They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
A United Church
People who spend any time in church these days will most likely read the above passage with envy for one reason — the Jerusalem Church, in the wake of Pentecost, was united and at peace with itself and the outside world. It is very sad that the nearly two millennia that separate us from them have seen as few situations like this as they have. But the Jerusalem Church wasn’t the product of dumb luck, but of the Holy Spirit moving in the membership both individually and collectively. When this happens, the happy condition of the Jerusalem Church can be replicated today, just as is the case with the rest of the early church. Too much conventional wisdom tells us that this is not practical, but if we never try to achieve this, how can we ever hope to get close?
The world is not impressed with our divisions and our internal strife. If we are truly representatives of the Prince of Peace, then we must strive to first secure peace amongst ourselves. The first step in this process is submission to God — this is where the Lordship of Jesus Christ comes into play, as we have already seen. The second is submission to each other. Many Pentecostal and Charismatic churches and groups practice foot washing to a greater or lesser degree. Done long enough, it can become another ecclesiastical routine. But Jesus’ original purpose in instituting foot washing was to teach his disciples to submit one to another as part of their walk with him, both when he was here and after he left. The disciples spent a lot of time trying to figure out who was going to be first if we consider that this was done around God’s own Son, we realize that the disciples were pushing divine presumption (as the Devil had done earlier) very hard. When he taught the disciples foot washing, Jesus’ reply to this was, “`Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.'” Like those before us who walked with Jesus in the flesh and who also loved to be first, we also should take heed.
It is no accident that the pattern of submission is identical to the pattern of love. The greatest commandment consists in first loving God, and then our neighbor. We must come to both in loving submission. Not enough time is spent on the subject of love in all the preaching and teaching that comes out of churches. We spend too much time trying to construct our churches with correct doctrine, government, and methodology that we overlook the power of love — love of God and each other — to build our churches. Does not love cover a multitude of sins? Are people who are not Christians supposed to identify us who are by our love for one another? We might have to surrender some of our personal autonomy and all of our pride. But such losses are like every other loss for God the payback far exceeds the expense. It is, as we would say financially, an investment with an unlimited return.
While we are on the subject of surrendering and finances, we need to take a look at one aspect of the Jerusalem Church that has detonated a good deal of discussion over the centuries. This concerns the holding in common of goods that was the norm for this church, which implies that the people individually had nothing.
Some people and groups have held that this is the norm for Christian living and have, with varying degrees of success, put this into practice. In addition to this passage, they point out Jesus’ own poverty on this earth, and especially to his instructions to the rich young ruler to sell all, give to the poor, and follow him. Others point out that the Jerusalem church was the only church featured in the New Testament to handle the people’s goods in this fashion in the churches that Paul writes to, for instance, we don’t see this practice repeated, at least not that we know of.
This author does not hope to definitively solve this debate in this book. Today, however, we see that the vast majority of Christians have abandoned, for better or worse, the practice of selling all, and churches for the most part do not require their members to contribute everything they have to the church and live communally in one form or another. It is probably unrealistic to expect, for instance, that Christians as a whole will sell all and live as the Jerusalem Church did it is hard enough to get them to tithe and love one another. Also, given the history of Christian attempts to return to the model of the Jerusalem Church, when such an effort is complete the spiritual condition of the believers that are left may or may not be better. But the connection between people being Christian and lacking wealth either by default or by giving it up is one that deserves more investigation than it has received, especially if we look at it in the history of Christianity in general and recent Full Gospel Christianity in particular.
Not a Wealthy Church
Before we explore the topic of wealth in the church, we need to first take a brief look at the economic system of the ancient world, the system that the early church moved in. In much teaching today on the subject of economics and the Bible, it is tempting to project our current mechanisms of wealth creation into the life of the early church. This temptation should be resisted because the ancient world, while remarkable in many respects, did not possess the ability of modern economies to create wealth. There are a number of reasons for this, but the two principal ones were the lack of sufficiently advanced technology and the lack of the proper social organization to foster the creation of wealth. Technology is necessary to multiply the ability of people to do work from sheer, unassisted sweat of the brow it is difficult to create wealth when this is all you have to work with. Social organization would include such institutions as the corporation, with its limited liability, and a legal and financial system that would foster economic enterprise. These, along with a number of other important factors, were not sufficiently abundant in the Roman Empire to enable a broad spectrum of people to accumulate wealth.
