The gap between the rich and the poor in the church
This aberration has resulted in very sharp divisions in our churches between the rich and the poor. We have invariably created two sets of people and two systems of human valuation in the church: one for the poor and one for the rich. The church, which should be the last hope for preserving and promoting the equal dignity of all the children of God, has ended up reinforcing the stereotypes and divisions found in the open society. Poor people who get intimidated, oppressed, and denied their just rights in the society now find the church a willing collaborator in their oppression; those who should feel a sense of belonging and solace in the House of God now get discriminatory treatment. It would be nice for today’s pastors to re-read the warning of St Paul to those who create divisions in the body of the church and humiliate the poor (1 Corinthians 11:17-22).
Furthermore, as a result of our battered economic condition, the preaching of prosperity now resonates well with the impoverished mass of believers who are told that they can improve their lot in life if they continue to ‘give to the Lord.’ Prosperity preaching has become the new norm for many pastors and churches. We see all of this in the empty show at Christian gatherings and the narcissism associated with the celebration of the self, which are symptoms of a more fundamental sickness in Christianity today: the loss of the sense of God. The various options on the menu now available in today’s religious supermarket are things that would make Jesus Christ recoil in shock. St. Paul saw these days coming and, in his Letter to Timothy, warned us beforehand: ‘For the time is coming when people will no longer endure sound doctrine but will be so eager to hear what is new, that they will never run short of teachers after their own liking. And they will abandon the truth to hear fables’ (2 Timothy 4:3-4). These ‘people of corrupt mind and false faith’ oppose the truth. ‘They keep the appearance of piety, while rejecting its demands. Keep away from such people.’ (2 Timothy 3:5).
The dangers of prosperity gospel
It needs to be stated clearly today that prosperity preaching and primitive material accumulation have no place in Christianity. The prosperity gospel is one of the greatest enemies of Christianity. It celebrates ‘Wealth without Work’ and ‘Religion without Sacrifice,’ two of the seven deadly social sins identified by the Hindu sage Mahatma Gandhi. The prosperity gospel is a grand deception because it deconstructs the value of hard work, sweat, toil, and sacrifice. It is built on sinking sand and risks disillusioning millions of souls. It is a religion of false hopes, which has nothing to do with Jesus but everything to do with the pastor’s pocket. Christianity in Nigeria lost its moral compass when pastors began to own Rolls Royce, Lamborghini, Bentley, a fleet of SUVs and private jets, exotic mansions around the world, real estate holdings, and a sprawling business empire generating billions of Naira. This snapshot has nothing to do with Christ or with Christianity. It is simply about feeding the ostentatious lifestyle of the man of God. Yet Jesus told us clearly: ‘If you truly want to be my disciple, take up your cross and follow me’ (Matthew 5:16).
We need to ask ourselves: after more than three decades of prosperity preaching and seed sowing in Nigeria, what have we harvested other than a republic of thieves, rogues and brigands! Today’s Nigerian Christianity has become so worldly and so cheap that it offends nobody, requires no sacrifice, costs nothing, and is worth nothing. Following Jesus has become for many Christians an invitation to a life of comfort that abhors suffering and the cross. Many pastors now find it fashionable to preach a new version of Christianity in which promises of wealth and financial security are the only acceptable messages. Leonard Ravenhill was right when he said: ‘If Jesus had preached the same message that many ministers preach today, he would never have been crucified.’ Sadly, all of the focus on prosperity is purely for the sustenance of the pastor’s extravagant lifestyle. Their creed is greed and their god is gold. Authentic following of Jesus demands everything. As we see in the life of the Apostles of Jesus, the early Christians, and countless numbers of faithful throughout Christian history, following Jesus comes at a huge price. The renowned German Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred by the Nazis during the second World War was very clear about this when he stated in his book, The Cost of Discipleship: ‘When Christ calls a man to follow him, he bids him come and die!’
Biblical principles and the basis of true religion
At this point, it needs to be stated that material wealth and riches are not bad in themselves. The Bible is clear about the fact that wealth, legitimately acquired, is God’s blessing. But the Bible is also very clear about how we should use wealth. The Wisdom Books of the Bible as well as many parables of Jesus point towards the danger of greed and avarice. In a brutally dispossessing and savagely battered economy as we find ourselves today in Nigeria, what is the rationale for preachers of the Gospel to be hoarding incredible wealth as we find with the billionaire pastors? I dare say that any religious leader who has a true sense of his vocation and mission will easily come to realise how totally incompatible a life of luxury and ostentation is with authentic Christian discipleship and ministry today. To be sure, Jesus showed us clearly in his own life and ministry what our attitude should be towards material goods. He gave us the criteria for our eternal judgment on the Last Day (see Matthew 25:31-46). He also taught us in several parables how God relates with us and how we should relate with one another.
The Parable of the Wicked Servant whom his master forgave but who refused to forgive a fellow servant was about the need for forgiveness, not cursing and wishing death on our enemies (Matthew 18:21-35). The Parable of the Good Samaritan was a clear testimony about how we should put the interests and welfare of others before our own concerns (Luke 10:25-37). The Parable of the Prodigal Son was also about how merciful our God is, how he does not condemn us for our mistakes but wishes that we return back to the House of the Father where he is eagerly waiting to welcome us (Luke 15:11-32). The Parable of the Unjust Judge and the Persistent Widow teaches us how we should channel our prayer to God if we want to be heard (Luke 18:1-8).
The Parable of the Sower tells us how the word of God should find a fertile soil in our hearts so that the seed of God’s word can grow and bear fruit in our lives (Matthew 13:1-23). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught us the Beatitudes that have become the magna carta of Christianity. He spoke about love, about forgiveness, about compassion, and about how we should be light of the world and salt of the earth (Matthew 5-7). In several passages of the gospels, Jesus cared for the welfare of the poor and fed the hungry (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44). He also stood on the side of those who were oppressed.
In his time, Jesus also challenged the political and religious establishment and held them to account. He made Zaccheus a tax collector return four times over monies he had extorted from people (Luke 19:1-10). Filled with righteous anger, he drove the Jewish priests of religion and traders out of the temple on account of their corrupt business (John 2:13-22). He accused the scribes and Pharisees of oppressing the poor and distorting religious truths to serve their selfish motives (Matthew 23:1-36). When James and John, sons of Zebedee asked him if they should call down fire from heaven to devour the Samaritans who did not want Jesus to pass through their territory because of historic enmity between Jews and Samaritans, Jesus promptly rebuked the two disciples for that suggestion (Luke 9:51-55). When he predicted his passion and death and Peter took him by the side and told him that such must never happen to him, Jesus told Peter “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me. The way you think is not the way of God, but the way of men” (Matthew 16:21-23). Right on the cross as he was dying, he did not ask God to destroy those who killed him. He prayed that the Father should forgive them (Luke 23:34). When he rose from the dead, he gave the Apostles power to preach in his Name and to forgive sins (John 20:19-23). At no time did Jesus ever suggest that we should say violent and cursing prayers. Neither did the Apostles nor the early Christians give us that bad example.