By Minabere Ibelema.
While chatting with a cousin several years ago, I asked how she became a Faith Foundation faithful. Brimming with the utmost enthusiasm, she responded: “This is the real thing. That other thing, well … This is practical. It is …, it is about life.”
Even as she struggled to give her feelings full expression, it was evident that she was truly enthused about her new faith. “That other thing” she talked about was the traditional Anglican Church she grew up in.
Traditional Christianity stresses the hereafter, and so its theological focus is the moulding of character for purposes of salvation. It de-emphasises material comforts here and now and extols sacrifice and uprightness.
In contrast, there is what is dubbed the prosperity gospel, and it has considerably eclipsed the salvation theology. The prosperity gospel is much more pragmatic, stressing the role of faith in bringing about success and comforts here and now. Its exponents accordingly preach the adoption of lifestyles and behaviours that are most likely to attain these objectives, among them hard work, networking, and learning the various strategies for material success. Most Pentecostal churches in Nigeria and elsewhere fall into this category. And they are teeming with membership for that reason.
It was surprising, therefore, that the social media went abuzz when Pastor Enoch Adeboye, the General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, told an assembly of singles that men should not marry women who are lazy or cannot cook and women should not marry men who have no jobs.
Perhaps, the critics are not used to the application of the prosperity gospel so specifically to what one wit termed “the infrastructure of the belly.” But it is by no means a deviation, or even an extension, of the theology. Sure, feminists have reason to object to the cooking matter, but at least on that Adeboye’s theology concurs with tradition.
What once made me recoil was hearing a pastor tell his congregation to avoid raising concerns about malfeasance at the work place because that would keep them from receiving God’s full complements of blessings. The time for such activism was gone, he said. “Now, there is a certain way you do It,” he added, with a winding motion of the hand but without elaboration. The essential message was that in the place of work, at least, one is better off seeing no evil and hearing no evil.
It was, of course, a pragmatic advice that is absolutely in accord with the prosperity gospel. What was jarring was the direct link between looking the other way and the scope of God’s blessings.
Though the prosperity gospel is very appealing to many and has attracted throngs to churches, I have wondered whether it could have done for Christianity what the salvation gospel did in bringing about its phenomenal growth from a very modest beginning. I am inclined to think not.
There is certain evolutionary logic to the emergence of both thrusts of Christianity. The early years of Christianity were hard times, very hard times. Whatever may be our difficulties today, we are all in heaven relative to the miseries of that time. Abject poverty was the norm, life was tenuous and incurable diseases rampant. People lived and died with little reason to expect a better life. The prosperity gospel might have rung hollow in that context.
In contrast, the salvation gospel resonated because it gave people hope for the hereafter. The conviction that something better awaits the faithful made suffering so much easier to bear. And so a gospel that stressed goodness, sacrifice, martyrdom and non-materialistic ethos made a lot of sense. Puritanism and Calvinism had much appeal.
Calvinist theology encouraged the capital accumulation, but it was not for purposes of opulence and luxury. Large capital was a sign that one was among the already chosen few that would make it to heaven. And so Calvinists, like other Puritans, stressed frugality and avoided indulgence.
Today, there is considerable prosperity. And since the industrial revolution, there has been an increasing democratisation of the means to riches. The good life is so much more readily accessible right here on earth. Even the poorest in any society can envision becoming rich. The prosperity gospel has considerable cachet and credibility in this context. Why put off until the hereafter comforts that can be attained here and now?
Quite significantly, the people who bear the banner of each thrust of the theology generally exemplify it in their fortunes and lifestyles. Monks, nuns and priests take a vow of poverty and live lives of deprivation. Even bishops usually live simple lives and eschew opulence. And other than the grandeur of the Vatican, Popes do the same.
In contrast, pastors of the prosperity gospel exemplify the faith by being wealthy themselves.
If not wealthy, at least materially comfortable. In fact, some of the wealthiest people around the world are preachers of the prosperity gospel. Among them are Joel Osteen and Creflo A. Dollar (no, that’s not a nickname) of the United States.
Osteen, a Houston-based pastor, televangelist and author of several books on the prosperity gospel, reportedly lives in a $10.5 million home. Following criticism for his opulence, he gave up his annual salary of $200,000. That didn’t entail any sacrifice, though. He earns millions from other sources, especially book sales.
Dollar is not too far behind. He reportedly owns a private jet, drives a Rolls Royce and owns a million-dollar home in one city and a $2.5 million apartment in another.
The divergent thrust in Christian theology raises an interesting question: What if Jesus returns, as the scriptures say he will, which theology will he say represents him? Would it be the old time religion that was good for Mary and Martha or the new-era gospel espoused by Joel and Creflo?
Nugget of wisdom
US Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, celebrating his re-nomination to the House and not so subtly chiding Donald Trump, his party’s unruly nominee for the presidency: “In times as uncertain as these, it is easy to resort to division. It’s simple to prey on people’s fears. That stuff sells, but it doesn’t stick. It doesn’t last. Most of all, it doesn’t work.”