Ghanaian Charismatism and the Total Bastardization of “Grace”

This is the 2nd in a 2 part series of posts on the phenomenon of unbiblical understandings of “grace” that permeates Ghanaian Christianity. It follows from the first one, which is available here.

Walk into many Charismatic churches in Ghana, and do a survey of it’s church members. One will find that apart from the very young generation, most members of these churches were originally members of what are considered “orthodox churches” in Ghana – the churches founded by the missionary efforts of Europeans in the pre-colonial era. And though Charismatism began with an emphasis on the operation of the gifts of the spirit, it soon became infused with teachings originally from Kenneth Hagin and his cohorts – what is referred to as Word of Faith (WOF) teaching/prosperity teaching. In Ghana, I can confidently say that 90% of charismatic churches are now driven by WOF teaching, hence I hope I can be excused for not differentiating between WOF adherents and non-WOF charismatics in this post. In any case even those who aren’t WOF-inclined have some of the same seeds of divine determinism in them, and so will benefit from this critique.

Additional Ingredients

In addition to the seed of divine determinism that already flourishes in Ghanaian cultural Christianity, one more seed that has found fertile ground for the flourishing of these abuses of “grace” is the seed of individualism. Since Western Christianity had even before the Protestant Reformation, interpreted and preached the gospel as a call for each individual to save themselves from being thrown into hell fire and to rather gain a ticket to heaven, it had already been evident in the work of the missionaries to Ghana that Christianity was an individual walk with God. When this is mixed with the Ghanaian cultural deterministic perception that God has set out a “destiny” which is unique for each and every individual, you have an explosive mixture just waiting to be lighted up. And that is exactly what happened with growth in 3 things – urbanization, upward mobility and the arrival of the prosperity teaching, what I call the 3 horsemen.

The 3 Horsemen

Horseman 1 – Urbanization

Many people I’ve spoken to, including some people much older than me, speak of the sense of unity that existed in the orthodox church they used to attend back in the rural areas. They complain after moving to Accra, they experienced that even in a branch of the same denomination they attended here in the city, that sense of unity was no longer there, with everyone seeming to mind their own business. These friends bemoan this state of affairs, and pine for earlier days. What people like these fail to realize was that this sense of unity was always a false one that couldn’t last when transplanted into a new, more challenging environment – because this unity was based more on ethnic and cultural homogeneity than on a theological and practical outworking of what the New Testament means by unity. Once that sense of unity and care is lost, one begins to focus much more on oneself for survival. Enter horseman 2.

Horseman 2 – Upward Mobility

With no sense of real unity other than just showing up on church on a Sunday to perform the rituals and appease God (in the form of tithes and offerings), people naturally drifted into competition to show oneself as “moving forward” in life. Here, moving forward is defined as getting married if one was single, having children if one was married, having a better job and a nicer car than your fellow church member, probably owning one’s own home by 5-10 years of work. In recent times, becoming an entrepreneur has been added to this list. Enter the 3rd horseman.

Horseman 3 – Prosperity Teaching aka Motivational Teaching

Due to the de-prioritization of unity (which was already built on shaky grounds within orthodox churches anyway) and the elevation of individual achievement to the highest ideal, it is no surprise that the message of “name it claim it” and “everything is possible” sounded much more pleasing to cultural Christian ears than the boring old “clinging to the rugged cross”, hence Ghanaians moved across in droves. In recent times, the fashion is that almost every Charismatic pastor is also a “Motivational Preacher”. What they don’t realize is that one doesn’t even need to be a pastor to be a motivational preacher. All one needs is a bit of self-confidence to propound some 7 or 8 theories of success. Voila!! Of course they themselves need to show you that their teaching works to bring material prosperity, so it is near impossible to meet such preachers who look and live simple lives. Obviously that life is built off the back of their congregants, either via directly controlling the cash and exercising undue influence on its spending because they are the “founder” of the church, publishing books that are required reading by church members or have an appeal to a general audience in the “motivational speaking” genre but have nothing to do with the biblical gospel, or moving from office to office of richer congregants in the name of “praying” or “prophecying” for them, yet collecting monies for such “visits”.

What Has All This Got To Do With “Grace”?

