Prosperity Gospel: Pastor Decries "Prosperity-Pimping"
Richard Bartholomew printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sat Sep 16, 2006 at 05:09:37 PM EST
Several recent pieces of journalism have highlighted the Prosperity Gospel, the doctrine that Christians who give generously to their pastors will enjoy blessings of material wealth. The movement has always been controversial among conservative Christians, with many claiming that the teaching is at best shallow and at worst heretical. Yet a watered-down version often dubbed "Prosperity Lite" has proven increasingly successful in recent years, and the subject has now reached the cover of Time.
As the magazine explains:
Of the four biggest megachurches in the country, three--[Joel] Osteen's Lakewood in Houston; T.D. Jakes' Potter's House in south Dallas; and Creflo Dollar's World Changers near Atlanta--are Prosperity or Prosperity Lite pulpits (although Jakes' ministry has many more facets). While they don't exclusively teach that God's riches want to be in believers' wallets, it is a key part of their doctrine. And propelled by Osteen's 4 million--selling book, Your Best Life Now, the belief has swept beyond its Pentecostal base into more buttoned-down evangelical churches, and even into congregations in the more liberal Mainline. It is taught in hundreds of non-Pentecostal Bible studies. One Pennsylvania Lutheran pastor even made it the basis for a sermon series for Lent, when Christians usually meditate on why Jesus was having His Worst Life Then.
The article also includes quotes from critics, most notably Rick Warren:
"This idea that God wants everybody to be wealthy?", Warren snorts. "There is a word for that: baloney. It's creating a false idol. You don't measure your self-worth by your net worth. I can show you millions of faithful followers of Christ who live in poverty. Why isn't everyone in the church a millionaire?"

Meanwhile, Christianity Today spots an even sterner rebuke, from Pastor Frederick Haynes at the National Baptist Convention:

Black communities are suffering, while this prosperity-pimping gospel is emotionally charging people who are watching their communities just literally dissolve.

The Prosperity Gospel, also known as the "Word of Faith" or the "Faith Gospel", is perhaps the hardest segment of the Christian right to take seriously. The scandals of 1987 immediately come to mind, and controversies arising from the movement continue to this day - Matthew Ashimolowo, the pastor of one of the UK's largest megachurches, recently found himself severely criticised by the Charities Commission for his very generous remuneration and luxurious lifestyle. For an outsider, it's often very difficult to see anything beyond the ridiculous and tacky. Five years ago I visited a church in London to see Mike Murdock, one of its best-known exponents. At one point Murdock had us holding our wallets in the air to call down God's blessing onto them - a nice technique for getting them out of our pockets. He also told a remarkable story about how he was once visited by a young couple in need of financial help. They told Murdock that they had recently bought a house from an old lady, agreeing to pay her a certain sum every month until she died. Sure enough, soon after praying for a financial blessing, the old lady went to her reward!

Murdock's worldview may appear crass, but the movement's concern with this-worldly results is not in itself weird as a form of religiosity - after all, traditional religions often have a strong practical component, and Japan has produced Soka Gakkai, a kind of Buddhist prosperity teaching. Prosperity preachers may appear to live lavishly - but mainstream church leaders also usually enjoy fine vestments and very comfortable circumstances, albeit in ways that most of us find more tasteful.

The Time article acknowledges that in the case of TD Jakes, his ministry "has many more facets" than just prosperity, and that is probably true of many other ministers. Milmon Harrison's recent book Righteous Riches argues that among African American Christians the movement is part of a tradition which sees churches attending to material, as well as spiritual, needs. Prosperity preachers often offer financial seminars, as well as motivational speeches that apparently inspire and empower large congregations. My old university teacher Paul Gifford has looked at the movement as it appears in Africa, and contrasted the different ways that "success" becomes the focus for some African pastors. In African Christianity: Its Public Role (1998), Gifford compares Nicholas Duncan-Williams with Mensa Otabil, two prominent Ghanaian church leaders (81):

Otabil's message is one of success: 'Every problem is temporary, every problem can be solved. [...] God did not create you with failure in mind, but with success.' But his is a different path to success. For Duncan-Williams success is achieved inexorably through the immutable laws of sowing and reaping. For Otabil it is reached through self-confidence, pride, determination, motivation, discipline, application, courage - and by skills and techniques that Otabil sets out to teach.

