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The Doctrine of Autonomous Self: A Hidden Idolatry
By A. Sutono

Thy pomp is brought down to the grave, and the noise of thy viols: the worm is spread under thee, and the worms cover thee.

How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!

how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!

For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven,

I will exalt my throne above the stars of God:

I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north:

I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High.
Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.” (Isaiah 14:11-15)

I. Background

In this text, Isaiah describes the fall of Lucifer, as well as the cause and effect of it. We learn the cause of him being eternally condemned by God from v.13 and 14 is that he is so filled with pride and self-adoration that he declares himself to be worthy to ascend into heaven and be exalted above the stars of God. He considers himself to be as equally valuable, as equally worthy, if not more valuable and more worthy than God himself that he should be like the Most High. In response, God removed him from his original state and declares that his splendor be nullified and brought down to shame, and he himself be brought down to hell, to a place of eternal torment which is the lake of fire (Rev 20:10) forever as his eternal destiny. When Lucifer was removed from heaven, his name became Satan, and was cast to the earth. In the account of the Fall in Gen 3, after which God offered the promise of deliverance through the atoning work of the LORD Jesus Christ on the cross implied in v. 15, we may observe the correlation between Satan’s sinful ambition to what he tempted Adam and Eve with, which eventually led the couple to sin against God and caused the entire humanity to be totally and hopelessly depraved and under the same condemnation that Lucifer has as a result. The correlation is clearly seen in Gen 3:5, when Satan, disguised as a serpent, said to Eve, “For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” Here are the double lies being offered to Eve springing out of the same principle behind his botched coup attempt; first, that she would be like gods, and thus independent, able to rule over herself apart from God, and secondly, there is not one God, but many gods; each is sovereign over himself or herself.

From here, I would like to state the thesis of this article before expounding further:

1. That the doctrine of autonomous-self, or often referred to as “free-will”, whether it be “Christian” or non-Christian one, though may not appear explicitly, originates from the same spirit by which Lucifer rebelled against God, that is, the spirit of self-idolatry.

2. That the doctrine of autonomous-self is indeed a non-Christian doctrine because there is nowhere in the Bible that teaches such a doctrine and therefore, should be rejected by all true Christians.

I would like to first define what an autonomous self is. I would then attempt, by the use of the first thesis, refute the free-will Arminian argument to defend this false doctrine, particularly in regard to the Fall, salvation, and all the affairs of the world. Finally, I would close with the Biblical basis of my refutation with the exhortation given in the second thesis.

II. Definition of Autonomous Self

Throughout history, there are many who teach the doctrine of autonomous self, among whom is Pelagius. I would now quote from John Owen [1] on what Pelagianism teaches about the autonomous self:

“According to Pelagianism, God gives grace to all who hear the law and the gospel preached. Those who do this are persuaded to repent and believe by the promises of the gospel and the threatenings of the law. The things taught and commanded in the law and gospel are seen to be not only good in themselves, but so utterly reasonable that anyone would gladly receive them if they were not so prejudiced ( i.e., men can themselves respond favorably to the gospel preached by believing in the message without any regenerating work of the Holy Spirit), or deliberately chose to continue with their sinful life. Man has only to consider these promises of the gospel and threatenings of the law to remove these prejudices and so reform himself. When man believes the gospel and obeys it of his own free will and choice (again, no external divine influence at work to convince him of the truth of the gospel, on the contrary, this conviction comes out within himself), then he receives the gift of the Holy Spirit, enters into all the privileges of the New Testament, and has a right and title to all the promises concerning both the present and the future life. So say the Pelagians. Thus man converts himself, and the grace of our LORD Jesus Christ and the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit are both excluded. All that is needed is the ability to persuade him to repent of his sin and believe and obey the gospel.”

In other words, the doctrine of autonomous self teaches that men in both unregenerate and regenerate states is completely independent and capable of self-determination of what is good and bad for him (hence the term autonomous) and from which make decision without any external divine influence or swaying to a particular direction.

To understand what autonomous-self is more clearly, let us look at Sproul’s definition of autonomy [2]:

“To be autonomous means to be a law unto oneself. An autonomous creature would be answerable to no one. He would have no governor, least of all a sovereign governor. It is logically impossible to have a sovereign God existing at the same time as an autonomous creature. The two concepts are utterly incompatible. To think of their coexistence would be like imagining the meeting of an immovable object and an irresistible force. What would happen? If the object moved, then it could no longer be considered immovable. If it failed to move, then the irresistible force would no longer be irresistible.”

Then for the definition of autonomous self, I would borrow from David Wells [3], defining the autonomy generation as:

“…those who belonged in this outlook saw themselves as being at the center of life, as being responsible only to themselves, as having the sole hand in deciding what beliefs to hold and what behaviors to follow.”

And therefore, continuing to quote Wells [3]:

“… the self becomes the main form of reality and the pursuit of its rights and unique intuitions, even in the face of others, is what life is about.”

My comment to Prof. Well’s definition is this. Isn’t the autonomous-self then the essence of prosperity gospel, where Christ has been reduced to a lackey or a genie to serve us to accomplish our agenda whether that be family, or money, or career, or, self-healing, self-improvement or anything other than Christ himself? Some may say they don’t believe in prosperity gospel but believe in free-will in the autonomous sense. This, in my view, is an implicit endorsement of the prosperity gospel.

II. Refutation of the Arminian Argument of Autonomous Self

Now I desire to refute biblically a familiar argument in regard to God’s sovereignty in salvation and all events throughout the course of history. In addition, I would also attempt to show the spirit behind all these arguments tends to resemble that of Lucifer as written in Isaiah 14:13-14. Before I go on doing so, however, I would like to point out ‘the goal of the commandment is love’. I can understand new Christians who believe in autonomous self, because I was like that. I tend to think it is natural for new Christians to have such an understanding of how salvation and all the affairs in the world work. I acknowledge I need the humility to understand those who are slow to grasp the truth in the sovereignty of God over all things. The fact is the LORD had mercy on me to reveal what I consider a precious biblical truth of his sovereignty that I have come to love, embrace, and desire to defend with hopefully a holy zeal, holy motive, yet with humility as well in this article. And may the LORD grant the grace to change and transform hearts and minds into ones that acknowledge and submit joyfully under his supremacy over all things (Col 1:18).

