Last year I wrote more than one article about prosperity theology. Some of the books that our doctoral cohort has read touched on the subject. These included Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat and Nation of Rebels, Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter.
It is no secret that I am not a fan of prosperity theology. The “health and wealth” gospel is counter to my understanding of the message and example of Christ. It amazes me how prosperity theologians could take certain scriptures like John 14:14 (“You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it”) and make a case that God is a cosmic Genie… waiting for you to ask for that new Mercedes. At the same time, they seem to ignore other verses like Matthew 6:19 (“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven…”). It is clear that these theologians begin with a goal in mind (justification of getting rich off of peoples offerings) and reinterpret the scriptures in order to come up with a “biblical” justification for their greed.
My mind kept coming back my assessment of prosperity preachers as I read this weeks’ book: God, Sex, and Gender: An Introduction by Adrian Thatcher. Before I delve into my critique, let me give you some positive reflections that I have about this book.
- Thatcher is clearly brilliant. His knowledge of history, sociology, and theology is obvious. He is a clear and engaging writer.
- There is an absence of serious theological works on human sexuality and gender. This is really amazing because gender issues and sexuality issues are some of the hottest topics in our society. These topics are frequently discussed in the media, popular culture, and our legal system. Yet, courses in human sexuality / gender issues are traditionally not core requirements for most seminary degrees. Some preachers avoid preaching on the subject because it is so controversial.
- This book has some valuable insights. The concept of only “one sex” in ancient thought was intriguing and, to be honest, I am still processing the implications of this paradigm. The historical understanding of sexuality and gender was fascinating. Most college history classes don’t cover these issues. It was clear that Dr. Thatcher is an accomplished researcher.
- I also appreciated Thatcher’s honesty as he began the book. He writes that his “sympathies generally lie with progressive or revisionist themes…” (introduction. x). This book is not a “bait and switch.” He does not claim to give an unbiased overview. In this book, he clearly states his beliefs that the traditional views of sexuality and gender need revising. Thatcher’s view of sexuality is one where past Biblical restrictions are seen as outdated. While lessons can be learned from these passages, they are not authoritative in today’s context.
- Finally, I want to be clear that I am not an accomplished theologian, especially in the area of human sexuality and gender issues. Having said that, there are many brilliant theologians out there who do take a more traditional approach to these issues.
With all of these things in mind, Thatcher’s book felt like he started with his conclusions and worked backwards. The following are my summaries of some of Thatcher’s ideas:
- People are getting married much later in life. It is unreasonable for young Christians to remain sexually chaste until they marry.
- Engaged couples are very committed to one another. When they have sex, it is not the same as casual sex.
- Since so many people in our society get divorced, the church should revise its expectations of a marriage as being “to death do we part.”
- Many people in our society do not identify as heterosexual. God is loving and just. It is neither fair nor loving for the church to restrict LGBT people from sex and marriage.
- Biblical restrictions in regard to sexuality were written in the context of a society that existed thousands of years ago. Instead of embracing these outdated restrictions, these issues need to be reevaluated in the context of the major themes of the Bible–love, justice, freedom, and grace).
While Thatcher did a very thorough job in making his case, the book reminded me of prosperity theology in that certain verses that reinforced the author’s bias were lifted up, and verses that countered his bias were explained away.
Having said that, I want to be careful that I am not guilty of the same thing. If I hold to a traditional view of human sexuality, am I completely closed to considering Thatcher’s ideas? I hope not. If I fail to take seriously the theological arguments of people I disagree with, I learn nothing. Our theology, if it is to mean something, should be tested and examined with the understanding that no one person on this planet has perfect theology. In regards to our theology, I believe that each of us will arrive in Heaven and say “Wow, I really got that one wrong!”
Yet, my understanding of following Jesus is very different than many Christians in our society. I am sure that part of this is my upbringing. I a part of Generation X, a generation known for being risk-takers and trailblazers. I was influenced as a teen by many who lived and taught that the radical Christian lifestyle was the normal Christian lifestyle.
Keith Green, Jesus People USA, Winkie Pratney, Brother Andrew, and Tony Campolo were all influences in my teenage years. In college, I was a part of a group of students who spent our Friday nights ministering to the homeless while other students were out partying. I spent all of my college summer breaks doing ministry in places like the Philippines and England. I got to know Christians who had suffered for their faith.
More recently, I have been influenced by the house church movement in China in the 1970s and 1980s. I have read many books and watched testimonies of Christians who were tortured and killed for their faith. I think about China’s Brother Yun who was arrested on his wedding day and his wife entered their marriage with a crisis instead of a honeymoon. I reflect on my trips to Laos when I met many Christians who were arrested for their faith. I think about my friend M. (name withheld) who gave up her affluent life in southern California because she fell in love with a Christian Lao pastor… she now lives in a bamboo hut in very meager circumstances. I could go on and on about the refugees, missionaries, and seminary students that are a constant inspiration to me of what a “normal” Christian life is supposed to be like…a life that says “all to Jesus, I surrender. All to Him I freely give.”
God did not promise that we would be rich, healthy, or sexually fulfilled in this world. The “normal” Christian life is about dying to self…not about demanding our rights.
On the other hand, I have seen many examples of “Christians” who have focused their lives on personal happiness and sexual fulfillment.
I have known men and women who have cheated on their spouses when they did not get their sexual needs met. It has become the norm for a Christian couple to live together before becoming married. There are Christians I know who have married, divorced, and remarried numerous times. It is not uncommon to hear that a pastor was able to keep his job even though he had a child out of wedlock or was caught with a prostitute. One man I know sat his wife and children down and told them that God had revealed to him that he was born gay, and he was leaving them to live the life that God created him to live.
If you hold to a revisionist theological view of human sexuality, things that were unthinkable in the past are now permissible (or at least excusable). As much as I would like God’s standards to be altered to meet my expectations, I believe that God’s “normal” expectations are radical in our current culture. We are called to be a peculiar people (1 Peter 2:9) and living for Jesus is sometimes really difficult. God promises us joy, but He does not promise health and wealth…or sexual fulfillment.