Thursday, March 30, 2006

What's Wrong with Prospering? The Gospel according to Joel Osteen

As the offering is about to be taken at the Compaq center, Joel Osteen's wife and co-pastor Victoria urges generosity as a way of prompting God's favor. "He not only wants to enrich you but do things for you you know nothing about," she said. "Let him breathe the breath of life into your finances and he'll give it back to you bigger than you could ever give it to him," she said. To which the congregation, said, "Amen," and the buckets went around. This paraphrased excerpt is but a part of a new article in today's NY Times about the ministry and enormous success of Joel Osteen, and in particular his recent book 'Your Best Life Now'. The whole article is worth reading. Here is the link.----

With 20,000 peeople regularly showing up at his church in the Compaq center in Houston and bringing in revenues of millions on his bestseller book, it is not a surprise that many will wonder and ask--- well what is wrong with a message that speaks about kindness, and generosity and success and prosperity? What could be wrong with this? What's wrong with a message that hardly ever mentions Jesus by name, or sin, or suffering, or self-sacrifice? Of course this message of prosperity is not new in America, nor new to American Churches.

There used to be a TV preacher from New York called Reverend Ike. One of his core messages was on the supposed Scriptural topic--- "The lack of money is the root of all evil". He kept saying things like, if you have trouble handling money, send it to me. Osteen is far more slick than this, and in fact far more accountable. His ministry maintains public records and provides financial reports, and in fact he has not taken a salary since his book went mega-platinum. He has also reportedly signed an enormous contract for his second book with Simon and Schuster. He is then not a shister or a crook it would appear. His example seemsfar more beguiling than the obvious huckster. Wherein lies the problem then?

The problem is several fold, and it involves a fundamental replacement of what the Bible actually has to say about wealth, with what our culture says about wealth and prosperity. And of course when you preach a message that is heard as saying "God wants you rich" or is heard as saying "if you give generously to God (i.e. our ministry) he will repay you many times over"), then of course the implication is that the Gospel message is really all about us, and ways to get God to fulfill not merely our needs and desires but even our conspicuously consumptive dreams. But is God really a nurturer of a vision of life that says its all about me and my material success?

How very different indeed this message is from John Wesley's Famous Sermon "On the Use of Money" in which he stresses that if you make all you can honestly and save all you can, but do not give all you can to relieve poverty, feed the hungry, make well the sick you may be a living person but you are a dead Christian. Wesley like the Bible warns of the enormous dangers of wealth, especially if it is used to provide one's self with an opulent lifestyle while others have nothing to survive on. As Wesley suggests my luxuries should always come after someone else's necessities, or I am living a selfish and self-centered life style. Wesley preached that Christians at the beginning of the industrial revolution should de-enculturate themselves, live simply, and have as their goal, giving so much to others during their lives that when they die they will have successfully given it all away. This sounds far less narcissitic and self-centered than the message of Osteen. And it comes from a different vision of God. God is not viewed as the grand sugar Daddy in the sky who exists to meet our every desire, and in particular our desire to live well, or even opulently. But forget the warnings of great church leaders of the past--- what does the Bible say about such things?

First of all, I would stress that there are more warning about wealth in the New Testament, than about any other ethical subject with the possible exception of sexual and relational issues. And right off the bat this ought to seem odd to us, since only a small percentage of first century Christians had any prospect of getting wealthy. Why such a stress on a message that is the polar opposite to Osteen's message in the NT when the audience was much poorer on the whole? It is a question worth asking. It has to do with fallen human nature and its desire to secure its own life on its own. But let's start with some texts we will not likely be hearing preached from Osteen's pulpit. Let's start with Jesus.

The Sermon on the Mount would be Jesus' version of "Your Best Life Now". In it he says "Do not store up for yourselvss trasures on earth where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Mt. 6. 19-20.

This saying of course comes before the "do not worry about what you will eat, drink, or wear, because God will provide" message in 6.25-33. This text warns strongly against the accumulation of wealth, and in particular having and keeping for yourself more than you need. Jesus' real concern is found at the end of vs. 21 in the saying about treasure. Human beings are acquistive by nature-- consider how many Americans are addicted to shopping. Consider how our culture encourages us to think luxuries and necessities to the point that we can't tell the difference between the two.

If you want to know where a person's heart really is--- follow the money. This could be said of all of us. And what happens to already self-centered acquistive persons when they are encouraged to be even more that way is that they commit idolatry. Their real center of existence is not God. They only relate to God for what they can get out of God. Their real center of existence is their own prosperity and life style--- "God bless my standard of living". we should have seen Osteen coming when the "Prayer of Jabez" became a run away best-seller and an excuse for continuing to think that God wants us all to be rich, even if it destroys our soul.

