From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia - View original article
|Part of a series on|
Prosperity theology (sometimes referred to as the prosperity gospel, the health and wealth gospel, or the gospel of success)[A] is a Christian religious doctrine that financial blessing is the will of God for Christians, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to Christian ministries will always increase one's material wealth. Based on non-traditional interpretations of the Bible, often with emphasis on the Book of Malachi, the doctrine views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, he will deliver his promises of security and prosperity. Confessing these promises to be true is perceived as an act of faith, which God will honor.
The doctrine emphasizes the importance of personal empowerment, proposing that it is God's will for his people to be happy. The atonement (reconciliation with God) is interpreted to include the alleviation of sickness and poverty, which are viewed as curses to be broken by faith. This is believed to be achieved through visualization and positive confession, and is often taught in mechanical and contractual terms.
It was during the Healing Revivals of the 1950s that prosperity theology first came to prominence in the United States, although commentators have linked the origins of its theology to the New Thought movement which began in the 1800s. The prosperity teaching later figured prominently in the Word of Faith movement and 1980s televangelism. In the 1990s and 2000s, it was adopted by influential leaders in the Charismatic Movement and promoted by Christian missionaries throughout the world, sometimes leading to the establishment of mega-churches. Prominent leaders in the development of prosperity theology include E. W. Kenyon, Oral Roberts, A. A. Allen, Robert Tilton, T. L. Osborn, Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, and Kenneth Hagin.
Churches in which the prosperity gospel is taught are often non-denominational and usually directed by a sole pastor or leader, although some have developed multi-church networks that bear similarities to denominations. Such churches typically set aside extended time to teach about giving and request donations from the congregation, encouraging positive speech and faith. Prosperity churches often teach about financial responsibility, though some journalists and academics have criticized their advice in this area as misleading. Prosperity theology has been criticized by leaders in the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements, as well as other Christian denominations. These leaders maintain that it is irresponsible, promotes idolatry, and is contrary to scripture. Some critics have proposed that prosperity theology cultivates authoritarian organizations, with the leaders controlling the lives of the adherents. The doctrine has also become popular in South Korea; academics have attributed some of its success to its parallels with the traditional shamanistic culture. Prosperity theology has drawn followers from the American middle class and poor, and has been likened to the cargo cult phenomenon, traditional African religion, and black liberation theology.
Prosperity theology teaches that Christians are entitled to well-being and, because physical and spiritual realities are seen as one inseparable reality, this is interpreted as physical health and economic prosperity. Teachers of the doctrine focus on personal empowerment, promoting a positive view of the spirit and body. They maintain that Christians have been given power over creation because they are made in the image of God and teach that positive confession allows Christians to exercise dominion over their souls and material objects around them. Leaders of the movement view the atonement as providing for the alleviation of sickness, poverty, and spiritual corruption; poverty and illness are cast as curses which can be broken by faith and righteous actions. There are, however, some prosperity churches which seek a more moderate or reformed paradigm of prosperity. Kirbyjon Caldwell, pastor of a Methodist mega-church, supports a theology of abundant life, teaching prosperity for the whole human being, which he sees as a path to combating poverty.[B]
Wealth is interpreted in prosperity theology as a blessing from God, obtained through a spiritual law of positive confession, visualization, and donations. This process is often taught in almost mechanical terms; Kenneth Copeland, an American author and televangelist, argues that prosperity is governed by laws, while other teachers portray the process formulaically. Journalists David van Biema and Jeff Chu of Time have described Word of Faith pastor Creflo Dollar's teachings about prosperity as an inviolable contract between God and humanity.
The prosperity theology teaching of positive confession stems from its proponents' view of scripture. The Bible is seen as a faith contract between God and believers; God is understood to be faithful and just, so believers must fulfill their end of the contract to receive God's promises. This leads to a belief in positive confession, the doctrine that believers may claim whatever they desire from God, simply by speaking it. Prosperity theology teaches that the Bible has promised prosperity for believers, so positive confession means that believers are speaking in faith what God has already spoken about them. Positive confession is practiced to bring about what is already believed in; faith itself is a confession, and speaking it brings it into reality.
