May 7, 2021

Health Wealth and Heterosexuality: Why orthodox Christianity will pay a price for the wrongs of the Prosperity Gospel

I’ve just received yet another article and podcast link from a friend who holds a biblically orthodox view of sexuality.

And as I read and listen, I’m beginning to realise that orthodox evangelicals are going to pay the price for the bad theology of some forms of Pentecostalism, particularly its failure to grasp the significance of the “now and not yet” of the kingdom of God, as it relates to our sexuality.

My friend observed:

Just listened to a podcast on The Guardian on this topic. Nothing particularly new except that there is a move to get Victoria’s laws established nationwide. Having said that, listening to the guy they interviewed, it does make me wonder whether the more extreme Pentecostal branches might have contributed to the stories.

It seems clear that orthodox evangelicals are going to be swept up by the culture for our historic inability to shut down, and repudiate, the over-realised eschatology found within many influential Pentecostal groups.

And we’re going to pay the price for this not because of their over-realised wealth theology, nor because of their over-realised health theology, but because of their over-realised sexuality theology.

By that I don’t mean for an instant that the public commitment to orthodox sexual ethics among these Pentecostal groups is all wrong, but rather the insistence that same sex attraction can be completely eliminated in your life in the here and now – and that there is sure-fire method to achieve this completely – , is wrong.

And now with the cat out of the bag in the public square culturally, academically and scientifically, the legislators are coming with a vengeance to prosecute these misguided methodologies in the church.

For the prosperity gospel has always been about method. Spiritual method, but method nonetheless. There is a method available to enable you to transcend the brokenness of this world that results in your lack of wealth.

There is a method available to enable you to find health and conquer all your sickness.

And there is a method, in this age, to completely eradicate and resolve your same-sex-attraction.

And not simply to resolve it, but to do so in a way that fills you with never-before-felt rightly ordered heterosexual desires. Poverty replaced by wealth. Sickness replaced by health. Same sex attraction replaced by heterosexuality.

And it’s clear now that our failure to root out this all-encompassing prosperity theology within certain wings of the church in the matters of wealth and health is going to come at great cost to all of us. The ramifications of this theology is now being exposed in the public square in the vexed matter of sex. The legal, political and cultural vultures are circling, and the rest of us may be the collateral damage in the Sexular Age’s push to insist on the celebration of sexual diversity – or else.

Let’s face it, the opposition to the health and wealth prosperity gospel was mainly an inside battle. There were papers and books and conferences speaking out against it. These were response to movements that promoted such theologies within the church, and which threatened to drag Christians in those heterodox directions. But it was all in-house.

The main string to our orthodox bow was that such groups were claiming a victory over personal and systemic brokenness in this life that was never promised in Scripture. They had an over-realised understanding of victory. They had no clear picture of the “now and not yet” of the kingdom. We had to make sure Christians never fell for it.

But what the world thought of all this? We were not so concerned. In fact we’d probably defend such Christians publicly as brothers and sisters first and foremost. Misguided perhaps in some areas, but definitely on Team Christian.

Now the wealth gospel was never something that crossed my path. And to be honest I think most orthodox and Reformed evangelical movements had their radar out early on this one, and were vociferous in their rebuttals. All we could think of was North Americans – and increasingly sub-Saharan Africans – in expensive white suits. Never going to go happen!

But the health gospel? I think we kinda tolerated it, because hey, we can’t really insist that God cannot heal someone, can we? I mean I have met numerous – and been friends with many – health gospel Christians. All of them lovely. All of them well meaning. Many of them misguided. Someone had cancer? God does not intend for them to have cancer. We must pray for their healing. We have to name that and then claim that.

That’s not putting it too strong. Those are the common terminologies and ideas behind an over-realised eschatology of healing. And what happens if that person ended up NOT being healed? What happens if that person did, as many cancer patients are wont to do, die horribly and painfully?

Well that could be theologically explained away by, you know, something or other. Or perhaps there was, in the more reflective moments, a tacit, admission, that full healing may indeed be something that person will experience in the resurrection. Which I guess is something that is pretty hard to argue against when you are standing next to a dead, cancer-ravaged, corpse.

Sometimes too, painfully, it meant a Christian walking away from their faith, feeling duped by their church and by God because someone died who they had been assured would not die.

But once again, the push-backs were in-house projects. Such broken-hearted people did not rush off to the media to claim they had been abused psychologically by a failed promise of physical healing for their spouse or daughter. Besides, the secular media was mostly disinterested by our theological squabbles. Perhaps an occasional interest piece in a news magazine or a documentary, but that was it.

So the government was not bringing in laws in the areas of finances to prosecute the wealth gospel and it’s over-realised eschatology. Break a tax law? You’re done! Preach that Jesus wants you to be wealthy? Who cares?

