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My Biggest Gripe with Word/Faith Theology

For those that don’t know, I was at one time an adherent of Word/Faith theology.  I considered it to be a legitimate representation of the Bible’s prescription for exercising our faith. It was not uncommon for me to recite certain passages of scripture as the basis for a verbal declaration of desired outcomes or an expectation that God would move according to the level of my faith.  Such passages included

Proverbs 18:21 – Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit

Mark 11:23-24 – Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea, and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says is going to happen, it will be granted him.  Therefore, I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you.

Hebrews 11:1 – Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

James 1:6-7 – But he must ask in faith without any doubting , for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.  For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord.

Needless to say, I have since learned that a consideration of faith in correlation to the complete witness of scripture does not yield the formula of faith that supporters of Word/Faith theology promote.  That is, that faith is the conduit through which God moves on behalf of his people and words must align accordingly.  It is a syncretist philosophy that attempts to blend metaphysical principles of positive confession and the idea that such confessions can yield corresponding results.   Moreover, it is used to support the idea that blessings come in the form of some type of material gain that is believed to be an appropriate symbol of favortism of God.

The passages listed above are commonly used to support this idea but they must be evaluated in their literary and cultural context sourced in the authorial intent of the overriding message of God’s revelation in Christ and his ultimate plan for history.  The association of confession with belief does not yield a formula of faith that gets results but rather aligns the heart towards an appropriate response towards God, his plan and purpose that is recognized in prayer.  Faith is not an abstract concept of hope placed in whatever we desire, but a necessity of trust in what has already been revealed.  Jesus’ words must be considered in context of his redemptive plan and purpose.  One of my fellow bloggers over at Theologica wrote a really nice piece here on the substance of faith.

So I could talk about the biggest gripe with Word/Faith theology is that it promotes an elevated anthropology that consequently undermines the sovereignty of God.  For Word/Faith does insist that man was granted certain abilities to access divine attributes that in turn can transform the ability to believe into a reality of whatever it is that is being professed.  But that is not it.  Nor is my biggest gripe the fact that this theology can have the tendency to promote self-focused interests that contradicts an alignment of our lives with what God desires.  Although it is and pretty severe.

It seems like the exegetical and hermeneutical fallacies that remove isolated passages from their literary context to impose meanings that the authors did not intend are enough to promote a gripe.  Most definitely, there is a very significant gripe there.  Word/faith theology is built on a rather destructive tendency to perform eisegesis that reads the faith formula into particular passages.  It also does not make distinctions of discontinuity between the Old and New Testament.   It is a philosophy that does not seek to understand the Bible on its own terms but rather yield self-interested results for the reader.  This is most certainly a gripe, but not my biggest one.

The biggest gripe I have with Word/Faith theology is the impact it has on people, and particularly precious brothers and sisters in Christ who lack discernment or proper teaching of the biblical expression of faith.  The fallacy of this theology is that it puts the onus of outcomes on the individual but fails to consider how divinely orchestrated circumstances will not always work out in the way we suppose, regardless of how much we want to see a particular outcome or have a confident affirmation that such events will occur simply because they are believed and professed.  Moreover, it fails to encourage the believer to appropriately hold Christ as the object of faith, rather than hope in a particular prayer or formula.  It can discourage a believer in their faith if prayers are not answered or if they have not achieved a certain level of ‘blessings’, not realizing that they are already blessed (Ephesians 1:3)

And exhorting one another in Christ is what the believer is commanded to do.  The biblical evidence of who the Christian is a member of the body of Christ compels a consideration of other members and necessity to build each other up in the faith.  When I consider the exhortation and instruction of the letters to the believers, there is encouragement that is never sourced in what can be produced for our benefit but what already has been produced so that the community of faith can effectively serve Christ and one another and grow towards maturity.   That means, we should hold precious how we encourage one another and not employ methods or teaching that will discourage or even shipwreck another believer’s faith.

It also means understanding that pain, suffering, loss and disappointing circumstances cannot be escaped for the faithful follower of Christ.  Examine Paul’s encouragement to the Thessalonians and Peter’s letter to bear up in suffering.  At what point are these churches encouraged to make positive confessions to obtain desired outcomes according to their faith?  Rather, they are exhorted in the sufficiency and supremacy of Christ and God’s plan for history.  Where are they ever told that prayer is about self-interested gain?  Paul tells Timothy that godliness is not about material gain but the  pursuit of righteousness and the richness that abides in that (1 Timothy 6:3-11)

I was grieved the other day to see a reflection of Word/faith exhortation posted on a Facebook status, that if one doubts, one should not even pray, based erroneously on James 1:6 since James is referring to apply God’s wisdom in the face of trials.  Can you imagine discouraging another believer to pray? And I think examples like this abound, where believers suppose that focusing on the faith formula will somehow translate into spiritual maturity by castigating any doubt as detrimental to that believer’s life.  But instead, such advice could have a devastating impact on another’s faith, particularly if that person does not have a biblical conviction that the object of faith is Christ and prayer serves as an alignment for conformity to him.   This is the antithesis to the exhortation in Christ that should be promoted towards other brothers and sisters in Christ.

