The Prosperity Problem

We know there’s something bad out there called “The Prosperity Gospel.” We know it’s bad because most preachers and pastors will quickly tell us that it’s wrong and that they don’t teach it. However, I’m not sure that we quite grasp exactly what the problem is. The risk then is that we can end up making the same mistakes.We assume that the Prosperity Gospel’s problem is that it guarantees a person will never get ill or at least be guaranteed healing and that they can expect untold wealth and riches … or at least, a big house, fast car and so on.

Now, lots of people believe in Prosperity teaching who are not mega rich and who still get ill. This suggests to me that the problem is a lot more than outcome. It’s about a way of living and a way of relating to God and each other. What it says is this.

“There is a system or code to life out there and if I can live by it then I will get what I want out of life. So, if I do the right things, in the right way, in the right place with the right people, I will get the right result.”

This is what leads to a belief that if I

  1. Find the right words to say to God – name it and claim it
  2. Do the right things – often including a clearly defined tithe of my income
  3. With the right people – usually a specified church and recognised leader

…then my life will experience material blessing.

Now you will realise at this point that we can talk about those sorts of things without expecting the full-on prosperity outcome.

For example

  1. I need a good exam result
  2. I hope I will get that job I’ve applied for
  3. I’m struggling with debt
  4. I’m waiting for the Home Office to get back to me with an answer about my immigration status.
  5. We are undertaking an evangelistic campaign and we would like to see a few new believers added.

These aren’t big, extravagant prosperity claims but we can still approach them in the “right” way.  Have I prayed enough? What was the right type of prayer? Was there something else I needed to do? Did I get the right person to pray for me? In the last example, did we get the right speaker, course, setting etc.

This approach plays into the three dangers we’ve met before

  1. Legalism – follow this mechanism to get this result. So, if I get the wrong result then it’s because I did not pray enough or give enough
  2. Magic – place superstitious trust  in someone or something other than Christ to get the result for me. Did the right person pray for me? Were the right words used?
  3. Licence – because often once you focus on one particular thing such as saying the right prayer, tithing the right amount, going to the right pastor, then other aspects of life get neglected. Indeed, these things replace key Biblical instruction such as act wisely, speak truthfully, work hard, be accountable.

Ultimately the big problem with Prosperity teaching is that because it is obsessed with the mechanistic process by which I can get what I want out of life, the result is that it diminishes our view of who God is. We lose touch with his greatness, awesome majesty. God becomes something small, something to be manipulated. We lose touch with his goodness. God becomes impersonal, he is little more than a cash machine delivering the goods we demand.

Does the Bible talk about money more than it talks about love, heaven, hell etc?

The short answer is “No.”

If it did, then you would notice it as a recurring theme when you are part of a church where expository preaching is practiced.  You would either notice that the preacher kept, accurately and transparently, showing how the text applied to your wallet, or you would wonder why the preacher never made the obvious application.

I want to suggest that you don’t see that happening -and you are more likely to think when someone starts talking about money, tithing and being blessed in your personal finances that the link seems to be very tenuous to Scripture.

If you hear the quote “Jesus talks more about money that anything else” and it doesn’t seem to ring true, and you are someone who regularly reads your Bible, then your gut is probably right!

So two questions

–          Why do people  make this claim?

–          How important is money really?

  1. Why do people make this claim?

I don’t mean here “What is their motive” and the potentially obvious answer that they are after your money.  There are two reasons for this. First of all, we can see the obvious money grabbers and secondly, I think there are good people with genuine gospel motives who have fallen into the trap of repeating this fallacy.

I think the problem comes when there’s only a surface engagement of the Bible. So, every time that tithing, treasure, counting the cost, talents etc. are mentioned, these get totted up on the list of “times Jesus talks about money.”

Now, here’s a question for you.  When Jesus says “Where your treasure is, there your heart is?”  Does that get added to the money ledger, the love ledger, the Heaven and Hell ledger or something else?

Here’s another example. The other day, I preached a sermon and I used an extended illustration as a picture running through the talk of the person who is physically hurting. I talked about feeling pain all over. I talked about referred pain and root causes. I even talked about the problem with corpses. Was my sermon all about medicine, health and healing? No it was not.  My talk was about peace and needing to know peace with God.

We don’t work out what is important in the Bible by doing a word count. We work out what is important by paying attention to the big picture in Scripture and the detailed exegesis.  I’m really sorry but your immediate financial circumstances don’t come that high on the Bible priority list!

 

2. How important is money really? Or –  should we talk about money in church -and if so why?

There are all sorts of reasons why, as a pastor of a church in urban Britain I feel uncomfortable talking about money and particularly about giving. These include

  1. It’s just not the done thing in polite circles! To an English man, talking about money is like talking about politics and religion.   I can’t avoid one of those in my role so if I can I’ll duck the other two!
  2. A lot of people in our church family and community are not well off. In fact, the opposite -we have people who are genuinely destitute. Talking about money -and especially about giving might seem incredibly insensitive to them.
  3. As we saw above, the Bible does not talk about money anywhere near as much as some people think.

