Perhaps you’ve heard of them. Televangelists with bouffant hairstyles and Rolex watches saying send me a dollar and God will give you a hundred, women with gaudy make-up, and the ever-famous “Be healed in the name of Jeeeee-sus” while pushing people to the ground. These are the excesses that come to mind when the average Christian thinks of the “Word of Faith” movement. I’ve been writing progressive evangelical articles for about a year now on the Sojourners website, but I think it’s time for me to come out of the closet. Not only was I raised in a Word of Faith church; one of the most profound intellectual influences on my life is a female Word of Faith teacher.
I met Dianne Kannady when I was a student in public high school. Dianne was a history teacher and I was the high school evangelist. I started a prayer club and Dianne was kind enough to be the host. It didn’t take me long to figure out that Dianne knew a lot more about Scripture than I did, so I went to her with all of my questions. After I graduated from high school, I started attending her Friday night Bible studies at a church near downtown St. Louis. I also started listening to her daily radio program and for several years met with her on numerous occasions to discuss theology—often for hours on end.
I realize that some people may write Dianne off because of the dreaded words “Word of Faith” but before you do, let me tell you what I learned from Dianne. The first thing I learned from Dianne is that the Bible is progressive revelation and that it should be interpreted through the lens of Jesus (ring a bell Anabaptists?). I also learned that through Christ’s death and resurrection, I’ve been given “everything that pertains to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3), “been made a partaker of the divine nature” (Vs 4), I’ve been “seated with Christ Jesus in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 2:6) and that Christ is my “wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption” (I Corinthians 1:30). I learned that there are unseen realities all around us and that God’s Word spoken on the lips of faith has limitless power to change what we see and feel. Perhaps most importantly, I learned that love isn’t merely an attribute of God. It’s who God is.
I would have a hard time identifying with the Word of Faith movement today. For one thing, the Word of Faith movement, and modern day Pentecostalism in general, has some pretty huge blind spots. To the average Word of Faith practitioner, the definition of living like Jesus is limited to healing the sick, casting out demons, and saving souls. It has very little to do with practicing non-violence and challenging institutional structures that perpetuate inequality.
Having said that, I often wonder if the emergent /progressive evangelical movement will have the same staying power as the faith that Dianne teaches. If there’s one thing that remains consistent about all of the Word of Faith practitioners that I know, it’s a deep appreciation for the work of Christ on the cross, and an unshakable conviction that the benefits of the cross—be it eternal life, healing, victory over sin—are appropriated by personal faith. While Dianne is hardly a fundamentalist, you won’t find Dianne wishy-washy on issues like the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation, the Deity of Christ, the atonement, or salvation by grace through faith.
Liberation theologians may have a preferential option for the poor, but I hate to be the bearer of bad news for liberation theologians, if we look at the kind of Christianity exploding in the global south, it appears that the poor have a preferential option for Pentecostalism. Emergent groups may congratulate themselves on their intellectual ability to “deconstruct” the Bible in the light of postmodernism, but we’ll see how long that lasts. Because unless a theological movement can bring God from the head to the gut, it runs the risk of having a form of godliness, but denying it’s power. It may save social security, but will it save Sally?