Understanding the “Prosperity Gospel”

Understanding the “Prosperity Gospel”

There is an interesting article in the latest (July 10) Christian Century about the influence of “prosperity” preaching in Africa. This is an important topic for serious theological reflection. Philip Jenkins and others have been giving us much solid information about the shifting center of gravity in the global church, from the northern to the southern hemisphere. They have also been telling us that on the Protestant side, those flourishing Christian movements in Africa tend to be strongly Pentecostal-charismatic in their spirituality. And much of the theology that informs this flourishing community of faith is-as the Century article (”Expecting Miracles,” by Paul Gifford) makes clear-of a “prosperity gospel”sort. Trusting in Jesus, the congregations are told, will inevitably bring about physical healing and material gain.

It’s tempting to trash that kind of theology, but the Century writer rightly holds back from doing so. He is obviously concerned about the sort of preaching that he has witnessed there. But for all of that, he reminds us, there is something to be said for telling desperately needy people “that you matter, that you belong on top, that you will have what you desire.” Marginalized groups of people do need to hear encouraging words that “provide incentives in circumstances in which it is all too easy to give up.”

What I would add to this wise counsel is that we need to do the theological homework that will address these concerns more effectively. For me, the case was put in a challenging manner by my former colleague, the late Paul Hiebert, who published an important essay, “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle,” in the early 1980s in the journal Missiology. Hiebert recounted his experience as a missionary anthropologist with recent converts to Christianity in a village culture in India. When these folks would face difficult challenges relating to fertility, family crises, or economic threats, they would often turn to the shaman for help. Hiebert realized that he did not have the theological resources to address their practical concerns. He had a “high” theology of God, salvation, and human destiny. He also had a scientific grasp of empirical reality. But he was lost when dealing with a middle range of issues: How can I avoid accidents? How can I win my husband back? Who can help me deal with my child’s illness? How can I find enough food for our next meal?

This is the theological “excluded middle” that my own theology does not know how to address. Yet for many people in the world, those are the most important issues in their lives. Much of what goes into “prosperity preaching” makes me nervous theologically. But until the rest of us learn how better to address “the middle range,” I for one will refrain from attacking.


  1. I just returned from Ghana having experienced the same sort of prosperity message in Pentecostal Christianity – and not only in church but on the streets of Accra where it is integrated into the capitalist market. Countless stores up and down the roads implore the name of God to promote the selling of their products – from lumber to wigs. Success is in God’s name. Amen!

    For some reason, though I disagree theologically with the prosperity message in the UK & US, I found it not entirely out of place in Accra. I did however have concerns over the influence that TBN (Trinity Broadcast Network) has on the African continent. I found that many African Christians with TVs are tuned into Texan evangelists asking for one more donation. This type of Christianity can easily lead to abuse in African situations. And it has – the Winners Church from Nigeria recently had a scandal in Ghana in regards to how the money was being used to bring prosperity to its leadership and not the people. An unfortunately too familiar story in the west.

    In contrast, it ought however to be noted that the mainline churches in Ghana, like the Methodists and Presbyterians, are also wary of this gospel and continue to grow at rapid rates. And yet they seem to be answering that prayer for prosperity by founding hundreds of schools and many hospitals.

    There are countless ways for the affluent Western church, through partnership with their brothers in the African church, to head the cry of God’s people and thus help with that middle range which deals with finances.

    Thanks for the post Pres. Mouw.


    Comment by Brian Lugioyo — July 19, 2007 @ 1:17 am

  2. Mr. Mouw,

    My first time writing here. Have always enjoyed your stuff. Greatly influenced by “Consulting The Faithful” and developing a “hermeneutic of charity” of which this blog exemplifies. It (and you) remind me so much how how a former pastor of mine lived his life. Like you, I agree, there is much in prosperity teaching that makes me nervous, i.e. do we honestly believe that prosperity teachings will work in third world countries outside of the rich West? However, as I believe that nothing happens in a vacuum, neither do prosperity teachings. They have come about as a result of the Church lacking in certain areas and we would be wise to listen to those deeper impulses. A good starting place would be Bruce Barron’s, “The Health and Wealth Gospel: What’s Going On Today In A Movement That Has Shaped The Faith Of Millions?” Possibly out of print, but if one can get their hands on it, they’ll be that much more enriched by it’s reading.

    Comment by Brandon Blake — July 19, 2007 @ 7:01 am

  3. Sorry to hear that Dr. Mouw. The prosperity gospel and the gospel of positive thinking have found their bedrock, not on Christ and the way of Jesus, but on the assumed goodness of materialism.

