Celebrity pastors who expound the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’ are not a new phenomenon in Africa, or globally. However, the impact of such pastors has come under close scrutiny with the recent Shepherd Bushiri debacle.
We must look beyond the tabloids and confront the glaring issues.
Bushiri’s diplomatically charged escape from under the nose of South African officials has set news and social media outlets abuzz. Many are asking who he is, and what it is that he teaches. The broader African church cannot write the situation off as nothing more than a political incident. We must look beyond the tabloids and confront the glaring issues. For numerous dangers accompany Bushiri’s status and message, along with others like him.
To deal with those dangers in detail would require volumes. Therefore I want to look at the broader aspects of Bushiri’s impact and message.
Shepherd Bushiri: An Easy Target For Disdain
Despite his humble roots in Mzuzu (northern Malawi), Shepherd Bushiri is one of Malawi’s wealthiest and most influential sons. He has experienced meteoric fame and success while planting one of Africa’s fastest growing churches: the Enlightened Christian Gathering (ECG).
We are far better off critiquing his message than demonising the individual.
Bushiri’s church boasts hundreds of thousands of members, sold out stadiums, and a global congregation. In light of these eye-watering statistics, it is tempting to focus our analysis and criticism on Bushiri himself. But this would be a mistake. We are far better off critiquing his message than demonising the individual. For we want to equip people to identify dangerous teachings rather than create disdain for personalities.
3 Primary Danger’s of Bushiri’s Message
In light of this, I will engage with three of the primary dangers posed by Bushiri’s message. I am convinced that these pose a direct threat to the church in Africa, and globally.
1. Investment, Not Sacrifice
A hallmark of Bushiri’s message is its appeal to our desire for physical health and wealth. Bushiri has repeatedly stated that ‘men of God should be rich,’ citing Abraham’s wealth as evidence. A verse often relied upon by Bushiri, and many like him, is 2 Corinthians 8:9. It reads as follows. ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”
To give with the intention of reaping a greater material reward is more akin to investment banking than imitating Christ
A cursory reading suggests that the purpose of the incarnation was to materially enrich the people of God. This reading, however, has two primary flaws. I will deal with the first here and the second under the next heading.
Giving Is Not a ‘Get Rich Quick’ Scheme
The first problem with citing 2 Corinthians 8:9 is that Paul is actually urging sacrificial generosity. He is appealing for God’s people to sustain and support one another, using Christ as the ultimate example of this. (Similarly see Philippians 1:27-2:11). This is not some ‘get rich quick’ scheme. To understand it thus completely misses the point of Paul’s exhortation.
Earlier, Paul points the Corinthians to the example of the Macedonian churches. For they gave generously in spite of their extreme poverty (2 Corinthians 8:1). Their giving was not a financial investment for future improved returns. It was a sacrificial donation in order to sustain and care for other Christians.
It is not generous to give with the intention of reaping a greater material reward. This is more akin to investment banking than imitating Christ.
2. Material Wealth, Not Spiritual Wealth
The second problem with Bushiri’s use of 2 Corinthians 8:9 is his misunderstanding of the biblical concept of wealth.
Jesus exhorts Christians not to seek for earthly gains because heavenly, eternal rewards are incomparably greater
He claims that the rewards mentioned in biblical passages are primarily temporal, material gains. But this position also disintegrates upon closer inspection. For the idea that the Son of God was materially wealthy prior to incarnation, assumes that temporal wealth holds value in heaven. But we have explicit indications from none other than Jesus himself that this is not the case.
There’s More To Hope For Than Wealth & Success
In Luke 12:33-34 Jesus told his disciples: “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourself with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Jesus exhorts Christians not to seek for earthly gains because heavenly, eternal rewards are incomparably greater. They are absolutely distinct from those on earth. They are spiritual rather than material and are infinitely superior.
The Dire Consequences of Bushiri’s Message
The message of Bushiri, and other prosperity gospel teachers, misdirects our gaze from heavenly rewards by pointing to earthly treasures. Bushiri preaches a salvation indistinguishable from being wealthy or successful. Yet God directs our gaze to his eternal reward, insisting we place no eternal value on our earthly gains. Instead we must utilise them for God’s glory and the advancement of his kingdom.
You cannot serve God and money
This misdirection has dire consequences. It fosters greed and warped desires. Thus we must hold onto Jesus’ warning that, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24).
We Can Have Material Wealth, But It’s Not The Goal
It is a deadly corruption to have our hearts fixed on health and wealth, for this leaves little room for service of Christ. Therefore the impact of Bushiri’s teaching is not merely a disputed theological point. It could have an eternal impact on the souls of those who are deceived by it.
It is a deadly corruption to have our hearts fixed on health and wealth, for this leaves little room for service of Christ.