The result of this situation was the lack of a middle class, that venerable creation of modern economies. People were mostly either wealthy or poor, and the vast majority of them were the latter. In the cities the poor lived very simply. Their small houses or apartments had a few sticks of furniture. They took most of their recreation outside of their homes, in the baths, games, or forum. They subsisted from day to day on whatever livelihood they had, whether it be work or welfare.
Now it is true that there were a few wealthy people in the church Paul devoted an entire letter of the New Testament (albeit the shortest one, Philemon) to a man who was at least well off enough to own slaves. James makes an unmitigated attack in his letter on giving special treatment to wealthy people if there were none around, this would be unnecessary. There were other people in the early church with enough resources to provide a house for the church to meet in. But a church with a sprinkling of wealthy people is not automatically a church for the successful this is equally true then and now. A church for the well to do is a church where the well to do make up the majority of the membership. When a well to do person elects to join a church where most members do not have what he or she has, it represents the culmination of a serious process, as we will see.
Furthermore, the Apostles would have been foolish if they aimed their ministry primarily at the wealthy of their day. They preached to anyone who would listen, but it is noteworthy that most of their recorded appearances to the high and mighty of their day were in chains and under armed guard. Most people in their time were poor. They preached and ministered amongst the people who were there. Thus, when the Jerusalem church was formed, as a group the membership was in all probability not well off, and led by those Galilean fishermen their transition to a system of communal property was not as dramatic as it would be with a middle class congregation of our day.
It was under these conditions that the early church grew and prospered. The Church was sent into the world to gather a harvest of people, and that is what the church of the Apostolic Age did. They may have not brought much with them when they came, but then again this was not a condition that Jesus had put on his Church. It was a long time before the Church was able to claim members at the pinnacle of power. If we assume the day of Pentecost to have taken place in the year A.D. 30, it was a long way to 312 A.D., when the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity by the Edict of Milan. The propagation of the Gospel had trickled upward in those three centuries, even reaching members of whatever Imperial family was in power at the moment. After that time, Christianity became the state religion, at which point conversions became wholesale amongst the powerful. By then Christianity had become an asset to the advancement of the important, but the addition of these to the Church was done at the expense of the moral integrity of the Body of Christ.
The reach of Christianity into the upper socio-economic groups of society was impeded by a number of factors. For one thing, Christianity was illegal until the Edict of Milan. This is a serious impediment for people who are seeking to be acceptable in society. But ultimately the difficulty that the well to do have always had with Christianity both in the Roman Empire and in later history is not rooted in local situations or in the nature of the preachers. It is rooted in the very nature of wealth itself.
What do people get out of wealth? This question is important but seldom asked, because too much of our approach to life is geared by that question being a premise. For much of society today, to ask that question is an insult. What would life be, many would ask, if we answered that question in a way other than with good things? But our first purpose here is not insult but investigation.
Let’s start with the basics. An income is essential for necessities, so that life might be sustained. With more income or wealth, one can afford and enjoy more creature comforts and leisure. Depending upon how much and in what way he or she deals with the media, one can also gain fame and esteem amongst other people. Power over others is also possible, and this can be used either offensively or defensively.
But perhaps the most basic benefit of wealth is a degree of self-sufficiency. When one is poor and has little, one lives from day to day dependent upon others. Will I or my spouse get laid off from the plant? Will the crops come in this year? Will I get sick and be unable to work and make a living? Will my paycheck last until the next one comes in? If I am in a life of crime, will I get caught by the police or my fellow criminals? Although many attempt to bluff their way through this with pride, in such circumstances one is at the mercy of forces beyond one’s control, dependent upon the generosity or the circumstances of others.
When a person acquires wealth, however, such dependence upon caprice can be reduced. In addition to the cushion of savings for hard times, if there are multiple income sources, the end of one does not mean the end of all. If a person’s influence stretches far enough, he or she can “call in the chips” so to speak and get favors to get through a tight spot. This is especially true if these favors come from the government. Any individual or group who plans to stay in the money for the long haul better plan to be well entrenched politically.