So, given all of those points, why should we talk about money? I want to suggest two good reasons

  1. Because whilst the Bible doesn’t talk about it anywhere near as much as the prosperity peddlers claim, it does talk about it. The bible addresses the whole of life. So if I’m going to talk about work, relationships, sex, marriage adultery, divorce, worship, study, sickness, suffering, death etc. Then I’m also going to need to talk about money from time to time too.
  2. Because if we don’t (i.e. loving preachers and teachers who care about God’s name, God’s Word and God’s people) then we are leaving it for others to talk about these things. Where are people going to hear about money? The answer is that they will hear it from the World including get rich schemes, pay day loans companies and loan sharks and they’ll hear it from false teachers -we’ll give the floor to the very prosperity teachers we want to protect the flock from.

That’s why we should deal with money, giving and stewardship as part of our teaching. This may happen in the occasional topical sermon but I still think that the best way to give it its correct place is as it arises in the context of expository Bible teaching.

What does the Bible Teach about Giving? – A quick overview

The Prosperity Gospel deal is that if you give the right amount of money to the right pastor and he gives it the right blessing then you will be blessed in your personal finances.  In other words you should tithe.

I think that well-meaning Evangelicals come unstuck on the question of tithing. Or to go back to our original point, they want to avoid the prosperity trap but end up falling into it because they in are in effect looking at what the Bible teaches through the same lens.[1]

Old Testament

Here are some of the key Old Testament references to tithes and offering

–          In Genesis 14 Abraham gives a tenth of the plunder to Melchizedek

–          Leviticus 27 mentions tithe but also a variety of offerings/

–          In Deuteronomy 14 there is the idea of a harvest tithe  and the idea was that it was to be brought to the festival at the Temple. It would then be shared together.  There’s a strong sense of enjoying God’s provision together. It also meant that the Levites who served in the Temple were provided for but again the idea was of sharing together. This is probably the idea behind Malachi 3 that the tithes were to be brought in to the Lords house.

–          Numbers 18 and Deuteronomy 26 The tithe and first-fruits there were to provide for the Levites and for the poor and needy.

Note that in these passages there are three separate tithes – the one for the Levites (Lev 27, Num 18), one for the poor -tri-annual (Deut 14:28-29) and one annually to share at the festival (Deut 14:22-27).

So, tithing is linked in to the Leviticus system. It was  a recognition of all that it meant to be in the Promised Land and it was a way of providing for the needy and for those who serve. Tithing enabled God’s people to give thanks to God, recognise his provision for them, show that they knew that everything really belonged to God in the first place and to share together in God’s provision.

As well as tithes, there are offerings that people bring including Free Will offerings for special requirements such as the building of the Tabernacle (See Exodus 35).

Finally, we should also mention the Gleaning laws (Leviticus 23:22) which meant that land owners were not to harvest right into the edges and corners of their fields but to leave some of their crop for the poor and needy to collect for themselves.

These things combined mean that an Israelite could well be giving significantly more than 10% of their income away.  We also should note that this was doing much more than church offerings do today. Part of it fulfilled the role of modern day charities and welfare states. Part of it was an expression of celebration together as God’s people.

So we need to factor these things in when coming to a passage like Malachi  3:8-12 and the promise that God will bless the people if they bring in the full tithe.  This is one of those passages often used in Prosperity teaching to show that if you give your tithe to the pastor then you will be blessed.  It’s important to note two big things when we look at Malachi 3.

  1. There’s the sense that everyone loses out when the people are stingy and lack generosity. If they bring in the full tithe then the storehouses will be full and everyone will be provided for adequately.
  2. We must also read Malachi 3 in context and consider timing. Remember that when we think about biblical Theology we have three big themes that tie together

 

–          God’s Reign

–          God’s People

–          God’s Land

So, the tithing rules are connected into the Covenant with Moses and what it means for God’s people to live under God’s rule in God’s Land. If you kept God’s Law you experienced covenant blessings in God’s Land and if you broke it, you experienced covenant curses or sanctions with the ultimate curse/sanction being exile.

This is important because the people in Malachi’s day were clearly not keeping the terms of the Covenant and the tithing element was just one aspect of this.  The result was that they were experiencing divine sanction. I think there’s a vicious cycle in Malachi where instead of coming to their senses, the experience of sanction caused them to be even more stingy in their generosity.

Notice as well that the theme throughout the OT is corporate. Prosperity teaching is really about stealing these verses out of context to make instant promises of individual gain where the focus in the OT is on God’s people sharing together at God’s appointed time in God’s blessing.

