We sometimes re-imagine Christ to suit our desires and evolving social attitudes, but when we do so it is at great risk. Although the Gospel portrays a loving teacher who is patient and gentle with those of us who are seeking God, asking for His guidance, or who may have been innocently misled, the Gospel portrays Christ as an authoritative, fierce, and unyielding disciplinarian when faced with religious hypocrites and false teachers.
I watched a documentary this week entitled, “American Gospel: Christ Alone,” directed by Brandon Kimber (2019). Actually, I watched it twice. The first time I watched in anger as the Word of Faith sermon (also called the “prosperity gospel”) distorted Christ’s teachings to exploit the American dream and led people further away from Christ. It capitalizes on people’s desire for health and material wealth – both in the USA and abroad, including in impoverished areas. The second time I watched it, however, I watched with hope. I am relieved that this Goliath money machine is being challenged by other Christians, including many Christian evangelists – and as I read later, the Vatican. Tim Challies writes, “The great strength of the film is that it’s not only a negative examination of the Word of Faith movement, but also a very positive and helpful examination of Biblical truth.”
The documentary starts summarizing what Christ actually teaches. That is, Christ teaches that He died for our sins so that we might have eternal life. It was an act of love by our God to sacrifice His Son so that we might live. It was necessary because we are by nature sinners and could never, ever, on our own, be good enough — or do enough good works — to escape damnation. But because of God’s mercy and love for us, when we trust in Christ as our Lord and Savior, we can be forgiven our sins. It is our faith in Christ that saves us, not our good works and definitely not our absence of sin. However, because of God’s love, mercy, and our faith in Christ, He will change our hearts. We can have a meaningful relationship with God, and we can find happiness in doing God’s will. In other words, we do not earn or deserve God’s forgiveness; it is given out of God’s love and mercy for us through Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, what passes for Christianity in “prosperity gospel” theology is not that. It has twisted Christian theology to wrongfully teach that if people have enough faith in God, God will bless them with health and prosperity. Their faith is measured by how much money people are willing to give its preachers and religious organizations. Rather than treating the Gospel as it actually is, prosperity theology emphasizes “feel good” perspectives, personal empowerment through positive words, “bumper sticker platitudes,” personal affirmations based on one’s material desires, and a compass set to worldly gains and comforts. A study published in Psychology of Religion and Spiritualityconcluded that its message leads people into “thinking God wants you to be wealthy, prosperous and donate money to the church”; it “sort of primes people to want to part with their money by making them excited and optimistic.” (“Study: The Psychological Effects of the Prosperity Gospel,” ChurchLeaders, by Megan Briggs, 2018)
Inaccurately, “prosperity gospel” teaches “that material prosperity – financial prosperity as well as success in business and personal life – should be expected as evidence of God’s favor.” (Emphasis added, quote from: Sunday Thought – The Epitome of “Prosperity Christianity,”by Peter Grandich, June 2, 2019) Excerpts from prosperity gospel sermons are prevalent throughout the film, preaching that faith – along with believers’ monetary donations — can make you healthy and wealthy. If believers do not heal, are not given good health, or are not given wealth, then the reasoning goes that their faith simply wasn’t strong enough.
What was most troubling to me besides the misrepresentation of God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Gospel, was the entertainment-driven, money-oriented, “game show” atmosphere of many of the sermons. The faith healing segments were especially difficult to watch, as desperate people are shown in the background cradling crippled, ill or dying children — intentionally ignored or kept away by security personnel, leaving them disheartened, uncomforted, unhealed – and not hearing the real message of Jesus.
When watching the documentary, “we cannot help but feel both sadness and righteous anger – Christ’s own anger. The money-changers are still in the temple, still making God’s name a mockery,” concluded Owen Strachen. (‘American Gospel’ Blows a Hole in the Prosperity Gospel, by theologian and author, Owen Strachen, The Gospel Coalition, January 17, 2019) Strachen continues: “(A Prosperity Gospel ministry) is an exact parallel of what Jesus did not do. He did not enter the ministry to make money. He did not work in the name of God to be popular and liked. He did not heal those who could do anything for him. Rather, he came to the physically and spiritually poor and made eucatastrophes of them all (eucatastrophes are people who avoid a bad destiny) – not only addressing their bodies, but in many cases, saving their souls. He was not in it for himself; he was in it for the Father’s greater glory and the sinner’s true salvation. Sadly, Jesus’ name is invoked by ‘faith healers’… who don’t reflect him.” (The definition of eucatastrophes in parenthesis is my own.)
In many ways, the prosperity gospel movement resembles some of the greed sects that sought to hijack the early Christian Church, which the apostles identified as dangerous false teachings and urged Christians to avoid. In many ways, the prosperity gospel preachers may resemble the false teachers Jesus identified for the benefit of their victims and potential victims. For example, Jesus publicly censured religious leaders of His day who He believed were hypocrites. Jesus criticized them, “Everything they do is done for show. They act holy by wearing on their arms little prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and by lengthening the memorial fringes of their robes. And how they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the reserved pews in the synagogue! How they enjoy the deference paid them on the streets and to be called ‘Rabbi’ and ‘Master’! Don’t ever let anyone call you that. For only God is your Rabbi and all of you are on the same level, as brothers. And don’t address anyone here on earth as ‘Father,’ for only God in heaven should be addressed like that. And don’t be called ‘Master,’ for only one is your master, even the Messiah. ‘The more lowly your service to others, the greater you are. To be the greatest, be a servant. But those who think themselves great shall be disappointed and humbled; and those who humble themselves shall be exalted.” Matthew 23:5-12.
The fact is, my understanding of the Gospel is that Christ never promises that any believer will be free from illness and suffering in this world. Some believers will have health and not suffer, but others will fall ill and will suffer. The fact that some Christians may be asked to persevere great suffering and persecution does not mean they are loved any more or less by Christ. Neither is it my understanding that Christ ever barters for salvation or obedience to God — nor promise that His followers will be liked or treated kindly, fairly, or justly in this world. The truth is, people do not always like what Christ says because His message does not conform to their desires or beliefs; they may feel threatened or challenged by it, and many others don’t want to hear it. But that doesn’t make it all right to dilute Christ’s message, to twist it around so it’s unintelligible, or to change it.
And Christ never promises believers material wealth or worldly success if they follow Him, despite what the prosperity gospel may say. To the contrary, Christ warns us against it. Jesus teaches, “Beware! Don’t always be wishing for what you don’t have. For real life and real living are not related to how rich we are.” (Luke 12:15) In direct contradiction to what the prosperity gospel teaches, Jesus cautions, “Don’t store up treasures here on earth where they can erode away or may be stolen, store them in heaven where they will never lose their value and are safe from thieves. If your profits are in heaven, your heart will be there too… You cannot serve two masters: God and money. For you will hate one and love the other, or else the other way around. So my counsel is: Don’t worry about “things” – food, drink, and clothes. For you already have life and a body – and they are far more important than what to eat and wear.” (Matthew 6:19-25)
I particularly like how Strachan sums up his feelings about America’s misdirected prosperity gospel: “The point is this: Let us be careful about which gospel we follow. Let us follow the true gospel, not the American one (referring to the prosperity gospel). Let us not believe in secular Christianity, which is what prosperity religion really offers. To this and every other counterfeit we offer not faith, but truth spoken in love—truth calibrated to destroy the lies of the Devil and to rescue the ones who are perishing.” (Parenthesis added by me.)
Image Copyright: Film, “American Gospel: Christ Alone,” 2019