By Matthews A. Ojo
Definition of Prosperity Gospel
Since the 1980s, the Prosperity Gospel has become one of the major doctrinal emphases of contemporary Christianity in Africa. Borrowed from the American faith movement and Pentecostal televangelists, it became a popular concept by the mid-1980s, and was termed Prosperity Gospel by the media and scholars of religion. The newness of this emphasis stems from the fact that biblical metaphors of success and material prosperity have taken on new meanings within the competitive modern market economy in Africa. Besides, this emphasis shows how Pentecostalism has responded to popular demand of Christianity for economic relevance in the African society.
Simply put, Prosperity Gospel is a re-reading and interpretation of certain verses in the Bible in which God and the atoning death of Jesus Christ were understood to have promised a state of well-being, of abundance, of victory over social stagnation, abundance of money and materials to meet the needs of Christians so that they can live a life of spiritual and material abundance in the world.
Lacking any exegetical or contextual interpretation, and using proof text reading of the Scriptures as a method, Pentecostals and Neo-Pentecostals have taken certain passages as supportive of the doctrinal emphasis on prosperity. The most quoted biblical passage is III John 2 ‘Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as the soul prospereth’ (KJV). Similarly, other popular verses include Psalms 35:27, ‘Let them shout for joy and be glad … Let the Lord be magnified, which hath pleasure in the prosperity of his servant.’; Deuteronomy 8: 18, ‘But thou shall remember the Lord thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth …’ Other verses include Deuteronomy 7:14; 8: 6-9; 28: 1-14; Joshua 1:7-8; II Corinthians 8:9, II Corinthians 9:6-8, Genesis 12:2; Zechariah 1:17 and Haggai 2: 6 – 8.
Prosperity preachers also insist that Christians enter into the realm of prosperity based on individual understanding of the God’s promises because God has given humans access to the Abrahamic covenant. Hence, one’s salvation launches one into the realm of God’s abundance, i.e. material benefits is the result of exercising faith. However, Christians who are not prospering could be harbouring unbelief or are unaware of God’s promises and the laws of success or are not paying their tithes, or have accepted the lies of the Devil or are bogged down by sin and curses.
As the emphasis gained attention in the mid-1980s so also emerged many publications mostly from Pentecostal pastors who initially promoted this emphasis. Generally, most of these Pastors started from the premise that salvation ushers in for the believer spiritual well-being; i.e. knowing and accepting Christ as one’s personal saviour. Thereafter in the exercise one’s faith, one could get the material benefits which include good health, wealth (money, houses, vehicles, etc.), and the ability to meet one’s needs as they come.
The doctrinal emphasis on prosperity has continued to elicit public interest because it has partly been associated with the growth of Pentecostalism in Africa since the mid-1980s. For instance, Paul Gifford in a major contribution has argued that the doctrine was an American export to Africa and represents a foreign religious commodity.Birgit Meyer has revealed how the hidden obsession with wealth and power have provided powerful stimulus for Ghanaians Pentecostals in defining the Devil amidst the capitalist world economy.Recently, Gifford has noted that the emphasis on success and wealth as this-worldly concerns among Ghanaian Pentecostals that partly built on traditional religious imaginations, and also ties into modern capitalist economy.In another approach, Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu and Kingsley Larbi have argued that Ghanaian Pentecostals and Charismatics coming from the Akan worldview tries to interpret the prosperity gospel as flowing from the concept of salvation. Other opinions abound on this debate.
Doctrinal Emphasis of Prosperity Explained
Some prosperity preachers insist that the emphasis flows from the concept of salvation, while others argue that prosperity is part of the blessings available to believers as part of God’s covenant with Abraham. According to the Pentecostal preachers who lay great emphasis on prosperity, failure, poverty, unhappiness, and all forms of difficulties are considered as curses which should not be associated with Christians. Rather, Christians should be successful and prosperous. ‘Prosperity’, according to David Oyedepo, ‘is a state of well-being in your spirit and body. It is the ability to use God’s power to meet every need of men . . . In prosperity you enjoy a life of plenty and fulfilment. Prosperity is a state of being successful; it is life on a big scale’. Oyedepo further stated that Christians do not enter into the realm of wealth and plenty as a result of prayer or fasting because it is not a promise but a covenant. Christians enter into the realm of prosperity based on understanding because God has given humans access to the covenant. Accordingly, Christians can get rich if they tap into the power of God. ‘God has from the beginning created … you to prosper. God has capsules in the Bible, the unfailing laws of success’. ‘God is not partial. He wants everybody to prosper’. Therefore, ‘you must understand that you have the sole responsibility for your prosperity and good success.’ However, there is a limit to the capacity of humans to get wealth, because the unsaved i.e. non-believer could get prosperous materially, and some through unrighteous means.