    I’ve been to various countries on the continent of Africa multiple times. Each time I fellowshipped in a major city, with a church that was marked by considerable Western influence (e.g. Benny Hinn, Kenneth Hagin, Copeland and the like) it was apparent they were just mimicking the false gospels preached by these folks.

    In a world economy completely out of balance. Not speaking out against the health, wealth, and hapiness gospels confims to the “popular” Christian movement that this is how Jesus would love, this is what Jesus would expect. And you know, at least, I hope you know that is far from the truth!

    Comment by fullergrad — July 20, 2007 @ 2:22 pm

  4. OK, I am charistmatic in my theology, but active in a pentecostal denomination. But I am probably less hesitant to voice my concerns about the health & wealth gospel than Dr. Mouw is. I think we can argue strongly against a theology we disagree with, without necessarily enggaging in personal attack against those who affirm said theology. I once read a book which provided an excellent critique of the theology of a popular word-faith televangelist, but also made fun of his hair?!? I say: “Who cares what his hair looks like! What does he teach?” But I digress.

    For charismatics & pentecostals, there is, of course a middle position which affirms healing is available today (”provided” for in the atonement but not “guaranteed”). This position is based upon the “already, but not yet” nature of the Kingdom of God in this present age. John Wimber had a article in Christianity Today to this effect. See also “Why some are not healed” by Gary Matsdorf (Published by ICFG) as well as “The Disease of the Health & Wealth Gospel” by Gordon Fee.

    Now Dr. Muow brings up an important point though, for cessasionists. Since Christianity is a religion of hope – both hope for an abundant life in the present as well as the eschatological hope of eternal bliss and no more tears, pain, suffering or disease. If we embrace a theology that says there are no more miracles how can we as christians give hope to the terminally ill, aids afflicted, etc. Have we nothing to offer but a prayer that medical science will do what it can, the hope of wholeness at the end of this age, and whatever God would teach us through our trials?

    On the other hand, the line between charistmatics and conservatives is not nearly so distinct now as it once was. Today we see hand-rasing during worship in many mainline denominations, or leaders praying for healing in churches that wouldn’t necessarily label themselves “charistmatic.”

    Comment by Brad Blocksom — July 20, 2007 @ 3:09 pm

  5. It seems to me that this excluded middle might be found in a renewed engagement of pneumatology. For the most part this has been a neglected study, yet it is the Holy Spirit who Jesus said will be our advocate and counselor after he left, and it is the Holy Spirit who will teach us all things. By neglecting this most immediate and even practical aspect of God we have formed a spirituality that is often emphasizing a place to go in order to see Jesus or teaching a God that in his magnificence is only concerned about the supposed religious issues.

    That’s why prosperity gospel slips in as a distorted form of Pentecostalism. It’s a pneumatology that views the power of the Holy Spirit among us in ways that seem to make sense, but for the fact they are not fully Biblical. However, because of the neglect of so much theology to develop a well-rounded pnuematology these kinds of heresies slip in very easily. In the history of the church a great deal of our theology has been formed in the face of pressing questions and distortions. If the present questions have to do with the work of the Spirit, we need to do a significantly better job of addressing the topic of the Spirit, rather than dismissing that category of thought or assuming it is only within the territory of Pentecostals.

    Certainly there have been some amazing recent works on the topic of the Spirit, but this needs to broaden and become more emphasized in theological circles. Fuller Seminary, of course, is definitely doing its part for this renewed emphasis. And I thank you for your leadership that has allowed that to blossom.

    Comment by Patrick — July 25, 2007 @ 8:31 am

  6. Thank you for this helpful insight. As a Pentecostal academic, who has spent a considerable amount of time researching healing theology and practice, I often find myself in this same dilemma and often “on the point” to account for or denounce or defend prosperity/divine health preachers. It all depends on the audience and/or accuser. I have written against Word of Faith doctrine, which I consider to be an aberrant theology. However, I have often had the same thought: what hope does our theology offer to the poor of the world? It is important to recognize that there is redemptive suffering, but not all suffering is redemptive. And how can we encourage Christians to speak out against oppressors, yet not offer the oppressed real hope of transformation of their situation? I believe that Scripture bears out that God is a Healer. This is not the same thing as saying that if a person is sick they have sinned or they have no faith. On the contrary, Hebrews bears out that those who go through adversity have exemplary faith.

