Another Reason I Hate the Prosperity Gospel

I had a rather fascinating conversation today with a friend who is helping me with my French. This friend asked me what I thought about foot washing services. It was sort of a strange and out-of-context question because at the time, he and I weren’t really talking about church or theology at all. Rather, right in the middle of an explanation of when to use “leur” and when to use “eux”, my friend sort of blurted out a question about foot washing services that apparently his church holds with some regularity. He asked me what I thought about these services, and I responded that I needed more information. He then went on to explain that his church has regular foot washing services, because, as he put it, “through foot washing you can get special power.”

I almost choked on a past participle. “What did you say?”

I was stunned and had to investigate this for myself. So, as soon as our language session finished, I went online and did a quick search. Within seconds I found exactly what my friend had described, clearly outlined on one of the church’s blogs. If you would like to see for yourself what I found, you can, here. After reading it, honestly, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Basically the pastor of this church uses the biblical story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet to teach that this was “a mystery” by which Jesus transferred to the disciples things such as “power, wisdom, riches, strength, honor, and glory.” From the Genesis account of the fall, and God’s declaration that the heel of Adam would crush the head of the serpent, the pastor deduces that “dominion is in the feet.” I confess to having no idea what that means.

According to the blog post, the “mystery of foot washing” was supposedly handed on to Jesus’ followers so that they might continue to acquire these things (power, riches, wisdom, etc.). The use of the word “mystery” is meant to highlight a special insight that this pastor has which others do not. The site even states that the reason others have not understood the story in this way is because they supposedly view it as a parable. To quote the website, “To many Christians these Mysteries are Parables and therefore they loss [sic] where they are expected to win.” Ironically, I don’t know of a single pastor or theologian who treats the story of Jesus washing the disciples feet as a “parable” other than the pastor of this church. The fact that he goes on to describe foot washing as a “symbol” seems to indicate that not only is he a terrible exegete, but he also doesn’t know what the word “parable” means.

My language partner in fact, went on to ask me how he could get more wisdom, because when he compared himself to his pastor, he felt that clearly his pastor had insight that he didn’t. I wanted to tell him it wasn’t insight that his pastor had, but an overactive imagination and total disregard for the basic principles of interpretation, but I refrained.
Of course, what is absolutely appalling about all this is that the real point of Jesus washing the disciples feet is exactly opposite of what this pastor claims. The story (John 13) emphasizes the servant role that Jesus took in coming “not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45). In Luke 22:24 we find that when this event took place, the disciples were arguing about who would be greatest in the Kingdom. In the midst of that, Jesus stoops down and performs a task normally performed by a slave or servant. In other words, it was an act of complete humility, an act of service. Its purpose was to teach that serving one another through simple but practical acts of kindness is fundamental to being a follower of Jesus. In other words, the real meaning of the passage is diametrically opposite the meaning taught at my friends church.

What really bothers me about this, and what bothers me about the prosperity gospel in general (of which this is clearly a variety), is that this teaching takes one of the most important Scriptures calling the church to a life of service and care for one another, and inverts it in favor of self-centered “riches and glory.” It would be one thing if this pastor were merely a poor exegete, and had inadvertently come up with the wrong interpretation. That would be forgivable. But this is clearly not the case, since the pastor claims to have “mysterious” knowledge that others do not. The fact that he makes this claim shows that he knows quite well that he’s gone off the reservation, but wants to justify his departure through having uncovered this secret “mystery.”

Perhaps worst of all, this teaching represents a turn away from the most fundamental aspect of the Gospel, namely the death and resurrection of Christ. In fact, this is the very argument (involving not too different circumstances) that the apostle Paul addresses in his letter to the Colossians. In Colossae too there were teachers claiming special knowledge, claiming visions (2:18) from which they gained knowledge not available to others. And through this supposed special knowledge, the false teachers at Colossae were leading members of the church astray. Paul responds by asking the church, “why are you turning now to religion after you have been given the Gospel?” (my paraphrase; see 2:20-23).

All through chapters 2 and 3 of Colossians Paul keeps coming back again and again to the importance of the resurrection. And he over and over emphasizes that for the Christian there are two aspects of the resurrection that form the foundation of our life in Christ. The first is that we have died with Christ (2:20), and the second is that we are raised with Christ (3:1).

But the main problem with the prosperity gospel folks is that they want to be raised without having died. Because the Bible does indeed teach that there is abundant life for the people of God, and there is even glory for the people of God. Paul says so explicitly in the beginning of chapter 3. “When Christ who is your life appears, then you will also appear with him in glory!” But what the prosperity folks leave out is that you can’t have resurrection without crucifixion and you can’t have glory with out Calvary. And if you really believe the Gospel, if you really want to follow Jesus you have to have both: crucifixion and resurrection.

And if you put crucifixion first, then there’s no room prideful interpretations that take a beautiful example of selflessness and transform it into a monstrosity of self-indulgence. And this is what the prosperity gospel folks consistently (and conveniently) leave out of their message time and time again.

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How To Do Research: 5 Basic Questions to Get You Started

During my student days, I had very little, if any, formal instruction in how to actually go about the research process. Of course, I had writing classes and instruction on how to outline a paper and so on. But the proper way to do research often went unaddressed and over the years there were times when I found myself buried in a pile of books, sticky notes, and legal pads, not quite sure how I got there, or how to get out.

