The Danger Of Prosperity Preaching: A Review Of Joel Osteen

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By J.P. Holding| In reviewing Osteen’s sermons, my purpose was not to simply rehash and repeat what has already been discovered in Part 1 of this series. I specifically sought out new material, but as it turns out, I found very little new.  In this respect, Osteen imitates others pastors (such as R. C Sproul) in that what you hear from his sermons, you will find repeated in his books – sometimes, the same analogies and stories virtually verbatim.[1]

What little new I did find will therefore be reserved for the next section on criticisms, save that I did find some rather questionable practices offered by Joel’s wife, Victoria, who presides over the pre-sermon portion of the Lakewood service: The music, the prayer, and the communion service.

The latter offered a particularly disturbing component, as it was indicated that all present could participate – there was no exclusion from the communion for non-Christians! Victoria Osteen also indicated that the communion “brings healing” to the body and emotions, but did not clearly say how this is accomplished.

Of course, this does not cohere with the Biblical model for the communion, which is designated as a fellowship meal specifically for those who are members of the Body of Christ.  There is also nothing to suggest a “healing” component of any kind.

Criticisms

Criticisms of Osteen are available from a wide variety of sources, including major discernment ministries like Watchman Fellowship. Since my goal is to evaluate criticisms, not ministries, I will merely provide a roster of criticisms and points I have found, and comment on their validity.

I will also be using public interviews of Osteen by major news organizations. The criticisms will be framed in terms of a template inspired by one of my favorite television programs – Mythbusters! After this fashion, the criticisms will be rated as Busted, Plausible, or Confirmed.

Criticism: Joel Osteen offers a “cotton candy” gospel lacking in important teachings.

Judgment: Confirmed.

Osteen is seldom if ever criticized for outrightly heretical teachings. Lakewood Church’s statement of faith is generally if not universally recognized as orthodox. A more valid criticism is this one: It is noted that his sermons simply do not touch upon issues of doctrines (e.g., the Trinity, inspiration of the Bible, etc.), and I have found nothing to invalidate this concern.

Critics note even as I did the sparseness of Biblical citations in Osteen’s sermons, as well as that his invitations to salvation at the end seem tacked on and out of place after the sermon contents. [2]

Let’s break this criticism down into sub-criticisms with respect to specific lacks reported in Osteen’s teachings.

Criticism: Osteen does not mention sin much or at all, and in fact avoids mentioning it.

Judgment: Confirmed.

Indeed, this one isn’t open to dispute at all, for Osteen plainly acknowledges that he avoids the topic of sin. An oft-quoted comment by Osteen attests to this:

“I think for years there’s been a lot of hellfire and damnation. You go to church to figure out what you’re doing wrong and you leave feeling bad like you’re not going to make it…We believe in focusing on the goodness of God.” Of course, incessant focus on sin has, historically, been a criticism of the Christian church. Sometimes it is a warranted criticism; more often, it is rather the critic who has manufactured the focus, while ignoring the remainder of the message.”[3]

However, Osteen’s own reaction is a pendulum swing too far in the opposite direction. As a popular homily goes, we need the bad news (that we are sinners) for the good news (of forgiveness) to be effectual. Osteen’s call to repentance at the end of his sermons aside, the bulk of his message prefaces the good news of the Gospel by offering the good news that God wants to be good to you. Or, as he put it in an interview:

“Well, I think that most people already know what they’re doing wrong. And for me to get in here and just beat ’em down and talk down to ’em, I just don’t think that inspires anybody to rise higher. But I want to motivate. I wanna motivate every person to leave here to be a better father, a better husband, to break addictions to come up higher in their walk with the Lord.” [4]

Relatedly, Osteen is often criticized for providing worship services that look more like entertainment than church, and this too is a charge he willingly affirms. He freely acknowledges that Lakewood is devoid of Christian symbols like crosses, and that the services are designed such that they are trying to “take the barriers down that have kept people from coming.”

