08/01: The High Cost of the Slave Auction Block: The Prosperity Gospel in the African American Church
I cannot imagine what it must have been like to stand on that platform, not knowing what would come of being made to stand docile while your body was searched, tested, inspected by hands you only knew to bring death. Not knowing, I am sure there was still much fearing, because the last three months on the boat packed full of humans, yet with each day losing humanity, proved just how much a man can feel less than. How much a woman can hate her womanhood, because of the extra injustice it seems to bring her. And how much a culture can vanish, though all around you are your sisters and brothers.
The slave auction block was a place were the degradation of humanity and the birth of American capitalism met. An account of that time describes a scene that every American, conscious human being, should be ashamed of.
Whether in a city slave market or on a plantation auction block, the “traffic in human flesh” was a grim scene recounted by many former slaves. They tell of being greased for display, stripped for meticulous examination, forced to dance to look healthy, rejected if too intelligent or too inclined to run away, beaten if they didn’t “induce the spectators to buy them,” and perhaps most painful, being separated forever from family .And while we stand on the retrospect side of the unfolding of the history of African American’s in the United States and of the capitalistic foundation of that country, we still can witness the lingering affects of when humanity and ideology collided. It seems humanity is still catching up. Capitalism has only been affirmed, at times, it seems, without question; even by those who can recount and feel what man can create with this tool. By the hands of sinful man, slavery and subsequent segregation has left the African American community searching to understand what it means to be made in God’s image, how to live (or, rather, often, merely cope) in a fallen world, what is the responsibility of the individual as an agent of change, and where is God amidst all of these wonderings and realities.
The Prosperity Gospel, also referred to as the Word of Faith movement, has sought, though primarily unintentionally, it seems, to answer these questions for the Black American Christian. This reality should seem unsurprising initially, for the Black church has always wrestled with what it means to be Black and Christian in America. But what is interesting is the pervasive materialistic element of this theology, the very element that aided in the oppression of the Black culture. To isolate this despairing truth as the whole truth concerning the Word of Faith movement in general, and in the black church specifically would be to unfairly caricature the movement and the people in it. This contextual theology provides many life-reaching, truthful answers to the questions that Blacks have asked in this country, mentioned previously. The prosperity gospel is all at once the realization and the retardation of Langston Hughes’ vision,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes,
say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”.....
I, too, am America .
I’ll be at the table
When company comes,
say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”.....
I, too, am America .
Before looking more closely at this contemporary freedom song of the Black church, it is important to understand some general truths concerning it.
The prosperity gospel holds that it is God’s will for every Christian to prosper spiritually, physically, and materially. The means of accessing these blessings are by following “a simple, but not rigid, formula: first, find the promise in God’s word; secondly, believe in your heart; thirdly, confess with your lips; lastly, act as if the prayer has been answered”. It is not a systematized theology. Even less so is it’s expression in the Black church. While there are certain teachings that are referred to often (either directly or indirectly) that are provided with scriptural backings, it seems that most of these lines of thought are expressed through individual preaching or other means of teaching (i.e. books). There is no collected body or document of common beliefs compiled by those that hold them. In fact, some of these doctrines, at least for Kenneth Copeland, a prominent leader in the movement, are seemingly initially articulated through defensive arguments, responding to critics of his ministry. Truly, to even speak of the prosperity gospel as a movement is to greatly describe its affect in this country and internationally. It is a way of interpreting the Bible and living out the implications of that interpretation that is not bound by denomination. While perhaps most common in charismatic churches, it has touched even traditional, mainline churches.
The Word of Faith Movement is one of many new forms of evangelical, charismatic Christianity to develop in the Unites States since World War II. It is a contemporary American religious subculture made up of denominationally independent churches, ministries, Bible training colleges and other educational institutions, voluntary organizations and fellowships, information and entertainment production facilities, and mass media broadcast networks. Rather than being part of a formal organizational structure, all of these entities are bound together into a relational network, based upon a shared understanding of the Bible, according to the movement’s doctrine, the Faith message.However, the influence in traditional churches has been reactionary to a degree. The very roots of the Word of faith movement are in separation from the traditional church. Shayne Lee describes this movement as neo-pentecostalism, as opposed to the traditional denomination, Pentecostalism,
Neo-Pentecostalism refers to the contemporary form of the Pentecostal movement that emerged in the latter part of the twentieth century. It puts less emphasis on the baptism of the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues, and more on the power of the Holy Spirit for healing prophetic utterances, vibrant worship and music, and prosperity for believers.The need for separation is rooted in an actual and perceived failure of traditional denominational churches to meet the needs of its members. Re-articulating the Bible to meet the current needs of the church is a common experience in the Black community. It is as fundamental to the African American experience in this country as is learning how to make meals out of animal scraps, what remained from the slave master’s consumption. We have felt the deep need of physical and spiritual survival and have learned that both are fundamental to what it means to be human. In his description of the transition from the “Negro Church” to the “Black Church, C. Eric Lincoln makes this point,
The “Negro Church” that Frazier wrote about no longer exists. It died an agonized death in the harsh turmoil which tried the faith so rigorously in the decade of the “Savage Sixties,” for there it had to confront under the most trying circumstances the possibility that “Negro” and “Christian” were irreconcilable categories. The call to full manhood, to personhood, and the call to Christian responsibility left no room for the implications of being a “Negro” in contemporary America. With sadness and reluctance, trepidation and confidence, the Negro Church accepted death in order to be reborn. Out of the ashes of its funeral pyre there sprang the bold, strident, self-conscious phoenix that is the contemporary Black Church.And while the Black experience in America has not had the “luxury” of a primarily cerebral faith, it seems that the Word of faith movement in the Black church, while continuing this tradition of contextualization, has made it’s contextual expression a means of luxury.
