Rebuking the Romance Prosperity Gospel
If you are a Biblical Christian, and particularly a single Christian, then you have enough struggles concerning purity, cultural marriage-redefinition, and relationships. The last thing you need is impure teaching, bad marriage definitions, and worse relationship counsel from evangelicals. Yet for years, and often without knowing it, we’ve experienced exactly these things from segments of the well-meaning Evangelical-Industrial Complex.
Recently I termed this the “Romance Prosperity Gospel” (RPG). It’s a strange fantasy world that usually works only in virtual reality. (If you’ve tried Christian singles sites, you have likely seen its relative, the “Massively Multiplayer Online Romance Prosperity Gospel.”)
Without naming names, here are a few rules of this approach. My point is not to condemn any specific evangelical leaders. Many RPG teachers are sincere Christians who uphold the true Gospel and want to oppose impurity and directionless dating. But you don’t need overt trappings — slick hair over grinning head, big golden metal-frame globe props, etc. — to preach a prosperity gospel. And not all prosperity preachers are heretics.
Still, what if RPG preachers did appear on a religious TV network?
- “God has placed authorities in your life,” says one program’s smiling host, standing beside a projector and speaking to an auditorium full of thousands. “When you step outside those authorities, bad things happen. Only when you are under your ‘covering’ and following the basic moral principles in Scripture does God bring you blessing. This means that instead of dating, which can only ever be man-centered, you must ‘court.’”
- In a second TV program, a young couple takes a church stage. “Once upon a time, we wanted to write our own love story,” they say. “Now we know that only after we give ourselves to God, and let Him have control over our love lives, will He write you the most beautiful love story ever. And if you maintain not only biblical holiness but your ‘emotional purity’ — not even investing feelings before you know for sure this is that special person — God will clearly reveal who that person is and guide your actions.”
- A third program is broadcast live from a spacious homestead and farm, where a large family runs its homeschool supply business. “Feminism and secularism have ruined the Christian family,” declares the family patriarch, wearing a cowboy hat. “The solution can only be Christianity and the bonus belief package we have prepared. Resolved: that fathers must act as their families’ priests; that before marriage, girls must turn their hearts to their fathers, in some sense uniquely ‘belonging’ to them and being trained as their ‘helpmeets’; and that any college is spiritually unhealthful for all Christian women.”
Just like the original health-wealth-and-prosperity gospel, several truths are embedded here:
- Parents and church leaders should help Christians in all life areas, including friendships, relationships, and spouse-seeking. This is part of the biblical Church’s mission.
- People should absolutely give their courtship and dating lives to God, rather than lock Him out. Sanctification requires active alignment with the Spirit (Phil. 2: 12-13).
- Sexism is bad, and so are attacks on the family. So yes, let’s bring back parenthood and all those good things, including fathers who love their wives, sons, and daughters.
Madness to the Method
If you only know the sins of rebellion, impurity, or family-rejection, then you may only hear the RPG teachers repeating these truths. But beware, because it’s also sinful and impure to add to what God actually said. And if we tolerate this game, and buy their Gospel add-ons, we end up redefining marriage and God’s own Word.
- The seminar leader promises that if you follow your authorities, God will reward you like this.
- The young couple promises that if you pursue “emotional purity,” God will reward you like this.
- The homeschool patriarch promises that if you obey your family, God will reward you like this.
All of these are specific promises that God’s Word never gives.
I’ve challenged RPG teachers to prove these promises from Scripture, as all Christians must do. But that sufficient Book stubbornly leaves out sufficient courtship Methods, beyond the “Same Old Thing” about treating others with purity as spiritual family. So ultimately, an RPG teacher must instead rely on anecdotes about those who Tried This Marriage Method And It Really Worked. (They seem to presume those who fail at the Method would repeat their negative testimonies just as loudly as those who tried it and happened to succeed.)
For my wife and I, even holding the suspicion that “the RPG works whenever it’s sincerely tried” was harmful. After all, we had only read those stories that at best implied that if we did everything right, our love story would go smoothly: that God would always give clear direction, our families would support us, and we might even be able to deactivate our emotions like Vulcans. Yet that just wasn’t how our story ran. Evidently, God likes variety.
Fortunately, a few teachers, such as Josh Harris in Boy Meets Girl, do challenge RPG “rules.” Harris often catches criticism for helping program the RPG. (More often, though, other teachers co-opt his ideas.) But Harris and other, more balanced authors don’t promise perfect love stories or guidance from infallible human authorities. Nor do they claim that if daughters ditch college for daddy as family priest and proto-husband, they’ll get the large homeschool family of their dreams. Rather, they write about relationship struggles, naturally occurring affections for other people, and the practical ways that God guides without constant gooey spiritual feelings but with help from others — whose spiritual judgment is limited.
Please, Evangelical-Industrial Complex, can we have more books and materials like that?
At best the Romance Prosperity Gospel is hazardous. But I may go so far as to call it wicked. What else can describe the claim that “God makes this promise to you” when He has not made that promise? Yes, the RPG may be better than sexual impurity. But it compares poorly with God’s real promises, emphasizes anecdotes over God’s Word, and harms single Christians.
Photo: Daniel Sone for National Cancer Institute
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Great article, E. Stephen!
This is a good post. I might add that the idea of marriage as some kind of ‘reward’ is prevalent in the church, and as a single person it is utterly debilitating…
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