The practice of sanitizing extends even to teachings; this has already been seen in the books, as we have noted (and the contents of which were occasionally repeated in the sermons), but I did find one more example, respecting a misuse of Scripture, that was noteworthy, though it came from Victoria Osteen rather than Joel. She alluded to the parable of the talents, and says that the ruler was “unimpressed” with third servant. However, “unimpressed” is not quite the word for what the ruler’s reaction was!

“Then the one who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Sir, I knew that you were a hard man, harvesting where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.’ But his master answered, ‘Evil and lazy slave! So you knew that I harvest where I didn’t sow and gather where I didn’t scatter?

Then you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received my money back with interest! Therefore take the talent from him and give it to the one who has ten. For the one who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough. But the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless slave into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth'”

What will Osteen’s congregants think when and if they ever turn to this passage and find out that “unimpressed” wasn’t quite the way it happened? I can affirm that many an apostasy has been occasioned by persons who realized that their preachers weren’t being thoroughly transparent about the contents of the Bible.

I fear for what might happen to those who start to follow the Berean model at Osteen’s church. Ironically, it may be the modern tendency to not read and study the Bible that ends up preserving the faith of Osteen’s congregants – such as it is.

But then again, it is ironic “good news” that Osteen’s teaching techniques do not encourage Berean sensibilities. Osteen happily declares that the services are simple and easy to understand, and that “[a] lot of people who come now are people that haven’t been to church in 20 to 30 years.” This may be so, but a more relevant question is, “What will these same people be doing, 20 to 30 years from now?”

The unfortunate and likely answer is that we will have the converts who are the proverbial mile wide and an inch deep. And although Osteen probably does not realize it, his own performance in television interviews gives us a clear signal that this is the case, and tells us what is likely to happen to his congregants when they go out into the world.

Although I found several examples of this sort of thing, one will be sufficient to establish the point without beating it into the ground. In an interview with Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes, the following dialogue occurred:

WALLACE: And what about Mitt Romney? And I’ve got to ask you the question, because it is a question whether it should be or not in this campaign, is a Mormon a true Christian?

OSTEEN: Well, in my mind they are. Mitt Romney has said that he believes in Christ as his savior, and that’s what I believe, so, you know, I’m not the one to judge the little details of it. So I believe they are.

And so, you know, Mitt Romney seems like a man of character and integrity to me, and I don’t think he would – anything would stop me from voting for him if that’s what I felt like.

WALLACE: So, for instance, when people start talking about Joseph Smith, the founder of the church, and the golden tablets in upstate New York, and God assumes the shape of a man, do you not get hung up in those theological issues?

OSTEEN: I probably don’t get hung up in them because I haven’t really studied them or thought about them. And you know, I just try to let God be the judge of that. I mean, I don’t know.

I certainly can’t say that I agree with everything that I’ve heard about it, but from what I’ve heard from Mitt, when he says that Christ is his savior, to me that’s a common bond.

There is little that can be said here positively about Osteen’s treatment of Mormonism. He has openly admitted that he has not studied the issues, and has deferred judgment to God. Now of course, this would be a valid course if it had been offered apart from the prior affirmation that in Osteen’s mind, a Mormon is a true Christian. In saying this, Osteen has made a judgment that his own professed lack of study ought to have caused him to avoid.

The difficulty here – and the foreboding for all who are Osteen’s congregants — is that the “I don’t knows” and the equivocating answers can be multiplied from various interviews. I was able to find multiple examples of this regarding topics ranging from homosexuality to the return of Christ to the fate of those who do not accept the Gospel.[5]

The attendant difficulties are obvious, and we will discuss them in due course, but let us first ask the question of why and how Osteen has come to be this way.