Those attributed with laying the groundwork for what is known as the Word of Faith Movement include E.W. Kenyon and Kenneth Hagin along with several Black Americans, some of whom will be discussed shortly. The influence of New Thought teachings is evident in this history. This philosophy essentially held that positive thinking led to positive realities. However, the historical context of the resulting theology highlights that while it is no less materialistic in focus, it is also more.
Lets look more intently at the world of the African American that the prosperity gospel has spoken into, and even now speaks.
Cultural Needs and The Prosperity Gospel
If the guiding hermeneutic of African theology has been the question, “Why us?” , that of African American theology has been, “Who are we?”. Because of the physical and mental violence of being uprooted from the home that they new and that new them and being planted in a world that they did not know and only knew them as property, African slaves and those of us who have descended from them have constantly asked this question of identity. Carl Ellis discusses this “progression of consciousness,”
The historic African American resistance to oppression in the quest for freedom and dignity can be divided into five major phases. Though they were initiated in historical sequence, each still exists today. These phases represent various ways of understanding and our situation. They are as follows: (1) Colored, (2) Neo-Colored, (3) Negro, (4) Neo-Negro and (5) Black. The Black phase included five subphases: (a) Black awareness, (b) Black power, (c) Black revolutionism, (d) Neo-Black revolutionism and (e) Neo-Pan-Africanism.For Ellis, these phases represent the struggle in Black America to define its identity and to realize it by responding to racism and oppression. The responses were as varied as and corresponded with the various phases of understanding. And the Black church was in the midst of it all.
Pioneers from the 1920s to the 1970s
By the time (early 1920s) of the inception of religious movements that have laid the foundations for what is now the Word of Faith movement, the Negro phase was the prevailing mindset and mission. Finding themselves still unable to melt into the melting pot, which was essentially conforming to prevailing white norms, the Neo-Colored person embraced his new self. Ellis describes this phase: Freedom and dignity were taken from our grasp-they appeared to be locked inside the melting pot. Entering the pot became the hope of achieving freedom and dignity. They agreed to that to achieve melting-pot status, one had to become just like the melting-pot folks. So the key strategy of the Negro phase became imitation.
There were two leading figures during that began their movements during this phase, George Baker, better known as Father Divine, and Marcelino Manoel da Graca, better known as Daddy Grace. Divine’s organization, the Peace Mission, though having international followings, “emerged largely as a response to the hardships that African American’s experienced during the Great Depression” . Racial integration was also a key component of his movement, as many whites were attracted to him as well. In fact, interracial membership in his organization was “deliberately encouraged”. To a degree, this factor seems to stand at odds with the prevailing mindset that Negro’s had to accommodate to white standards in order to survive in society. But Divine’s movement was one in which Whites positioned themselves under an ethos of “Black is Beautiful”. This mindset was greatly fueled by an idea that God had come in the form of a Black man, Father Divine. Frazier describes the sentiment behind this thinking, “The followers of Divine believe that he is God and that he will never die. To them God has appeared as a Negro because the Negro is the lowliest of God’s creatures and God prefers to bring salvation to the Lowly”. Thus the Negroes who held this view, though blaspheming all the while, believed they had found that God was near them. In fact, he became one of them. Here, too they found identity and worth. “Black is Beautiful” was more than an ethos for Divine and the movement, it was also an engagement, Divine did much to advance the social, economic, and political position of Negroes. “He regarded his movement as a practical program that would provide his followers with health, food, clothing, shelter, and jobs. In addition to establishing schools for both children and adults, Father Divine urged his followers to register and vote in national elections. Further challenging the Negro assimilationalist mindset, Divine, during the mid-30s, supported, helped to establish, and endorsed political organizations and candidates that challenged the reigning white system. While Divine did not promise health and prosperity to his followers through religion, he certainly worked towards it on their behalf and encouraged them to embrace means to advance themselves, “He staunchly advocated the Protestant work ethic, self-support, savings, investments, and the sanctity of private property. In this we see the Peace Mission meeting the need of challenging Negroes to self-actualize while working toward changing societal structures to help ensure that possibility. The influences of New Thought teachings are evident here, as the movement “promoted “‘visualization of the positive’ as its philosophical basis.
Daddy Grace, however, did promise prosperity to his followers. This cult leader, who founded the United House of Prayer for All People, “promised his believers, mostly poor urban African Americans, that they could live the good life by placing their trust, their faith, and most of all of all their money in his hands. Here the hope, even if not the realization, of Negroes for a better life was fulfilled. Black identity, however, was strangely both undermined and affirmed by Grace. Daddy Grace, a man of mixed heritage (thought to be Negro and Portuguese) claimed to be White and is described as frequently adopting “a patronizing attitude toward his Negro followers...by pointing out to them when he took earthly form he chose to lead Negroes, lowly in state though they are, rather than the members of some more privileged racial group. However, the reigning belief that Grace was God manifested, as alluded to in the previous quotation, served, because of his physical appearance, as a foundation of pride among many of his followers. Grace is also the earliest, in my research, Black prosperity leader to have his own line of merchandise that is believed to provide some form of good fortune in this life. The following description would be comical if it did not describe the the great manipulation of a desperate and sinful people, “Thus Daddy Grace soap will cleanse the body, or reduce fat, or heal according to the individual need. Daddy Grace writing paper will aid the writer in composing a good letter. Has the follower a cold or tuberculosis? The Grace Magazine will, if placed on your chest, give a complete cure. As clearly can be observed, Daddy Grace offered no substantive answers to the economic and social needs of the Negro.
