There are quite a few warnings in the Bible about false teachers and prophets. According to Jesus, Paul and others, there will certainly be men and women who come like the proverbial wolves in woolly clothing, and disrupt the church with twisted versions of Christian truth. As the church seemingly becomes more and more polarised, that accusation seems to be thrown around a lot. In mainstream Christian debate, the phrase is used to describe pastors who dare to drag up centuries-old questions about hell or the exact science of what happened at the Cross. Sometimes it's even levelled at those who might want to broaden the scope of who is invited into the church family.
Yet there's a popular vein of teaching in the church, most notable in the US but still burgeoning in Europe and elsewhere, which is so clearly heretical, so definitely False, that our response seems to be either to accept or – in the vast majority of cases – ignore it. If we're not one of its adherents, we simply write it off as mad. It's so far from the truth, we don't even take it seriously.
I think that's a very grave mistake.
Prosperity teaching is one of those areas of theological thought which comes in for the sort of rough ride I outlined above. The idea that God's plan for each of us includes financial and other personal success is certainly contentious. Personally, I'd suggest that those who propose and subscribe to it are on very dangerous ground, driven perhaps by more earthly motivations than eternal ones. But I still concede that churches and teaches who believe health and wealth are God's plan for all his children are at least attempting to illustrate Christian hope – particularly in poorer communities who've spent generations trapped in the dead end of social immobility.
Within the wider prosperity movement however, there are some real vipers. Their teaching isn't really about God or his coming Kingdom at all, unless they happen to need a quick Bible verse to tear out of context for their own ends. They are interested in one thing alone, and by implication of their continued presence on Christian platforms and media, they certainly get it. They love money, and as Jesus once said, that's a very dangerous thing. They're fleecing innocent – or at least naive – people out of a cumulative fortune.
And largely speaking, the wider church's response is to shrug our shoulders, or even to laugh.
Perhaps best encapsulated as proponents of 'seed of faith' teaching, these charlatans do their most significant work on Christian television. The pattern there is almost always the same: two men sit in an expensive studio, and one builds up the other as a great prophet and 'man of God.' He tells a captivating story – a tale from the Bible, or perhaps his own 'testimony' – and everything seems perfectly normal. Then, like the turning point in a great novel, the twist comes. If you want to have a story like his (inevitably one about becoming a millionaire), or to feel the blessing of God like David/Solomon/Noah or some other Old Testament character, you simply have to plant a seed.
That's right – if you're wanting to respond to this message, and you want to experience the 'five-fold blessings', the 'outpourings' or the 'divine (bank) transfer', you simply have to make the first move. And that move, of course, is to deposit a healthy sum of your own money in the bank account of this preacher, as a show of your own faith. There's no logical reason offered for why the way you'd demonstrate your faith in God is by transferring $500 to the 'man of God'. But by that point if you're still listening, you're probably way beyond logic.
To most of us, this kind of broadcast – which appears every night, on multiple channels all over the world – is so ridiculous that it washes over us. I want to argue that by ignoring this utterly evil practice, which shouldn't even be dignified by being called a theology, we actually become complicit in its power. The problem isn't just the heresy, it's that the church's response to it is so insipid. We write books on, hold conferences about, and devote pages of weighty Christian magazines to whether Rob Bell might be a universalist, and all the time the Christian message is being utterly desecrated as it's co-opted for financial gain.
In fact, the place you're most likely to read about this kind of teaching is on one of those rambling 'heresy-watch' websites that look like they were built by a 14-year-old, two weeks after the Internet was invented. We have got to talk about this in the mainstream. If a Christian media outlet considers itself respectable, then it will find no place on its screens, pages or airwaves for such people. If a conference – even one within the prosperity movement – wants to be orthodox, it must not invite them. If we have friends who watch or even attend these so-called ministries, then it's our responsibility to 'restore them gently' as the Bible puts it, to orthodoxy. These teachers prey not only on the weakness of the susceptible, but the indifference of you and I. It's not a laughing matter, but one to get angry about. After all, thanks to their presence in mass media they're doing more damage to the reputation of the Christian faith than we can probably imagine.
Seed of faith teaching isn't just utterly unbiblical, it's straight from the pit of Hell. It's a satanic subversion of the truth, promoted by False Teachers who very likely don't believe a single word they're saying. And here's the acid test: you might hear them ramble on for hours about the wisdom of Solomon, or the faith of Abraham, but they very seldom talk about Jesus. Because not only is he a bit of a problem for them as a self-denying leftie, he's also the Truth. These teachers cannot co-exist with that (as 1 John 4 explains), nor should we tolerate them as they try.