This is a topic I’ve thought about frequently. I’m not sure how many Word of Faith Christians I’ve known in my life, but from the various churches I attended and graduating from Oral Roberts University—twice— I’m sure the number is in the thousands. With the advent of online social networking I’ve had the opportunity to keep up with many of them and their religious journeys over the last 5, 10, or 20 years (depending on the person). I’m constantly amazed at how many have either totally abandoned the faith, become jaded, switched to a mainline denomination or simply opted out of church altogether while maintaining a “privatized” faith.
And I totally get it. Prior to converting to the Orthodox Church I was walking the tightrope with Charismatic, Evangelicalism just about to fall over onto the ultra-jaded side. My own story aside for the moment, what I’d like to speak to in this article are some of the core reasons why I believe Word of Faith Christians tend to fall away from church and, unfortunately, the faith itself.
For those who may not be familiar with the Word of Faith movement, it can be summarized as a theology which focuses on the Christian’s role on earth as a “king” with the power and authority to command victory over all things – usually health, finances and related threats to personal comfort and security – by “speaking the word” and/or “pleading the blood” over them. This power and authority is believed to be available without measure to all who would simply believe, make right “confessions,” and give regular tithes and offerings to their local, “Holy Spirit filled” church/ministry (more on that later). That said, here are a few highlights of the phenomenon as I see it:
Words, Words, and more Words
One of the main drawbacks of the WoF movement is its usual exclusive reliance on “speaking the word of God” over the challenges of life. I say “exclusive” because most of the emphasis is placed on what a person says as opposed to what a person does. For example, I have a close WoF friend who has high blood pressure, mild obesity and suffers with diabetes. Rather than change his diet and begin an exercise regimen, he relies on “speaking the word” over his condition with no intention whatsoever of altering his lifestyle. Once in a while he will receive the friendly reminder that eating that cake or that deep fried whatever may not be the best thing for him. He usually replies with the well-rehearsed phrase: “I’m redeemed by the blood,” meaning Jesus gave him authority over sickness, thus any lifestyle change is wholly irrelevant to his future victory over such things. Believe it or not, the victory has been elusive for nearly 2 decades.
This example is, of course, merely an example, one that could relate to virtually any group of Christian believers. However, in my experience, examples like this are found in such abundance within WoF communities that it is the rule rather than the exception. Captivity to the sort of suffering inherent in a life where words are divorced from their needed action is not a captivity many are willing to endure for long. Breaking away from a “words only” oriented faith is, by necessity, a breaking away from the WoF movement.
Faith + Grace – Works = Victory!
The emphasis on “speaking the word” over one’s troubles is given theological validity due to the WoF’s understanding of how salvation works in general. The idea is that since salvation is accomplished in an almost completely passive manner (through a passive-type faith), all other areas of life work in a similar fashion, i.e. all areas of life are subject to the believers “authority” via their faith which excludes any physical involvement on their part. If one does involve himself physically in the matter at hand he effectively cuts off God’s grace (since grace is viewed as antithetical to works), which in turn short-circuits his faith.
Nevermind for the moment that this equation is completely false from a Scriptural and Church-historic perspective, I think the great majority of Christians desperately seek the kind of faith which summons them to active participation – to “work out their salvation”. Take the illustration of a marriage: what bride or what groom desires a marriage in which the relationship is based on words and ideas and not on active participation with their beloved? Has there ever been a wife who truly loves her husband who wants only to talk about her husband, believe in her husband, and use her husband’s power, but does not seek to actively demonstrate her love for him?
After years of involvement with WoF thinking this is often what the believer is left with – a unidirectional love affair with God where God does all the active-loving (i.e. “works”) and the believer does all the receiving. The trouble, of course, is this simply doesn’t work (and, it’s incredibly boring). God is not in the unidirectional love business. One can “speak” whatever he wants, “believe” whatever he wants, but if his love for Christ is not active it is to no avail. “Though I speak with tongues of man and angels… and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1Cor 13:1,2).
Abundance, Good; Lack, Bad
I recently read a Facebook post from a WoF friend who said something to the tone of, “God only gives me good things because He is a good God.” This of course is an incomplete thought because it does not address whose version of “good” is being considered. God’s idea of good and my idea of good are often very different things (“There is a way that seems right to a man, but the end thereof is death,” Proverbs 14:12). But, in a nutshell, this thought reflects very fundamental thinking in WoF theology. It is the occasion of unavoidable hardship, which inevitably comes to us all, that serves as a turning point for many in their journey with the WoF movement. If God gives me only good things, and I am a faithful, tithing believer why has tragedy struck me? There is simply no answer within the WoF paradigm.
On a slightly different note, the “health and wealth gospel,” as it is sometimes called, has immediate appeal particularly for people already inundated with the public cult of consumerism practiced at every level of society. This “faith stock exchange” in which one gives money in return for security and spiritual power is wholly understandable from a psychological standpoint in consumer-driven culture, where, incidentally, the WoF movement attracts its greatest volume of adherents. But, like regular consumerism, spiritual consumerism has no core, no true substance and is ultimately rejected by the soul who yearns for depth of meaning and truth.
While in the movement I couldn’t help but think of the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13) whenever I would see people come into the movement full of joy and excitement and leave just as quickly, sad and jaded. Jesus spoke of those who receive the faith immediately with joy, but because they have no depth of root they burn out when tribulation and persecution arise, while the faith of others is choked out by the deceitfulness of riches and the cares of this world (v.20-22). The lack of roots in the apostolic faith, the emphasis on riches and the lack of preparation for the real struggles in life all combine to form a perfect storm of jading for WoF believers.
From my experience in and out of the WoF movement, it seems to be a breeding ground for Christian burn-out. I only hope and pray that more believers will come to find new levels of faith from their burn-out experience, rather than leave the faith completely. Many of the greatest saints in Church history were fashioned out of their wilderness experience “inside” the various aberrant sects of Christianity, which led them to the authentic and enduring apostolic faith.