Overall, this early experience with what later came to be called “Word-Faith” teaching was very positive. There were, of course, abuses even then, and through the years criticism of the movement proliferated as Word-Faith teaching became more popular and extremes found their way into the movement.
It was during this same time that I heard Kenneth Copeland for the first time. Shortly after enrolling as a student at Christ for the Nations Institute in 1973, he taught there as a guest for one week. During that week he made the emphatic statement, “I will never be sick.” About 20 years later, however, I heard Copeland speak to a small group of faculty and students at the Oral Roberts University School of Theology and Missions. He shared honestly about a time of sickness he went through during which he thought he might die.
Copeland’s experience seems to be typical of many in the movement who have been mellowed by the experiences of life. Bob Nichols, pastor of Calvary Cathedral International in Fort Worth, Texas, and a long-time Word-Faith proponent, says that he sees a definite maturing of the movement in the last 25 years.
Bill Kaiser, director of Word of Faith Bible College in Dallas in the 1970s through the 1980s, agrees that the core teaching of the Word-Faith movement is the faithfulness of God to fulfill the promises in His Word to those who believe. He goes on to say, however, that the “Achilles’ heel” of Word-Faith teaching is that “the faith it preaches is too often placed in a principle of faith rather than in the Person of Faith, Jesus Christ.”
When this happens the faith walk becomes formulaic rather than relational, and legalism inevitably follows. Kaiser says that while some Word-Faith churches remain entrenched in a formulaic approach to faith, many have “quietly moved away from a high-handed approach to faith and positive confession.”
In his book, A Different Gospel, published in 1988, D.R. McConnell argues that the historical roots of Word-Faith teaching can be traced through E.W. Kenyon to the metaphysical, New Thought philosophies of the late 19th century. Other critics, such as Hank Hanegraaff and Dave Hunt, have embraced McConnell’s thesis as a basis for their own vitriolic criticisms of the movement.
McConnell, however, fails to recognize the many examples in church history of the core teaching of Word-Faith (for example, that God’s promises can be appropriated by faith). For example, Martin Luther, commenting on the prayer of faith in James 5:15-16, ties it to Mark 11:24 and declares, “If such prayer were made, even today, over a sick man—that is prayer made in full faith by older, grave and saintly men—it is beyond doubt that we could heal as many sick as we would” (Prelude to the Babylonian Captivity of the Church).
Such declarations of faith and its potential are also found among the 18th-century Methodists, the evangelical revival movements of the 19th century and among early Pentecostals. Knowing this gives credibility to Hagin Sr.’s statement, quoted in the June 1990 issue of Charisma magazine: “All I know about faith and healing I learned in the Assemblies of God.”
With the opening of Rhema Bible Training Center by the Hagins in 1974, Word-Faith teaching proliferated, and with the growth came additional criticism. One area of teaching that came under intense scrutiny and criticism from those outside the movement was the “prosperity doctrine.” Although this teaching was accepted throughout the movement, it was extravagant claims and practices by some Word-Faith teachers that eventually provoked criticism even from those within the movement.
For example, Darrell Ellis, a pastor from North Carolina and Word-Faith proponent, attended a conference in Texas and was turned off by the excessive emphases on material prosperity and wealth. According to Ellis, who also oversees the Anointed Word network of churches, certain teachers came across as “bragging” about their $8,000 suits and Rolls-Royces. For Ellis, such a materialistic fixation seemed immature in light of the many needs in the body of Christ around the world. But Hagin Sr., in his book The Midas Touch, also criticized the extreme elements in prosperity teaching, including the use of “gimmicks” in fundraising.
Probably no teaching stirred more controversy than the “born again Jesus” doctrine. This teaching postulates that Jesus became a sinner with our sins, died both physically and spiritually, and suffered the torments of hell during the three days that His body was lying in the tomb. In the resurrection He was made alive, not only physically but also spiritually. He was born again. His born-again experience out of spiritual death into spiritual life is seen as a prototype of what happens to every person who believes on Him. This teaching was used to emphasize that the believer is on a level equal with Jesus, with the same authority and potential.
The critics pounced on this teaching and rightly pointed out the danger of not honoring Jesus with the uniqueness and preeminence that is given Him in the New Testament. These same critics, however, overlooked the fact that not everyone in the movement prescribed to this teaching.
Quoted in The Word-Faith Controversy by Robert M. Bowman Jr., Hagin Sr. said: “It seems our friends, the book writers, have invented an entirely new theology called the ‘born again Jesus’ built upon a conglomeration of quotations taken from six or seven ministers, pulled out of context, and combined as though we all believed identically the same thing. … And the reader is told that we all believe this ‘born again Jesus’ theology, believe exactly alike about it, and we’re all heretics. Yet I am diametrically opposed to some of the doctrines held by those who are quoted on the same page as me.”
It is obvious from the above examples that the Word-Faith movement is not one homogeneous unit in all areas of practice and doctrine. It does appear, nonetheless, that some of the major players in the movement have made honest attempts to deal with the criticisms. For example, both Copeland and Fred Price have statements of faith posted on their Web sites that are both biblically and historically orthodox. Most Pentecostals and many evangelicals would find nothing offensive in these statements that are presented as their core beliefs.
Yes, the Word-Faith movement has been misjudged. Although there remain problematic areas of concern, there is no question that progress has been made and many of its adherents have matured in their walk with the Lord. Perhaps a question should now be asked concerning the movement’s most vehement critics who have labeled the movement as heretical, cultic and occultic. Have they also grown in their walk with the Lord?