The teaching is often based on non-traditional interpretations of Bible verses, the Book of Malachi often being given special attention. While Malachi has generally been celebrated by Christians for its passages about the messiah, teachers of prosperity theology usually draw attention to its descriptions of physical wealth. Frequently quoted verses include:
Prosperity theology casts itself as the reclamation of true doctrine and thus part of a path to Christian dominion over secular society. It contends that God's promises of prosperity and victory to Israel in the Old Testament apply to New-Covenant Christians today, and that faith and holy actions release this prosperity. C. Peter Wagner, a leader of the New Apostolic Reformation, has argued that if Christians take dominion over aspects of society, the Earth will experience "peace and prosperity". Some Latin Americans who have embraced prosperity theology argue that Christianity has historically placed an unnecessary focus on suffering. They often view this as a Roman Catholic doctrine that should be discarded and replaced with an emphasis on prosperity. Prosperity theology advocates also argue that biblical promises of blessings awaiting the poor have been unnecessarily spiritualized, and should be understood literally.
Prosperity churches place a strong emphasis on the importance of giving. Services commonly include two sermons, one of which focuses on giving and prosperity, including Biblical references to tithing; a second sermon on another topic follows the offering. Prosperity church leaders often bestow a specific blessing on the money being donated, some have even been reported to instruct worshipers to hold their donations above their heads during the prayer.
Congregants in prosperity churches are encouraged to speak positive statements about aspects of their lives that they wish to see improved. These statements, known as positive confessions, are said to miraculously change aspects of people's lives if spoken with faith. Prosperity churches also encourage people to "live without limits" and cultivate optimism about their lives. T. D. Jakes, pastor of The Potter's House non-denominational mega-church, has argued in favor of prosperity, rejecting what he sees as the demonization of success. He views poverty as a barrier to living a Christian life, suggesting that it is easier to make a positive impact on society when one is affluent.
While prosperity churches have a reputation for manipulating and alienating the poor, many are involved in social programs. Underlying these programs is a theology of empowerment and human flourishing with the goal of releasing people from a "welfare" or "victim" mentality. Many prosperity churches hold seminars on financial responsibility. Kate Bowler, an academic who studies prosperity theology, has criticized such seminars, arguing that though they contain some sound advice the seminars often emphasize the purchase of expensive possessions. Hanna Rosin of The Atlantic argues that prosperity theology contributed to the housing bubble that caused the late-2000s financial crisis. She maintains that home ownership was heavily emphasized in prosperity churches, causing a reliance on divine financial intervention that led to unwise choices.
Leaders of the Pentecostal Movement in the early 20th century did not embrace prosperity theology. A recognizable form of the doctrine began to take shape within the movement during the 1940s and 1950s, through the teachings of Pentecostal deliverance and healing evangelists. Combining prosperity teaching with revivalism and faith healing, these evangelists taught "the laws of faith ('ask and ye shall receive') and the laws of divine reciprocity ('give and it will be given back unto you')".
One prominent early figure in prosperity theology was E. W. Kenyon, educated in the 1890s at Emerson College of Oratory, where he was exposed to the New Thought movement. Kenyon later became connected with well-known Pentecostal leaders and wrote about supernatural revelation and positive declarations. His writing influenced leaders of the nascent prosperity movement during the post-war American healing revival. Kenyon and later leaders in the prosperity movement have denied that he was influenced by the New Thought movement. Anthropologist Simon Coleman argues that there are "obvious parallels" between Kenyon's teachings and the New Thought movement.
Oral Roberts began teaching prosperity theology in 1947. He explained the laws of faith as a "blessing pact" in which God would return donations "seven fold", promising that donors would receive back from unexpected sources the money they donated to him. Roberts offered to return any donation that did not lead to an equivalent unexpected payment. In the 1970s, Roberts characterized his blessing pact teaching as the "seed faith" doctrine: donations were a form of "seed" which would grow in value and be returned to the donor. Roberts began recruiting "partners", wealthy donors who received exclusive conference invitations and ministry access in exchange for support.