So, I thought I would write a brief and simplistic description of the approach that I now use, which I mostly developed during my PhD studies through a process of trial and error. This is the cliff notes version, though and meant to be very simple. A complex project, in my view, needs a simple beginning. And for me, this is it. These are five basic questions that I use to start the research process, to help get things moving in the right direction. I’ll be sharing these with an undergrad class next week, and so I thought perhaps others might find them helpful as well. So here goes:

  1. How’s the view from up there? Start with a bird’s-eye-view of your subject. Get a good overview and discern the crucial peaks (and valleys) related to your topic. Topical dictionaries are a good place to start. The peaks would be those issues that rise above everything else and command the most attention. These often will feature prominently in your outlines. But don’t neglect the valleys, or the less noticeable, and seeming less interesting places. Treasures lurk in the shadows!
  2. Who are the main actors? What names come up over and over again in the literature? What are the classic texts to which everyone who writes on this issue refers? A word of warning though: its not enough to just know the key players; you also have to understand why they are key! For example, some key players have prominent positions related to this topic simply because of their historical importance. But this does not mean that their argument still stands. Another word of caution: good research isn’t just about summarizing the arguments of others and using their perspective to defend yours. Its about getting into the nuts and bolts of those arguments and finding  the lose parts. Good research crafts a new proposal that borrows from yesterday and reaches into tomorrow. It is not creativity for the sake of novelty, but reasoned and learned creativity for the sake of resolution.
  3. What’s the question? Your not ready to really begin a research project until you can state your topic in the form of a question. Without a question, you don’t have a problem, and without a problem you don’t have a reason to conduct the research to begin with. As you survey the material, some questions should emerge. Write them down and somewhere along the way, one or two very interesting but unanswered questions should appear. That is your topic.
  4. What’s the dominant story line? Every research question is likely to have some standing answer that dominates current thinking. Or, sometimes there will be competing story lines that are widely supported. Competing story lines often hold great promise for new research projects, especially if you can locate a false presupposition or untenable position in one line of thought.
  5. Where do you fit in? I think this is the most important and the most often neglected aspect of research. The researcher forgets to ask where they fit into the equation. Yes, you are to try as much as you can to set aside your prejudices and strive for objectivity. Good research depends on this. But you can never set aside yourself (entirely) nor should you. There is something in you that is driving you to consider this topic. Some part of you must genuinely care about it, because you (hopefully) chose it. So why? Why does this topic matter to you and why do you think YOU have something unique to contribute? Perhaps you have an interest in an aspect of this topic that most have not cared about or thought irrelevant. Because of this you will discern a long neglected aspect. It doesn’t matter (so much) that others have studied and written on this topic (of course they have!). But the exciting part is that YOU have not (yet) studied and written on this topic, and surely what you bring that is unique, is, well, you!

Finally, I would add that these are not sequential questions to explore, but rather ones that sometimes you have to examine and kick around simultaneously. For me, yellow legal pads are an invaluable part of the kicking around part. This is especially true if you have a general idea of what you want to tackle, but don’t yet have the precise question. So don’t be afraid to chase the occasional rabbit now and then. Just know when to give up and move on (hint: when you’ve forgotten why you’re chasing that rabbit is generally a good time!).

Happy researching!

BookReview: John Stott, The Living Church. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2011.

living church

Few people in modern church history have combined pastoral concern and theological depth as well as has the late John Stott. His book The Living Church, originally published in 2007 but re-released in 2011 (the same year Stott died), is a passionate plea for the Church to be all that it is called to be, holding its diverse callings together. But its more than that. This book is the culminated wisdom of a lifetime serving Christ and the church, and as such should be read by every pastor, missionary, and layperson who cares about the local church and its mission.

Like Stott himself, this book is both scholarly and practical. In many ways, the book is an expansion of one of Stott’s sermons given at All Souls Church, where Stott grew up, pastored, and retired. And at the 150th anniversary of this church, Stott, with apologies to Martin Luther King, offered his own “dream” for what a biblical church could and should look like. He expounds throughout on what he considers the four essentials: a learning church, a caring church, a worshipping church, and an evangelizing church. In concluding, he wraps these up neatly with the slightly broader categories borrowed from Paul’s first letter to Timothy (6:11-2), of an ethical church, a doctrinal church, and an experiential church.

The real value in this volume lies in its balance. Stott let’s no excess go unchecked. For example, he argues eloquently that preaching should be biblical and contemporary—it should speak from the biblical world to the present world. It should be both prophetic—warning people of God’s judgment, and pastoral—comforting those who are distraught. Stott argues that we must not minimize the paradox’s of the church’s life (e.g., “in the world but not of the world”), but learn to balance these tensions in ways that fully capture the reality of the church as the pilgrim people of God.

There is a tremendous need today for the church to more fully understand itself. Various theological and social issues have divided the church into numerous factions that more often than not have led to imbalances in what the church is called to do and be, as everyone is out defending their preferred perspective. This book though will encourage pastors to teach this material to their congregations, and it will encourage congregations to perhaps become more than they have been. Its lucid, its faithful to Scripture, and it is chock full of wisdom. I suspect this will be one of those books that I will pick up every so often and re-read, if for nothing else, for its simple clarity. I highly recommend it.