POVERTY A CURSE?
I do not make a habit of listening to Trinity Broadcasting Network. But yesterday (June 29, 2009) I listened to Kenneth Copeland, Gloria Copeland and several other Pentecostal preachers discussing - what else? - the so-called "Prosperity Gospel." As usual, Kenneth Copeland dominated the discussion. He made a statement which will serve as the basis of our lesson today. He strongly affirmed: "Poverty is a curse.”
Is it possible I misunderstood Kenneth Copeland? Maybe Copeland did not mean that poverty is a curse. I have two books on poverty - The Laws of Prosperity (Ft. Worth: Kenneth Copeland Publications, 1974) by Kenneth Copeland and God's Will Is Prosperity (Ft. Worth: Kenneth Copeland Publications, 1978) by Gloria Copeland. Kenneth Copeland asserts: "When you are walking in the Word of God, you will prosper and be in health" (p. 17). What a tragedy that our Lord did not know this law of prosperity! Was not our Lord walking in the will of God? Kenneth Copeland insists: "You won't find a Jew who believes in poverty, because poverty is not in the Old Covenant" (p. 32). If poverty were not in the old covenant, why do the books in the Old Testament speak so often of helping the poor? As every student of the books of Moses knows, God made special arrangements for the poor - not only for strangers but also for his own people. Solomon reminded the Israelites: "He who has pity on the poor lends to the Lord; and that which he has given will he pay him again" (Prov. 19:17). There is more in Copeland's thoroughly unscriptural and unreasonable book, but I shall turn briefly to Gloria Copeland's book.
Gloria Copeland quotes God as saying that he wanted her to write a book. She foolishly affirms: "The Word of God simply reveals that lack and poverty are not in line with God's will for the obedient." Is she saying that Jesus, Paul and thousands and thousands of Christians through the ages were not in line with God's will for the obedient? She claims to believe that "Jesus bore the curse of poverty at the same time He bore the curse of sickness" (p. 35). The truth is: He did not bear the curse of either poverty or sickness. He bore our sins on the tree (1 Pet. 2:24). When Gloria Copeland needs money, she calls for a specific amount. She commands it to come to her (p. 43). It is tragic that millions of devout people have not known Gloria Copeland's formula for getting wealth.
She quotes these words from Christ. "And Jesus answering said, Verily, I say unto you, There is no man that has left house, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel's but he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brothers, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands with persecutions: and in the world to come eternal life" (Mk. 10:29-30). Gloria Copeland says Mark 10:30 is a good deal (p. 48). She says if you give the Lord - by which she means the Kenneth Copeland ministries - $l,000, you will receive $100,000. Let us see how that works with the other items mentioned in these verses. Will we also receive a hundred houses, hundreds of brothers and sisters, a hundred wives, a hundred children and a hundred mothers?
William Lane's outstanding Commentary on the Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974) says concerning Mark 10:30: "God takes nothing away from a man without restoring it to him in a new and glorious form" (p. 372). Every Christian knows how he has been blessed with hundreds and even thousands of new brothers and sisters. Christ was not promising large bank accounts, but the many gracious blessings he has bestowed upon us.
D. R. McConnell did graduate work in theological and historical studies at Oral Roberts University. He is thoroughly acquainted with the so-called "health and wealth gospel." His book, A Different Gospel (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), completely obliterates the prosperity gospel. He quotes Fred Price, a recently chosen apostle by some of the leaders in the Pentecostal movement, as saying: "God has certain benefits attached to walking by faith. Most employers at least have enough common decency about them they don't ask somebody to work for them for free.... If man has enough nicety about him to do that, can't you at least believe that the Father God is not asking you to serve him for free either" (p. 169)? In response to Fred Price's question, I have one comment: "The gift of God is eternal life through Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 6:23).
Gordon Fee is a reputable Pentecostal scholar. McConnell quotes Dr. Fee as affirming: "American Christianity is rapidly being infected by an insidious disease, the so-called 'wealth and health' Gospel - although it has very little of the character of the Gospel in it. In its more brazen form, it simply says, 'Serve God and get rich' ... .In its more respectable - but pernicious - forms it builds fifteen million dollar crystal cathedrals to the glory of affluent suburban Christianity" (p. 169). McConnell quotes Fred Price as asking, 'If the Mafia can ride around in Lincoln Continental town cars, why can't king's kids? ... King's kids ought to ride in Rolls Royces'" (p. 174). Before he went to prison and learned better, Jim Bakker loved to say: "God does not want any poor kids or any sick kids."