The second aspect that is more emphasized in the contemporary era is material prosperity or financial prosperity, defined as having enough resources, which can be money, houses, cars, children, promotion, jobs, etc. Financial prosperity, though has its source in God, yet is the work of one’s hand. Some leaders pointed out that the vehicle through which God prospered the Old Testament men such as Abraham, Job, Solomon, etc. were the works of their hands. Thus, a responsibility is placed upon every Christian to engage his or her hands in worthwhile things.
The first condition to accessing prosperity is to have knowledge of the word of God, obeying and serving God, being righteous and living in holiness, and not allowing riches have control over one. A Pentecostal pastor writes that the good and godly motive of being prosperous is for the propagation of the Gospel. It is a false Christianity that equates poverty with piety, and at the same time it is bad to be devoted to materialism. The worship of materialism is mammon and a ‘rich fool’ is a person who is possessed by material wealth.
Generally, success and prosperity are perceived among Pentecostals as forms of healing when the Christian overcomes failure, poverty and backwardness, and live a life of sufficiency and abundance. To be prosperous, one is expected to give liberally and sacrificially towards the course of the Gospel, or ‘plant seed-money’ or sow ‘seed of faith’, as some neo-Pentecostals say. Some preachers emphasized that the more one gives to God’s work; the more abundantly the person receives in return. In fact, this aspect of the teaching has attracted much criticism from evangelicals.
Evangelicals have questioned the orthodoxy of the teaching that ignores Jesus’ teaching on the poor; a misinterpretation of the scope of the atonement; the false impression that giving automatically translates to prosperity; overlooking exegesis and interpreting Scriptural texts to support prosperity without their contexts, the idolisation of money and material wealth, overlooking suffering as a spiritual virtue, and the immoderate lifestyle of, and corruption among some prosperity preachers.
There are different refinements about the teaching on prosperity among neo-Pentecostal preachers, but generally the following listing represents the consensus within the constituency:
- God promises prosperity in the Scriptures and it is available to every Christian who accepts the scriptural truth.
- Because prosperity is integral to the covenant with Abraham – ‘to bless and make him great’, Christians also stand as inheritors of that covenant. Hence, the popular chorus, ‘Abraham blessing are mine, I am blessed in the morning, I am blessed in the evening, Abraham’s blessings are mine’.
- Material wealth and financial prosperity are necessary benefits of true spirituality which Christians must enjoy. Therefore, there is God’s approval when Christians are blessed materially.
- Understanding and acting by faith on the word of God is the path to prosperity.
- Those who contribute generously in tithes, offerings, donations, etc. to the Church or God’s works ultimately receive abundant blessings from God because the quantity and quality of harvest is a function of the quantity of ‘seed’ sowed.
- If a Christian consistently lacks or is poor or has no material wealth to his benefit this could be considered an illness that needs healing.
- Christians who are undergoing suffering or sickness are out of the will of God. Unbelief and not tapping into the abundance of God’s resources is a sin.
- Speaking positively, i.e. ‘name it and claim it,’ can lead Christians to higher grounds of prosperity.
- Christians should be strategic and business-minded in the Gospel ministry, so that they can make profit while serving the people.
Most preachers of prosperity often provide the principles or keys to utilise in entering the covenant of prosperity. Among these keys are dreaming big and expanding one’s horizon, believing, obedience to God’s command, sowing seeds or giving bountifully and sacrificially, partaking in ‘miracle meal’ i.e. the Eucharist, giving positive confession, exercising faith unconditionally, using anointing oil, claiming the power in the blood of Jesus, etc. In the David Oyedepo’s Living Faith Church, members regularly partake of the Eucharist, which is interpreted as shutting the doors against afflictions and failures and guaranteeing victory and success. Overall, this emphasis among neo-Pentecostals promotes the notion that one must not live below the optimum level but one must strive to add value to the resources that God has made available to humans, and continually endeavour to improve economically and socially.
