Oral Roberts died this past Tuesday. The famous faith-healer and evangelist was 91. He died in Newport Beach, California from complications of pneumonia. He had been hospitalized after a recent fall.
As we look back over the totality of Roberts’ life, it isn’t hard to spot both good and bad. On the good side of the ledger, he preached Jesus, reminded people of what the Bible teaches about Christ’s miracle-working power, and played a major role in bringing the church into the age of television.
On the bad side, he gave many prophecies that turned out to be false, claimed to have performed literal resurrections and other miraculous healings, founded a religious empire that has frequently been associated with accusations of financial malfeasance, and was the originator of the “seed faith” philosophy of giving. It is that “seed faith” philosophy that I want to focus on in this post.
The basic idea with “seed faith” giving goes like this:
1. The Christian generously gives his money to support a ministry (for example, the Oral Roberts ministry).
2. The Christian has faith that God will return to him a greater harvest than the original amount.
3. God rewards the faith and sends the greater harvest. (This greater harvest can come by way of job promotion, sudden windfall, etc.)
4. With the increased wealth, the Christian can begin the process all over again by giving an even larger amount to the ministry.
5. With more “seed” with which to work, God can reward the Christian with a harvest that is even bigger than the first one.
6. Out of that greater harvest, the Christian can send yet another increased amount of money to the ministry and, subsequently, see an even bigger harvest.
7. From there it’s etc., etc., etc. as the cumulative process keeps rolling along and the Christian, as well as the ministry, keeps getting wealthier and wealthier.
Oral Roberts claimed that Jesus Himself revealed the “seed faith” principle to him. Among other things, Roberts said that Jesus told him how to rightly interpret Acts 20:35, the verse that quotes Jesus as saying, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” According to Roberts, Jesus said that translation doesn’t properly convey what He meant. Jesus supposedly meant, “It is more PRODUCTIVE to give than to receive.”
Roberts taught “seed faith” giving for many decades. He wrote over 130 books, most of which were variations on this foundational teaching. When he resigned as the head of Oral Roberts University (a university that has churned out “seed faith” preachers for over 40 years), his son Richard took over the reins.
Several years ago I read Ashes To Gold, a book that was written by Patti Roberts, Richard’s former wife. In that book Patti looks back on her days as Oral’s daughter-in-law. She talks about how guilty she felt about the excessive wealth the Roberts family enjoyed, and she seriously questions the “seed-faith” idea of giving. She says the “seed faith” teaching:
“…bothered me a great deal because I saw that, when taken to extremes, it reduced God to a sugar daddy. If you wanted His blessings and His love, you paid Him off. Over and over again we heard Oral say, ‘Give out of your need.’ I began to question the motivation that kind of giving implied. Were we giving to God out of our love and gratitude to Him or were we bartering with Him?”
In the book, Patti Roberts also points out that the teaching of “seed faith” was given on every Roberts’ television broadcast, whereas the Gospel itself was rarely given. Here’s a typical quote from Richard Roberts:
“Sow a seed (to the Roberts ministry) on your MasterCard, your Visa or your American Express, and then when you do, expect God to open the windows of heaven and pour you out a blessing.”
Please understand, though, that Oral Roberts and his ministry were merely the fountainhead of “seed faith” preaching. Over the years, the water quickly flowed out to wherever Pentecostal and Charismatic churches and ministries were found. Paul and Jan Crouch’s TBN broadcasting empire has sent the Roberts’ doctrine around the world, and thousands of “prosperity preachers” now preach “seed faith” giving every bit as fervently as Oral Roberts ever did.
But, of course, the central question in all this is: Is the “seed faith” philosophy Biblical? In one corner, we’ve heard from Oral Roberts. In another corner, we’ve heard from his former daughter-in-law, Patti. But what does God say? Well, His ruling is that the “seed faith” way of giving, a way that should lead to great wealth, is a lie. Let me prove that to you.
First, I’ll describe the earthly life of Jesus. Luke 9:57-58 says:
“Now it happened as they journeyed on the road, that someone said to Him, ‘Lord, I will follow You wherever You go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.'”
These verses certainly don’t describe an earthly life of wealth, do they? Jesus didn’t own a house. He didn’t have a lot of money. He didn’t live lavishly.
As you read the gospels, you will see that He ate with anyone who would invite Him to eat, spent many a night outside, and probably had just one set of clothes. He rode into Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey. He and His disciples observed the Lord’s Supper in a borrowed room. After His death, His body was laid in a borrowed tomb.