Notice as well that Jesus says quite clearly three things at the end of Mt. 6: 1) we should seek first God's kingdom and his righteousness, and the necessities of life will be added to us. Jesus does not say anything about wealth will be added to us. He says the necessities will be taken care of if we are God-focused and seeking his righteousness, not our profit. And while we are at it it is well to remember that when Jesus says "ask anything in my name..." this means "ask anything that is in accord with my will, in accord with all my other teaching about the dangers of money and wealth, the sorts of things I would ask for". If you are praying prayers Jesus would not endorse, selfish and self-centered prayers, prayers about purely material success then you had best not sign Jesus' name to them, nor should you expect him to answer yes to them. 2) Jesus' teaching consistently tries to get us to focus on God and others, not our own desires or needs.

This is not in fact the character of Osteen's preaching unfortunately. He is doing his best to make us feel comfortable and happy if we are wealthy, and to simply see it as a blessing from God. But even if on occasion God does bless someone with abundant material resources, the next question should be stewardship. The next question should be how should I use these resources so that God is glorified and others are helped. It should not lead to a "God bless my standard of living" and we give ourselves permission to live high off the hog. There should always be the thught that God has blessed you to be an abundant blessing to others, and I don't just mean one's own family.

Mt. 6. 24--- "You cannot serve two masters. You cannot serve God and wealth." The issue is what is your object of ultimate concern? Where is your heart and treasure? When you take a human being who is acquisitive to begin with, and then take away all warnings about the dangers of wealth leading to idolatry, you are in trouble.

Someone should make a huge banner with this verse on it and hang it in front of the Compaq Center for all those entering to see. We could also hang up the Lukan beatitude "Blesssed are the poor" (Lk. 6.20). How about the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk. 16.19-31) which suggests that those who prosper in this life and do not help others will find the reverse is their condition in the life to come. So much for the slogan "he who dies with the most toys wins". We could also focus on Jesus' teaching about the fool who stockpiled his assests and of whom God required his life before he could get the full benefit from them. Have you notice that there is no theology of retirement, or pension accounts in the New Testament, no blessing of those who store things away just for themselves?

Jesus' brother James is equally insistent about the dangers of wealth. Read James 2.1-7 where we hear among other things "God chose the poor of the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom." He warns not to cozy up to the wealthy or give them preferential treatment not least because "Is it not the rich who oppress you?" You would have thought that after the Enron scandal the good Christian people of Houston would have become a little more wary of courting the rich and of lusting after the lifestyles of the rich.

Listen to what else James says "You covet something and cannot obtain it: so you engage in disputes and conflicts...You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God." (James 4.2-6).

Paul in 1 Tim. 6.6-10 puts it this way "There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into this world, and we shall take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a rot of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains." There could hardly be a much sterner warning against believing in the health and wealth Gospel than this one.

We need to stop listening to the siren song of our culture about the goodness of personal wealth and material prosperity. We need to advocate a theology of stewardship which puts other people's necessities before our luxuries. We need to simplify our lifestyles and get a clear grasp on God's prioirties including God's especial concern for the poor and destitute of the world. We need to realize that what Jesus promised us if we seek the kingdom is not prosperity,but rather 'just enough' to take care of our basic needs. We need to remember that the Lord's prayer teaches us to pray for daily bread, not for resources today that I could not possibly use in 10,000 lifetimes. We need to heed all the warnings about how wealth can destroy the soul of an inherently self centered and acquistive creature-- namely any human being. We need to renounce the false gospel of wealth and health--- it is a disease of our American culture, it is not a solution or answer to life's problems.

Sometime ago when Donald Trump was riding high, he was interviewed on the subject of "how much is enough?" This was after he had assets totaling in the millions. His answer was very revealing--- "a little bit more." This is the truth about human nature, and what Paul says about that nature is that it needs to be crucified, not indulged, it needs to die not be pampered. The goal is this "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I wholive, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved mne and gave himsellf for me." (Gal. 2.19-20). The model for the Christian life is not Donald Trump, it is that man who made the ultimate self-sacrifice, the man who lived simply, fed the hungry, hung out with the poor, and renounced conspicuous consumption--- Jesus himself.


Ben Witherington said...

Yup... you are right... but he's now the boy wonder of the media and the publishing world.


Unknown said...


I find it troubling when people point to the financial openness of the Osteen empire as some sort of indication of legitimacy.

