Apologetics 104: Prosperity Gospel in Africa

I was attracted to a Facebook post on my timeline by a friend who had made a comment concerning the rising issue of prosperity gospel generally in the world, and particularly, in Africa.[1] In his comment section, he made the case that Christian bloggers should pursue apologetics and polemics for the sake of the body of Christ. This was a good challenge for me, especially because the nature of this blog has a firm basis for apologetics. Under the submission of scripture, I enjoy and seek to learn more concerning “faith seeking understanding” a phrase employed by the 11th Century theologian, St. Anselm of Canterbury. To take up this challenge, I have decided to do a mini-series of posts on apologetics as follows:

This is the fourth part of this series. We will be looking at some contemporary areas of applying Apologetics in an African, and specifically, Kenyan context. (For those who missed, see Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 3 here).

I take great pride in the fact that I have been nurtured in African soil. If there is anything that I can say defines what it means to be an African is the exuberance about life that we have. No wonder when we have visitors in our continent, we have coined the phrase “when you go to Africa, you never go back home.” Every small thing that happens is a cause of commotion. The narratives that surround us, political or personal, have a way of finding their way in our communities. A wedding can even turn up to be a communal affair, as I am currently learning and that’s just it, we love power displays. It is something embedded very much in our cultural structure as Africans, and so it is not surprising that this finds its way into our churches or how we identify as Christians.

The issue of prosperity can be looked at from two perspectives. On one hand, globalization has brought a sense of self-consciousness among Africans that we too can contribute to global discourse and progress. At a popular cultural level, you only need to look at the renaissance of natural hairstyles among the youth and the continent-wide acceptance and acclaim of contemporary African music by African artists. A look at the movies Independence Day and Glory are symbolic of the self-consciousness of those of African descent. Our very own Lupita Nyong’o is slated to act in the big-title-film Star Wars after the iconic 12 Years a Slave and her most recent, Queen of Katwe, that has generated a lot of self-conscious buzz for all types of Africans. Looking at these films and videos, it is not surprising that Africans are now protagonists in these narratives and the appearance of posh cars and clothes in these disparate media shows that as much as we are self-conscious, we have also imbibed a form of materialism and capitalism, different from a socialist African perspective of our founding fathers. Therefore, on one hand we like prosperity because it indicates that we are flourishing as Africans.

Away from this urban space that is grounds for a ferment of a middle-class prosperity, the “ordinary Kenyan” is also affected in another way. This second perspective is illustrative of how the “prosperity gospel” makes use of the underlying African traditional worldview. Conrad Mbewe in an instructive article observes that the Charismatic movement in Africa takes the “entire erroneous superstructure of African religious worldview and baptize(s) it with wrongly applied Bible verses and Christian language.”[2]

The “Men of God” who serve as self-appointed mediators between their “sons” or “daughters” and God, make use of psychological rhetoric, entrepreneurial pursuit and power plays that lead their followers astray and away from the truth. As I ponder this malaise of prosperity gospel, I see a direct assault on orthodox (accepted throughout the ages) Christian doctrine on the work of Christ and the understanding of suffering in the Christian faith. Writing on such false “teachers” and “prophets”, Peter observes that “. . . in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.” (2 Pet. 2:3)

The Work of Christ as Lasting Prosperity

Despite the fact that some self-professed “Men of God” promise all types of deliverances and blessings, isn’t it interesting that those who are on their beck and call remain in financial, spiritual and emotional bondage to these charlatans? I have personally heard the stories of some who have spent their entire savings in the name of blessing these wolves in sheep’s clothing. Some pledge more allegiance to these mortal men above the Lord Jesus Christ who alone can bring lasting prosperity. I offer that one who is redeemed and renewed in the life of Christ can have a healthy view of prosperity and work and would thus be able to live a truly prosperous life.

The main obstacle from lasting prosperity is the issue of the heart’s condition.

