The ‘Word-faith’ movement
by Chris Hand
Picture this church. Wouldn’t you like to be part of it? Its meetings draw huge numbers, with reports of conversions and amazing testimonies. Compelling speakers deliver word-perfect addresses liberally sprinkled with Bible quotations.
Its statements of faith seem orthodox and evangelical, and there are vigorous programmes to help poor and disadvantaged people. Besides this, you will be encouraged to study the Bible and pray, to be extravagant in your giving, and to believe that nothing is too difficult for God.
Finally you will be surrounded by enthusiastic people eager to grow in faith.
Are you interested in joining? Just pause before you do. I am describing the ‘Word-faith’ or ‘prosperity gospel’ movement.
A word about ‘Word-faith’
We must recognise that the term ‘Word-faith’ embraces a variety of views. The teachings of Kenneth Hagin, the acknowledged elder statesman of the movement, are not identical to those of Kenneth Copeland, arguably its most prominent and successful minister.
Robert Tilton, Jerry Savelle, Frederick Price, Marilyn Hickey, Creflo Dollar and Rodney Howard-Browne (credited with beginning the ‘Toronto Blessing’) belong to the genre but each has distinctive views.
Benny Hinn and Oral Roberts rub shoulders with them at many points, but distance themselves from certain ‘Word-faith’ teachings. So generalisation is difficult.
But here are a few reasons why this movement should not be regarded as sound and biblical.
The average ‘Word-faith’ teacher inhabits a different world from the average Evangelical -a world of ‘spiritual forces’ and ‘legal contracts’.
The spiritual forces are ‘the laws of faith’. These laws (they say) are there for anyone to use, believer or non-believer. The key to their use is to believe that you can make things come into existence simply by ‘confessing’ them into being – so-called ‘positive confession’.
The spoken word, they tell us, is the outworking of faith – which is where the term ‘Word-faith’ comes from. So if you are actually poor and sick, you must exercise faith and positively confess that you are well and going to be rich.
Apparently, God himself submits to these principles. In a novel interpretation of Hebrews 11:3 – ‘By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God’ – we are told that the faith spoken of is God’s rather than ours.
Kenneth Hagin declares: ‘The God kind of faith … is the kind of faith that spoke the world into existence … God created the universe with words. Words filled with faith are the most powerful things in all the world’.
Kenneth Copeland puts it like this: ‘God is a faith being … God does not do anything outside of faith’.
Salvation is also possessed ‘by faith’, but not as most of us know it! A ‘Word-faith’ preacher expounding Romans 1:17 on television explained how we must first confess we have salvation and then it becomes ours.
The ‘legal contract’ element looks at how the Lord regains control of the world over which he supposedly lost dominion after the Fall.
Man was originally made like a god on the earth but forfeited this position when he sinned and made the devil his ruler. The devil now has ‘landlord’s rights’ over the earth. God is powerless to act.
Hagin explains it thus: ‘God cannot evict Satan until the lease expires. Were he to do so, Satan could accuse him of wrongdoing: God doesn’t just move in on top of Satan. If he did this, Satan could accuse him of doing the same thing he did’.
A ‘legal loophole’ opens up to God when the Lord Jesus is ‘taken from the cross and tortured in hell by the devil’.
Being sinless, the Lord is being illegally held, so that the devil’s ‘landlord’s agreement’ is rendered null and void. The way is open for Christ to be ‘born again’ in hell where he defeats the devil.
This is an admittedly brief summary. Much more could be said along similar lines. But it alerts us to the unbiblical approach of ‘Word-faith’ doctrine to God’s dealings with our world.
The orthodoxy of this movement is further called in question when some ‘Word-faith’ teachers virtually elevate man to deity.
Born-again believers are promoted to a privileged position which vastly exceeds that taught in the Bible. Here is an alleged ‘conversation’ between Copeland and the Lord about the Lord defeating the devil in hell.