Nor was the secular media highlighting the need for re-education programs for churches that taught that one could be healed of all diseases in this age. They were certainly not calling for laws to prevent someone claiming that cancer can be – and should be – completely healed now in Jesus’ name. And as for interviewing those who hadn’t been healed from cancer despite years of prayers to that end, well, there just weren’t that many of them around to tell their stories, understandably.

But heterosexuality? Hello anti-conversion therapy laws. This is the most public, and most strongly campaigned against aspect of over-realised eschatology you are going to see.

In other words, the steady, “non-miraculous” discipleship and pastoral care that so many orthodox Christians assume to be normative is going to be battered because of this heterodox theology and its practical out-workings. The measured and biblical, longterm call for sexual holiness among SSA Christians, a call that we issue to heterosexual Christians too – is going to be prosecuted because of a failure by such prosperity gospel groups to grasp “the now and not yet”. And sometime not even not to grasp it, but at times to dismiss it as a lack of faith or an error.

And what of prayers groups, topical (and sometimes expository) sermons, coffee groups for SSA people looking for support from their churches to live godly lives? All of this is set to come under the microscope and then be swept away because of the misguided emphases of groups who hold to the prosperity gospel.

In short, orthodox pastoral care will pay the price for the long term failure by the church to quash the prosperity gospel, or at least call it out publicly and early. Biblical sexual ethics and pastoral care is set to be swept up by a culture hellbent on rooting out theological misguidance. Not that those hostile to our view of sexuality particularly care for what they consider are mere nuances, they’re simply going to use the extreme heterodox practices as leverage to shut down the mainstream orthodox ones as well.

So as it gets harder to ignore the stories from gay men and women who recount their torturous pathway through conversion therapy models that were based on praying the gay away, or some other form of triumphalistic methodology, the spotlight will sit firmly on all of us for lacking the foresight to challenge this early in the piece.

So focussed were such groups on full-blown kingdom life now that all aspects of pastoral care were lumped in together:

You lack money and you need more? God wants you to have riches in this age and here’s how.

You lack health and you need rid of sickness? God intends you to be well in this age and here’s how.

You are same sex attracted? God intends you to be rid of all of this in this age and here’s how.

And we didn’t see it coming. Not its ramifications in the public square at least.

It’s instructive, isn’t it, that the best thinking and practice around same sex attraction in evangelicalism is from those who have robust eschatology and are committed to the “now and now yet” approach. From those who are willing to live with the tension of waiting for the age to come for their fullness.

Think of the likes of Sam Allberry, Vaughan Roberts, Ed Shaw, and David Bennett. These are all men who continue to experience SSA, but whose understanding of the nature of cosmic brokenness, human brokenness, sin and its communal and personal effects, made them realistic and therefore pastorally sensitive to people’s problems and the human condition.

Realistic, pastoral sensitive, and hope-filled. Who hopes for what he already has?”, asks the Apostle Paul. That’s what faith is, hoping for what we do not yet have. It’s the glorious – often maddeningly glorious – reality of the true gospel.

And I can’t believe for a moment the likes of these men I just listed are not also realistic about how wealth and health work in this broken age too! I can’t for a moment believe that they, like the rest of us, do not also struggle with the desire for wealth as a means to comfort and ease, or a desire to be done with sickness and the ageing process that is the surest sign that death will take us all.

Yet, sadly, in the conversations in the public square, it will not matter one jot whether orthodox evangelicals say that they have never been involved in conversion therapies. The loudest voices – and voices that will be promoted even more loudly by the mainstream media – are those who have suffered at the hands of zealous and misguided reductionists.

Zealous and misguided reductionists across a whole range of theologies, including health, including wealth, and including sexuality. And it’s pay back time by the culture. Wealth? That’s no one’s right. Health? You can’t always plan for that. But one’s sexuality? Society now considers this to be the locus of our identity.

None of this is to say that God cannot transform someone’s same sex attraction to heterosexual attraction. He can do that just as much as he can transform someone’s disordered heterosexual desires to ordered ones. Just ask the likes of Rosaria Butterfield, for whom there will be little sympathy, and next to zero tolerance of, within the secular agenda, because her transformation looks like…, well it looks like conversion!

But heterosexual attraction is not our goal, is it? That’s a mistake that even orthodox evangelicals can make, even if implicitly. And how much sin and despair – indeed crime – has been wrought in the church over misguided heterosexual attraction.

Holiness is our goal. And in this age that is no fait accompli. In this age it takes the ongoing sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, and the God-given self-disciplined life that accompanies Him. Until the day of Jesus’ appearing. In other words when the “not yet” swallows up the “now”.

On that day when we see in full the true wealth that Christ has for us into eternity, when we experience the resurrection power of a body that can no longer decay, and when we live in fulness the holiness – sexual and otherwise – without which no one can see God.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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