (or more accurately, what we unwittingly make of it) tends to make us think that an expression of these characteristics is not consistent with sound doctrine. Quite the opposite! Is it not ironic that those who have nothing make so much out of it and those who have much make little out of it? Interestingly, many times it is those in error that are zealous for their error that those with the truth. It should be the other way round.

    Having said (written) all this, I agree with you that we should not take away from our brethren what is good about them. The fact that it is misguided should not make us write off everything about them. After all many of them are genuine saints and if so, God is active in their lives. Where their is zeal without knowledge, the problem is not zeal, but a lack of knowledge. The zeal must be commended. Apollos’ problem was not his eloquence but doctrinal inaccuracy. It would be sad if after being corrected, then Apollos was just droning in his sermons.

    Have a good day. Hope to meet you some day (in this life first of all!)

    Ray

  • Avatar danhill09 says:

    Thabiti,

    I appreciate your article and your stance. The fact that you are even willing to look for Gospel influence in prosperity gospel churches is convicting and challenging. So often I have been quick to complain and criticize prosperity preachers, which is an act of overgeneralization and ignorance on my part.

    I grew up and was brought to faith in Christ in a church that danced on the border between Charismatic and Prosperity preaching. As I begin to grow in my walk with Christ, study the Word of God, experience hardship/suffering, and read theology, a great deal of tension was brought into all of the relationships that had been formed in that church. At first, going to seminary only exacerbated the problem. But, as I’ve grown, I’ve become more humble in many of my stances and much more hesitant to ostracize members of the Christian community.

    Ironically, I think tension is key here. God uses and can use anyone. In fact, I doubt that I would be a believer today if the passion of my friends (all of whom were attending prosperity churches in once sense or the other) had not shaken me from my own apathy. I had thought that I was a Christian but my friends’ passion and love for God illuminated the fact that I simply did not.

    While the prosperity message is often wrong (and short-sighted) and the Word of God diluted/misinterpreted, I think humility and love would go a long way in bridging that gap. They are, after-all, our brothers and sisters in Christ. We (read: I) should be motivated much less by hatred and moreso by a genuine love to see them see the great depth of our God.

    Thanks again!

  • Avatar chrisleduc1 says:

    Thabiti,I guess I’ll have to be the lone dissenter here…

    Regarding point number 1, don’t think you are painting a fair picture here. This is akin to saying that my kids are obedient, even though they often don’t listen. You are saying these folks believe God, but what exactly do they believe? Do they believe the “whole counsel of God” or just the parts that speak of…well, health wealth and prosperity? Do they believe God when He says that ALL who live godly in Christ will suffer persecution? When they are not being persecuted specifically for His name, do they examine themselves and see if they are in the faith? The ones here in this country that I know do not. How about when God says that you must pick up your cross, deny yourself and love Him more than family etc? Do they believe Him there? Do they practice denying themselves? Would that be an identifying mark of people who are members of “prosperity gospel churches” – self denial/crucifying the flesh? Im really not trying to argue for arguments sake. I think you are guilty of doing the exact same thing they do – taking and exalting only half of the truth and ignoring the other half.

    Regarding your second point – to be honest, I’m kinda surprised that you said this. Ambition? Really? What IS their ambition? Is it to glorify Jesus Christ through their lives and learning to abound in all situations? Is it to do all to the glory of God ?I mean honestly, when we examine the folks in the movement – what exactly is the motivation behind their ambition? Is it the Biblical ambition we read about that all things are done for the advancing of God’s kingdom and that no offense ever be given in trying to advance the Gospel? Or is the motivation to fulfill the desires of the flesh ie health, wealthy and prosperity? Or, to put it another way “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life?

    You said:
    “Whether it’s a desire to own a business, grow wealth or succeed in ministry, they train themselves to ask great things of God. They lay their desires open before the Lord and expect things to come to pass.”

    But what is their motivation? Is it to own a business to advance God’s kingdom, through spending less time at home so as to have more family time to teach their children the things of God? Or maybe have more time out doing intentional evangelism, or send more money to the mission field? Or is it as James says “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions?”

    I guess what it comes down to is that we seem to have a very different opinion on what is going on here. I would whole heartedly agree that there are true believers in many of these churches. However, I would also say that there are MANY who are false converts, they are worshipping an idol and not the God of the Bible and I would go so far as to say that the leaders have been raised up by God Himself as judgement on mankind by demonstrating that what people want it not God, but only the good that God has promised in specific instances to specific people. I would say that what we see is EXACTLY what Paul talked about in 2 Tim 4 “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions..” and what I don’t understand is that you seem to be commending some of their sinful passions, because they are doing in the “name” of God… ?

