Did Jesus Wear Designer Robes?

The gospel preached in Africa's New Pentecostal Churches ends up leaving the poor more impoverished than ever.
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The dramatic growth of non-Western Christianity across Africa is due largely to the flourishing New Pentecostal Churches. Why has the prosperity gospel, imported from the West and preached in these churches, found such fertile soil in Africa? In the second installment of the Global Conversation, Ghanaian seminary professor Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu explains how these churches' peculiar emphases resonate with tribal religious backgrounds. Unfortunately, the prosperity gospel leaves behind the rural poor and other marginalized people who have little access to wealth and success. The gospel of Jesus Christ, on the other hand, glorifies neither poverty nor prosperity, but instead offers deliverance, forgiveness, grace, and restoration.

For thousands of believers in Ghana, Jericho Hour is the place to be if you are looking for a breakthrough. Founded in 1998, the prayer meeting—where, according to its slogan, "giant solutions await your giant problems"—is hosted by Archbishop Nicholas Duncan-Williams and his Action Chapel International in the Prayer Cathedral on Spintex Road in Accra. On Thursday mornings 3,000 people make their way to the cathedral, where they are encouraged to pray for breakthroughs in business dealings and employment, international travel, money to build houses and buy cars, help with finding a spouse or bearing a child, and, when experiencing setbacks, vengeance on those spiritually responsible.

Founded by Duncan-Williams in 1979 as Christian Action Faith Ministry International, the church was the first of a new stream of Pentecostal churches that have since flourished in Ghana and across Africa. Duncan-Williams's mentor was the late Nigerian Benson Idahosa, who, before he died in the late '90s, conferred upon himself the titles "Professor" and "Archbishop." Duncan-Williams's own transition—from "Pastor" to "The Rev. Dr." to "Bishop" and now "Archbishop"—reflects his growing influence, though these elevations must be understood as vivid examples of the blessings he promises to those who exercise faith.

Duncan-Williams's "blessings" are not just nominal. Though his 26-year marriage ended in 2005 (after American pastor T. D. Jakes tried to mediate much-publicized efforts at reconciliation), he married a prominent African American diplomat turned entrepreneur in 2008. Their lifestyle, including a home many describe as palatial, might not be exceptional in the United States, but in Ghana, lavish displays of wealth are usually the domain of politicians believed to achieve their material success by stealing from the public purse. Rumors about where the couple's wealth comes from are probably inevitable.

The Marks of Faith

The New Pentecostal Churches (NPCS) of Africa emphasize prosperity of all kinds. Wealth, health, success, and ever-soaring profits in business are coveted, cherished, and publicly flaunted as signs of God's favor. In this new type of Christianity, success and wealth are the only genuine marks of faith.

Just as Christian movements elsewhere in the world have their favorite Scripture verses, the NPC movement finds support from selected passages. Prosperity preachers quote 3 John 2: "Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well." The wish for general well-being is interpreted to mean not only that God will give believers their basic needs but also that they will live in comfort and luxury. Abraham, who was rich in cattle, sheep, and gold (Gen. 13:2), is commonly cited, with special emphasis on his willingness to pay tithes to Melchizedek, a model for the "sowing of seed" that prosperity churches encourage. Since the apostle Paul tells us that the blessing of Abraham has come to the Gentiles (Gal. 3:14), why shouldn't Christians enjoy similar wealth and influence?

The prosperity movement also taps into deep roots in traditional African religions. The prayer vigils and healing camps are the Christian equivalent of traditional shrines where people go to have their destinies revealed and spiritual problems solved. The prosperity message resonates with African religious ideas because of the traditional belief in mystical causality. Tithes, like prayers, are ritual actions that are supposed to make things happen.

African traditions strongly believe in the existence of invisible forces, especially malevolent powers, and in the efficacy of ritual action to fight the forces of evil. When prosperity is lacking, African church leaders most commonly explain it by pointing to demonic forces, curses, and witchcraft rather than to an individual's sin. Churches offer "anointing for vengeance" to help dismantle spiritual traps set by envious family members and relations. Many charismatic church services include prayers of imprecation of sometimes alarming vengefulness. During one church service, after pronouncing curses on family members responsible for their "lack of progress in life," worshipers were asked to move their right leg forward, stamp the floor, and shout, "From today I step out of poverty in the name of Jesus."

Charismatic African Christians did not necessarily set out to create a contextualized "African Christianity." But the ritualized exchange of tithes and blessings is markedly similar to the orientation of traditional African religious sacrifices. The amounts that leaders demand can be very specific. In a high-energy revival at Ghana's Charismatic Evangelistic Ministry, one evangelist proclaimed that those who wanted to be blessed by God had to cough up US$240. How did he arrive at that figure? "God is going to provide a 24-hour miracle in the lives of those with the ability to pay," he explained. Apparently the rate for these pre-Reformation-style indulgences was $10 per hour. I left the service wondering what would happen to the many Ghanaians who do not have that sort of money.

Little Room for the Poor

On the whole, I take a positive view of charismatic Christianity, including aspects of its emphasis on prosperity. Pastor Mensa Otabil of Ghana's International Central Gospel Church, for example, exhorts people to do something about their impoverished circumstances. Some of them offer genuinely encouraging testimonies, like the member of Otabil's church who bought a new car using three months' savings when he stopped drinking. These churches have clearly contributed to the growth of non-Western Christianity with dynamic, expressive, and exuberant worship styles that appeal to upwardly mobile urban youth.

