Strange Bedfellows

Joel OsteenThe difference between the Christian world view of Abraham Cheare and that of Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, and a barrel full of others of that spiritual orientation is massive. Two books that I have read recently make the distinction so clear and prominent that is shocking. Ross Douthat’s description of Bad Religion unfolds a fascinating and informative analysis of how the prosperity religion phenomenon developed in American evangelicalism. He pushes the reader down a tortuous but demonstrably connected path and rewards the forced marcher with substantial insight at the end of the road. Abraham Cheare came to my attention through the soon-to-be-published book WAITING ON THE SPIRIT OF PROMISE: The Life and Theology of Suffering of Abraham Cheare by Michael Haykin and Brian Hanson.

Cheare, a Particular Baptist minister, suffered imprisonment under the oppressive and intolerable religious policy of the Restoration period in England beginning in 1661. From then until his death in March of 1668 Cheare spent the last seven years of his life, with two very brief respites, under lock and key and died in March of 1668. The times of persecution brought many difficult days for dissenters and when Cheare was asked about the propriety of the church still meeting in public assembly, he answered from his cell, “It’s so far from being a question, ‘What grounds they have to meet?’ as we know not what grounds can well be held up to the contrary, by any who pretend to so much profession, as that any part of the instituted will of God is worth the suffering for, or that Christ is worth the following in Gospel-precepts, when the obedience of saints therein is to be tried as by fire.” When a friend, a man known at one time for his faithful suffering for the faith decided to “go into business,” Cheare, from prison in 1664, wrote him, “Oh my dear brother! My soul is afflicted to observe the over-greedy engagement of many (whom I love and honour for their former eminency) plunging themselves into business, and there even drowning themselves in ruin and perdition; losing the savour of their spirits, the intimacy of their communion with Christ in the Spirit, and so grow dry, careless, prudent, fearful, omissive, what not?” Their energetic engagement with the world for the sake of earthly gain brought spiritual compromise and made them lose the “blessedness” of transparent and unalloyed loyalty to truth and the fellowship of Christ.

Now fast-forward 350 years and hear the admonition of Joel Osteen, “If somebody cheats you out of some money, no big deal. God’s promised me double.” Douthat paraphrased the indirect prosperity approach of Osteen in particular, “He doesn’t necessarily promise his readers that God will give them a big house and then help them get full market value when it’s time to sell it; he just tells stories about how God has blessed him with a big house and then blessed him with a buyer who happened to pay the whole sticker price” (189).

How did we manage such a radical shift in definition of spirituality and Christian purpose—how did we move from worshipping a God for whom we should be willing to lose all in this world for a God from whom the main blessing we expect is material security—No, material super-abundance?

The change did not take place overnight and involved a long process of doctrinal compromise and accommodation. Liberals were particularly egregious in this world view of accommodation and capitulation to what moderns viewed as progress. The modernist impulse played a major role in this. But evangelicals cannot come out of this messy corruption of Christian discipleship unscathed.

It is certainly the case that some of these differences over the 350 years relate to the free development of religious thought and freedom of proclamation in America as opposed to the constant suffering of Nonconformist Christians at the hands of post-Puritan Anglicanism. We heartily celebrate a society in which men are free to speak their views, and to develop their manner of worship in accord with their doctrinal commitments. We have the opportunity to duke it out over ideas and argumentation and to win adherents to our viewpoints in a marketplace protected by freedom of speech, liberty of conscience and separation of church and state. We do not desire the days of established religion and oppression of dissent. Bring on the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons, the Shakers, the Quakers, the Baptists, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, the WASPs, the Liberation theologians, all the independent fundamentalists, the Irish Catholics, the Italian Catholics, the Hispanic Catholics and the wild variety of prosperity preachers. We can co-exist in a free society while we seek to preach, worship, evangelize, and convince each other of the purer truthfulness of our viewpoint and practice. Cheare obviously would have been satisfied to be free from prison if he could have achieved that release without any restrictions placed on his freedom to preach, worship, and believe. In his viewpoint, to refuse a freedom gained without paying the price of compromise would be sinful.

But, setting aside the natural progress of ideas in a free society, we are still pressed to ask the historical-theological question. What occurred in the historical development of evangelical theology to feed this chimera of a Christianity that views temporal human prosperity as the chief evidence of strong faith? I think it has something to do with the present doctrinal distress among us co-laborers in the Southern Baptist vineyard. I will try to unpack some of this in my next blog post.