In modern Christian evangelism, a curious new brand of the gospel has emerged, which has come to be known (by its critics) as the ‘prosperity gospel’. This brand differs from church to church (or preacher to preacher), but is typified by a teaching something along the lines of: Jesus Christ came and saved us from our sin, freeing us from the bondage of pain and suffering and sickness and poverty, that we might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10). As a result, those who come to Jesus Christ will henceforth be able to look forward to a life of prosperity and health, both spiritual and material, because “[Jesus] will do whatever [we] ask in [his] name” (John 14:13).
While there surely are variants in the teaching, and some teachers certainly teach from more nuanced / less extreme angles, the allure of such a teaching, in general, is obvious — to a world whose inhabitants long for health and wealth and material comfort, there cannot be many pieces of Good News more good than this promise. However, there are many dangers associated with such teaching. Theological and scriptural interpretation issues aside (these verses have to be interpreted in context; Jesus arguably did not actually promise a life without persecution or hardship or worry, cf. John 16:33, 2 Cor 12:7-9, Luke 14:27-33), holding to this idea of the gospel can often be dangerous for Christians. In Mark 4:1-9, Jesus tells the parable of the sower who sows seed on different types of soil — if seeds are sown on rocky soil, when the sun rises and the cares of life start to overwhelm, they quickly wither and die; similarly, if the message of the gospel is not shared in all of its entirety and in its truth, but is instead twisted to match the desires of the people, it will not live long. When faced with the harsh reality of life, the Christian quickly starts to realize that the gospel has not delivered on all the wealth and health that it promised along with Jesus, and a consequence may then be to doubt the authenticity of the entire message in the first place. In short, such teaching easily leads people to become disillusioned with idea of God.
Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. (Luke 17:1-2)
If such teachers are so dangerous, and the potential results of their (misguided) teachings are so devastating (from the point of view of the hearers), then Christians have a responsibility to look out for and speak out against false teachers (Acts 20:29-31) to protect one another. In my experience, however, this is not something that is terribly difficult to do; as a culture, we have little difficulty criticizing what we don’t agree with. What is instead challenging, however, is knowing how to do it in the right and loving way.
A few thoughts guide and inform me as I think about how to best respond to teachers whom we regard as being propagators and proponents of dangerous teachings. One, that if God doesn’t work through broken and (often) wrong people, we would all be doomed. Two, that while I might feel a particular teaching is a misreading and misrepresentation of the gospel, the followers and proponents of that teaching think the exact same thing about me. And three, that we are called to unity as far as possible — while Paul did have instructions about excommunication of members from the church (1Cor 5:1-5), one of the most famous prayers of Jesus was that the church be united as one (John 17:20-22).
In this light, it seems like the appropriate response to preachers of gospels which we deem to be false would not be to disavow them as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, nor to publicly lambast them and their followers. Instead, I try my best to pray for them, that God would convict in their hearts the folly of their teaching, and at the same time, that God would work powerfully through their ministry nevertheless — whether through, or in spite of their teaching. Typically, proponents of these messages have much better apparent success at reaching out to people; and I pray that God would even be able to work through these experiences to reveal Himself in truth. God is faithful and powerful enough to work in spite of speed bumps we might have along the journey towards Him, and if a person does genuinely experience Jesus by God’s grace, the teaching by which he or she was first introduced to Him is of less consequence than the encounter itself. So in every situation, I try to have my first response be one of prayer for the ministry. Ideally, we should also directly raise up our concerns with the preacher (not out of disdain or condemnation, but out of love and a desire to see their ministry flourish as truly as it can be), but that is not always possible. In that case, I also try to have conversations with the people I know who follow this teaching, discussing with them why I think this teaching is a misrepresentation of the full truth of the gospel.
Of course, there is no one “prosperity gospel”, and in each case, discernment must be exercised in knowing what is heresy and what is misdirected emphasis. But in any case, I remind myself that I have a responsibility to speak up, but that I also have a responsibility to love. What do you all think would be a good way for Christians to approach this topic?