The argument that I would like to refute (though there has been many more qualified pastors and theologians than me, past and present who have done this, but I would try to do it from hopefully a different point of view), is a common free-will Arminian / Pelagian argument which was the first Arminian article in their remonstrance brought by Johannes Uitenbogaard and Simon Episcopious in 1610, which was refuted by the Calvinists’ Counter Remonstrance at the Synod of Dort in 1618-1619, in regard to how salvation works as follows. This first article stated the following: “God’s foreknowledge, that is, divine election was conditiond on foreseen or foreknown faith”. In other words, it says “faith is the cause of election” the basis of which is for example in Rom 8:29, refers to God knowing in advance of who is going to believe by their own free will and who is not, and from there God elects them to be saved. Thus man’s faith existing apart from God’s will but from the man himself is the cause of God’s election. In other words, it all starts with man’s free will to choose to be saved. Men are the Alpha, the beginning, not God. Then based on each independent isolated individual’s decision to believe or to desire to be saved where God has nothing to do with because this comes out completely and independently from man and not God, God is obliged to save them because they have faith to believe. Here men call God to account and demand that because they initiated to believe the Gospel, God is required to save them. So God’s sovereignty consists in submitting himself to and making sure the wills of men are carried out. God is not free in ordaining anything because He is subject to the will of men that he values very much even more important and above himself. Here is the worst kind, the most blatant, the most arrogant, and the most blasphemous of man-centered doctrine that is nowhere taught in the Bible, and an example how the Scripture like Rom 8:29 is distorted to serve man’s needs or if I may borrow John Piper’s quote[4], the gospel has been abused for ‘psychological form of mind control’. I regard this Arminian stand on the free agency of man and God as the most self-centered among man-centered doctrines, even more man-centered than opentheism.

Opentheism at least admits the future is unknown, even God has no control over it and anybody could change it. The Arminian doctrine in regard to the free-will of men as we have discussed is worse than open-theism because it teaches the future is already known, at least in regard to salvation, who is saved and who is not, and who makes this decision before the foundations of the world is men. Then God responds to each individual decision either by saving or condemning. Here is the kind of abomination that I dread has been prevailing in the minds of many Christians, because this is how they were taught by man-centered, world-loving, money-loving preachers. Those who teach this doctrine usually insist that God is still sovereign and omnipotent. But I sense this is simply a futile attempt to cover up their self-centeredness and thus, self-idolatry. God, despite his omnipotence, has been domesticated to serve man’s needs. His omnipotence has become subordinate to man’s will and it is his to use for his benefit. Man makes the call first independently out of his own self-determination of good and bad. Then it is God’s turn to follow up on man’s actions and decisions, whether to clean them up if they are sinful, or to bless them if they are good.

As Mark Talbot says [5] (he explains it in the context of opentheism, but I believe it is applicable here as well) that the doctrine of autonomous self teaches that God values man’s free will so much that he is willing to pay any price. God is really good in cleaning things up to the point that the alternative plan B that he executes looks even better, more perfect than the botched plan A that man has frustrated. So in a way, the doctrine of autonomous self treats God like a lackey or a genie in a bottle whom man can stir as he pleases and wills. Everything God does is for the benefits of man, and here is man, the center of the universe and God’s idol. Therefore, men are not only the Alpha, the beginning, but also the Omega, the end of everything God does and the whole entire universe work for. This, I fear, may God forbid, is the desire behind those who embrace the doctrine of autonomous self which is nothing but the very ambition of Lucifer to be exalted above God (Isa 14:13-14) because the resemblance between the two is striking. It is all about desire for control, as Dave Wells pointed out behind autonomous self [6]:

“This preoccupation with the future is really about control. At least, it is about our attempts at controlling the future as it crests into the present by being able to position ourselves to avoid what is disagreeable and to capitalize on what is advantageous. Indeed, we even go further. We imagine that the future begins in our minds and we can actually create it.”

At this point, I would point to Scripture texts (that I also included somewhere else [7]) that I hope the LORD uses to show the fallacy of the doctrine of autonomous-self, to humble its proponents and exhort them to embrace the doctrine of absolute sovereignty of God over all things. While these texts tend to be self-explanatory in themselves but I shall attempt to expound a little on each:

– “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:13). John says the decisive power to become the sons of God ( v.12), i.e., to be saved, does not come from man’s will power, but God’s (v.13). Therefore, contrary to what the first remonstrance article says that faith is the cause of election, John says election is the cause of faith. God initiates salvation, not men. Men are dead in their trepasses (Eph 2:1). Physically dead people do not and can not have any desire (inclination) and ability to eat, drink, work, because they are dead, their brain is dead, their heart is dead, their digestive system is dead, and there is no way for them to revive themselves. So also dead Lazarus was unable to revive himself until Jesus called him and infused life to his body to revive him. (John 11). Lazarus did not revive himself. Jesus did. And thus Lazarus couldn’t brag he was alive because of his free will to be alive. Likewise, it is impossible for spiritually dead people to have any desire for God. Their heart is ‘desperately’ or ‘hopelessly’ wicked as Jer 17:9 says. St. Paul affirms the total depravity of humanity apart unless God changes this heart of stone with the heart of flesh (Ez 36:26-27) because “The sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law. Nor can it do so.” (Rom 8:7). Notice the last part that says “Nor can it do so.” So let us not brag that we have the free will to be christians or we in our sovereignty “decided” to be christians. Let us not think of ourselves more highly than we should (Rom 12:3) but with sober judgment, I’d say, of who we were, and what we are now, and who God is. Do not rob God of something He did and claim we did it. The faith, the willingness to believe, to embrace Christ as our treasure, our LORD does not come from our self-determination, but He purchased it on the cross.

– “All the plans of the LORD stands firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.” (Psalm 33:11). God has written down the course of history from the beginning to the end. All his plans will happen, stand firm forever. Everything originates from Christ and returning to Christ, and the details for everything on its way returning to him is fixed and unchangeable (see also Heb 1:2-3, Rom 11:36). God does not make mistakes. God is not a God who is good in cleaning up mess created by men and coming up with plan B. Nobody can frustrate nor thwart nor prevent God from doing anything he wants, Dan 4:35, “All the people of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand, or say to him, ‘What have you done?'”

– “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (Psalm 139:16) God has written down not only the entire course of history before the foundations of the world, but also the scenario of each individual who ever lives, past present and future. This is good for believers for two reasons (but may cause free-willers to feel dejected because they don’t desire God to make the call for them, they desire to make the call themselves). First, it teaches humility that you and I are creatures and God is God. We have absolutely no right over ourselves because we don’t own ourselves, God does. Secondly, this is good news because God knows you and me better than we know ourselves. Therefore whatever plans he has for us can be guaranteed to be the most absolute best for our good and the magnifying his name first and most importantly (see Rom 8:28).

