For many years I have been asked again and again, “Is Joel Osteen a heretic?” In many instances the question itself reveals more about the questioner than it does about this sometimes controversial preacher. Let me explain.
First, we need to ask: “What is heresy?” A modified (and helpful) answer from Wikipedia provides the following (slightly edited) insight:
In Christian history and practice heresy is the rejection of one or more established beliefs of orthodoxy. Christian heresy refers to non-orthodox practices and beliefs that were deemed to be heretical by one or more of the Christian churches. In the West, the term "heresy" most commonly refers to those beliefs which were declared to be anathema by the Catholic Church prior to the schism of 1054. In the East, the term "heresy" most commonly refers to those beliefs declared to be "heretical" by the First Seven Ecumenical Councils. However, since the Great Schism and the Protestant Reformation, various Christian churches have also used the concept in proceedings against individuals and groups deemed to be heretical by those churches. The Catholic Church considers the Protestant denominations to be heretical and considers the Eastern Orthodox schismatics. [Since Vatican II this statement has clearly been understood in a different way!]
Heresy is a controversial or novel change to the essentials found in a Christian system of beliefs that conflict with established dogma. Heresy should be clearly distinguished from apostasy, which is the formal denunciation of one's previously confessed faith and blasphemy, which is irreverence toward Christian faith.
If this understanding is applied to Joel Osteen one could make a case that his “prosperity” message is heretical. But if we press this far enough, and are exposed broadly enough to the global Christian church, we soon learn that this prosperity error is taught in many places and by many Christian teachers who faithfully preach Christ. In spite of this error many such preachers do immense good for the gospel. This doesn’t make their error acceptable but it should make us pause and be more cautious about throwing a heresy bomb at them.
Let me go further. Osteen is controversial because his message is at times jumbled and seems to not be clearly thought out. He is not a biblical scholar nor a student of systematic theology. Those who attack him, and there is a lot of ammunition for them to use to launch such an attack, will find him a relatively easy target. Take something from a portion of a book, a clip from one of his sermons. or a poor response from a Larry King Live program. You will find a lot of smoke and you all know the proverb: “Where there’s smoke there will be fire!” But is it wise, and right, to attack Osteen in the public media? I think not. Let me explain.
There is a huge unofficial “heresy police” force roaming around the media of America, online and in print. It brings in huge support. The facts are plain. As much as Osteen makes through his positive messages you can also make a great deal by attacking him. Besides this there is a personality type that feeds on the chub of this kind of heresy ministry. Point out who preaches error and you can thus prove your own orthodoxy. Few ever realize how wrong this approach is, both ethically and theologically. For starters it is not wholistic but modernistic. (By this I mean it lifts bits and pieces and makes them the whole!) Most of us who teach publicly will be labeled heretics by someone else over time. (I heard Harold Camping say last week that everyone in every church who has not heeded his call to leave the church before the Second Coming on May 11 is a heretic and truly damned!) I know this business of broad charges of heresy firsthand since several noted evangelical leaders have used the term for me and my teaching. I have appealed to my open confession of the creeds and confessions of the church that I am ordained by as a minister (Reformed Church in America) but this means nothing to the typical conservative heresy hunter. I suppose this all makes me even more cautious about the attacks on Osteen from these same types of people.
Let me be clear about this. I am not endorsing everything Joel Osteen says or does. I have no horse in this race. I simply question the methods employed in attacking him for denying Christ and the gospel. If I was asked to grade him on solid theological curve I would not give him a high grade in some areas. If I was asked to grade him on whether or not he helps a lot of hungry Christian people then I think the answer would be quite different. I am not sure I completely understand how this works but God seems pleased to use all kinds of people to serve his flock. Joel Osteen is my brother and as such I pray for him and seek to see how the good he does can be acknowledged. If there are errors to expose then I would do that within a relationship, not by attacking him in broad daylight. If he had been disciplined in a proper way then my response would also be different. I just do not believe in the discipline produced by the process of public opinion.
I was in Houston several years ago and met with one of the most theologically astute persons that I know. He had firsthand experience of Osteen, his church people and his staff. He knew people whose lives had been transformed by the power of Christ in this congregation and through this brother’s ministry. This brother, like me, is not a big fan of the teaching of Joel Osteen but like me he sees much more good than bad. He was, in other words, cautious to throw bombs. He allowed love to rule his words and responses while he also retained a deep theological conviction himself.
I suppose that is my big concern here. We need to be much more cautious in throwing these bombs. I am committed to building bridges myself! I believe bomb throwers are people who generally love themselves and their beliefs much more than Christ and real flesh and blood people.
I began to think about Joel Osteen again last week when I saw a video clip on my Facebook page. I then went on to look at several of his YouTube clips and found one that really blew me away. In this sermon Osteen says that you and I live in a “controlled environment.” His ideas are a little over the edge at the corners but in the big picture he paints a glorious and strong view of divine providence. I actually wanted to call this blog: “Joel Osteen the Calvinist” but I chose to not be too sensational. Watch this and see for yourself. Forget the things you’ve heard and just watch.
As I said the ideas here border on a form of hyper-determinism (“God pulls the strings!) but if you see this in context you have to conclude, if you are fair-minded at all, that this man really believes in personal divine providence. Osteen says, “Nothing in life happens by chance, by happenstance.” That’s pretty Christian stuff folks.
After watching this video I went back to my own confessional tradition and read Chapter 13 of The Belgic Confession. I do not know if Joel Osteen has ever read this paragraph but he sure seems to believe it based on this sermon. Here is chapter 13:
Article 13: The Doctrine of God's Providence
- We believe that this good God, after he created all things, did not abandon them to chance or fortune but leads and governs them according to his holy will, in such a way that nothing happens in this world without his orderly arrangement.
Yet God is not the author of, nor can he be charged with, the sin that occurs. For his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible that he arranges and does his work very well and justly even when the devils and wicked men act unjustly.
We do not wish to inquire with undue curiosity into what he does that surpasses human understanding and is beyond our ability to comprehend. But in all humility and reverence we adore the just judgments of God, which are hidden from us, being content to be Christ's disciples, so as to learn only what he shows us in his Word, without going beyond those limits.
This doctrine gives us unspeakable comfort since it teaches us that nothing can happen to us by chance but only by the arrangement of our gracious heavenly Father. He watches over us with fatherly care, keeping all creatures under his control, so that not one of the hairs on our heads (for they are all numbered) nor even a little bird can fall to the ground^20 without the will of our Father.
In this thought we rest, knowing that he holds in check the devils and all our enemies, who cannot hurt us without his permission and will.
For that reason we reject the damnable error of the Epicureans, who say that God involves himself in nothing and leaves everything to chance.
^20 Matt. 10:29-30