In 1953, faith healer A. A. Allen published The Secret to Scriptural Financial Success and promoted merchandise such as "miracle tent shavings" and prayer cloths anointed with "miracle oil". In the late 1950s, Allen increasingly focused on prosperity. He taught that faith could miraculously solve financial problems and claimed to have had a miraculous experience in which God supernaturally changed one-dollar bills into twenty-dollar bills to allow him to pay his debts. Allen taught the "word of faith" or the power to speak something into being.
In the 1960s, prosperity became a primary focus in healing revivals. T. L. Osborn began emphasizing prosperity in the 1960s and became known for his often ostentatious displays of personal wealth. During that decade, Roberts and William Branham criticized other prosperity ministries, arguing that their fund-raising tactics unfairly pressured attendees. These tactics were prompted in part by the expense of developing nationwide radio networks and campaign schedules. At the same time, leaders of the Pentecostal Assemblies of God denomination often criticized the focus on prosperity taken by independent healing evangelists.
During the 1960s, prosperity gospel teachers embraced televangelism and came to dominate religious programming in the United States. Oral Roberts led the way, developing a syndicated weekly program that became the most watched religious show in the United States. By 1968, television had supplanted the tent meeting in his ministry.
Reverend Ike, a pastor from New York City, began preaching about prosperity in the late 1960s. He soon had widely aired radio and television programs and became distinguished for his flashy style. His openness about love for material possessions and teachings about the "Science of the Mind" led many evangelists to distance themselves from him.
In the 1980s, public attention in the United States was drawn to prosperity theology through the influence of prominent televangelists such as Jim Bakker. Bakker's influence waned, however, after he was implicated in a high-profile scandal.[C] In the aftermath, Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) emerged as the dominant force in prosperity televangelism, having brought Robert Tilton and Benny Hinn to prominence.
Although nearly all of the healing evangelists of the 1940s and '50s taught that faith could bring financial rewards, a new prosperity-oriented teaching developed in the 1970s that differed from the one taught by Pentecostal evangelists of the 1950s. This "Positive Confession" or "Word of Faith" movement taught that a Christian with faith can speak into existence anything consistent with the will of God.
Kenneth Hagin was credited with a key role in the expansion of prosperity theology. He founded the RHEMA Bible Training Center in 1974, and over the next 20 years, the school trained more than 10,000 students in his theology. As is true of other prosperity movements, there is no theological governing body for the Word of Faith movement, and well-known ministries differ on some theological issues. The teachings of Kenneth Hagin have been described by Candy Gunther Brown of Indiana University as the most "orthodox" form of Word of Faith prosperity teaching.
The Neo-Pentecostal movement has been characterized in part by an emphasis on prosperity theology, which gained greater acceptance within charismatic Christianity during the late 1990s. By 2006, three of the four largest congregations in the United States were teaching prosperity theology, and Joel Osteen has been credited with spreading it outside of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movement through his books, which have sold over 4 million copies.[D] Bruce Wilkinson's The Prayer of Jabez also sold millions of copies and invited readers to seek prosperity.
By the 2000s, adherents of prosperity theology in the United States were most common in the Sun Belt. In the late 2000s, proponents claimed that tens of millions of Christians had accepted prosperity theology. A 2006 poll by Time reported that 17 percent of Christians in America said they identified with the movement. There is no official governing body for the movement, though many ministries are unofficially linked.
In 2007, U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley opened a probe into the finances of six televangelism ministries that promoted prosperity theology: Kenneth Copeland Ministries, Creflo Dollar Ministries, Benny Hinn Ministries, Bishop Eddie Long Ministries, Joyce Meyer Ministries, and Paula White Ministries. In January 2011, Grassley concluded his investigation stating that he believed self-regulation by religious organizations was preferable to government action.[E] Only the ministries led by Meyer and Hinn cooperated fully with Grassley's investigation.