So my hope and prayer is that there will be more genuine building up in the faith of another rather than encouraging faith as a gain to promote self-focused and self-produced outcomes.  As long as the latter continues, that will be my biggest gripe.

30 Responses to “My Biggest Gripe with Word/Faith Theology”

  1. I’m curious about your statement that the Facebook interpretation was erroneous. You kind of just threw it out there with nothing to support it. Obviously we don’t have access to the full contents of what was said on Facebook, but James is pretty clear in saying, “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. Those who doubt should not think they will receive anything from the Lord; they are double-minded and unstable in all they do.” What is your understanding of James 1 (esp. vv. 6-7)? “Doubt” here (διακρινόμενος) has reference to wavering or being at odds with oneself. Are you suggesting that one should pray with such doubt when James says that they shouldn’t, or, am I missing your point completely?

    Also, you seem to be treating “doubt” (whether you have in mind διακρινω or απιστεω/απιστος [see John 20:27] I don’t know) as if it’s no big deal. Where do you find in Scripture that doubt (of any variety—and keep in mind I’m talking about doubt—not discernment or discrimination) is depicted as not being “detrimental” to take your term? G. Dautzenberg said, “Mark 11:23 par. Matt. 21:21 and Jas. 1:6 see in doubt an endangering of faith and of the granting of petitions in (→ αιτεω, προσευχομαι).” (Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament [eds. Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990], 1.306, cf. TDNT 3.947-49)

  2. Excellent post. I can sympathize with all your gripes, as well as your priority number one for the damage done to honest believers.

    The name-it-and-claim-it mentality is the thing Jesus was talking about in Matthew 6, I think. Pagans try to bind the gods in the metaphysical realm by invoking powers that are beyond even the gods — the metadivine, if you will — and thereby get the gods to do their bidding. In short: “magic.”

    It’s all too easy for us to try to do things like that. Pagan belief is just what people naturally gravitate toward without God’s revelation.

    This is not to say that somebody stuck in a WoF mentality is not saved, but the mentality is itself a pagan one with an immature (and dangerous) understanding of God’s revelation.

    As a response to Nick: what does James mean by “doubt?” Is he saying “anyone who ever has held a single shred of doubt” is “doubleminded in everything…”? I think that equating it with “doubleminded in everything” makes it clear that the “doubt” is a consistent thing. What is the implicit object of doubt? Is he talking about someone who doubts God’s ability to answer prayer, or to someone who doubts that it’s God’s will to answer it in an affirmative? It’s a bit more sticky than it appears.

  3. Nick, you are right I should have provided better clarification regarding James 1:6. First off, my objection was primarily that one would be discouraged to pray if they doubt. That is not saying that it is ok if we doubt only that the instance of it would drive us FROM prayer rather that TO prayer. I probably should go edit that part.

    I also consider the prayer of faith that James is referring to in the immediate context of vv 2-12. He is encouraging his reader to ask for wisdom for when our faith is tested (vv 2-5). The goal is to achieve stability in that faith through a recognition of what has been granted based on alignment with God’s way instead of our own (vv 6-11) that will help us endure trial and prove the faith to be genuine (vs 12). The doubting is tied to the double-mindedness in vs 8, which has to do with our allegiance of whose will we will follow. Here’s what Dr. Tom Constable says in his exposition notes at http://www.soniclight.org,

    In this context the “double-minded” (dipsychos, lit. two-sided; cf. 4:8) man is one who trusts and obeys God part of the time but not consistently. A double-minded person is one who has a divided opinion or allegiance (e.g., Lot; cf. 1 Clem. 11:2). He is unsteady, fickle, staggering, and reeling like a drunken man.

    Now that has everything to do with prayer yielding a response to what has been revealed as I mentioned in the 3rd paragraph. The focus is not on faith but on alignment with what God’s ways, no?

    But, I think it is not consistent with the intent of what James is conveying to use that passage as indication that one should not pray. The statement I referred to infers, at least to me, that faith as a formula gets results which is not what James is saying.

