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Prosperity Gospel: A Valid Evangelical Option? Part 2

I grew up within classical Pentecostalism, a Christian tradition that by and large rejected the Word-Faith prosperity gospel when it emerged in the 1970s and 1980s.

Yet, within a decade, most cities had at least one Word-Faith church dedicated to the gospel of health and wealth through positive thinking and speaking.

Most looked to Kenneth Hagin, who was well known to most classical Pentecostal pastors in the U.S.

I lived through the rise of the Word-Faith prosperity gospel among Pentecostals and observed churches being torn apart by it.

For the most part, classical Pentecostal leaders distanced themselves from it and many even condemned it as heresy.

But many accommodated in order to hold onto many of their members rather than lose them to the new upstart Word-Faith “ministries” being founded mostly by graduates of Hagin’s Rhema Bible Institute.

After leaving Pentecostalism and becoming Baptist, I thought I had left that particular controversy behind.

However, my first full-time teaching position was at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I tried my best to counter the pervasive influence of the Word-Faith prosperity gospel teaching among students, many of whom were transfers to ORU from Rhema.

Many Word-Faith evangelists spoke in ORU’s required chapel services. Oral Roberts himself seemed to be adopting elements of Word-Faith teaching.

The university faculty, however, by and large opposed it, which created tension on campus.

One of my theology colleagues, Charles Farah, wrote one of the best books critical of Word-Faith prosperity teaching – “From the Pinnacle of the Temple” – in which he helpfully distinguished between faith and presumption.

At that time, many followers of the Word-Faith teaching were refusing medical treatment and discarding their much-needed glasses as expressions of their “absolute faith” in God’s healing power.

Many were racking up huge credit card debt and buying houses beyond what they could really afford, as evidences of their total trust in the power of God to provide wealth.

I thought this Word-Faith teaching would never be taught at a “mainline” Protestant seminary.

But a couple of years ago I was surprised, even shocked, when I sat in on a church history class at a “mainline Protestant seminary.”

I heard a Hispanic professor, herself of Pentecostal extraction, extol the Word-Faith prosperity gospel as something very positive and good – especially for oppressed Hispanics and African-Americans.

She asked the class, “What other theology can give them hope for a better life?”

I quickly jotted down on a piece of paper “Liberation theology?” and showed it to the student sitting next to me. He raised his hand, and the professor called on him.

“Liberation theology?” he asked.

She dismissed it as irrelevant without even attempting to discuss his answer.

Now, leading Word-Faith prosperity gospel pastor-evangelist Paula White is being labeled “evangelical” by the media.

She is being connected with Donald Trump as his religious “point person” to connect him with “evangelical” Christians.

This raises so many questions I don’t even know where to begin. I do see a connection – between the prosperity gospel of health and wealth (as God’s blessings) and religious support for Trump.

As an evangelical theologian and church historian, my main interest lies in exposing the Word-Faith “gospel” of prosperity as non-evangelical and even non-Christian – at least insofar as it focuses with heavy emphasis on manipulating God to give one financial wealth, material abundance and guaranteed health.

This is a theology that blatantly denies God’s sovereignty and freedom, turning God into a cosmic slot machine. And it distorts prayer into magic.

The whole focus of the Bible shifts and becomes human centered rather than God centered.

And it is rooted in extra-biblical “revelations” themselves rooted in New Thought – a philosophy that teaches that the power of God to create reality lies dormant within the human mind and mouth.

Evangelical leaders should take a strong public stand against this alternative gospel and reject it as non-evangelical. It is, in my opinion, cultic in the theological sense.

That the media are beginning to treat Word-Faith promoters of the “gospel” of health and wealth through magic as evangelicals is scandalous.

The movers and shakers of evangelical Christianity in America and everywhere need to band together in spite of our differences and say to the media, “They are not us; stop calling them ‘evangelicals’.”

I anticipate some objections, and I have argued that evangelicalism is not a “bounded set category” but a “centered set category.”

But I have also always offered the caveat that being “evangelical” is not compatible with anything and everything.

There is a center, and that center can be corrupted to the point where people claiming to be evangelical cannot be recognized as evangelical.

The prosperity gospel of health and wealth is such a mutation of classical evangelical Christianity that it is unrecognizable.

It is a “different gospel” that holds out false hope to desperate people about a god who can be manipulated, about “prayer” as magic, and about guaranteed health and wealth through pretending it exists when it doesn’t.

It substitutes faith with presumption and places material “abundance” at the center in place of God who calls us to service rather than greed.

I am not saying followers of the Word Faith “gospel” are not Christians, but I do wonder about some of their leaders and their true motives.

It’s the promoters of this false gospel I aim criticism at, not the masses of deluded followers, many of whom are simply desperate people being seduced into false hope and counterfeit Christianity.

Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Against Calvinism” and “The Story of Christian Theology.” This article is edited from a longer version that first appeared on his blog. It is used with permission.

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part one is available here.