How do you assess a prosperity gospel church?
The first nine years of my walk with Christ were spent in such an environment, followed by two years in theological rehab, which prepared me for the next six years of pastoring in the urban context. What’s become clear to me is that the nine marks of a healthy church provide a useful grid for assessing any church, including those that teach the prosperity gospel.
And what we find is that a prosperity gospel church is a purely anti-nine marks church.
Some of the examples in what follows are specific and may not identify with you the reader. Many however are universal and are propagated by preachers on the internet, radio, and television. Since the prosperity gospel movement is inter-denominational, the teachings expressed in this article are not to be associated with any one denomination within evangelical Christianity.
1. EXPOSITIONAL PREACHING
Preaching in prosperity gospel churches is far from expositional. Instead, the purpose of preaching is to motivate hearers to give financially, and you give to get. Preachers exploit the passages that deal with the sacrificial giving of tithes and offerings week in and week out. They instruct hearers to activate their faith by sowing a “faith seed,” thereby taping into God’s law of reciprocity and leading to their own financial breakthrough.
Isolated Old Testament passages are often used as examples of God's abundant reward for faith giving. One passage often used to manipulate hearers into giving more is Malachi 3:10. Prosperity preachers highlight two points from this passage. First, they tell hearers they are robbing God by not tithing. Second, they assure hearers that God wants them to test him by giving more, so that he can give them more.
But consider Malachi 3:10 in its proper context. The Israelites were robbing God by not giving enough food to the national storehouse that was used to feed the priests of Israel. So the priests were having to leave their priestly duties and take up farming to survive (see Neh. 13:10-13). God therefore exhorts Israel to test him by giving obediently. If they did, he would reward them as he did in the past (2 Chr. 31:7-10). The point of this entire passage concerns a historically specific episode in the life of Israel. Preaching it as a Christian sermon, however, requires more than transferring its commands and promises to Christians on a one-to-one basis. Yes, there are larger applications for the Christian concerning giving, but first one needs to account for the differences between old covenant and new, especially the nature of God’s promises to Israel and the manner in which they are fulfilled for the Christian in Christ.
A healthy church uses preaching to communicate God’s words to his people. It confronts the hearer with God’s truth and leads to conviction, encouragement, clarity, and a call to action. It also centers every text around the gospel in order to show the hearer how central and necessary Jesus Christ is to the believer living in obedience to God's word. A healthy church will inform believers that the results of holy living will not necessarily be financial gain but rather godliness that honors our Lord.
2. BIBLICAL THEOLOGY
Prosperity gospel theology rests upon the foundational error that man shares a form of deity with God, such that our words carry the same creative power as God’s words. Psalm 82:6, Proverbs 18:20-21, and Romans 4:17 are popular proof texts used to support this falsehood. It is often said that man is a “lower-case god” and possesses the power to demonstrate deity by speaking things into existence, creating and controlling our destiny with words, and even mandating a frustrated and limited God to act on our behalf for our benefit.
But none of these proof texts support these prosperity teachings. In Psalm 82:6, the Psalmist is crying out to God regarding the immoral judges who were governing the nation of Israel. God speaks directly to the erring judges by addressing them as “gods” to highlight the fact they were judging the nation in his place. They were to use his word as their standard of judgment. In the very next verse God reminds them they are not eternal beings. Instead they are mere men who have failed to live and judge righteously. This passage is not elevating man to a demigod status. Neither is it providing man with the ability to act with sovereign authority. Instead, the only true and living God is judging the immoral actions of these judges.
Proverbs 18:20-21 is a principle, not a promise, and it outlines two truths. The first is that our words do not dictate our destiny; rather, they display the conditions of our heart. Secondly, there are times when our words will cause us to endure consequences. This passage does not promise us the power to declare the length of our life. Neither does it pronounce God powerlessness to save us if we curse ourselves to death, as some prosperity teachers have taught.
In Romans 4:17 Paul teaches that God justified Abraham and declared him the father of nations while Abraham was still childless. This passage has nothing to do with saints speaking into existence more money, job promotions, or even the salvation of lost loved ones. This passage is in fact championing the truth that God is the only one who can call things into existence.
A healthy church teaches its members sound doctrine that is rooted in Scriptures that are kept in context. Sound doctrine is healthy teaching that provides the hearer with the biblical nutrients needed to grow to maturity in Christ (2 Tim. 3:16-17). In order for a church to be healthy, they must teach the whole Bible, in the context of the whole Bible, and root all of their doctrinal convictions in the whole Bible, instead of pulling passages out of context (1 Tim. 1:5; Titus 2:1-10; 2 John 1-6).
3. THE GOSPEL
In many prosperity gospel churches the message of the gospel is identified with the material blessings of the Abrahamic covenant. Although Christ’s perfect life, death, burial, and resurrection are proclaimed, and salvation through Christ alone is championed, many prosperity gospel preachers say the evidence of a person’s belief in the gospel is whether they receive the blessings promised to Abraham by God (Gen. 12-15).