– “Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure: Calling a ravenous bird from the east, the man that executeth my counsel from a far country: yea, I have spoken it, I will also bring it to pass; I have purposed it, I will also do it.” (Isa 46:10-11). God is free to do anything he wants according to the pleasure of his will. His decision making is not constrained by anything, not by the will of men, not by the wills of angels, not by the will of the devil. He is absolutely free in making any calls. Isn’t this what it means to be God? If God has to submit beforehand in his foreknowledge to men’s decision to be saved or not to be saved, then men are gods, and God is their lackey.

A question then arises, “How, despite crystal clear words from the apostle that believers are slaves of Christ (e.g., Rom 6:18,22), can there be such an arrogant doctrine as the autonomous self in Christian churches?” The answer is because the LORD Jesus Christ is an infinitely good, gracious, merciful, patient, loving Master. He is not a hard Master at all. Men, seizing this opportunity arising from their deep-rooted corruption inherited from the Fall, reinforced by the temptation of the old serpent, abuse the kindness of Christ for their own glory. Men, out of their odious mind resulting from the stench infected to them from the Fall, distort the grace of the Savior to serve their own vanity, and so distort the message of the gospel, that is the pursue of God’s (not men’s) glory in salvation through Christ. Since Christ is so patient, then it is their opportunity to question him, to hold him accountable to them, and thus, what John Piper pointed out [8], that men placing themselves on the bench and putting God in the dock, instead of the other way around (he actually quoted this from C.S. Lewis). I sense free-willers would feel uncomfortable in hearing what God’s goal is in everything he does in Eph 1:5-6, “… he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasures and will, to the praise of his glorious grace.” that God saves men not because he makes so much of them, but for the praise of his glorious grace, that his name may be magnified, cherished, worshipped for his great mercy upon mankind, “…that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” (Rom 15:9). The only way to cure this discomfort is to acknowledge and repent of the pride and the self-idolatrous spirit behind the doctrine of autonomous self, renounce it, and embrace the doctrine of the absolute sovereignty of God who causes all things to work together for the good of those who love him, and who have been called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called, those he called he also justified, and those he justified, he also glorified. Amen.

References
1. J. Owen, “The Holy Spirit,” The Banner of Truth Trust, 1998, p. 76-77.

2. R.C. Sproul, “Chosen by God,” Tyndale House Publishers, October 1986, Ch. 3, p.?

3. D. F. Wells, “Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World,” Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006, p. 234, 153.

4. J. Piper, “Woe to Those who Trample the Son of God,” Desiring God Ministries (audio), April 13, 1997, http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceL…he_Son_of_God/

5. M. Talbot, “All the Good that is Ours in Christ: Seeing God’s Gracious Hand in the Hurts Others Do Us,” Desiring God National Conference, Minneapolis, MN, October 7-9, 2005.

6. D. F. Wells, “Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World,” Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006, p. 239.

7. A. Sutono, “The Defense for the Sovereignty of God in the Fall of Man,” Nov 25, 2006.

8. J. Piper, “Pastoral Thoughts on the Doctrine of Election,” Desiring God Ministries, Nov 30, 2003, ttp://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceL…e_of_Election/

ttp://www.christianchatforum.com/articles/elect.shtml

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Healing the economy means going beyond ‘What’s in it for me?’
By Douglas Todd 01-10-2009

Healing the battered economy means going beyond the ‘self’; ‘What’s in it for me?’ is not an attitude that will work in the times we face

Many Pentecostal Christians have been among the hardest-hit victims of the economic meltdown in North America.

“Victims” might not be the best word to describe their fate, though. Followers of the popular “Prosperity gospel” suffered because of their own desperation, naivete and uncontrolled desire.

Prosperity gospel adherents have put too much stock in certain Pentecostal leaders in the United States and Canada who preach that God will provide worldly wealth if you just give your soul to Jesus Christ and your donation to the church.

The most prominent proponent of this theology of cars, boats and houses is Joel Osteen, author of Your Best Life Now.

With virtually no assets, many financially struggling Christians attracted to the Prosperity gospel of Osteen and others were eager to jump at the subprime loans offered by sleazy brokers.

Prominent Pentecostals have admitted that many followers believed God was miraculously answering their prayers when a bank gave them a loan they couldn’t afford. However, it’s not only adherents of the Prosperity gospel who have spiritual and moral lessons to draw from the financial collapse. After all, they haven’t been alone in their struggles.

The larger spiritual themes behind this financial meltdown are those of too much blind optimism about the financial system, too much faith in leaders and too much unacknowledged self-interest.

Which brings us to greed.

There can be benefits from modest amounts of each of the Seven Deadly Sins: anger, lust, envy, sloth, pride, gluttony and greed.

While there is something to be said for moderate self-interest fuelling our lives and the economy, greed has careened beyond control on many economic fronts. In the movie Wall Street, Gordon Gekko was not much of an exaggeration of a real-life financier when he baldly preached, “Greed is good!”

Rebecca Blank, senior economic analyst for the Brookings Institute and co-author of Is the Market Moral?, recently said: “Greed is good to most economists. It’s greed that makes people work harder, be more productive, and helps the economy grow. Greed has certain economic advantages. It’s hard for an economist not to say that.

“But greed is clearly partially responsible for where we are right now. There’s a level beyond which greed can go too far, and . . . being greedy for more goods and to make another buck can make me stop paying attention to the effects of my action on you. That is when greed clearly becomes sinful — even, I think, in economics.”

Moral concerns about our over-avaricious attitudes have even been expressed recently by high-profile evangelical Christian leaders such as Chuck Colson (Richard Nixon’s former right-hand man), who has made a career of praising Jesus Christ in the same breath as free enterprise. Like theologian Michael Novak, Colson believes western democratic capitalism is like a three-legged stool, resting on political freedom, economic freedom and moral restraint. “Take away moral restraint and the stool collapses.”

But Colson’s solution — simply to talk more about morality in churches and elsewhere and to wish for greater moral behaviour — won’t make the economic system more stable or fair. That is what was uncovered through a revealing investigation of the moral behaviour of evangelical leaders by scholar Michael Lindsay, author of Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite.

Lindsay found precious few evangelical executives were “distinguishing themselves from their secular peers” by taking salaries capped, for instance, at a ratio between the highest- and lowest-paid employees of 20:1. Most tried to justify astonishingly luxurious salaries.

Just as the Communist Soviet Union fell apart because it wasn’t realistic to expect everyone to embrace the principle of equality, the western capitalist system cannot sustain itself just by hoping everyone will embrace justice.