Historical Development of Prosperity Gospel
As the Charismatic Renewal was undergoing denominationalisation in the 1980s into stable religious organizations with bureaucratic structures, the movement adopted great emphases on healing, which comprises of four major areas. First is physical healing which is basic to all Pentecostal groups. Second, there is healing constructed specifically with the African worldview of evil, witchcraft, and the world of spirits. Within this realm, Pentecostals obtain healing when malevolent forces are cast out. This process is termed ‘Deliverance’. Thirdly, the progressive nature of Pentecostalism is reflected in what is termed Success and Prosperity, which is healing over the socio-economic difficulties of the individual, and hence the believer can appropriate the blessings of Christianity. Lastly, Pentecostals extended their healing activities over the political and socio-economic conditions of a nation. This process is termed ‘Prayer for the Nations’’. However, prosperity has gained much grounds from the mid-1980s, and had become a distinct doctrinal emphasis.
Winning or fruitfulness are constant themes in sermons of churches stressing prosperity to a particular class of Christians. Really, the neo-Pentecostal churches are urban in nature and have appealed to the educated middle class. Secondly, the churches’ entrepreneurial organization, sophisticated marketing techniques, and modernizing tendencies have facilitated the seemingly success of this emphasis on prosperity.
Although subsequent development of the prosperity gospel was broader in scope, it was Archbishop Benson A. Idahosa (1939-1998), a Nigerian, who first propagated this doctrinal emphasis on a large scale among African Pentecostals in his continent-wide evangelistic programmes beginning from the late 1970s.Writing in 1987, he noted that,
God created men and women for a better life than many are experiencing…God never intended that anyone should go through life imprisoned by their own superstitions. He opens the door of success to every believer who will dare to step out and go after the good life. No one in God’s family was ever destined to exist in sickness, fear, ignorance, poverty, loneliness or mediocrity. God’s abundant goodness will be enjoyed and utilised by those who discipline themselves, become decisive, bold, adventurous, believing, daring, risking and determined.
By the time he died in March 1998, many other burgeoning African Pentecostal evangelists have accepted the teaching and had broadcast it wide through their radio broadcasts, television programmes, open air evangelistic meetings, tracts, Bible study outlines, booklets and audio tapes. More important, testimonies or personal stories of individual successes which are spectacular are publicly advertised to strengthen the validity of their doctrinal emphasis on prosperity.
The greatest apostle of Prosperity Gospel is David Oyedepo, the founder of Living Faith Church (popularly known as Winners’ Chapel) who was ordained by Idahosa in 1987. In 1995, he embarked on an expansion strategy from Nigeria into other African countries, and by 1997, branches have been established in thirty other African countries. Oyedepo teaches that Christians are destined to experience abundance and material wealth in the world, therefore, they should aspire to be prosperous, and they should be known for their prosperity in the society, like riding good cars and wearing costly dresses.
In practical terms, messages on this emphasis have been motivational, very assuring, and depict instances of triumphalism. Indeed the founders often proved the efficacy of the messages with flamboyant and expensive lifestyle. Some do travel to the West for medical check-up, and some have bought private jets. There are also structures and educational investments like privately-owned universities to advertise this. Members often give testimonies of what they termed ‘supernatural financial breakthrough’. Spiritual retreats have moved from the old evangelical camp meetings in the countryside to success seminars in downtown five star hotels. Generally, there are corporate images of success to project this emphasis, and to launch members on the quest for upward material and social mobility.
The Political and Socio-Economic Contexts of Prosperity Gospel
What sustains this new doctrinal emphasis and the apparent quest for material wealth among neo-Pentecostals could be traced partly to the socio-economic and political upheaval in the African continent and the contemporary deteriorating economic situation in the 1980s and 1990s. The predatory nature of governance in Africa, the widespread corruption of the elite, the imposed-World Bank Structural Adjustment Programme with its austerity measures, the growing incidence of poverty in the continent despite several interventionist programmes, seem to have driven the masses to untold suffering. By the mid-1980s, a section of Pentecostal churches in Nigeria has legitimatised their existence by promoting the cause of the economic hardship to the forces of Satan as they wreaked havoc in the lives of individuals and in the African nations in general. Hence, the promise of miraculous wealth, perceived as healing, made the prosperity Gospel very popular among the lower and middle classes who have experienced economic destitution, and who saw opportunity for compensation to their economic travails, through the rhetoric of prosperity preachers.