Gifford also traces a development in Otabil's political thinking (239)

As late as 1992 he could write: 'The world, particularly the part called "the third world", is looking for a better economic system. All they have to do is learn God's system for the whole world to prosper.' 'God's System' here is obviously the laws of sowing and reaping that the Faith Gospel adovates.

However (240-41):

...But by mid-1994, all this had changed...time and time again he stressed 'structures'...having a 'Christian president' means nothing of itself.

Otabil had come to see Africa's poverty in terms of economics and politics, rather than as the result of spiritual forces.

In an earlier book (Christianity and Politics in Doe's Liberia, 1993), Gifford outlined the political context for Prosperity teaching (185-186:

The media have shown Americans the incredible deprivation of so much of the world. There are many, including some influential Christians, who claim that there is something wrong with the world's economic system and call for some radical restructuring. The gospel of prosperity meets this challenge. No one need feel guilty about wealth.

Gifford discussed a Prosperity seminar given in Harare by the US evangelist Kenneth Copeland (186-7):

Socio-economic analysis meant nothing to him...Political systems, asserted Copeland, do not matter; God's laws of prosperity 'work under any system of government'. Copeland expressly stated, 'I do not have any political views...'

Summarizing the ramifications of his teachings:

...Sickness, poverty, hunger were not political issues - according to this gospel, there were no political issues. Hunger and poverty had nothing to do with mismanagement, corruption and the incompetence of the government. Lack of money was not an issue, because a Christian should live beyond his means...Unbelievers would naturally be in want; God can bless only what belongs to him.

Gifford also complained about the effect of affluent white preachers like Copeland flaunting their wealth in situations of dire African poverty.

Meanwhile, Prosperity is apparently making inroads in a most unlikely location: in 2003 it was reported that the Swedish Prosperity preacher Ulf Ekman was assisting with the establishment of an underground church in Kabul.

By the way, for more on Ulk Ekman, and for general background to the movement, see The Globalisation of Charismatic Christianity, by anthropologist Simon Coleman.

by Richard Bartholomew on Sat Sep 16, 2006 at 05:18:20 PM EST
I think religious observations centered around wealth accumulation probably predate written historical record.

You mentioned the Soka-Gakkai : I studied an American Sokka Gakai group, in Boston, in the mid 1980's. In classic Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, adherents were supposed to chant, in Buddhist temples,  before a hand written copy of a passage from the Lotus Sutra. Since a strict ritual surrounded the production of new copies of the required passage, this placed a certain limit on the speed at which the sect could expand. So, the American Soka Gakkai ( before the Soka Gakkai and Nichiren Shoshu split apart )  took to mass-producing copies of the passage - a practice that scandalized the traditional Nichiren Shoshu priesthood.

I briefly joined  Soka Gakkai to get a sense of the cult, and the process featured a mass induction of about seventy five new members, each of whom received a tiny mass-produced scroll with the proper Lotus Sutra passage. I didn't understand the need to treat my new scroll with reverence and hadn't brought a proper receptacle ( the cult sold expensive wooden cabinets for the scrolls ) and an enclosure had to be found on short notice. My sponsor looked around and found a container that was strangely appropriate : a Niemann Marcus box.

That  touch was quite appropriate, it seemed to me, to the character of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism ( as manifested in the US )  :  for a cult that featured the practice of attempting to manifest one's wordly desires through chanting, what better container for the apparent catalyst of the wealth accumulation magic, the Lotus Sutra passage scroll used by the cult, than a Niemann Marcus box ?

The Wikipedia writeup on Soka Gakkai seems to bear fairly little relationship to my actual experience of a local American Soka Gakkai group in which the main emphasis was - quite literally - on chanting as a means to cause one's desires to be manifested. Manifested desires were called "blessings" and my sponsor explained to me, after having scratched up a Niemann Marcus box in which to put my new Lotus Sutra scroll :

"See, there you go : a blessing ALREADY !"