I listen to a lot of snippets of sermons by many Charismatic preachers (unfortunately I don’t have a choice – almost every corner is filled with them in Accra so one can’t avoid them). And increasingly I hear the use of the term “grace” to speak of how God was going to bless church members with material wealth. Remember what we said in part 1 of this series? That Ghanaian cultural Christians have an already flawed understanding that God is a micromanager of lives who decides freely (“by grace”) who he was going to “curse” (typically the “wicked”) and who he was going to bless (typically the “righteous” ie one who does what a pastor/church defines as “righteous”) irrespective of hard work, access to opportunities and privilege? Well, these WOF preachers then play this false definition of God’s “grace”, by saying that God will “give more grace” (ie more good decisions) to those who desire to be materially prosperous. Of course, this “grace” always comes with a caveat – it’s given to those who have “faith”, i.e. those who show such “faith” by plenty prayer and profuse attendance of said pastor’s church programs and those who give monies to their church (called “sowing a seed”, “sowing into the man of God’s life”).

In the end, what these preachers mean by “grace” is exactly the opposite of what the New Testament means by “grace” – one does nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing – to deserve it. Not the number of tongues per minute, nor hours of prayer, nor hours of church attendance, nor amounts of money given to the church nor trees planted in the “man of God’s” life. Interestingly the one place where the New Testament uses the phrase “more grace” (according to the NIV translation) is the place that actually condemns selfishness and greed in the name of God.

When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God … But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: ‘God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.’” (Jas 4:3-6).

Edit: Just a few hours after publishing this blog, a friend sent me what I consider to be Exhibit A of the problem I’m addressing – from the “Grand Papa” of Ghanaian Charismatism – Duncan Williams

Grace: A Quick Reminder of Its Biblical Usage

I have said a lot in defining what grace means in a previous post, but let me restate it here in a quick fashion.

  1. The New Testament talks about “grace” in terms of Yahweh’s launching his kingdom by deciding to accept both Jews and Gentiles as part of his chosen people – his church – without asking anything from them ie requiring Gentiles to keep the law of Moses. Sadly, because our notions of the gospel are so individualized (getting a personal ticket to heaven), we don’t realize that when the NT talks about grace, it’s talking about how Yahweh maintains the promise he made to Abraham – just as he chose the Jews by grace, he will make that grace available to all others so that he will have one united people, irrespective of ethnic, social and cultural line. This is what Paul calls “the blessings of Abraham” (Gal 3:14). It is this critical understanding of grace that was not properly planted by our missionary churches, going way back to both the Roman Catholic and Protestant Reformers themselves, for which we are suffering today.

  2. The New Testament speaks of grace as the power to serve God faithfully in this kingdom agenda – the agenda of creating and sustaining one united people of God via bringing this good news to others, and creating disciples out of those who believe this news regarding how to submit to one another and to suffer for one another just as God himself suffered for us to show us the way. That is, grace empowers us to serve God and one another, led by the Spirit.

In short, grace is how you get into God’s chosen people, and how you stay and serve in God’s chosen people. It’s got nothing to do with one’s personal ambitions of wealth and prosperity, and everything to do with who one is in Christ, and how one is living by Christ’s own self-sacrificial example after one becomes part of his people. Grace is about reconciliation with God and one another, and sacrifice for one another once reconciled. Simple and short.

Conclusion: The Seeds of Deception Have Always Been Therefore

Human beings, due to our sinful nature, are always selfish, whether spiritually or materially. We are selfish for holiness, righteousness, peace and self-sufficiency as much as we are selfish for sin, wickedness, violence and greed. Jesus came to show up our selfishness for what it is and to reveal the number one character of God that confuses the wisdom of both Jews and Gentiles (1 Cor 1:18-25) – that God dying on the cross shows himself as the unselfish God who is willing to die even for his enemies.

And this leads to a very important point that many Ghanaian Christians, whether orthodox or Penteco-Charismatic, are missing. Christianity is not about going to heaven, nor material wealth. If your creator is a God who takes risks and suffers for the sake of his enemies, then being made in his image, one must also be seen all your life to be one who is making sacrifices for one’s fellow human. We choose to love not because we will be rewarded with heaven, but because that is the nature of the one in whose image we are made. Therefore, Christianity is a matter of discipleship in the way of the one who created us, not for reward, but because that’s what makes us truly human.

Whenever Christianity is posed in the form of determinism – that God is micromanaging the world and deciding to bless only those who do “right”, we make room for false teachers to come up with their own definition of “right” so we can selfishly appease God whiles they milk us dry. Whenever Christianity is posed as a reward scheme – that saying the “right prayer” or “living the holy life” automatically guarantees access to heaven, we produce people who are more interested in their own individual walk with God than those of their fellow human beings.

When spiritually-minded Ghanaian cultural Christianity got tired of waiting to go to heaven, it obviously chose the next best thing – grabbing all that we can on earth. May we not be overcome by this selfishness, whose seeds were planted by our orthodox churches, but whose fruits are now being harvested in the form of modern Penteco-Charismatism and its WOF champions.