Without regulations to enforce society’s moral ideals, the scoundrels prevail. Now nearly all of us are suffering because we were drawn, knowingly and unknowingly, into their unrestricted avarice.

As Aristotle said, “At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst.”

Spiritual insight into the economic collapse comes from Martin Marty, of the University of Chicago Divinity School, one of the most distinguished religious historians in North America.

Marty believes the economic meltdown grew out of a growing global obsession with the “self.” He points to the way many economists talk about how the “spreading disease” in the global economy will “self-heal.” But Marty believes the modern free world is fixated on terms such as “self-generating,” “self-developing” and “self-correcting.” It’s the kind of thinking that has led many to over-optimistically advocate for an “unfettered” and “unregulated” market that never impinges on the supremacy of the “self.”

But there are crucial limits to the “self.”

Marty suggests Americans (and, I’d add, many Canadians) haven’t been willing to face the dark, shadow aspects of an economic system and foreign policy that focused on serving only the “self” (including that of the nation).

Just as the Iraq war has proved disastrous on human and financial fronts, Marty says the battered economy is making us look at all aspects of what happens when “the self” is glorified as absolute.

“We are well aware of our own virtue, knowledge, power and security, and these are real enough to be celebrated,” he writes.

“But we did not recognize their undersides: vice, ignorance, weakness and insecurity, which overtook us.”

As a Lutheran, Marty responds to the financial crisis with a secular translation of the “body of Christ” theme, which teaches us to reflect on how “we are members one of another.”

Instead of “self-healing,” he wisely suggests the western economic system needs “mutual” healing.

To use the language of other traditions, a Buddhist might say we need economic solutions that recognize we are all interconnected.

In secular terms, the late American political philosopher John Rawls would teach that we need economic policies beneficial to us all, no matter where we find ourselves on the financial ladder.

The simplest way to put one of the spiritual lessons of the economic collapse, however, is simply to make it clear that creating a healthy society has to go much further than asking, “What’s in it for me?”

dtodd@vancouversun.com

http://communities.canada.com/vancouversun/blogs/thesearch/archive/2009/01/10/healing-the-battered-economy-means-going-beyond-the-self-what-s-in-it-for-me-is-not-an-attitude-that-will-work-in-the-times-we-face.aspx

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Does God Want You To Be Rich?

A growing number of Protestant evangelists raise a joyful Yes! But the idea is poison to other, more mainstream pastors. By DAVID VAN BIEMA, JEFF CHU Posted Sunday, Sep. 10, 2006

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1533448,00.html

When George Adams lost his job at an Ohio tile factory last October, the most practical thing he did, he thinks, was go to a new church, even though he had to move his wife and four preteen boys to Conroe, a suburb of Houston, to do it. Conroe, you see, is not far from Lakewood, the home church of megapastor and best-selling author Joel Osteen.

Osteen’s relentlessly upbeat television sermons had helped Adams, 49, get through the hard times, and now Adams was expecting the smiling, Texas-twanged 43-year-old to help boost him back toward success. And Osteen did. Inspired by the preacher’s insistence that one of God’s top priorities is to shower blessings on Christians in this lifetime–and by the corollary assumption that one of the worst things a person can do is to expect anything less–Adams marched into Gullo Ford in Conroe looking for work. He didn’t have entry-level aspirations: “God has showed me that he doesn’t want me to be a run-of-the-mill person,” he explains. He demanded to know what the dealership’s top salesmen made–and got the job. Banishing all doubt–“You can’t sell a $40,000-to-$50,000 car with menial thoughts”–Adams took four days to retail his first vehicle, a Ford F-150 Lariat with leather interior. He knew that many fellow salesmen don’t notch their first score until their second week. “Right now, I’m above average!” he exclaims. “It’s a new day God has given me! I’m on my way to a six-figure income!” The sales commission will help with this month’s rent, but Adams hates renting. Once that six-figure income has been rolling in for a while, he will buy his dream house: “Twenty-five acres,” he says. “And three bedrooms. We’re going to have a schoolhouse (his children are home schooled). We want horses and ponies for the boys, so a horse barn. And a pond. And maybe some cattle.”

“I’m dreaming big–because all of heaven is dreaming big,” Adams continues. “Jesus died for our sins. That was the best gift God could give us,” he says. “But we have something else. Because I want to follow Jesus and do what he ordained, God wants to support us. It’s Joel Osteen’s ministry that told me. Why would an awesome and mighty God want anything less for his children?”

In three of the Gospels, Jesus warns that each of his disciples may have to “deny himself” and even “take up his Cross.” In support of this alarming prediction, he forcefully contrasts the fleeting pleasures of today with the promise of eternity: “For what profit is it to a man,” he asks, “if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” It is one of the New Testament’s hardest teachings, yet generations of churchgoers have understood that being Christian, on some level, means being ready to sacrifice–money, autonomy or even their lives.

But for a growing number of Christians like George Adams, the question is better restated, “Why not gain the whole world plus my soul?” For several decades, a philosophy has been percolating in the 10 million–strong Pentecostal wing of Christianity that seems to turn the Gospels’ passage on its head: certainly, it allows, Christians should keep one eye on heaven. But the new good news is that God doesn’t want us to wait. Known (or vilified) under a variety of names–Word of Faith, Health and Wealth, Name It and Claim It, Prosperity Theology–its emphasis is on God’s promised generosity in this life and the ability of believers to claim it for themselves. In a nutshell, it suggests that a God who loves you does not want you to be broke. Its signature verse could be John 10: 10: “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” In a TIME poll, 17% of Christians surveyed said they considered themselves part of such a movement, while a full 61% believed that God wants people to be prosperous. And 31%–a far higher percentage than there are Pentecostals in America–agreed that if you give your money to God, God will bless you with more money.

“Prosperity” first blazed to public attention as the driveshaft in the moneymaking machine that was 1980s televangelism and faded from mainstream view with the Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart scandals. But now, after some key modifications (which have inspired some to redub it Prosperity Lite), it has not only recovered but is booming. Of the four biggest megachurches in the country, three–Osteen’s Lakewood in Houston; T.D. Jakes’ Potter’s House in south Dallas; and Creflo Dollar’s World Changers near Atlanta–are Prosperity or Prosperity Lite pulpits (although Jakes’ ministry has many more facets). While they don’t exclusively teach that God’s riches want to be in believers’ wallets, it is a key part of their doctrine. And propelled by Osteen’s 4 million–selling book, Your Best Life Now, the belief has swept beyond its Pentecostal base into more buttoned-down evangelical churches, and even into congregations in the more liberal Mainline. It is taught in hundreds of non-Pentecostal Bible studies. One Pennsylvania Lutheran pastor even made it the basis for a sermon series for Lent, when Christians usually meditate on why Jesus was having His Worst Life Then. Says the Rev. Chappell Temple, a Methodist minister with the dubious distinction of pastoring Houston’s other Lakewood Church (Lakewood United Methodist), an hour north of Osteen’s: “Prosperity Lite is everywhere in Christian culture. Go into any Christian bookstore, and see what they’re offering.”

