Prosperity, Spiritual Warfare, and the “On-Demand” God

The last few weeks have been rather busy for Pentecostal/Charismatic types like Sen. John Ensign (R-NV), Gov. Sarah Palin, and Bishop Thomas Weeks. Ensign alone has seen the headlines monopolized by his paid-off adulterous relationship, and the outing of his political and religious ties to The Family and his dabbling in the do-it-yourself exorcism movement. The senator’s political career, despite his vow to run for reelection, seems suspect.

Then, when you consider the excitement sparked both by Sarah Palin’s exit from the governorship of Alaska (to pursue a higher calling) and the news that Bishop Thomas Weeks has found a new wife after beating and divorcing Juanita Bynum, one might surmise that Pentecostals and Charismatics are primed to take over Howard Sterns’ title as “King(s) of All Media.”

Given the avalanche of media attention on these Pentecostal and Charismatic “newsmakers,” one might expect to find more helpful information on the movement(s) to which all three belong. After all, understanding their affiliations and beliefs can help to make sense of the motivations of such disparate figures; to say nothing of the prosperity purveyors like Creflo Dollar, Paula White, and Joel Osteen who share their tradition to some extent. When God is like “on-demand cable”—standing by to provide instant forgiveness and prosperity—it is very hard to convince the most fervent believers to adhere to basic rules of propriety, let alone values.

From a Senate investigation of prosperity ministers to Sarah Palin’s New Apostolic Reformation movement connections, Pentecostalism and its progeny (Charismatic, Third Wave, Full Gospel and non-denominational churches) have multiplied rapidly, making it is difficult to discern what the original movement is and where the offshoots are. Consider, for example, the fact that most people are unaware that Joel Osteen’s Father, John Osteen, was originally a Southern Baptist who turned Charismatic then Word of Faith (the old name for prosperity gospel). There is a reason why Joel Osteen can teach “Your best Life now”—he’s a word of Faith/prosperity guy who’s toned down the rhetoric for broader consumption.

Health and Wealth

Genealogy is important. So, in order to help you distinguish one movement from another, let me give you a brief primer on Pentecostalism and its two mutations: Prosperity Gospel and the New Apostolic movement.

The Pentecostal movement has been defined by historical, theological, and sociological means, but to understand its “mutations,” focusing on the movement’s practices is key. The Pentecostal emphasis on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which can also function as a religious practice, are outlined in various New Testament texts (including I Corinthians 12-8-10, I Corinthians 12:28, and Romans 12:3-8). These gifts, or practices, include healings, exorcism, speaking and interpretation of tongues, words of wisdom, and prophetic utterances. Speaking in tongues or glossolialia, once touted as the primary practice of Pentecostals is now, despite the occasional outburst of televangelists, something very few Pentecostals engage in according to a 2006 Pew survey. Instead, practices of healing, faith, and exorcism have gained primacy among the “spiritual gifts.” As a result, the long-term health and strength of Prosperity Gospel and the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) rests on the elevation and promotion of these practices above all others. The deviations, then, are just as important in understanding how Pentecostalism is being reshaped and redefined.

The Prosperity Gospel has had several names throughout its history, including the “Health and Wealth Gospel” and, as noted above, “Word of Faith,” whose antecedents arise out of the healing movements of the 19th century. Early Pentecostals laid hands on and prayed fervently for healing “in the name of Jesus”; teachings that were appropriated by many churches and evangelists. For some, however, the teachings of E. W. Kenyon on the Word of Faith (with an emphasis on “faith”) became more primary in ministries and churches. Emphasis on the power of faith asserted that Christ’s atonement for sins on the cross included healing, and that if faith were applied appropriately, whatever a believer prayed for that was in God’s will would occur.

In the late 1940s, Kenneth Hagin (sometimes known as the father of the Word of Faith Movement or just ”Daddy Hagin”) focused on principles of ”faith” and the right of believers to be healed. Using his own story of healing, Hagin, alongside evangelists like Oral Roberts, A. A. Allen, and others, began to promote healing teachings, adding financial blessings and a how-to on the proper application of “The Word of Faith.” [See Jonathan Walton’s Watch This!: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism and RD’s “Selling the Good News.”]