In retrospect I wonder if American Soka Gakkai might have been at the time a sort of nascent sub-cult based on a general cultural inability of Americans to comprehend the basic tenets of Buddhism involving the renunciation of desire. The inversion of the tenets of Buddhism was almost total - what I studied was, in essence, a desire cult.

by Bruce Wilson on Sun Sep 17, 2006 at 12:08:45 PM EST

It's interesting you mention that, partly because--of all things--Third Wave originator and "name it and claim it" promoter David Yonggi Cho (nee Paul Yonggi Cho) is actually suspected of cribbing from Soka Gakkai at points:

(from an article I have written concerning disturbing connections between Rick Warren and Cho)

Cho is the inventor of possibly one of the most spiritually abusive tactics ever devised--the "cell church" or "shepherding group", which has been the primary method in which his church has grown exponentially. (Of note, it was originally invented as a way to keep control over the huge congregation; it is now being used to "seed" dominionist movements in churches to take over from within, "cuckoo style".)  Cho is also, very much, a promoter of dominion theology and particularly "name it and claim it"; Cho has had links with the Assemblies frontgroup Full Gospel Businessmen's Fellowship International which has historically been a major force in promotion of dominionism both here and abroad, and a profile at Rick Ross Institute notes that he has bastardised concepts from traditional Korean shamanism in almost identical fashion to that of the Moonies. He has also, by his own admission, used tactics based on those used by Soka Gakkai--a "Buddhist-based" highly abusive coercive religious group that is almost universally considered cultic and possibly violated law in obtaining confidential NCIC records for purposes of "dead-agenting" critics and which uses prayers as a form of cursing mainstream Buddhist leaders in Japan, has in general engaged in extremely unethical behaviour and whose members have even literally attempted to torch the temples of mainstream Buddhist churches.

Of disturbing note, Cho is also now apparently the defacto leader of the Assemblies of God worldwide--which I find particularly disturbing in my case, seeing as I am a walkaway from the first documented church in the US where he spread this toxic waste to.

by dogemperor on Sun Sep 17, 2006 at 08:28:49 PM EST

It's a good thing you're making people more aware of the spread of "Prosperity Gospel" teachings, which may be better known in their earlier incarinations as "Name it and Claim It".

As an escapee from a dominionist church that heavily promoted "Name it and Claim it", it's a subject I have an unfortunate amount of familiarity in.  It's actually quite disturbing that this stuff is spreading, because--and this is something that has not been covered to a great extent--it is literally a side-branch of dominionist theology, and is often a "gateway" to promotion of frank political dominionism and some of the scariest facets of "spiritual warfare" theology.

Both "name it and claim it" and "spiritual warfare" groups (including groups promoting some of the most dangerous tactics, tactics which are now known to be common across spiritually abusive groups) are ultimately derived from dominion theology in the pente and neopentecostal movements.  Essentially, in the core theology of these groups, the "saved" are in fact the Elect, are considered ubermensch, are considered at the very least at the very right hand of God (and in some cases are even elevated to the position of Jesus, or just below him), and as such are seen as superior to the rest of us.

Dominion theology explicitly teaches that Satan "stole dominion" of the land and all things (including physical property and territory) from the Elect, that they are the first group to "get it right" since the time of Christ, and that they are Elect for the specific purpose of being a sort of divine army to reclaim the planet for God (or at least reclaim as much as possible before the Rapture hits, so there can be a really big army at the End of Days to kick Satan's ass; and yes, they DO pretty much put it in those terms).  In the political realm, this has led to the direct growth of dominionism as a political movement, as well as a social movement that tends towards paramilitary imagery including borderline terrorism and recruitment and training of children.

Where "name it and claim it" fits into this is simple--as they are considered "God's elect", and (so it is taught in these groups) God wouldn't deny his children anything, pretty much the world's riches are theirs to claim--but they must specifically claim dominion over things, are taught that poverty is caused by "Satan stealing your blessing", and followers are often encouraged to give massive "seed faith offerings" to basically "show God how much you claim this".

"Name it and claim it" is also heavily connected with the concept of "deliverance ministry"--the idea that pretty much ANYTHING can be possessed by devils and can cause you to be possessed (and be permanently damned).  The failure of "name it and claim it" to work is often boiled down to either objects (often innocuous objects) or associations with persons "opening doorways for Satan in your life", or (often) on "generational curses" resulting from the misdeeds of ancestors often seven generations removed (often every bit as innocent as the things "opening doorways for Satan"--like Mom having played with Cabbage Patch Kids, or Grandma having read a horoscope or had a Tarot card reading, or great-great-great-great-Grandfather having been born in a pre-Christian society in his homeland and thus following traditional religious beliefs).  This leads to a frightening amount of control over the lives of members--some of which are identical to those in Scientology in levels of coercion.  In something that should scare the readers, Bill Gothard, the person behind "Character Training Institute", is one of the major promoters of this branch of "name it and claim it" including the bizarre claim that Cabbage Patch Dolls were "opening doorways for Satan".