Other pioneers in this line of thought include Dr. Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter II, known as Rev. Ike, and Jonnie Coleman, known also as “The First Lady of New Thought. Their movements were during the mid-1950s and the 1970s. During this period of time, there were many great strides toward civil rights and ethnic identity, which included growing Black leadership, most prominently, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. This time period encapsulated the Neo-Negro phase, which Ellis describes as having a consensus that held, “that once we achieved desegregation, racial tension would subside The ignorance that had been the basis for racial prejudice would be wiped out through understanding”. It also spanned into the Black phase. Ellis describes this phase as birthed from discontent with the perceived white-pandering mindset and tactics of those in the Civil Rights Movement (which largely embraced the Neo-Negro ethic). A new vision of Blackness was envisioned and embraced.
Harrison provides a summary of the influence of Coleman and Rev. Ike (he also includes Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux, a pioneer influencing from the 1920s through the 1940s), the pioneers of this time period,
Although they vary on a number of characteristics, a few things are common to each of these figures: (1) They all promised their followers, who were overwhelmingly from the poor and working classes of the Black community, the “good life” in this present world as well as in the next. (2) They incorporated New Thought metaphysics with the other teachings they espoused... (3) They also spoke out against social injustice in various ways... (4) Finally , they extended their charisma into the realm of marketing products and diversified economic pursuits and utilized and appropriated the mass media in the service of their messages.Harrison concludes that these figures “can be seen as direct predecessors of such notable African American television ministers as Frederick K.C. Price, Creflo A. Dollar, and T.D. Jakes. With that, let us look at the contemporary backdrop of this discussion.
Contemporary Needs and Ministries
Proving just how viciously the whip was wielded, the echo yet persists in the twenty-first century. Statistics regarding the health, economic, educational, social and judicial status of African American’s today are truly heartbreaking. Let us consider some of them.
The health of African Americans has suffered greatly because of social disparities that rendered us, and therefore our treatment, less than equal in equality and access. There are major disparities in healthcare and health outcomes. For example, if we had eliminated disparities in health in the last century, there would have been 85,000 fewer black deaths overall in 2000 .These statistics are despairing enough, but before detailing any further, it is important for us to remember the historical context in which these numbers are set- over 200 years of slavery, segregation and oppression. Could it be that part of the reason why there is not enough outrage and action, both in Black communities and by our government, is that we are losing sight of the horrible past?
Environment makes a major contribution to disparities. For example, we know that black and Hispanic children are more likely to be exposed to toxic substances or lead-based paint than their white counterparts. Other toxins relate to the fact that black and Hispanic children are most likely to grow up close to hazardous waste sites where the toxins are not as well-defined .
African Americans are not exempt from mental illness and disorders. Indeed, African American’s have a greater burden of mental illness because of difficulty in accessing treatment.
Black infants are nearly two-and-one-half times more likely than white infants to die before their first birthday.
HIV-positive African Americans are seven times more likely than whites infected with the virus to die from HIV-related illness .
In regard to our economic state, the findings are equal in nature. While African Americans have seen great advances in professional and economic status since the end of the Civil Rights Movement, inequalities still persist.
By 2002 over one in four Hispanic and African American families were asset poor, having no liquid financial assets, compared o six percent of whites. Families with small amounts or a moderate amount of wealth drew down their meager stockpile of savings to use as private safety nets.The unemployment rate for black people nationwide is twice that for whites.
Fewer than 50 percent of black families own their own homes, compared with more than 75 percent of whites .
Findings in other areas include:
“On any given day, one of every 14 black children has a parent in prison” .
“From 1995 to 2000, there were almost 10,000 cases of police use of excessive force reported in the United States; African Americans made up 47.5 percent of them” .
“In the November 2004 election, minorities and students experienced higher levels of voter intimidation and harassment than other groups.” 
Also, a reason found for why black children have lower academic achievements than white counterparts is a “‘fear of acting white’ as a factor that directs attention and behavior of black students away from serious academic pursuit” . Fear of striving to be academically successful yet failing to, confirming negative stereotypes held concerning them, is another reason that was found to hinder academic achievement .
This is a small picture of the world of lingering inequality, racism, self-hate, and self-defeatism that the Prosperity gospel speaks into. This theology provides helpful and distorted answers to the question of identity, of how to live in a fallen world, of how to act as an agent of change, of how to understand God’s sovereignty in one’s life; all of this within the context of living in capitalistic America.
The foundational tenant of the Word of faith movement, union with Christ, meets the historic question of the African American boldly-”Who am I?. I am one with Christ!”. “At the heart of the notion of ‘identification” is the idea that the believer has acquired the same nature as Christ, and even in some formulations, the same nature of God” . The obvious danger here is the tendency for those in the movement to blur the distinction between God and man. Wherever this is truly meant as the believer acquiring the divinity of God, there is guilt of heresy. However, what is clear is a strong emphasis of the putting off of the old nature, which includes the curse of sickness, poverty, and the second death, and the putting on of the nature of Christ, which assures the believer access to health, wealth, and eternal life . Especially for the believer with present or past financial or health problems, this is very alluring. This is clear in the words made by Cassandra, a middle-aged African American woman who attends Faith Christian Center, a Word of faith church in California, when asked by interviewer Milmon Harrison, what is was that influenced her to switch from a traditional denominational church to a Word of faith church,
For me, as an African American woman, I felt like I was no longer put in a box. You know, I didn’t have to do things because I was African American. Or I was not limited because I was African American. I was a child of God first who happened to be African American. And that broadened my knowledge base, it broadened my desires.Arlette, another young African American woman who attends a Word of faith church believes that now that she knows her identity in Christ, she does not have to endure outward oppression, “Arlette went on to explain that she was thinking of her interactions with other people, with the Devil, and in the context of negative situations in general, the storms of life, including the ‘curse’ of sickness, disease, or poverty”.
It is also worth noting that the prominence of African American leaders in the movement itself is a form of validation of their identity as African Americans.mWhereas before white preachers in the movement, such as Oral Roberts, Kenneth Hagin, and Pat Robertson were the prominent faces, they have been replaced or joined by black preachers such as T.D. Jakes, Eddie Long, and Fred Price.