  4. I think the context is talking about wavering in wisdom. The request is made for wisdom. It would seem odd that the one who supposedly does not have wisdom is being scolded for doubt (which is unwise!). I interpret it as “wavering” in the sense that he asks for wisdom, but may not use it or act accordingly. I am not sure if “doubt” is the best word in this context. Another way to say it is, “Let him ask in faith, not being at odds with himself.”

    As well, it fits better with what follows: “for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.” It speaks to an uncommitted type of faith. One that wavers.

    Key point, ask for wisdom and be intent on using it.

  5. “Word/Faith” Theology is an interesting way to coin such movements. I generally characterize them as “Name it and Claim it,” “The Wealth and Health,” or “Word of Faith” theology movements that seem to be predominately in the Pentecostal and Charismatic churches.

    When one is asked to exercise πιστις “faith” in something, the question to raise is what is the object of one’s faith and motivation for asking? Ones lens is important and for understanding perspectives outside of a perspective, I’m not always immediately moved when someone says the words “faith, salvation, Jesus, or justification.” It’s important to understand what people mean when they make statements of faith and what Jesus they are referring to when they say His name. Two people can say the exact same phrase like, “I believe in Jesus by faith” or “I have faith that God will answer my prayers concerning x,y, and z,” and mean completely opposite definitions even using the same scriptures.

    I think you are right to present this article, I’m just trying to get my hands around your “biggest gripe” whether it’s the “…undermining of the sovereignty of God” or “the damage this teaching does people who lack discernment of proper teaching of the biblical expression of faith,” or both? I would contend both and much, much more.

    Teaching tendencies within these movements seem to wrongly direct people towards self approbation (like a Christmas list) rather than God’s will, and they tend to treat Jesus like a magic Jeanie in the sense that at any given moment one can pull Jesus off the shelf, rub his head and “poof” a $70,000 Mercedes pops out if only one can have enough faith. “Just name it and claim it in Jesus name” they are instructed. Now, I will qualify that God knows our needs and is able to grant us what our needs are according to His will (not ours) so we shouldn’t be disappointed (be thankful) if we are suddenly enabled to purchase a Toyota Corolla for $16,000 instead.

  6. Michael, that was an incredibly helpful interpretation.

  7. “Faith is not an abstract concept of hope placed in whatever we desire, but a necessity of trust in what has already been revealed…So my hope and prayer is that there will be more genuine building up in the faith of another rather than encouraging faith as a gain to promote self-focused and self-produced outcomes.”

    Well said. However, I am not sure that type teaching is confined to just the traditional word/faith churches. I heard a sermon yesterday, in a pretty typical Evangelical mega-church, that was close to doing the same thing.

  8. However, I am not sure that type teaching is confined to just the traditional word/faith churches. I heard a sermon yesterday, in a pretty typical Evangelical mega-church, that was close to doing the same thing.

    Rick, I would agree with you there. I think the teaching has definitely infiltrated more mainstream circles in very subtle ways.

  9. I have come to the conclusion that WOF has worked well for so many years in our society because as a society we are into self-help so strongly. The WOF movement is a sort of religious individualistic off shoot of which over stresses the scripture: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

    The fallacy is that the emphasis in WOF is on the “I” word having the power and Christ simply providing the strength behind that power. As any one can tell you who has been involved with that movement however ,(as I have), there is a big dichotomy there. It’s said to be all about God’s grace, being able to accomplish miracles through our faith, but in actual practice it’s man’s selfish need to dominate his environment through conquest. Material goods and good health prove that he was/is a ‘successful’ Christian/ This is how those folks evangelize.

    If someone is not healed or doing well financially the easy out is that the believer did not have enough faith, and thus loses out on God’s best blessings.

  10. Lisa,

    Thank you for that article I needed to hear that. I am presently yielding to God’s word and voice trying to discern if the WoF movement is of God. I have some difficulty here though and I am struggling tremendously. I was raised as a pastor’s kid by two WoF parents. Mentally I am embedded in it and know just about all there is to know about it and have heard all the in and outs of scriptural challenges against it and loop holes around them. Every objection that you provide above has been addressed by the WoF people in ways that sound biblical and convincing.

    I am presently reading through the New Testament with my wife rigorously trying to see if or if not WoF is promoted/taught by it. What is difficult is that it is so engrained in me that I feel that sometimes I can not give it an honest reading. WoF has an answer for everything along with the fear tactic that if you abandon it you are abandoning it for religious traditions that have failed the vitality of believer’s for centuries.