It reminded me of Nick Cage's comment in "Lord of War," about how the United States is actually the largest and most deadly arms dealer in the world, but because THEY do it in the open, they are somehow better or different than him.

Thank you for intelligently presenting an argument against Osteen's "gospel." Mostly I just rant about how much he sucks, and I think this is better...

Marc Axelrod said...

Good post. I remember seeing Joel on Larry King Live last summer. The transcript of this conversation is still available online. You may have to google it to bring it up.

Anyway, Joel's answer to almost every question requiring critical thinking is "Larry, I don't know." Or Larry, to tell you the truth, I haven't really given it a lot of thought." Or "Honestly, I don't know.I just go up there and do what I do."

I came away from that interview thinking, "What an airhead! How in the world does someone this incompetent and this naive and this unbiblical get into a position where he is pastoring the largest church in America? What kind of hope can this man's ministry bring when his answer to almost any question raised against his theology is "I don't know?"

It's not that Joel is saying 'I don't know' because the questions are unanswerable. He says 'I don't know' because he has never given the questions any thought and doesn't feel inclined to ever begin giving them thought.

The basic proposition underlying Joel's messages is that "God wants to bless you." That's pretty much the theme of his entire ministry. But he never wrestles with real life. Like "Why do bad things happen to the people God allegedly wants to bless? Why does God allow hurricanes, tornadoes, cancer, inflation, unemployment, racism, etc.

Joel doesn't address these sorts of things in his messages from what I have seen. In public interviews, he is content with saying, "Larry, I don't know. I haven't given that much thought."

At least Joel is honest. I think if he told a lie, his tongue would snap off.

Brett Royal said...

Excellent post. If I have faith and I give my last dollar to the church thinking that God will take care of my needs, and God won't let me go hungry, will He? If you answer yes, I argue that you believe that God owes YOU something for YOUR sacrifice. It is totally the other way around. We owe a debt we can never repay, and thank God He paid a debt He didn't owe. God does not have an Obligation to keep us fed and happy. It is only by His grace that we have what we do.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Sue:

Well I have watched Joel Osteen on TV, and I know much more than we find in the NY Times this morning. And it is certainly true that Osteen is less problematic than Copeland. The issue is of course what one does with whatever it is that God blesses you with. Human beings have an infinite capacity for self-justification, for living large, and justifying it because they are giving a good deal to worthy causes. This is not what Jesus calls us to. He calls us to live a simple life, and a simple lifestyle which frees up what assets we have to do the work of the Gospel. Jesus did not say "Rev up your Cadillac and follow me." He said "take up your cross..." the ultimate symbol of self-sacrifice and follow me. It is an enormous mistake to extract a theology of prosperity out of the OT, for example Proverbs, without even considering the OT correctives in Ecclesiastes for example. But more to the point, we are not under the old covenant any more. We are suppose to be adhering to the Sermon on the Mount and the ethical teachings of the NT. We are called to a higher standard of self-sacrifice, as exemplified in Jesus.



Sandalstraps said...

Osteen's project combines the worst in liberalism and evangelicalism:

The prosperity Gospel of the televangelists, and the denial of universal human sinfullness of the liberals (as has been noted here before, I identify myself as a liberal).

This does not say that everything that he does is bad. Certainly not. Sue has pointed out many things which make Osteen's influence on our culture a relatively positive one.

But, as Ben Witherington has pointed out, Osteen fails to challenge American culture with the Gospel. He provides God's approval for our innate self-centeredness, which denies the theological reality that it is our selfish disposition which creates the great separation between us and God. In this respect Osteen is a liberal the likes of which he haven't seen in such a prominent role since the 1950's (think Norman Vincent Peale and his The Power of Positive Thinking).

Osteen's Gospel is not a radical challenge to the claims of self, but a reiteration of them. It is Bonhoeffer's cheap grace: grace without the cross. You can have God's favor (as though God were principally interested in favoring me) without the self sacrifice, without the crucifixion, without taking up your cross.

I have been labelled a heretic too many times by too many people to say this lightly, but what I have seen from Joel Osteen is not recognizable as Christianity.

I cannot say whether or not Joel Osteen makes some mention of Jesus, but I can say that his message is not the message of Jesus. Jesus called us to take up our cross, to die to ourselves. Osteen calls us to receive our inheritance, as though it were ours to receive.

But I'm sure that Osteen has been kicked enough by the likes of me. I'm no expert on his ministry. But I have seen him on TV, and did not like what I saw at all: God as the distributer (rather than just redistributer) or wealth.

yuckabuck said...

It wasn't until I read this post that I was finally able to put my finger on what's different about Osteen.

