The suffering of Jesus Christ on the cross is at the center of Christianity. In Righteous Riches: The Word of Faith Movement in Contemporary African American Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), Milmon Harrison notes that the prosperity and well-being of Christians is at the heart of the Word of Faith movement. Harrison is associate professor of African American and African Studies at the University of California, Davis. Harrison became a Christian in his mid-twenties and began attending a Word of Faith church in Sacramento, CA, in 1987 as a new convert. Though he is no longer part of a Word of Faith church, his past involvement in the movement provides an insider’s perspective.
Summary of the Book
The book focuses on the members and practices of Faith Christian Center—the Word of Faith church where Harrison was a member—to provide insight into the broader Word of Faith movement. In particular, Harrison highlights the significance of the movement within the African American church. In the introduction, Harrison explains three core features of the Word of Faith message: “the principle of knowing who you are in Christ; the practice of positive confession (and positive mental attitude); and a worldview that emphasizes material prosperity and physical health as the divine right of every Christian” (8).
The first chapter addresses the teaching of Word of Faith churches and leaders as understood by members of the church. Different emphases set Word of Faith teaching apart from traditional Christian instruction. Some of the members emphasized the feeling of power and control they gained from the Word of Faith message. Those who traditionally were not in positions of privilege or power, such as women and members of ethnic minorities, are often drawn to the message because it promises them the ability to determine what their lives will be like. Many of the members contrasted the Word of Faith teaching with the teaching from their Christian past, communicating that they believed the Word of Faith teaching offered something more.
Virtually all of the interviewees said, either directly or indirectly, that they wanted something more than what they were getting in their previous churches or than what their previous understanding of Christianity gave them. They did not say something “different,” they all said something “more.” When they heard the message emphasizing prosperity, self-development and self-actualization, personal power, and control over circumstances of one’s own life—and that all these things could be theirs as a result of being saved—they each realized that they had found what they’d been looking for. (27)
Another emphasis is on the present and practical nature of the teaching—one focused on this life and not just the next. Further, Word of Faith teaching carries a combination of confidence and defensiveness—confidence because of the importance of owning the entitlement God has given to believers and defensiveness because the teaching contains new revelation from God that seems strange to traditional Christians (47).
The second chapter discusses the way that members live out the teaching in their daily lives. Members are encouraged to pursue success in this life and are equipped with a worldview that explains their ability to move upward socially. The emphasis on positive confession leads members to employ only positive language, even to the point of denying the possibility of suffering. One of the members, Russell, provides an example of this practice.
And they say, are you going to get a flu shot? No. Why I gotta inoculate myself against something that I’m not gonna get? Doesn’t mean symptoms won’t come. So the power of positive confession says that “by his stripes I was healed.” If I was, then I am and I will be. So it’s not flue and cold season, it’s health season. Okay? I just reach out and grab more health ‘cause I’m already well” (54, emphasis original).
Positive confession is heightened by confessing publicly, like telling others God is going to give you a job you do not yet have. Since words possess power to help bring about reality, certain words or phrases are to be avoided. Another interviewee, Arlette, shared the reticence of a ladies’ choral group to sing the phrase “[God gives me] strength to suffer.” She was forced to change the phrase to “strength to prosper” (59). In response to the follow-up question “who is to blame if suffering does not end shortly” according to Word of Faith teaching she answered, “You! Basically. Your faith must not have been strong enough, you must have been outside the will of God, you must have let The Enemy [Satan] in somewhere, you must not know the Word. Something. It’s your fault” (60, emphasis original).
Word churches place a great emphasis on wealth. Members are encouraged to pursue wealth in order to be a blessing to others. A controversial part of the emphasis on wealth is the encouragement to plant financial seeds through giving to the church. Members feel the tension of being pressured into giving to the church to become financially prosperous even though their giving seems to keep them from financial well-being.
The teaching that giving money—especially tithing on a regular, consistent basis—will result in financial prosperity can place believers in a precarious position, threatening their ability to actually realize the promise of financial abundance while frightening them with the possibility of losing what they have due to God’s wrath or the withdrawal of his protection. (70)
The third chapter looks at the practices of Faith Christian Center as a typical Word church. Word churches place great emphasis on teaching or instruction. As opposed to traditional Pentecostal churches, believers are encouraged to grow over time rather than through an immediate and ecstatic experience.
The church is predominantly African-American, but Faith Christian Center endeavors to be multi-ethnic. They avoid any human images of Jesus or other saints so that no particular ethnic group would be given prominence. They utilize interpreters in the service and have a Multicultural Sunday each month where members are urged to invite a guest of a different ethnicity.
