The Word of Faith movement is based on the precept that God has promised health and prosperity to all believers so it is a simple matter of confessing these gifts from God as having been received and they will be there. The doctrine is often called “Name it and Claim It”.
The alternate viewpoint is that while we will have health and prosperity certainly after the return of Christ, it is God’s sovereign domain whether we will have them, or to what degree, in this life. In fact, there are numerous verses that say that we will suffer and have troubles.
Word of Faith Proponents include E. W. Kenyon, Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland, Frederick Price, Creflo Dollar, T. D. Jakes, Joyce Meyer, Paula While, and Benny Hinn among others. E. W. Kenyon is credited with being the father of the movement although in all probability Kenyon got his views from attending Emerson College of Oratory in Boston, a developing ground for the New Thought Movement which focused on health, wealth, and happiness.[i]
There are a varying number of distinct doctrines that are promulgated by Word of Faith teachers including:
- Faith is a force that the believer controls by his will including the miraculous[ii]
- Confession is the key to controlling this force. You bring the power of god to bear by confession as you literally speak into being the things you confess.[iii]
- It is God’s will for believers to be healthy and wealthy. To be otherwise is living outside the will of God
- Jesus died spiritually on the cross
- Made in the image of God means we are made as gods
There are a number of brick and online organizations that are vocal against Word of Faith teachers including Christian Research Institute, Forgotten Word Ministries, and Watchman Fellowship.[iv]
Biblical Basis of the Word of Faith
Critical to this issue are the topics of believing/faith and the sovereignty of God. First, the objections to the Word of Faith movement are not really based on the topic of faith and believing. No one disputes that Jesus taught and encouraged faith, even great believing and faith. What is disputed is the extent and application of this very important part of the Christian life, especially in the areas of health and wealth.
The Sovereignty of God
The question of God’s will concerning health and wealth really is a question about the Sovereignty of God. Sovereignty means “right to control” or “authority.” The question here is who has the right to control our health and wealth. Has God kept that right under his discretion or has he granted it to us? Word of Faith teachers preach that God made us gods, with the power to control. They quote verses and fragments of verses that say it is God’s will that we are made to be both healthy and wealthy.
“By his stripes we were healed” is a rallying cry of this movement. The quote is from 1 Peter 2:24. Since this is a New Testament verse believers cite that when Jesus died on the cross he accomplished this benefit for us. The tense of the verse is past tense. This is interpreted as saying that our healing is done, and thus must be available now.
“For he that eateth and drinketh, eateth and drinketh judgment unto himself, if he discern not the body.
For this cause many among you are weak and sickly, and not a few sleep.” [1Cor 11:29-30]
This verse is clear that sickness can be a result of not “discerning the body.” The point of communion is to recognize that Christ’s body was broken for us. Word of Faith proponents interpret this to prove that health is the norm for believers.
“Beloved, I pray that in all things thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.”[3John 1:2]
Jesus expressly told the twelve to heal the sick and even raise the dead when he sent them out (raise the dead is missing in some texts):
“Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons: freely ye received, freely give.”[Matt 10:8]
There are verses that talk about wealth in the bible. Besides the frequent references that God owns the cattle on a thousand hills[Psalm50:10], there is this verse:
“But thou shalt remember Jehovah thy God, for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth; that he may establish his covenant which he sware unto thy fathers, as at this day.”[ Deut 8:18]
Flaws of Word of Faith
A verse that says that it is God that gives people power to get wealth is not a verse that says God makes all his people wealthy. Jesus taught that there would always be poor people among them[Matt 14:7], and even that the poor in spirit are blessed.[Matt 5:3] Jesus expressly taught not to seek after material wealth which he called mammon.[Luke 16:13]
1 Peter 2:24, where it talks about being healed (past tense), is a reiteration of Isaiah 53:5. As such it was a prophecy of a future event. So even though it reads in the past tense as having been done, this isn’t literally true, especially in Isaiah because Jesus hadn’t died for our sins yet. This is a figure of speech. It is the same as if Bill said to Tom, “Can you give me a ride?,” and Tom said, “Done.” Tom meant that it will be done and Bill understands that it will be done in the future. So, while it is certain that we are promised an incorruptible and certainly healthy body after we meet Christ again, this verse does not necessarily mean that before then we will have perfect health.
3 John 2, to prosper and be in health, is taken as a directive by God that he wills all to prosper and be in health. First, this sentence is not written to all the saints, it is a line in a personal note from John to Gaius. The word “pray” is also translated “wish”. Just as I want all my friends and family to prosper and be in health that doesn’t mean it will happen.