The "orthodox" faith teachers (from E.W. Kenyon thru Ken Hagin to today's group like Copeland, etc.) have always been on the fringe of Evangelicalism, as well as mainstream Pentecostalism, due to some of their unique teachings. For example, the faith teaching itself ("name it and claim it") which comes out of their philosophy of idealism ("you create your own reality with your words") is way out there for most, though it has its roots in a weird hybrid of Phoebe Palmer's altar theology and Transcendalism. This allows many of us to write them off pretty easily.

The thing about Osteen is that he doesn't appear to actually be in that camp. He is an Evangelical, of sorts. His "prosperity" that he teaches is of a more general sort, and is not tied to any overtly strange doctrine. He doesn't teach anyone to "claim" anything, and does not tell anyone to "ignore lying symptoms." His book was full of good advice about living an emotionaly healthy life, drawn from modern psychology mostly, but there didn't seem to be anything bad or heretical there. But there doesn't seem to be any acknowledgemnt of the role of suffering in the Christian's life.

I think that I would be horrified to ever hear my ministry described in the way that Joy describes Osteen's. Ouch.

Terry Hamblin said...

Promises in the Old Testament as well as signs of God's blessing are often, if not usually, in terms of prosperity. In the New Testament we are warned to expect hardship and tribulation. Yet even in the OT we are warned about our panelled houses and putting our wealth in a bag full of holes.

Generosity in giving is a Christian virtue, but he who fails to provide for his own family is worse than an infidel. When we make a God of money or possessions we worship an insubstantial idol. A short sojurn in Africa would make us realise how much we do that in the West, even when we are not aware of the sin we are committing.

I have found that the more I give away the more the Lord gives me, but even with that feedback I keep wanting to hold some back for myself. This is a little mnemonic I keep warning myself with: If you work ever so hard and develop a fat bank balance, when you die your life will be summed up by a few figures written on a piece of paper.

Money is a tool that can be used to make the world a better place; if it isn't used it's like a hoe going rusty in the garden shed.

Joel Osteen is not a well known name here in the UK, but orthodox evangelicalism here has rejected the prosperity gospel. On the other hand there is a marked reluctance to preach about money. British reserve dislikes mentioning filthy lucre so much that some wives have no idea how much their husbands earn. We may not like those American evangelists that emphasize giving, but there is perhaps a corrective necessary for us.

Matt said...

The prosperity gospel =

The American Dream with some Jesus sprinkled on top.

I refuse to outright condemn the "Faith Movement" because they brought some needed correction to the "moaning and groaning" tradition. I sat under a faith teacher for about a year and two things have stayed with me: the Holy Spirit is alive and well and actually wants to be both inwardly and outwardly active in my life and God actually likes me.

But I've still basically rejected the package those teachings came in.

opinionated said...

Preach it, Ben.

James Gregory said...

I agree with you.

But let us not forget these words:

1Tim. 6:17   As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, 19 thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life. (NRSV)

and these are great too:

Proverbs 30:7-9 – a balance: desire not wealth or poverty

Luke 12:13-21 – possessions can easily possess us and distort our relationship with God

Ecclesiastes 5:10-11 – you can’t ever have enough

Hebrews 13:5 – be content with what you have

Luke 12:22-34 – store up spiritual wealth

Ben Witherington said...


Thanks for sharing a more inside perspective. No one is saying Joel Osteen is not a pleasant person, or a nice guy. I used to like Mr. Rogers for the same reasons when I was growing up.

But as C.S. Lewis said, what God is calling us to is being new creatures, which is far more than nice guys. And in fact if we have no capacity for being righteously angry with the sin and evil of this world, in this respect we are not very much like Jesus.

What Americans need is not someone to make them feel comfortable or 'good' about themselves as they are. We have too much of that in any number of other venues. We need someone to help us be what the Lord wants us to be--- a person who can share and preach on the depths of God's grace precisely because he recognizes the height of human depravity, and therefore the need for the focus like a laser beam on the death of Jesus for our sins.

One more point--- nobody's partial and imperfect obedience ever made God bless them. As you yourself suggest-- its all grace, and never a quid pro quo.



Sky McCracken said...

Good post, Ben. Joel is validating a lot of American behavior - and is making our jobs as pastors a whole lot harder.



KentF said...

Two questions -- 1)I'm wondering what is so unbelievably attractive about Joel and the Lakewood church?
2) I'm wondering if the rock star status we give other authors such as Max Lucado is healthy? Max is from my denomination and also grew up in Texas and graduated from Abilene Christian University. He makes millions, maybe tens of millions every year, writing about Jesus. I can only imagine the difficulty he must have today keeping his life "simple".

