Sunday, March 11, 2007

An Impoverished Gospel

When you think of someone as having been changed by Christ, what does this call to mind? In our self-centered, egocentric, the world-revolves-around-me culture, change almost always involves a reversal of financial status as indication that God has radically changed a person's life. Unfortunately, the evils of the prosperity Gospel are subtly and insidiously infiltrating every corner of Christendom, morphing the Gospel of repentance into a Gospel of success.

Consider this illustration from LifeWay's Spring 2007 Life Answers Sunday School quarterly:
In high school I had a friend named Brock. He was what we called back then a "motorhead." All Brock talked about was working on cars and dirt bikes. He would show up for school in grease-stained clothes, long unkempt hair, and usually was bumming money for lunch. His grades were poor and his wallet was poorer. If there had been a "most likely to be a failure" category in the yearbook, he would have won by unanimous vote.

I didn't see Brock again until our 20th class reunion. When I saw him, I couldn't believe my eyes. Standing before me was a successful businessman, straight out of GQ. His expensive suit and well-groomed appearance were such a departure from the last time I saw him that it was hard to believe. I learned later that he had started his own company, and it had assets above one million dollars.

At the very heart of the Gospel is the concept of change. When Jesus enters into your heart and begins changing you into His likeness, the change is so dramatic that the people around you can't help but say, "You're a different person." And this is how it should be. radical change can serve as a signpost to us that our experience with Christ is real and valid (p. 15).
OK, what was wrong with Brock? Why did he need to change? How does Brock serve as an illustration of radical change, a real and valid experience with Christ? He was bedraggled, poor, obviously didn't own a comb, and enjoyed tinkering on cars. This makes him a viable candidate not for the transforming power of the Gospel, but rather Extreme Makeover. The implication here is that being transformed into the likeness of Christ means you have a bulging wallet, a fat bank account, and you walk in the upper echelon of society. Evolving from welfare to faring well is the essence of the Gospel.

Perhaps I am nit-picking this Sunday School quarterly, but sowing seeds such as these can only bear bitter fruit. The prosperity message is the single greatest heresy plaguing American Christianity right now and such errant teaching should not even be entertained. Too many believers are led astray thinking that God wants them to prosper financially when the Word of God teaches purely contradictory to the prosperity message.

The prosperity teachings rob churches of their evangelistic effectiveness, squelches missionary endeavor, and mints shallow believers, believers more concerned with their wardrobes than the plight of the poor. I do not consider this a wholesale endorsement by LifeWay of the health and wealth teachings, but to sow the wind reaps a whirlwind. Taking baby steps like these can still move you in the general direction of disaster.
Because you say, "I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing, you do not know that you are wretched, miserable, blind, and naked." Revelation 3:17

22 comments:

selahV said...

Tony: You aren't going to believe this, but for some reason--unbeknownest to me at the moment--I read the illustration before anything else on your post today. I didn't read you lead-in paragraph till I'd read down through the rest of your post. Weird, but I found myself going back in time to when I was first saved. I was 28 years old. The lifestyle I owned before Jesus would have fit quite well with the Brock of highschool. Not my appearance, mind you--just the lifestyle of a unkempt, dirty, could care less about anyone's opinion of me attitude that Brock obviously held since he went to school dirty and was consumed with his world of cars and grunge.

I, too, was consumed with those things--not cars--but grunge and my own interests. Then Jesus. And from then on my whole life was consumed with building a kingdom for the King. Anyway...I thought it interesting that you and I saw the illustration in two entirely different ways. By this, I'm NOT saying that your take on the illustration or Lifeway is incorrect. I just wondered, what is the theme of the lesson which illustrated their theme with the illustration you posted?

Hope your day was glorious in the Lord, yesterday and today is even more so. selahV
P.S. My financial situation did change after I was saved--from welfare to modest prosperity--however when the Lord called my husband to surrender to the ministry, we abandoned our modest prosperity and now live in near poverty (by the world's standards) conditions. And I am so much happier than I've ever been in my life. Totally content to drive the Ghetto-Mobile that my grandsons have affectionally named my 1994 Chevy Astro van. Go figure.

Streak said...

Tony, I may be missing part of the quarterly message, but it sounds to me like the wealth is somehow proof of his faith? "When Jesus enters into your heart and begins changing you into His likeness,..." which may be all and good, but has no correlation to dressing "straight out of GQ."

I don't think you are nitpicking at all, and unless there is something missing from the quarterly that you didn't include, I don't actually see any theology at all. This is an American Horatio Alger story, not the gospel.

Heather said...