Right Here, Right Now

At the heart of the problem are two related difficulties that make it unlikely that Osteen will change in this regard any time soon. The first difficulty is that Osteen’s focus is only on what can be done for people now, with no expressed concern for what will happen later. We saw this in Osteen’s books, to the extent that he was unaware of the inherent problems in his epistemology of blessings:

Serious questions were not answered, but put off with a wait-and-see approach that made it impossible to arrive at a rational disconfirmation. By the same token, it is hard to find a vision in Osteen for what is to come for his listeners five, ten years down the road. Thus he says:

“…what I’m called to do is say ‘I want to help you learn how to forgive today. I want to help you to have the right thoughts today.’ Just simple things.” [6]

Osteen’s proof of his progress on the right path is also, not surprisingly, focused on the here and how:

“You know, you get people that wanna criticize, ‘You’re not doing enough of this, enough of that.’ Well, we’re not perfect. But to have you know hundreds of people tellin’ ya ‘You changed my life. I haven’t been in church in 30 years.’ Or ‘You saved my marriage.’ Not me, but God, but they’re telling me, but you know what? You can’t help but leave every Sunday afternoon…,” Osteen says, getting emotional.

So it is for the testimony of the now. But what will these same people be years in the future, when the lack of substance in Osteen’s teachings become apparent? To be sure, in line with the process of confirmation bias inherent in Osteen’s books, he will no doubt point at that time to those who remain successes – while saying little about those who were not. Only time will tell – but is it worth the risk with the lives of others that Osteen is taking?

Extra Layers of Insulation

I mentioned two difficulties. The second difficulty is more serious than the first. In line with a focus on the here and now, Osteen has created around himself a circular system of confirmation bias that allows him to dismiss criticism, and by extension, recognize a need for change in his approach.

In one of the sermons I watched, Osteen happily affirmed that he believed that people who always want to argue are not worth fighting, and he recommended that one answer criticisms with the “fruit of a well-lived life” rather than an actual answer. As he put it, why answer the critics, when two more will pop up in that one’s place! Osteen offered the example of himself discussing issues with a man who came up to discuss doctrine. The man tried to find points of disagreement with Osteen’s theology, but Osteen simply said that he agreed with all the man said.

Because of his performance in news interviews recounted above, questions immediately arise: Did Osteen really have a doctrine formulated in these issues prior to this meeting? Or was he being agreeable simply to “avoid a fight” with the man? I am afraid that the evidence indicates that the latter is a far more plausible answer.

Osteen also said that he believes that God will bless you by using criticism to promote you. You have no time to argue, he says; you have a destiny to fulfill. Clearly, we have here a closed, self-insulated system that can find no disconfirmation. Osteen is setting up his listeners, and potentially himself, for a hard fall.

We can only hope indeed, as one critic says, that the words of James 3:1 – Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly — will eventually come to his mind.

Criticism: Osteen lacks formal training as a pastor.

Judgment: Confirmed.

Not surprisingly, Osteen’s program of non-disconfirmation gives him a ready means to deflect a related criticism that he lacks formal training as a pastor (which in turn, readily explains the lack of substantive answers to theological questions). In the 60 Minutes interview, Mike Wallace brought this up, and noted Osteen’s reply that the twelve disciples of Jesus didn’t have formal training either.

This is not quite true, or the whole story. Matthew certainly had the equivalent to a modern seminary education as a scribe; Paul had extensive rabbinic training as a disciple, and Luke was among the most educated persons of his day.

Naturally, since less than 10% of the Roman world was literate (and maybe 3% of persons in Palestine), the lack of training cited by Osteen has more to do with the nature of that world than with any lack of relevance today for formal training to be a pastor. At the same time, as I have pointed out in many venues, much of the knowledge that the disciples had of their own day and contexts are things they could take for granted, but which we cannot.

Osteen has positioned himself as a broker of information on the Gospel – as presented in a document written in another language, another time, and another place. His example of the apostles, his only argument to the contrary, is simply not effectual. Osteen owes it to his congregants (as do all pastors) to either receive such training, or else consult with those who have.

This is especially the case with his current status as a “celebrity” as recognized by secular news organizations. He is Christ’s ambassador, and “I don’t know” – not used on occasion, but repeated often, and concerning important issues — does not represent Christ well to anyone, nor does it fulfill the commission to make disciples of all nations. It also once again makes James 3:1 all the more ominous.