It is probably not coincidence that "name it and claim it" is almost consistently associated with abusive, coercive tactics--enough to the point that some "name it and claim it" groups are almost universally considered de facto "Bible-based cults".  A look at the listings of groups of concern at Rick Ross Institute and at Steve Hassan's Freedom of Mind Institute list most of the "Bible-based" groups listed as being "name it and claim it" groups; in fact, one of the "name it and claim it" preachers listed on Ross's site (Paul Yonggi Cho, pastor of Yoido Full Gospel Church in South Korea--the largest single church congregation worldwide, claiming 900,000 members (largely through a large network of "satellite" churches throughout South Korea) and also the head of the World Conference for the Assemblies of God) pretty much started one of the most disturbing movements in dominionism--the "Third Wave" movement, otherwise known as "Brownsville" or "Toronto" revivals (there are churches, including the very church I escaped from, that embraced "Brownsville Madness" many decades previously to Brownsville, and the mess originated with Yoido Full Gospel).  

One of the really disturbing aspects re Cho is his known close association with none other than Rick Warren of "Purpose Driven Life" fame.  Warren has spoken positively on Cho even though the latter is largely responsible for the spread of "Spiritual Warfare" theology throughout the Assemblies of God and elsewhere.  As noted before, I'm also a survivor of a church that was one of Cho's early "experiments" in seeding "Brownsville Madness".

Of course, part of the "name it and claim it" and dominion-theology madness extends explicitly to "naming and claiming" the government as well, and this includes literally cursing people in the name of Christ, the teaching of immoral, harassing, and potentially even illegal tactics to "name and claim" specific targets or groups of people for conversion, making "territorial pissings" with Wesson oil on the seats of every chair in the Senate chambers in an attempt to "name and claim" the entire Senate of the United States, and promotion of pyramid schemes which are universally regarded as business cults and which heavily promote "name it and claim it" (further details, for those who want the full story, is at Merchants of Deception).

This is also, increasingly and frighteningly, also applied to mainstream Christian churches; dominionists deliberately set up "cell churches" in mainstream Christian congregations as a method of "naming and claiming".

And--sadly--"name it and claim it" is actually a surprisingly large factor in religiously motivated child abuse, in that the horrific abuse these kids suffer is justified as both a method of "naming and claiming" the souls of these kids--or, occasionally, because it's claimed the kids are "opening doorways for Satan".  It's also a major impetus for "homeschool" correspondence schooling of dominionists' kids, including indoctrination of kids by using dominionist curricula packages that fail to meet basic standards and even glorify  slavery of non-dominionists.  In cases where schools aren't "toeing the line enough", dominionist groups have actually led purges of already-hardline-dominionist colleges.

Another area where "name it and claim it" (or, more specifically, the fear that if one goes to the wrong business, it will "open a doorway for Satan" and lend all one's "naming and claiming" and seed-faith offerings to naught) is the promotion of dominionist operated "Shepherd's Pages" and other directories of specifically dominionist friendly businesses.  (This is why megachurches are doing things like setting up their own daycare centers, banking facilities, and so on--it's their way of "naming and claiming" those businesses, as well as offering dominionist alternatives so that people won't be "contaminated" by the outside.)  It's also a non-negligible force behind the deliberate misuse of corporate charity-affinity programs for funding of dominionist groups (this is a way of "naming and claiming" those businesses), as well as the faith-based coercion recently banned in Iowa as well as in the United Kingdom.

In some of the "name it and claim it" groups, especially those close to the origins of "name it and claim it", it even goes so far as to claim that people in opposition to the dominionists are the literal children of Satan and are "trying to steal their blessing--a theology that, in its more explicitly racist form, led directly to Christian Identity.  (This isn't too surprising--William Branham, the person who pretty much invented much of the original theology behind "Name it and claim it" in the 30's, was a known racist and Klansman and pretty much invented the "serpent seed" theology that Christian Identity bases its claims of RaHoWa (Racial Holy War) on--and what the Third Wavers and other proponents of "spiritual warfare" use as their justification for dominionism and the extremely unethical tactics used.)

