Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Rhetoric for prosperity theology/teaching

(Fountain of Wealth at Suntec City. This photo is taken from TravelerFolio.com)

The term "prosperity theology" comes in all shapes and sizes. A form of it is known as "Word-Faith" theology; another form is locally known as "Cultural Mandate". Nonetheless, they all share one similar ideology.

The Lausanne Theology Working group has produced a rather accurate definition of prosperity theology. No matter what form it takes, it still known for its "teaching that believers have a right to the blessings of health and wealth and that they can obtain these blessings through positive confessions of faith and the "sowing of seeds" through the faithful payments of tithes and offerings."

It is very common for those who adopt prosperity theology to assert that wealth is God's blessing for his people so that they will be able to bless others. Prosperity theologians/teachers always claim that we are channels of God's blessings; God blesses us with wealth so that we can bless others with it.

There are many prosperity teachers around the globe. A local example is of course Kong Hee, the founder of City Harvest Church. On the 23rd of April 2009, he posted an article in response to several common critical statements concerning some of the questionable teachings being propounded by Charismatic Christians. One of these common criticisms is this, "Charismatics twist Scripture to justify an opulent lifestyle."

Here's Kong Hee's response to that criticism:
Not true. The vast majority of Charismatics are not fixated with wealth or materialism. Like most Christians, they believe that God provides for their need, not their greed. Having said that, Charismatics are not abhorrent to wealth that comes through diligent work or God’s blessing. Most believe that prosperity is God’s plan for the believer simply because of the abundance of Bible texts to support that. Take for example, 2 Corinthians 8:9 says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.” The word, “rich” (Gr. plouteo) means to become financially wealthy and increased with goods. For most Charismatics, success and wealth are means to help the poor, better society, and fulfill the Great Commission.
Sounds right? Of course it is. I totally agree that wealth is a gift to be given to others. Only recently I told a friend who has a well-paid job, "I don't care how much millions you make in a month. What's important is how much you give away to help meet the needs of others."

What Kong Hee wrote resonates well with the famous paraphrase of John Wesley's sermon, "First, gained all you can, and, secondly saved all you can, then give all you can."

It is right with this theology. However, we also know that most Charismatics turn this good theology into a rhetoric to cover up their own vices. They use this theology to accumulate wealth for themselves.

When wealth is given to them, they suddenly forgotten and hence abandoned the theological purpose of their given wealth. Instead of helping to meet others' real urgent needs, these prosperity teachers keep the gift for themselves, for their own enjoyment. They live lavishly irrespective of moderation and the impoverishment of those in desperate conditions.

Kong Hee knows about this good theology. It is unfortunate that he does not live up to it. From how he uses his God-given wealth, we know that he is just using this good piece of theology as a rhetoric for his personal acquisition for a luxurious upper-class lifestyle.

We have to be clear that we are not questioning the source of Kong Hee's income. His wealth could be obtained through his business dealings and not from the tithes of his congregation. The same goes to his wife, Sun Ho. Their incomes from their business engagements are legitimate and nothing wrong with that. Nonetheless, the theological purpose of wealth as God-gift that is meant to be given (a theology which Kong Hee himself believes in) still applies.

Kong Hee is just one local example among many other prosperity theologians and preachers around the world who misuse good theology as rhetoric to cover up their own aspiration for lavish living.

Earning big bucks is one thing. How to spend it is another. It is impossible to give a theological justification to rent a SGD$28,000/month mansion, drive a Mercedes Benz CLK550 and own a SGD$2.6 million luxury apartment.
"[I]n 1731 [John] Wesley began to limit his expenses so that he would have more money to give to the poor. He records that one year his income was 30 pounds and his living expenses 28 pounds, so he had 2 pounds to give away. The next year his income doubled, but he still managed to live on 28 pounds, so he had 32 pounds to give to the poor.

In the third year, his income jumped to 90 pounds.
Instead of letting his expenses rise with his income, he kept them to 28 pounds and gave away 62 pounds. In the fourth year, he received 120 pounds. As before, his expenses were 28 pounds, so his giving rose to 92 pounds.[...]

One year his income was a little over 1400 pounds. He lived on 30 pounds and gave away nearly 1400 pounds. Because he had no family to care for, he had no need for savings. He was afraid of laying up treasures on earth, so the money went out in charity as quickly as it came in. He reports that he never had 100 pounds at any one time."
(Charles Edward White, What Wesley Practiced and Preached About Money)
One may argue that John Wesley did not have family and hence he can afford to gave away so much. While Kong Hee and other prosperity preachers have family to take care. But this argument is missing the point.

The point is that Christianity does not teach that God wants everyone to live as beggars or in the slump. Instead, as underlined above, God gives material wealth to some of his people. And to those who are given the gift, they should not forget the purpose of their gift. And the purpose is never about spending on luxurious living for themselves or their family. It is to help others, as Kong Hee himself preaches.

I am not against luxurious living or lavish lifestyle. It is alright for everyone to go for better living-hood through legitimate means. However, no one can do that or justify it by misusing theology as a self-serving rhetoric to achieve that. And it is this practice that is questionable.


reasonable said...

John Wesley in one of his sermons said something along this line: If you are rich [living luxuriously?], as sure as the sun rises from the east, you are on the way to hell!"

I am quite sure John Wesley, if he were around here today, would say something similar to the above to those who uses prosperity theology to justify their luxurious life.

And the Apostle Paul said in a letter to Timothy: "those who want to be rich fall into a temptation and a snare etc etc".

