Leaders of the word-faith movement, also known as the prosperity gospel, say they place a high value on scripture. Unfortunately, their unique interpretation of God’s word leads to unbiblical conclusions about God’s design for the Christian life.
A case in point: 3 John 2, which reads: “Dear friend, I pray that you may prosper in every way and be in good health, just as your soul prospers.”
As prosperity preachers like Kenneth Copeland and Joel Osteen would have you believe, this verse expresses the divine view that every child of God should enjoy financial blessing and perfect health. But is that what the passage really means?
Hardly. In the first place, the Greek word translated “prosper” means “to go well,” not to become rich. Secondly, John uses a common greeting to address his friend, Gaius, similar to salutations we place in modern-day letters.
As Gordon Fee writes in The Disease of the Health and Wealth Gospels, “This combination of wishing for ‘things to go well’ and for the recipient’s ‘good health’ was the standard form of greeting in a personal letter in antiquity. To extend John’s wish for Gaius to refer to financial and material prosperity for all Christians is totally foreign to the text.”
Three common errors
In general, prosperity preachers commit three common errors when interpreting scripture.
First, they ignore the context. A single verse must be read as part of the full narrative, and the full narrative must be considered in light of the intended audience and in comparison to the rest of scripture.
We must bear in mind that the Bible originally was written to certain people at specific times. As Hank Haneggraff often notes in his “Bible Answer Man” radio broadcasts, “The Bible was not written to us; it was written for us.”
That doesn’t mean the Bible is less authoritative or less relevant to us today. It simply means that we should consider the historical setting of each book and put ourselves in the shoes of its first readers.
Second, prosperity preachers rely on extra-biblical experiences to establish their interpretations of scripture. It is not uncommon to hear leaders like Kenneth Copeland say that God spoke to them in an audible voice or appeared to them in a vision.
This is not to deny that the Lord may use dreams and visions to speak to people today. For example, many former Muslims report appearances by Jesus to them in visions, leading them to consider the Christ of the Bible rather than the “Isa” of the Qur’an. But this is not the norm.
Further, we must lay all experiences against the yardstick of scripture. The canon is closed, and we must take pains not to add to or take away from God’s word.
As a caution, Mormonism is based largely on the alleged visions of Joseph Smith. These visions led to false doctrines concerning the nature of God, the Trinity, the finished work of Jesus on the cross, and the ultimate destiny of human beings.
Third, prosperity preachers begin with doctrine rather than with the Bible. Based on “dreams,” “visions,” “prophecies,” or other subjective experiences, they formulate new teachings that tickle the ear rather than lead to godliness (2 Tim. 4:3).
Many counterfeit forms of Christianity began this way. Charles Taze Russell, who established a Bible study that morphed into the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (the Jehovah’s Witnesses), rejected the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and the doctrine of an eternal hell because he found these biblical teachings unreasonable. The end result is a worldwide organization that follows the teachings of the Watchtower rather than the truth of God’s word.
So what should we do? Read the Bible in context. Compare scripture with scripture. Measure all experiences by the word of God. And trust the Bible as the starting point – and final word – of all of beliefs.
This column first appeared July 1, 2014, in The Pathway, the news journal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.