Sadly, the disconfirmation factor makes it likely, again, that there will be no change in this. Osteen says of his lack of education, “I know this is right for me… I’m comfortable.” While he does say that “ideally” a pastor should be trained, he finds the “ministerial” aspect more important:

“You see somebody down, that’s lonely, take them to lunch. Encourage them. To me, that’s part of it. That’s not, you know, public speaking like I am, but I think you have to be called, number one. You have to feel it in your heart, this is what you’re supposed to do.”

And again, as cited by an article from Newsweek:

“We deal every week with someone whose child got killed, or they lost their job. I don’t understand it. All you can do is let God comfort you and move on. Part of faith is not understanding.”

Once again, we can only hope that Osteen’s congregants will not pay the price for this further down the road. As we note in an article on the meaning of faith, Osteen’s understanding is incorrect. “Not understanding” is not a natural aspect of faith; while faith may sometimes require us to trust without understanding, it does not do so for lack of answers or in order to come to the defense of the irrational.

Eventually, for some of Osteen’s congregants, cognitive dissonance will set in when they realize that their questions deserve answers that Osteen’s teachings cannot provide.

Criticism: Osteen teaches the “word-faith” heresy/teaching.

Judgment: Plausible

KING: What’s the prosperity gospel, and why do you preach it? You think God wants us to have money?

J. OSTEEN: Well. You know, Larry? That’s something I kind of get tagged with that I don’t even like. I’m not a prosperity preacher, quote. My message is very balanced. I preach about forgiveness and hope, as a matter of fact, I’ve never preached a message on money.

Osteen has not preached a message on money, true – but he preaches success and promotion, and he need not mention one avenue of that (money) for the accusation of “prosperity teaching” to sound plausible. But I have rendered this as “plausible” for a specific reason.

In part 1 of this series, I noted that one point on which Osteen’s orthodoxy is routinely questioned is with respect to his reputed adherence to Word-Faith principles. I found nothing in Osteen’s sermons or interviews to cause me to reverse or modify this judgment, though I continue to see why critics might find this a plausible charge.

It is fair to say that Osteen is to some extent shooting himself in the foot when he insulates himself from critics on this issue. Despite his own advice in his book to consider the opinions of others, Osteen apparently does not heed criticism of himself on this point, which is unfortunate, because it seems that it could be cleared up quite easily. The answer to King above is simply too vague to satisfy the criticisms.

One might suggest, in light of what we have seen, that Osteen may not know enough about prosperity teachings to defend himself from the charge that he is using them. Some critics believe Osteen is being disingenuous here, and perhaps they are right – but I have yet to see evidence that this is the case. As I noted previously, Osteen’s teachings simply lack the most clear specifics of the Word-Faith message.

In surveying criticisms, I sought specific examples of Osteen using Word-Faith teachings, but in each case, more charitable interpretations are possible, which leaves enough room for doubt that I could not call this criticism Confirmed; and yet, there was also not enough said by Osteen to call the criticism Busted.

Example #1: Seed Letter. Critics offer a 2005 ministry letter from Osteen which read as follows:

“People tell me, ‘Joel, He is God. If He wants to bless me, He can.’ Friend, God works by laws. You can’t expect to reap a harvest without first planting your seeds. If you will be faithful and do what God is asking you to do, God will do His part. Don’t let the enemy deceive you into holding on to your seed-get it into the ground!

As you read this, God may be speaking to your heart. Trust that He will direct you how and where He wants you to sow your seed. If you are moved to send a seed gift in the enclosed reply envelope…”

To be sure, Osteen uses some of the language of the Word-Faith movement here when he speaks of sowing seed; but in fairness, the Word-Faith movement is using Biblical language – as we sow, so shall we reap! There are several options here:

  1. Osteen is getting this language from the Bible, and it is coincidental that it reflects what is said by the WF teachers.
  2. Osteen is imitating some of what he has heard from WF teachers, and does not know (or care) how they have misused it.
  3. Osteen is teaching WF principles.

Given the data so far, I am inclined towards #2 as the likeliest explanation. Osteen’s apparent lack of serious education, his indifference to criticism, and (dare I say) his healthy smile all point to naivete rather than deception. Arguably, I am granting too much benefit of the doubt, but for now, this is where the evidence leads.

