I know of some churches that publically shame members who don’t earn a large salary, while giving preferential treatment to the biggest givers.
Church positions are awarded according to financial status, as if faith is proven by the size of a bank account. How I found out about them is because some of those shamed church members have sought counseling from me and from my colleagues. Some were barely surviving as they dug themselves into debt, feeling obligated to appear in church in expensive clothes with new cars, lying about successful careers that didn’t exist. Suffering, struggle and losses were treated as a sign of weakness. If God were really pleased with you, you’d be rich.
That’s one end of the spectrum when it comes to Christians and their ideas of prosperity, but there’s an opposite extreme too. Other Christians treat suffering and poverty as noble and sublime — not necessarily when they are personally going through it, but they hold up the examples of others as true saints who patiently endure misery and hardship, and easily criticize a fellow Christian who might be well-off. I’ll deal with that concept in the next blog post, but what most critics refer to as the Prosperity Gospel is serious enough to warrant an entire post of its own. It’s not that blessings or prosperity have no basis in the Bible — the Bible’s full of verses, passages and examples of God providing abundantly for His people. You can’t believe in the Bible as the complete word of God, and not believe that He is a God of prosperity. But that beautiful attribute of God becomes twisted and distorted by many, which is a real travesty.
This distortion is not an exception by any means. Pastors obligate their members to publicly honor them with expensive presents on their birthdays, churches hunt down and harass those who are late with their tithes, special seats and honored positions are given to the wealthiest church families, while scandals of infidelity and immorality are hushed up, from the membership straight to the highest levels of leadership. As long as big donation checks are being written, all sins can be overlooked. This type of Prosperity Gospel exists everywhere, from the US to Singapore, to Brazil and more. This has nothing to do with the biblical prosperity of God, and it has nothing to do with the gospel. It should rather be called, the Doctrine of Greed.
Shondra had been a member of one of those churches for 11 years. She sat quietly at the back of our church services for months, slipping out at the last “Amen” and speaking to no one. I finally was able to talk with her and learned how afraid she was of revealing all the problems weighing her down. They were her debt, her divorce, her overdue car payments, and the shame of being on the brink of bankruptcy. She couldn’t keep up appearances any longer. “Pastor,” she said, “this is the first time I’ve been taught anything about the Bible beyond how I have to give tithes and offerings.” With patience and months of consistent discipling, Shondra has now developed a real relationship with God that knows how to give as God prompts her, not out of compulsion. She’s much happier to live sincerely for God, and not under pressure to put on a show for anyone.
I fully believe in the prosperity of God, that He is good and merciful and giving, but the fact remains that true believers do go through baptisms of fire, and are often called upon to sacrifice. God’s provision isn’t meant to be flaunted with pride, or used as a way to manipulate or humiliate others. Sometimes even the possessions and wealth of professing Christians are gained through unethical means, and God has no part in that. God’s prosperity should cause us to humble ourselves before Him, to recognize that He is the provider of all our needs and that we are totally dependent on Him. We believe in God’s abundance and provision – and take on the deserts and baptisms of fire in strength and faith.
Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed. (1 Timothy 6:17-19 NASB)
Next post, the Poverty Gospel…