While believers are finding worth in their identification with Christ, they minimize its significance by reducing the implications to a sense of entitlement of peace from trials and assurance of success. In this way, they find themselves with an as unstable ground for identity as any of the secular constructed forms of identity for African Americans discussed previously. Ellis makes this point when he says, “Though the leaders of the sixties left God out, by God’s grace they were able to make some valuable contributions to us. However, because of the onslaught of do-your-own-thing-ism, we lost the cultural framework to tie these contributions together. In order to pick up the pieces and reconstruct African-American culture, we will have to “reflect back” on what God has revealed about himself and about us”. Inasmuch as God’s glory is not the focus of our union with Christ, any valid contributions that the prosperity gospel makes will be reduced to “ do-your-own-thing-ism”.
It is obvious that the prosperity gospel acknowledges that we live in a fallen world. It holds that it is from the curse of this fallen world that God has delivered the believer. And it is at this point that the Word of faith movement makes considerable contributions to truth and a witness of ethics informed by that truth. In nearly all of the five Black led and attended prominent churches that I researched, four of them had programs and resources for the alleviation of or training to overcome life’s ails. Among such services that T.D. Jakes’ ministry offers include: Clay Academy, a pre-k3-10th grade school that offers small class sizes, experienced teachers, and an academic program that includes access to technology; Metroplex Economic Development, which is created to “bridge the socioeconomic gap that exists in historically undeserved communities”; “Woman Thou Art Loosed” conferences, which addresses the deep, often unspoken, concerns of women; and there are a host more. The services of Eddie Long’s ministry are similar: having, among other programs, counseling, homeless, food voucher, and employment referral services. They too have a Christian academy for kids. “The purpose or reason...for prosperity-to have enough so that one can be a blessing to others-is one of the most important and overlooked points about the teaching on prosperity”.
Trials are largely seen as from Satan, and resulting from a lack of faith, or sin in a believer’s life. One story comically and sadly details this view. Arlette, the African American woman mentioned earlier, told a story of her attempt to help lead a women’s choir rehearsal. Not knowing the song beforehand, she read it over before rehearsal. She came upon one phrase in the song that she knew would not be accepted by the word of faith-influenced women, “[God gives me] ‘strength to suffer’”. Her thoughts were proved true when the women met with opposition; she changed the word suffer to prosper. The heritage of Black Christians depending on God through their trials is abandoned as not walking in the fullness of that same God’s provision.
While greatly meeting the needs of those in a fallen world, the movement also cripples its believers from being able to endure suffering as a means of sanctification, a means God often employs. The believer is undoubtedly reduced to frustration when they are envisioning their positive life, trusting God for its reality, yet only receive the realities of still living in a fallen world.
This frustration is surely present, also, when the personal responsibility that teachers call believers to does not produced the promised results. Followers are often encouraged to give financial gifts to the ministry and to walk in the reality of what they have envisioned, though they have not yet received it. While it is important to call Christians to obedience and action, which is a needed call to African Americans subsisting helplessly in their situations, the obedience commanded should only be what the Scriptures command and only promise what the Scriptures promise as a result. More importantly, the motive for giving should only be what the Scriptures require- love for God. Describing her frustration with not receiving financial blessings after giving to her church large sums of money, Fran, an African American woman, notes, “And then, I gave five hundred dollars one time, and then recently I gave another thousand, and it’s like ‘well, when am I gonna get my money?!”.
In all of this God is clearly made to seem as though he is interested in every aspect of the Christians life and wants nothing but their good. This is indescribably true and glorious, and the movement rightly emphasizes that God is interested in the most minute areas of our lives. However, the movement fails in its definition of good. It ultimately reduces to comfort. As we can see from saints in the Bible’s life, even from our Lord, comfort is not always the Christians lot. So the good must be greater that God promises in Romans 8:28. Those who teach and follow the prosperity gospel often overlook this good. For a people acquainted with sorrows, it is a robbery of riches to not teach the beauty of sharing in the sufferings of Jesus, the One who knew infinitely deeper sorrows.
Last, in all of this, there seems to be no challenge of the capitalistic system; in fact, it is only validated. Though there may be a superficial condemning of “the World” by the movement, there is often no substantial difference from the World in its esteem of comfort. This unchallenging stance is a dangerous one. It is also an ironic one for a people who know and still experience the dehumanizing affects that unchecked pursuit of money brings.
It is so sad that a theology with such beautiful feet, its good works are so ugly and unhealthy in every other significant area.
Hermeneutical Weaknesses and Strengths
As Andrew Perriman notes, due to the controversial nature of the Word of faith teachings, the content has seemed to garner more criticism than the hermeneutical exegesis that informs it . He also asserts that the “Word of Faith hermeneutic” is similar to that of other “popular evangelical exposition”. In fact, the “Poor exegesis that supports the doctrinal consensus tends to be excused”. But we can not excuse it. Just as the Black church has not had the luxury of primarily a cognitive faith, it can not afford to leave non-revisited, unchallenged, and uncorrected the exegetical foundations that we are in large number resting upon. The price is too precious to do so; on this foundation we have laid our understanding and relationship to God, others, and ourselves. And we can hear the trembling in Paul’s voice as he exhorts Timothy of the importance of and inextricable union between truth and living, “Keep a close watch on yourself and your teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers”.
Perriman, again, is helpful, categorizing the basic theological errors of the Word of Faith movement. These categories are descriptive of the movement in general. However, while highlighting some of the points under most of his categories, I will seek to provide an additional category distinct to the African American church, the Exodus Hermeneutic.