Tony -

I'm with Streak ... I don't think you're nitpicking. This is a common problem that I am seeing more and more, even in the Baptist circles who would speak against the "prosperity gospel".

We have a dear friend who runs our children's ministry and he would be, according to THE WORLD'S (and apparently now the church's) standards, poor. But he is a blessed man - just had a baby girl at 50 years old! He will tell you that he is tired of hearing people say that we, as Christians, are supposed to have this, that and the other. And he is tired of hearing anyone who is in Christ described as poor (either by themselves or someone else) because, as he says, "I have Christ and so I am filthy rich!!"

Many years ago Brandon and I were in a bad financial situation and ended up having to sell our house to get out of debt. Do you know how many of our brothers and sisters in Christ understood? a very small handful. Most everyone thought we were stupid ... giving up all that equity and that nice house that we "owned".

In that situation the Lord taught me something. You know in Matthew 6:33 when Jesus says, "But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you." ... what is He talking about here? In context, what has he been talking about?

Earlier (v 25) He says, "For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?" For what reason? Because no one can serve 2 masters, because we aren't to be storing up for ourselves treasure on earth, but treasures in heaven, because where our treasure is, so our heart is also (vs 19-24).

What do I need? I need food and clothing. Do I dare to think I deserve MORE than my Master had while He lived on this earth? And yet, for some reason He blesses me with more - a nice home and health and wealth (by the entire world's standards, not those in the US) ... regardless of all that, though, I have Christ, and therefore I am filthy rich!!!

Thanks for reminding me of this Tony, I'm embarrased to say that I had forgotten this lesson!

Blessings!

~Heather

Heather said...

Tony -

I meant to add that the use of Matthew 6:33 to pray for whatever you want really bothers me. "All these things" that Jesus is talking about are our needs ... not everything we think we deserve or want!

~Heather

Cameron Cloud said...

First, I am strongly opposed to the prosperity theology so prevalent today. It IS insidious in its attack on the fundamental truths of the Gospel.

That being said, I didn't take the illustration to mean this change in "Brock" was because of faith. My perception was that the complete difference in his outward appearance was an illustration of the concept of dramatic change. If a person is so changed by outward success, how much more should they be changed by an inward conversion?

Heather said...

Cameron -

You said, "My perception was that the complete difference in his outward appearance was an illustration of the concept of dramatic change. If a person is so changed by outward success, how much more should they be changed by an inward conversion?" I understand what you are saying, but the danger is in equating outward change with inward change.

I have a dear friend who is an ex-gang member. By ALL outward appearances he is still a hoodlum. But he is one of the godliest, most encouraging, spirit-filled, sold-out men that anyone would ever meet.

Outward appearance is no indication whatsoever of the inward man. The danger lies in believing or communicating that they are one in the same.

~Heather

Les Puryear said...

Tony,

Good post. The way I see change in the scriptures is that the inward change of the heart can be seen outwardly. I think the story of Jesus casting out "Legion" from "tomb man" depicts a physical change.

I don't think that's the issue you're addressing but that's how I view a heart change when the Spirit regenerates a human heart.

Becoming a Christian does NOT guarantee material wealth. Quite the opposite, I think. Jesus said that those who followed Him would be persecuted and endure much tribulation and the world would hate them. Doesn't sound like the GQ guy to me.

Regards,

Les

Streak said...

Hey Les, nice to see you. I have always winced a little at the "didn't Jesus say we would be persecuted" line only because such annoying people (not you, obviously) would invoke it to justify their otherwise odious behavior. In fact, I am sure that the right reverend Falwell has invoked that very scripture to dismiss criticisms of his political work for the Republican party.

That said, I don't disagree with you here. But isn't it more direct than that. Doesn't Jesus ask his disciples to give up their material wealth to follow him?

Unfortunately, I think Lifeway has become about as credible as someone like John Hagee--who makes millions off his people.

selahV said...

Hey Les, Streak raises an interesting question of which I have never thought of. What does Lifeway do with their profits? Do we generate a profit or put it back into more litature? Haven't been to a convention in years. Might finally get to do that this year. We'll see. selahV

Headmistress said...

Perhaps it's because I'm not up on my "prosperity gospel", but I think you are nit-pickin' a bit here, Tony. I see where you're coming from, but I'm with Cameron. Brock's "WOW! What happened to you" makeover story (which I don't see as having anything to do with being saved) is what we would hope to say to someone who's just been smacked by the Spirit--with or without a wardrobe change.