Tithing in the New Testament

The key -and really only passage is Matthew 23:23 (paralleled by Luke 11:42). There, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees because they obsess about tithing in a legalistic manner. Jesus says “You should have tithed but also -there’s a whole lot of the Law that you have neglected that you should do.”

This is clearly a proverbial way of making the point  “Don’t be obsessively legalistic about one thing to the neglect of everything else.”

Some Christians see the reference here as an endorsement of the tithing system. I’d be careful about this because

  1. It’s not the point Jesus is making
  2. It’s still in the context of the Old Covenant -the point is that for all their legalism, they were still Covenant breakers.

The NT emphasis is much more on planned, generous giving and the sharing of everything -not considering your possessions as your own but seeing yourself as a steward of what God has given.

Luke 6 warns against a judgemental attitude and also against simply having a mechanistic approach of giving where you know that you will can be repaid. Instead generosity is encouraged.

“Give, and you will receive. Your gift will return to you in full—pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, running over, and poured into your lap. The amount you give will determine the amount you get back.[2]

How does this work?

  1. If God’s people are open handed and generous, looking after each other as part of God’s family then no-one should be without.
  2. Link this with the promise in Ephesian 6:8 that God ensures that his servants are rewarded. Whatever happens in this life, we have an eschatological perspective that one day we will share in an overwhelming inheritance.

In other words, once again the problem with Prosperity Teaching is that it offers a poor imitation, now, for you to enjoy selfishly on your own of the great inheritance promised in eternity for us all to share in together.  The Prosperity Gospel is a conman’s rip off.

Paul in his letters gives instructions for collections -notice this is about planned collections for specific issues – the need of the poor in Jerusalem.

See 1 Corinthians 16:1-4. Giving was to be planned and ordered. Don’t respond to the need at the last minute or out of embarrassment or the need to impress the visiting dignitary

2 Corinthians 9 picks up the specific application of the gift to Jerusalem again. Paul’s point is that:

  1. They are to give generously and cheerfully – heart attitude is important
  2. They give in the context of trusting God to provide for them
  3. There is most importantly a sharing in spiritual blessing -a growth of prayer, joy and praise giving God glory.

Conclusion – implications for today

First of all, we should be careful to give “money” its appropriate Biblical attention.

  1. We shouldn’t be embarrassed to talk about the subject where and when appropriate
  2. We should teach it in line with the careful and systematic exposition of Scripture and the rhythm of church life. In other words, don’t be doing the money sermon every week and don’t start preaching lots of sermons about giving whenever there’s an urgent need such as a building project or when the church gets itself into debt.

Secondly have a proper awareness of Scriptural context. So

  1. Don’t think or talk in terms of individualist or instant gain when application is meant to be about a corporate sharing in future grace.
  2. Remember that we are in Christ in the New Covenant

Thirdly think about context today. So for example, we’ve seen that the OT tithes and offerings fulfilled several functions including supporting Temple ministry, looking after the poor and a sort of “bring and share” approach to national celebration.

This means that first of all, we will be aware that there are Welfare Systems in place in our countries. Some will offer greater cover than others, some will work better and different people will have different political views on the right extent and cover of welfare.  Christians however should not neglect familial responsibilities to love one another as needed.

Secondly, do all necessary exegesis before you start preaching

  1. Exegete the Bible passage so you are not just coming with your own thoughts and proof texts.
  2. Exegete the congregation. Know who you are preaching to.  Some, indeed many will already be giving sacrificially and willingly.  I know in our own context that many are generous even when they don’t have much themselves. Neil Powell has helped me by talking about preaching the negatives as well as the positives. What he means by this is that if your application is an encouragement to give sacrificially don’t forget to say “I know some of you already are giving sacrificially. Do not feel under guilt or pressure to give even more.”
  3. Exegete your own heart. What is your motive for preaching. Remember that “The Love of Money is the root of all kinds of evil.” Preachers should not love money or think they are preaching for financial gain. Watch out for fear. That’s another way of saying “Don’t preach on money because your scared that you are about to run out of it!”

Thirdly it means that the application of those OT tithing and offering principles through Christ will make us think less narrowly. In the OT it wasn’t really about money but sharing in all God’s good gifts. So, for us today those messages will be about how we do three thing

  1. Remember that all good things come from God and that we are stewards not owners of his grace to us.
  2. That this should lead to praise and thanksgiving -we are first and foremost worshippers
  3. That God gives gifts to the church through us (see 1 Corinthians 12) and so we should all come together ready to share gifts -music, speaking, encouraging, helping, advising, knowing etc.  As we do, there’s mutual benefit as we all out built up and encouraged. As we do, we are all able to glorify God together.

 

[1] What we sometimes call “hermeneutics.”

[2] Luke 6:38

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