The movement’s renaissance has infuriated a number of prominent pastors, theologians and commentators. Fellow megapastor Rick Warren, whose book The Purpose Driven Life has outsold Osteen’s by a ratio of 7 to 1, finds the very basis of Prosperity laughable. “This idea that God wants everybody to be wealthy?”, he snorts. “There is a word for that: baloney. It’s creating a false idol. You don’t measure your self-worth by your net worth. I can show you millions of faithful followers of Christ who live in poverty. Why isn’t everyone in the church a millionaire?”

The brickbats–both theological and practical (who really gets rich from this?)–come especially thick from Evangelicals like Warren. Evangelicalism is more prominent and influential than ever before. Yet the movement, which has never had a robust theology of money, finds an aggressive philosophy advancing within its ranks that many of its leaders regard as simplistic, possibly heretical and certainly embarrassing.

Prosperity’s defenders claim to be able to match their critics chapter and verse. They caution against broad-brushing a wide spectrum that ranges from pastors who crassly solicit sky’s-the-limit financial offerings from their congregations to those whose services tend more toward God-fueled self-help. Advocates note Prosperity’s racial diversity–a welcome exception to the American norm–and point out that some Prosperity churches engage in significant charity. And they see in it a happy corrective for Christians who are more used to being chastened for their sins than celebrated as God’s children. “Who would want to get in on something where you’re miserable, poor, broke and ugly and you just have to muddle through until you get to heaven?” asks Joyce Meyer, a popular television preacher and author often lumped in the Prosperity Lite camp. “I believe God wants to give us nice things.” If nothing else, Meyer and other new-breed preachers broach a neglected topic that should really be a staple of Sunday messages: Does God want you to be rich?

As with almost any important religious question, the first response of most Christians (especially Protestants) is to ask how Scripture treats the topic. But Scripture is not definitive when it comes to faith and income. Deuteronomy commands believers to “remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth”, and the rest of the Old Testament is dotted with celebrations of God’s bestowal of the good life. On at least one occasion–the so-called parable of the talents (a type of coin)–Jesus holds up savvy business practice (investing rather than saving) as a metaphor for spiritual practice. Yet he spent far more time among the poor than the rich, and a majority of scholars quote two of his most direct comments on wealth: the passage in the Sermon on the Mount in which he warns, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth … but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven”; and his encounter with the “rich young ruler” who cannot bring himself to part with his money, after which Jesus famously comments, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Both statements can be read as more nuanced than they at first may seem. In each case it is not wealth itself that disqualifies but the inability to understand its relative worthlessness compared with the riches of heaven. The same thing applies to Paul’s famous line, “Money is the root of all evil,” in his first letter to Timothy. The actual quote is, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”

So the Bible leaves plenty of room for a discussion on the role, positive or negative, that money should play in the lives of believers. But it’s not a discussion that many pastors are willing to have. “Jesus’ words about money don’t make us very comfortable, and people don’t want to hear about it,” notes Collin Hansen, an editor at the evangelical monthly Christianity Today. Pastors are happy to discuss from the pulpit hot-button topics like sex and even politics. But the relative absence of sermons about money–which the Bible mentions several thousand times–is one of the more stunning omissions in American religion, especially among its white middle-class precincts. Princeton University sociologist Robert Wuthnow says much of the U.S. church “talks about giving but does not talk about the broader financial concerns people have, or the pressures at work. There has long been a taboo on talking candidly about money.”

In addition to personal finances, a lot of evangelical churches have also avoided any pulpit talk about social inequality. When conservative Christianity split from the Mainline in the early 20th century, the latter pursued their commitment to the “social gospel” by working on poverty and other causes such as civil rights and the Vietnam-era peace movement. Evangelicals went the other way: they largely concentrated on issues of individual piety. “We took on personal salvation–we need our sins redeemed, and we need our Saviour,” says Warren. But “some people tended to go too individualistic, and justice and righteousness issues were overlooked.”

A recent Sunday at Lakewood gives some idea of the emphasis on worldly gain that disturbs Warren. Several hundred stage lights flash on, and Osteen, his gigawatt smile matching them, strides onto the stage of what used to be the Compaq Center sports arena but is now his church. “Let’s just celebrate the goodness of the Lord!” Osteen yells. His wife Victoria says, “Our Daddy God is the strongest! He’s the mightiest!”

And so it goes, before 14,000 attendees, a nonstop declaration of God’s love and his intent to show it in the here and now, sometimes verging on the language of an annual report. During prayer, Osteen thanks God for “your unprecedented favor. We believe that 2006 will be our best year so far. We declare it by faith.” Today’s sermon is about how gratitude can “save a marriage, save your job [and] get you a promotion.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever preached a sermon about money,” he says a few hours later. He and Victoria meet with TIME in their pastoral suite, once the Houston Rockets’ locker and shower area but now a zone of overstuffed sofas and imposing oak bookcases. “Does God want us to be rich?” he asks. “When I hear that word rich, I think people say, ‘Well, he’s preaching that everybody’s going to be a millionaire.’ I don’t think that’s it.” Rather, he explains, “I preach that anybody can improve their lives. I think God wants us to be prosperous. I think he wants us to be happy. To me, you need to have money to pay your bills. I think God wants us to send our kids to college. I think he wants us to be a blessing to other people. But I don’t think I’d say God wants us to be rich. It’s all relative, isn’t it?” The room’s warm lamplight reflects softly off his crocodile shoes.

Osteen is a second-generation Prosperity teacher. His father John Osteen started out Baptist but in 1959 withdrew from that fellowship to found a church in one of Houston’s poorer neighborhoods and explore a new philosophy developing among Pentecostals. If the rest of Protestantism ignored finances, Prosperity placed them center stage, marrying Pentecostalism’s ebullient notion of God’s gifts with an older tradition that stressed the power of positive thinking. Practically, it emphasized hard work and good home economics. But the real heat was in its spiritual premise: that if a believer could establish, through word and deed (usually donation), that he or she was “in Jesus Christ,” then Jesus’ father would respond with paternal gifts of health and wealth in this life. A favorite verse is from Malachi: “‘Bring all the tithes into the storehouse … and try Me now in this,’ says the Lord of hosts. ‘If I will not for you open the windows of heaven and pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it.'” (See boxes.)