As for this "prosperity gospel" stuff, this isn't something I'm that familiar with...is it a big problem in your Baptist circles especially? I gotta tell ya, when I first started reading your post, I thought it was going in the complete opposite direction after the second sentence: In our self-centered, egocentric, the world-revolves-around-me culture, change almost always involves a reversal of financial status as indication that God has radically changed a person's life. I just assume that when you're living what the world would consider "the good life", taking up your cross and following Christ would include leaving your "self-centered, egocentric, the world-revolves-around-me culture", as well as drastically drain your financial assets. But I guess I'm just seeing the reversal from an affluent to a lower or middle class conversion. In my "Lutheryterian" background, I've never experienced the kind of "prosperity gospel" preaching you're referring to. But then again, I don't spend time watching tele-evangelists.

Tony said...

Everyone,

Thanks for all the good comments while I was away. I appreciate your patience. I had a blessed time at the conference.

selahV,

Thanks for the testimony. The theme of the lesson was "Jesus opens our eyes" and the bulk was from John 9 about Jesus giving the man who had been born blind his sight.

To be honest, I am not sure what LifeWay does with their profits, but they are a for-profit business and not a ministry.

Streak,

There was no theology in the anecdote, just a rags to riches story to illustrate the point about radical change. But why does a change in financial status have to be THE illustration?

It seems that as long as you have achieved some kind of middle class stability, moderate financial returns, and a decent reputation in your community then that is some kind of indication of God's smile of approval, not repentance or a whole-hearted acceptance of the Gospel of Christ. So Alger applies, here I think.

Heather,

I am glad this post served to stir you up by way of reminder. I'm also sorry it hit kind of close to home.

I think its is telling on us as Baptists but to a greater degree American Christians that we are more concerned with wants than needs. So many of us have achieved middle class stability, which I am not knocking, that we overlook what true needs really are.

Having achieved a modest level of income, we have shifted the paradigm of what those needs are. We think an Acura is a need when a modest Chevy would adequately meet our need.

BTW, I tell everyone that I am rich...I just don't have a lot of money.

Cameron,

I see your point, but I humbly disagree. It troubles me that these sorts of rag to riches stories have become the norm to illustrate radical life change. The equating of the American Dream with Christlikeness is troubling to me and serves to foster a shallow Christianity, one devoid of any benevolent social concern.

You are correct, Brock was not used to illustrate a theological point but why not choose another illustration? The standard caterpillar morphing into a butterfly would serve the purpose just as well. Illustrations are powerful! They often carry the meaning of the entire message (or lesson, as here). So, in the back of my mind, I am thinking that if I come to Christ, my financial difficulties will be solved.

Needless to say, the American Dream became the focal point of the lesson Sunday morning.

Les,

I agree. An outward testimony always arises due to the inward witness. The Scriptures you reference are ones the prosperity teachers conveniently overlook.

I do agree with Streak; oftentimes religious figures drag them out of context and use them to support an agenda and if you don't agree with the agenda, you don't agree with God, so that makes you bad. (You have not done that, though.)

That being said, it interests me how the talking heads of conservatism oscillate between the "poor, bedraggled, persecuted group" and "we are the majority of the country."

HM,

Like I said to Cameron, I humbly disagree. I only point out this illustration because it is becoming the norm with us Baptists. Illustrations like this are cropping up more frequently.

Brock, mechanic, dirty, greasy hands, poor = BAD. Brock, GQ, slick, suit, executive, millions in assets = GOOD. Or as the next graph drew the point, CHRISTLIKE.

Conversions are funny things, you never know which direction they are going to lead. I am not saying God cannot use an executive, but I don't like to see where an executive is illustrated as the one who potentially can do more for Christ than a mechanic.

About TV evangelists or specifically prosperity teachers, I keep an eye on them because a few of the folks I serve watch them.

I have purposefully began subtly countering in my preaching/teaching the faulty theology of prosperity teachers; i.e., more missionary stories, NO rags to riches, not even wardrobe change. I also teach on finances from the pulpit occasionally and how God honors the faithful use of our checkbook rather than divine returns.

You said, I just assume that when you're living what the world would consider "the good life", taking up your cross and following Christ would include leaving your "self-centered, egocentric, the world-revolves-around-me culture"... I agree that it does, but you made my point for me. Sadly in American Christianity (and particularly Baptists), it does not mean that.

We digress rather to the Horatio Alger stories rather than authentic Gospel.

Streak said...

Brock's "WOW! What happened to you" makeover story (which I don't see as having anything to do with being saved) is what we would hope to say to someone who's just been smacked by the Spirit--with or without a wardrobe change.