I myself dealt with almost all the consequences--including the complex PTSD, the fact I grew up in borderline poverty because half our family's income was going to the church (at one point over half, at a time when we had to charge groceries at salvage stores because those were the only places that accepted credit at the time--my family literally HAD no money to spend after bills, often had to put bills off because of my mother pretty much giving all our money to the dominionist pit I escaped as "seed faith offerings", and my father and mother frequently fought in rows where my mother literally would accuse my father of "trying to steal God's blessing from her"; at the same time, she'd also accuse me of being demon-possessed because I would ask her why she needed the TV to blare at 1am and 5am on school nights to "pray" and read the Bible, and she would curse my sister for daring to treat gay men like human beings), the panic attacks I now get hearing dominionist codewords spoken by the President of the US and a non-negligible portion of Congress, the whole nine yards. :P

Needless to say, I have enough experience to last me the next six lifetimes (if not more) on why this is Bad, Bad News. :P

by dogemperor on Sun Sep 17, 2006 at 08:22:01 PM EST

Thanks for pointing out these very interesting links. Cho is certainly someone whom we ought to keep a very close eye on - but did he invent cell churches? I thought the origins of those were with underground Chinese house churches.

By the way, I've just remembered Mike Murdock's explanation as to why we should give money to him, rather than to some charity: "you give down for health, and up for wealth".

by Richard Bartholomew on Mon Sep 18, 2006 at 05:25:35 AM EST

Cho was certainly one of the influential ones in the use of "cell churches" and coercive shepherding techniques in general--he started his congregation in 1954.  (This would be around the time that "house churches" started in China after being driven underground by the Communists, but the concept of a "house church" is actually a little different than cell-churches in the dominionist community in practice.)

by dogemperor on Mon Sep 18, 2006 at 09:05:34 AM EST

I've belatedly remembered Copeland's links with Shepherding, as described in the book Ungodly Fear (by Stepen Parsons, a Church of England vicar) (218):
Shepherding teaching had always attracted fierce criticism from its rivals...Bob Mumford, a shepherding leader, wrote, in defending the Faith [i.e. Prosperity] Movement, and Kenneth Copeland in particular, 'What they have gone through in teaching the faith message is so analogous to what we have experienced that it's brought a certain sense of camaraderie.' This coming together of Faith leaders with those from the shepherding movement became a reality at the meeting of the Network of Christian Ministries in 1985. Kenneth Copeland even called for a merger of the two revelations given to the Faith and shepherding movements...The Network code of ethics required that members refrain from criticizing one another

The source for all this is Mary Alice Chrnalogar's Twisted Scriptures, which I don't have a copy of.

by Richard Bartholomew on Mon Sep 18, 2006 at 06:01:02 AM EST
A surprising number of the same people who promote "name it and claim it" have also been involved in the coercive cell church/shepherding movements--again, these are primarily used as methods of control (between members of a cell basically playing "Big Brother" and topdown control from "shepherds"--the setup in dominionist shepherding groups is very much like a pyramid scheme's setup) and also as a specific method of infiltration of mainstream congregations (as an infiltrator cell is often disguised in a mainstream church as a "renewal or revival" or "charismatic" group--the IRD in particular has made good use of the "infiltrate and convert from within" tack).

by dogemperor on Mon Sep 18, 2006 at 09:09:04 AM EST

Actually, I've done a diary piece on just this subject already (the use of cell groups/shepherding groups to split mainstream congregations):

Divide and Conquer: Cell Churches and Hijacks

For what it's worth, Sara Diamond also touches on this subject in "Spiritual Warfare".

(And in the case of the particular churches in question using the breeding of "cells" as a divide-and-conquer tactic, the shepherding movement and "cell church" movement have been largely one and the same, with "cell churches" usually referring to "planted" congregations within mainstream churches or to satellite congregations and "home meetings" affiliated with a church, with "shepherding" being the method of control over the members in each.)

by dogemperor on Mon Sep 18, 2006 at 02:54:09 PM EST

It's cheaper and probably has just as much chance of making me rich. I feel bad for folks like Dogemporer who had this madness forced on them as children, but any adult who's stupid enough to fall for this, deserves to be ripped off. I guess Barnum was right, except that he most likely vastly underestimated the number of suckers.

by Dave on Mon Sep 18, 2006 at 09:32:45 PM EST

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