Last week, the world was rocked when Joel Osteen’s church suffered a loss of $600,000 of its weekly “tithes and offerings.” To the average church, a loss of $600,000 would be its entire endowment. Heck, many churches don’t have $600,000 and if they do, they have an influx of that kind on a given Sunday. Later that day, news stories revealed that Osteen insures his weekly offering, and so while a loss of this kind is dramatic, morally horrible – lets face it, theft is morally reprehensible, and no one should steal (see the 10 commandments please if you need any further justification) from anyone, even Joel Osteen – insuring your offering seems a bit much to me, and seems to be sending some kind of message to the larger world that your emphasis is not on the Gospel, but instead on the value of your bank account.
If you aren’t aware of Joel Osteen – i.e. if you have been living under a rock for the last few decades, or if you don’t do church – he is a televangelist, “author” and the senior “pastor” (I put author and pastor in quotations for a reason) of Lakewood Church, which is the largest church in the US (located in Texas). His preaching focuses more on the “Goodness of God and living an obedient life, a belief that material gain is a reward for pious living, and prosperity theology.” His books focus “Improving your life”and “living to your full potential.” If you put these two things together, he believes that God wants us to succeed and be prosperous and blessed, and not suffer. Hmm. Interesting theology there – This is called the Prosperity Gospel, for better or for worse.
The Prosperity Gospel first came to prominence in the US in the 1950s in the non-denominational movement, predominantly through healing revivals, and grew to great strength in the 1980s with televangelism. The belief is such that it is the will of God for Christians that faith, positive speech and donations to Christian ministries, charities and churches will be rewarded in material wealth (usually based on non-traditional interpretations of the Bible, particularly the Book of Malachi). Adherents to the Prosperity Gospel believe that because mankind is created in the image of God, we therefore have been given power and domain over all creation – including their souls and material beings. Further, illness and poverty are cast as punishment and curses which can only be broken by proper faith and righteous acts.
Wealth is interpreted as a blessing directly from God, obtained through a spiritual law of positive confession, visualization and donations. The Bible is viewed a faith contract between humanity and God, and it is in the scriptures that prosperity is promised to all those who are faithful and who claim whatever they desire from God, simply by speaking it.
Scripture used to justify the prosperity gospel:
-Malachi 3:10 “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.”
-Matthew 25:14-30 The Parable of the Five Talents
-Yes, this one is actually about Talents, or $$$…
-John 10:10 “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”
-Does this have anything to do with wealth? The NRSV concludes that this actually is Christ talking about his ministry on earth for humanity to have life abundantly, NOT WEALTH!
-Philippians 4:19 “And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”
-3 John 2:1 “Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, just as it is well with your soul.”
-This one is about health…not wealth! But some may think health is wealth…a weird connection?
Services where churches support and “preach” the prosperity gospel frequently include two speeches, one that focuses on giving and prosperity (with a focus on the biblical tenet of tithes and offerings), and the other follows the offering. The “pastor” gives a special blessing over the money being donated, and often instructs the worshippers to hold donations over their heads.
Interestingly enough, the popularity of this “gospel” is rather spread out – it is popular among a wide variety of ethnicities, races, socioeconomic classes (not so much, however, among the upper class, who tend to prefer Mainline denominations); those aligned with this interpretation of scripture pride themselves on their involvement in certain social programs, particularly in aiding people who find themselves “confined by the social welfare system.”(Not my words, actually those of Hanna Rosin, from her article in The Atlantic from December 2009 on “Did Christianity Cause the Crash.”) Hanna Rosin claims that this so-called strain of Christianity is to blame partially for the housing market crash, as it preaches a gospel of financial irresponsibility, living beyond one’s means, and ultimately, unwise choices, leading to foreclosure, bankruptcy and poverty, not extraordinary God-promised affluence as these pastors promise.
The most troubling aspect of this theology is its inclination to lead believers down the path of self-fulfillment. Instead of the desire to turn outward with one’s resources and the Gospel, the central “message” of this movement seems to be turning inward, a very self-involved, idealistic and self-important reading of the gospel. Success is measured in dollar signs and societal stature, not in one’s relationship with God and family, how happy one is in life, and how well one is doing in one’s relationship with others. This, to me, seems rather utopian, distorted, and a good example of precisely what is wrong with US culture and society today. It goes without saying that American culture has become materialistic and more focused on success and wealth, rather than on the bettering of one’s relationships – with family, friends, neighbors, and God. The Prosperity Gospel seems to only further perpetuate this type of materialistic, “me before you, my wealth before your value” attitude. God provides more value than simply money, but a value that is worth far more than gold, and each of the scripture passages quoted above indicate that. Perhaps my seminary education is coming through, or perhaps it is my desire to see that there is more to life than money – life, relationships, health and doing good for others are qualities that God values far more and will reward humans with before He will reward His creation with money. Look at any passage from Proverbs or Ecclesiastes.
Money is necessary to live, there is no doubt about that. But I wouldn’t jump off the cliff the way that these so called “pastors”- people who claim to be preaching the grace-filled, love abundant Good News of Jesus Christ, but are only looking to take your money for themselves – have. This isn’t the Good News of Jesus Christ, it is just a good marketing scheme…a dang good one at that.
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