This type of self-sufficiency for adverse conditions, if sustained long enough in a person’s life, will have a psychological and spiritual impact. In fact, many who seek for personal self advancement adopt this type of thinking in their quest for monetary gain. They work hard and beg nothing from others, and in this way they get ahead. Those who have wealth attempt to impart this ethic of self sufficiency to their offspring. Some of these get packed away to boarding schools in an attempt to foster self-reliance and independence. Most all of these are exhorted and motivated to achieve much on their own efforts. This was as true in the days of the Apostles as in our own. In fact, in those days the religion of Stoicism was very popular with the wealthy, and self-sufficiency was a central tenet of that faith. Today those in the upper classes who still hang on to some form of Christianity — and these are fewer in number all the time — frequently attempt to bend Christianity to the self-sufficient ethic that put them where they are.
But is this legitimate? The starting point of an individual’s Christian experience is the recognition of two facts. The first is the reality of a person’s own sinfulness. The second is the discovery of a person’s own inability to get out of it by their own efforts. According to the gospel of self-sufficiency, a person should be able to get out of this mess on their own without the help of others. But this is not God’s way the Scriptures tell us that we must be totally dependent upon God to be extricated from our morass of sin and death, to be reborn into the Kingdom of God, to live for God in this life, and finally to make to heaven in the next. We cannot do this on our own. Only with the power of God can we make something worthwhile of ourselves or the life we live. This biblical concept is a major slap in the face to the idea of self-sufficiency.
Self-sufficiency and its wealthy followers don’t take this lying down. It is very difficult to show a person who has spent a lifetime making it in the world by an ethic of self-sufficiency to recognize that he or she will not be really happy in this life or in the next by letting go and letting God take over and bring them home to him. “A certain ruler asked him, `Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ `Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. `No one is good — except God alone. You know the commandments: Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’ `All these I have kept since I was a boy,’ he replied. When Jesus heard this, he said to him, `You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. Jesus looked at him and said, `How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.'” This reply didn’t sit well with the rich young ruler it doesn’t sit well with many rich rulers today either.
In addition to making up the vast majority of the population of the Roman Empire, the poor represented the most receptive people to the Gospel because they knew that they needed divine power of some kind to get them from one day to the next. They knew that they were dependent for their life. When the Apostles and other Christians told them that they would need to be dependent upon God for eternal life, they had been prepared by their living that this message was right. They knew that they could not make it on their own. They still know this.
Self-Sufficiency and Pentecost
We have seen that the early church was made up of the same type of people that made up the general population of their time, namely the poor. This was probably true from the very start, from the day of Pentecost itself. We also know that this situation continued for a long time afterwards pagan and Christian writers alike made reference to this fact. We also know that the acquisition of wealth and wealthy church people took place for the most part after Christianity was legalized. What relevance does this have for Pentecostals and Charismatics today, with so many conditions different?
Most Pentecostal churches started out among people with few of this world’s goods. In this respect, it emulated (voluntarily or not) the early Church. However, by the time the modern Pentecostal movement got started, Christianity had permeated and indeed dominated large portions of Western society. Many nations then had state churches and considered themselves Christian nations. While the United States did not have a state church, thanks to the zealous efforts of many Christians the Christian influence was everywhere. Why was it necessary for Pentecostal churches to minister where they did?
One way to explain this is to observe that most Pentecostal preachers, being poor, were more suited to minister to poor people like themselves. Paul tells us to be all things to all men, but Christianity has had a hard time with this. The next best thing is to send out someone who is like the people he or she is ministering to. This is good missionary strategy but really this explanation of the outreach of Pentecostal preachers begs the question. If we say that Pentecostal preachers ministered to poor people because like attracts like, then we must explain how and why Pentecost appealed to these poor preachers to start with.
Others say that the “emotionalism” of Pentecostal worship appealed mostly to poor people, while their wealthier counterparts had somehow learned to hold it in better. And there is no doubt, when the Spirit moves, it touches every part of your being, emotions included. But “heartfelt” religion is something that Pentecostal churches, while they practice it par excellence, did not originate. There was and is sufficient emotionalism in enough of Christianity not to require the introduction of Pentecostal practice.
Another explanation is that the Pentecostal, and later the Charismatic movement, were reactions by unsophisticated people to the advance of modern science, especially to Evolution and higher Biblical criticism. The hidden implication — well hidden, because many liberals try to achieve social justice in the midst of personal snobbery — is the equating of unsophistication with poverty. There were and are many people unhappy with the watering down of the Gospel through such devices as higher criticism, ethical relativism, and the abandonment of the claim of Jesus being the only way to Heaven. However, many people who opposed the Modernists opposed Pentecostals with equal vigor, while at the same time producing a religion that had greater acceptance amongst middle class people than the Pentecostals had.
