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The pope shouldn’t have spoken to Kenneth Copeland. The televangelist from Texas represents, for many, everything that is wrong with American Christianity. Copeland preaches the gospel of prosperity, considered by many Christians to be a heresy that promises God’s material blessings for the faithful. The children of God, this line of thought proposes, ought to receive worldly benefits because of their membership in God’s family. This theology sees religious belief as a quid-pro-quo relationship with God: if I am faithful to God, God will be faithful to me. If I pray enough, serve enough, and give enough, God will reciprocate. Belief leads to prosperity. Religion is the key to success.
To many, Copeland is a conniving false prophet who promises the poor success in exchange for their tithes that go to line his own pocketbook.
A brief survey of the books on the Kenneth Copeland Ministries website shows how pervasive this ideology is there. With titles such as “God’s Will is Prosperity” and “How to Believe God for a House,” the gospel of prosperity permeates Copeland’s reading list. However dubious its efficacy in the lives of everyday believers, the prosperity gospel seems to be working quite well for Copeland. It is no secret that the televangelist and his wife have benefitted greatly from their worldwide ministry’s $6 million estate, private airport, and lavish salaries.
For many Christians, Copeland’s teaching represents a false gospel. Grace is a gift from God, they say, that we can’t earn. Obedience and service to God in no way obligate God to give us houses or health or good relationships. As a believer, I am not promised blessings in this life, but the joys of relationship with God and heaven in the life to come. The death of Jesus Christ and the persecutions suffered by many of his most devout followers prove that Christianity is anything but a ticket to worldly success. Furthermore, Christ’s recurring teaching in the Gospels privileges the poor and suffering in their relationship with God while condemning those rich and powerful who hoard material goods.
Perhaps most damning for Copeland is the accusation that he has accumulated so much wealth by taking advantage of his followers. To many, Copeland is a conniving false prophet who promises the poor success in exchange for their tithes that go to line his own pocketbook.
Kenneth Copeland is for many American Christians a pariah and danger to the integrity of their faith. Much like Judas, they believe, Copeland betrays Christ for material gain. He sullies belief and blasphemes God’s good name. In light of these conceptions, we imagine that Copeland’s ministry would be especially repugnant to Pope Francis, who has built up his papacy opposing ostentatious religion, the unjust distribution of wealth, and spiritual corruption. If we follow Francis’s teaching, Copeland is no friend of Christianity, and certainly no friend of the pope.
For all these reasons, Pope Francis’s recent warm greeting to the televangelist is perplexing. “I am speaking to you,” he addressed Copeland, “as a brother. I speak to you in a simple way. With joy and nostalgia (yearning). Let us allow our nostalgia (yearning) to grow, because this will propel us to find each other, to embrace one another.”
Perhaps most surprising is that Francis openly acknowledges Copeland’s Christian faith. The Holy Father does not berate the televangelist for preaching a false gospel, but praises Copeland and his followers as they “come together to worship Jesus Christ, the only Lord. And to pray to the Father and to receive the Holy Spirit.” Francis recognizes and takes joy in God’s work through Copeland’s ministry, finding in the wealthy preacher from Texas a fellow believer and co-worker in the kingdom of God.
Was Pope Francis being naïve when he addressed Copeland’s ministry? Was he unaware of how destructive the televangelist’s gospel of prosperity is in the United States and around the world? As the recent Archbishop of Buenos Aires, it is highly unlikely that Francis was unaware of the dangers of Copeland’s ideology. Latin American Christianity has been flooded in recent decades with the prosperity gospel. Books and CDs promising health and wealth through religion pervade Christian media there, while new religious movements offer the hope of escape from widespread economic difficulties. Francis was well aware of the prosperity gospel’s explosive influence during his tenure as archbishop. He knew, I believe, the ones whom he was addressing when he recorded a greeting for Kenneth Copeland Ministries.
Indeed, the pope knew that he was speaking to a group of Christians often excluded and perjured by other Christians. He was reaching out to a leader who has been accused of corruption and ill-gained profits. He was calling someone a brother whom many have called a fraud. Pope Francis chose to highlight the good in Copeland’s ministry and to focus on their shared faith. He chose to extend a hand of Christian fellowship rather than preach words of exclusionary condemnation.
Pope Francis has once more surprised us with his inclusive vision of Christian faith. Through his greeting to Kenneth Copeland Ministries he has challenged all Christians to look beyond established divisions to recognize the good in places where we have long sought to obscure it. Through his blessing on Kenneth Copeland Ministries, the pope has opened Christianity up to a radical form of reconciliation that overcomes all the boundaries Christians have set up.
Once more, the pope models the reconciling love of Christ that called a tax collector like Matthew to life-changing discipleship, beckoned the outcast Zaccheus from the margins of society to table fellowship with the Lord, accepted blessings from prostitutes, and associated with those considered unclean or sinful by the rest of society. This inclusive Christianity, patterned after Christ, is founded in love, described by Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 as patient and kind, adding, “It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (niv). Christian love finds opportunity for spiritual growth where others see moral failings. It seeks understanding and fellowship where others exclude and condemn.
In spite of what many perceive as Copeland’s personal and theological failings, the pope, like Christ, reaches out to love what many consider un-loveable. He fellowships with those whom the world—especially some in the Christian world—despises. Francis’s actions call believers to participate in God’s mission to “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Eph. 1:10 niv) however badly it might appear to others. Pope Francis sets an example for all Christians to share in the reconciliation and love of God’s ministry to the world.
This love, strangely enough, extends even to televangelists and those on the margins of more socially-acceptable Christianity. It should be the desire of all believers to contribute to the unity of Christ’s body, no matter how far apart they may be ideologically or spiritually. In the words of Francis, “let us all pray to the Lord that he unites us all. Come on, we are brothers. Let’s give each other a spiritual hug and let God complete the work that he has begun. And this is a miracle; the miracle of unity has begun.”
Image courtesy of Kenneth Copeland Ministries.