Besides, the attraction of ‘corrupt’ wealth has partly given currency to the emphasis on prosperity which has afforded neo-Pentecostals a means of responding to the economic conditions and the social values around them. While Pentecostals may argue that there is consonance in their emphasis with biblical prescriptions of wealth and well-being, the dissonance is manifested in the neo-Pentecostals’ pursuit and vending of prosperity as though economics and social structures of the society do not matter. The miraculous wealth without any commensurate productive activities also finds some congruence in the magic wealth that has become the dominant theme in the contemporary African home video films.
In Africa wealth is a means to recognition in the society and the means towards political power. People have used various means to acquire wealth. Hence, the emphasis on prosperity legitimizes the quest for materialism and the associated power and prestige that has characterized the values of African society since the 1980s. Neo-Pentecostals, through their doctrinal emphasis on prosperity as a new spirituality, have helped to lend new meanings to the quest for materialism, which traditionally has been subject of condemnation in old time evangelical Christianity.
Lastly, the social capital that neo-Pentecostal emphasis on prosperity has generated in terms of the drive and motivation to invest and succeed, to eliminate poverty by hard work, to create economic networks that can facilitate entrepreneurship, the promotion of frugality and economic risk-taking, are reflective of Max Weber’s Protestant ethic. However, no stimulation for large scale economic development or enduring religious values have yet emerged to justify the economic implication of the Prosperity Gospel on the larger society.
The continuing popularity of the Prosperity Gospel among neo-Pentecostals and African Christians, as already pointed out, arose from the fact that biblical metaphors have assumed new meanings in rapidly changing socio-economic situations. The failure of the economic and political systems to give better life to the citizenry have stirred up images of evil. Thus, poverty and backwardness are considered illness to which prosperity, as a healing factor, has been employed to rectify. Consequently, the emphasis on prosperity has become a powerful metaphor in negotiating wider socio-economic concerns, which they consider important within their socio-cultural background and the dislocation of contemporary life in a capitalist economy.
Paul Gifford,‘Prosperity: A New and Foreign Element in African Christianity’,Religion,(1990)20:4,373-388.
Meyer, Birgit. Translating the Devil:Religion and Modernity among the Ewe in Ghana(Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1999), pp. 237-8.
Gifford, Paul. Ghana’s New Christianity: Pentecostalism in a Globalizing African Economy. (London: C. Hurst & Co., 2004).
J. Kwabena Asamaoh-Gyadu, African Charismatics: Current Developments Within Independent Indigenous Pentecostalism in Ghana(Leiden: Brill, 2005), 201-232. See also E. Kingsley Larbi, ‘The Nature of Continuity and Discontinuity of Ghanaian Pentecostal Concept of Salvation in African Cosmology’, Asian Journal of Pentecostal Studies5. No. 1 (2002): 99-119.
Weekly Faith Digest, published by Living Faith Church, No 89/20, p. 3. See also David O. Oyedepo, Signs and Wonders Today: A Catalogue of the Amazing Acts of God Among Men(Ota: Dominion Publishing House, 2006), pp. 165-169. See also David Oyedepo, Making Maximum Impact(Ota: Dominion Publishing House, 2000), pp. 71-72.
Hartford Anayo Iloputaife, Dynamics of Biblical Prosperity(London, Victory Publications Inc. of Faith Revival Ministries World Outreach, 1995), pp. 9-11and15-17.
The media has reported on some of the moral scandals involving prosperity preachers in Africa and in the Western world. It is invidious to mention names and we lack the space to discuss any of them here.
For details of David Oyedepo’s capitalist strategy, see Oladimeji Olutimehin, Business Secrets of David Oyedepo: How From Poverty He Became the Richest Pastor on the Earth – You Too Can(Akure, Nigeria; Kingdom Books & Media, 2015)
For more on Benson Idahosa see Matthews A. Ojo, ‘Nigerian Pentecostalism and Transnational Religious Networks in West African Coastal Region’ in Entreprises Religieuses Transationales En Afrique d l’Ouestedited by Laurent Fourchard, André Mary, and Rene Otayek, (Paris: Editions Karthala & Ibadan: IFRA, 2005), pp. 395-415.
Benson Idahosa, I Choose to Change: The Scriptural Way to Success and Prosperity(Crowborough, UK: Highland Books, 1987), pp. 9 & 14.
For critique of the Protestant Ethic and the Prosperity Gospel, please see Paul Gifford and Trad Nogueira-Godsey, ‘The Protestant Ethic and African Pentecostalism: A Case Study’,Journal for the Study of Religion, Vol. 24, No. 1 (2011), pp. 5-22