To understand the real reason why Pentecostals had their greatest appeal amongst the poor, we need to strip away the externals and get down to the heart of the matter by examining the very nature of Pentecost itself. We have observed the inherent dependence of those in poverty. These people know they cannot make it through life on their own resources many aren’t sure they can make it through another day. Pentecostal Christianity offers first the continuous and intimate presence of the Holy Spirit, doing his work of comforting and counseling, which everyone needs but which is most painfully evident to the destitute. Moreover, with this continuous presence of the Holy Spirit comes the continuous power of God. This makes matters even more attractive to those with little. Rich people don’t need to believe for miracles because they lack nothing. Poor people need them because they lack everything, and need all from God that they can get. Having no large supply of their own, poor people must turn to God for what they have the wealthy can get by on their own resources. We are back again to that business of self-sufficiency, but this time in Pentecostal Christianity we are looking at God’s total sufficiency, not only for the next life, but for this one too. This has made Pentecostal churches attractive for the poor, and they have responded in numbers from the dawn of the modern Pentecostal movement to the present.
The division of Christianity along socio-economic lines is a tragedy of the first magnitude. It was certainly not the purpose of Pentecostal pioneers to create a church just to get away from the wealthier elements of the congregation. In fact, many of the wealthier elements have responded by making the poverty of the Pentecostals a weapon to use against those who might consider joining up. Most of the attention given to the divisions between churches who embrace the Pentecostal experience and those who don’t center around issues of doctrine and practice. This is most applicable when we are talking about differences at the clerical level. At the lay level, things are a little different. The use of socio-economic superiority against Pentecostals and their churches is one from which many Christian lay people have not shrunk. It has been a powerful weapon over the years in impeding the growth of Pentecostal churches.
This state of stratification continued on for most of the first half of this century. Complicating matters was the insistence of most churches that those who were baptized in the Holy Spirit be unceremoniously ejected from the church. The Pentecostals were thus forced into their own denominations in their own part of town, where they carried out their work of ministry in the Spirit. They carried the message of Pentecost into all parts of the world, and it went into places many had never heard of to start with. But while they could go around the world and be received gladly, they could not get across the tracks. Pentecostals peered out from their churches across these steel dividing lines, sometimes with longing, sometimes with contempt, but always across. It was a mission field that was so near, yet so far.
There are three ways to open a new mission field. The first is to wait until you can get some of your own membership into it and work in it from there. In this case, this involves having some of the church members work hard enough to gain some wealth and thus some credibility in higher places. This is a typical way to solve this problem, and many churches before the Pentecostal ones had done this. In the intervening years, some Pentecostals have succeeded in doing just this. But there are dangers with this method, as we will see.
The second method is to train people to work effectively with other types of people. For instance, if you want to minister in a nursing home, you could train people especially to relate to people who live there. The same method could be applied to prisons and jail ministry, to ministry amongst people in the military, to people with specific problems (drug and alcohol abuse, rape victims, etc.). On paper at least, Pentecostal churches could have trained people to work in the wealthier parts of town on a mission basis, with preachers and pastors specially trained for the task.
While this approach has its merits in some cases, unless you can give the right people the right kind of training for the task, you will be better off picking some poor layman with a mind unclouded by ministerial education, sending him or her into this new field and seeing what happens. This last approach can be very effective, because in many cases lay people can gain credibility with people that preachers cannot, especially in a society as hostile to church as ours is today. But in the early days neither the preachers nor the lay people were prepared for such an enterprise and so it was for the most part never carried out.
The last approach is simply to let God open the door to the new field and then just go in and reap the harvest. This is obviously the simplest and most effective way to carry the job out. With all the emphasis Pentecostals put on depending upon God, this is the really proper way to do what is needed. Although Pentecostals were not necessarily fully prepared for the Charismatic Renewal (no one else was either), in the end all of Full Gospel Christianity was the beneficiary of this movement of the Spirit.
