As you may have heard, several prominent religious leaders have been chosen to lead prayers at the upcoming presidential inauguration. Among them: Franklin Graham, and the Archbishop of New York, Timothy Cardinal Dolan. Graham of course is the son of the great Billy Graham, and Cardinal Dolan, the recipient of the 2013 Wilberforce Award.
But it’s a third prominent person chosen to pray that has raised both eyebrows and, truth be told, more than a few hackles in part of the Christian world.
Paula White is the Senior Pastor of the New Destiny Christian Center in Apopka, Florida, a megachurch with thousands of members. She is also a televangelist and author of numerous books.
Now, I mention her today because both throughout the election and now, she’s being referred to as an evangelical Christian leader despite both political controversy and deep theological error. Politically, she, along with Bennie Hinn, Joyce Meyers, Kenneth Copeland and others, were the subject of a three-year investigation headed by Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa prompted by complaints of “lavish spending at the ministries,” including the purchase of private jets.
Now, I don’t believe in government oversight of theology and ecclesiastical practice. But, truth be told, it’s the theological error in the prosperity gospel movement that led to this political investigation. And the theological error is so grave, we must not allow it to be confused with the actual Gospel.
You’ll forgive me for citing Wikipedia’s two-part definition of the “prosperity gospel,” but it’s quite accurate, and it reveals the error of which I speak.
First, followers of the prosperity Gospel believe that “financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God for them.” The phrase “financial blessing” goes beyond the meeting of basic material needs to what could reasonably be characterized as “luxuries.”
Second, “faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one’s material wealth.” In other words, God can, through our thoughts and actions, be manipulated into giving us what we want. And if we don’t get what we asked for, it’s because we didn’t have enough faith, we allowed doubt to creep in, or we weren’t generous enough.
Now, if that sounds strikingly similar to something you might hear from Oprah, there’s a good reason. There is more than a little overlap between the worldview underlying the prosperity gospel and that underlying stuff like “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne and its “law of attraction.” Neither are compatible with the teaching of the New Testament or historic, orthodox Christianity.
Consider White’s own words from her TBN show: “There is creative power in your mouth right now. God spoke and created the universe; you have creative power to speak life and death! If you believe God, you can create anything in your life.”
There is problem enough with those words without taking into account that exercising this “creative power,” according to prosperity preachers, almost always requires an upfront financial commitment.
These and other heterodox beliefs are why Michael Horton of Westminster Seminary, writing in the Washington Post recently, said that the prosperity gospel is not “just another branch of Pentecostalism,’ but instead, “another religion.”
Now sadly, Graham and Dolan are catching flak for appearing on the same platform as White. But that’s unfair. Ministers of the Gospel should always take the opportunity to speak truth to power.
And at a time when the general public—and certainly the media—barely understands Christianity, we need to take the opportunity to point out the very significant differences between the prosperity gospel and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.