David A Booth said...


Thank you for this excellent post.

One problem we face in America is that almost all of us consider ourselves to be middle class and that the Bible's warnings about coveting money are aimed only at the Donald Trumps of the world.

Consumerism is a real and present danger for Christians in the West.

Best wishes,


David A Booth said...


As an illustration of your article: soon after I posted my previous comment I received a junk e-mail with the title: "How to get stinkin' rich".

Welcome to life in America.


rev-ed said...

Thank you, Ben for an excellent analysis of the faulty idea of God blessing financially us because our own works.

Now if we can just get people to live like they actually believed it.

Tenax said...

I admit I've never heard of Joel Osteen, but Ben's sermon regarding the NT's view of wealth is dead on. It's one of the things that makes Jesus contrast so starkly with what had come before...he has ominous warnings for the wealthy. The Lucan beautitudes are essentially about the dangers of wealth; they are a list of against those complacent in their wealth. James really is a very class-conscious epistle. But Ben hits all this.

For me this is the 'other' great commission: to help those in the world in physical need. I think of Matthew's stark parable of the sheep and goats. I'm not a Marxist though I admire the goals of socialism; Marx's vision of history and support of violence both disturb me. But I can't deny the anger at the rich I hear in the gospels and in James, nor the admonitions in Paul and Matthew to practice 'true religion' and help those in need (and in Luke, as in the parable of the Samaritan).

As someone who has been in Evangelical churches and now attends an Episcopal parsih, this is one of the things the mainline denominations sometimes do better: assisting those in need in the world community is a central piece of the gospel. I need to hear it and practiced it myself, and that's why Ben's 'sermon' blogpost took my breath away.

Props to Joy for such an open share, and to Sue for noting the positive community work Joel's church has done. As I said, I know nothing about the man or his ideas

God bless. Love this blog.


Ben Witherington said...


There are two answers to why folks like Osteen are so attractive in upscale and upscale wanna be America. Firstly there is a deep spiritual hunger that all person's have, but at the same time they don't want to have to change much of their lifestyle to scratch that itch. This sort of Gospel-lite message is perfect for such an accomodation to 'our wonderful lifestyle'.

In a Jesus haunted culture, almost everyone wants a user friendly Jesus, not the challenging woe saying Jesus who promises judgment on resort cities on the sea of Galilee. But there is more--- if we can just find a preacher that gives us a Jesus who is civil, polite, understands all our wants and desires and thinks we should have the best of everything--- well, we will pay good money to have that Jesus. Unfortunately, its not the real Jesus at all.

Consider one fact. If we were to add up all the money Christians in America last year spent on sporting events alone (never mind other forms of entertainment), which clearly falls into the leisure spending category, we would have enough money to have adopted, and provided for the 80,000 sexually abused young girls of Thailand right through college. Its just one example, but a telling one of what a frivolous culture we are, when the world is going to Hades in a handbasket.

And even small things can be done to simplify ones life and free up resources to help others. This year my wife and I decided we must downsize our ride (rather than 'pimp it up' as the VW commercial suggests).

We have never owned a luxury vehicle, and on principle would never drive a gas guzzling SUV or RV, but now we are the proud owners of a Honda Civic Hybrid, which uses no gasoline while stopped in traffic, and otherwise gets about 50 to the gallon. This purchase has freed up enough money so we can double our faith promise funds for the UM Committee on Relief helping those recover on the Gulf Coast.

Its a small thing, but simplifying one's lifestyle is usually a step by step process. And many who truly are needy will rise up and bless you for the help this freed up money will provide.


Ben W.



Jim Martin said...

Thanks for this post. It is fair and unfortunately, accurate. There is more to the Gospel than God desiring to bless us. I just wonder what the message would be to suffering Christians.

Andrew said...

Thank-you Ben. I agree with so many comments but would like to add just one. This sort of message can only fly in a culture that is wealthy and ambitious for more wealth. Try preaching it is a poor nation on on the top of a slum or amongst the very people who Jesus lived and ministered! Just doesn't fly does it.

I often think that as followers of Jesus (and as a preacher like I am)we should apply 2 tests to all we do and say...

1. How would this read on the front page of the newspaper?

2. How would this stand up in the Third World amongst it's majority poor?

Osteen it seems falls down on at least one of these.

Ben Witherington said...


