“I try to leave them better off than they were before,” is how Joel Osteen defined the endgame for his multi-million dollar ministry of self-help and empowerment during a recent twelve minute segment on CBS’ “60 Minutes.” The title of the segment was “Joel Osteen Answers His Critics.” Ironically, the segment may have only bolstered his critics while adding more.
In twelve short minutes Osteen managed to admit that his ministry is more about show than substance, that he has an aversion to doctrine and theology, that he has little gifting as a teacher of God’s word, that he would rather inspire and motivate people than fulfill the biblical mandate given to pastors to reprove and rebuke, and that what he teaches is closer to Dr. Phil and Oprah than it is to Jesus or St. Paul. In other words, Joel Osteen, by his own admission, may be well-qualified as a motivational speaker, but lacks many of the qualifications to be considered a pastor of God’s people.
Byron Pitts, the correspondent for CBS News who interviewed Osteen, was relentless in pointing out where Osteen’s teaching diverges from Scripture and historic orthodoxy. At one point Pitts read for Osteen an extended excerpt from Osteen’s just released, Become a Better You, after which Pitts noted, “[There’s] not one mention of God in that. Not one mention of Jesus Christ in that.” To which Osteen responded, “There is Scripture in there that backs it all up,” a response which betrays the dangerous way in which Osteen handles Holy Scripture.
Osteen doesn’t seem to understand that we don’t bring our conclusions about life and living to the Bible and seek Scripture to support them. We start with the Bible, allowing the Holy Spirit, the author of the text, to give us His conclusions about life and living. The Bible isn’t supporting documentation for principles you’ve dreamed up to produce “your best life now.”
Osteen readily admits that he is ill-equipped to handle Scripture properly, telling Pitts, “….there’s a lot better people qualified to say, ‘Here’s a book that’s going to explain the Scriptures to you.’ I don’t think that’s my gifting.” He spends Wednesday through Saturday in his study at home preparing his weekly message. One might imagine that he is diligently studying the Scriptures. Not so. He told Byron Pitts, “.…when I think about it, Sunday’s in a few days and I gotta get back up here and feed everybody and be my best and inspire them and have some good stories, keep them listening.…”
Nowhere in Scripture is the man of God commanded to “be my best” and “inspire them” and “have some good stories” or even to “keep them listening.” On the contrary, the Word of God makes it clear that we are not sufficient in ourselves to proclaim God’s word (2 Cor. 3:5,6); it isn’t our goal to inspire but rather to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort”; and we accomplish that goal, not with “some good stories,” but with “all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:1-6).
Doctrine is not even on Osteen’s radar. Osteen told Pitts his calling is not to impress people with “Greek words and with doctrine.” Rather, he views his calling as helping people “have the right thoughts today.” While Osteen may not consider teaching God’s word his gifting, God nonetheless demands that those who lead God’s church have an ability to teach His word (1 Tim. 3:2; 2 Tim. 2:24). On this point, Osteen has disqualified himself.
Osteen measures the success of his ministry not by the spiritual growth of his congregation, but by “hundreds of people tellin’ [him] ‘You changed my life.’”
The tragedy is that the message which has supposedly changed so many lives is a placebo. Osteen described the substance of his message as, “Be positive in a negative situation and it will help you stay filled with hope.” Pitts pointed out to Osteen that there are many theologians who find his message dangerous, to which Osteen responded, “I don’t know what can be so dangerous about giving people hope.”
Hope is dangerous when it’s a false hope. Keeping a positive mental attitude while my house burns down around me may give me hope, but the only thing that can save me is to get out of the burning house. Osteen’s “hope” may sustain people temporarily, but it will not yield salvation.
It appears that Osteen points people to their fleshly hopes as their salvation rather than to Jesus Christ as the only one who can deliver us from our sins (“negative situations” in Osteen’s parlance). Genuine assurance in the midst of life’s tragedies and trials comes not from believing in self or practicing a mere “positive mental attitude.” Genuine hope-biblical hope-comes from knowing that I have been raised with Christ through faith in the powerful working of God (Col. 2:8-15). True hope is knowing that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus and that nothing can separate me from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:1; 38-39). In all of life’s negative situations I am more than a conqueror-not because I have altered my state of consciousness through repeated positive confessions, but because God always leads me in the triumphal procession in Christ (2 Cor. 2:14).
Everything wrong with Osteen’s teaching and ministry stems from the fact that he views theology as optional. A ministry focusing solely on preparing people for their best life now can do little to prepare them for eternity. We must pray that Osteen comes to realize “if in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19).
Paul Edwards is the host of The Paul Edwards Program, a columnist and pastor. His program is heard daily on WLQV in Detroit and on godandculture.com.