The subject of the Charismatic Renewal is a controversial one among a great number of people, both those who faced it in the churches first affected (especially the liberals who had their own agenda for these institutions) and the Pentecostals, who for some time watched from a distance. The liberals’ anxiety is understandable had the Charismatics succeeded in taking partial or total control of many of the churches they were in, the liberal, humanistic program for these churches would have been in ruins. As for those who opposed the Charismatics as fundamentalists and evangelicals, their opposition was simply a repeat of what they gave the Pentecostals earlier in the century, so there was no change there.
But why so much of the early anxiety amongst Pentecostals about this? To understand why this happened, we need to see again that, in the beginning, many of the Pentecostal pioneers came out of fundamental churches of one kind of another, with all of the implications of church doctrine and polity that implied. They were also not the wealthiest people in the world, as we have also seen. They had been run out of their original churches and forced to form their own denominations as well. Overall it had been a long, hard road for these people.
The Charismatics, on the other hand, were in many cases middle class people. They came out of churches that had heretofore not contributed anything to the Pentecostal movement, not even in rejection many were not even evangelical! They were used to different patterns of worship and doctrinal emphases, although Charismatics brought more fundamentalism into their churches than they realized and ultimately more than most of their churches would tolerate. Most Charismatics believed that it was unnecessary to leave the churches they were in, but to stay and to minister to the people that were there.
These differences between the two groups contributed to some mutual hard feelings. We need to remind ourselves, however, that only one Holy Spirit fell on the day of Pentecost, to be poured out on all flesh. This outpouring crossed all human boundaries, whether they be racial, ethnic, socio-economic, or even of religious tradition. In the days of the Apostles, the great chasm was between the Jews and the Gentiles. If the Holy Spirit can cross this line, what barrier of religious tradition is too high for him? “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear.” If the one Holy Spirit is the cause for both of these movements, then they are one, and we are one, “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body — whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free — and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.”
This is not to say that each side has not made mistakes, because both have, both individually and with respect to each other. The Holy Spirit went where the Pentecostals and the Charismatics each could not go, which is only one more proof that those of us who are baptized in the Spirit have something that is greater than we are or can conceive to be. And so on this subject, we say with Paul: “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more that all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”
Need at All Levels
This discourse leaves at least one large loose end, and that concerns the large scale entry of middle class people into the Charismatic Renewal and thus into the Pentecostal experience. This was something that was out of reach for many early Pentecostals. As we have seen, this was due to the very nature of Pentecostal Christianity itself. What changed in the two events was not God’s message but the hearts of the people.
The poor are quickest to acknowledge their dependence upon outside forces because it is constant and obvious. For those with more, it is easier to conceal this need with wealth. This can be dealt with in two ways either by taking away the wealth, or by making its transitory and feeble nature evident to the holders. Over the years the Lord has done both.
Everyone will part with whatever they have at death. The rich man who passed by Lazarus at his gate every day found this out the hard way. Anyone, rich or poor, who thinks they can beat death is fooling themselves. It is here at death’s door that everyone’s dependence upon God becomes most evident. If we were to put the kick back into our teaching and preaching about death and the afterlife, we could pack our churches with all classes, especially with the recent increase of interest in the subject. Death is the great leveler of all of the human race. To restore our awareness of it is to restore our need to make our way into eternity.
As far as changing our perceptions of the value of our wealth, liberal thinkers love to characterize the Charismatic Renewal by saying that it was a reaction to the social upheavals of the 1960’s and 1970’s. This thought is both true and hypocritical. It is hypocritical because most of the upheaval was caused by the liberals themselves, armed as they were with a pliant media and a total disregard for the consequences of their actions. They expected us to joyfully greet the atheistic anarchy they started. When people truly turned to God instead, they become bitter because it was just the opposite of what they had intended. It is true because these chaotic times shook many out of their complacency and made them see that they needed more than they had to get through life. And so they turned to the one true Source of direction and power, and discovered that “…Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” And they did this in the move of the Holy Spirit, as was the case in the days of the Apostles.
One innovation that needs to be discussed at this point is prosperity teaching. This type of teaching and preaching has been caricatured mercilessly by both its opponents and its supporters. On the surface, it is a direct contradiction to the roots of many Pentecostals and some Charismatics in poorer circumstance but careful examination reveals a situation much more complicated than that.
