Much has been said recently about the social problems plaguing the inner cities — crime, out-of-wedlock birth, lack of education. We can trace the problems, to some extent, back to the breakdown of the family in those communities. But along with that is a more systemic problem of a breakdown in the churches — a failure to teach right theology and biblical truth at a time when it is most desperately needed. In particular, the “prosperity gospel” preachers have taken advantage of some of the most vulnerable in our society — the poor, the elderly, the sick — by falsely teaching that Jesus is some sort of lucky charm sitting up in heaven waiting to grant our wishes for material wealth and physical healing. They claim the only thing holding God back is our failure to send enough money to some big-haired Trinity Broadcast Network (TBN) star sitting on an ornate, fake throne.
The prosperity preachers say that all that stands between a poor (or sick) person and a huge payday (or good health) is a lack of faith and a donation to the ministry of the preacher. They perform before massive crowds, including Joe, sitting in his living room in Paducah, Kentucky, and claim that God is telling them — right at that very moment (or later if you’re DVR’ing the show)— exactly what He wants each and every member of the audience to do at that very moment. It’s preposterous, but these charlatans find easy prey in those who are in dire financial circumstances or who suffer with physical ailments. John MacArthur has said that it “is no different from the lowest human religions—a form of voodoo where God can be coerced, cajoled, manipulated, controlled, and exploited for the Christian’s own ends.” It’s no different than the way state lotteries take advantage of the poor with promises of a life of ease for the small price of a Powerball ticket — except that the preachers claim to be speaking for God, which is sobering and tragic at the same time.
Earlier this year Reformed (as in Reformed theology) rapper Shai Linne called out some of those preachers in a song called “Fal$e Teacher$“. And he names names — Benny Hinn, Paula White, Creflo Dollar, Joel Osteen, TD Jakes, and others — acknowledging in the song that “today the only heresy is saying that there’s heresy.”
His music is startling in a hip-hop culture known for profanity and violence. Linn raps about hardcore Christian theological truths that many seasoned Christians can’t speak about intelligently — limited atonement, amillennialism, the hypostatic union.
In a video blog about the song Linne discussed the dangers of the prosperity gospel: “It actually chips away at the atonement and the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement to save us from sins and so it pictures Jesus not as the ultimate goal but as a means to what is seen to be as the ends of material possessions and physical healing.” From “Fal$e Teacher$”:
Turn off TBN, that channel is overrated
The pastors speak bogus statements, financially motivated
It’s kind of like a pyramid scheme
Visualize Heretics christianizing the American dream
It’s foul and deceitful, they’re lying to people
Teaching that camels squeeze through the eye of a needle!
Ungodly and wicked, ask yourself how can they not be convicted
Treating Jesus like a lottery ticket
In an interview with Russell Moore, President of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Linne said he spent several days watching TBN teachers back-to-back-to-back and was shocked at the way they psychologically manipulated the desperate crowds into sending them money:
And as I listened I noticed a pattern. It would go something like this: the preacher would maybe make a reference to the Bible and then they would go on and on about the good stuff that God wanted to do for people. It usually involved money or healing. And it was always centered on ‘self’ as though God exists for us instead of the other way around.
Linne said he noticed that just as the preachers got the crowd worked into a heightened emotional state they would begin the pitch for money:
The prosperity preacher would start talking about ‘sowing a seed.’ If you give this much then God will multiply it and so forth. Before you know it people are rushing the stage to throw money at the preacher. It’s a straight up scam. And these ministries are pulling in hundreds of millions of dollars…
Yet they seem to ignore Paul’s command about the right attitude and conditions for giving in 2 Corinthians 9:7: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
In the song Linn cites several Bible verses that warn Christians to beware of such false teachers, such as Matthew 7:16 which says that they will look just like genuine Christians, adopting the language and demeanor of Christians but not producing the kind of fruit required.
[Jesus] goes on to say that we’ll actually recognize them by their fruit. And when you look throughout the New Testament at what the fruit of false teachers is, it’s often accompanied by greed.
Linn said 2 Peter 2:14 says, “False teachers ‘have hearts that are trained in greed’ and so this characteristic of greed is something that you’re often going to find with false teachers and this is exactly what we see with the popular people that teach the prosperity gospel.”
Russell Moore noted that the prosperity preachers tend to focus on verses in Deuteronomy that describe blessings and curses that were specific covenantal promises between God and the nation of Israel. It’s always dangerous to take Bible verses out of context without considering the whole counsel of God; nearly anything can be justified or condoned with this approach. Treating the Deuteronomy blessings and curses as personal lottery ticket promises to modern Christians not only misapplies those verses to those for whom it was never intended, but it also contradicts the many New Testament teachings that say Christians will face suffering and persecution.
Phil Johnson at the Pyromaniacs blog has said of the prosperity gospel,
God’s blessing is not measurable by a person’s material prosperity. True biblical prosperity is about spiritual health, joy in the Lord, rewards in heaven, and grace in the midst of earthly sufferings. True prosperity has nothing whatsoever to do with material wealth or an abundance of worldly riches. In fact, those things are often hindrances to spiritual blessings.
Try telling a Christian brother rotting in a Chinese prison cell — beaten and tortured for his faith — that if he only has a little more faith (and sends a donation), God will bless him with material wealth. Or tell a mother in Malawi whose children are starving that it’s her fault — that she doesn’t have enough faith for her children to live through the next week. Such teaching is cruel and wicked, whether it’s done in Malawi or inner-city Chicago or the suburbs of Houston. Churches that major in greed mislead their flocks and take their focus off the important message of the gospel as Linne describes in his song “Atonement Q & A“:
By nature we’re God’s enemies and must pay the penalty
unless God provides the remedy.
What the remedy?
The remedy is the cross of Christ, where He suffered all the strikes for the lawless type.
I’ve been rescued by the Lamb, I’m convinced that He’s risen.
And blessed is the man whose sins are forgiven!
I’ve written here about our need for a New Great Awakening in America. Prayer is one important component that can bring about lasting change in our nation and good theology is another. Healing in our cities can begin when the churches turn away from greed (which the Bible calls idolatry) and false promises of the prosperity gospel and instead embrace the whole counsel of God, including the part that requires sacrifice and suffering.