    I find it incredibly arrogant for those of us who are the “haves” to preach against a gospel which advocates “having”. Until we have really provided for the “have nots” we should not criticize anyone who is, at least, attempting to help the “have nots”.

    Finally, I do not believe that we have sufficiently reflected on the OT concept of shalom and wholeness, which always involves prosperity. I’m not an OT scholar and don’t pretend to understand the implications of those passages but perhaps a fuller understanding of wellness and wholeness would bring us to a more helpful message to those who are poor.

    Comment by Kimberly Ervin Alexander — August 10, 2007 @ 9:06 pm

  7. And your critiques to Liberation Theology, with their shameful support to terrorists Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat-by the way I`m no a zionist/rapturist- can be read where?.
    Preachers from suburbanite megachurches in USA sucking money from adult people living in middle class communities; are so terrible and get dennounced by seminary’ presidents every day on web
    But clergymen selling weapons and ammunitions to PLO, as that Arab Catholic Bishop who is near an idol in liberal Protestant Churches in USA and Europe; or world council of church`s cowards who appears in mass media, denying there are religious persecution in Cuba and in Palestine, or writing stinky articles in praise to Arafat, are free to terrorize and opress to Evangelicals?.

    Comment by eliecer guillen — August 19, 2007 @ 2:01 pm

  8. I believe that some aspects of the Word of Faith movement promotes a distorted view of prosperity. But after reading some of the debate about the so-called prosperity gospel in the black churches, traditional black preachers calling it “another gospel” this raises the question- What is really the Gospel of Jesus Christ? I see three gospels preached in America. The individual Soul gospel by usually white Evangelicals, the communal Social Gospel by traditional Black Churches, and the prosperity gospel preached by charismatics/neo-Pentecostal people. These are huge generalizations, i know. Salvation from damnation or to be positive Salvation to restoration in fellowship to God squeezes somewhere in those three streams. How do Christians address systemic poverty in America? How do Christians address “marginalized peoples” who don’t have access to food, shelter, and healthcare, and employment. I think the Social Gospel and in some forms the prosperity-lite preachers address these issues, these approaches that which traditional conservative evangelicals may disagree. What about salvation, entering to eternal life, justification, and right standing with God, Evangelicals got that down and to some degree prosperity preachers and to a larger degree traditional Social Gospel preachers. We do need to acknowledge that we believers live in and experience the “here-not yet” tension. But I do think that Evangelical, Black Church, and Pentecostal/Charismatic theologians really need to sit down at the table and hash these issues out or by God may He raise up a generation of Spirit-filled thinkers to really cross their kingdom borders and discuss these issues because the Church needs to be edified and the world is dying to hear the hope that which we confess be have.

    Comment by Jason Oliver Evans — August 24, 2007 @ 2:15 pm

  9. Interesting comments by Dr. Mouw, especially from the Fuller Theological Seminary campus. I am one of the student and staff at Fuller and I have noticed significant amount of opposition on the campus against “heath and wealth” theology. Theology which teach to name it, claim it and once you get frame it. However, I am glad to note Dr. Mouw’s stand which is to refraining from denouncing these kinds of theology until we have better answers of the ‘felt needs’ of the people who live in the economically challenged parts in the world. Those who live in US and other western nations needs to understand the fact that the meaning of ‘prosperity’ has very different meaning in other parts than here. Prosperity here means having bigger car, bigger house, more money and slim body etc. Prosperity for many lay Christian and even leaders in the other parts of the world is to have three decent meals per day, able to send children to school, having more than two pairs of cloths per year, having enough money to go to some Christian events in near by city or village. Thus the theology and preaching which seems to be unbiblical here in US would be very biblical into to the context in which God promises blessings of wellbeing to His people.
    Recently, I read a book by P.G. Vergis: Key to Miracles, in which he points out the importance of faith in getting health and wealth from God. He shares many of his personal stories in the book, interestingly I did not find any of his needs extravagant from any point of view. He is praying and having faith for the milk for his baby, he is praying for his daughter to stop crying while she is in the public school, he is praying to have small church building. In no way it is about having the most luxuries house and car. But even he is considered to be ‘prosperity gospel preacher’. Thus, it is imperative that we follow the advices of Jesus to his disciple: Mark 9: 40 For he that is not against us is on our part.