There are some really serious problems with Copeland's foolish observation that "poverty is a curse." Does that not mean that Jesus Christ was cursed? Does it not border on blasphemy to say our Lord was cursed because he was poor? When Jesus Christ and some of his disciples were traveling toward Jerusalem, a man approached Christ and said: "Lord, I will follow you wherever you go. And Jesus said, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has no place to lay his head" (Lk. 9:57-58). Was the Lord Jesus Christ cursed because he had no place to lay his head?
The two greatest chapters in the Bible on giving are 2 Corinthians 8 and 9. As an incentive for Christians to be generous in their giving to the cause of Christ, Paul reminded the Corinthians: "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he become poor, that you through his poverty might be rich" (2 Cor. 8:9). The Greek word translated "poverty" means to be reduced to abject poverty. When Christ became poor by leaving the riches of glory and coming to this old earth for our salvation, did that make his poverty a curse?
Did you know that some of the so-called "prosperity preachers" argue that Jesus Christ was rich? Creflo Dollar says the gold, frankincense and myrrh the wise men of the east brought to Jesus at his birth made him rich. In fact, he was so rich he had to have an accountant to keep up with his money. He wore such expensive clothing the Roman soldiers gambled for his robe. Have you ever heard the expression, "straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel?" That is precisely what the "health and wealth" preachers do when they insist that Jesus was rich. How much gold, frankincense and myrrh did the wise men bring to Jesus and his family? Did they bring a ton of gold and wagonloads of frankincense and myrrh? Have you ever wondered if those men and women are reading the same Bible the rest of us read?
Do you believe the Apostle Paul was a faithful servant of the Lord? There is no doubt in my mind that he was a great preacher and probably the greatest missionary who ever lived. He made sacrifices for the cause of Christ that would astound most of us. His life was constantly in danger because of his faithfulness in proclaiming the gospel of Christ. If the prosperity preachers were correct, should not Paul have been extremely wealthy because of his total commitment to Christ and his kingdom? What did Paul mean when he wrote to the Philippians: "I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound: everywhere and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer want" (Phil. 4: 12)? If Paul had been as rich as Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, would he have had to go hungry and suffer want?
In his two letters to the church at Corinth, Paul provides some insight into the suffering he had to endure in his service to God. He explained: "We are fools for Christ's sake, but you are wise in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are honorable, but we are despised. Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling place; and labor, working with our own hands" (1 Cor. 4:10-12). Can you imagine Creflo Dollar's being hungry and thirsty and having no certain dwelling place? Can you imagine that any of those prosperity preachers having to work with their own hands to supply their physical needs? In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul sheds further light on his poverty. There were times when he was "in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness" (2 Cor. 11:27). What a tragedy that Paul knew nothing about the prosperity teachings of the Copelands, Creflo Dollar, Joyce Meyer and Paul Crouch!
Joyce Meyer believes God has prospered her because of her preaching and her generosity. She travels in her own $10 million jet aircraft. She and her husband own a $107,000 Mercedes Benz. They also own a $2 million home. I certainly do not mean to be unkind, but God has absolutely nothing to do with Joyce Meyer's wealth. It comes from people who attend her services and buy her books. Kenneth Copeland owns a $20 million Cessna jet aircraft and lives in a house that rivals the mansions of the Arab oil sheiks. How many of their listeners or viewers have prospered like Joyce Meyer and the Copelands?
The churches of Macedonia were truly great churches in the first century. Paul explains their generosity in helping the poor saints in Jerusalem. "Moreover, brethren, we want you to know of the grace of God bestowed on the churches of Macedonia; how that in great trial of affliction the abundance of their joy and deep poverty abounded unto the riches of their liberality. For to their power, I bear record, yea, and beyond their power they were willing of themselves; praying us with much entreaty that we would receive the gift, and take upon us the fellowship of the ministering to the saints. And this we did, not as we had hoped, but first gave their own selves to the Lord, and to us by the will of God" (2 Cor. 8:1-5).
Did you take note of the expression, "deep poverty," in verse 2? That is the same Greek word used of Jesus in verse 9. How tragic that these very generous churches in Macedonia were under a curse because the members were poverty stricken! It is inconceivable that any student of the Bible would be so blind to the teaching in these verses from 2 Corinthians 8. The same language is used of the church in Smyrna. The Lord himself said of the Smyrneans: "I know your works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but you are rich) and I know the blasphemy of them who say they are Jews, and are not, but are of the synagogue of Satan" (Rev. 2:9).