Reading of Scripture in the movement is largely controlled by followers’ understanding of the story of salvation and its relation to prosperity. In the movement’s view of salvation Jesus, is completely devoid of his divinity in the Godhead and assumes the same nature as Adam did, an perfect human being. Therefore, the reading and preaching of Scripture is greatly influenced by this crucial doctrine of the movement. Perriman gives an example of such influence by citing Kenneth Copeland’s, a major proponent in the movement, interpretation of Colossians 1:18, “It is important for us to realize that a born-again man defeated Satan.... Colossians 1:18 refers to Jesus as the firstborn from the dead.... He was the first man to be reborn under the new covenant . This interpretation enforces the held beliefs that Jesus was born again in Hell after dying a spiritual death and that Jesus was engaged in a spiritual contest with Satan. This is crucial to the movement’s framework, since a believer’s power to defeat Satan is rooted in Jesus’ spiritual death which paid the believer’s penalty for sin, now allowing him to access what was before held by Satan. Also, the example of Jesus, a man, defeating Satan provides the example and grounds for responsibility of the believer to do the same . However, this interpretation strays from the traditional, more consistent reading of the text, with “first born” being understood as a metaphor for resurrection from the dead, as “ first fruits” does in 1 Corinthians 15:20.
Perriman highlights how this bias can be more explicitly expressed. Again citing Copeland, it is clear that the preacher reads Scripture with God’s promise of prosperity in view when he “advises his readers to commit themselves to the ‘absolute truth’ of John 10:10 before they begin meditation in the Word: ‘The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I come that they may have life, and have it abundantly’”. Referring to this standard of interpretation, Copeland says, “Whenever I read something that seems contradictory to this, I immediately stop and straighten out my thinking. The truth is hidden in some way, and I rely on the Holy Spirit to reveal it to me”. This unyielding stance based on a misinterpretation of one scripture, John 10:10, is a careless reading of Scripture with dangerous consequences. Such consequences include the nurturing of a pattern of isolation and misappropriation of Scriptural texts among the movement’s leaders and its followers.
Such unyielding leads to awkward interpretations of texts that pose hindrances to the Word of faith hermeneutic. For example, Fred. K.C. Price, a prominent leader in the movement and an African American who is founder and pastor of Crenshaw Christian Center, a largely African American mega-church in South Central, Los Angeles, denies the traditional reading of Mark 10: 17-22, Jesus words to the rich young ruler. Whereas Jesus commands him, “go, sell all that you have and give to the poor”, Price contends that Jesus did not tell him to give to the poor all of what he would receive from selling his possessions . Instead, he believes that, “Jesus wanted this man to turn all of his solid assets into liquid assets so he could carry them with him”. Price holds that, “For this man, who had kept the covenant, to have been left with nothing would have constituted a ‘denial of God’s provision’. Price’s argument holds a superficial legitimacy, for, “the text literally reads ‘whatever you have sell and give to the poor’”. However,
The second imperative (‘give’), which has no immediate object, naturally presupposes the result of the first clause (‘sell what you own’). If Jesus had meant that he was to give much less than the total proceeds from the sale of his possessions, we would expect this to have been made explicit:’give part of it to the poor...”.Besides this grammatical argument, Price overlooks the radical restructuring of priorities and understanding that is so common in Jesus’ words. The preceding clauses of the one in view, “and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” are just two clauses among many passages (i.e. Mark 9:43-50 and Matthew 11:34-38) that highlight the ultimate goal of the Kingdom of God, to know God, and the great call of sacrifice to the one who enters it. “Missing out” is the phrase that quickly comes to mind when I consider the tendency in the the Word of faith movement to overemphasize the good gifts of God, at the expense of his greater gift, namely himself. This is the weight of the passage in Mark 10; will the rich young man see all that he has as nothing in order to follow Jesus. Just as capitalism dehumanized man’s relationship to one another in slavery; a Black man was merely a White man’s asset, so the rich relationship with God is often lost in the prosperity gospel’s emphasis on the material gifts that are viewed as entitled to the believer.
Jumping to the wrong conclusion
Another tendency of Word of faith teaching is to make inaccurate deductions. For example, Creflo Dollar reads Psalm 35-27-28 in the King James Version to support the teaching that there is “a direct connection between your mouth and prosperity”. However, Dollar makes an inverse connection. The scripture highlights that it is because of God’s pleasure in prospering his servants that the speaker’s tongue gives praise and testimony.
The contractual nature of Scripture
Generally, those in the movement read Scripture with disregard to it’s historical, covenantal, and literary context. As a result, the Bible tends to be read as a contractual legal document that details the blessings that God is obligated to perform for the person who has faith. A text commonly misappropriated in this way is Isaiah 53:5, “And by his stripes we are healed”. Copeland urges his listeners to act accordingly in light of that verse, “...Jesus already provided healing for me on the cross. So I say, ‘I am thanking You, Lord, for providing healing for me. By faith I receive that provision now, in Jesus’ Name”. As we can see, the use of the word “healed” is appropriated to the movements emphasis on physical healing despite the immediate context of the verse, which applies to God’s people being restored from their “transgressions” and “iniquities” to peace with God by the work of the Suffering Servant. This tendency has also led to the personal application of promises of or provisions from God that were only intended, at least in their literal meaning, to be for the original recipient in Scripture. Creflo Dollar’s ministry crosses into this dangerous boundary when assuring its readers that just as God provided for Abraham when he employed imagination (Genesis 22:5), so will God do so for them. “Nothing will be restrained from those who put their imagination to work...Once you’ve imagined it, it won’t be impossible for you”.