Example #2: Faith as a force. In my last article, I sought out, but could not find in his books, any statement by Osteen that faith was some sort of “force” which got us what we wanted. One critic did find such a statement in a 2000 Osteen sermon, but I find that it is equivocal:

“Fear is a force just like faith is a force. If you give into fear and start to dwell on that junk and start to act on it, that fear can actually bring things to pass just like faith can bring things to pass. Job said, ‘the thing I greatly feared came upon me.’ Fear is a force just like faith is a force. If you give into fear and start to dwell on that junk and start to act on it, that fear can actually bring things to pass just like faith can bring things to pass.”

The reason why I must consider this equivocal is that once again, it seems that Osteen is focusing on the psychological impact of faith and fear rather than seeing it as some sort of intrinsic power. Of course, the appeal to Job is misguided, inasmuch as we can hardly say that Job in any sense caused his sufferings to come upon himself.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that psychology, not WF, lies behind this statement, and it is perhaps of significance that Osteen has not referred to faith as a force in his books which came later. It may be charitably argued that he has realized that he leaves himself open to be misread by using this language. A less charitable evaluation may simply say Osteen is being inconsistent or dishonest, but I will reserve that judgment barring further information.

Example #3: Satan and Jesus on WWF. Critics also note that Osteen has taught something associated with WF to the effect that Jesus fought with Satan in hell. [8]

“The Bible indicates that for three days, Jesus went into the very depths of hell. Right into the enemy’s own territory. And He did battle with Satan face to face. Can you imagine what a show down that was? It was good vs. evil. Right vs. wrong. Holiness vs. filth. Here are the two most powerful forces in the universe have come together to do battle for the first time in history. But thank God. The Bible says, “Satan was no match for our Champion”. This was no contest. (Congregation applauds)

Jesus crushed Satan’s head with His foot. He bruised his head. And He once and for all, forever defeated and dethroned and demoralized our enemy. One translation says, “He paralyzed him and rendered him powerless”. But thank God. He didn’t even stop there. He went over and ripped the keys of death and hell out of Satan’s hands.

And He grabbed Satan by the nap of his neck and He began to slowly drag him down through the corridors of Hell. All beat up and bruised because He wanted to make sure that every single demon saw very clearly that Jesus was indeed the undisputed Champion of all time! Amen? (Congregation applauds)”

However, critics must also admit that Osteen does not also offer related WF teaching that Jesus “became sin” on the cross and became an evil being. I do not think it is sufficient here to say that Osteen may believe this also. I have run across Christians who are not WF who nevertheless believe that Jesus and Satan fought in hell. Perhaps this is where Osteen’s belief lies; perhaps not. But the data at present is simply not sufficient to make a judgment.

Example #4: The laws of faith. Similar to examples 1 and 2, critics have cited a 2004 sermon in which Osteen says:

“You’ve got to speak it out. Your words have creative power. One of the primary ways we release our faith is through our words. There is a divine connection between you declaring God’s favor and seeing God’s favor manifested in your life. And some of you are doing your best to please the Lord.

You are living a holy consecrated life, but you’re not really experiencing God’s supernatural favor. And it’s simply because you’re not declaring it. You’ve got to give life to your faith by speaking it out…You can cancel out God’s plan by speaking negative words. God works by laws.”

Critics connect this to the WF supposition that God operates by spiritual “laws” He is obliged to obey. However, once again, critical elements are lacking that make a rendering greater than Plausible possible. Osteen does not speak of God being obliged to obey these laws. Thus it is not clear whether Osteen is saying that, or whether he means that God has established certain laws within a covenant structure. The question of whether God must obey these laws, or simply does follow them, is not clearly answered.

Conclusion

In the final analysis, the criticism that is most on target against Osteen is the one which targets the brittleness of his theology and the vacuity of his teachings. Although the judgment of Osteen as Word-Faith is possible to defend against – for now – the judgment of his message as thematically self-serving and without substantive content is not.