Again, maybe I am missing part of the story here, but I don't see anything spiritual about it. Brock could have learned ruthlessness in business and become very rich and dress very well. He could have learned insider trading. could have outsourced his labor to sweatshops and child labor. That this is in a Sunday School quarterly simply boggles my mind.

Of course, I flash back to the quarterly of my youth and remember the most vapid, simplistic pablum that could possibly be taken from the complicated Bible. It wasn't until later that I learned how edited those quarterly's were and how cautious and vanila they were intended to be.

Perhaps my SBC past is eliciting a stronger response than I anticipated. :)

Heather said...

Tony -

You have hit on why this bothers me ... you said, "It troubles me that these sorts of rag to riches stories have become the norm to illustrate radical life change. The equating of the American Dream with Christlikeness is troubling to me and serves to foster a shallow Christianity, one devoid of any benevolent social concern."

There ya go. The problem is that people will then tend to equate the 2. I also agree with Streak's last comment.

~Heather

Cameron Cloud said...

Heather said,
"I understand what you are saying, but the danger is in equating outward change with inward change." (emphasis mine)

That is the problem. An illustration illustrates, it doesn't necessarily equate. And my perception of this story is that it is not attempting to do so.

I did not intend to imply that outward change was a definite indication of inner change. My apologies that I was unclear, and it seemed I was suggesting otherwise.

I do believe it is impossible for a person to be truly converted and not experience inward transformation that will be evidenced in outward behavior.



Tony,
I understand your point. The same issue could be taken, however, with "the standard caterpillar morphing into a butterfly" illustration. I don't see much difference between a "rags to riches" illustration of change and an "ugly to beautiful" illustration. Both use outward change to illustrate the truth of a life changed by conversion. Both illustrate rather than equate.

I would no more think salvation made one rich from the Brock story than I would think salvation made one beautiful from the caterpillar illustration. (I am living, breathing evidence that neither are true.)

That being said let me express agreement on two particular points:

1) We must be discreet in our use of stories and illustrations lest we give false impressions of the gospel. I can appreciate your carefulness on this issue.

2) The "prosperity" theology and gospel is sweeping contemporary Christianity. I applaud your efforts as a pastor to "stem the flood."

Geoff Baggett said...

Tony,

I think your close look at this is valid. With just a cursory read of the illustration, the implication (immediate) is that the transformation from poor to rich and successful was a product of the guy's salvation. It was a bad illustration.

And the whole world seems to be looking for some response to or understanding of the "prosperity gospel." My series of posts on the subject earlier this year has proven to be my most read posts. I have several peopel woh 'wander" onto my blog through search engines every day because of questions about the prosperity gospel, prayer cloths, extorting God and the like.

We need to have the RIGHT answers.

BTW ... you can pick up your copy of Hagee at any LifeWay store. Sad. :(

Geoff

Headmistress said...

Streak, I don't see anything spiritual with Brock's change, either, and agree with you on his possible reasons for "making it". I read the illustration as this: the writer is surprised to see a totally different Brock from when he/she last saw him...period. One could only hope to see such a drastic change with someone who's recently come to Christ, but not necessarily a physical change or a bump up in financial status.

Tony, I understand your beef with this illustration better now, especially with how you see the story portraying poor Brock as bad and rich Brock as good. But not having much experience with the prosperity gospel craze kept me from reading into this illustration the way you did. In today's culture, I think people can make the connection to a radical change story with a rags-to-riches analogy better than a caterpillar/butterfly one...but I can definitely see now the danger in that with all the other falacies plaguing the Church. I'm thankful this isn't something prevalent in our immediate circles.

And just to show how completely out-of-it I am...what the heck is a prayer cloth? Do I have to start subscribing to LifeWay's catalogs to be in the loop with y'all these days? ;)

Tony said...

Heather,

Thanks for the follow-up. If you agree with Streak too often, you might become a cynic.

Sorry Streak, couldn't help it. :)

Cameron,

Our disagreement is minor. Illustrations do just simply illustrate and I am pressing the point that this illustration equated something that really wasn't there, though easily fabricated in the mind of a less observant believer.

My irritation stems largely from the fact that several folks in the congregation I serve watch a certain TV preacher with a spinning "J" in the bottom left-hand side of the screen. And that "J" don't mean Jesus.

I probably wouldn't be so fretted if that wasn't the case. Plus the prosperity teachings REALLY upset me, so treading this close to the line bothers me.

Thanks for talking this out, brother.