I would really encourage you to read John Wesley's sermon "On the Use of Money" (see the Sermon volume of his Works published by Abingdon). What Wesley says is that you should indeed make all you can by honest means. He listsa a variety of means that are not honest. This however is only step one, not the goal of the process. That involves saving and then giving all you can. If you do all three of these things then you could hardly be accused of desiring to get rich.

And as for the comment that Osteen's Gospel will not preach to the poor--- I wish it were true. I was teaching in Moscow and went to a large service of Russian Christians who were certainly all poor by American standards. They can barely afford their apartments. The message was the prosperity Gospel, and unfortunately it played very well, and raised quite the collection for the speaker...... I was nauseating and distressings.



Amie Lou said...

Please take this in love - this is certainly the way I intend it - but, I think that the prosperity gospel is used often times in lower income or even third world countries because it appeals to our emotions. People are desparate for any kind of solution and in those situations they easily fall prey to a wolf in sheep's clothing.
On a slightly unrelated note - this aspect of the prosperity gospel is providing atheists or deists alike with great ammunition of how Christians are getting it wrong. I have had many conversations with people about the gospel and the first thing they bring up are these type of evangelists... grrr (i am sure you know how frustrating this can be)

Anyway, just my two cents...

Ben, great post.


yuckabuck said...

Actually, if everyone reading this promises to send me a thousand dollars a week for the rest of my life, I promise that if I ever get a TV show, I won't preach a prosperity gospel except for Tuesdays and Thursdays. :-)

Ben Witherington said...

I prefer Tony Campolo to Max Lucado in the battle of the big Os


Weekend Fisher said...

Speaking as a Houstonian, people from out of town are really missing a part of the picture. Houston loves Osteen for a much deeper reason than that. Do you remember June of 2001 when Houston got 30" of rain in one week? Huge flooding. Red Cross shelters overwhelmed. People by the thousands went the one place they knew they would be welcomed: Osteen's church. He wasn't an official shelter. He didn't have food or cots or clothes to offer them. But he took them in faith, and got on TV (local news) and in faith asked for donations. He had so much donated that everyone -- and that was thousands of people -- had plenty and to spare. He had to cancel Sunday services because his sanctuary was ... er, occupied. The TV crews asked him if he minded and he said this (chance to serve and be part of God's love in action) was a better sermon than anything else (paraphrase). I've never heard him preach. I suspect he wouldn't pass a systematic theology test. But he's shown Christ in a better light than the next 10 of his detractors put together.

Isaac M. Alderman said...

sue notes that JO does not say that God want you rich, but prosperous which can have different connotations. Do you see similarities to schuller's "success" which does not always equate with wealth. I actually like schuller, so this is not a loaded (but rather honest) question.

Ben Witherington said...

Yes there are parallels with Schuller to be sure. the chief of which is the attempt to minimize the discussion of sin, the cross, evil and those sorts of things. I have nothing against being positive when it is called for, but consider this--- suppose I go to a doctor and all he says is "you're doing great on your diet, and exercise program." And then I press him because I haven't felt well lately and he adds "well yes you have a stage 4 melanoma and you're dying, but I didn't want to emphasize the negative."

It does not really help to ignore the negative when the world is dying of its own sin and self-centeredness.



thegreatswalmi said...

Thanks for your insightful posts, Dr. Witherington. I've enjoyed reading them over the last few months. As to the culture of prosperity here in North America, a good corrective for me has been Miroslav Volf's latest book, "Free of Charge" which emphasizes the nature of God's giving and forgiving, and calls us to do the same. Makes me look a lot harder at what i spend, why i spend, and how i can follow Christ more closely. Haven't bought the SmartCar yet (two babies and no backseat don't jive) but someday :)
thanks again, and God bless you,


Sandalstraps said...


Are you saying that his political views (which I don't claim to know) are interfering with his scholarship because he has Jesus disagreeing with you?

Seems like a bold claim, particularly since you admit to not being a scholar yourself.

Ad hominem arguments (arguments against the person) are an old stand-by for people who don't know what they're talking about. If you can't account for the arguments which support a view with which you disagree, then you must attack the person who holds the view, or the reasons you suspect they might hold it. That mode of discourse simply doesn't hold up.

Speaking of the relationship between theology and politics, could it be that those of us who are politically liberal (and I can't say whether or not Dr. Witherington belongs in that camp, though I'll freely admit that I do) derive our politics from our theology, rather than the other way around?

Brett Royal said...

I know this is unrelated to this post, so please forgive me. I have a couple of questions about the Apostles Creed that I would like your input on, if you have time. Can you send me your contact information? If you don't want to I definitely understand.

Ben Witherington said...

