Opinion  |  

When prosperity is a trap

As someone who has written extensively on the relationship between economics and Christian theology, and now working to build a Business Faculty in a prospective Australian Christian university – Alphacrucis College associated with the Pentecostal movement – it is hard not to think about the prosperity gospel. Especially as the most common complaint I hear about Pentecostals over a post-church cup of tea in older churches is that they preach prosperity rather than the true gospel.

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What is prosperity theology?

Prosperity preaching insists that salvation brings material blessings, sometimes with particular words or actions such as financial giving needed to activate this material blessing.

The term “prosperity gospel” tends to be used by outsiders rather than participants. Like “neoliberal” or “fundamentalist,” labelling something the “prosperity gospel” closes off further exploration and makes critique unnecessary.

If it is to be more than an empty term of abuse, we need to identify its characteristics. Prosperity preaching insists that salvation brings material blessings, sometimes with particular words or actions such as financial giving needed to activate this material blessing. It is often associated with an insistence that salvation brings physical healing. Prosperity preaching is wildly popular in many parts of the world, especially but not exclusively in Pentecostal churches.

The seeming paradox of prosperity preaching appealing to the poor is often noted. But should we be so surprised that a gospel of material uplift and physical healing appeals to those in most need of this? As Jesus said, it is not the well who need a doctor, but the sick.

Kate Bowler in her wonderful book about the prosperity gospel in America identifies four characteristics:  (1) Faith as power (2) Wealth (3) Health, and (4) Victory. She also distinguishes between “hard” and “soft” versions of the prosperity gospel. The hard version makes material prosperity conditional on actions like tithing from one’s income, offerings to the preacher’s ministry, and so on, while the soft version is about economically relevant behavioural change. The changes from soft prosperity preaching are divine activity just as much as the hard version. And there are charlatans in both types of prosperity preaching – as with any human activity.

Context matters a lot when discussing prosperity preaching. Bowler as a historian and a Canadian resists extending the US experience to the rest of the world, or even using it as the pattern for studying the rest of the world. For instance, in the US the largely white Pentecostal denominations are strongly supportive of the existing political and economic order, while in Brazil, with the largest Pentecostal population in the world, it is a counter-cultural rejection of traditional Catholic religiosity and political establishment. In South Korea, to take the example of Yong-gi Cho’s Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, Pentecostal prosperity preaching is different again.

There, and in China, the prosperity gospel is intertwined with longstanding elements of the local culture. In both Korea and China it has grown largely independently of the American prosperity preachers, and is suspicious of the American political order. Prosperity preaching in Africa is different again, rejecting both the European colonial heritage and Western “social scientist” scripts of African victimhood that the post-colonial states have exploited to justify continuing African poverty. Pentecostals have been prominent in movements for African political renewal. In Australia, Pentecostalism has concentrated on individual transformation, mostly avoiding wider political and economic issues, reflecting the diversity of views in the movement and the individualistic nature of Australian society. Appreciating the variety of local contexts is important in understanding the prosperity gospel.

When individual agency is overemphasised, then it becomes the individual’s fault when economic success doesn’t follow.

Why does it work?

It is pretty clear empirically that Pentecostalism has positive economic impacts. Some of the divine activity pointed to by prosperity preachers is not amenable to social-scientific analysis, but a lot is. What might be the social-scientific mechanisms for prosperity preaching and the growth of Pentecostalism to have economic consequences?

• It provides a powerful new identity to converts, transforming both personal self-image and a person’s position in the social order. This is particularly powerful where tribal or caste identities retard economic progress, or where the poor have been taught to identify themselves as helpless victims of colonialism or the neoliberal economic order.

• It gives agency to the poor, who are unused to but often welcome the sense of being able to transform their situation.

• It neutralises the power of evil spirits and witchdoctors as retardants of economic progress, removing this as an explanation of continued poverty.

• It encourages clean living: no more heavy drinking, drugs and visiting prostitutes.

• It encourages saving.

• It underpins educational investments, especially in children of poor communities.

• Churches provide networks, which are valuable for finding jobs and starting businesses. This is particularly powerful where church networks cross social and economic boundaries.

• Churches provide opportunities for leadership training. This is particularly lacking in poor communities and so can be powerfully transformative. Evangelism emphasised by Pentecostal churches is excellent training for business entrepreneurship.

• The social insurance provided by church communities facilitates risk-taking by reducing the downside risk for entrepreneurs in churches.

Not all of these effects are unique to Pentecostal Christianity, but the combination is powerful.

The Christian Scriptures are not as squeamish as the subsequent tradition about the material dimensions of life. Instead, the Scriptures are full of marketplace models and images.