It is a peculiarly American theology but turbocharged. If Puritanism valued wealth and Benjamin Franklin wrote about doing well by doing good, hard-core Prosperity doctrine, still extremely popular in the hands of pastors like Atlanta megachurch minister Creflo Dollar, reads those Bible verses as a spiritual contract. God will pay back a multiple (often a hundredfold) on offerings by the congregation. “Poor people like Prosperity,” says Stephen Prothero, chairman of the religion department at Boston University. “They hear it as aspirant. They hear, ‘You can make it too–buy a car, get a job, get wealthy.’ It can function as a form of liberation.” It can also be exploitative. Outsiders, observes Milmon Harrison of the University of California at Davis, author of the book Righteous Riches, often see it as “another form of the church abusing people so ministers could make money.”

In the past decade, however, the new generation of preachers, like Osteen, Meyer and Houston’s Methodist megapastor Kirbyjon Caldwell, who gave the benediction at both of George W. Bush’s Inaugurals, have repackaged the doctrine. Gone are the divine profit-to-earnings ratios, the requests for offerings far above a normal 10% tithe (although many of the new breed continue to insist that congregants tithe on their pretax rather than their net income). What remains is a materialism framed in a kind of Tony Robbins positivism. No one exemplifies this better than Osteen, who ran his father’s television-production department until John died in 1999. “Joel has learned from his dad, but he has toned it back and tapped into basic, everyday folks’ ways of talking,” says Ben Phillips, a theology professor at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. That language is reflected in Your Best Life Now, an extraordinarily accessible exhortation to this-world empowerment through God. “To live your best life now,” it opens, to see “your business taking off. See your marriage restored. See your family prospering. See your dreams come to pass …” you must “start looking at life through eyes of faith.” Jesus is front and center but not his Crucifixion, Resurrection or Atonement. There are chapters on overcoming trauma and a late chapter on emulating God’s generosity. (And indeed, Osteen’s church gave more than $1 million in relief money after Hurricane Katrina.) But there are many more illustrations of how the Prosperity doctrine has produced personal gain, most memorably, perhaps, for the Osteen family: how Victoria’s “speaking words of faith and victory” eventually brought the couple their dream house; how Joel discerned God’s favor in being bumped from economy to business class.

Confronting such stories, certain more doctrinally traditional Christians go ballistic. Last March, Ben Witherington, an influential evangelical theologian at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky, thundered that “we need to renounce the false gospel of wealth and health–it is a disease of our American culture; it is not a solution or answer to life’s problems.” Respected blogger Michael Spencer–known as the Internet Monk–asked, “How many young people are going to be pointed to Osteen as a true shepherd of Jesus Christ? He’s not. He’s not one of us.” Osteen is an irresistible target for experts from right to left on the Christian spectrum who–beyond worrying that he is living too high or inflating the hopes of people with real money problems–think he is dragging people down with a heavy interlocked chain of theological and ethical errors that could amount to heresy.

Most start out by saying that Osteen and his ilk have it “half right”: that God’s goodness is biblical, as is the idea that he means us to enjoy the material world. But while Prosperity claims to be celebrating that goodness, the critics see it as treating God as a celestial ATM. “God becomes a means to an end, not the end in himself,” says Southwestern Baptist’s Phillips. Others are more upset about what it de-emphasizes. “[Prosperity] wants the positive but not the negative,” says another Southern Baptist, Alan Branch of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo. “Problem is, we live on this side of Eden. We’re fallen.” That is, Prosperity soft-pedals the consequences of Adam’s fall–sin, pain and death–and their New Testament antidote: Jesus’ atoning sacrifice and the importance of repentance. And social liberals express a related frustration that preachers like Osteen show little interest in battling the ills of society at large. Perhaps appropriately so, since, as Prosperity scholar Harrison explains, “philosophically, their main way of helping the poor is encouraging people not to be one of them.”

Most unnerving for Osteen’s critics is the suspicion that they are fighting not just one idiosyncratic misreading of the gospel but something more daunting: the latest lurch in Protestantism’s ongoing descent into full-blown American materialism. After the eclipse of Calvinist Puritanism, whose respect for money was counterbalanced by a horror of worldliness, much of Protestantism quietly adopted the idea that “you don’t have to give up the American Dream. You just see it as a sign of God’s blessing,” says Edith Blumhofer, director of Wheaton College’s Center for the Study of American Evangelicals. Indeed, a last-gasp resistance to this embrace of wealth and comfort can be observed in the current evangelical brawl over whether comfortable megachurches (like Osteen’s and Warren’s) with pumped-up day-care centers and high-tech amenities represent a slide from glorifying an all-powerful God to asking what custom color you would prefer he paint your pews. “The tragedy is that Christianity has become a yes-man for the culture,” says Boston University’s Prothero.

Non-prosperity parties from both conservative and more progressive evangelical camps recently have been trying to reverse the trend. Eastern University professor Ron Sider’s book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, a fringe classic after its publication in 1977, is selling far more copies now, and some young people are even acting on its rather radical prescriptions: a sprinkling of Protestant groups known loosely as the New Monastics is experimenting with the kind of communal living among the poor that had previously been the province of Catholic orders. Jim Wallis, longtime leader of one such community in Washington and the editor of Sojourners magazine, has achieved immense exposure lately with his pleas that Evangelicals engage in more political activism on behalf of the poor.

And then there is Warren himself, who by virtue of his energy, hypereloquence and example (he’s working in Rwanda with government, business and church sectors) has become a spokesman for church activism. “The church is the largest network in the world,” he says. “If you have 2.3 billion people who claim to be followers of Christ, that’s bigger than China.”

And despite Warren’s disdain for Prosperity’s theological claims, some Prosperity churches have become players in the very faith-based antipoverty world he inhabits, even while maintaining their distinctive theology. Kirbyjon Caldwell, who pastors Windsor Village, the largest (15,000) United Methodist church in the country, can sound as Prosperity as the next pastor: “Jesus did not die and get up off the Cross so we could live lives full of despair and disappointment,” he says. He quotes the “abundant life” verse with all earnestness, even giving it a real estate gloss: “It is unscriptural not to own land,” he announces. But he’s doing more than talk about it. He recently oversaw the building of Corinthian Pointe, a 452-unit affordable-housing project that he claims is the largest residential subdivision ever built by a nonprofit. Most of its inhabitants, he says, are not members of his church.