Though teaching is important, active involvement is also required of members. Harrison notes one occasion where the pastor rebuked those not involved in ministry for being in sin, asked them to stand and repeat a prayer of confession, and then exhorted them to sign up for a ministry immediately after the service (94). Each member is also required to contribute financially. “Of all the particulars of doctrine taught at Faith Christian Center, tithing would have to be numbered among the most frequently and strongly emphasized” (97). Members are taught that their failure to tithe keeps the others in the church from the prosperity God intends for them (98). The pastor will also ask members who are not tithing to stand and repent. The culture of the church motivates many to publicly admit their failure to give by standing.
Of course, one could simply remain seated and no one would know one’s personal financial-spiritual situation But in this atmosphere, in which so much is believed to be promised to the believer from God, and the threatened consequences of not doing what the pastor says (because he is God’s representative, after all) are so dire, standing up and suffering embarrassment or public humiliation may seem better than incurring God’s wrath by not giving at all. (99)
In addition to giving to the church, members are encouraged to give for special gifts for the pastor, including Rolex watches, cars, and cruises (100).
The pressure to give and serve can be burdensome to members, and chapter four addresses four ways that members cope with these demands: (1) filtering, or accepting certain teaching while rejecting others; (2) venting networks, or groups of dissatisfied members sharing their frustration; (3) break taking, or stepping away from ministry or the church for a period of time, and (4) leave taking—a permanent move away.
The fifth and final chapter looks more broadly at the concept of prosperity in African American religion, even outside of the Word of Faith movement. Though Word churches are known for their emphasis on prosperity, African American churches already had a history of caring for their members and the community. Thus, aspects of the Word of Faith movement were already present in African American churches.
Harrison offers a helpful sociological look at the Word of Faith movement, explaining and clarifying its teachings through the eyes of its practitioners. Though Harrison notes that his past involvement with the church created tension for his sociological study (viii), he maintains a relatively objective approach throughout the work. Since he does not offer any overt critique of the movement, I will focus my evaluation on the movement as described in the book rather than the book itself. The evaluation will largely focus on the Word of Faith movement’s fit within evangelicalism.
There are some commendable features of the movement. Its focus on practical living is a healthy reminder that the Bible is to control the everyday lives of Christians. Their effort to produce a multi-cultural church challenges the failure of many evangelical churches to display the barrier-breaking power of the gospel. The emphasis on studying the Scriptures is also vital for healthy churches. However, the movement has several negative elements that must be addressed.
Word of Faith pastors believe God provides them special revelation that they are then entrusted to deliver to others. Thus, they deny the evangelical understanding of preaching, where the pastor expounds on the message already delivered through the Bible. “Rather than a sermon, as in more traditional churches, in the Word of Faith Movement, the pastor or other speaker sees himself or herself as coming to instruct, to deliver information and insight—‘new revelation,’ as it were—from God to the people” (88). Since the pastor’s teaching is direct revelation from God, those who differ are automatically in error. However, this line of communication between God and the pastor may not always be fully accurate. In fact, it may even be contradictory. Harrison provides an example of this change in teaching. The pastor of Faith Christian Center taught for several years that believers were to bind evil things and loose good things based on Matthew 18:18. That teaching was later revealed to be wrong, and the congregation was urged to bind good things and loose evil things (112-113).
The pastor’s claim to be God’s mouthpiece may lead the congregation to one of two errors. Some may fall into a kind of worship of the pastor, viewing him as greater than other members of the church. For example, the café the church operated had “a number of framed posters and old newspaper clippings with the pastor as the subject” on the walls (33). Russell, an enthusiastic member of the church, had an 8 X 10 photograph of the pastor prominently displayed in the entrance of his home. The congregation was challenged to sacrifice to provide lavish gifts for the pastor or to afford a $300 ticket for the formal dinner celebrating the pastor’s birthday (101). These members will uncritically follow the pastor and his teaching.
Others are more critical of the pastor, choosing to accept some teaching and rejecting others. This is a common mindset among evangelicals and is often encouraged by pointing to the example of the Bereans in Acts 17. However, those in Word of Faith churches are told that the pastor is providing communication received directly from God, which means they are choosing to reject what God has said—not what a fallible man has said.
Related to the belief in continuing revelation is the denigration of traditional methods of Bible study and education. Since God speaks directly to people, there is little need for study or education. Most of the leaders in the movement have no theological education, but they claim to have a better grasp on the meaning of the Bible than those who do because of the revelation they receive from God.
This direct revelation of God’s will and mind through his Word and prayer is seen as a purer form of knowledge and source of scriptural meaning than that which can be attained or accomplished through the intellect in formal training and study in biblical exegesis and hermeneutics. The knowledge of God’s will that can be attained by common folk…who may not be college or seminary educated, is more highly valued (7).
