Many Christians are content to adopt a live-and-let-live approach towards the Word of Faith movement. They see them as misguided but basically well-meaning (for example, read the thoughts of Eric Hyde, one of my favourite bloggers: https://ehyde.wordpress.com/2013/06/04/why-do-word-of-faith-christians-become-jaded/). I am not so understanding. I believe that Word of Faith preachers – Creflo Dollar, Joel Osteen and the like – are predators. They exploit people’s emotional and financial insecurities for personal gain.
For those who are unsure, the Word of Faith movement basically teaches that it is God’s will that we prosper. It claims that as Christians we are mini-Gods, and by our ‘claiming’ wealth and health and prosperity through literal ‘words of faith’, we are exercising our divine natures. The preachers often infer, or even profess outright, that they have direct communication with God, and even claim to be able to have control over forces of nature – from disease to the weather. Many of their assertions go far beyond the city limits of Misguided and have crossed the border into Downright Blasphemous.
In times of increasing unemployment, and when state healthcare is poor, when – in short – people are feeling helpless and insecure, they become easy targets for con-artists. And that is what I believe the Word of Faith preachers are. One would be naïve to believe that a capitalist system would not spawn a host of (I will use a generous word) entrepreneurs to use religion as a vehicle towards personal riches. Capitalist society is already rife with get-rich-quick schemes that take advantage of people’s gullibility and desire to get the maximum return for the least effort. One need only consider the plethora of devices guaranteed to help you lose weight without having to change either your diet or (lack of) exercise routine, for example. Or study guides that will tell you everything you need to know about a subject prior to an examination, in order to pass, without the inconvenient effort of actually trying to understand the material. It happens in every sphere of life; it was only a matter of time before somebody saw the potential inherent in religion. Yes, I concede that there are strands of orthodox theology woven in to the Word of Faith teachings, but I suspect they are just there to lend credibility to the lie at the heart of the scam.
It is an easy lie to swallow because it promises a very convenient Christianity that demands no real introspection. It takes the harsh reality that is life – the problem of human suffering and the terror at our own mortality and insignificance in the face of the vast and indifferent void of the universe – and assures people desperate to find significance and meaning that they have both. The problem comes when members of these churches come up against real life. You cannot just ‘command victory’ over depression or tithe your way out of obesity. Many members of the Word of Faith churches will have their illusions shattered by real life and turn away from God as a result. Their pastors will tell them that it was their own lack of faith or their own miserliness that have caused their misfortunes. And many of those broken people will believe them and absolve the church of any responsibility for their unhappiness.
Please understand, I am not attacking members of these churches, although I wish they would exercise some discernment. But I do think that it is time for genuine seekers after the heart of God to call this what it is. After all, this has become the public face of Christianity, thanks to the television coverage it receives, paid for by the gullible many. As long as the world at large is misjudging Christ’s teachings as a result of the Word of Faith movement, and as long as people in those congregations are being exploited and broken by it, I think we have a responsibility to challenge it.
The Bible does not promise health or prosperity. In fact, it promises the opposite. Jesus’s parting words to his disciples in John 16:33 are that they should expect hardship: “In this world you will have trouble”. This warning is frequently at the core of his discourse about a life spent in service to him. He speaks out against seeking earthly prosperity (Matthew 6:24; Mark 10:17-31; Luke 12:13-21), and indeed the early church members often sold and gave away all their earthly possessions (Acts 2:45). In other words, Jesus acknowledges that life is hard and suggests that because his teachings are counter-culture teachings, the believer can expect things to be even more difficult. There are no shortcuts to a godly life (which, by the way, is community-oriented, not aimed purely at personal growth or prosperity, if one accepts the model adopted by the early church), just as there are no shortcuts to a healthy physical lifestyle.
This is one of those issues on which I am (possibly psychotically so) happy to be called judgmental and narrow-minded. Maybe if the real church distances itself publicly from this charade and stops hiding behind political correctness, and maybe if enough people who have been scarred by their experiences in these churches will speak up about them; maybe if we exercise more discernment in the books and music we buy from ‘Christian’ bookstores and which we allow to influence our theology, and take our blinkers off when we watch ‘Christian’ television (better yet, if we see it for the commercial enterprise it is and stop watching it altogether); maybe if we stop becoming so afraid of the devil that we unquestioningly embrace all that brands itself as ‘Christian’ and perhaps if we realise that it is not being unBiblically judgmental, but Biblically responsible, to call a false prophet a false prophet, we can begin to address the tarnished reputation this movement has given our faith.