Yesterday, a thought occurred to me, as I was pondering the recent troubles of people like Richard Roberts (president of Oral Roberts University) and his wife Lindsay.
I was thinking about how amazing it is that these supposed Bible teachers and preachers could have gotten so mixed up. When the Bible contains so many warnings about the love of money, and so many exhortations to not love the things of this world, how on earth did the “Prosperity Gospel” ever take root and grow through so much of the Charismatic world?
That’s when this thought occurred to me:
Perhaps the “Prosperity Gospel” caught on so well because it offered its proponants – those evangelists and ministers – theological support for getting rich.
Think about it. Prior to perhaps the 1970s, when preachers like Oral Roberts and Kenneth Copeland hit the TV airwaves with their “Seed Faith” and “Name It and Claim It” messages, the predominant view among churchfolk was that clergymen should not have a lot of money.
I’ve mentioned before how, when my mom was a teenager in the 1950s, one of her good friends was the daughter of a Pentecostal preacher. My mom remembers hearing all about how tough it was for them, living on a tiny salary. But then, to add insult to injury, their congregation also believed that it was their right to scrutinize and critique every expenditure this preacher and his family made. If the preacher’s wife bought a new dress, there would be talk. If they got a new car, the church people wanted to make sure they got the best deal for “their” money. And of course, the preacher didn’t DARE take his family on any sort of vacation that could be viewed as “extravagant.” It was a tough life.
That, obviously, was one extreme. But, deeply planted within the Christian psyche, is the long-held notion that a true “man of God” does not care – or more importantly, SHOULD NOT care – about the “things of this world.”
There is a lot of Scriptural support for this notion. While Jesus did promise that He will meet our material needs if we are truly seeking to do His will, we are instructed to “store up treasures” in heaven and NOT on this earth. In fact, if you study the Bible carefully, keeping in mind audience and context, you really can’t make a case for ANY Christian, clergy or layperson, striving to accumulate lots of money.
Yet Sunday after Sunday, in most Charismatic churches across this country, people are treated to messages about how God wants you to be rich. Time Magazine, in fact, devoted a cover story to this very question last year.
We ourselves, during our time at Living Word Church (a pseudonym), heard more preaching about money than about any other subject. Most of it was about how we needed to be giving to Living Word. Tithing was taught as God’s strict law, and in addition to that mandatory ten percent of our gross income, we were also hit up for extra offerings. Pastor Smith (another pseudonym) devoted so much time to the subject of giving that, during our first Sunday morning service at the church, I mistakenly thought that he’d already preached his sermon when all he’d been doing was giving the congregation his usual 15-minute pre-offering pep talk.
Definitely, “Charismaniac” preachers love the prosperity message. They also love the “perks” that go with it.
Pastor Smith would occasionally go on rants – rants that even at the time struck me as oddly defensive – about how he didn’t want to hear ANYONE complaining about his fancy car (which happened to be a top-of-the-line $80,000 Mercedes) or his nice house (a newer custom-built mansion in a gated community). I don’t feel like taking the time, but if I wanted to, I’m sure I could dig up and transcribe any number of these rants from teaching CDs we still have lying around our house.
And the bottom line of all these tirades was always the same: Pastor Smith NEEDED to have these designer clothes and expensive vacations, for OUR benefit.
Yes, you read that right.
On many occasions, Pastor Smith told us that since he was our “shepherd,” our “covering,” our “spiritual father,” and our “head,” and since “anointing flows from the head down,” it was to our benefit to have him living the “abundant life.” We NEEDED him to do so, in fact, because we NEEDED him as our example. “Whatever gets on the head,” he’d shout, “will flow down to the rest of the body!”
I’m rather embarrassed now to think back on how his audience responded to these rants. You’d think we all would have walked out in disgust, but instead, people would shout and applaud Pastor Smith. They were excited, because Pastor Smith was essentially telling them that if they followed his teachings – by giving their tithes and offerings to Living Word Church – they themselves would end up with a Mercedes and a closet full of custom-made suits and Tommy Bahama sportswear.
Through God’s grace, we never fully bought into all of Pastor Smith’s message. I guess we just couldn’t quite shake our middle-of-the-road Baptist/Evangelical upbringings. We were never quite comfortable with the idea that we needed Pastor Smith to live in luxury so that we could be blessed. We knew the Bible a little too well to fall for that.
Yet this idea is rampant in Charismania, and it is the teaching these preachers use to prop up their little kingdoms. I can guarantee you that, should the allegations about the Robertses’ extravagant lifestyle prove to be true, you’ll find plenty of people who will defend them with this very line of reasoning. I’d even venture to guess that Richard Roberts himself – born and raised in the ultimate “Seed Faith” household – has so internalized his father’s messages about money and “blessings” that he sees nothing wrong with flying in the university’s private jet to take his family on luxury vacations. He probably views a gorgeous house, luxury cars, and a country club membership as his personal right…even though it’s all financed from money that ordinary people like my grandparents “gave to God.”
Because he’s the “anointed man of God.”
I know for a fact that Pastor Smith feels that way. Because he’s said so on any number of occasions.
The thing about the “Prosperity Gospel,” the reason why it took off like a ministry-financed private jet, is because it WORKS FOR THE PREACHERS WHO TEACH IT. “Giving out of your need” may very well bankrupt Joe Average, but the preacher taking up the offering actually does prosper.
Although many of these preachers probably knew the Bible well enough to be aware of the warnings against amassing worldly wealth, it was just too pleasant, too easy, to latch onto this new twist of Scripture that said God wanted you to live rich. Perhaps, after years and years of poverty at the hands of their churches, these hard-working and essentially honest pastors felt like the time had finally come for them to be rewarded for all their sacrifices.
And now they finally had the “theology” that permitted them to be “movin’ on up.”