Geoff,

Thanks for the vote of affirmation there, brother. I watched those threads and you handled them ably and admirably. I was impressed. :)

Having the right answers with prosperity is the difficult part because the prosperity movement is so persuasive. The movement seems to have a lot to offer, but like I titled my post, it is an impoverished Gospel.

And there ain't no sense in Hagee's books being on the shelf at LifeWay.

HM,

Go to Google and put in Joel Osteen. You will be appalled at his theology. And he "pastors" the largest "evangelical" church in the country. He was number one on the Church Report's top 50 list of most influential Christians for 2007.

I think people can make the connection to a radical change story with a rags-to-riches analogy better than a caterpillar/butterfly one...but I can definitely see now the danger in that with all the other falacies plaguing the Church. You are absolutely correct. It bothers me though when this is THE go-to illustration to make a point about radical life change. It is becoming the norm when there is a plethora of other stories, fictional or not, that can be marshalled.

I'm thankful this isn't something prevalent in our immediate circles. I am too, and I pray it does not. Be familiar with it though, because it is an insidious movement and often hard to recognize.

A prayer cloth is a very loose interpretation of Acts 19:11-12 and supposedly possesses some kind of divine-mystical energy causing God to more clearly hear your prayers.

There isn't anything inherently wrong with them; they are typically used as money-making schemes or it can be just simply a crutch.

Last time I checked, God isn't deaf.

Streak said...

Tony, it is hard to be offended at something so true. :)

Your last line reminds me of what Bono said on "Rattle and Hum" regarding televangelists. "The God I believe in isn't short of cash, Mister."

Headmistress said...

Thanks Tony for being so patient with me! Your suggested google search led me to some interesting reading on Word-Faith theology...scary stuff. It's good for me to poke my head out now and then from the little Reformed rock I live under. I've always wondered about folks who jump on the bandwagons of Osteen and others out there; now I know I need to stop wondering about them and be seriously praying for them.

Thanks again for the great post and dialogue!

Tony said...

HM,

Oh, hey, you're welcome!

The prosperity teaching is a hermeneutical embarrassment, huh? It doesn't hurt to stick your head out of your shell every now and then, does it?

God bless you and your family.

Elder's Wife said...

Tony-
Since I have a life outside of blogs, I missed reading your post on the so-called prosperity Gospel.
How blind we are when we focus only on outward appearances...
Let me share a different twist on the Gospel of Success.
Yesterday I talked with a gal who was upset because a lady in the church she is attending criticized her for being TOO neat and clean. She said that my friend's house was just too clean and also that she dressed "too fancy" for their church. My friend just keeps a neat house, and I guess it was intimidating for the church lady.
It made me reflect on one of the things I've seen in the "emergent" movement. When it comes right down to it, the same critical, "I'm right and you're wrong" attitude is likely to come out that has always plagued the church.
Why can't we see that God doesn't live in the same box we do? It's just as elitist to believe that the only valid ministry (read that: "Authentic Church") is the church of the disenfranchised as it is to believe that it is the church of upper-middle class suburbia or the mega-techie church.
And the only valid Christians are the ones who drive the same cars we do...or vote the same ticket...or watch the same movies.
In the same way, God doesn't require me to get a nose stud (at my age???) to be able to relate to people who wear them. He does tell me to love the person with the nose stud, however. And He tells Nose Stud to love me. He's a lot more interested in changing hearts than changing suits.
The Cargo Cult Gospel of Success is "all about me". The Gospel of Jesus Christ is all about Him.
Big difference.
Kat

Tony said...

Kat,

You mean there is more to life than blogging? ;)

That is appalling that someone would be accused of being too "domesticated" and then that accusation be used to evaluate someone's Christianity, or in this case, "churchianity." I can honestly say I have never heard of that criticism being leveled at a saint of God before. I mean, cleanliness is next to Godliness, right? Isn't that in the Bible somewhere? :)

We are prone to see our type of church as "right" and their type of church as "wrong," and I'm speaking generically. Anything that does not exactly match with what "our" interpretation of church is then that automatically makes it at best inadequate and at worst, just wrong. And then "we" stand appalled by its apparent "wrongness" and can only criticize and be blind to what God may be genuinely doing in their midst.

Unfortunately, we do draw party lines in church. How I wish we did not. Someone once said the most segregated hour in America is 11:00 am on Sunday morning.

And that does not extend to race anymore! We divide, like you said, based on number of body piercings or tattoos, white collar or blue collar, motorcycle riders, cowboys, and so the list goes.

My Bible still says in Revelation 5:9-10, ...For You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation...

Yes, the Gospel of success is a recipe for failure. Thanks for stopping by; hope there is enough here to bring you back.