I recently came across a little booklet entitled Health and Wholeness through the Holy Communion by Joseph Prince (who is the pastor of a mega-church in Singapore). After glancing through it, I felt motivated to write a response.
(Preliminary note on the term “health and wealth gospel”: By that term is designated a brand of teaching within the professing Christian church that espouses and emphasizes the idea of temporal benefits (mainly, health and wealth) as being of great importance in God’s will for all Christians. According to this teaching, Christians can and should access such divine benefits by claiming in faith God’s supposed promises in these regard. Associated ideas and terminology include “faith healing”, “positive confession”, and “name-it-and-claim-it”. The intuition or reasoning behind such teaching is the rather simplistic one that moves from certain obvious scriptural truths, e.g., God’s love for us and His omnipotence, to the false conclusion that He must therefore want and would bless His own with what seems obviously desirable to humans—health and wealth. This teaching, however, ultimately fails to do justice to the whole counsel of Scripture, and fails to glorify God in all His revealed wisdom, love, majesty and sovereignty. I believe that “health and wealth gospel” describes Prince’s teachings; but whether or not it accurately describes the said teaching is not the main point of this critique.)
I shall first briefly lay out the main propositions of Prince’s teaching on the Holy Communion (HC), and then proceed to examine each of them in further detail. His teaching can be summed up thusly:
Optimal health is God’s will for all Christians. Therefore, something is very wrong when Christians suffer weakness, sickness, or premature death (WSPD). To be precise, there is “one and only one reason” (10) for WSPD and that is the “failure to discern the Lord’s body” (11) in the partaking of the Holy Communion. Now, if it is true that there is only one reason for WSPD, and that it is the unworthy partaking of the HC—understood as the failure to discern and claim by faith the healing power of the communion bread—then Prince is justified in concluding that Christians should be in good health if they do what he proposes as they approach the Lord’s Table. It is my contention that this claim on which his entire teaching on the HC depends is false.
Prince then goes on to interpret a few relevant verses in 1 Cor 11, attempting to clarify what a few of the key expressions mean. First, it is to the “principalities and powers” (that is, the devils) that we “proclaim the Lord’s death” (v. 26) and His victory over them. Second, partaking “in an unworthy manner” (v. 29) refers to the partaking of the HC without a recognition and claiming by faith of its healing powers. Third, the command to “examine yourselves” before one partakes (v. 28) refers, once again, to reflection to see if one is approaching the Table in faith that consuming the bread will make one healthy and whole. Fourth, the warning of drinking “judgement” to oneself (v. 29) refers to missing out on the blessing of healing, and continuing to suffer the divine sentence of physical susceptibility to WSPD that befell all humankind when Adam and Eve fell into sin. All these notions, however, seem to be neither taught in 1 Cor 11 nor in the handful of other verses he cites in support of them. I will consider, for instance, his use of Col 2:15 in his teaching of the proclamation made to devils (v. 26); and Acts 2:42 which he cites to persuade that his view of the HC is not a novel one but indeed one that was accepted and practiced by the early church.
In conclusion, since the effects of the HC are so wonderful, guaranteeing health and wholeness—even a sort of perennial youthfulness (“And even your friends will see the results. They will begin to ask you, “Hey, why do you seem to look younger and younger? You never seem to age!” p. 47)—Prince encourages his readers to partake of the HC as often as possible, as often as you need it, as the more you partake, the better you will get.
Now I shall move on to a more detailed examination and critique of Prince’s teachings listed above. If you are interested in critiquing Prince's or like teachings; if you agree with Prince and would like to respond; or if you're simply interested for other reasons, read on!
Health the Lord’s Will for All Christians and the Holy Communion the Channel : citing 1 Cor 11:29-30, Prince says that WSPD befalls Christian because they fail to recognize and claimthe healing power of the communion bread. Quoting him: “And this was the reason why they were not receiving the divine life of their Saviour,” getting weak, sick, etc. So, according to Prince, the purpose of the Holy Communion is to receive divine life and health from Christ. According to our Lord Jesus and the apostle Paul, however, we are to partake of the Holy Communion simply, and profoundly, “in remembrance” of Christ’s sacrifice for us (Luke 22:19, 1 Cor 11:24). And trying to argue that the healing power is not explicitly stated in these verses because it was assumed and understood by the early church, and thus not in need of explicit mention, is a dangerous Pandora’s box—and certainly not a good interpretative principle, especially when it is nowhere else clearly taught.
