Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Which Gospel is the “Other Gospel”?

Lately, some prominent evangelical leaders seem to have ramped up their critique of the “health and wealth gospel,” or the so-called “prosperity gospel.” According to their characterization, the proponents of this view — essentially, that God wants his people to be prosperous — have distorted the true gospel that downplays the desire for prosperity. In their view, advocates of the “health and wealth gospel” are teaching “doctrines of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1). These evangelical critics maintain a long list of television ministries they designate as “false teachers,” and post these lists on the Internet as a warning to anyone tempted to tune in to them. Yes, there are abuses within the ranks of television preachers. But there are abuses of one kind or another within all types of Christian ministry. However, the “prosperity gospel” crowd is singled out for special condemnation.

The phrase “another gospel” occurs in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, where he warns:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel — not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed (Galatians 1:6-9).

On the basis of this passage, the evangelical leaders I mentioned are anathematizing Christian preachers who teach the “prosperity gospel.” They believe the message that God wants his people to prosper and be in health is contrary to the gospel Paul received and taught to the churches of Galatia. A teaching contrary to the gospel Paul brought them is seen as “another gospel,” the advocates of which are accursed.

So what was the gospel Paul brought to the Galatian Christians? In his letter he was dealing with some people, often called “Judaizers,” who had been teaching the new Christians of Galatia that in order to be Christians they had to observe the Law of Moses. Exactly why those “Judaizers” took this approach is open to question. Did they believe that following the Law made them more acceptable to God? Probably not; it’s more likely that, since Judaism was a recognized religion within the Roman Empire, Christians could avoid persecution as an unauthorized sect if they remained within the Jewish orbit. Their motives were protective, not reactionary. Paul, however, would have none of that; the Lordship of Christ trumps the lordship of Caesar, and there can’t be any such self-protective compromise.

Paul’s own message, his “gospel,” was the “mystery” Christ had called him to reveal: that “the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:3-6). The promise he was referring to is the promise God gave to Abraham, that through his descendents God would bless all nations on earth (Genesis 12:1-3). Those who follow in the faithfulness of Abraham will inherit the blessings enumerated in Deuteronomy 28:1-14, where Moses proclaims that “the LORD will make you abound in prosperity,” and “make you the head, and not the tail” (Deuteronomy 28:11, 13). Unfaithfulness to the Lord, on the other hand, will bring the enactment of the curses (Deuteronomy 28:15-58) in which abject poverty, disease, oppression, and unspeakable horrors will be visited upon the disobedient.

In the light of this promise, and its contrasting warning, Paul writes to the Galatians: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us —for it is written, ‘Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree’ — that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:13-14). That was the gospel Paul brought to the Galatians: the message that the curses of sickness, poverty, and oppression have been borne by Christ on the cross, and are no longer to be the inevitable lot of God-fearing humanity — and that, further- more, Gentiles may enter into the resultant blessings as full members of the renewed body of God’s people, “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16).

It sure looks to me like Paul’s gospel is the “prosperity gospel,” the “health and wealth gospel.” It certainly isn’t the “sickness and poverty gospel” that some evangelical teachers seem to think is the only true message. Yes, Paul admits that there is suffering in the Christian walk, and that while sharing in Christ’s resurrection from the dead we are also to “share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10). But the sufferings the earliest Christians endured for the sake of Christ were not the sufferings of poverty and sickness. They were the sufferings of persecution by opponents of his message. Jesus, himself, warned that persecutions would come, even in the midst of the “hundredfold” blessings and eternal life that result from faithfulness to him (Mark 10:29-31). But this persecution is not part of the gospel; it is the result of witness to the gospel. There’s a difference between being persecuted because Jesus supposedly wants you to be persecuted, and being persecuted because you’re proclaiming the blessings Jesus wants people to enjoy.

So, to sum up, exactly who is preaching “another gospel” in today’s Christian environment? I suggest that it’s not the advocates of the “health and wealth gospel.” No, it’s the opponents and critics of that gospel who are pushing “another gospel,” and who are in danger of bearing the Lord’s anathema (1 Corinthians 16:22).