Reduced to its essentials and homogenized from its principal teachers as best as possible, prosperity teaching has two basic tenets. The first is that Christians, as true children of God, have a right to be prosperous. The second is that they can believe and receive from God whatever resources are necessary to achieve this prosperity. Like it or not, prosperity teaching has a kernel of sound Biblical teaching. We have seen that, right from the start of the church age, Christians have been clothed in the omnipotence of God prosperity teaching is simply a way of exercising that omnipotence, and to achieve some level of prosperity without losing one’s consciousness of dependence upon God.
Counterattacks against this type of teaching have attempted to refute this teaching in many ways. Some attempt to do so Biblically. This is easier for those who are not Pentecostal or Charismatic for those who are, it is nearly impossible. The power of God poured into man for the working of miracles and other wonders of all kinds is central to the Pentecostal message, too central to sluff off something such as this. Others attempt to tie prosperity teaching together with psychic and demonic methods of miracle working. This charge only shows that every real spiritual phenomenon has a counterfeit, produced by the great faker himself, the Devil. We should not shrink from God’s harvest of wheat because Satan is out sowing weeds in the same place. This matter deserves more careful and balanced examination than it frequently gets.
First, prosperity is a relative term. A person who lives in a two room house will find a four room house a major improvement. Another will only see two shacks. This is important when we consider the first basic premise of prosperity teaching, the right of believers to prosperity. David tells us “I was young and now old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread.” For some, this is prosperity for all, this is reliance on God’s provision that separates the voluntary, Christian surrender of wealth for grinding, miserable poverty created by people’s own ignorance and poor attitude.
In the course on reliance on God, the problems come when people who are encouraged to believe for their prosperity end up believing for someone else’s more opulent prosperity for themselves, which may or may not be God’s plan for them. Also, people who are never satisfied with what they have will never be prosperous no matter how much God gives them, if they always lust for more they are always poor, always in need. People who can be satisfied will find prosperity sooner. “Two things I ask of you, O Lord do not refuse me before I die Keep falsehood and lies far from me give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, `Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.”
Second, prosperity teaching, contrary to many of its advocates’ claims, is not a way of making the Full Gospel more acceptable to wealthier people, either by itself or by enriching the congregation. Prosperity teaching is eminently for people who don’t have wealth. Rich people don’t need it because they already have found a way to acquire wealth that works. Also, if a congregation becomes wealthy either in whole or in part by practicing this teaching, regular wealthy people won’t be more attracted than before because they will bring their ethic of self-sufficiency with them, which will still clash with the God-dependent prosperity of the existent members.
Finally the biggest problem with prosperity teaching — and the one that has gotten many into trouble — is that it works. In many cases people were prospered through their belief only to let things go to their head and either flash the cash with an ostentatious lifestyle or, if they owned their own business, to overextend. Either of these courses proved the great hidden corollary to prosperity teaching: you can’t outgive God, but you can sure outspend him. To accomplish this most resorted to credit. But God does not need credit to prosper his people. The bubble burst, many lost much, and the whole thing fell into disrepute because teachers and followers alike had fallen into silliness.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” God is as generous with wisdom as with material things. If we do not seek wisdom first, like Solomon, we will end up without either wisdom or material things. When Christians are as zealous in seeking wisdom as in seeking wealth, they find they have plenty of both.
A Prosperous Future?
Although prosperity teaching has influenced to some degree most all of Full Gospel Christianity, many therein have become prosperous without the direct benefits of such teaching and practice. This is not surprising, really, if we consider what happens to a person when they let God into their life.
Let us consider the case of a typical sinner, the one evangelists love to preach about. This person drinks, smokes, these days takes drugs, cheats on the spouse and has had several, can’t hold a job through all this chaos and unsurprisingly hits bottom. At this point this person gets saved. Out goes the booze, cigarettes, drugs, and cheating. With a mind cleared by all this, this person can hold a steady job and do fairly well at it. He or she can be the kind of parent necessary for proper child raising and have a stable home with happy kids. With God’s purpose for their life, they don’t need to fill it with expensive substitutes, so they can save some money and advance financially (if they stay away from too much credit!).
Although this example may seem contrived, it demonstrates an important point, and one that has been proven with many people over the years. Christianity, by its consistent practice, will bring prosperity of some kind without really having to believe for it. It is in this way that Pentecostal churches, even without the conversion growth of Charismatics, would in time see some of their members move up in society. And Pentecostals are not the first to experience this process. Other churches starting out in similar circumstance have seen this happen to them. But this process has dangers with it that Pentecostal churches are only now beginning to face. We emphasize Pentecostal churches because their Charismatic counterparts are not that old, and thus not as subject to the same historical forces, but the potential for both to experience problems is still there.