Traditionalist 1611:

It would be my view that both the church and the state have some social responsibilities to undertake for our society. I don't think you have any idea what my economics are, which are hardly left wing. There have in fact been both good and bad government programs to fight poverty going all the way back to the Depression.

Thank God for Franklin Roosevelt who rescued many with the WPA and the beginnings of Social Security. We are a big country and some of our problems are much too big and complicated to be handled purely locally.

This is perfectly clear from the Katrina disaster. FEMA had been stripped by Bush to the point that it could hardly be helpful in the situation, and its response at the initial point of need was pathetic.

Perhaps you have never heard of such programs as VISTA or the Peace Corps and a host of other programs which have helped both our country and others? You seem to need to do more research on what the government has actually done for our country, and I am not talking about welfare.

So please no more stereotypes about 'left wing' economics. Tony Campolo and Ron Sider are hardly socialists. The fact is that Clinton did a far better job for our capitalist economy and left us with a surplus, compared to the present regime.



The Telemicus Files said...

All I want to ask is whether you people have ever been to Lakewood?Have you examined the ministry and not just the t.v. show? Have you been given the task or permission of judging the man and his life? I've been there and looked at the bigger picture. I agree he is short on meat. But we are a culture of baby christians. Most are more interested in raising their kids, keeping a marriage together and fighting through the daily grind than they are doctrines of transsubstantiation or eschatology. I know the falacy of the prosperity gospel. but there is a bigger picture with mega churches and mega pastors and while i can see clearly where these men miss the mark in public theology, the bible still says "who are you to judge the servant of another. its before his own master that he stands or falls." If these men are due for a fall, the Lord will see to it. as for the rest of us. we would do well to get on with our work and off the backs of those who are doing more in the big picture of a week than we might have the opportunity to do in a year. i say God bless all who minister to God's people and God judge his own servants. time to go to work brothers.

David said...

Beyond the prosperity gospel, I'd say we have to account for that the entire Gospel of Mark focusses on suffering, and it's a very common theme in Acts and the epistles that a Christian is going to suffer. Taking up one's cross and following Jesus was hardly figurative for first century Christians, neither should it be for us.
Does God want us to be prosperous? Maybe. Does God want us to be good stewards of our money? Yes. Does God call us to follow him, no matter the cost, even if it costs us our whole life, to the point of death? Most definitely.

annabanana5 said...

All I could think of as I read that article was the part in Mark 12:41-43 where the widow put in the offering the very last two copper coins she had while the wealthy only gave a portion. It bothers me that there is a perception that God is like a glorified Santa Claus that gives you what you want all the time. In my opinion, If Joel Osteen was really a disciple of Christ, he would give his "Premium" parking spot to someone who really needed it.

CaptnSaj said...

I just finished reading Osteen's new book - "Your Best Life Now". I had never heard of him before so I didn't know what I was getting myself into. I am a Muslim, not a Christian and as a Muslim, I have to say that wanting wealth is not a bad thing. Making it your life's goal and letting it control you is.

I write a long review of what I liked and disliked about this book on my blog:
"Best Life Now" Review

Bongo Journalist said...

All you moonbat atheists are going to hell anyway, so don't sweat it.

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Mr. B said...

Extremely astute analysis. Most of these so-called Christians know nothing of Jesus and do not follow his teachings; he's nothing more than a figurehead under which to gather their power, like other religious symbols, such as the Roman Emperor and the English King. Many American leaders have tried to align themselves with Jesus, like Caesar with Jupiter in Rome, in order to manipulate, brainwash and control the people. Truthfully, since the day Jesus died, many people stopped following him and made up their own version of his teachings, and the most successful Christians have been the ones who strayed the furthest, like Joel Osteen and George Bush. Lord have mercy on their greedy, proud, wasteful, vain, belligerent souls.

yahoo said...

John Wesley was, also, just a mere man, and yet he is, obviously, worthy of your high esteem. Making it clear that yours is just another philosophy about what you think is right (Godly) by Man.
I am not, here, making any statement as to whether I agree with the people you criticize (or uphold), rather, that I find your logic and reasoning skill quite on the kindergarten level. You write a long winded article, only proving how smart (ignorant) you are and fail to notice that at the end you didn't turn one heart to Jesus, or send it on its way rejoycing its healing, as shown by the fruit (evidence) of the comments you drew. Including the one(s) opposing the content of your article.
Knowing that certain argument is useless, I leave you to ponder Eccl. 10:19, and Isa. 54:16, leaving God's business to Him.

John said...

I think the Bible does have a fairly clear theology of retirement - start with passages like Luke 12:13-21...

P said...