Word of Faith teachers also rely heavily on personal revelation from God. This reliance is underscored by the primacy placed on faith over reason. In this, teachers make a false line of separation between faith and reason, which makes it easier to dismiss more reasonable interpretations of Scripture when one’s spirit is given revelation. This leads to the danger of teachers, or even followers, holding their personal revelations as above critique, for such revelation is viewed as from God. Psalm 105:15 (cf. 1 Chronicles 16:22), “Do not touch my anointed ones; do my prophets no harm” is used as defense for this “authoritarian position”, another misappropriation of a specific work of God to a specific people during a specific time. This stance also ignores the warning in 1 Corinthians 14:29 that calls for all prophecies to be judged by others. Perriman does not make this conclusion, however, the proneness toward anti-intellectualism and the deference made toward the preacher’s personal revelation are particular dangers in the African American community. In regard to anti-intellectualism, because reason has been used as an abusive tool by Whites toward Blacks in history (note Dr. Carl Ellis’ discussion on the curse of Ham and Lincoln’s note on “oblivion”), the false separation between faith (thought to be the source of true intimacy with God) and reason (thought to lean towards a more detached, “white”, interaction with Scripture) has more fallow soil in the Black church. Also because the black preacher has played such an important, cohesive and leading role in the Black church, his words, especially if deemed to be directly from the Lord, are greatly influential. Frazier notes the black preacher’s significance, “Since all forms of organized social effort was forbidden among the slaves and in the absence of an established priesthood, the Negro preacher played the important role in the “invisible institution” of the church among the slaves”.
Other significant interpretations and implications
Foundational to the movement’s teaching is that Satan is sovereign over the earth. Satan does have great power in this world, even in the life of the Christian, but only under the sovereign control of God, as seen in Job’s life. Because of Satan’s perceived sovereignty, all sickness and poverty is attributed to his direct cause. In essence, Satan is made an equal combatant with God over the life of his children.
Also, while Satan’s nature and power are elevated to an incorrect level, Jesus’ is limited. Perriman describes the two parts of the movement’s view on the incarnation of Christ. First, it is held that Jesus,
became fully human by abandoning all the privileges of godhead. The second is that he became a second Adam, man in his unfallen state...Jesus, therefore, was not so much God incarnate, in the classic sense of the doctrine, as “a god”-just as Adam had been formed as a replica of God, capable of relating to God through perfect faith.This is a very significant doctrine, not only in its distorted view of Christ, but because it provides the foundation for which believers feel their sense of entitlement and power; for if Jesus, a man, like them, secured victory over Satan, so can they through their faith. This is the foundational basis for assurance of material wealth and health for those influenced by the prosperity gospel.
The hermeneutic of life experience should not be overlooked as a possible influence either. Assuming the truthfulness of their claim, the pioneers of the Word of faith movement, Kenyon, Hagin both experienced hardships in life, and Hagin and Coleman, a pioneer in the Black community, had serious illness in their lives with subsequent healing. It is in the very nature of suffering for one to look for relief. It is in the very nature of humanity to look to God, or a god, for such relief. The answers that these leaders and their followers believe to have received, both physically and cognitively, greatly shape their view of God and of themselves. The primacy of the spoken testimony in the Word of Faith tradition and in the African American tradition comes into view here. And even for those who have yet to receive an “answer” of relief to their suffering, the hope of an answer, in fact, a prosperous one, spurs them to read the Word accordingly. This discussion leads to the final category specific to the Black church, the Exodus hermeneutic in the Black church history. Daniel C. Thompson gives this insight:
From the very beginning of their religious life, the Blacks tended to identify with the oppressed individuals and peoples described in the Bible. They thought of themselves as representing “God’s Chosen People,” as they assumed to be true of the ancient Hebrews, and they regarded their oppressors-their slave masters-as “Pharaohs”.In part because of this tradition and of the natural correlation between the Hebrew and Black experiences, there may often be this hermeneutical influence in African American Word of faith preachers and/or hearers. This hermeneutic has several good and necessary voices to speak, which will be discussed later. However, some potential dangers with this hermeneutic include the tendency to overlook the fact that African American’s are not just oppressed, but are also oppressors. By oppressors I am referring to the rebellion against God’s laws, sins against others, and enslavement of ourselves (for the Bible says that the natural man is a slave to his sinful nature) that every human is capable of. Where this humility is lacking, truth is lacking.
While all of these hermeneutical errors are very significant, it is necessary to express the Scriptural validity of some of the implications, and, perhaps, even the cause of certain hermeneutical leanings.
For example, while critics rightly argue against the interpretations of the movement, it can not be denied that the authority of Scripture is upheld. This is seen at the very core of the movements beliefs, for the first step towards “receiving what God has promised” is to find the appropriate scripture in the Bible. The emphasis placed on the Scriptures is one of the attractions to the movement that Milmon Harrison found to be common in his interviews with those, of various ethnicities, in the movement.
Also the recognition that poverty , and sickness are not a part of God’s good creation is necessary to the believer and the unbeliever alike in order to have a more accurate view of God and his world, of which they are a part. Whereas traditional churches can err on the side of deifying or ignoring the reality of suffering, prosperity preachers rightly denounce this false piety and apathy.
Perhaps one of the greatest lessons the Church can learn from the Word of Faith movement is the practice of seeing the fruit of the Cross. Though they tend to add implications that Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection did not promise, the Church could do well to ask what glorious things Jesus’ work accomplished for us beyond, but not superior to, our forgiveness of sins. Because of our right standing with God, how does he enter into our daily lives for his glory and our good? Paul Tripp gives voice to the incarnating work of God in personal ministry, “Personal ministry is not just about confronting people with principles, theology, or solutions. It confronts people with the God who is active and glorious in his grace and truth, and who has a rightful claim to our lives”.
