Joel Osteen

By Jeff Laird

Imagine buying a bag of M&Ms, only to find out each and every piece was nothing but a hollow candy shell. Those sweets may look like M&Ms, but they're missing the most important part. The whole point of the candy shell is to cover the chocolate, to get it into your mouth without melting. M&Ms without that core are empty, incomplete, and ultimately unsatisfying. Not to mention fake. Those lacking experience with real M&Ms would be especially prone to buying the hollow version. All the while, they'd assume what they have is as good as M&Ms get. Hollow M&Ms aren't "opposed" to real M&Ms. They're pretty. But they're drastically incomplete, and likely to turn people off, once they realize how insubstantial they really are.

Unfortunately, there exists a product, currently available on the "spiritual market", which is much like these theoretical, hollow M&Ms. Those who peddle it are extremely popular, even with Christians who ought to know better. In fact, these peddlers are so popular, and their product so attractive, that those who object to the hollow shell are met with hostility and anger. I'm expecting as much in response to this. But, as much as it might offend those who like his message, I have to say the foremost peddler of an empty, lookalike faith is none other than…

…Joel Osteen.

Osteen's message is superficially Christian, but that's it. All shell, no substance. When you don't talk about sin or even doctrine — and he purposefully does not — you're not preaching the Gospel. When there's no need for redemption, forgiveness, repentance, or submission, then there is no Gospel. In fact, much of what he says can easily be misinterpreted as an excuse to persist in sin — because it says God loves everything about us and we're perfect just the way we are. When you barely — if ever — call sin what it is, you're not helping anyone, least of all the sinner (2 Corinthians 4:3).

To be milquetoast on social issues is bad enough, But Osteen even has a hard time with the basics of the Gospel, as so famously demonstrated in his disastrous 2005 interview with Larry King (emphasis mine):
KING: What if you're Jewish or Muslim, you don't accept Christ at all?
OSTEEN: You know, I'm very careful about saying who would and wouldn't go to heaven. I don't know...
KING: If you believe you have to believe in Christ? They're wrong, aren't they?
OSTEEN: Well, I don't know if I believe they're wrong. I believe here's what the Bible teaches and from the Christian faith this is what I believe. But I just think that only God will judge a person's heart. I spent a lot of time in India with my father. I don't know all about their religion. But I know they love God. And I don't know. I've seen their sincerity. So I don't know. I know for me, and what the Bible teaches, I want to have a relationship with Jesus.
This is not a new convert speaking, it's the leader of a church of tens of thousands. He couldn't bring himself to support a fundamental doctrine of the faith he claims to be preaching. His words were not only blatant relativism, but profoundly poor Biblical scholarship. Of course, Osteen "clarified" the remarks later. But if Osteen has such a hard time standing up for Biblical ideas, or even articulating them, how can any sensible person claim he's really preaching them (1 Timothy 1:5-7)? And the Larry King incident wasn't the only time he's been caught putting his foot in his mouth on Christian basics.

Osteen has stated that he chooses not to dwell on certain topics because he doesn't want to limit the appeal of his message. But what little Osteen does say about God or the Bible is grounded in Prosperity Theology, which is totally contradictory to the actual message of scripture (Luke 9:25; John 16:33). Listening to Osteen, a person would think God primarily wants to make poor people wealthy, sad people happy, and insecure people self-confident. But according to the Bible, God primarily wants to make dead people live (John 5:24). He wants to make wicked people righteous (Matthew 9:13). Happiness, self-assurance, and real prosperity, according to the Bible, come as a result of submission to God's will, starting with salvation (Matthew 6:33), and always in the context of His will (Hebrews 10:36). Preaching a Gospel of self-motivation and financial gain, without redemption or repentance, is just not the real deal.

Osteen's message is sweet, attractive, and pretty. It comes with the million-dollar smile, a heaping helping of the feel-goods, and all of the motivation of the best self-help gurus. That message is also hollow, weak, and devoid of any real value. The most important parts of the message are left out, because some people don't like them. Anyone depending on that message, without recognizing what's missing, is going to find themselves spiritually hungry, frustrated, and in dire straits when a real disaster strikes.