But precisely because of its emphasis on material wealth, charismatic Christianity in Africa has largely remained an urban phenomenon. Its message has little to offer the many young people who peddle gum, candies, bananas, peanuts, and fried pastries to eke out a living. For Africans, viable religion has always meant that which leads to power, strength, vitality, and abundance. But the NPCS aggressively pursue what can only be called North American levels of materialism; indeed, the prosperity movement originated with the Word of Faith movement of North American televangelists like Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, Mike Murdock, and Kenneth Hagin.

It is not uncommon for pastors who want new vehicles to claim that God directed them to "sow" their old vehicle in the life of someone else, usually a church member. A few days after the divine direction is carried out, a more luxurious vehicle appears, and members proudly point to it as a sign of God's blessing on the pastor's life and ministry.

Just as these churches make little room for the poor, they also leave little room for theological wrestling with the cost of discipleship, failure, pain, and disappointment, all of which are the lot of millions in Africa. One Ghanaian church changed its name from "Calvary Road" to "Harvesters International" because, as a leading member explained to me, the word Calvary sounded too negative to members. Until recently, some charismatic Christians would not even celebrate Good Friday because they associated it with pain and suffering.

For those disenchanted with the staid, silent, and theologically orthodox Christianity of the historic mission churches, the prosperity gospel offers an attractive alternative: positives, possibilities, and success. To seek these things is not out of place. "The house of the Lord" has always been a place where people seek God's help with spiritual and material needs. The problem is a one-sided approach to religion that leaves the poor, the marginalized, and those who have not succeeded without any grounds for faith in God. What testimony can the poor and wretched of the earth offer? They can only assume that they lack the faith ascribed to Jabez, or that they are cheating God by not faithfully tithing.

Where the gospel of success is not working, people look to supernatural interventions. In African thought, that which is primarily real is the spiritual, and the ubiquitous and competitive forces of globalization mean the field of demonic activity has widened considerably to include, for example, immigration and consular officers. Many Africans see international travel as a gateway to riches, and many prosperity preachers like Duncan-Williams have homes in the West and arrange for their children to be born in Western hospitals to secure dual citizenship.

NPC prophets specialize in praying for visas for supplicants. Not long ago, one appeared in the early morning at the Italian Embassy in Accra, preaching to applicants in the long queue, assuring them of God's power to help them secure visas. He anointed each plastic envelope containing supporting documents with olive oil for what he called "favor in the eyes of the consular officer." It is not uncommon to hear pastors talk about receiving visions in which angels distribute Royal Dutch Airlines and British Airways tickets to people in their congregations. In some churches, prayers for international travel now rank second only to healing. And when the alternative is a dangerous sea voyage from Libya to Spain, why not?

Grace through Suffering

The gospel of Jesus Christ—with its promise of liberation, deliverance, forgiveness, grace, and restoration—can never be a gospel of poverty. But just as the Bible does not glorify poverty, neither does it glorify greed. Scripture consistently warns that the pursuit of worldly interests can lead us to neglect the deeper values of the kingdom of God. Yet this is exactly what happens in the biblical interpretations favored by prosperity teachers. While prosperity preachers invoke the blessing of Abraham that Paul refers to in Galatians 3:14 to justify prayers for material wealth, I have yet to hear one include the second half of the verse: "so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit." The significance of Pentecost for Paul as a mighty act of God, in which the Holy Spirit brings the nations together through common witness, is overlooked.

To conclude, as preachers like Duncan-Williams do, that "Jesus wore designer robes"—since the Bible says his robe was seamless and that the soldiers at the foot of the cross gambled for it—is to read into Scripture what is simply not there. Even the donkey that Jesus rode into Jerusalem has been reinvented in sermons as the Cadillac or Mercedes-Benz of the time. This is simply teachers sacralizing greed and covetousness. Jesus responded to this attitude when he told the company of his disciples, following the request of James and John for privileged places in the kingdom, that it was "not so with you" (Matt. 20:26).

High-profile divorces aside, one rarely hears stories of those whose efforts in life have failed despite paying tithes and offerings. The believers whose testimonies consist of grace to continue in marriages where one spouse is an alcoholic, or to grieve the loss of a loved one with God-given strength to cope, go unheard.

God's purpose in difficult situations is not always to take us out of them but to take us through them. In the words of the psalmist, "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me" (Ps. 23:4); and, "My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever" (Ps. 73:26). Paul himself had a "thorn in the flesh" that was not taken away. He lived with it not by naming and claiming, but by grace.

"Bolstered up by what has happened to us and by the testimonies of others," Tom Smail writes in the book Charismatic Renewal, "we can easily come to see ourselves as living in a world of supernatural power that leads us from triumph to triumph, where the weak, desolate sufferer of Calvary has been left far behind, or at any rate [has] ceased to dominate the scene." The NPCS have changed the face of African Christianity for good in many ways. But they have some distance to travel before presenting a message that is truly representative of Jesus Christ and his Cross. In the words of Bernard of Clairvaux: "Jesus, thou joy of loving hearts/ Thou fount of life, thou light of men;/ From the best bliss that earth imparts,/ We turn unfilled to thee again."

J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu is associate professor of Pentecostal theology and African Christianity at Trinity Theological Seminary in Legon, Accra, Ghana. A Langham scholar, he holds a Ph.D. from the University of Birmingham. He has served as a visiting scholar in the U.S. at Harvard Divinity School (2004) and Luther Seminary (2007).

The Global Conversation addresses important issues related to world evangelization in preparation for the Lausanne Movement's Cape Town 2010 conference. Join the conversation by reading responses from three key leaders at ChristianityToday.com/go/conversation and posting your own comments.

Go toChristianBibleStudies.com for "The Problem with the Prosperity Gospel," a Bible study based on this article.



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