According to Prince, the Bible gives exactly only one reason why weakness, sickness and premature death (WSPDC) befall Christians (10). But that does not seem correct. Just off the top of my head, I can think of various possibilities. How about the glorification of God (e.g. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” recorded in 2 Cor 12:7-10; and Prince’s interpretation of this as persecution is not a convincing one), and the effects of sin? In fact, Prince himself later writes that “disease is due to the devil’s oppression,” (22) and still later, that we should “understand that when Adam sinned against God, a divine sentence fell on the human race. Weakness, sickness and death are some effects of that divine sentence.” (47) There seems to be an inconsistency in his claims: is there one or a number of reasons why WSPD befall Christians? The widely accepted view of WSPD is that it is a result of our fallen condition in a fallen world. So, I agree with Prince when he attributes WSPD to the fall, but disagree with him if he’s trying also to attribute all disease to the devil, which is strongly suggested.
Prince attempts to argue that “the Bible treats disease and demon possession as the same thing since they both originate from the devil. Acts 10:38 says that Jesus went about doing good and ‘…healing all who were oppressed by the devil’. Notice that disease is due to the devil’s oppression.” (22) I shall just examine the verse cited here. “Healing all who were oppressed by the devil” does not translate easily to “all who are sick were sick because they were oppressed by the devil”. Jesus went about “doing good and healing…” We know for certain that He cast out demons, and that he healed people of their diseases. The latter activity could certainly be described as “doing good”, thus making it totally unnecessary for one to interpret the "healing all who were oppressed by the devil" as including those who were simply sick by no specific and direct fault of the devil. This verse cannot properly be used as biblical evidence that all sickness is solely or even primarily of the devil’s doing.
Relatedly, I find it hard to see how the “proclaim[ing] [of] the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Cor 11:26) refers to a proclamation of Christ’s victory to the devil, and denouncing the devil’s power over the Christian. There is nothing in the context that even suggests that it to is the devil that we are proclaiming the wonderful truth of Christ’s triumph over sin and death. Rather, the obvious teaching in 1 Cor 11:23-26 is that the purpose of the HC is to commemorate and celebrate the Lord’s death and resurrection for our redemption, and that it is to be observed “until He comes” – that is, it is to be a perpetual observance until Christ’s second coming. Likewise, Col 2:15 which is cited by Prince to relate to 1 Cor 11:26, does not seem warranted, in the context of the latter, to have that significance with which to guide our interpretation of it. Col 2:15 appears in the context of Paul’s exhortation to the church to be no longer subject to former superstitions and rituals that are contrary to, and which slight, the victory of the cross of Jesus Christ over spiritual death. Quoting Col 2:13-17:
13When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions,What is clear in these verses is that Col 2:15 leads to the conclusion (“Therefore”) in verse 16. There is no mention of the HC here. Nor is there mention of health and wholeness for all Christians. To use Col 2:15 to interpret 1 Cor 11:26 is not warranted by the contexts of either verse, and is a dangerous hermeneutic that can potentially lead to all kinds of error.
14having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.
15When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him.
16Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day--
17things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.
To Partake Unworthily is to Do So Without Recognising the Bread’s Healing Power
Prince also attempts to answer the question: “What is it to partake unworthily? Read the rest of verse 29 and you will conclude that if you fail, to discern or understand the significance of the Lord’s body, you are eating and drinking in an unworthy manner. The Corinthians partook unworthily because they did not recognize that the broken body of the Lord was meant to bring them health and wholeness.” (42-43) If these verses are read in context, it will be seen that the much more obvious reading of partaking unworthily is to use the HC as an occasion for feasting and factious gratification of the flesh, and not as a grateful remembrance of Christ’s death for us. It is worth quoting several of the surrounding relevant verses here (with emphasis of my own in italics):
20Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord's Supper,Interestingly, Prince does comment on these verses, on the impropriety of treating the Holy Communion “as a common meal”, and “not apprehending their [the bread and wine’s] symbolic import.” (quoting from the Vine’s Expository Dictionary) What is wrong is that he continues to insist on adding his own preferred teaching to what the Bible clearly teaches. He emphasizes what is not in the verses: “Jesus wants us to take the bread and believe that His body was broken so that our bodies can be made well. And when we discern it that way, we are partaking worthily.” (45) Not surprisingly, he does not offer any other scriptural basis for this his main teaching. If, as he claims, he is merely giving attention to what the Bible gives focus to, one should reasonably expect to see him substantiating his key teaching/s with a whole list of verses, all carefully exposited. We do not see more than a small handful of verses in his entire booklet. Further, many, if not most of those he cites he interprets all too conveniently and mistakenly to give the appearance of supporting his own teaching.