I am not claiming that Christians cannot have material wealth. There are multiple examples of wealthy members in the early church, such as Lydia or Phoebe. Only we must note that they utilised their wealth to grow the Christ’s kingdom. The danger lies in making wealth, health, and material success the goal of faith rather than a tool for spreading faith.
The Creation of ‘High Status’ Christians
An emphasis on material wealth also strengthens other unbiblical teachings. One of these is the devastating notion that wealth and success comes to those who are especially ‘faithful.’ It creates ‘high status’ Christians.
The logical implication is that those in poverty and sickness are less faithful, or especially sinful. Jesus dealt directly with this misunderstanding in Luke 13:1-5. He used the tragedy of the tower of Siloam to teach that those who were killed on that day were not especially sinful. At the same time, those who survived were not especially sinless. Instead, he redirects the discussion into a need for all people to repent and be saved and to rely on the grace of God rather than on their own good works or righteousness.
Bushiri’s message profoundly cheapens Jesus’ teaching and God’s grace
Bushiri’s message profoundly cheapens Jesus’ teaching and God’s grace. He reduces salvation to a material accomplishment and robs Christ’s sacrifice of its eternal impact. Christ’s work, as a part of God’s gracious love, becomes nothing more than a means to an end of earthly success.
Why Are So Many Deceived?
In turn Bushiri makes giving about getting. His message and teaching is so far from biblical Christianity that it raises another question: why are so many people deceived? The answer is simple. Bushiri’s success and fame is the direct result of a personality cult.
3. A Cult of Personality
Men and women like Bushiri create personality cults. As they obtain superstar status they operate with impunity. They cannot be questioned or challenged. The danger of hallowing leaders became evident with Bushiri’s initial arrest.
Crowds of supporters gathered outside the Pretoria Magistrates’ Court holding placards demanding his release. There was no concern for the facts of the matter or for the process of justice. For the attitude of many supporters was that if Major One (Bushiri’s self-chosen title) says that he is innocent, then he is innocent. End of story. The damage that this level of devotion can do is insidious.
Bushiri’s towering success and influence, not to mention his incredible wealth, is used to silence criticisms and correction
Bushiri Wields Power
The danger inherent to this kind of power cannot be overstated. In our age of fake news and alternative facts, personality cults are deadly. One of the primary dangers of personality cults, combined with the prosperity gospel message, is that it misdirects people away from the biblical doctrine of eternal salvation. Instead of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, people are presented a material salvation by works.
Bushiri wields his influence to keep their followers seeking earthly rewards, becoming servants of health and wealth. In the process they are blinded to the saving truth of eternal salvation through repentance and faith.
The Bible and Lives of The Saints Are Ignored
Indeed, the message of salvation by health and wealth ignores countless stories of honoured saints who faced extreme persecution and poverty in pursuit of their faith and the spread of the kingdom of God. Paul died a prisoner in chains. Simon Peter allegedly died a martyr by crucifixion after facing many trials. James and John died at the hands of Herod. I could go on.
According to the Bible, the lives of the faithful are fraught with poverty, pain and suffering
According to the Bible, the lives of the faithful are fraught with poverty, pain and suffering. This is a far cry from the supposed health and wealth that Bushiri promises. Yet his towering success and influence, not to mention his incredible wealth, is used to silence criticisms and correction.
Cruel Tricks, Greed and Exploitation
Bushiri’s fame and following is not the result of faith. It is the combination of an impressive personality and human greed. In addition to this, Bushiri and his ilk prey on those facing dire economic and health situations.
Bushiri and his ilk prey on those facing dire economic and health situations.
Ministries such as Bushiri’s offer ‘blessed oils’ and other types of ‘healing’ and even trinkets at a cost. They assure people that their contributions, donations, tithes, and purchases will earn them special prayers made by the ‘anointed ones.’ These cruel tricks have no basis in the Bible. They merely take advantage of people who are suffering.
This is diametrically opposed to the many scriptural entreaties to live in defence of the poor, the orphan and the widow; and to live lives of integrity, sacrifice and truthfulness.
A Call For Vigilance
Perhaps the most ingenious, not to mention insidious, component of Bushiri’s teaching is that he laces it with biblical truths. These provide a thin veneer of fidelity. For instance, God certainly wants what is best for his children. Yet the idea that this means immediate, material prosperity is in direct conflict with the message and ministry of Jesus (Matthew 6:19-21; 16:26; Luke 12:15).
It is also incredibly difficult to square such a vision for the Christian faith with the New Testament writings (1 Timothy 6:9-10, 1 John 2:16). We must therefore be ever vigilant lest this materialistic and predatory message creeps into our churches and corrupts our personal faith.