When Reformed theologian, Michael Horton, wrote his editorial for the Washington Post in early 2017, calling out evangelist and pastor, Paula White, as a proponent of the “Prosperity Gospel,” it caught people’s attention. Before reading this, I had never heard of Paula White before in my life. But according to her website, in 2006, she was ranked by some organization as one of the Top 50 “most influential Christians in America.” I guess I do not move in the same circles as Paula White.
Pastor White has been asked to give a prayer at the Presidential Inauguration, this coming Friday, January 20. Horton’s concern is that this public exposure will give Pastor White an opportunity to promote her message, which includes the so-called “Prosperity Gospel.”
The “Prosperity Gospel” goes back at least to the 1950s, when preachers like Norman Vincent Peale talked about the power of “positive thinking.” Through the 1980s and 1990s, Robert Schuller taught that humanity’s basic problem was not sin, but rather, the lack of self-esteem. As Michael Horton argues in his essay, this brand of Christianity has been curiously bound together with the “Word of Faith” movement, with its infamous “name-it-and-claim-it” Bible teaching. This broad tradition of the “Prosperity Gospel” is carried on today by about 70%, or more, of what you see on the Trinity Broadcasting Network television.
In a nutshell, the “Prosperity Gospel” makes the theologically suspect promise that God wants to give people material blessing, both in terms of financial wealth and good health, as a sign of His favor towards us. Now, there is nothing wrong with having “health and wealth,” and being grateful to God for it. But such teaching can lead to the wrong view that suffering, whether it be financial, physical, or otherwise, is a definite sign of God’s displeasure towards the believer. This is a false and misleading doctrine, as any right-thinking Christian, with a good grasp of the Bible, will know that God’s people go through suffering at various times, as part of the sanctification process, bringing us more into conformity with the likeness of Christ. After all, Jesus Himself suffered and died on the Cross, to deal with our sin and provide for our salvation, and He is calling every believer to follow Him!
Surely, our disobedience to God’s Word can, at times, lead to suffering. But according to the late pastor, Dick Woodward, who was paralyzed due to a degenerative spinal cord disease for over twenty years, this is only one of several Biblical reasons why Christians suffer (See Dick Woodward’s sermon and brief booklet, Thirty Biblical Reasons Why God’s People Suffer). If you think that by “naming and claiming” (supposedly) “God’s promises” you can avoid suffering, or simply to promote your own success, then you are setting yourself up for spiritual disaster.
Michael Horton’s alarm over Paula White should require Christians to have discernment, not only with the “Prosperity Gospel,” but even in other areas. For example, Paula White has responded to her critics, and noted that she does, in fact, accept and teach the doctrine of the Trinity to be true, from her statement of belief found on her website. Nevertheless, if you read a recent article in Christianity Today magazine, by Kate Shellnutt, not everyone is convinced by the integrity of White’s response.
The main point I want to convey, is not to criticize Pastor Paula White, as I simply know very little about her (though I learned that she is married to Jonathan Cain, the keyboard player of the 1980’s popular band, Journey, which is interesting). She might even give a very fine prayer at the Presidential Inauguration, for all I know.
But whenever a public figure, who portrays themselves as a representative for the Gospel, makes a stand for Christ, we need to carefully consider what is being said and taught. Christian believers should check out what that teacher or preacher actually says, and line it up with the teaching found in the Bible. In those areas, where the teacher is in alignment with Scripture, we should gladly affirm those things. Yet wherever the teacher goes against Scripture, we need to apply discernment, stand guard for the truth, and be wary, less we might stumble into unknowingly accepting a type of counterfeit “gospel” (Acts 17:11).
“For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” (2 Timothy 4:3 ESV).