Caldwell knows that prosperity is a loaded term in evangelical circles. But he insists that “it depends on how you define prosperity. I am not a proponent of saying the Lord’s name three times, clicking your heels and then you get what you ask for. But you cannot give what you do not have. We are fighting what we call the social demons. If I am going to help someone, I am going to have to have something with which to help.”

Caldwell knows that the theology behind this preacherly rhetoric will never be acceptable to Warren or Sider or Witherington. But the man they all follow said, “By their fruits you will know them,” and for some, Corinthian Pointe is a very convincing sort of fruit. Hard-line Prosperity theology may always seem alien to those with enough money to imagine making more without engaging God in a kind of spiritual quid pro quo. And Osteen’s version, while it abandons part of that magical thinking, may strike some as self-centered rather than God centered. But American Protestantism is a dynamic faith. Caldwell’s version reminds us that there is no reason a giving God could not invest even an awkward and needy creed with a mature and generous heart. If God does want us to be rich in this life, no doubt it’s this richness in spirit that he is most eager for us to acquire.

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Did The Prosperity Gospel Play A Role In Suprime Crisis?
Oct.03, 2008 in Commentary, Economy
According to this author, the answer is “Yes”.

Has the so-called Prosperity Gospel turned its followers into some of the most willing participants — and hence, victims — of the current financial crisis? That’s what a scholar of the fast-growing brand of pentecostal Christianity believes. While researching a book on black televangelism, says Jonathan Walton, a religion professor at the University of California Riverside, he realized that Prosperity’s central promise — that God would “make a way” for poor people to enjoy the better things in life — had developed an additional, toxic expression during sub-prime boom. Walton says that this encouraged congregants who got dicey mortgages to believe “God caused the bank to ignore my credit score and blessed me with my first house.” The results, he says, “were disastrous, because they pretty much turned parishioners into prey for greedy brokers.”

Others think he may be right. Says Anthea Butler, an expert in pentecostalism at the University of Rochester in New York state, “The pastor’s not gonna say ‘go down to Wachovia and get a loan’ but I have heard, ‘even if you have a poor credit rating God can still bless you — if you put some faith out there [that is, make a big donation to the church], you’ll get that house, or that car or that apartment.’” (more…)

When I read the title of this article, admittedly I dismissed it as far-reaching speculation. But after reading it and taking the time to reflect upon my own experiences in the church, I think the author is on to something.

For starters, I think that there is enough blame to go around–STARTING ON MAIN STREET.

My Atlanta Experience

I remember how pastors would tell folks about how the Lord wanted them to move into home ownership–all while steering them to certain brokers and banks. I remember saying to myself “folks are getting broke off over this and the Lord has nothing to do with it. This is just a plain ol’ hustle.” Brokers would be publicly acknowledged in front of the congregation as they would convince the church that all of this was just his/her way of “giving back to the Lord”. No! He was giving back to the pastor as a way of thanking him for sending the business. Again, the Lord had NUTTIN to do with this arrangement. I saw all of this during the early stages of the housing boom.

My wife and I were part of a megachurch where the pastor made it a priority to move all the renters in his congregation into home ownership. He tied the whole thing into how God moved Israel into the promise land. While I agreed with the pastor that far too many of us have been renting too long, the huge influx of moving folks with bad credit into McMansions had me a bit nervous. This took place right at the time we were preparing to move out of state.

All of a sudden, getting approved for a loan with bad credit was seen as a miracle from God–all because of those generous faith offerings folks were told to give earlier.

“I told the Lawd ‘but my credit is too messed up to get a house’. Then I heard pastor preach about taking a step of faith last Sunday. Don’t you know I applied for the loan and now I am the proud owner of a 5 bedroom house…”.

These types of ‘testimonies’ were common in the churches I attended back when the market was getting hot.

I am of the opinion that any pastor who encouraged parishioners to commit to predatory-type loans while cloaking the whole thing as “God’s will for their lives” should be thrown out of office. Part of me is telling me to name names of pastors who I know engaged in this practice. I’ll chill with that idea for now.

Again, I must stress that churches that participated in peddling these loans do share A PART of the blame.

http://www.blackinformant.com/2008/10/03/did-the-prosperity-gospel-play-a-role-in-suprime-crisis

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Prosperity Gospel on Skid Row
Difficulties of high-profile pastors may reorient movement—or reinforce it.
Bobby Ross Jr. | posted 1/15/2009 09:40AM

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/february/2.12.html

Some of the high-flying icons of the prosperity gospel—the belief that God rewards signs of faith with wealth, health, and happiness—have run into financial turbulence.

Not all of their troubles can be blamed on the nation’s economic crisis, say critics of the name-it-and-claim-it theology found in some charismatic churches.

“I believe the charismatic movement, of which I am a part, is in the midst of a dramatic overhaul,” said J. Lee Grady, editor of Charisma magazine. “God is shaking us.” Grady predicts the movement will look much different in a few years as it refocuses on evangelism and overcoming what he calls the distraction of “materialism, flashy self-promotion, and foolish carnality.” But Scott Thumma, a Hartford Seminary sociologist who studies megachurches, is not so certain.

“Most clergy who preach a prosperity gospel would interpret for their congregation any conflict, scrutiny, or questioning as an attack of the Devil and proof that they are following God,” he said.

Among recent developments:

• In Fort Worth, Texas, a review board ruled December 7 that Kenneth Copeland Ministries’ $3.6 million jet did not have tax-exempt status. The ruling came after the ministry, whose 1,500-acre campus includes a $6 million church-owned lakefront mansion, refused to release the salaries of Copeland, his wife, and others.

• In suburban Atlanta, Georgia, a sheriff’s deputy served an eviction notice November 14 at Bishop Thomas Weeks III’s Global Destiny Church. Court documents indicate the bishop, the ex-husband of televangelist Juanita Bynum, owed half a million dollars in back rent. The church has lost roughly half of its 3,400 members since Weeks and Bynum’s 2007 fight in a hotel parking lot, in which Weeks was accused of pushing, choking, and beating his then-wife.

• In Tampa, Florida, Without Walls International Church—which once attracted 23,000 worshipers—has shrunk drastically after co-pastors Randy and Paula White announced in 2007 they were divorcing. The church faces an uncertain future after the Evangelical Christian Credit Union began foreclosure proceedings November 4 and demanded repayment of a $12 million loan on the church’s property.

• In suburban Minneapolis on November 18, Living Word Christian Center pastor Mac Hammond won the first stage of a court battle with the Internal Revenue Service to keep his salary private. Yet in 2008, he was forced to put his private jet up for sale and cut Living Word’s hour-long television show in half to save money amid falling contributions.
Meanwhile, Copeland and the Whites are among six televangelists whose large organizations have been targeted in a Senate Finance Committee investigation into allegations of questionable spending and lax financial accountability. All six preach some form of the prosperity gospel.

