A Defense of Joel Osteen

His critics are ferocious. I trust they won’t prejudge this post without reading every single word carefully. It goes beyond Joel; it includes mega-ministries. Lots of quoted Scriptures here under seven points.

I cannot vouch for every single word that he and other mega-church pastors have spoken. This post is more general.

I don’t go to Lakewood; I live nowhere near Houston, but I probably wouldn’t attend if I did live nearby.

I don’t eagerly watch every one of his broadcasts; I have watched a fair number of them early on, but nowadays I change the channel.

I’m speaking out, much to my surprise, because it is not right that his social-media critics authoritatively slam him from their own weak biblical knowledge and starting premises.

Let’s answer seven common objections.

I quote (or summarize) many Scriptures because it is good when people can actually see them.

1. He doesn’t talk about repentance.

The Greek word for repentance is metanoia, literally meaning change of mind. Leading people to change their false views about God is repentance. Here is an example. The wrong view: God is as judgmental and mean as some of Joel’s critics are. Right view: God really is good and kind. That change of mind is called repentance.

When Jesus tells people to repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand (Matt. 4:17), the context is the repentance that first brings a person into the kingdom. The kingdom is here! Repent and enter it!

Paul the Apostle does not have a developed doctrine of repentance. In his epistles the word (noun or verb) is mentioned only five times (Rom. 2:4; 2 Cor 7:8 and 10; 12:21; 2 Tim 2:25). In most of those epistolary verses and in his proclamations in Acts, he is talking about initial repentance leading to first-time salvation or conversion, just as Jesus taught.

However, Heb. 6:1-2 says (emphasis added):

Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, 2 instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.

In other words, repentance is elementary, and we need to press on to maturity.

Now back to Jesus and Paul: after you enter the kingdom and salvation for the first time, it is time to grow up and move past insisting on hearing sermons about repentance (you can certainly repent of your personal sins if you need to).

When he invites people at the end of the broadcast to give their lives to Jesus and pray the prayer of salvation, how is this not a call to repent?

2. He doesn’t talk about judgment and hell.

Numerous pastors nowadays omit this doctrine. However, I have heard him say something like: “Yes, there’s a hell to shun and heaven to gain….”

Consider this key line from Heb. 6:2 (see no. 1 for both verses): “Let us leave behind … instruction about … eternal judgment.” That doctrine is too basic and immature.

Who knows? Maybe Joel Osteen is the mature one, while his critics demand immature doctrines.

3. He does not teach important doctrines like the Trinity or the atonement.

Hardly any pastor with an international TV outreach brings up those complicated doctrines in detail. They just say things like: The Father sent the Son to die for your sins (atonement), and now you have the Spirit to help you grow in Christ (note the Trinity in that entire declaration). They may elaborate a little more, but not by much.

Boomerang: Many (not all) of his fiercest critics shove aside or ignore the charismatic power gifts of the Spirit clearly taught and endorsed for the Christian community, in Acts 2 (and other passages in Acts) and 1 Cor 12-14.

How is this omission not a deficient pneumatology (doctrine of the Spirit), from a charismatic’s point of view (and Joel does belong to the Charismatic Renewal)?

4. He preaches the “prosperity gospel.”

Yes, some TV preachers have been out of balance. Boiled down: “Give to my ministry, and God will bless you with a Cadillac!” But abuses of the biblical doctrine of prosperity should not scare us away from a monetary blessing—like a good job to pay for a nice house, which nine-tenths of the world do not have and which Joel’s critics do and should have. (I don’t begrudge them their own prosperity.)

In the times I have listened to Joel, he has never promised people cadillacs, if they were to give to his ministry.

Although the Bible warns us against the seductive power of money that moves us away from our commitment to the kingdom of God. (Matt. 6:19-24; 19:16-30 and 1 Tim 6:10), go to biblegateway.com, and do separate word searches on each of these words: prosper, bless, rich, money and wealth. You will get numerous hits.