For these Word of Faith proponents, the emphasis was placed on an almost fanatical belief in speaking and living the Word of Faith in line with scripture. These teachings in turn became foundational for many in the movement, including Hagin protégées Kenneth Copeland, Frederick K. C. Price, and John Osteen. Many mainline Pentecostals embraced these teachings at Copeland and Hagin meetings, which also attracted Charismatics from mainline denominations. Now known as the Prosperity Gospel, these movements garnered more participants and visibility in the 1990s; not only due to the advent of larger non-denominational churches linked to the various ministries, but also to the explosion of full gospel churches led by leaders like Paul Morton (who linked to other leaders with Pentecostal backgrounds like T. D. Jakes).

Toned Bodies and Spiritual Warfare

The new generation of prosperity preachers—Creflo Dollar, Paula White, Joel Osteen, and a host of other ‘luminaries’—took the humble Health and Wealth Gospel to another level. Rather than focus on audience healings and testimonies, the leaders themselves became advertisements for the movement: highlighting their expensive cars, airplanes, homes, and perfectly-toned bodies as a way to show their parishioners and followers across the world that prosperity was the way. Any association with established denominational oversight or organizational affiliation was severed in order to keep accountability out of the hands of outsiders, and within the ministry only. Even with the scrutiny of Senator Grassley (targeting the Grassley six for their financial records), these leaders have still managed—in the depths of a worldwide recession—to hold on to followers in their home and satellite churches around the country and across the world.

The New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), on the other hand, has been able to operate largely out of the general public’s purview, save for the work of writers at Talk to Action chronicling the changes and escalations in this movement, whose roots are firmly within the boundaries of the historic Pentecostal movement. Two foundational NAR beliefs (spiritual warfare and dominion over social ills) were influenced in part by a pair of English authors, Smith Wigglesworth and Jessie Penn Lewis, who were read avidly by some early Pentecostals and continue to be popular today. Their books focused on demonic possession, deliverance, and powerful spiritual encounters.

In the 1940s these very beliefs would be given further impetus by the “Latter Rain Movement” which arose out of revivals in Canada. Focusing on extraordinary outpourings of the Holy Spirit, including spectacular spiritual manifestations, believers and leaders in the movement like William Branham believed these manifestations would usher in the second coming of Christ. The movement caused splits within several Pentecostal denominations, most notably the Assemblies of God. Unlike the Word of Faith movement, the Latter Rain movement and its subsequent iterations relied on “extra” revelation outside of the Bible, given to a special group of leaders whom God had appointed.

The focus on “apostolic” leadership would reappear in the Shepherding movement of the 1970s, which quickly died after several scandals in leadership. Not long after, in the early 1980s, the star of C. Peter Wagner began to ascend. Wagner honed his ideas about spiritual mapping, spiritual warfare, and “power encounter” while teaching alongside other “power encounter” teachers at Fuller Seminary like John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard denomination, and Charles Kraft, missiologist. He was good friends with the now-deceased Wimber.

Wagner’s empire began to grow after he left the seminary in the early ’90s to establish a ministry in Colorado Springs. The NAR, according to Wagner, began in 2001, prompting him to call the 21st century the beginning of the “Second Apostolic Age.” Those in the NAR believe that in order to bring about the coming of Christ, Apostles must be recognized, and the church is a government that should be run by Christians in order to cleanse the world for Christ’s coming. Power encounters such as exorcisms must be done to cleanse not only people, but cities and communities; and those who participate in this will also lead in the new Reformation. Sarah Palin’s video of hands being laid upon her looks like a like a normal Pentecostal practice at a church service, but the minister/apostle, Bishop Muthee, was part of the New Apostolic Movement.

It is clear that both the basic theological tenets of what Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement denominations promote and what scholars research are not the beliefs of many of its prominent leaders and adherents. True, many denominations and faith traditions change over time, but what’s striking about Pentecostalism is the movement’s ability to morph from its antecedents into a plethora of new movements, all with basic Pentecostal teachings at their core. The sheer present-day diversity of the movement begs the question, what really is “Pentecostal” and what is not?

Are these manifestations of prosperity gospel and New Apostolic Reformation heresy, bad taste, or simply capitalist adventures for those in leadership? For a movement that started out with a millenarian orientation, it has certainly become enamored with the world, and with retaining earthly power in every way. Whatever these new mutations of Prosperity Gospel and Apostolic leadership are, it is time to pay even closer attention to them, and to their relationships to the realms of social and political power they currently possess.

Anthea Butler [@AntheaButler] is a Contributing Editor to Religion Dispatches. Her forthcoming book, in’The Gospel According To Sarah: How Sarah Palinin’’s Tea Party Angels are Galvanizing the Religious Right will be out in 2013.