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Orthodox Churches and the Distortion of “Grace”

Orthodox Churches and the Distortion of “Grace”

This is the first of a 2 part series of posts on the phenomenon of unbiblical understandings of “grace” that permeates Ghanaian Christianity.

Readers of my blog will notice that I have a problem with the way Ghanaian cultural Christianity uses the term “grace”. The hegemony that this term “grace” holds here (which I consider a distortion of what the bible actually means by the word “grace”) is encapsulated in the almost required response amongst cultural Christians to the simple greeting “How are you?”. If one answers with “by the grace of God I’m fine”, then one is considered a well brought-up Ghanaian Christian. If not, you might be required to bring your parents over for questioning on the kind of “upbringing” you were given.

But as I delve more into reading about the beliefs, culture and history of the Old Testament (a culture scholars refer to as the Ancient Near East i.e. ancient Israel and their Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Canaanite and Hittite neighbours), the greater the similarities I find between these beliefs and those of traditional and even modern Ghanaian culture. It has caused me to reflect a lot on things I have heard since I was old enough to process my culture around me, and increasingly I’m coming to a very important conclusion – long before the modern abuses of “grace” came along, our traditional orthodox churches failed to challenge the worldview of retributive justice that existed in our African cultures (and most other cultures worldwide), and that failure is coming back to bite us really hard in the ass in this modern, fast-paced, individualistic and pluralistic world. And for those reading this who may not be Ghanaian, in Ghana we use the term “orthodox churches” to refer not to either Eastern Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox churches, but rather to the churches founded by European missionary efforts i.e. the Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, AME, Roman Catholic etc who dominated the landscape before the rise of Pentecostalism and its junior brother – Charismatism.

Now, let me explain myself.

Retributive Justice in the Old Testament

Scholars point out that in the Ancient Near Eastern world, many people believed the gods to be intricately involved in the affairs of men, especially in their fortunes or misfortunes. The right worship of the gods (aka righteousness) led to the receipt of blessings from them. Consequently, it was also assumed that misfortune was as a result of the anger of the god(s) due to a failure in worshiping the gods or doing their bidding, whether one knew what one’s failure was or not. Hence, scholars use the term “retributive justice” to mean the following beliefs .

  • The god(s) reward righteous behaviour with blessings of material prosperity.

  • The corollary was this – misfortune could only be explained as resulting from the anger of the god(s) at one’s personal or inherited “unrighteous” behaviour.

This belief was also dominant amongst the people of Israel as expressed towards Yahweh, and is reflected in the Old Testament. The Psalms are full of passages about the Lord blessing the righteous and punishing the wicked, and this whole post will be taken up with examples if I attempt to give them.

However, some authors within the Old Testament began to question Yahweh about why the wicked were rather being blessed instead of the righteous. Many Psalms (like Ps 94) question God for allowing the wicked to rather prosper, calling on him to punish them immediately. The author of Ps 73 consoles himself about Yahweh’s eventual punishment of the wicked in the long run, even if not immediately.

The book of Proverbs is especially guilty of preaching the “righteous will always be blessed” mantra, leading to the notion that one can only be blessed with material prosperity if God explicitly gives it to you. No actual effort of yours counts towards this.

The blessing of the Lord brings wealth, without painful toil for it.” (Prov 10:22)

Thankfully, other wisdom books like the book of Job, Lamentations and Ecclesiastes were written to counter this simplistic thinking by the people of Israel. Sadly they seem to have made little impact in changing their minds about retributive justice, and even in the New Testament, Jesus’s disciples ask questions which reflect such thinking in John’s Gospel.

His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” (Jn 9:2)

Enter Traditional Ghanaian Determinism

Many Ghanaians, including many well educated pastors and church leaders, have a deterministic view of life, drenched in traditional African notions of destiny. Traditionally Ghanaians express a belief in their god(s) already determining their destiny (“hyebre” in the Twi language), with the notion that if one doesn’t stray from the path that has been laid out for you by the god(s) (by correctly and constantly worshipping the god(s) and obeying their commands), then one will reach this destiny – which most of the time is hoped to be a materially prosperous one. If one’s life is turning out to be difficult, the best one can do is to plead with their god(s) to “change their destiny” (“sesa me hyebre” in the Twi language), so that at some point in the near future, prosperity will be their portion. Because one is not in control of one’s destiny, it presupposes that one is at the mercy of one’s god(s). The choice to give you a “good” destiny is in the hands of the god(s), and therefore it is a gift to you if one receives a “good” destiny. The Twi term for being gifted something one doesn’t deserve (or isn’t in control of) is “adom”, and that is how the word “grace” in the bible is translated in Twi bibles – “adom”. Hence, if one is doing materially well, has bought a new car, has gotten married or is generally alive and not dead, one must acknowledge the god(s) for this by saying “eye Nyame Adom” i.e. “it is by God’s grace”. A well brought up Ghanaian, when commended for some good fortune, is expected to say “it is by grace oh, not my doing”. Hence, the Ghanaian cultural expectation of the response “I’m fine by God’s grace” to the simple question of “How are you?” .