‘He said, “A born-again man [Jesus] defeated Satan, the firstborn of many brethren defeated him … You are the very image and the very copy of that one” … And I said, “Well now you don’t mean, you couldn’t dare mean, that I could have done the same thing?” He said, “Oh, yeah, if you’d known that, had the knowledge of the Word of God that he did, you could have done the same thing. Cause you’re a reborn man too”.’
The powers indiscriminately delegated to believers appear limitless. We can ‘speak’ health and wealth into being because ‘the material world is subservient to the spiritual one’.
Master the laws of the spiritual world, and you have mastered the principles governing physical health and the creation and distribution of wealth.
Here is man trespassing where God holds the prerogative. Its man-centred pandering to human pride and crude materialism is transparent. Were not New Testament disciples frequently sick, suffering and poor?
When this biblical reality intrudes, the case for the power-filled, circumstance-dominating life portrayed by ‘word-faith’ teachers collapses spectacularly.
A lesser God
The other side to this is that God is systematically relegated. He too has to act according to the ‘rules of faith’. Unlike the God of Scripture, he has lost control of the world to the devil.
He cannot regain control until the devil makes a legal blunder. And he has given so much power to man that he has virtually abdicated his throne.
This impression is further borne out by bizarre teachings about the person and power of God. Copeland asserts that the Lord is ‘a being that stands somewhere around 6’2” … weighs somewhere in the neighbourhood of a couple of hundred pounds … [and] has a span of nine inches across’.
And where does he get this information? Apparently it is deduced from Isaiah 40:12.
Neither is the Almighty accorded overmuch dignity. Kenneth Hagin recounts an occasion when the Lord was powerless to deal with a demon until Hagin himself commanded it to go.
Rodney Howard-Browne tells how he threatened God – that unless he came down and touched him, he was going up to heaven to touch God. Man’s authority and power having been confidently mastered, the place of God looks less and less central.
Light-years from orthodoxy
The person of Christ is also understood erroneously. We are told that on earth his deity was concealed, his miracles being the work of a Spirit-empowered man – nothing more.
Thus Copeland tells us: ‘He’d set aside his divine power and had taken on the form of a human being – with all its limitations … They don’t realise, that when Jesus came to earth he voluntarily gave up that advantage, living his life here not as God, but as a man.
‘He had no innate supernatural powers. He had no ability to perform miracles until after he was anointed by the Holy Spirit as recorded in Luke 3:22 … he ministered as a man anointed by the Holy Spirit.’
This deficient doctrine gets no better when Copeland describes Christ bearing our sin – according to Copeland, Jesus actually took on the nature of Satan when he suffered on the cross!
All Christ’s perfections, as God and sinless man, are entirely lost from view. He has to be rescued from this situation by being ‘born again’ in hell.
All of this is light-years away from orthodoxy, disastrously confusing the person and atoning work of our Lord and eclipsing the matchless Christ of the Bible.
A last word
Much more could be said. The worldly fund-raising methods and false prophecies typical of this movement would fill the pages of a hefty volume.
The stage-managed meetings, replete with showmanship, self-promotion and manipulation, breathe another spirit than the biblical model of ministry and preaching.
Miraculous claims go unsubstantiated or collapse on closer investigation. Sick and suffering people return disappointed from the meetings, some having been told that their lack of faith explains their failure to be healed.
With the wild excesses of so-called ‘ministry times’ – marked by ‘slayings in the Spirit’ and hysterical laughter – the unbiblical nature of this movement screams aloud.
For all the use of Bible texts, genuine compassion, and honest endeavour that the movement generates at its best, it still falls far short of biblical orthodoxy and soundness.
The casualties of ‘Word-faith’ teachings tell another story and deserve to be heard more often than they are.
The author is indebted to Hank Hanegraaff’s book Christianity in Crisisand Robert Bowman’s The Word Faith Controversy as sources for this article.