Part 3 in a series on Examining the Prosperity Gospel

A 2006 Pew Forum poll of self-identified US Christians* revealed that forty-six percent of respondents agreed with the following statement:

God will grant material prosperity to all believers who have enough faith.

Amazingly, this is tied for the eighth lowest of ten countries involved in the survey. Only Chile had fewer positive responses than the US. Even given the seven years since the survey was conducted, this demonstrates that belief in the health-and-wealth gospel characterizes a significant portion of the population.

Given the fact that many Christians disagree about doctrines like baptism, church government, the significance of the Lord’s Supper and other matters discussed in the Bible, why should the relationship between faith and economics that characterizes the prosperity gospel be challenged? This post will show five key economic reasons that the prosperity gospel should be rejected.

Any discussion about error and truth must be undertaken with a sense of humility. There are certainly areas in which believers can disagree and should do so respectfully. There are realities to which our eyes are blinded by ignorance and cultural biases. However, when error exists in plain contrast to Scripture, then it is consistent with compassion to reveal that error graciously for the benefit of others (e.g., 1 Timothy 1:3–7).

1. The prosperity gospel undermines attempts to relieve poverty.

Individual conversion is a noble and necessary goal in Christian poverty alleviation efforts, but arguing that simply believing harder will fix the problem ignores many possible systemic evils or the need for skills and resources. James 2:15–16 states,

If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?

In order for true poverty alleviation to occur, Christians must seek to eliminate social evils and empower the poor with the necessary resources as well as encourage personal faith.

2. The prosperity gospel can make the poor and sick feel guilty.

For adherents of the prosperity gospel whose businesses have failed or who have gotten tragically sick, the feeling of personal failure can be overwhelming. The reality is that God “makes the sun shine on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45, ESV) There should be no shame in poverty, because shame can become a barrier to human flourishing.

3. The prosperity gospel denies the relationship between work and wealth.

God’s design for humans was for them to work, even before the fall of Adam (Genesis 2:15). After the fall, God cursed the earth, making work harder for humans (Genesis 3:17–19). Even after Christ’s ascension to heaven, with the reconciliation of all things to God underway (Colossians 1:19–20), God still intends for people to work for their sustenance and wealth creation (2 Thessalonians 3:10–12).

4. The prosperity gospel misrepresents economic principles.

Although God is capable of miracles and owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Psalm 50:10), this does not mean that the natural world, including the economics of the world, do not generally follow regular patterns. In fact, Jay Richards argues that the order of the marketplace is a reflection of God’s design for creation.

Even in the biblical accounts of the early church, where miracles seem to be quite common, there is still a sense that the provisions of food for thousands from a few loaves and fishes or the many healings were irregularities in the normal pattern of life. The expectation of miraculous provision, even for believers, seems to deny the extraordinary nature of miracles. God’s character is evidenced in the order of the created universe including economic principles.

5. The prosperity gospel prevents contentment.

Paul wrote of his own contentment even in harsh circumstances (Philippians 4:11–12). With the prosperity gospel, however, faith must be continually demonstrated by a new abundance of wealth from God. The health-and-wealth gospel teaches that more is always better; there can never be enough. The continual desire for more brings about a form of spiritual poverty (1 Timothy 6:6).

There are other reasons to reject the prosperity gospel on theological grounds, but the main point of this blog series is to demonstrate the differences between a biblical perspective on faith, work, and economics and the prosperity gospel.

Leave your comments here.

*Editor’s Note: The survey focuses on certain aspects of the Pentecostal movement, but includes responses from all self-identifying Christians and asks questions about doctrines not essential to Pentecostal belief.

This post is part of a series on Examining the Prosperity Gospel
Andrew Spencer

About Andrew Spencer

Andrew Spencer is a Ph.D. student studying Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously served in the United States Navy as a Submarine Officer after graduating from the United States Naval Academy.

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  • Mike Gastin

    Or, most importantly, the prosperity gospel makes it all about us, when instead, all of scripture tells us that it’s really all about God. In other words, the prosperity gospel is dangerous and can’t give life because it is anthropocentric, whereas the true gospel gives hope because it is theocentric and as such is all about the life-giver.