Here are samples:

Jacob:

O Lord, who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,’ (32:9).

Joseph:

The Lord was with Joseph and he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master (Gen 39:2).

The other verses in the Old Covenant Scriptures are very, very numerous, so let’s move to the New Covenant Scriptures.

Women who were rich enough to support the ministry of Jesus:

… Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out;  Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means. (Luke 8:2-3)

Zacchaeus the wealthy tax collector, who repented (changed his mind) and promised to sell half (not all) his possession and pay back the people he cheated, by four times the fraud:

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house… (Luke 19:9)

Abundant life for you:

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10)

Lydia, a wealthy purple cloth merchant (purple was the color of the rich nobility):

Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. (Acts 16:14)

Numerous prominent (i.e. rich) Greek women who converted to Christ:

Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women. (Acts 17:4)

A word of warning and encouragement to rich Christians throughout the Greek provinces not to sell all they have, but to be generous with what they do have:

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19 In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (1 Tim 6:17-19)

Western critics of Joel Osteen’s prosperity, who point out that the original apostles like Paul suffered persecution and austerity, need to conduct an experiment: They must sell their house and cars and give up their jobs and other possessions (or if they own a business, they must bankrupt it, so their employees lose their jobs); then they should go to Iran or Saudi Arabia to take up street preaching. In about an hour, as they sit in prison waiting for their “fair” trial, they will yearn for their former Western prosperity.

As for missionaries in the Third World who have to live an austere life, how do they get any support, if not from prosperous Westerners? Didn’t prosperous women support Jesus’ ministry?

But what about the huge houses that mega-church pastors live in? Aren’t they over the top? I have heard this defense from them, boiled down:

CEOs of gigantic international corporations get big salaries, and everyone agrees this is proportional. I (the pastor) oversee an international organization that employs hundreds of people and may have a bigger reach than these corporations have. It is only proportional that I should draw a big salary. Plus, my ministry has many outreaches to the Third World. I put my money where my mouth is and give.

That explanation may not satisfy all critics, but it does have a certain logic to it.

5. In a TV interview, he didn’t say Jesus is the only way to heaven.

I’ll assume that’s a true report of the interview. He does come across on TV as unsure of himself. But that can and must improve.

Now to the critic’s specific accusation: John 14:6 says that no one comes to the Father except through Christ. But it is not so cut and dry, when we read other Scripture, as follows:

To those [outside of Christ] who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. (Rom. 2:7)

Acts 14:16-17 says God let nations go their own way, but showed kindness to them by giving them life-producing rain to water crops, providing food, and filling their hearts with joy.

Acts 17:30 says God overlooked Gentile ignorance in the past, but now calls them to repent.

Rom. 3:25 says before Christ died as a propitiation, God let sins go unpunished.

Acts 10:34-35 says that Cornelius, the Gentile centurion, saw an angel. Peter was so impressed that he said, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right” Peter spoke this general truth before Cornelius experienced salvation in Christ.

Let’s add these passages in the Old Covenant Scriptures that show that people outside of Israel had a certain level of knowledge of God:

Melchizedek was priest of the Most High God (Gen. 14:17-24);

God revealed himself to Balaam (Num. 24);

Rahab the prostitute had faith (Josh. 2:1-11; Heb. 11:31);

Jonah preached to Nineveh, and they repented in sackcloth and ashes. After he left, did some of them experience lasting salvation, even though they were not part of the covenantal chosen people? (Jonah 3-4)

King Hiram acknowledged God (2 Chron. 2:11-12);

Naaman acknowledged God (2 Kings 5:15);

Ruth the Moabite accepted her new life in Israel, even though a Moabite could not enter the assembly of the Lord to the tenth generation (Deut. 23:3);

God spoke through Neco, king of Egypt (2 Chron. 35:20-24);

Nebuchadnezzar spoke words of faith (Dan. 2:46-47, 3:28, 4:34-37, 6:25-27);

The Lord moved on the heart of Cyrus, the Persian king (Ezra 1:1);

And one in the New Covenant Scriptures, as Jesus was currently ushering in the kingdom of God: A Canaanite woman sought him and had great faith (Matt. 15:21-28).