    To be honest I am on the fence here. Either I am blessed because I know all about it or poisoned because I have difficullty escaping it. I hear the warnings against WoF but everytime I am just about to get out there is a sermon or thought that drags me back in.

    Do you have any suggestions of books that may help me in addition to reading of scripture and how is it that you were able to see scripture and God in a different light after being in the WoF?

  11. Check out the extensive discussion on this topic going on at the “Evangel” blog on the First Things site.

  12. I’m not first-hand familiar with WOF. But as a Calvinist in an SBC church my ear is particularly sensitive to comments I often hear, such as, “prayer works.” I keep hoping to hear a sermon that begins, “Prayer doesn’t work. And God is not obligated by your desires.” The focus of this sermon would be on God’s absolute sovereignty, His immeasurable love–behind His blessings–and the necessity of prayer-filled faith (not faith-filled prayer) in building an ever stronger relationship with God through a growing love for Him and for others. Along with legalism, WOF and suggestions like “prayer works” do seem, however, to give us more control, which, of course, we like–when it works.

  13. Thanks Craig I did and commented.

  14. Jeremy,

    I have been exactly where you are and wrestled with the same issues. The one major hurdle I had to overcome was if what I believed was so wrong, why do so many believe it. I was also influenced by the ‘fear’ factor as I did not want to miss out on the blessings of God.

    There were a few very crucial items that I discovered in reading the Bible to ascertain what was honest to the biblical prescription and what was imposed on scripture.

    1) Understanding the continuity vs. discontinuity of OT and NT. The idea that ‘blessings’ are tied to tangible gain is primarily based in the Old Testament. But this was part and parcel of Israel as a chosen nation through whom God would make himself known, which served as the foreshadow of redemption that would be fulfilled in Christ.

    2) Correlating every book to the overriding theme of scripture and the unified message of God’s revelation and his plan for redemption.

    3) Context, context, context. This alone drastically changed the way I understood scripture. That means reading each book as the author had intended, following the flow of thought, and understanding the genre. I recall being so stunned that as many times as I had espoused we can call those things that be not as though they were, that reading through Romans with a fresh eye let me see that 4:17 in no ways suggests that is something we do. Rather it is God who does it. I was walking and reading and stopped dead in my tracks at that realization. I had many ‘aha’ moments like that.

    To be honest, it was primarily reading through Ephesians, Colossians and the pastoral epistles with the perspective of understanding the major themes and overriding message of the letters that really began to turn my thinking around. We are already blessed because we have Christ, who is all sufficient.

    But the most important thing is to humbly submit to God with an open heart. As the conflict grew between what I espoused as truth and the challenges that were presenting themselves, I got on my knees one night and asked God to open my eyes to his truth. The next day I was listening to Insight for Living and Chuck Swindoll said something at the end of his broadcast about truth. Since that time and based on the points of consideration listed above, it was like an onion being unpeeled.

    Well, I hope that helps or I made any sense. I’m really tired right now so it might not.

  15. Not to get totally sidetracked, but one difficulty I have now is wondering what to do about Hillsong. Their head pastor, Brian Houston, teaches a Health and Wealth gospel. His book “You Need More Money” makes that clear.

    So, now what? Is it OK to still purchase/use Hillsong music? Hrmm.

  16. “Christianity in Crisis, 21st Century” addresses a lot of the misuse of Scripture by the Word of Faith groups. It names names and has extensive footnotes referencing books, websites, and TV/radio air dates where the quotes come from.

    I also recommend “The Disease of the Health and Wealth Gospels” by Gordon D. Fee, a renowned NT scholar who is himself Pentecostal, so people can’t argue back that “you just don’t believe in the Spirit’s work today.” http://www.amazon.com/Disease-Health-Wealth-Gospels/dp/1573830666/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1282679807&sr=8-1-fkmr0

  17. Thank you Lisa! Huge help!

    Thank You Brian I wasn’t aware that Fee had that book but I am familiar with him and admire his work!

    Blessings to All!

  18. Frankly, the post appears to center more on the pet teachings that go beyond the Word of a few preachers who go by the WOF moniker than it does on the core teachings of the movement.

    The nicknames for the movement aren’t a help to anyone.

  19. In light of this comment here by Peter

    Frankly, the post appears to center more on the pet teachings that go beyond the Word of a few preachers who go by the WOF moniker than it does on the core teachings of the movement.

    Is this article here not representative of the core Word-Faith teaching?

    http://www.streamingfaith.com/news/entertainment/story/how-to-call-on-wisdom

    There is plenty more where this came from that I would not assign to ‘pet teaching’.