21for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk.
22What! Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this I will not praise you.
23For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread;
24and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, "This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me."
25In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me."
26For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes.
27Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord.
28But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup.
29For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly.
30For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. …
… 33So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.
34If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, so that you will not come together for judgment. The remaining matters I will arrange when I come.
Prince then mentions the generally understood way in which participating unworthily means—using the Supper as an occasion for feasting and sensual gratification instead of remembering the Lord. Following this, in a move that makes light of Paul’s command to “examine yourselves” and his grave rebuke of the Corinthians, goes on to write: “So, Paul was not saying that if you have sin in your life, you cannot partake.” (44) First of all, this sounds almost like an implicit endorsement of the Corinthians' behaviour. Secondly, it is ambiguous what "have sin in your life" means here. Read as "having still a sinful nature in you," this seems to be an attack on a strawman, which is, in this case, the supposed misconception of many or most orthodox Christians that we can approach the Lord’s Table only if we are 100% sure that we have confessed all our sins, and are sin-free. This is not recognized orthodox teaching; we can never be totally sinless in this lifetime. Nevertheless, this strawman inserted here could help make his case seem stronger. And Prince mentions, only to gloss over this correct understanding of what partaking “unworthily” means (the one emphasized by Paul), and goes on to repeat his own teaching, this time putting it into the apostle’s mouth: “Paul…was teaching us that when we fail to discern the body, we should not partake because we are not claiming by faith what Jesus has done for us.” (44)
Partaking in the Lord’s Supper Reverses the Effects of Sin on our Bodies
Having supposedly established that the Lord’s Supper was instituted to give physical health to believers, Prince goes on to explain that drinking judgement to oneself does not mean condemnation to hell (which is correct, since once saved, always saved), and that the Greek word often translated as judgement is krima, which means divine sentence. (Why the Greek word is brought up here is a puzzle to me. It is also not always used to refer to divine judgement, e.g. Matt 7:2) He then goes on to argue that krima in 1 Cor 11:29 refers specifically to the physical deterioration and imperfection that arises from Adam’s fall into sin. Where does he get this from? Certainly not from krima alone! What krima refers to has to be carefully discerned from the context in which it appears, here as in elsewhere. Krima is also a fairly common and general word for judgement, of various sorts (see Vine’s Expository Dictionary of NT Words on this).
Contrary to Prince’s assertion, there is nothing in 1 Cor 11:29 which specifies that the krima here refers to the postlapsarian curse. Going by what the following verse provides, it most probably refers to the judgement or punishment of weakness and sickness for those who partake of the Supper unworthily, not judging the body rightly, that is—not doing it in thankful remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice for our sins (vv. 24, 25).
He concludes: “Everytime you partake, you are reversing the effects of the curse or divine judgement in your body.” (46) So Prince is teaching that the worst that can happen to those who partake unworthily is that they will be denying themselves the healing and restorative power of the communion bread. This sounds, at best, like a really weak interpretation of such strong expressions as “will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord,” (11:27b) and “eats and drinks judgement to himself…” (11:29)!
The Early Church Believed in the Healing Power of the Holy Communion
We can examine Prince’s use of Acts 2:42 as an example of another rather careless application of scripture. Acts 2:42 is cited seemingly as evidence that the early church believed in the “Holy Communion as a key channel of health of wholeness for His people”. “The early church believed this. That is why ‘…they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.’ They made a big deal of those things that God made a big deal of.” (13) Let us now read the verse ourselves: “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”
The last sentence of Prince’s quoted here is ironic, as there is no explicit teaching of the health and wholeness gospel in the Bible, much less any emphasis (“big deal”) on any putative health and wholeness purpose of the Lord’s supper. Acts 2:42 simply describes what the early church did, which includes “the breaking of bread,” but does not state any very specific reason why they did so. We can only properly deduce that they did so from what the Lord Himself taught, e.g. in Luke 22:19, which is to commemorate His death and resurrection until He comes.