Last, while overshadowed and, by nature of its self-focused thrust, seemingly often entirely removed, the concern for giving is often overlooked by critics. In fact those in the movement hold that contrary to the world’s economy which is guided by greed, they operate in a “divine economy” which is fueled “by faith in the goodness of God and the dynamic of giving and receiving”. Copeland says, “If your not careful, when you think of the laws of prosperity, all you will see is money-only a very small part of prosperity. True prosperity is God manifesting Himself to us in His Word. While we may speculate that this divine economy emphasis may be guided partly by the preachers’ manipulation, since most of the hearers may “sow” their “seed” of giving into the various ministries and partly by the greed of preacher and parishioner alike, “If I give X, then I will get Z”, to completely dismiss it would be to dismiss the truth . Regarding dismissing the truth or failing to understand clearer the claims and actions of those in the movement because of bias, ignorance, or understandable outrage, I was disheartened to learn of such dishonesty by a major news program. ABC’s television journalism show, 20/20,on March 23, 2007, ran a television clip of Fred Price during one of his sermons . The clip included Price describing a litany of luxurious things (mansions, cars), seemingly boasting about things that he owned. This was 20/20’s intended impression. However, when Price and his church protested these claims, it was discovered, when the clip was viewed in a longer context, that Price was clearly not detailing what he owned arrogantly, but giving an example of how one can have all of these things yet be spiritually bankrupt. The show made a televised apology, but surely unnecessary damage was done. It is not my intention to excuse any truly gross excesses of church leaders, but to uphold that gross excesses of critics are also unacceptable. Unorthopraxy is just as sinful as unorthodoxy.
A Clearer View: Constructing a New Contextual Theology
Contrary to the stance often taken by those in the Word of faith movement, “Thus sayeth the Lord” is not the preface for my thoughts on a clearer view on health and wealth. I do believe, however, that they are biblical considerations that I pray God will impress heavily on my heart and life, even as I pray the same for those led astray.
Now that we are at the table that Hughes envisioned, many African Americans in the movement have lost the understanding of Who it is that created the table. A lowering and raising of the view of the Christian needs to occur. Contrary to the movement’s understanding, we do not have the ultimate power to speak things into existence. That is a power reserved for the Creator, as Genesis describes him displaying. Psalm 100 states that He has created, we are the created. Much humility can be produced by meditating here. To know that it is God who created and controls our lives leaves no room for pride. Yet, it is also a joyous thing. For the God, the Creator Shepherd that the psalmist describes, is a good God, “For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever...” . This is the basis for the believer’s identity, that such a God made personal and bloody provision for us to be in relationship with Him. The wholly otherness of Jesus comes into view here, and greatly corrects the minimizing view the movement has of his divinity. John chapter one describes the God made man who did not divest himself of divinity, but demanded no deserved rights of his divinity as Philippians 2 teaches, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped”. So, in our imitation of Christ, as we recognize our union with him is embrace the humility and service that he did. This foundation is eternally more secure for African American Christians to rest their identity on.
Also, in light of this sacredness of being a creation of God, it is injustice to God and his image bearer to deny or ignore the history of image-marring that Blacks endured. So, for the Church to truly be the Church, we must acknowledge this wrong and help to restore the beauty of God displayed in the Black person and culture. We must do this in two ways: (1) by truthfully discussing the painful history (including the sinful part the Church has played in it). This truth telling removes the pronouncement of oblivion that Lincoln discusses, “White Western theology has contributed significantly to the involuntary invisibility of Black people-to Black oblivion. The agony of the Black oppressed has not been heard”. (2)The Church must then listen to the truth about God and life that those unheard voices can provide.
Living in a Fallen World
Now enjoying dreamed-of-dishes, we have grown to believe that eating at the table is the culmination of joy. However, our imitation of Christ is also a call to suffer as he did. Christ suffered both as a result of being in a sinful world (if ever he got sick it was owing to him being in fallen creation and not due to his sin or lack of faith) and as a result of obedience to his calling. We share the same burden with him, if we are blessed: if we are truly His . However, the Church needs to take up the movement’s example of identifying pain and poverty and sickness as not good in themselves (we do not want to fall into false pietism by deifying suffering) and strive to serve these needs as best as we can. This is consistent with treating people as made in God’s image.
Both the command and comfort of acting in obedience to what is right is found in Philippians 2:12, 13 “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure”. Working out our salvation is not only, but no less than glorifying God by actively rebuilding our own lives and the African American community. Discipline in learning in school, debt-management, healthy eating, and sexual purity until marriage are all what it means to be responsible agents in God’s Kingdom. However, because it is by His power that we work, it also must be for his glory, and not ultimately our comfort or status climbing, that we obey in these ways.
The promise of God’s constant presence and work in the world and especially in the believer’s life, needs to be upheld. However, what God has promised the believer in life needs to be in view, also. God has promised provision of everything we need to live a godly life, as 2 Peter 1 teaches. This includes strength to live in a God-honoring way even when dying of cancer or living from paycheck to paycheck. God has not promised us constant health and wealth. In fact, James encourages the poor Christian and warns the rich. Riches are not evil in themselves. They have a great place in God’s Kingdom for service and enjoyment. But it is a tool in life; it is not itself life. Understanding true promises prevents false expectations of God and of ourselves. In this way we defend against doubt of God’s power and goodness or self-condemnation for lack of faith. The Black church has a rich history to survey God’s presence and provision. Intentional reflection on God’s grace in the past will do much to strengthen the church’s assurance of his present and future grace.
Living in Capitalistic America
As mentioned in the previous paragraph, money has a legitimate place in this world. While upholding this truth to resist straying into the lie that money is evil in itself, we must heed the warning that the love of it leads to all kinds of evil. The Black church can begin to do this by teaching what love for money has produced against us in history. We can also uphold the legitimacy of money, by intentionally supporting Black owned business and international fair-trade businesses with the commitment that economic equality is one way to see God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven. By doing this, the Black church asks the question of itself, “By whose toil and at what moral price do I enjoy this meal at this table?”. By doing this, the Church gets up from the table and seeks after those who are still hungry and brings them back to be fed.