  • Avatar Frank says:

    Yeup, you’re right. I should have read your post a little more carefully. Just for clarification, however, you’re not saying that those who preach the false gospel believe God, are you?

  • Avatar chrisleduc1 says:

    By the way – I never got to thank you. Back at the Gospel Coalition conference in 2011 you did a session “The Gospel for Muslims” that helped me alot and you also answered a few questions for me afterward that really helped me on my trip to N Africa a few weeks later. So, thank you for your service to our Lord, I was blessed.

  • Avatar mallen717 says:

    Thank you for a very positive review. Good reminder for us to seek some common ground with fellow Christians even when we disagree on issues. These points are a good place to build a bridge of dialogue.

  • Avatar Thabiti says:

    Hey man,
    I’m just glad The Lord uses donkeys like me! Thank you for coming to the workshop, taking the gospel to N. Africa, and bringing back this word of encouragement! The Lord bless you and keep you,
    T

  • Avatar mel mariner says:

    Strangely enough I went directly from Joe Carter’s article on Copeland to this. Now my head is spinning.

  • Avatar Thabiti says:

    Lol!

  • Avatar Thabiti says:

    Hey doc,
    Thanks for jumping on the porch and bringing a little disagreement. That’s as welcome as agreement.

    But how to answer….

    I guess if Paul could call the Corinthians “the seal of his apostle ship” with all the questionable and problematic things going on there, we should probably rejoice to see evidences of God’s grace in the lives of people in prosperity churches. It’s not that I don’t see things you see. Perhaps it’s that I see more in this instance. Honestly, Might you be the one only seeing and exalting half the truth if you’re only able too see the errors and not any grace at work in the lives of people you “wholeheartedly agree” are Christians???

    In love,
    T

  • Avatar Thabiti says:

    Hey Frank,

    I guess it’s difficult to generalize. I suspect there are a lot of wolves in such churches fleecing the flock. But then I think of dear, godly, lifelong friends in such churches that I’m certain are more godly than I and full of faith. They believed God for my conversion and prayed for me when I was a devout Muslim and opponent of the cross. Through their prayers I was saved! Now, I think they’re wrongly understanding the scripture and believing God for things He may not have promised. But I do think there are Christians in those churches whose faith is genuine and who do sincerely believe God. I think we’re so accustomed to criticizing and bashing them we can’t conceive of anything good coming out of their Nazareth.

    T

  • Avatar mel mariner says:

    Okay having now attended an Apologetics Summit with Dr. Richard Howe speaking I have more questions. First of all I didn’t realize that there were actual regular churches that taught this. I thought the people that believed this stuff were more the ones that followed tv celebrities or went to mega mega churches.
    My question is, are they teaching the true gospel but mixing in the idea that Christians are like the Old Testament Hebrews and if they are just obedient enough they will be blessed physically? Or are they teaching the things that Copeland and Hinn are teaching? If that is the case then I do not see how one can be considered a Christian any more than a Mormon can be. There is definite darkness mixed in with the theology.
    I get the whole we can’t judge an individual’s heart thing and Dr. Howe was very definite about the fact that there are Christians within the movement and we need to remember that. But it seems like your blog was a little bit too generous towards personality and thin on truth about what faith in Jesus means. What comes to mind is how often I have to bring in counting the costs of following Jesus when discussing homosexuality. Isn’t twisting of scripture still twisting to accommodate what a person wants to get out of it. I mean as long as we are clear that Word of Faith is not just a matter of secondary issues and is a definite distortion of who Jesus Christ says He is and why He came.
    Do you understand my confusion? Or do I need to go into it more what I learned recently to see if we are seeing the Word of Faith people the same way?

  • Avatar Keith Wolaridge says:

    Great article. I too found myself being caught up in the Word of Faith movement after coming from an extremely conservative church. It was rich and celebratory but over time became shallow and empty. Over time this teaching was more of an ecclesiastical pyramid scheme so I left. Now that I am more reformed in my theology I do appreciate the points you outlined in the post. Realizing that God is sovereign and should He decide to bless me in a financial way ….I won’t complain..,LOL! Keep reaching and teaching.

    I’m so glad a have a place on the porch.

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