In the 2000s, churches teaching prosperity theology saw significant growth in the Third World. According to Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University, poor citizens of impoverished countries often find the doctrine appealing because of their economic powerlessness and the doctrine's emphasis on miracles. One region seeing explosive growth is Western Africa, particularly Nigeria. In the Philippines, the El Shaddai movement, part of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, has spread prosperity theology outside Protestant Christianity. One South Korean prosperity church, Yoido Full Gospel Church, gained attention in the 1990s by claiming to be the world's largest congregation.
Most churches in the prosperity movement are non-denominational and independent, though some groups have formed networks. Prosperity churches typically reject Presbyterian polity (or governance) and the idea that a pastor should be accountable to elders; it is common for pastors of prosperity churches to be the highest organizational authority figure. Critics, including Sarah Posner and Joe Conason, maintain that prosperity teachers cultivate authoritarian organizations. They argue that leaders attempt to control the lives of adherents by claiming divinely bestowed authority. Jenkins contends that prosperity theology is used as a tool to justify the high salaries of pastors.
In the United States, the movement has drawn many followers from the middle class and is most popular in commuter towns and urban areas. In Exporting the American Gospel: Global Christian Fundamentalism Steve Brouwer, Paul Gifford, and Susan Rose speculate that the movement was fueled by a prevailing disdain for social liberalism in the United States that began in the 1970s.[G] Rosin argues that prosperity theology emerged because of broader trends, particularly American economic optimism in the 1950s and 1990s. Tony Lin of the University of Virginia has also compared the teaching to manifest destiny, the 19th-century belief that the United States was entitled to the West. Marvin Harris argues that the doctrine's focus on the material world is a symptom of the secularization of American religion. He sees it as an attempt to fulfill the American Dream by using supernatural power.
Prosperity theology has become popular among poor Americans, particularly those who seek personal and social advancement. It has seen significant growth in black and Hispanic churches and is particularly popular among immigrants. Apologists for the movement note its ethnic diversity and argue that it encompasses a variety of views. Joel Robbins of the University of Tokyo notes that most anthropologists attribute the theology's appeal to the poor—especially in the Global South—to the fact that it promises security and helps explain capitalism. Simon Coleman developed a theory based on the doctrine's rhetoric and the feeling of belonging it gave parishioners. In a study of the Swedish Word of Life Church, he noted that members felt part of a complex gift-exchange system, giving to God and then awaiting a gift in return (either from God directly or through another church member). Hillsong Church, the largest congregation in Australia, teaches a form of prosperity theology that emphasizes personal success. Marion Maddox has argued that this message has drawn a significant number of upwardly mobile Australians.
In a 1998 interview in Christianity Today, Bong Rin Ro of the Asia Graduate School of Theology suggested that the growth in popularity of prosperity theology in South Korea reflects a strong "shamanistic influence". Bong pointed to parallels between the tradition of paying shamans for healing and the prosperity theology's contractual doctrine about giving and blessings. Asia's economic problems, he argued, encouraged the growth of the doctrine in South Korea, though he claims it ignores the poor and needy. During the interview, he stated that he saw the problem beginning to be reversed, citing calls for renewed faith and other practices. Cho Yong-gi, pastor of Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, has been criticized for shamanising Christianity. This criticism has focused on his healing and exorcism ministries and his promise of material blessings. Malaysian Christian writer Hwa Yung has defended Cho's healing and exorcism ministries, arguing that he successfully contextualized the gospel in a culture where shamanism was still prevalent. However, Hwa criticizes Cho's teaching of earthly blessings for not reflecting a trust in God's daily provision and for their heavy focus on earthly wealth.
Historian Carter Lindberg of Boston University has drawn parallels between contemporary prosperity theology and the medieval indulgence trade. Coleman notes that several pre-20th century Christian movements in the United States taught that a holy lifestyle was a path to prosperity and that God-ordained hard work would bring blessing.
Coleman has speculated that modern-day prosperity theology borrows heavily from the New Thought movement, though he admits that the connection is sometimes unclear. Jenkins notes that critics draw a parallel between prosperity theology and the cargo cult phenomenon. While citing the popularity of prosperity theology in agrarian African communities, he argues that it can also bear similarities to traditional African religious rituals. J. Matthew Wilson of Southern Methodist University compares the movement to Black liberation theology owing to its focus on uplifting oppressed groups, though he notes that it differs in its concentration on individual success rather than corporate political change.
