"I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."
Long before the collapse of the hostel of the Synagogue Church of all Nations in Lagos, Nigeria, resulting in the death of eighty South Africans, I had heard that many of our compatriots were regularly going there for services. I had also heard about its wealthy prophet, T.B. Joshua who, after church services, flies off in his private jet from an airstrip behind his church to return to his mansion in a smart resort town. And I had heard about the ways in which he makes his fortune, from selling books and holy water to insurance policies and the tithing of his flock. The church's official website claims that T.B. Joshua is a genuine prophet with a global ministry of healing, performing miracles and forecasting the future, and that the church has programmes to help the poor and sick, educate the young, and pursue deeds of mercy. More critical websites list T.B. Joshua's faults, question his integrity, claims and accountability. They say that the hostel collapsed because two new floors were being added on inadequate foundations. Nigeria is notorious for bad building regulations and dodgy construction.
How are we to evaluate these conflicting reports? For starters we do well to recall that Jesus' disciples once came to him and said that there were people healing and casting our demons in his name who did not belong to their circle. Let them be, he Jesus. He also said that we should not cast the first stone. So let's leave God be the judge of T.B. Joshua. In any case, over the centuries some mainline churches have become enormously wealthy. Consider the real estate controlled by them, the enormous trade from pilgrims to Rome, and the dubious transactions of the Vatican Bank. No wonder St. Francis of Assisi turned his back on the ill-gotten wealth of the popes, cardinals and bishops of his day, and tried to rebuild the church according to the gospel of the Jesus who for our sakes became poor. No wonder Martin Luther as a young and pious monk castigated the religious trafficking in indulgences when he visited Rome. No, we dare not cast the first stone at Joshua and his Synagogue Church. In any case, our first response should be to pray for all who died and were injured in that terrible tragedy and for their loved ones left behind.
But there are questions to be asked. Is the "prosperity gospel" the prophet proclaims attracting the poor and sick, cancer sufferers and those with HIV & AIDS, with promises that cannot be met, raising false hopes, even if some are healed and a handful become wealthy -- which might have happened anyway? Is not the gospel of Christ about taking up our cross, endurance and faithfulness, rather than financial prosperity and worldly success? Is T.B. Joshua's message one of cheap grace, though it costs his followers a great deal of money? Yet his followers go to him in droves because they believe he delivers on his promises. They vote with their feet at considerable cost, while many walk out of our own churches and do not pay their dues in any case. So could it be sour grapes and envy that makes us condemn T.B. Joshua and his gospel of prosperity? Maybe we need to take another look at this "prosperity gospel" he and others like him preach.
The bottom line -- an appropriate phrase -- of the "prosperity gospel" is that God wants us to be healthy, wealthy, and successful in every area of life. No wonder many celebrities have found a spiritual home in churches that proclaim this gospel whether in Johannesburg, Nigeria or Cape Town. So the primary question is not whether T.B. Joshua is a charlatan, or how he makes and uses his money, but whether the "prosperity gospel" is the gospel of Jesus. Have the "prosperity gospel" churches got it right? Have they recovered something that we have lost? Are they attracting the masses because the gospel they are preaching actually meets their needs?
Some comments in one of Bonhoeffer's letters from prison prompt me to think that the "prosperity gospel" churches have, in fact, discovered something in the biblical message that we have neglected. He reminds us that God's blessing "encompasses all of earthly life," Too often we over spiritualize the gospel, Bonhoeffer says, or so emphasize suffering and the cross and the rewards that await us in heaven that we exclude God's promise of earthly happiness, blessings and prosperity here and now. Surely God does not want people to be poor, sick, illiterate and unsuccessful. Did not Jesus heal the sick and deliver those possessed by demons? Did he not come so that we "may have life, and have it abundantly," as we read in the gospel for today? So is it not understandable that people who are in need, whatever that need may be, should go in their thousands to churches that offer them abundant life? Or that those who are poor should seek out preachers who say God wants them to be prosperous, and can demonstrate that God has blessed them with abundance so that they can even own private jets? Is it not reasonable that many politicians and sports men and women should go to churches that tell them that God wants them to do well and even win?
Of course, this is not the whole gospel, and it is easily perverted to serve dubious ends. But it is surely an important element in the gospel. God wants us to be whole and to succeed in life, not walk around looking miserable, claiming that our failures are a sign of holiness, or preaching that the poor should be happy because "theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Otherwise why do we in Christ's name seek to help the poor, educate the young, and seek ways to ensure that our kids and grandchildren succeed in life? Is this not God's will? Yes, the gospel is about taking up our cross, it is about suffering love and struggling for truth and justice. Yes, the Sermon on the Mount challenges ostentatious prosperity values, just as Jesus challenges those who put their hope in riches. But this does not mean that there are no blessings attached, or that disciples of Jesus should be miserable, guilt-laden losers.
To make dubious promises to people that they can be healed or become wealthy and succeed in order to make prophets profit may be deplorable. But so too is preaching a gospel of promises in heaven when people are seeking abundant life here and now. Or conveying the message that God does not want people to succeed in order to keep them humbly in their place, or feel inferior in order that God will seem greater. So maybe before we cast stones at T.B. Joshua we need to recover the good news that Jesus offers us life to the full here and now. We do not have to go to Lagos to discover or experience the prosperity of the Christ's gospel. It is available everywhere, even here at Volmoed where we don't take a collection or sell bottles of blessed water from our river. But when we build, let us make sure we lay good foundations.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 2 October 2014