I prefer to think, for now, that Osteen is simply plunged into his own well of naivete. However, this does not minimize the damage that his approach can do. As the Western world’s condition as a spiritual wasteland becomes more serious, it will not do to feed the patient “cotton candy” when what they need is chemotherapy.

Notes

[1] Naturally, there is nothing inherently wrong with this; it is a standard procedure by pastors and teachers, myself included!
[2] Arguably, there is much more talk about doctrine in Lakewood’s educational programs, but there is little available to confirm or deny this on Lakewood’s website. At some future date, perhaps a personal visit to Lakewood is in order to find out!
[3]Indeed, from the way critics speak of it, one might suppose that Jonathan Edwards had only one sermon in his repertoire, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” But as noted by the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University:
Anthologized in high school and college textbooks, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God represents in many persons’ minds the bleak, cruel, and hell-bent outlook of Edwards and his Puritan predecessors. But of course such a representation is only a caricature, for Sinners, if it represents anything, stands for only a small part of Edwards’s view of the relationship between humankind and God. As a specially crafted awakening sermon, Sinners was aimed at a particularly hard-hearted congregation. But, at the same time, the awakening sermon and all it expressed-the awful weight of sin, the wrath of an infinitely holy God, and the unexpectedness of the moment when God will execute justice-were integral to Edwards’s theology. This sermon, therefore, deserves to be studied and meditated on for its own sake, but also as part of a larger vision of the spiritual life.
http://edwards.yale.edu/research/major-works/sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-god/ Accessed November 21, 2008. I daresay Osteen himself may be subject to the same sort of lack of focus regarding the supposed prevalence of teaching on sin the church today.
[4] http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,110240,00.html
[5] http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0612/22/lkl.01.html 12/22/06 In one particular case, Osteen’s equivocation on the matter of the fate of those who reject the Gospel inspired a much less equivocal affirmation on that matter in a later interview, as well as a temporary statement on Osteen’s website. The exchange on Larry King’s program affirming the correction was recorded as follows:
KING: On this program you angered some evangelicals two years ago when you did not say that accepting Jesus is the only way to heaven. This is the birth of Jesus coming up Monday. You still believe that?
J. OSTEEN: No. I believe that Jesus is the only way to heaven.
KING: So you misspoke?
J. OSTEEN: I thought that I said that. I said I believe in a personal relationship with Christ. You go back and pull things out of the transcript, it could look like that, but the foundation of the Christian faith is that Christ came as a sacrifice so that we can receive forgiveness.
KING: So you don’t believe, you don’t go to heaven?
J. OSTEEN: I believe it’s true what you’re saying, that you have to have a relationship with Christ. I mean, the “Scripture” is so clear. The most famous “Scripture” is God sent his son to, you know, forgive the world and if you believe in him, you will have everlasting life. And another place it talks about Jesus said, you can’t get to the father unless through me. So I do believe that. It’s the foundation of our faith.
KING: So was that out of context two years ago …
J. OSTEEN: I think that being young and …
KING: Did I trick you?
J. OSTEEN: No, I never felt like that whatsoever. I just think — and I was first to admit, if anybody took it like that, I’ll admit an oversight.It was never my desire or intention to leave any doubt as to what I believe and Whom I serve. I believe with all my heart that it is only through Christ that we have hope in eternal life. I regret and sincerely apologize that I was unclear on the very thing in which I have dedicated my life.
Jesus declared in John 14; I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me. I believe that Jesus Christ alone is the only way to salvation. However, it wasn’t until I had the opportunity to review the transcript of the interview that I realize I had not clearly stated that having a personal relationship with Jesus is the only way to heaven. It’s about the individual’s choice to follow Him.
God has given me a platform to present the Gospel to a very diverse audience. In my desire not to alienate the people that Jesus came to save, I did not clearly communicate the convictions that I hold so precious.
[6] http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/10/11/60minutes/main3358652.shtml
[7] http://www.newsweek.com/id/163475
[8]This may be found online at http://web.archive.org/web/20050323022921/http://www.lakewood.cc/sermons/cs_002.htm
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