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Asking the clergy: Prosperity theology

Prosperity theology, also known as prosperity gospel, adheres to the belief that God rewards faith with money and material things. In short, when you tithe, God will return that money to you in larger proportions.

Prosperity theology also believes that God doesn't want his followers to be poor, drive raggedy cars or live in humble surroundings. In short, belief in him and giving to him will be returned to the giver in the form of money, nicer cars, better jobs, better homes or whatever material thing you lack.

Some also believe that the stronger your faith and the greater your giving, the greater your material reward. And, if your faith is weak and your donation is weak, then God won't answer your prayers.

The Asking the Clergy column asked Long Island clergy how they feel about the theology, which is usually attributed to have started with Sweden's Ulf Ekman as the "Word of Life" ministry.

Lorelle Britt, minister of counseling, Come Away My Beloved, a ministry that deals with domestic violence intervention, Bay Shore:

God is not an ATM. Yes, of course, we should tithe or give offerings. God says in Deuteronomy 28:12 that if you tithe, he will open up the heavens and bless you. But, it doesn't necessarily mean monetarily. It could be blessing you with health, your children's safety and other things. You can't give for selfish reasons, with the intent of getting something back.

True prosperity is God giving you peace in every area of your life, your relationships, your health. No, God doesn't want us to walk around poor, but the danger is if you put those material things before worship of him.

The Rev. Dr. David B. Lowry, rector, Christ Episcopal Church, Manhasset:

The balance between the spiritual benefit that the Gospel and religion bring to people and the financial benefit is a complex way in which one sees one's life and one's faith. If you have strong faith, you will have a greater chance to be successful. But faith is not about material success. It is about being caring and spiritual. God wants us to succeed, but not at the cost of hurting others.

I was recently at a meeting in Brooklyn with a group of pastors, and one very articulate pastor said he wanted his people to do well because they then give more to the church, and then he does well.

I understand the logic of prosperity theology can be popular with some. It resonates with those who have less. But, when does it become a Ponzi scheme? If you tithe to my church and I'm doing well, but you're not, it is your fault because your faith isn't strong enough? As clergy, we just shouldn't, and can't, promise someone prosperity.

Pastor Stephen Arters, Dix Hills Evangelical Free Church, Huntington Station:

I think it is a misunderstanding of God's promises and a misunderstanding of prayer. Prosperity as we define it is not always the best thing for us. God gives us what is best for us, not what we think is best for us.

I think the attractiveness of prosperity theology is to have authority over God. I have a mental picture of someone having God's arm twisted behind his back.

It is a shame that people tie prosperity theology to faith. They're right that God does want us to prosper. The Bible teaches financial responsibility from cover to cover. And, typically, if you practice financial responsibility, you won't be poor.

The Rev. Diane Samuels, Mt. Sinai Congregational United Church of Christ, Mt. Sinai:

I think it is magical thinking. The 2-year-old in us wants to think our wishes will come true. The Protestant part of me says you pray, have faith and do the work. The problem comes in when people only do the praying and put their faith behind the idea that God will just answer their prayer the way they want it.

Sometimes, we forget to do the other parts; for example, get the job, show up for work and work hard.

If you use prayer to remind yourself to be humble when asking for God's help, that's a good way to think of asking for God's help when you pray. I'm more in line with the Protestant work ethic that says God put abilities in our hand. I say, "Trust God, but pick up the shovel."

I have a real problem with prosperity theologists, , because what they're doing is simplifying theology and allowing listeners to put their brains on hold. That is dangerous ground.

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