Other Criticisms of the Word of Faith
There are claims to visions, revelations, and miracles that present problems. Kenneth Copeland has taught that God is exactly the same physical size as Jesus and Adam (Fort Worth: Kenneth Copeland Ministries, 1987, audiotape #01-0304). Morris Cerulo claims a vision of a man of six feet with shoulders twice as wide as a man. He also claims to have been in the heavens. (Morris Cerullo, The Miracle Book (San Diego, CA: Cerullo Word Evangelism, Inc., 1984).
Of the above experiences the troubling one is that Copeland claims God has a physicality. This contradicts John 4:24 which says that God is a Spirit, Exodus 33:20 which says that no man can see God and live, and John 1:18 which says that no man has seen Gos at any time.
Cerulo’s claim to see God in a vision, or the heavens, while fantastic, is not out of the realm of biblical possibility.
There are also practices that present problems for the movement. Holy laughter, being slain in the spirit, barking, trances, numerous accounts of dreams and visions are common in the movement.
Not all the criticisms are in accord with the bible. Acts 2:16-17 does state that dreams and visions will happen with believers.
Using Paul’s conversion experience in Acts 9 as a foundation for being slain in the spirit is questionable. While it is certainly within God’s purview for God to act in any number of ways, one person’s phenomena does not make a doctrine. But neither does it rule out that God could use different phenomena in different movements.
Believers as Gods
Perhaps the most criticized teaching of Word of Faith teachers is that believers are gods(little g). Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar are documented to teach that just like the progeny of horses are horses, the progeny of God are gods. As the sons of God, that means that we are gods. One verse used to substantiate this is:
I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High. [Psa 82:6]
The Limits of Believing
While it is true that the Bible teaches that whatsoever you shall ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive, it’s not as easy as it looks.
Believing comes from the Greek word “Pistis” which is also translated faith. While believing and faith are talked about many places the closest to a definition in the bible is in Hebrews 11:1 (NIV), “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”
Believing and receiving is dependent on a number of things including:
- Not asking amiss. James 4:3 says that that “you ask and receive not because you ask amiss, that you may consume it upon you lusts.” For example, someone prays for a new Cadillac Escalade because they want to look good driving it around. If they received the vehicle they would be more preoccupied with the car than with God. There is no godly purpose here. Or praying to become a multi-millionaire, someone wants these things in her life so that she can demonstrate how good our God is, but the reality is that they are just being greedy.
- Believing has a community aspect. When Jesus went home to visit, it says in Matthew 13:58 that he couldn’t do many might works because of their unbelief. Or in Acts 12 it says that Peter was thrown in prison, but the church was earnestly praying for him. In the next verses we read that an angel sets Peter free. The believing for this miracle was the result of the community.
“And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem exceedingly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.
And Stephen, full of grace and power, wrought great wonders and signs among the people.”[Acts 6:7-8]
The phrase “the word of God increased” means that the believing of the people in the Word of God increased. The results included great wonders and signs wrought by Stephen. This is a case where the conditions of believing were met. Any sign or wonder here had to be in accordance with the will of God. Notice it doesn’t say that everyone was healthy and wealthy. In fact in previous verses note is made that material things were not sought after:
“And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and they sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all, according as any man had need.”[Act 2:44-45]
This is clear accord with Paul’s guidance to “Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.”[Col 3:2 KJV ] When our believing and prayer focus is on gaining wealth we cannot be doing the will of God if Paul is right in this verse.
Believing is conditional then upon the request being in accord with God’s will. It is also affected by community.
The Sick People of God in the Bible
While there are verses that seem to say that God’s will is that all are healthy and healing is routine there are many verses that contradict that hypothesis. Consider these verses:
“Yet I supposed it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother, and companion in labour, and fellowsoldier, but your messenger, and he that ministered to my wants.
For he longed after you all, and was full of heaviness, because that ye had heard that he had been sick.
For indeed he was sick nigh unto death: but God had mercy on him; and not on him only, but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow.”[Phil 2:25-27]
Here is a record where Epaphroditus was sick and Paul was concerned that he might die! Why would he say that if sickness were the aberration that Word of Faith proponents claim. Paul says that because of the mercy of God Epaphroditus recovered, not that he was routinely healed.
“Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord:
and the prayer of faith shall save him that is sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, it shall be forgiven him.”[James 5:14]
While these verses are encouraging they speak to the fact that there were sick people to deal with.
Problems are Guaranteed to Believers
While everyone would like to to have a wonderful, healthy, and happy life full of things there are numerous records in the bible that speak directly to problems we will have as believers:
“Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling-place; and we toil, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat: we are made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things, even until now. I write not these things to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children.”[1Co 4:11-14]
For the people who say that to not be wealthy is to miss out where God wants us to be this must show how Paul was a great failure. He suffered hunger, lack of clothing, didn’t have a house, and suffered poor treatment from people.