    • Andrew Spencer

      Thank you Mr. Gastin for taking the time to comment. You are
      certainly correct that one of the most dangerous aspects about the prosperity
      gospel is that it tends to increase focus on the individual believer instead of
      on God. I appreciate your contribution to this ongoing conversation and hope
      you gained some benefit from this post.

  • Dave Hilgendorf

    I apologize up front if this comment comes off as too negative. I came here after signing up for your e-mail list thinking that I share your mission and beliefs and I”m sure you and I do share many fundamental beliefs, but I have to take issue with this blog post. I continue to be amazed by the fervor with which well meaning Christians seek to tear down what has been termed a prosperity Gospel. In fact, I can’t think of any other “doctrine” that receives more criticism from Christians. The Muslims, Hindus, and Mormons seem to get a pass, but not those “name it and claim it folks”. I wouldn’t mind it so much if these attacks were accurate in the way they represent this segment of the body of Christ but more times than not they are not. I believe that God wants me well and He wants me to be blessed so that I can be a blessing to others. I also believe Jesus paid a high price so that I could spend eternity with Him and that eternal life starts now as a born again believer, not after I die. I also believe that I have a part to play in this process. If I want to be healthy and to prosper financially I need to cooperate with the guidance and commands He’s given me in His Word. This also happens to be the core beliefs of many others I know who consider themselves to be word of faith Christians. Those beliefs are not at all represented accurately in your description above. I won’t take the time to reference scripture for everything I just said but I certainly could, which is one of the things I appreciate about my pastor and other teachers who tend toward word of faith and that is the degree to which they rely on scripture to support what they believe. Are there abuses by some “TV preachers” who sometimes miss the mark or are too focused on wealth, yes there are, but I personally see far more abuse by many Christians who are blaming God for everything bad in life and insisting that the Christian life is inherently difficult and that God wants it to be that way.

    Here are my initial thoughts to your 5 bullet points:

    1. The prosperity gospel undermines attempts to relieve poverty – I give more to help the poor than I ever have in my life, on top of my tithe, and I only see “prosperity gospel” encouraging this kind of giving.

    2. The prosperity gospel can make the poor and sick feel guilty. – I don’t get this. Hearing that my faith is a factor in my healing doesn’t make me feel guilty if I get sick, but it does prevent me from blaming God for making me sick. Jesus said again and again how vital someone’s faith was to receiving healing. I only wish I heard some prosperity preaching when I was really down and out financially earlier in my life.

    3. The prosperity gospel denies the relationship between work and wealth. – not what I’ve heard preached. I’m a huge fan of Dave Ramsey who kicks you in the butt and stresses the need to get out of debt and to get a 2nd job if necessary. I’m not saying he’s necessarily a prosperity gospel preacher, but I have no problem matching my beliefs with Dave’s message. I’m a hard worker because God tells me to be a hard worker. That doesn’t mean I don’t know that my provision comes from God alone.

    4. The prosperity gospel misrepresents economic principles. – it represents very well Biblical economic principles like “seed, time and harvest” and “give and it will be given unto you”. God is the same yesterday, today and forever and I believe He’s in the miracle business today as much as He’s ever been. I don’t deny the way God has created the universe, but I look to the Bible for those principles, not the marketplace.

    5. The prosperity gospel prevents contentment – I disagree wholeheartedly. I’m very content and I give God the glory for everything good in my life.

    Again sorry if this seems like an attack but I’ve heard messages like this too many times and I felt I needed to respond to this one. Let’s attack the devil or at the very least non-Christians rather than attacking other Christians.

    • Howard Roark

      Like Dave, I was shocked by this article, thinking that this was a Christian website. There is nothing more selfish than to be satisfied to just barely get along financially. God needs you to prosper in order to share with others, in order to promote the Gospel, and to support Christian organizations like this one! The money doesn’t come from the poor. This is the most unscriptural article I have read in a while. The Lord takes pleasure in the prosperity (not the poverty) of his servants. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you. It is important that we embrace the prosperity element of the Gospel, which is good news, not bad news, otherwise, if you really believe this nonsense, please immediately ask your employer to reduce your wages because you don’t want to live in the sin of being blessed by God. Can you see how utterly ridiculous this is?

      • Spence Spencer

        Mr. Roark, thanks for taking the time to share your concerns.