These passages indicate God spoke through and to these pagans; they had a certain kind of faith and knowledge of God. It seems God overlooked some things and his judgment was not as severe, as they walked in the light they had.

The point is not to settle this complicated issue here. Rather, it is to say that it is not entirely outlandish and not utterly heretical to conclude tentatively and non-dogmatically, from those Scriptures, especially Romans 2:7, that God in his mercy leaves the door slightly ajar for those who live righteously without their hearing the pure gospel.

Please see my posts in the Category Amazing Grace, for my fuller views, however.

6. In a TV interview, he did not denounce gays and lesbians.

Jesus was a friend of sinners (Matt. 11:19; Luke 7:34; 14:12-14).

Many small and midsized church pastors—not just Joel—are caught between standards and love. Yes, homosexual acts are sinful (and so is heterosexual misconduct). That’s the standard. But pastors who understand the ministry of Jesus want all these sinners to walk into their churches so God can work on them. That’s the friendship and love.

His critics may be “standards guys,” but Joel and others are “friendship and love guys.”

7. He talks too much about God fulfilling your “hopes and dreams.”

Here is the typical, boiled-down message on the biblical patriarch Joseph. Note the (clever) alliteration with the letter P. Joel and other mega-church pastors have said the same things, in essence: Osteen, referring to Scriptures, which he does in every sermon, loves the patriarch, for these reasons:

Prosperity: He grew up in his rich father Jacob’s household.

Pit: His brothers put him in a pit and sold him because he proudly revealed his dreams.

Prosperity: In Potiphar’s household, Joseph prospered, but was then falsely accused.

Prison: While there, Joseph used God’s gift.

Palace: God promoted him because he used his gifts, and God developed his character. He was ready to have his “hopes and dreams” fulfilled.

Application: In the same way, God wants to develop your character through tough times and then fulfill your hopes and dreams!

Just because he constantly preaches on the themes of blessings and hopes and dreams does not make his teaching false or heretical. Deficient and shallow, maybe, but not heretical or false.

Conclusion

I cannot vouch for everything he and other mega-church pastors have spoken over the years. (I’m pretty sure I would disagree with some of it.) I’m not their official spokesperson. Rather, this defense is about general issues like prosperity and the absence of some biblical doctrines in their international TV broadcasts.

I had to speak out, finally, because of all the unfair and misinformed social-media accusations.

Joel does come across as insecure in his knowledge. Maybe he should stop doing TV interviews on secular programs.

He does not speak in the terms and lingo of the 500-year-old Reformation, an absence which surely bothers some of his critics.

He does not thunder and bellow about hell and judgment.

He does talk lovingly and gently.

He does not teach line-by-line from verses in the Bible (many pastors don’t). But he does refer to Scripture in every sermon.

He does not bring up Hebrew and Greek (few pastors do).

He apparently has no interest in studying even a little theology. And apparently he just wants to be a pastor who “decrees and declares” personal victory in people’s lives and simple truths that we saw in Joseph (no. 7).

But as far as I can tell, he is not a false prophet or a false teacher or a heretic. A deficient and shallow teacher, maybe, but not false or heretical. Similarly, many (not all) of his critics are not false or heretical for not teaching and practicing the charismatic power gifts of the Spirit on Sunday morning (or at all in their lives). Just deficient.

Absence of doctrines does not equal false doctrines.

Ain’t none of us have perfect and uncontroversial theology and practices. We all have blind spots and deficiencies.

My humble suggestion: Don’t sit on your high perch with your arms crossed in a judgmental attitude. You presume too much that your own theology is perfect.

Change the channel.

Better yet, pray for him.

And then watch how prayer changes you too.

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