So…the More the Better
Prince also teaches that “…healing through the Holy Communion can also be a gradual process. As you partake, you will get better over time. The more you partake, the better you get.” (34-35) Not only is this based on the very suspect teaching of the healing powers of the Lord’s Supper, it is the case that even if one accepts the latter, one is not sure where this principle of “more is better” comes from. Certainly not from Paul’s epistle. He urges further, that “Jesus told us to have communion often.” (37) Where did our Lord say that? The Bible only records, on this issue, Jesus’ words “as often as you” partake of the HC (e.g. 1 Cor 11:25), which does not mean in a straightforward reading as do it often, but as often as you do it. Since the HC is a commemoration of the key event in redemptive history, we can safely say that the Lord will be pleased if we do it often, in the right way. There is no prescriptive frequency of this ordinance, however, in the Bible. Not surprisingly, Prince does not attempt to offer any scriptural support attempted here when he advocates: “Do as Jesus said – have it often.” (38) “How often? … It depends on how much you want His health and wholeness.” (Ibid.) “Pastor, don’t be extreme…” Actually, the question is not one of whether what is taught is “extreme” or not. That’s the least of our concerns. What matters is whether it is what the Bible teaches. It is not. Where then did Prince get this idea that one will get progressively better, increasingly healthy and whole, by having HC often? I guess Prince may have derived this idea from the common unreflective intuition that if something is good for one, then more of that something is better. On a little more reflection, however, there is much that is suspect with this line of reasoning. Vitamin supplements come immediately to mind.
Prince’s teaching, like those of Kenneth Hagin’s and Kenneth Copeland’s, seem to me to tend towards trivializing a great and sovereign creator God. I quote from an article on a similar topic:
In contrast to word-faith theology, sound biblical theology teaches that God does not have to do anything. God, the Creator of all things, is sovereign in all things, not the creature. God is not obligated to heal or prosper anyone, yet He graciously does, and neither is deserved. Someone has said: "healing is not a divine obligation, it is a divine gift". The receiver of the gift can make no demands. God can be trusted to do all things well.While there are biblical commands and principles for skilful living (e.g. in Proverbs) and a joyful, blessed life, the Bible does not portray God as functioning like a perfectly running vending machine where we will surely get our pop if we insert our coins. Often He works in mysterious ways, and Job eventually came to know this well. What He promises is that He has our best at heart and will reward the faithful in His own way and in His own time (Rom 8:28; Heb 11:6). Importantly, consistent throughout Scripture is the teaching that Christians should not seek a heaven here on earth. Rather, “we are seeking the city which is to come.” In the light of that glorious promise and prospect, we consider it our principal duty and joy to “do His will” (Heb 13:21), obeying His Word and trusting that He will give the increase (1 Cor 3:6), and waiting eagerly for His second coming (Tit 2:13). This is also why we are told to “consider it all joy…when [we] encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of [our] faith produces endurance.” (Jam 1:2-3)
Testimonies of Healing Through the Holy Communion
The booklet also attempts to use testimonies to persuade the reader of the rightness of the teaching. The use of testimonies, and other so-called evidences to prove any one position can get tricky (see, for example, my earlier posts here and here). My point here, however, is a modest one—that it may be a big mistake to give to testimonies more significance than they properly deserve (e.g. the healing of the Khmer pastor, and Prince’s own). Testimonies of God’s goodness and grace are good--edifying to believers, and glorifying to God, and may lead some nonbelievers to seek after Him. They do not, however, constitute in any straightforward way solid evidence for the spiritual condition of the professors, or for the positions that they hold. Many faith healers and their proponents like to argue this way: how can one witness such wonderful miracles and doubt that they are from God? Christ Himself has the answer: "Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?'” (Matthew 7:22). "For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect.” (Matthew 24:24) My purpose here is not to suggest that Prince or his followers are deliberately being false teachers or false prophets. In all likelihood, if I am correct, they are sincerely mistaken. These passages were cited to show that the mere performance of “signs and wonders” such as physical healing does not prove that one is of the Lord and of the truth. Scripture aside, what shall we as Christians properly respond to similar testimonies that we know have also been given, and are currently still being given, by those of other faiths—say, Hindus or Muslims?