  20. There are several problems inherent with criticisms of the WOF movement. First, what exactly are we talking about? Kenneth Hagin? Copeland? Joel Osteen? Joyce Meyer? If one is to follow this theology, I believe one must follow Hagin as he seems to have gotten much of it right (but not everything) IMO. Once that is done we need to understand that WOF really needs to be couched in a broader, although very evangelical, theology or it won’t work.” Hagin was very close to Reformational theology in many respects but I felt he and others needed to go farther either in that direction or in the other Arminian direction . I have been following WOF for 30 years and have found it really does work quite well IF the believer is mature and has a foundational understanding of other Basic Biblical doctrines that aren’t always taught in the WOF movement.

    The third problem with WOF is its awful organizational structure–very pastor centered which is not really what was happening in the first century as it was elder/pastor centered. The WOF churches I’ve been in have turned into cultic dictatorial groups and finally closed down because of this.

    Thanks for listening.

  21. Diane,

    Thanks for you comment. I came to faith in Christ in the early 80s through Fred Price’s church in Los Angeles and was a member there for 3 years. As you probably know, he is very much aligned with Hagin and Copeland regarding classic Word-Faith doctrine. What I have discovered is the core doctrine has infiltrated teaching aligned with Pentecostal and Charismatic theology so that many popular teachers today, while not being explicitly Word-Faith, maintain Word-Faith in the fabric of their teaching. This would include Jakes, Olsteen, Meyer, Dollar, etc.

  22. Faith is certain of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. Jesus Christ

  23. I was so oblivious to the Word of Faith movement because I spent so much of my life trying to figure out the Trinity. :)

    However, it does seem sad to hear people say such things as:

    Those faith people!

    Those Jesus Only people!

    I wish those Baptist people would get saved!

    And all the rest. It all sounds so pitiful (when you think about what people are saying)…however….

    Over time I started realizing that there is an extreme in some of these “Faith” movements.
    One point is that there is a teaching that you have to pray right to get the blessing or healing or whatever. If you don’t, that is why the devil had a chance to do this or that. Because it was up to you to pray right.
    It hit us smack in the face, a truth about this extreme teaching.
    This teaching puts the devil in control, not God.
    I for one believe that God is in Control, not the devil.
    I think this is a very serious issue to look into to discern what people are teaching. Who is in control? I fear that some people do not even realize what they are believing on this. Yes, we live in a fallen world, and the devil is out to kill and destroy. But who is in control?
    In reality, you have people doing a sort of “Christian Witchcraft Incantations”. Yes really. Because in some ways, the teachings I have heard, are about how you are praying, and then it becomes works as well.

    Currently, we have a lot of Christian channels on TV and I have noticed that there have been some changes and some great teaching! But others are still doing some strange teaching, where they might be talking about a verse in Scripture the whole time, perhaps Isaiah 43:10, and at the end of the show, they tell you to plant a seed of $43.10 to receive a blessing. I recently saw a show that was talking about 7 Blessings, and they literally “felt led” to ask people to send $207.00 for their blessings.
    I must admit I was so astonished, and I saw it in his eyes, for I could see he knew how wrong he was.

  24. I also wanted to add, that I do believe that some people who have adhered to some of this teaching, could possibly end up loosing their faith in God because of when something goes wrong.

    A baby dies. Sometime terrible happens. They can really loose their faith, because in their hearts they did everything right.

    They can’t put the pieces together because it suddenly does not make sense.

    Another point I heard some time ago, and perhaps this is why a lot of people are seeing the truth of this extreme teaching, is just look at the multitudes of people in underdeveloped countries…can they even relate to this teaching?

    I have seen so many things that God has done in my life. I stand in awe. I have seen a lot lot lot. But I deeply realize that God is Supreme. I trust Him. I am just so happy HE saved me.

  25. I agree that each Christian should be building genuine faith while not focusing on selfish ambition.

  26. Thank you for sharing your insights Lisa.

    A couple of years ago, I was researching the origins of the Word/Faith movement—-its rooted in pragmatism of Charles Sanders Pierce…and in new age religion.

    i do enjoy reading your essays, Lisa :-)

  27. “I was grieved the other day to see a reflection of Word/faith exhortation posted on a Facebook status, that if one doubts, one should not even pray, based erroneously on James 1:6 since James is referring to apply God’s wisdom in the face of trials. Can you imagine discouraging another believer to pray?”

    Thank you for pointing this out Lisa….this has happened to me…
    I challenged her by quoting:
    Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief.

    She continually refused to admit to any wrongdoing.
    So I followed Paul’s advice….”From such turn away”

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