Being unsure if he would ever see them again, Paul called together the elders of the church at Ephesus (Acts 20:17-38). He reminded them of their duty to protect God’s flock. He told them to be on guard because he knew savage wolves would eventually try to feed off the flock. These wolves in sheep’s clothing, with their perverse gospel, would seek to gather as many sheep around them as they could. Paul doesn’t say exactly what this perverse gospel would be, but perhaps he had it in mind as he concluded his words to the elders. “I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothes.” He then left them with the words of the Lord Jesus, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
Some years later, Paul sent Timothy to Ephesus to combat these wolves that Paul had warned of. Prominent among the false teaching being used to fleece the sheep was “that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Tim. 6:5). These depraved men, deprived of the truth, had discovered a way to make money off ministry. By practicing what they preached, they were getting rich off Jesus. This prosperity teaching however was ruining people’s faith (1 Tim. 6:9-10).
Today’s church is also confronted with this perverse gospel. Ironically, while claiming to encourage faith, the “Prosperity Gospel” actually destroys people’s faith by substituting faith in the real gospel with faith in faith. As David Jones and Russell Woodbridge point out in Health, Wealth & Happiness, the prosperity gospel’s roots are found in the “New Thought” movement of the early twentieth century. “In the New Thought works, one can discern some of the key recurring elements of the prosperity gospel: speaking the right words, invoking a universal law of success with words, and having faith in oneself” (p. 31).
Jones and Woodbridge have PhDs from and teach at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. They are both uniquely qualified in the areas of finance and Christianity. They have produced a very informative and readable critique of the prosperity movement within evangelicalism.
The book’s six chapters are grouped under two headings. Chapters one through three offer a critique of the prosperity gospel and prosperity preachers. Chapters four through six offer a correction of the false teaching of prosperity. Chapter one excavates the foundations of the prosperity gospel as being built upon “New Thought Philosophy.” In chapter two one can readily see the link between this philosophy and the unorthodoxy of the prosperity message. They conclude, “while many prosperity teachers offer the plan of salvation, they undermine the gospel with their teaching” (p. 71). Jones and Woodbridge use Joel Osteen as an example. “While Osteen certainly appears genuine and sincere in his faith, his prosperity message is anything but harmless” (p. 73). They go on to demonstrate how Osteen “misinterprets Scripture, misunderstands the gospel, and lacks theological conviction” (p. 73). Chapter three exposes the errors of prosperity theology by examining how it perverts Scripture’s teaching on: the gospel, faith, atonement, the Abrahamic Covenant, the mind, prayer, the Bible, and giving.
If you are a typical, suburban American, you ride a wooden horse on the “consumer carousel.” And on this economic joy-ride, there is a place where we grip the pole with our left hand and reach out with our right to grasp a brass ring. Then, as our painted horse proceeds in a lazy circle to the accompaniment of festive music, we get another chance to grab another ring. And on this particular ride, the rings get bigger and better with each pass.
On our first circuit we sign a lease on a modest apartment. The carousel slowly turns and with great excitement we return to the ring post and hook a starter home. On the next pass, we hope to grasp a bigger house in a better location.
On round one we dine at McDonalds and Dairy Queen. But as the carousel completes another revolution, we upgrade to Red Lobster and Olive Garden. On the next round we reach for a yet bigger and better brass ring, hoping to dine at exclusive restaurants with story-book names, opulent décor and white-capped chefs.
On our first pass we secure a used car. On the next round we get something “more reliable.” Another pass or two and we are reaching for that car or truck (or tank) of our dreams.
Life on the consumer carousel is all about upgrading. Each circuitous pass provides fresh opportunity to secure a bigger and/or better replacement of what we already have. Bigger and better shelter, higher quality food, more expensive clothes, better transportation, entertainment, appliances, furnishings, vacations, and on and on it goes.
Economic conditions among suburbanites in this country vary considerably. But we all have a horse on this ride. Admit it, there is something right now that you are hoping to replace with something more costly in the near future.
One of the most telling characteristics of our culture is how we collectively determine an individual’s standard of living. The concept of a “standard of living” is something like a high-jump bar by which we gauge the quality of our daily lives. Some people cannot clear the bar and we say they experience a “low standard of living.” Others clear the bar with considerable room to spare and we declare that they enjoy a comparatively “high standard of living.” Those who fall between these two sub-sets keep jumping, but never seem quite sure if they clear the bar or not.
Irrespective of how high we are able to jump, one thing is certain: our culture naturally defines standard of living in terms of economic prosperity. The bar by which we gauge standard of living is hoisted to its current height by prevailing economic conditions and expectations and then we orient ourselves toward attaining that height—and then some.
It is interesting to observe that the bar which distinguishes between high and the low standards of living has been steadily elevated throughout the latter half of this century. As case in point, I recently enjoyed an evening meal with my extended family. It was one of those summer time delights—grilled chicken breast, calico bean dish, corn on the cob, fresh baked rolls, potato salad and iced tea. Wow! The conversation among the elders at the table turned (as only an intimate family can turn it) to middle-of-the-winter trips to the outhouse. This topic veered off ever so naturally into a discussion of the history of toilet paper, when, on cue, my mother divulged her recurring account of the days her family could not afford said fibrous luxury. As the account always goes, she reminded us of the qualities of various alternative sources of “paper” that were used for this daily duty. (It seems that the wrapping on summer peaches was the paper of choice. My mother still speaks as if peach season were Nirvana.) I went home that night very thankful that the standard of living in America has improved so dramatically.
It is certainly not just toilet paper that has improved our living standard over the course of the twentieth century. Add to the list almost anything: from houses and cars to communication systems and the myriad of technological advances over previous generations.
Yes, in almost every way our standard of living has dramatically improved; if, that is, we blindly accept the prevailing criterion by which that standard is determined. I would like to propose that we should not so readily accept this criterion.
It seems few are asking this question anymore—just when we need most to be asking it, just when interest in helping the poor has apparently reached an all time high.
I don’t recall ever hearing and seeing so many radio and TV ads for charitable causes, donation displays at retailers’ cash registers, or businesses prominently displaying how they’re helping the needy (or how they’re saving the world from environmental catastrophe—or both).
Evangelicals seem to be giving poverty more attention as well—in increasingly passionate terms and from quarters not historically known for that emphasis. Witness this observation from Southern Baptist, David Platt:
Meanwhile, the poor man is outside our gate. And he is hungry…. We certainly wouldn’t ignore our kids while we sang songs and entertained ourselves, but we are content with ignoring other parents’ kids. Many of them are our spiritual brothers and sisters in developing nations. They are suffering from malnutrition, deformed bodies and brains, and preventable diseases. At most, we are throwing our scraps to them while we indulge in our pleasures here….
This is not what the people of God do. Regardless of what we say or sing or study on Sunday morning, rich people who neglect the poor are not the people of God. (Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, p.115)