The word "poverty" is the same Greek word we examined in 2 Corinthians 8:9 in reference to Christ and in verse 2 of the Macedonians. The Christians at Smyrna were poverty stricken in worldly goods, but they were rich in heavenly goods. In contrast, the Laodiceans boasted: "I am rich and increased in goods, and have need of nothing." The Lord said the Laodiceans were "wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked" (Rev. 3: 17). Where do the prosperity preachers fit in these categories?
What about Job and Abraham? Were they not rich men? They definitely were rich. The Bible says concerning Job: "His substance was also seven thousand sheep, and three thousand camels, and five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred female donkeys, and a very great household; so that this man was the greatest of all the men in the east" (Job 1: 3). I read from one book that estimated Job's wealth at a billion dollars. To be completely honest with you, that is a silly estimate. But we cannot deny his wealth. The story of Job raises some important questions. Do we know whether Job accumulated his great riches before or after he became a faithful servant of the Lord? Could he have had his wealth when he decided to give his life to God? The "health and wealth" preachers are going beyond the biblical evidence to justify their greed.
The Bible also describes Abraham as a wealthy man. We know God promised to bless Abraham. In him would all the families of the earth be blessed (Gen. 12:2-3). After God called Abraham to leave Ur of the Chaldees and travel at God's direction, did he have more wealth than he had in his home town? Did God's blessings on Abraham necessarily constitute health and wealth? Do God's blessings on Abraham translate into wealth for every faithful child of God? Is it not true that some of God's greatest servants were and are poverty stricken?
Am I arguing that wealth in always evil? Absolutely not! The truth is: Wealth is a relative concept. If you have a new automobile, its value is probably greater than the total wealth of the vast majority of the human race. Many Americans make more in a month than most people in the world make in a year. When I was in Malaysia in 1981, I learned that the average Malay makes about $30 a month in American money. So are the Malaysian people cursed because they are not wealthy by our standards?
The Apostle Paul tells men and women how to be really rich. "Godliness with contentment is great gain" (1 Tim. 6:6). The most fortunate person on earth is the person who is godly and content with what he has. Paul further says: "For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and raiment let us therewith be content" (1 Tim. 6:7-8). The vast majority of Americans have much more than food and raiment. But if we had only food and raiment, would we be content? Could we be content? At the time when Paul did not have enough to eat and had no certain dwelling place, was he content? He tells us plainly: "I have learned in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content....I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Phil. 4:11-13).
If a person has wealth - and many devout Christians do - how can he use his money without its becoming a curse? The Holy Spirit does not leave us to guess. He led Paul to tell Timothy: "Charge them who are rich in this world, that they be not high-minded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy; that they do good; that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate; laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may hold on eternal life" (1 Tim. 6: 17-19).
Many people in American society believe the government should take from the rich and give to the poor. They refer to such a practice as "distributive justice." It is not justice at all-distributive or otherwise. It is stealing. Besides, Russia, England and other countries have tried socialism and found that it is an abject failure. It makes everyone poor. It discourages men from building factories and creating wealth. And in addition, it does not make the poor any richer. It simply makes them more dependent on other people working.
Paul cautions the rich about being high-minded, that is, about the sinfulness of being haughty. He also warns them about trusting in "uncertain riches." When there are crooks on Wall Street, in the government and in other places in our world, we should know not to trust in uncertain riches. The sad truth is: There are governmental leaders who want to make every one poor except themselves. How many congressmen, senators and other political leaders willingly give up their increases in their salaries?
Paul urged the rich: Do good, be rich in good works, ready to distribute and willing to communicate. I shall give you one example of how a man's great wealth can bless our world. When I entered college in 1943, I had enough money to pay the tuition for one semester. There was a rich brother in Longview, Texas who wanted to help young men attend college so they can learn to preach. There were dozens or perhaps hundreds of us at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tennessee who were able to go to college because of that rich brother. He was laying up in store for himself a good foundation against the time to come. The good he did with his wealth can be known only in the world to come. May God bless all of us - rich and poor with the attitude of the Macedonians: "First they gave themselves to the Lord."
The International Gospel Hour
P.O. Box 118
Fayetteville, TN 37334