        You are correct that there are times that God chooses to bless his people with material wealth, to deny that wealth can be a blessing is a form of asceticism that it unhealthy. However, it does not necessarily follow that a rejection of the idea that personal faith leads to material prosperity will result in the perspective that being materially prosperous is a sin.You will see your concern addressed more fully in the first post in this series.

        I appreciate you contributing the the conversation and hope you have found some benefit in this discussion.

    • Andrew Spencer

      Mr. Hilgendorf, thank you for taking the time to so thoughtfully respond to this 3rd post in the series. I appreciate your concern over what appears to be a division in the body of Christ.

      The reason that the prosperity gospel gets more doctrinal consideration than explicitly non-Christian formulations of religion is that it shares terminology and sources with more traditionally orthodox forms of Christianity, therefore care must be taken to discern differences in how Scripture is being interpreted to show how it relates to a consistently applied holistic reading of the text.

      I appreciate you concerns about the bullet points and am glad that your personal experience with a form of the prosperity gospel seems to have been spiritually and economically fulfilling. I might recommend that you consider reading the first two posts in the series to see if your definition of the prosperity gospel and mine match, this might be helpful since some of the concerns that you raise were addressed there specifically.

      In addition, there are some excellent resources referenced in the previous posts on the theology and history of the Word of Faith movement that might be helpful in pointing out some of the subtle, but significant differences between biblical Christianity and the prosperity gospel.

      Again, thank you for taking the time to respond.

  • Jim Price

    What I find disturbing about the prosperity gospel is how magical they make it seem. It never seems to be tied in with developing market place skills are in at succeeding in production type skills. To often, it is give to my ministry and God will give back to you, ten even one hundred times more that you give. In short they try to obligate God to be their stock broker and even suggest how large the dividend should be.

    • Spence Spencer

      Mr. Price, thanks for taking the time to comment. You have put your finger on the difficulty.

    • michele

      Yes, these pastors sound like salesman giving a sales pitch..The properity doctrine prospers no one but the pastors..

  • Britton Brown

    Im quite sure there will be many people who will take offense to your article, but perhaps they arent thinking this through? First off, if you read this through the lense of love, its obvious that God isnt going to or would want us to measure our love, faith and acceptance to worldly wealth or ones ability to walk in health. Honestly, I’ve unfortunately seen and fought for lives who have been lost due to illness or accidents that put my life to shame, but does that mean I am loved more by God or have more faith?
    Just recently, I had received a call from an individual from England who was struggling with a Christian business group he had started, seems that like many others who had gone down the same path, he too was dealing with the issue of keeping non-Christian successful entrepreneurs from leaving. After a couple of minutes of listening to him talk about his concerns and issues I got to explain the problem he was dealing with.
    You see, the most common issue business (group) group leaders run into when they start their groups is; 1. Everyone from church who is suffering financially immediately wants to be part of it. 2. There are far less successful entrepreneurs and business professionals than there are struggling professionals and 3. When you put a group of religious people in a room that fit the descriptions of 1 and 2 and invite truly financially successful professionals in the same room you will always get the same result. Whats the result you might be asking? Simple, successful people will spot the successful as well as the unsuccessful people every time. It doesnt take but a few minutes for them to realize that spending time with poverty minded people will bring them down and with an unequal balance of “like minded” people in the room and lets not forget the religious mindset that most have bringing a spirit of condemnation and even worse the “overly spiritual” individuals that dont make any sense to an unbeliever, you end up with a recipe for disaster.
    So here’s my point in writing all that…the truth is the prosperity message as wonderful as it seems has turned poverty minded people into some of the laziest people on the earth and until we deal with that issue, all the prosperity and success in the world would actually be the worst possible thing to happen to a person.
    You know, successful people can be good and they can be bad and the same goes for the poor, and middle class. So why do we allow financial prosperity dictate our relationship with God? It really doesnt make any sense to me.
    The bottom line is love, not wealth or health is the great fortune we should seek and when we do an article such as this will not be offensive one bit, but rather will excite you to share the Good News, which is Gods not mad at you, nor does He play any favorites. Rich or poor, He loves us all!
    Lastly, is it possible that your offense is offensive to the one your supposed to be pleasing? Just saying. So lets be open about the truth that is being shared and embrace the conviction that we might actually be feeling, rather than lashing out as some might do.