Prosperity unpacked 1: Definition

Biblical principlesTheology

What is ‘Faith’ theology?

This is the first of a five-part series by Hannah Swithinbank on how we can engage with prosperity theology.

I often get asked this question: ‘How can we challenge the prosperity gospel?’

In many countries where my colleagues work, ‘Word of Faith’ or ‘Faith’ teaching (which is often called the prosperity gospel) has a strong presence in local churches. Many report that the theology taught in these churches is an obstacle to their vision of working with churches to transform their communities.

My colleagues therefore want to be able to talk to the pastors of these churches and to the people who attend their services, to explain why they do not agree with their teaching and to share their own, different, understanding of what it means to prosper and to thrive.

I’m going to write five pieces looking at this question:

  1. What is ‘Faith’ or ‘prosperity’ theology? What do these churches teach, and what makes them distinctive?
  2. What does Faith theology say about suffering?
  3. How else do Christians understand what it means to be blessed, as God promises to bless us? Why do these Christians think there are problems with Faith teaching?
  4. Why do people seem to find Faith teaching so appealing and why do they join these churches?
  5. How can those of us who disagree with Faith teaching challenge it? And how can we do this without creating conflict within the church?

So – what is ‘Faith’ or ‘prosperity’ theology?

At its heart, Faith theology is the belief that every Christian has a share in Christ’s victory over sin, sickness and poverty, and that all believers have a right to the blessings of health, wealth and triumph that he won. According to Faith theology, we gain these blessings by speaking positive words of faith that claim these promises.

The following are three of the key elements of ‘Faith’ theology:

  • Victory: Jesus has been victorious over death and the powers of evil, and so his followers can share in his triumph by calling on his name. Praying and speaking out the promises of God in Jesus’ name is common in Faith churches, and their teaching often emphasises the importance of remaining positive about the certainty that you will receive God’s blessings.
  • Health: Our God is a God who heals, and so healing ministry has always been present in Faith churches. This teaching quotes passages such as Isaiah 53:4–5 and Matthew 9:27–31. Faith churches generally provide healing ministry in their services during the worship. However, generally they think that people should seek prayer for healing only once, because those who claim their healing should wait, in faith, for it to be revealed.
  • Wealth: Our God provides – he is Jehovah Jireh. Faith theology teaches that verses such as Mark 10:29–30 promise financial blessing to those who give to God and his work. These churches therefore emphasise giving generously.

Faith teaching grew out of the Pentecostal tradition – and so Faith theology does not divide body from soul, but believes that mind, body and spirit are one and can be restored to unity and wholeness through faith in Christ. It is a teaching that engages with all aspects of believers’ lives, inside and outside of church, here and now. As we will see, this is a big part of its appeal.

In their services and teaching, Faith churches emphasise a personal relationship with and experience of God and his power, making faith an exciting experience. There is also a strong emphasis on mission and sharing the good news of Jesus’ victory, generally through verbal evangelism and big events.

Some of this is familiar to many Christians in the evangelical church – but many of us are uncomfortable with Faith teaching. I will explore some of the reasons for this in my next post.

In the meantime, I want to say that I have found it really important to remember that most Christians who believe the teaching that I’m about to describe do not think of themselves as believing in ‘the prosperity gospel’.

They think of themselves as Christians, and they also think that the prosperity gospel is a bad thing to be associated with. Instead, they often talk about Word of Faith, or Faith, and so I find it helpful to use those terms as well. This means that, even when we do disagree about things, I do not create a divide between us immediately.

Some recommended reading: Kate Bowler, Blessed (Oxford University Press, 2013). This book provides a very good history of the Faith movement. It focuses on the USA, but also talks about the way that the movement spread internationally.

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Hannah Swithinbank
Hannah Swithinbank is Tearfund’s Theology & Network Engagement Manager.