When we look at the course of many Christian denominations and movements, we see a very depressing pattern emerge. All start out with the fire of the Gospel in their bones. All experience rapid growth in the early years, but then lose much of their vigor as time wears on. They lose their evangelistic and missionary zeal and allow people who are not committed to the true faith to take control of their seminaries, publications, pulpits, and finally denominational leadership. Then they stagnate or decline, and their witness to the world is dimmed, sometimes beyond recognition. Christian institutions which have lost their effectiveness in being a witness for Christ call into question God’s continuing purpose for their existence and when God is through with you, you are through indeed.
Many preachers who attempt to address this subject do so on a strictly spiritual level. They speak of the fire having gone away, and use various techniques to attempt to revive it. Most of these center around the reinstitution of the “old time religion,” whether this is embodied in doctrine, form of worship, music, or some other practice from the past. In this way, the preacher and the lay people who are sympathetic to him hope to recreate the fervor of the past, and by doing this move the church forward rather than nowhere or in reverse.
The main obstacle to success with this approach is neither in its intent nor principally in the preaching but in the people. The proclamation of the Gospel must be made understandable to the various groups of humanity to which it is proclaimed, as we have seen earlier. In this case we are dealing with people who have been preached to in the accepted way for a long time and who are established in the church. However, the preachers of yesteryear broke the Bread of Life for people who have changed, and the main difference centers around the wallet.
Most Christian revival movements since John Wesley’s time have started in the poorer classes of society, and Pentecost is no exception. Through diligent practice of a Christian lifestyle, people can advance themselves financially, without generally leaving the church where they started. This is a multigenerational process. In the long course of time, people can forget that God put them where they are. They begin to think their own efforts are responsible for their success they replace an ethic of God dependence with one of self-sufficiency.
Additionally, in acquiring wealth over the years, people and families pick up other influences in society, such as expanded secular education, exposure to people and ideas hostile to the one they embraced to start with. If they develop an inferiority complex about these things, which all too frequently happens, their faith can be made a shipwreck. Finally we must include in all of these disasters the one of self-sufficiency, which dulls a person’s consciousness of his or her need for God. This is inimical to Pentecostal Christianity.
Churches who acquire people who have undergone experiences such as the above will find their vigor sapped, their witness dimmed, and themselves prepared for the final assault on true Christianity: the introduction of liberal teaching and the denial of basic Christian truth. This generally begins at two levels the lay people, being more prosperous, develop a guilt complex about this and abandon evangelism to do social work the clergy, sent to liberal institutions, are exposed to liberal Biblical criticism and relativistic ethical systems, and attempt to cram these down the throat of their home denominations rather than seek more congenial pastures and leave the home folks alone. Churches who allow things to get to this stage will find members leaving the denomination in droves to escape the insipid atmosphere in fact, much of the Charismatic Renewal was started as a reaction to just this process.
Most of this is fueled by the growing material prosperity of the membership. Today Pentecostal churches are faced with this prosperity in many congregations and with many of the members. Will this ruin Pentecostal churches as it has ruined others? Will Pentecostals be like the Popes, unable to say either “silver and gold have I none” or “rise up and walk?” Will Pentecostal churches end up on a liberal ash heap with so many of their “Main Line” counterparts? These, perhaps more than any other, are questions Pentecostal and Charismatic churches must face and face successfully in order to maintain their own doctrinal and ecclesiastical integrity. There are many issues discussed these days — the cross-cultural issues, missionary approaches, questions of personal practice and life — are important. But if the members already in church start replacing daily dependence upon God with their own self-sufficiency, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches are finished.
Pentecostal and Charismatic churches claim a special presence of the Spirit, both for the church and for the membership. It will take all of this presence, and our willingness to follow the Spirit, to avoid the terrible disaster that awaits us if we do not. We must never forget that it is God and God alone who has given us the provision to be who we are in him and who we are in the world. If we, like ungrateful children, turn our backs on him and follow what looks right in the world, we must not only face the destruction of our churches, but ultimately the destruction of our souls, ourselves, and our children in the fires of Gehenna.