Now, do you see where I’m going with this? Do you see the similarities between this way of traditional Ghanaian thinking and those of retributive justice as evident in some parts of the bible? And do you see how our European missionaries and their Ghanaian counterparts who took over from them have failed to see where they are reading the bible with Ghanaian cultural eyes and assuming that it lines up with their pre-existing beliefs, despite both Old and (especially) New Testament evidence to the contrary?

The Effects of this Syncretism

Because these Ancient Near Eastern beliefs reflected in especially the Old Testament are quite compatible with this traditional Ghanaian (and largely African) worldview, Christianity, despite all it’s positive achievements in Ghana, has also had a very dark side in the Ghanaian experience. Here are some of its effects.

  1. It is very difficult to question the source of a church member’s riches in a Ghanaian church. Because the bible expresses God’s desire for righteous people to be materially prosperous, and because of passages like Prov 10:22 quoted above, it is assumed that God must have given the person these riches. Hence, God’s will has been confused with God’s causation.

  2. Because God is assumed to have actively caused people to become materially rich, it is not surprising for people who have gained wealth through all sorts of nefarious and illegal means to be immediately elevated to positions of huge influence in our churches, and to be treated specially. This may not necessarily be due to an attempt to benefit from their riches, but an inherent assumption that this person must be a “righteous” person to be that “blessed” by God.

  3. Given the above 2 effects, church leaders typically resign themselves to benefiting from such “blessed” people for the benefit that their wealth will bring to the church’s ABCs – attendance, buildings and cash. Afterall, God has already placed their “stamp” on such people, so who are they to ask questions but just to “tap into such blessings”.

  4. Listening to Ghanaian gospel music, one can see how it has become saturated with “Eye Adom” (it’s by grace) and “Hyebre” (destiny) and “Nhyira” (material prosperity). These sound deceptively biblical, but are purely based on a traditional Ghanaian worldview than by the worldview defined by Jesus and especially the New Testament.

  5. Traditionally, Western Christianity has been guilty of “spiritualizing” the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus says “Blessed are the poor” (Lk 6:20) instead of usual “blessed are the rich” of retributive justice, by a flawed interpretation of Matthew’s version “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Mt 5:3). By his declaration that “the kingdom of God is at hand”, Jesus turns the retributive justice principle on its head, urging the church communities to take active steps in elevating the poor from their status, which one sees in the book of Acts and the life of the New Testament and early church. However, “Blessed are the poor” taken literally, sounds totally against every fibre within the bone of our traditional Ghanaian “God must bless me” worldview.

  6. These deterministic beliefs undermine the need for hardwork. Despite all our lip service about the importance of hard work, we preach and act as if hard work isn’t necessary to material prosperity. Using passages like Prov 10:22, we keep our people in church for so many hours, engaged in myriads of “church programmes” because that is the means by which we show our “righteousness”. Coupled with giving to the church, this is preached as the means by which God will “bless” us. Given that 70% of Ghanaians are Christians, is it surprising that we as a nation remain poor?

  7. Ghanaian Christians live with a very huge cognitive dissonance. Despite all their “good worship” of God, our nation continues to wallow in poverty. We keep quoting the portions of scripture that tell us that being righteous will lead to us being materially prosperous, whiles the Japanese, Chinese, Indians etc who largely don’t even care about Christianity are living much better lives in terms of material prosperity than we do, and are giving us loans and grants. Confront church leaders with this, and they’ll give you some flimsy reasons, just like the people of the OT when it comes to why the wicked prosper.

The Seeds Have Always Been There

The only reason why our “orthodox” Christian churches were a bit reserved in their endorsement of materialism (as compared to the modern Charismatic movement and it’s love affair with Word of Faith teachings) was because they had a much larger focus on saving souls from hell to heaven. Now that the seeds of syncretism that they planted regarding an incorrect view of divine determinism and “grace” are being taken advantage of by these prosperity preachers, leading to a loss of church membership, our “orthodox churches” are beginning to sound more and more like their Word of Faith counterparts.

In the next post, I will explain how the Ghanaian Charismatic church (which has largely imbibed Word of Faith teaching so much it’s difficult to find a non-WOF Charismatic church in Ghana) is hammering the word “grace” out of all proportion in the pursuit of material wealth.