    Comment by Rajiv Pathik — September 3, 2007 @ 10:44 am

  10. I appreciated your reflection. An interesting observation that I’ve made after living in East Africa since 1990 is: in places where people have experienced major suffering, and sometimes persecution, such as Sudan and Ethiopia, the prosperity gospel is less prevalent than in places like Kenya. Kenya, for example, is marked less by war and persecution, and more by gross inequalities.

    I also find that Christians in East Africa from various backgrounds, including Pentecostal, are concerned about the influx of prosperity gospel teaching. They believe that it distorts the gospel. Personally, I agree with Dr Mouw, and Paul Hiebert, about the excluded middle being at least partially the reason for the popularity of this teaching. Does God bless His followers? If so, how? What do we make of poverty and illness? Does God offer a solution? He certainly did in the traditional religions, doesn’t the Christian God offer a solution?

    Unfortunately, the flip side of the prosperity gospel in Africa is generally that Black Africans have been cursed. Poverty exists because of what Pharoah did to the people of Israel (from a sermon preached by an American but greatly received by an African audience). Curses have come, either through the actions of Africans in the Bible, or because of the traditional African culture and religions. It develops a certain racist tint. Poverty is due to Africanness.

    Comment by Mike Brislen — September 6, 2007 @ 2:09 am

  11. If Bible doesn’t talk about Prosperity gospel then does it talk about Poverty Gospel? What we need here is a balance!

    Yours Truly
    Shailesh Pateliya

    Comment by Shailesh Pateliya — September 7, 2007 @ 1:47 am

  12. Please note that non christian Africans (animistic, moslems, tribalistic and other)implore their dieties in everyday activities. why does it become wrong for christians bringing their Lord to the “market place” after all is Jesus not the Lord of All? If we are in spiritual warfare, the market place as well as the homes, offices and other is where the od Jesus must be implored. If cows on a thousand hilld belong to him why are christiansd in africa poor? There must be some theological behind the educational socio-economic reasons touted around. We want to know.

    Comment by Fred Ringo — July 1, 2008 @ 5:41 am

  13. I thank Dr Mouw for sharing with us his theological position regarding Prosperity Gospel. This type of the gospel is Heretical in nature-it has displaced the Lordship of Jesus into the power of the Preachers. I am a Tanzanian systematic theologian if you like, the middle issues that we need in Africa does not need prospeity Gospel. We need the Gospel at least not as expanded by Dr Rowan Williams. But by a Jewish Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks or NT Wright. We need Justice, Mercy and Faith not money (Matt 23. 23). If there is a fare trade, if western Government and their companies do come and trade fairly with African States, then shall the Already realized kingdom of God be the true manifestation of the gospel and the power of the Holy spirit. We dont need pneumatology and all these claping of hands and shouting as a means of healing the African wretchedness.


    Pastor Chaggama JM

    Comment by Joseph Chaggama — February 11, 2009 @ 5:23 pm

  14. Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. :) Cheers! Sandra. R.

    Comment by sandrar — September 10, 2009 @ 2:51 pm

  15. I’m a South African believer and social activist! Interesting discussion! Bonhoefer said evil persist when good people do nothing! I live in Eldorado Park, a community that suffers under this yolk of lies and false promises. Prosperity and healing is used as a carrot and stick to enrich individuals. A mixed race community known in South African terms as ‘coloured’ are being brain washed with false hope. Many poor people here give money with the expectation of being ‘blessed’ and end up shipwrecking their faith completely! When people eventually feel they’ve been had, local preachers have to employ body guards. This week one of the local prosperity preachers home was robbed. This ‘man of God’ drives a bullet proof Lexus, sports designer clothing, and has turned his home into a township mansion. His response to this attack..three 24 hr armed security guys! Who pays for this? The loyal followers that hope in the return on tithing investment. People diagnosed with HIV are being ‘delivered’ and droping out of their medication routine. After they test positive again, their bodies resist the ARV treatment. The point is that a warped theology for the poor does more harm than good. The solution lies in blood washed Believers sharing resources with the poor. The devil knows how to twist the scriptures to legitimise greed. Poverty in our context is systemic, we ought to now free ourselves from exploitation of Christians!

    Comment by Russell Florence — November 13, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

  16. The Bible never speaks of a prosperity ministry. However, it speaks from beginning to end about death to self, which is absolutely absent in almost all churches and religions today. although this is unfortunate, it should be expected. the Bible does tells us in the latter days people will leave the faith(understanding) and give heed to false doctrine of fulfilling the flesh. what do u know we are definite at that point now.

    Comment by damian — March 27, 2011 @ 12:37 pm