What do you think of when you read the words “Prosperity Gospel”? Odds are your stomach turns a bit as you think about the preachers on television that speak to very large crowds and appeal to even more in their books. More than likely you look at it as “out there” rather than “in here”. In one sense this is good. The shenanigans that some of those religious hucksters engage in should never be replicated in our churches. In another sense however, it’s naive. One does not have to cruising around in a private jet or be dressed ostentatiously to qualify as a promoter of the prosperity gospel. It is more subtle. And it is more pervasive.
In its unabashed nakedness, the prosperity gospel is a damning heresy that is not a gospel at all. It is a Ponzi scheme concocted by those at the top to prey upon the weak and vulnerable. Preachers of this false gospel use God as a genie who is dispatched to give us stuff, as a result, the gospel gets reduced to getting more stuff. This message is primarily physical rather than spiritual and is about this (best) life now rather than the one to come. And most damning of all, it is about us rather than God. The cross of Christ is reduced to a stage prop to support the large tent meetings they hold. It is like they use Jesus’ band-with to hack in and launch spiritual viruses in the world.
Regrettably, the prosperity gospel …
Of course, a main reason for this is not only what Mr. Trump says but how he says it. He is striking a chord as something of an unfiltered populist. Many people claim that he is touching on issues that they want to be discussed. And as a result, he is fast becoming a voice for many Americans.
Some recent comments indicate that his representation may be a bit more broad than simply the economy and immigration, however. Mr. Trump has been dipping his toe in the formidable ocean of religion.
Marriage is all over the news today and we as Christians are cringing. And this shows how much things have changed. All of the marriage chatter, in previous generations, would have been a reason for celebration, but is now an occasion for face-palming. Of course, we know this is not because Christians have fundamentaly changed in our understanding of marriage but because the cultural stream is rushing ahead at white-water speed in its redefinition of marriage.
Who has Authority to Regulate Marriage?
When marriage is discussed in the public square there is a question that routinely gets bypassed. “Who has the right and authority over it? —Who is in charge of it?”
The assumption with marriage, as with the rest of our lives, is that, well, we are! Whatever makes us happy and whatever the majority or the most influential people want to do…this is who has the right to authoritatively speak about marriage. It really is this question of authority that has paved the way for the present moral revolution. Even if it is rarely noticed or acknowledged, authority, like rebar on a highway road, undergirds all of this contemporary debate about marriage. The authoritative answer today is: We have the authority to regulate marriage.
But, this is fraught with a number of problems; I’ll highlight two.
“You don’t know what you don’t know.” I’ve heard that phrase dozens of times and it never loses its ring of simple profundity. The humbling, and somewhat disconcerting truth is, we don’t know the things that we don’t know about until they are pointed out or we learn them. Perhaps another phrase is also true: you don’t see what you don’t see.
In his book Blind Spots Collin Hansen is pointing out that we don’t tend to see the weaknesses in ourselves. This is a particularly relevant problem for us to consider today. Tim Keller observes in the forward that as the culture is rapidly becoming post-Christian the church seems to be fragmenting as we consider how to respond. Hansen groups these fragmenting responses into three groups, each with their own blind spots, and each becoming increasingly critical of the other two responses.
The three groups that Collin see believers fragmenting into are: courageous, compassionate, and commissioned. Each group tends to see through the lenses of their particular leaning. The courageous are the ardent defenders of theology and doctrine; the compassionate seek to help and serve those who are hurting; and the commissioned are those who see the ultimate priority of winning souls. Obviously none of these are bad, however, Hansen is arguing, most of us tend to gravitate towards one of these, and when we do, we also tend to gravitate away from the other two. Sometimes this is more passive (omitting them) and other times it is more active (attacking …
Who would you say was the most pagan, biblically illiterate church in the New Testament? Chances are Corinth would be at the top of your list. Judging by the tone of and issues included in Paul’s two letters, we can safely say that the church had a bit of a pagan hangover mixed with gospel amnesia. But this did not stop him from dipping his pen in the inkwell of the Old Testament Scriptures to make his point.
When you consider that Paul only spent about 18 months with these people it is even more striking. He got a lot done. He reasoned with Jews and, along with Aquila and Priscilla, saw Gentile converts and a church planted (Acts 18; Rom. 16.3; 2 Tim. 4.19-20). This is a strong gospel encouragement, even amid a city that was so full of false worship (1 Cor. 8.5).
Think about how the Old Testament Scriptures are treated today in Evangelicalism. They are rarely touched and when they are they are often moralized rather than preached with any connection to Jesus. Ask the average church goer how the Old relates to the New Testament and you will get a surprising array of answers. Consider the sermons by pastors. How may preach the Old Testament? There are many scholars who are occupied with redaction criticism and cast serious doubts about the reliability of many Old Testament texts. Sadly, many preachers have become functional evangelical redactors by ignoring large portions of their Bibles or at least lacking the confidence or the understanding to show the robust significance …
When you open up the newspaper you often are greeted with a humorous picture in the editorial section. The sketch, called a caricature, is a picture of a person in which certain striking characteristics are exaggerated in order to create a reaction.
The pictures are often comical. We have seen the common ones where President Obama’s ears, teeth, and chin are ridiculously large while his eyes and his shoulders are proportionally very small. It’s amusing and accepted.
However, people often draw caricatures of God. This is neither amusing nor should it be accepted.
If the evangelical church were a boat then it would have some leaks. And everyone seems to have an opinion as to the problem. If I could put the two most common critiques in buckets they would be 1) the preaching, 2) the appetite of church members. In my years of ministry I have often found it quite ironic that many evangelicals complain about preaching not being “biblical” while pastors often complain about “evangelicals today who don’t want biblical preaching”.
Somebody cue the Alanis Morissette.
I can’t attempt to bridge the gap nor fix the problem in a short blog post, however, I can offer a suggestion that I think would help: Make use of the old confessions and catechisms.
It is a common phrase spoken by Christians and wrestled with by pastors, “I don’t feel connected at church.” The pastoral burden is for all Christians to be thriving in and through the ministry. When we hear something like this we immediately go into “fix-it” mode. Often times we even attempt to construct some structure around the person to help them feel connected.
But what if this didn’t help anyone? What if the problem wasn’t the ministry but the individual? What if the disconnection we feel is actually the consequence of selfishness?*
Catering to selfishness will never cure selfishness, it only fortifies it.
We are thankful that the Bible addresses a wide variety of questions and issues. Throughout church history we have been able to have many important questions answered by the Scriptures. At the same time this comprehensive biblical coverage provides answers that occasionally make people uneasy. Often times these topics are referred to as “controversial issues.” Some people want to avoid talking about these things and others enjoy it. The former out of a distaste for controversy and the latter out of a craving for it. Still others find these topics important and aim to cut through the fog to show what the Bible teaches and why it is important for the church to think through.