I’ve found this teaching leading people to one of two conclusions. If someone has prosperity and health, they conclude that they are saved because they’re enjoying the promises of Abraham. But if these blessings are not seen in the life of the believer, they don’t have enough faith. They’re in sin. They need to give more tithes. Or perhaps they have not fully trusted in Jesus Christ and need to become born again in order to receive the blessings of Abraham.
In contrast, healthy churches unashamedly proclaim the whole counsel of the biblical gospel. This includes the truth that we were created in God's image (Gen. 1:26-27), we once had open fellowship with God (Gen. 2:7-25), and yet because our first father Adam sinned all of humanity was separated both physically (Gen. 3:1-19) and spiritually (Rom. 5:12) from the holy and righteous God who created us. Since humanity has been separated from God because of sin, the penalty to atone for sin is the shedding of blood and death (Lev. 1:3-17). The beauty of the gospel is fact that Jesus Christ, who has eternally existed as God (John 1:1), became a man (John 1:14), lived a perfect life according to God’s law (Heb. 7:26), and shed his blood while dying in the place of sinners (Mark 10:45 and 2 Peter 2:24). Jesus was buried in a tomb for three days (Matt. 27:57-66) and on the third day rose from the grave (Matt. 28:1-8). Now he calls all people to repent of their sins and trust in him in order to be reconciled to God and receive eternal life (Jn. 3:16).
The biblical gospel does not promise that Christians will be wealthy and prosperous in this life in fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham. Instead, Christians are “blessed” in Abraham in that we receive the Spirit (Gal. 3:14), and we will receive not just land, but the entire new creation, in the age to come (Rom. 4:13, Rev. 21-22).
Conversion in a prosperity gospel church involves an uneasy mix of opposites: easy-believism and salvation by works. Prosperity preachers are known to teach a sinner is “saved” when they finish reciting the “sinners prayer.” After this simple salvation takes place, the new believer is to submit him or herself to the leadership and teachings of the church, tithe regularly, give offerings often, and strive to serve on a continual basis in ministry at the church. As long as a person does these things, he or she maintains salvation. But if one stops them for an elongated period of time, one can lose it. In order to advance this teaching, pastors have been known to use psychological and scriptural manipulation to get the members of the church to do various acts of service in the name of ministry to the Lord. Their service, he promises, will prevent them from “falling from grace” and losing their salvation.
Some prosperity gospel adherents burn out and become angry with their leaders. They begin to question the ministry’s methods and refuse to comply with its demands. I’ve watched pastors who sensed they were losing control of this type of person respond by claiming that the member is in rebellion, causing division, and on a trajectory to lose their salvation unless they repent and begin serving again. In these cases 1 Samuel 15:23was used as the proof text to point out the consequences of the person’s actions and to dissuade others from following. But this verse speaks of King Saul’s direct disobedience to a command of God, not a genuine believer who questions unbiblical teaching or church practices.
A healthy church lovingly teaches the biblical view of conversion. In the Bible we read that conversion takes place when the biblical gospel is preached (Rom. 1:16-17, 10:9-17) and the sinner repents of their sins and puts their trust in Jesus Christ (Acts 3:19; Rom. 3:21-26). Conversion happens when God the Holy Spirit causes the sinner who is dead in sin to become alive in Christ (John 3:3-8; Eph. 2:1-10). Biblical conversion puts the focus on repentance and belief in the work of Christ, not simply saying a prayer and serving to the point of exhaustion for fear of losing one’s salvation.
Prosperity gospel churches often teach evangelism must be coupled with a demonstration of signs and wonders. When these two elements are combined it is said that sinners will repent and believe in Jesus. I’ve heard people say in pre-evangelistic times of prayer that sinners will not repent unless they see physical evidence of the supernatural work of God the Holy Spirit as listed in Mark 16:15-16.
Since the inclusion of this passage in the original and oldest most trusted manuscripts is disputed, it is unwise to build one’s doctrinal stance on this passage alone. Further, mandating that people demonstrate the signs in this passage in order to be effective in evangelism is dangerous and manipulative.
Biblical evangelism is proclaiming the gospel and calling sinners to repentance. The gospel needs no upgrades, bells, or whistles in order to be effective (1 Cor. 15:1-4). The Bible is clear that the preached gospel is powerful to save sinners (Rom. 1:16, 10:17).
6. CHURCH MEMBERSHIP
Prosperity gospel churches often equate church membership with regular attendance, tithing, and service—with or without a formal commitment. People are often “grandfathered” into church membership if they do these things long enough. In one case I recall a person who attended the church for over two decades, received the benefits of membership, yet never formally joined the church. They felt no need to since they gave financially and served weekly. I’ve watched people in such circumstances live in open sin and avoid church discipline.
A healthy church presents church membership as a blessing and mandate for the believer. The blessing is that the church affirms the believer’s faith and builds the believer up in love (Eph. 4:11-16). The mandate is that Jesus requires Christians to submit to his authority by submitting to the church’s authority. You’re not truly a member of the body if you can simply detach at will.