As well as recognising the economic benefits of prosperity preaching, we need to pay attention to the casualties. When individual agency is overemphasised, then it becomes the individual’s fault when economic success doesn’t follow. Those for whom prosperity doesn’t work often leave or are pushed out of prosperity churches, departing emotionally damaged and economically disempowered by the experience. This selective dynamic whereby failures leave and the successes stay and tell their stories, of course, contributes to the aura of success around prosperity churches. For social scientists, it is the net economic effect, including the damage done to the leavers, that is relevant.

Prosperity preaching as recovery of a Scriptural teaching

Prosperity preaching rightly recognises the material dimensions of salvation, which have often been neglected in the Christian tradition. The Christian Scriptures are not as squeamish as the subsequent tradition about the material dimensions of life. Instead, the Scriptures are full of marketplace models and images.

The Hebrew Scriptures often describe God’s activity in economic terms. For instance, redemption is buying something back that has passed out of the owner’s possession, and always a price is paid. Deuteronomy 7:18 speaks of Israel redeemed from slavery in Egypt, Isaiah 43 of Israel redeemed from Babylon, the book of Ruth describes her redemption, and David speaks of God as his redeemer in 2 Samuel 4:9. In the New Testament, the economic image of redemption is picked up in a number of places. Jesus explains in Mark 10:45 that the Son of Man gives his life as a ransom for many, Acts 20:28 that the church has been redeemed by Christ’s blood, and Paul in Colossians 1:14 that it is in Christ that we have redemption.

Another of the main images for God’s dealings with us is reconciliation. The word came from market exchange and accounting, and then was applied in other settings such as marriage, and divine-human relationships.  For instance, Romans 5:10-11, where Paul explains that we are reconciled to God through the death of Christ. In 2 Corinthians 5:18-20 the word is used both for God’s work and the Christian community’s call to be agents of reconciliation. God’s reconciling activity is extended to the whole world in Ephesians 2:16 or Colossians 1:19-22, where all things are spoken of as reconciled to God through Christ.

God’s activity is directly described as economic in several places in the New Testament – for example, Ephesians 1:10, 3:2 and 3:9, where the economy of salvation is an expression of the wisdom of God. It is not just God’s and the Apostle Paul’s activity that are described as economic but the content of the gospel as well – for instance, in 1 Corinthians 9:17.

On the whole, the preaching I have heard and these writings are sensible and biblically infused advice for individuals about personal finances. Financial success is viewed as part of a wider flourishing that God desires for people. I see no evidence of a hard prosperity gospel …

The recent work of John Barclay, one of today’s most influential New Testament scholars, and others on gift and grace in the Pauline epistles further emphasises the materiality of salvation. Barclay carefully studied first-century Roman and Jewish understandings of gift, as these illuminate what Paul means when he writes of grace and what his readers understood. He argues that Paul’s language of grace is much more material and reciprocal than most contemporary theological accounts of gift and grace, and that churches have often over-spiritualised Paul’s teaching. If Barclay is right, then we need to be more open to receiving material as well as spiritual dimensions of God’s grace, and blessing others materially as well as spiritually.

Prosperity preaching in Australia

What about the complaint that the Australian Pentecostal movement, including Hillsong, C3 and many other churches, preaches a damaging prosperity gospel rather than the true gospel? The first thing that has to be said is that older churches that neglect the material dimensions of salvation should examine their own practices before rushing to condemn occasional overreactions in the other direction. The recovery of the material dimensions of the gospel is part of the reason for the success of Pentecostal churches, a success which older churches benefit from when people converted in Pentecostal churches transfer to older churches.

My sample of Pentecostal preaching is small, and so I have examined the writings of Australian Pentecostal leaders such as Brian Houston and Phil Pringle in forming a view of Australian prosperity preaching. On the whole, the preaching I have heard and these writings are sensible and biblically infused advice for individuals about personal finances. Financial success is viewed as part of a wider flourishing that God desires for people. I see no evidence of a hard prosperity gospel – and if it is to be described as prosperity preaching then it is of the soft kind – the kind that is largely amenable to social-scientific analysis.

Unfortunately we don’t have good empirical research yet on the economic benefits of Australian Pentecostalism. The great contribution of prosperity preaching is that it “inscribes materiality with spiritual meaning,” to quote Kate Bowler, opening up new possibilities at both individual and corporate levels. Can we resist smug put-downs about the “prosperity gospel” and work together against the perversely pseudo-spiritual tendencies of much contemporary theology and church practice?

Paul Oslington is Professor of Economics and Dean of Business, Alphacrucis College, Sydney. This article is based on a presentation at an Alphacrucis College/ Western Sydney University conference.

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