Final ThoughtsA typical strategy of health and wealth gospellers is to base whole teachings (the ones they and their church emphasize) on one or very few verses which might suggest, at a glance, something of a support for their preferred doctrine. For an example of this, we can do worse than examine Prince’s use of Psalm 105:37 as evidence that all the Israelites who left Egypt during the historic exodus left “healed, healthy and whole.” The problem is that the Bible does not make that explicit. The word that is translated as “feeble” in the phrase “none feeble among His tribes” in the NKJV which Prince quotes from is the Hebrew kashal. A quick check with Vine’s Expository Dictionary revealed that the primary meaning of this word is “to stumble, to be weak.” It appears some 60 times in the Old Testament, also often used figuratively to describe the consequences of divine judgement on sin—as in how God will “lay stumbling blocks before this people…” (Jer 6:21a). The first thing that can be observed is that it is far from clear how we can get the idea of perfect health from “none feeble”, where kashal refers primarily to stumbling, or falling. The NIV and the NASB in fact, translate the same phrase without using the word “feeble”, staying closer to the literal Hebrew. If this is the only verse which one can appeal to for the reading that all the Israelites left Egypt perfectly healthy and strong, then we should at least prudently withhold either assent or denial of this claim. The primary point that seems to be made by Ps 105:37 is that every Israelite was physically able to walk out of Egypt.
Prince teaches elsewhere of the power of one’s words to bless or to curse, and many of his followers exhibit a certain wariness of even mentioning what’s ‘taboo’. An obvious taboo for them is sickness. The apostle Paul himself, however, did not superstitiously refrain from mentioning Timothy’s “frequent ailments.” (2 Tim 5:23b) He recognized them as what they were, and recommended a commonsensical, very pragmatic help for them: to “use a little wine” for the purification of the water Timothy was drinking. Contrast Paul’s advice to Timothy with, for instance, health gospeller Kenneth Hagin’s plain denials of the reality of headaches: “…if I had a headache, I wouldn't tell anybody. And if somebody asked me how I was feeling, I would say, "I'm fine, thank you." (The Name of Jesus, p. 44; taken from “How the Health and Wealth Gospel Twists Scripture”) Hagin’s God is too small. “He who is in you is greater than He who is of the world.” (1 John 4:4b) We should fear--that is, reverence--the Lord, not be in constant superstitious terror of accidentally saying (or, as many of them like to put it, “pronouncing”—) anything that even remotely smacks of the negative, fearing that we would be then sub- or unconsciously bringing a curse unto ourselves. God is all-sovereign, and has promised that “all things work for the good of those who love Him.” (Rom 8:28) God knows we are but dust (Ps 103:14) and knows to help, deliver and richly bless (in His own way—not necessarily, perhaps not even primarily, in the forms of health and wealth) those who trust in Him (e.g., Matt 28:20; Jam 5:11; 2 Pet 5:6, 10; Phil 4:6-9, 19; Col 3:23-24).
It is joy that is promised. It is the Lord’s presence with us always that is promised. It is that trials refine and strengthen our character and faith that is promised—not that it will always be well and dandy, comfortable and luxuriant here on earth for His children. One major principle of the Bible, made most clear in the New Testament, is that there will be trials, as it was in the days of Job, as it was it the days of the apostles, as it is in our day. God allows trials in the lives of Christians, such as persecution which is promised to those who desire to live godly in this world (2 Tim 3:12), so that they might be blessed and so that He might be glorified. The disciples, seeing a blind man, asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” Jesus’ answer is instructive: “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (Jn 9:1-3)
In any case, what one is asked to do in response to sickness is to pray: “Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him…” (James 5:14a) There is simply no verse in the Bible that explicitly teaches that Christians should partake of the Lord’s Supper to gain physical healing.
We may feel that it’s “not nice” to criticize and confront fellow believers, and disagreement is necessarily unpleasant (if we are right in maintaining p, then they who maintain ~p must be wrong!). Where the truth is concerned, however, I believe there is no other way. Like Paul in Acts 4:19-20, we must fear and heed God rather than man.
“We count those blessed who endured. You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful.” ~ James 5:11Further reading:
A Summary, According to the Holy Scriptures, of the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper, 1550
“Four Views of the Lord’s Supper”
“The Word-Faith Movement”
“Weblog: Kenneth Hagin, 'Word of Faith' Preacher, Dies at 86”
“How the Health and Wealth Gospel Twists Scripture”