Jesus warned that riches are a burden to men in saying how hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.[Matt 19:23] Paul wrote that the love of money is the root of all evil and a snare to them that believe.[1 Tim 6:10]
That some believers are rich is seen in 1 Tim 6:17-18:
“Charge them that are rich in this present world, that they be not highminded, nor have their hope set on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy; that they do good, that they be rich in good works, that they be ready to distribute, willing to communicate;”[1Ti 6:17-18]
“Willing to communicate” in the above verse means willing to share. This is evidenced in the book of Acts where it says that those that had houses sold them and gave the money to the believers.[Acts 4:34]
The abundant life that Jesus came to give is spiritual. Look at the section in 2 Cor 4:6-18, where it talks about our spiritual trasure in earthen vessels, as evidenced by the trials we endure, yet have love, joy, grace and peace in our lives because we know Jesus:
“Seeing it is God, that said, Light shall shine out of darkness, who shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the exceeding greatness of the power may be of God, and not from ourselves;
we are pressed on every side, yet not straitened; perplexed, yet not unto despair;
pursued, yet not forsaken; smitten down, yet not destroyed;
always bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be manifested in our body.
For we who live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.
So then death worketh in us, but life in you.
But having the same spirit of faith, according to that which is written, I believed, and therefore did I speak; we also believe, and therefore also we speak;
knowing that he that raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise up us also with Jesus, and shall present us with you.
For all things are for your sakes, that the grace, being multiplied through the many, may cause the thanksgiving to abound unto the glory of God.
Wherefore we faint not; but though our outward man is decaying, yet our inward man is renewed day by day.
For our light affliction, which is for the moment, worketh for us more and more exceedingly an eternal weight of glory;
while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.”[2 Cor 4:6-18]
Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh
A perfect example of the limits of believing to receive is in the record concerning Paul’s thorn in the flesh:
For though I would desire to glory, I shall not be a fool; for I will say the truth: but now I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me.
And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.
For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.
And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. [2Co 12:6-10]
This section seems to cry out against the Word of Faith doctrines that believers are in control. Paul’s request seemed reasonable, he didn’t want to consume anything in his lusts, he prayed with believing, but his request was denied purely so that he would have to depend on the grace of God. This appears to fly in the face of Word of Faith doctrines. God clearly displayed his sovereignty here.
On the Other Hand
Because of the potential problems with Word of Faith doctrine it is important not to abandon the many powerful, positive teachings about believing. I will be posting an article shortly on the importance and greatness of believing when viewed with a balanced perspective. Here I will just highlight that Jesus chided those who exhibited small faith or believing and praised those with great faith. He taught about faith and believing and encouraged all to build their faith.
Summary and Conclusion
The abundant life that Jesus gave is life to give us is spiritual. While we are instructed to be good stewards of what God has given us and thus take care of material things Jesus taught us not to put our care into the things of this world which he called the mammon of unrighteousness. While we wish that all prosper and be in health like John in writing to Gaius, we all are going to faced with challenges in this life, and at least for some of us, that includes poverty and/or sickness.
God in his mercy and grace gives gifts to men, some of which includes healings and sometimes wealth, but to take these for granted is not what the bible says. As Paul wrote about the recovery of Epaphroditus it is God’s mercy when we are healed. Some men are given power to get wealth, but they are charged to share and be wary to not get caught in the snare of riches. Moreover, the love of money, is a great trap, and instead of guaranteeing us lots of money in our abundant life, Jesus warns us against its trickery.
Nevertheless, we must not ignore the powerful teachings on faith and believing that Jesus left us. Look for upcoming article(s) on this important topic.
i. INTERNATIONAL DICTIONARY OF PENTECOSTAL CHARISMATIC MOVEMENTS, Stanley Burgess, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2000, p992
ii. This tenet is summarized by Kenneth Hagin as “Say it, Do it, Receive it, and Tell it.” In his book, How to Write Your Own Ticket with God, Kenneth E. Hagin, Faith Library Publications (April 1997)
iii. INTERNATIONAL DICTIONARY OF PENTECOSTAL CHARISMATIC MOVEMENTS, Stanley Burgess, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2000, p992
iv. Christian Research Institute can be found at http://www.equip.org/site/c.muI1LaMNJrE/b.2106253/. Forgotten Word Ministries is at http://www.forgottenword.org/. Watchman Fellowship is at http://www.watchman.org/.
© copyright 2009 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.
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