It is our estrangement from God that curtails any sense of genuine hope and joy that is not fixated on our material wealth and ego-based achievements such as our educational, financial and other personal achievements. There are many who seem to be smiling behind their flashy cars and yet inwardly they are poor and dead (Ps. 49:10, Jn. 5:24). A prosperity that dwells on worldly acclaim and status, leads to the loss of one’s soul “ For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul.” (Mk. 8:36)

We definitely need provision for our day to day activities and aspirations, but these are not to be an end in themselves. At the point where we prioritize material prosperity above eternal prosperity then we are in a myopic path that leads to death (Prov. 23:4-5, Mk. 4:19, Jas. 5:1-6). The role of wealth in the life of a believer is to facilitate the extension of the Kingdom of God, in our personal spheres of influence and for the establishment of Christ’s mission for the Church, and thus to bring holistic well-being, in scriptural language referred to as shalom.[3] To borrow a phrase from John Onwuchekwa, “money and wealth are not to be an indication of blessing, but an instrument to bless others.”[4] Paul says that “contentment with godliness is great gain,” (1 Tim. 6:6) referring to the truth that our contentment comes from the fact that we have peace with God. This passage in 1 Tim. 6:6-10, is instructive as a charge against the false teaching of prosperity gospel (see also 2 Pet. 2). Money in itself is not necessarily bad but it is our heart attitude towards it that is crucial. So here, Paul notes “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” reflecting contemporary evils that have resulted from the love of money and power such as gambling, prostitution, sibling rivalry and murder, political instability and poor integrity in the workplace context of climbing the corporate ladder, ills rampant in our society. Contrary to material prosperity, true and lasting prosperity for the believer is to escape the wrath of the Father based on the satisfactory work of Christ on the Cross – that because of Christ, our guilt of sin is taken away, the Father looks upon us with favor, he adopts us into his family and he transforms us in holiness (1 John 2:2, 1 Pet. 3:18, Rom. 6:10). These spiritual realities give us a holistic sense of well-being, joy that is lasting and rest from our own self-centered strivings. We work but we work because our inspiration and focus is different: It is centered on Christ (Col. 3:17, 23).

Prospering in Suffering

Prosperity gospel also gives a faulty understanding of the nature of suffering in the life of a Christian. The entire book of Job is a clear response on the idea that Christianity alleviates suffering. I am afraid that many who profess belief in Christ in our time believe that they have now come to a “Santa” whose work is to give material gifts. Yet scriptures prize suffering as a means of refining our faith (Job 23:10). The apostles in the New Testament also acknowledge the reality that the believers were going through or would go through many forms of suffering, but that they would experience strength, renewal and hope in the midst of their suffering (John 16:33, Jas. 1:2-4, 1 Pet. 1:6-7, 1 Thes. 3:3).

Many scholars of the early church have noted that the witness of the early church was potent because of the martyrdom of the saints. Suffering purifies us so that our witness can be personally powerful and bring glory to God’s wise plan (Rom. 8:28-29). This article here expounds further on a doctrine of suffering, which has been helpful for my thinking about suffering in my own life and in the lives of those I relate with. A biblical view of suffering has not only sorted out some intellectual questions I have but it also helped me to deal with the loss of my brother in 2015, whose birth date is today.

Towards a Right View of Suffering

To claim that suffering is not part of the Christian life downplays the victorious work of Christ that was won for us through great suffering – a suffering, in which those who believe in Christ, will not suffer. Suffering may not be martyrdom necessarily or a lack of money, but it may be in the form of trials such as standing up for the truth, standing up for justice and equity, standing out in the midst of cultural conformity to unbiblical thought patterns and lifestyles and even fighting our own weaknesses in the Spirit’s power – in short losing our sense of comfort when we obey God. To have Christ brings lasting prosperity and orients our heart attitude in the right direction, a lasting prosperity that views material prosperity in its rightful place. More importantly, prosperity gospel makes much of men and makes less of God, denying us an opportunity to grow in the knowledge and grace of God, and to be strengthened in our faith. By downplaying the blessedness of the gospel, prosperity gospel leads us astray. It leads us down the path of poverty.


End Notes

[1] The “prosperity gospel” in summary is the wealth and health gospel that focuses primarily on God’s gifts instead of God himself. For an article that traces the African traditional worldview that underlies much of this gospel in charismatic circles, see Conrad Mbewe, “Why is the Charismatic Movement Thriving in Africa?” in Banner of Truth. Nov 2015 accessed here. The story of Job in the Bible can be seen as a practical defense against prosperity gospel. See Vaneetha Rendall Risner, “The Poverty of the Prosperity Gospel,” in Desiring God, June 2015. Accessed here.

[2] Conrad Mbewe, “Why is the Charismatic Movement Thriving in Africa?” in Banner of Truth. Nov 2015 accessed here.

[3] Shalom is a Hebrew word that refers to “total well-being.”

[4] John Onwuchekwa, “Money: An Instrument for Blessing, not an Indicator of It,” 9 Marks Journal (Jan-Feb 2014): 47-49. Accessed here. 

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