Further Reflections on Joel Osteen

John ArmstrongAmerican Evangelicalism

My blog on Joel Osteen’s very popular ministry, posted on May 9, elicited a considerable response. I am told that this is the goal of every blogger. Upon further reflection I write to respond to several of the comments posted throughout this week. These are general comments, not specific to any single writer who posted their thoughts.

1. Most of those who responded understood quite clearly what I wrote and why I wrote it. Some comments left me wondering what certain readers actually understood by my words.

2. I was most definitely not attacking the character, or intellectual honesty and credibility, of Dr. Michael Horton, whom I know and love personally.

3. I did question Dr. Horton’s use of a hermeneutical system that is plainly situated in a very self-consciously Lutheran-Reformed paradigm. By this I mean that his strong law-gospel antithesis rigorously governs how he sees faithfulness to the gospel. This he admits in his more academic writing. All I was saying was this principle impacts how he judges public ministries.

4. This paradigm actually led Dr. Horton to suggest that Joel Osteen was not worshiping the true God. In Horton’s own words, assuming the Chicago Tribune quoted him accurately, "In this religion God is not worshiped." This is the type of conclusion I very seriously question. He may be making nothing more than a sweeping generalization, and I assume in fact he is, but the sentence leaves me chilled by it’s sense of certainty.

5. I am not big "fan" of Joel Osteen, though I believe he has some helpful things to teach me. I do not believe that I have lost all ability to discern truth from error because I believe Osteen serves some of the Lord’s people positively. This conclusion is a non sequitur. I personally know folks, who have demonstrated love Christ and his church, who attended Osteen’s meetings in Chicago precisely because they deeply appreciate his ministry and believe they are helped by it.

6. I do not think Osteen, so far as I can tell, is a hard advocate of the "health and wealth gospel." He does teach positive affirmation, and the charismatic faith message, which he seems to have received from his late father. His advocacy is much less obvious than that of some such teachers and it does not, to my mind, appear to make him a "false teacher" in the clear truest biblical sense.

7. I most definitely do not share the overall trajectory of the faith message, so far as its proponents explain it.

8. I am not entirely convinced that Hank Hannegraff, and similar "watchdogs," have supplied the last word regarding E. W. Kenyon and the faith message movement. I am doing further research on this subject. For the present I choose to be very cautious about this message but do not paint all its advocates in the darkest tones by applying it liberally to a wide variety of people and churches.

9. The above conclusion, at least to some extent, grows out of my desire to recognize where God is really at work in the world today. It also grows out of charity, or so I hope. The work of Philip Jenkins, author of highly acclaimed book The Next Christendom, gives me real pause about the way many American Christians draw sweeping conclusions about widely divergent charismatic movements throughout the world.

10. The history of the Christian church is filled with odd and off-putting movements which are very often outside the mainstream of the larger historic church communions. Some of these more charismatic waves have been used to bring about real movements of conversion to Christ that appear to have born more good fruit than bad. The interpretation of such movements calls for both truth and grace.

11. Dr. Horton, and similar Lutheran-Reformed conservatives (including me in the past as I have confessed previously), tend to look at church history from a magisterial Eurocentric viewpoint. This reading of history honors the Lutheran-Reformed tradition while it disrespects traditions like Pietism, which arose from within the Lutheran-Reformed  so they are held in deep suspicion. This approach downplays the positive contributions of a multitude of Anabaptist movements in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as well as the Wesleyan and Pentecostal movements in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I simply do not agree with this approach to history. I would remind Reformed readers that I am not alone in my reading of history this way, even from within the Reformed community.

12. I said in my May 9 blog that I would love to sit down and talk to Joel Osteen, if given the opportunity. I really meant it. I have prayed that God will use him to bring many to faith in Christ. I also skimmed through sections of his best-selling book since Monday to get a better feel for his message. If God uses this man for great good I will rejoice (Philippians 1:18).

13. I wonder why some Christians believe it is wise to continually question the credibility of other Christians if they do not hold to a confessional tradition that is framed by very specific contextual debates from the sixteenth century. Is the standard for all modern theological discussion limited to the formulations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? This approach is not beneficial to the church in the long run.

14. The above statement in no way is meant to downplay orthodoxy or its vital importance, nor the value of older debates and confessions. It does mean they are limited by their human context.

15. Based upon my contextual reading of the Synoptic Gospels I expect many people who are fairly orthodox will miss heaven and some who are confused, at least in doctrinal ways, will be welcomed. If I read the teaching of Jesus correctly "orthodoxy," at least in terms of human creeds, is simply not the final criteria for admittance to heaven; cf. Matthew 25.

16. A certain kind of orthodoxism is at work in many Lutheran-Reformed circles that makes for less than winsome responses at times, both to other Christians and to the world at large. This was part of my unwritten concern in the earlier blog. By stating this I was not attacking motives, as if to suggest that I am above this problem. Admitting one’s perspective, and your resultant bias, is health, or so I think. The response of some to my blog actually demonstrated the very concerns that I expressed in the first place. Many of those who posted comments, in response to such writers, understood this point very well and noted it accordingly.

17. Finally, because a local church is very large in number (Osteen’s church has 30,000 plus attending worship) some Lutheran-Reformed Christians are prone to think this very bigness is itself problematic. I have noticed, after thirty-five years of gospel ministry, that most of those who engage in this type of criticism are often quite content to build small churches on "right doctrine" as and end in itself. I am not alone in expressing my despair over such attitudes and reactions. This emphasis often produces a sterile intellectualism that is both dull and spiritually fruitless in terms of the love of Christ for other Christians who do not share our perspectives. My thirteen years as an itinerant evangelist have done nothing to convince me that this pattern profoundly mars some conservative Christian communities in America. Caveat emptor!