As a matter of fact, rather than promoting the importance of worldly wealth, Jesus warned of the dangers of it. He said, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19-20). He said, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:23-24).
These quotes certainly don’t sound like the words of one who was preaching earthly prosperity as a byproduct of salvation, do they? The fact is, you won’t find a verse where Jesus says, “Follow me, and I’ll put money in your pockets.” You won’t find a verse where He says, “Believe in me as Savior, and your financial woes will be over.”
Instead, what you will find is Christ’s constant downplaying of money. In His story of the beggar Lazarus and the rich man, it is the rich man whose soul ends up in Hell (Luke 16:19-31). In His story of the rich man who planned to tear down his overflowing barns and build bigger barns, God comes to that rich man and says, “You fool, this night your soul will be required of you: then whose shall these things be?” (Luke 12:13-21).
This was the earthly life of Christ, and it certainly doesn’t line up with the idea that God wants to make every Christian rich. If anything, Jesus taught that the love of money is one of the primary hindrances to people being all that God wants them to be.
Second, I’ll describe the lives of the apostles. In 1 Corinthians 4:9-13, we find some verses in which Paul vividly describes the life of an apostle. He writes:
“For I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but we are dishonored! To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless. And we labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat. We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now.”
Tell me, does this description sound like the apostles lived lives of wealth, ease, and luxury? Of course it doesn’t! Well, was that because they just didn’t understand about “seed faith” giving? No, it was because it is not God’s will for all Christians to be monetarily rich.
Third, I’ll describe the lives of the Smyrna Christians. In Revelation 2:8-9, the risen, glorified Jesus gives a message for the apostle John to relay to the Christians who were living in Smyrna. That message was:
“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write, These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life: ‘I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.'”
Notice that Jesus said to those Christians, “I know your poverty but actually you are rich.” The interpretation isn’t difficult. Those Christians were poor in an earthly sense but rich in an eternal sense through the treasures laid up for them in heaven.
Jesus didn’t say to those people, “If you will give in faith, you will get that gift back with an increase.” He didn’t even say to them, “I know your poverty, and I’m going to do something about it.” What He said was, “I know your poverty, but don’t forget that you are actually rich.” For many Christians today, this same “Smyrna truth” applies: poor on earth but rich in heaven.
Fourth, I’ll describe the life of Timothy. In 1 Timothy 6: 3-10, Paul has some very telling things to say about money and worldly riches. He writes:
“If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wrangling of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself. Now godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”
Whatever else we might bring out of these verses, let’s at least get it settled that Paul did not say, “Timothy, God wants you to be rich in the wealth of the world. Why aren’t you?” What he said was, “Timothy, work at being content with having food and clothing.”
On the subject of “prosperity preachers,” let me say that I especially like the way the New Living Translation describes those false teachers to whom Paul was referring. In verse 5, it reads:
“These people always cause trouble. Their minds are corrupt, and they don’t tell the truth. To them religion is just a way to get rich.”
Now, as I begin to close, I’d like to point out that the Bible gives us many examples of believers who were rich by the standards of the world. Abraham was rich. Joseph was rich. Job was rich. Solomon was rich. Joseph of Arimathea was rich. So I’m not saying that it isn’t God’s will for any Christian to be monetarily rich. What I’m saying is that no Christian has a right to expect or demand worldly wealth from God. Such wealth isn’t a matter of the Christian getting under the teaching of the right preacher, and it certainly isn’t a matter of lining up with the “seed faith” plan of giving.
When it comes to attaining worldly wealth, the Bible talks about things like: hard work, saving, giving a right portion back to God, paying your bills, giving to the poor, and avoiding sin. There’s even a bit here and there about wise investing. These things are the building blocks to getting rich in this world. It’s not about sending $100 to the Oral Roberts ministry.
Think about it, Roberts’ philosophy didn’t even work for him. In 1989 his City of Faith Medical Center was forced to close due to a lack of funds. The Center, which cost $250 million to build, reportedly drained the Roberts organization of $30 to $40 million per year. This was the cause of Oral’s infamous 1989 fundraising drive in which he announced to a television audience that God would “call him home” if the sum of $8 million wasn’t raised by March. Even though $9.1 million was raised, the City of Faith still closed not long afterwards.
Later on, in 2007, Richard was forced to resign as president of Oral Roberts University amid allegations of financial indiscretions. The scandal reportedly left the school with more than $50 million of debt. In light of such financial shortcomings, one is left to presume that either the Roberts family didn’t practice what they preached in regards to “seed faith” giving or the whole philosophy simply doesn’t work. As for me, my money is on both.