"Blessed are you poor... Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your comfort" - Jesus in the Gospel according to Luke

[supplement with the parable about the fate of Lazarus vis-a-vis the rich man - how their eternal destiny is the reverse of their earthly situation]

luo said...

Thank you brother(sister?) for your analysis is very sound. The so called Prosperity doctrine is nothing more than a Doctrine of Greed. Prosperity preachers distort the bible and unfortunately many who do not examine the scriptures themselves are sadly misled. I suspect that many of these people are themselves greedy and such doctrine appeals to them.
I once heard an American tele-evangelist telling his congregation that whatever money they give to the church God will return to them thirty, sixty and some a hundredfold quoting Mat 13. But the parable of the sower in Mat 13 is not even about money but the sowing of God’s words.
One preacher claimed that Jesus was a very rich man because he even had a Treasurer (Judas). Which poor man would have need of a treasurer he asked. And his congregation eagerly lapped up his foolish utterances.
Many “Christians” are in such a pitiful state for ‘’seeing they see not, hearing they hear not, neither do they understand’’ the true gospel of Jesus.

reasonable said...

I'm male :)

kelvintan73 said...

It is indeed so much easier for Christians to say, "Your sins are forgiven", rather than "Get up and walk."

We have no problem accepting by faith that our salvation is paid by Jesus and we are still saved despite not having to do anything.

When it comes to health and wealth, it is so difficult for Christians to accept that God also desire to add these to us through the same faith in his Son's work on the cross.

reasonable said...

If Kong Hee wants to be a good witness for Jesus, then he should follow John Wesley's example by first, limit his yearly personal expenses such that they would be MORE money to give to the poor and other causes, which means stop living a luxurious life, second, set aside some regular savings for a retirement investment-plan, and then give all the rest of his past accumulated wealth away and also, from then on, year after year, give the rest of the income-above-expenses/savings away year after year.

If Kong Hee adopts such a step for his personal wealth and personal income, then he would be a good model for Christian and a good witness for Jesus.

Kong Hee should not let his expenses rise with his income. He should not let his lifestyle rise with his income. He has the free-will now to choose to live life like how he was living it many years ago before his current luxurious life. If he intends to be a good witness, then heed Paul's words: "If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content." He should earn lots and lots of money, and then regulary give most of these money away, while living a non-luxurious and simple life [we are not asking him to be poor].

Kong Hee should follow this [to be a good witness]:

"Wesley began to limit his expenses so that he would have more money to give to the poor. He records that one year his income was 30 pounds and his living expenses 28 pounds, so he had 2 pounds to give away. The next year his income doubled, but he still managed to live on 28 pounds, so he had 32 pounds to give to the poor. In the third year, his income jumped to 90 pounds. Instead of letting his expenses rise with his income, he kept them to 28 pounds and gave away 62 pounds. ... One year his income was a little over 1400 pounds. He lived on 30 pounds and gave away nearly 1400 pounds...the money went out in charity as quickly as it came in. He reports that he never had 100 pounds at any one time."

The explicit New Testament teachings against desiring wealth should be taken seriously, instead of some people we come across who use inferences upon inferences to try to argue that Jesus was rich.

Gilbert Sim said...

Well said, brother. It's the misuse that's disgusting.

Sze Zeng said...

Thank you for your contribution, reasonable and luo.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Kelvintan73,

The issue raised here is not whether can or cannot God bless his people with material wealth or physical health.

The issue here is WHY God bless his people?

So I agree with you that God does bless people with health and wealth at his own discretion. I'm raising the issue why would God want to bless his people.

Sze Zeng said...

Thank you, Gilbert Sim. We are too easy to be tempted to misuse good theology.

luo said...

Sze Zeng
Thanks for the good work you have put in.
The message of the Bible is about deliverance from sins for the repentant sinners. It is about living a holy life as evidence that one is a true follower of Christ, while sojourning on this fallen world. It is about keeping our sights heaven bound and not on the seductions of this world. It is about trusting a sovereign and yet infinitely loving God and thanking Him for all his blessings (yes including health and wealth if He so chooses) and his sufficient grace during our fiery refining in the crucible of our trials. That our blessings is not primarily for our enjoyment but to bless others. That in our sufferings we learn also to emphatise with other suffering brethrens.
It is not about paradise on earth enjoying perfect health and plenty of wealth as if it is an entitlement that all one needs to do it to claim it. It is not about speaking ‘’words of faith’’ to claim your entitlement as if God will quickly snatch it away if you don’t claim it. God does not play a technicality game with us. It is not as if God will forfeit our blessings if we did not say the right words, make the right claim, bound the appropriate demons. Jeremiah said that God searches our hearts. No amount of eloquence and charismatic prancing can mask a deceitful heart.
We only need to look at the lives of Jesus’ followers. Other than John who died of old age the rest of them underwent horrendous sufferings. Paul asked to be relieved of the thorns in his flesh, only to be reminded that God’s grace is sufficient.
God in his sovereignty and love chooses to bless and chooses to try but always for a good purpose.
Prosperity, Health and Wealth, Word Faith Doctrines are false doctrines. It not taught in the bible. Just think about it with all honesty. If the above doctrine is true then no Christian should be sick, poor, unsuccessful or suffering. The truth of the matter is that there are some brethrens among us who are suffering, poor, persecuted. Can any Christian say that he has not suffered?
Didn’t Jesus remind his followers that in this world there will be troubles? Did he also not remind them to ‘’Love not the world, neither the things in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.’’