Could followers of the prosperity gospel—encouraged by pastors to “sow a seed” of faith by spending money, often in the form of a donation to the pastors’ ministries—be turned off by the recent turmoil?

Craig Blomberg, author of a 2001 study of prosperity theology, said he expects the movement to “take a small hit among those who recognize that it can’t deliver on what it promises.”

But many followers could view the financial difficulties as consequences for sin and personal failings—from Weeks’s assault conviction to the Whites’ divorce—and determine to try that much harder to please God and prosper themselves, he suggested.

“Some may well interpret this as judgment on the leaders who have abused their positions or proved immoral in other respects,” said Blomberg, a New Testament professor at Denver Seminary. “And many may simply assume this is the time to call others and themselves to an even truer faith so that the ‘system will work’ as it is supposed to in their minds.”

In Grady’s view, the notion that “God blesses us so we can be a blessing” is biblical. What is needed, he believes, is a shift to a more selfless movement where people “realize that God wants to bless us so that we can feed the poor, lift up the broken, and transform society.

“We need that kind of prosperity,” he said, “and I think that is where things are going.”

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Is the Prosperity Gospel Financial Heresy?
By Mr. ToughMoneyLove | October 5, 2008

Mr. ToughMoneyLove tends to avoid mixing religion and personal finance for a variety of reasons. However, I am going to make a very brief exception to that policy this Sunday.

This week Time ran a story on the possible role of the “prosperity gospel” in the sub-prime mortgage mess that has played a significant role in the current economic crisis. I certainly don’t agree with the premise that God should be blamed for what has happened. But the article makes an interesting anecdotal review of how believers in the prosperity gospel could be led to accept that divine intervention would prevail over their lack of financial resources. According to the prosperity preacher, that belief is enough to put the believer in a home he or she cannot afford. I think we can all agree that there is no logic to that belief. On the other hand, religion is based on faith, not logic.

I submit that are two hard truth takeaways from this story. First, the “prosperity gospel” is really intended to bring economic prosperity to those who preach it, not to those who listen to it. Second, an all too common rationalization offered by broke people when they make yet another discretionary purchase is that they “deserve” that car or gadget or vacation. The prosperity gospel reinforces that misguided rationalization and gives it another dimension. Just as I believe that poor people are not being punished by God, I also believe that wealth on earth is not bestowed based on spiritual merit.

What do you think about the prosperity gospel as a contributor to current economic conditions?

http://toughmoneylove.com/2008/10/05/is-the-prosperity-gospel-financial-heresy/

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Maybe We Should Blame God for the Subprime Mess
By David Van Biema Friday, Oct. 03, 2008

TIME.com

Has the so-called Prosperity gospel turned its followers into some of the most willing participants — and hence, victims — of the current financial crisis? That’s what a scholar of the fast-growing brand of Pentecostal Christianity believes. While researching a book on black televangelism, says Jonathan Walton, a religion professor at the University of California at Riverside, he realized that Prosperity’s central promise — that God will “make a way” for poor people to enjoy the better things in life — had developed an additional, dangerous expression during the subprime-lending boom. Walton says that this encouraged congregants who got dicey mortgages to believe “God caused the bank to ignore my credit score and blessed me with my first house.” The results, he says, “were disastrous, because they pretty much turned parishioners into prey for greedy brokers.”

Others think he may be right. Says Anthea Butler, an expert in Pentecostalism at the University of Rochester in New York: “The pastor’s not gonna say, ‘Go down to Wachovia and get a loan,’ but I have heard, ‘Even if you have a poor credit rating, God can still bless you — if you put some faith out there [that is, make a big donation to the church], you’ll get that house or that car or that apartment.’ ” Adds J. Lee Grady, editor of the magazine Charisma: “It definitely goes on, that a preacher might say, ‘If you give this offering, God will give you a house.’ And if they did get the house, people did think that it was an answer to prayer, when in fact it was really bad banking policy.” If so, the situation offers a look at how a native-born faith built partially on American economic optimism entered into a toxic symbiosis with a pathological market.

Although a type of Pentecostalism, Prosperity theology adds a distinctive layer of supernatural positive thinking. Adherents will reap rewards if they prove their faith to God by contributing heavily to their churches, remaining mentally and verbally upbeat and concentrating on divine promises of worldly bounty supposedly strewn throughout the Bible. Critics call it a thinly disguised pastor-enrichment scam. Other experts, like Walton, note that for all its faults, the theology can empower people who have been taught to see themselves as financially or even culturally useless to feel they are “worthy of having more and doing more and being more.” In some cases the philosophy has matured with its practitioners, encouraging good financial habits and entrepreneurship.

But Walton suggests that a decade’s worth of ever easier credit acted like a drug in Prosperity’s bloodstream. “The economic boom ’90s and financial overextensions of the new millennium contributed to the success of the Prosperity message,” he wrote recently on his personal blog as well as on the website Religion Dispatches. And not positively. “Narratives of how ‘God blessed me with my first house despite my credit’ were common. Sermons declaring ‘It’s your season to overflow’ supplanted messages of economic sobriety,” and “little attention was paid to … the dangers of using one’s home equity as an ATM to subsidize cars, clothes and vacations.”

With the bubble burst, Walton and Butler assume that Prosperity congregants have taken a disproportionate hit, and they are curious as to how their churches will respond. Butler thinks some of the flashier ministries will shrink along with their congregants’ fortunes. Says Walton: “You would think that the current economic conditions would undercut their theology.” But he predicts they will persevere, since God’s earthly largesse is just as attractive when one is behind the economic eight ball.

A recent publicly posted testimony by a congregant at the Brownsville Assembly of God, near Pensacola, Fla., seems to confirm his intuition. Brownsville is not even a classic Prosperity congregation — it relies more on the anointing of its pastors than on Scriptural promises of God. But the believer’s note to his minister illustrates how magical thinking can prevail even after the mortgage blade has dropped. “Last Sunday,” it read, “You said if anyone needed a miracle to come up. So I did. I was receiving foreclosure papers, so I asked you to anoint a picture of my home and you did and your wife joined with you in prayer as I cried. I went home feeling something good was going to happen. On Friday the 5th of September I got a phone call from my mortgage company and they came up with a new payment for the next 3 months of only $200. My mortgage is usually $1,020. Praise God for his Mercy & Grace.”

And pray that the credit market doesn’t tighten any further.

http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1847053,00.html?cnn=yes