This anti-intellectual stance opens the door for theological error. Throughout church history, those who labored to gain the necessary skills for Bible interpretation were crucial in maintaining orthodoxy, while heresy has often run rampant when teaching was not allowed to be challenged by those with expertise.
One of the most well-known tenets of the Word of Faith movement is the practice of positive confession. Harrison offers an explanation of this belief.
Members are taught that once they know who they are in Christ, they can then speak the same words about themselves that God has spoken about them in the Bible. This allows them to access and exercise the power vested in them through their identification with Christ’s finished work on the cross…. In the biblical account of creation, God spoke and there was light. The Faith Message teaches believers that the same world-creating power is theirs as born-again Christians, and that it is a spiritual law that the spoken word sets creative (or destructive) forces in motion. (9-10).
Because of this teaching, members are very careful to guard what they say, never verbally admitting that they are sick or suffering. Harrison states that this practice stems from New Thought or Mind Science (11).
The practice of positive confession, perhaps unwittingly, leads to the slandering of God. Members are encouraged to publically confess what they are believing—e.g., that one will get a job, or overcome an illness, or receive a car. Often this public confession is given before unbelievers. “The act of voicing to others those things one is ‘believing (God) for’ (to give them or do on their behalf) is taught in the Faith Message to be an act of faith, opening one’s self up to potential ridicule by unbelievers and daring to take that risk because of their faith that God will not let one down” (57). However, it is not only the believer who is open to ridicule if the event does not happen. God is blasphemed before unbelievers for not doing what his followers said he would do—though He never said He would do it.
Promise of Prosperity
Positive confession is intimately related to the belief that God wants every believer to prosper and be in health. God wants to bless Christians, and the only thing hindering that blessing is the Christian’s lack of faith. This belief leads to several problems. It places pressure on members to act as though they are more prosperous than they are. Since a failure to prosper is a sign of unbelief, individuals are incentivized to put on fronts of success. Further, it places people in positions of financial hardship. They are bullied into giving more than they are able because they are promised more wealth in return. Unfortunately, that return rarely materializes.
Worst of all, members carry the burden of guilt and doubts created by the false teaching. Harrison’s discussion with Fran is disheartening. Though she made more than $50,000 a year, she believed she was struggling in her faith because she did not see the prosperity she had been promised. As she considered the teaching on prosperity, she lamented the fact that the teaching did not seem to match with reality.
I think it’s [the teaching on prosperity] good, but I think that area to me the church doesn’t understand. Because I don’t see nobody really prospering at church. I mean, only one I see is pastors [prospering]! All these people are giving at church, but we don’t have millionaires! Why—we should have millionaires! But I think that’s a hard one for everybody to grasp. ’Cause if it wasn’t then he [the pastor] wouldn’t be having such a hard time getting [money] from people! You know, they don’t wanna give it up because they don’t never see nothing coming back maybe! (72, emphasis original)
As she shares her frustration, she ultimately believes the problem lies with her. She battles with blaming God before ultimately blaming herself.
I gave five hundred dollars one time, and then recently I gave another thousand, and it’s like ‘well, when am I gonna get my money?!’ You know, I sowed into—I’m trying to believe the Word. I sow—and then I thought, ‘Well, maybe it’s because I don’t pay my tithes consistently, you know?’ So maybe that’s why I’m not receiving the blessings because I’m not applying the principles—I’m not doing what God tells me to do in order for me to get it. (71)
Ultimately, the conversation with Fran reveals a flawed understanding of God and Christianity—an understanding promoted by the Word of Faith teaching. Fran believes that God will bless her if she obeys. This burden leaves her frustrated and hopeless.
I think that if we’re living the life of Christ, or living an upright live, then we should have just as—at least equal to, or more than what the people who ain’t doing right have…. I’m not perfect…I mean, I lose it, or I may not go to church every three weeks or something like that, or I get frustrated and then I go off on the deep end, but I mean most of the time I try to do right. But why isn’t prosperity working for me? I don’t understand. (74)
Thus, the emphasis on prosperity undermines the evangelical understanding of the gospel. People are not rewarded by God on the basis of their ability to follow his principles. Rather, God freely provides all the blessings that are in Christ to those who could never follow his principles—to those who trust in Jesus. However, true Christians do not come to Jesus in the hope of gaining prosperity, but in the hope of gaining his person. The errors of the Word of Faith movement lead people away from simple faith in Christ and, ultimately, into eternal separation from Christ.
He does state some brief criticisms brought against the movement, but does not state whether or not they are legitimate criticisms (12-13).
Though formal education is disavowed, Faith Christian Center requires new members to complete a ten week series of classes introducing them to the teaching of the church. Thus, the problem is not formal times of teaching but the fact that those who have received theological education typically disagree with the Word of Faith interpretation of the Bible.