We began our place in this country on an auction block, naked and demeaned. We dreamed of a table, where we could sit full and affirmed. We have fought for and have in many ways positioned a place at that sought after table. And now, with all the due that belongs to us in this position, we must ask if our appetites, though valid, need be deeper. Though our eyes were set to a worthy goal, have they not fallen short of something, Someone, more enchanting? May God give us deeper appetites and clearer vision. Amen.
By Erik Peay
1. National Humanities Center, “The Making of African American Identity: Volume 1, 1500-1865,” HYPERLINK "http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/maai/enslavement/text2/text2read.htm" http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/maai/enslavement/text2/text2read.htm, (accessed April 28, 2008).
2. Langston Hughes, “I, Too, Am America”, In The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (n.p. Knopf, Vintage Books, 1994), HYPERLINK "http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15615" http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15615, (accessed , approx. April 22, 2008).
3. Andrew Perriman, ed., Faith: Health and Prosperity (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2003), 35.
4. Perriman, Faith: Health and Prosperity, 84.
5. Milmon F. Harrison, Righteous Riches (New York: Oxford Press, 2005), 5.
6. Shayne Lee, T.D. Jakes: America’s New Preacher (New York: New York University Press), 34.
7. C. Eric Lincoln, The Negro Church in America/The Black Church Since Frazier (New York: Schocken Books, 1974), 105-106.
8. Robert Wafula, African Theology Lecture,, Westminster Theological Seminary, Course PTM 143-Contextual Theology, March 25, 2008.
9. Carl Ellis. Free At Last? (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press: 1996), 41.
10. Ellis, Free At Last?,, 61.
11. Hans A. Bauer and Merrill Singer, African-American Religion in the Twentieth Century- Varieties of Protest and Accommodation, (Knoxville: University of Tennessee: 1992), 215.
12. Bauer and Singer, African-American Religion in the Twentieth Century- Varieties of Protest and Accommodation, 215.
13. Frazier,The Negro Church in America//The Black Church Since Frazier, 64
14. Bauer and Singer, African-American Religion in the Twentieth Century- Varieties of Protest and Accommodation, 216.
15. Ibid., 216.
16. Ibid., 218.
17. Harrison, Righteous Riches, 133.
18. Baer and Singer, African-American Religion in the Twentieth Century: Varieties of Protest and Accommodation, 219.
19. Ibid., 221.
20. Ellis, Free At Last?, 68.
21. Harrison, Righteous Riches, 136.
22. Harrison, Righteous Riches, 136-137.
23. David M. Satcher, “Securing The Right To Healthcare And Well-Being,” in The Covenant (Chicago: Third World Press, 2006), 3.
24. Ibid., 5
25. Ibid., 5.
26. Ibid., 8.
27. Ibid., 9.
28. Marc H. Morial, “Accessing Good Jobs, Wealth, And Economic Prosperity,” in The Covenant (Chicago: Third World Press, 2006),167.
29. The Covenant, 170.
30. The Covenant, 171.
31. The Covenant, 54.
32. The Covenant, 81.
33. The Covenant, 130.
34. Edumnd W. Gordon, “Establishing A System of Public Education In Which All Children Achieve At High Levels And Reach Their Full Potential,” in The Covenant (Chicago: Third World Press, 2006), 27.
36. Perriman, Faith: Health and Prosperity, 27.
37. Perriman, Faith: Health and Prosperity, 26.
38. Harrison, Righteous Riches, 25.
39. Ibid., 51.
40. Ellis, Free At Last?, 27.
41. "http://www.thepottershouse.org" www.thepottershouse.org, (accessed April 26, 2008).
42. "http://www.newbirth" www.newbirth,org/pastoral_care.asp, ( accessed April 26, 2008).
43. Harrison, Righteous Riches, 69.
44. Ibid., 59.
45. Harrison, Righteous Riches, 72.
46. Perriman, Faith: Health and Prosperity, 81.
49. R.C. Sproul, ed., 1 Timothy 4:16, The Reformation Study Bible, English Standard Version (Orlando: Ligonier Ministries, 2005).
50. Perriman, Faith: Health and Prosperity, 83.
54. R.C. Sproul, ed., Mark 10: 21, The Reformation Study Bible, English Standard Version (Orlando: Ligonier Ministries, 2005).
55. Perriman. Faith: Health and Prosperity, 85.
59. Perriman, Faith: Health and Prosperity, 87.
60. The Holy Bible, New King James Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985).
61. Perriman, Faith: Health and Prosperity, 88.
62. Inner Image of the Covenant study notes, HYPERLINK "http://www.creflodollarministries.org.April" www.creflodollarministries.org, (accessed April 20, 2008).
63. Perriman, Faith: Health and Prosperity, 98.
64. Frazier, The Negro Church in America//The Black Church Since Frazier, 24.
65. Perriman. Faith: Health and Prosperity, 105-106.
66. Harrisson, Righteous Riches, 7, 135.
67. Daniel C.Thompson, Sociology of the Black Experience (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1974), 133.
68. Harrison, Righteous Riches, 40.
69. Perriman, Faith: Health and Prosperity, 52.
70. Paul David Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2002), 99.
71. Perriman, Faith: Health and Prosperity, 51.
72. Ibid., 52.
73. Ibid., 54.
74. www.crenshawchristiancenter.net, (accessed April 28, 2008).
75. R.C. Sproul, ed., Psalm 100: 5, The Reformation Study Bible, English Standard Version (Orlando: Ligonier Ministries, 2005).
76 .R.C. Sproul, ed., Philippians 2:5, 6, The Reformation Study Bible, English Standard Version (Orlando: Ligonier Ministries, 2005).
77. Lincoln, The Negro Church in America//The Black Church Since Frazier, 145.
78. R.C. Sproul, ed., Philippians 3:10, The Reformation Study Bible, English Standard Version (Orlando: Ligonier Ministries, 2005).