Mainstream evangelicalism has consistently opposed prosperity theology and prosperity ministries have frequently come into conflict with other Christian groups, including those within the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements. Critics, such as Evangelical pastor Michael Catt, have argued that prosperity theology has little in common with traditional Christian theology. Prominent evangelical leaders, such as Rick Warren, Ben Witherington III, and Jerry Falwell, have harshly criticized the movement, sometimes denouncing it as heretical. Warren proposes that prosperity theology promotes the idolatry of money, and others argue that Jesus' teachings indicate a disdain for material wealth. In Mark: Jesus, Servant and Savior, R. Kent Hughes notes that some 1st-century rabbis portrayed material blessings as a sign of God's favor. He cites Jesus' statement in Mark 10:25 that "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God" (KJV) as evidence to oppose such thinking.
Other critics of the movement assail promises made by its leaders, arguing that the broad freedom from problems they promise is irresponsible. Church leaders are often criticized for abusing the faith of their parishioners by enriching themselves through large donations. Prosperity theology has been opposed for not adequately explaining the poverty of the Apostles. For instance, some theologians believe that the life and writings of Paul the Apostle, who is believed to have experienced significant suffering during his ministry, are particularly in conflict with prosperity theology.
In their book Health, Wealth and Happiness, theologians David Jones and Russell Woodbridge characterize the doctrine as poor theology. They suggest that righteousness cannot be earned and that the Bible does not promise an easy life. They argue that it is inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus and propose that the central message of the gospel should be Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Jones and Woodbridge see Jesus' importance as vital, criticizing the prosperity gospel for marginalizing him in favor of a focus on human need. In another article, Jones criticizes the prosperity theology interpretation of the Abrahamic covenant, God's promise to bless Abraham's descendants, arguing that this blessing is spiritual and should already apply to all Christians. He also argues that the proponents of the doctrine misconstrue the atonement, criticizing their teaching that Jesus' death took away poverty as well as sin. He believes that this teaching is drawn from a misunderstanding of Jesus' life and criticizes John Avanzini's teaching that Jesus was wealthy as a misrepresentation, noting that Paul often taught Christians to give up their material possessions. Although he accepts giving as "praiseworthy", he questions the motives of prosperity theology and criticizes the "Law of Compensation", which teaches that when Christians give generously, God will give back more in return. Rather, Jones cites Jesus' teaching to "give, hoping for nothing in return." Jones and Woodbridge also note that Jesus instructed followers to focus on spiritual rewards, citing his command in Matthew 6:19–20 "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth ... But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven" (KJV). Jones criticizes the doctrine's view of faith: he does not believe that it should be used as a spiritual force for material gain but seen as selfless acceptance of God.
In 1980, the General Council of the Assemblies of God criticized the doctrine of positive confession, noting examples of negative confessions in the Bible (where Biblical figures express fears and doubts) that had positive results and contrasting these examples with the focus on positive confessions taught by prosperity theology. The Council argues that the biblical Greek word often translated as "confess" literally translates as "to speak the same thing", and refers to both positive and negative confessions. The statement also criticizes the doctrine for failing to recognize the will of God: God's will should have precedence over the will of man, and Christians should "recognize the sovereignty of God". The statement further criticizes prosperity theology for overlooking the importance of prayer, arguing that prayer should be used for all requests, not simply positive confession. The Council noted that Christians should expect suffering in this life. They urge readers to apply practical tests to positive confession, arguing that the doctrine appeals to those who are already in affluent societies but that many Christians in other societies are impoverished or imprisoned. Finally, the paper criticizes the distinction made by advocates of prosperity theology in the two Greek words that mean "speaking", arguing that the distinction is false and that they are used interchangeably in the Greek text.[F] The Council accused prosperity theology of taking passages out of context to fulfill its own needs, with the result that doctrine of positive confession is contradictory to the holistic message of the Bible.