So, what Osteen pushes is a shell of legitimate Biblical Christianity, at best, and a dangerous counterfeit at worst. When all you have to offer is materialism and emotion, you're not an evangelist. You're a motivational speaker who borrows religious terminology. Now, there's nothing wrong with being a motivational speaker…unless what you're motivating people towards obscures the far more important message, harming them in the process. In days gone by, such people were called "snake-oil salesmen."

All that said, let's deal with typical reactions to criticism of Osteen:

- Yes, I do have a right to judge the content of his teaching. We're commanded in the Bible to separate good teaching from false teaching (1 John 4:1). Just because he calls himself a Christian doesn't make him above reproach.

- No, I don't have an obligation to approach him in a private, personal way. These are all points others have made to him and about him many times before, so it's nothing he hasn't been counseled about before. And this isn't one sermon or a single book, it's the core and foundation of his approach to ministry. So I'm not approaching him as a wayward brother, but as a false teacher (Revelation 2:2).

- No, I'm actually not judging his intentions, or his heart (1 Samuel 16:7). For all I know he really thinks this is what God wants him to say. But despite what he intimated to Larry King, opinion does not change reality (1 Timothy 1:5-7). Osteen's message is incomplete, false, and ultimately damaging to the legitimate Gospel (Hebrews 4:12). And he certainly gives ample ammunition to those who think he's financially motivated. Saying certain ideas "limit his appeal" isn't too far from saying they "don't sell books".

- Finally, Osteen's popularity has nothing to do with his accuracy. I'm amazed at how many people blithely tell me Osteen must be right, because he has so many people listening to him and buying his books, because people are made happy by the things he says. Well, telling people what they want to hear isn't exactly a recipe for failure (2 Timothy 4:3). The fact that people are willing to accept a worldly, easy, cheap version of the Gospel shouldn't surprise anyone, let alone a Christian believer.

For the saved, Osteen's teachings are like the hollow candy shell: empty calories, better spent on something more nourishing. Christians need to be disciple in truth, and taught to live up to the standards of our Savior. Not given excuses for doing whatever, whenever, however, as long as we're happy. Legitimate communion with God is incredibly liberating, and uplifting. But true love means telling people what they need to know, like it or not, and a good teacher wants his students to not just feel better, but to actually be better (Ephesians 6:4, Hebrews 5:12).

For the unsaved, Osteen's ministry isn't just a problem, it's a flat-out obscenity. In theory, some people have stumbled across salvation through the fleeting glances at the Gospel Osteen manages to dredge up. I have no doubt his church has done positive things for many people. I also have no doubt that Osteen only makes passing remarks about a "relationship" with Christ, without detailing what that means, how to obtain that relationship, or how to grow in it. After all, those things would restrict his "appeal" (Romans 1:16). So his audience is oblivious to their actual need for a savior (2 Corinthians 4:3-6).

Going from candy shells to brass tacks, nothing Joel Osteen says is going to help a person with legitimate questions about faith to the Lord. Osteen's leaving the lost right where they are, with a handful of counterfeit candy instead of leading them to the Cross and an empty tomb. His message won't build real discipleship; there's no more substance for the believer than for the unbeliever. Nor is his message going to sustain faith in a crisis. When things go bad, people quickly realize God won't prop their 401k merely because they thought happy thoughts. And if personal prosperity or existential morale is how they define the Gospel, then Osteen's teaching has merely set them up for a fall.

Instead of a means for reconciliation and redemption, Osteen frames Christianity as cosmetic self-help scheme that never gets any deeper than a grin and a checkbook. A true preacher of the Gospel does not avoid any topic — especially the crucial ones — simply because some people don't like to hear it. And they don't emphasize success and emotion over the truth. Sincere or not, honest or not, well intended or not, Joel Osteen is not preaching the Gospel, and neither are the other prosperity-slash-motivational-slash-Christian icons. He should not be supported, or encouraged, by those with a love for spiritual truth and a concern for the lost.

Published 3-17-2014