When a prophet calls down fire from heaven, it’s wise to stand to the side.
That’s how I felt a few weeks ago when John Perkins, the revered preacher and civil rights activist, brought up prosperity-gospel pastor Creflo Dollar during a live interview I was conducting with Perkins at a summit on racial reconciliation. Perkins lamented that there are so few accredited African-American evangelical schools in the United States while at the same time Dollar is asking for money for a $65 million dollar private jet. “That’s almost witchcraft,” he said.
The more I’ve thought of that over the past few weeks, the more I’m convinced that Perkins is right. The prosperity gospel is a barrier to racial reconciliation.
Our True Blessing
First of all, the prosperity gospel targets the most vulnerable in any society, whether urban or rural, black or white. As it does so, it offers a simplistic path to upward mobility through “claiming” God’s promises for health and wealth or through planting “seed” money, usually in the ministry of one of the prosperity preachers. The end result is what the apostles warned us about as early as the first century: predatory teachers who use a veneer of the Scriptures to prey on desperate people for their money or for sex, or for both (2 Timothy 3:1–9). The prosperity gospel exploits the poor (in our culture, disproportionately in minority communities) and diverts resources away from those communities into the coffers of the charlatans.
“The prosperity gospel is not a gospel. It is witchcraft.”
The primary harm the prosperity gospel does to racial reconciliation, though, is that it is not the gospel. The prosperity-gospel teachers use passages from Deuteronomy and elsewhere, with the list of God’s blessings for the law-keepers and curses for law-breakers — and then do an end-run around the fulfillment of those blessings and curses in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus. They ignore the truth that the New Testament teaches that none of us are law-keepers and thus, left to ourselves, cut off from the blessings of God (Romans 2:12–3:20).
They ignore that we are only blessed if we are hidden in the curse-bearing Jesus (Galatians 3:10–14). They obscure that we know if God is pleased with us, in the present age, not by our bank accounts or our pathology reports but by the truth that we are, in Christ, raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father (Colossians 3:1–4).
The Call for Justice
The prosperity gospel teaches us to seek God’s blessing outside of covenant fulfillment in Christ, and to hope not for the reconciliation of heaven and earth in him but instead to aspire to whatever Western culture deems as success. This is not gospel; this is witchcraft. And, as such, it cannot bring about reconciliation. You cannot reconcile people across carnal divisions with a gospel based on carnal promises.
The authentic gospel drives reconciliation because it points us to our identity in Christ — an identity that is Abrahamic and Davidic and totally outside of us (Colossians 3:11). The authentic gospel crucifies our mammon worship by redirecting our aspirations away from temporal success toward cross-bearing, together, in light of a future inheritance, together. The authentic gospel calls to repentance our risk-averse definitions of “success,” so that we are to see the church as an outpost not of our socioeconomic class or our genetic identity but of the kingdom in which the last are first and the first are last, the faithful poor are heirs of the reign to come, and thus worthy of dignity and leadership in the present era (James 2:1–7).
“The prosperity gospel is a barrier to racial reconciliation.”
Only when churches are fueled by the biblical gospel will we be free from our idolatries of ranking ourselves by income or ethnicity — as though what the world values now is permanent. Churches like that, where the gospel is articulated and embodied in the makeup and leadership of the congregations, are churches that can prophetically call for justice because they have consciences shaped not by the spirit of the age but by the Spirit of Christ.
Rival Gospels Must Go
This shaping will mean that we must oppose not only the full-deal heresy of the prosperity gospel but also the implicit ways we have absorbed a kind of discount-rate prosperity gospel that can view Christianity as centered around white, middle-class American success. Most of the church is impoverished, by American standards. This is no sign that God is not blessing the church. Those sectors of the church around the world that are now the least “successful” by American standards are the very churches holding most firmly to the gospel, a gospel increasingly distant from American values. It could be that God is preparing the American church to rely on what we in our pride think of as perpetually “our” mission field to evangelize the next generation of Americans.
Regardless of what the future holds, our culture is in need of a transcendent word that can reconcile people to one another, across racial and ethnic and economic divisions. The gospel can do that. But for the gospel to reconcile us, to God and to one another, every rival gospel must go.