Four Ways the 'Prosperity Gospel' Twists Christianity

Joel Osteen prosperity gospel

Over the past 40 years I have encountered and debated the merits or deficiencies of a theology that I did not know had a name. Its supporters call it the "Word of Faith" teaching; it's detractors call it the "Prosperity Gospel." Its most popular adherents are famous televangelists, authors, and public speakers such as Joel Osteen, Kenneth Copeland, and T.D. Jakes.

Much of its theology is traceable to the late Kenneth Hagin, and many of his ideas stem from E.W. Kenyon in the early 20th century.

Although I have numerous issues with this popular version of Christianity, here are just four points of contention I have with the "Prosperity Gospel":

1. The "Positive Confession"

The "positive confession" theory diminishes the God of the Bible and exalts man. Many of the Word of Faith teachers believe that Christians actually have the power to alter their circumstances — the words we speak or "declare" can solve the problems we face.

The theory goes like this: Since God spoke the world into existence, and if we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we too can speak things into existence. A popular notion is that you can have whatever you say! So, if you are living in poverty or suffering from illness, you can change the situation by declaring something positive and claiming a promise from the Bible (never mind the context or the intended audience for the promise).

Charles Capps, in his book The Tongue, A Creative Force, (1976) said, "You can actually alter the spiritual and physical world by the words you speak. You see there is more to it than just saying it. The words must originate from the inner man when spiritual power is released through words ... spirit words can control both the spirit world and the physical world. Because the words themselves have power, they will work for either God or man in the same manner" (pp 117-118).

As I have read through Joel Osteen's book The Power of I Am: Two Words That Will Change Your Life Today, he says much the same thing, basing his theory on Proverbs 18:21: "Death and life are in the power of the tongue, And those who love it will eat its fruit."

But Osteen is clearly misinterpreting this verse. The Proverbs are short, pithy sayings of practical truth for daily living. This proverb is saying what we all know: we can kill relationships with the words we use or we can encourage people and make relationships better.

Being optimistic is one thing, but from this passage we are to extrapolate a whole theology that we can alter our universe because we strongly say certain words? Seems like quite a stretch to me.

On page 35 of Osteen's book he writes, "We declared it, and God did it." Can I actually make God do stuff because I say the right words? It almost sounds like if I repeat the right incantation and believe it hard enough, God is obligated to hop to it. That is certainly not the picture of God I see in the Bible. He takes orders from no one. I am not his commanding officer.

On page 156 Osteen says, "We're supposed to live an abundant life — it's because we are children of the King. It was put there by the Creator. But here's the key. You have to give God permission to prosper you." Then he quotes from a paraphrase (The Message) of Deuteronomy 28:1-13 and applies it to Christians today. I have to give God permission? What is He, some kid? Osteen and the Prosperity Gospel ministers diminish God by reducing His Sovereign control and saying that by our words, commands, or claims we manipulate God to do what we want.  Well, that certainly is not the God of the Bible. He's in charge, not us. (Thank God!)

Hebrews 11:36-40 tells us that many of the Old Testament saints were horribly persecuted and even killed for their faith. Did they "declare" that their sufferings were over and then escape their pain and live happily ever after? No. They did not see the Good World in this world. That is reserved for after they die.

Look at the apostles. Did they declare that Paul would get a fair trial and be released? (I don't see that in Acts 20 when the Ephesian elders said goodbye to Paul. I guess they just didn't have much faith, right?) Did they claim a promise that they would not be shipwrecked or beaten or that false teachers would go away? No. They did not.

And the martyrs down through the ages, from Stephen to Thomas Cranmer to Jim Elliot, did not claim some kind of power to alter their circumstances. If we had known about this kind of power in our words earlier, then Corrie ten Boom would have been able to rescue her family, and we could have "declared" the Nazis wiped out in 1941 and saved ourselves a lot of trouble later on.

And it would be great if we could clean up the corruption in Washington, D.C., by just declaring things. I mean, why stop with just our own poverty? Let's end the national debt by positive confession! Problems solved, right?

Next Page: The Prosperity Gospel is man-centered.