7. CHURCH DISCIPLINE
I’ve witnessed church discipline in prosperity gospel churches land on one of two extremes. The first was an informal excommunication where the biblical protocol for church discipline was not followed (i.e., Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; 2 Cor. 2:6; 2 Thess. 3:6-15). The individuals said to be living in sin were “disfellowshipped” from the church in private only to be spoken of in public as those we were not have contact with because of their rebellion.
The second extreme was for leadership to completely ignore the sin of either another leader, popular member, or both. When this approach was used, the leaders who knew the person’s unrepentant habitual sin willfully refused to acknowledge and deal with it. Sadly, I witnessed leaders members who brought up the sin of other members with statements like, “God forgives and his love covers the multitudes of your sins,” and “only God can judge them.” In the case of sinning leaders remaining in ministry, it was said “the gifts of God come without repentance” a distortion of Romans 11:29. Prosperity preachers often use 1 Chronicles 16:22(“Touch not my anointed ones, do my prophets no harm!”) as a repellant for questions from members of their congregation. Sometimes prosperity gospel churches have been known to cover the sin of a leader by sending them on a sabbatical in place of practicing 1 Timothy 5:17-20.
Healthy churches embrace God’s desire for a pure, holy church. As they help their people grow in Christlikeness, they will shine like stars in the world (Eph. 4:11-32; Phil. 2:1-18). Healthy churches understand that leaders are not exempt from temptation, lapses of judgment, and sin. Healthy churches then teach and follow the biblical prescription for church discipline, including discipline of leaders (1 Tim. 5:17-20).
Discipleship in prosperity gospel churches often tends toward co-dependency with the pastor or another prominent church leader. The entry level of discipleship is known as the “armor-bearer” stage. An armor-bearer in Scripture was a person who carried the weapons of their leader and protected them (1 Sam. 14:6-7and 2 Sam. 18:15). But in prosperity gospel churches, armor-bearer has become an unofficial office. New converts who want to grow in their walk with God are placed in a cohort. This cohort is trained to serve the emotional, physical, and spiritual needs of the pastor or church leader. The pastor will often commission armor-bearers to engage in activities ranging from carrying his Bible to paying his bills, all in the name of “ministry.” In some extreme cases I’ve counseled ex-armor-bearers who were instructed to give the pastor massages after he preached, and even sexual favors.
If an armor-bearer sticks around long enough, they can earn a promotion that comes with a title, licensure to preach, and even ordination. Most often, the pastor does this to pad the stats of his ministry as many of these ordained men (and sometimes women) sit on the sidelines cheering the pastor on while he preaches. I’ve known some pastors to boast in having dozens of ordained men sit under them for decades. Rarely are these ordained ministers sent out to plant churches, revitalize dying churches, or engage in vocational ministry overseas. Sadly, in one instance I counseled someone who sat under a pastor for over fifteen years as an ordained minister and was never once instructed about the biblical qualifications of an elder.
A healthy church disciples its people to depend more on Jesus, not a pastor or church leader. Believers grow by deepening their knowledge of Jesus (2 Pet. 3:18), and, by the power of the Spirit, imitating Jesus (1 Cor. 4:16, 11:1; Eph. 5:1). Biblical disciples produce more biblical disciples, not dependents (2 Tim. 2:2; Titus 2:1-8).
9. CHURCH LEADERSHIP
Prosperity gospel preachers often receive undying support from their members because the people live vicariously through their pastor. If the pastor’s platform and bank account grow, the members of the flock celebrate as if the prosperity were their own. Some congregations want their pastor to have the newest top-of-the-line car, wear expensive name-brand clothing, and live in a large home in order that God’s blessings would trickle down to them. I was once told, “If my pastor is living large, he's paving the way for me and my family to live large.”
In many cases, the pastor is said to be God's voice to the congregation, and therefore has unquestioned authority. The leadership structure varies between a C.E.O. model and a monarchy. I’ve often seen others appointed as pastors or elders not based on biblical qualifications but because of their occupation and closeness to the pastor.
A healthy churches champions biblically qualified leaders. 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 are passages that clearly lay out qualifications for the men who would lead God’s church. The qualifications emphasize the man’s character, not his occupation or friendship with the pastor. Elders are to shepherd the flock, feed them with healthy doctrine, lead in humility, and defend them from false teachers.
SHEEP WITHOUT A SHEPHERD
There is unceasing grief in my heart for people who are under all or some of the teachings highlighted here. They are like the weary, scattered sheep without a shepherd on whom Jesus had compassion (Matt. 9:36). These precious souls of Jesus’ day were being abused, distressed, and harassed by their leaders. They knew no other way of life since it was their own religious leaders who treated them this way. Jesus responded by telling his disciples to pray for the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.
The grief I share for the weary and scattered sheep of today drives me to do two things: pray for the Lord to send out laborers who will seek and serve these scattered sheep, and labor to lead a healthy church in order to reach the sheep in my city. I pray this article has helped kindle a fire in your heart for seeing healthy churches serving cities across the globe.
D.A. Horton is executive director of ReachLife Ministries, the non-profit ministry of Reach Records. Prior to serving at ReachLife, D.A. was an urban church planter in Kansas City, Missouri.