I'm glad to see evangelicals more boldly challenging and denouncing the prosperity gospel. But we still have a ton of self-examination to do about money. If we live anything like most Americans, then we are hardly any closer to the New Testament's teachings than are the preachers of prosperity.

Chris Lockemy said...

Unfortunately I havent read all of the comments so I am running the risk of repeating an already made comment but:
Using the verse-Where your treasure is there your heart will be also... sort of becomes a semantic arguement. Hypithetically, I attend Lakewood and I faithfully give my tithes and offerings to my home church because it does great amounts of good in the community. Wouldn't that be the same as your arguement of giving what you have to do good???

My treasure is that poverty be ended and all sorts of social injustices be cured; it just so happens that the vehicle that I see best to do this is a church that already has organized a plan.

Of course 'my home church' takes a large amount of money to operate but doesnt any large organization doing large amounts of good?

And I am referring to leading people to Christ, which happens often, as large amounts of good; as well as practical things.

Just some thoughts
Chris Lockemy
Baltimore MD

Anonymous said...

What a shame that the basic Sin the first sin (Cane and Abel) still plagues us today - Jelousy. You shall not Judge lest you be judged and as well please research and know someone before you use the internet to try and smudge their name. I do not Know Joel Osteen personally but I have read his books and listened to many of his teachings and as the book of Romans says: God's Holy spirit gave us all different gifts, some are called to be evangelists, some teachers some preachers etc. Joel Osteen is called to be a teacher - that he does, very well. Christ did a little teaching as well if you remember. Joel Osteen never says God will bless you with money if ----. He says God has called you to be the best you can be in all that you do! He also does an alter call in all his services. God Bless Joel, his family and the work of their hands. For he has raised each of their people in different calls.

Preta said...

Mr. Witherington, Whether or not anyone ever believes this, "there are people who do care about Osteen, and those in that building", because hell is widening itself and the "real message of the Gospel" is being lost out in what is going on there.
Yourself and a few others have been right on the money with what you've written about the man who calls 'himself the christian motivational speaker' (don't remember seeing this particular title anywhere in the Bible mind you.).
Also, might I ask you a very important message, that NO one seems to have answered as of yet? If we 'claim' to be followers of God and Jesus Christ, and say that we believe in the Word of God then are we not supposed to present the Gospel and 'not our views'?
People have written to you speaking about Joel and his dad and what 'they've' done for others, but in the scheme of things, what exactly does that have to do with the Gospel of the Kingdom of God?
I wish that at the very least one or even two people would post a video of Joel's 'whole' sermon, I have yet to see a full one, in order for us to see him talk about the God of the Bible that he holds up at the beginning and end of those sessions?
What happened to the true preaching of the Word, and not just 'incidents' that happened to him, which seem to take up almost the whole thirty minutes of the show? I have yet to hear the word sin, the cross, salvation in Jesus Christ, redemption, hell, etc. be mentioned (even for those who 'say' they're Christians and go to that building, what about those who slip in 'unaware' and may not be?)
Thanks so very much Erikt and others, your message was right on target. Josh Lee, perhaps the Christians that 'you' encountered knew nothing about Christ, and may not have followed him but you should not and can not stick that label on all of us.
Lastly, I deeply apologize for this extremely LONG post, but if those of us who say we're Christians, and hold true to ALL that it says while others like Joel twist the meanings (scriptures para-phrased rather than being given in the actual way they're written.), then "whose report are we really believing", Joel's or the God of heaven and earth that we supposedly love and honor?
Joel and all others who follow him might be in for a very rude awakening, if they don't wake up and start smelling that coffee, by following the Savior who gave His very life for ALL mankind (even those who 'think' they don't believe.).
Jesus is coming y'all, but will you be ready when He gets here???

Zoe said...

I have one question, " What would Jesus say if He is amongst you now?"

An ex muslim who has been transformed by the power of the cross finds this very disturbing. Skeptical about Christians, I thank God that He first appeared in my living room in a vision and said in my spirit, "I died for you", and affirmed me to 'follow him'. My life has been a curse and deprived of many things, including my desire to be a teacher. Knowing Jesus gives me hope and the truth about God. This Jesus I know is gentle, non-judgemental and such a blessing to the 'poor'. This Jesus I know brings me closer to God that at times when I'm busy studying, He called me to have a 'chat' and I just cried and cried that I can have a chat with this wonderful God. I have been a strong follower of Jesus for nearly six years and year by year he transformed me into this 'beautiful'child of God and in which I had give and give and give to the needy. My idea of following Jesus is to go to the third world country n suffer for my Lord. Yet, we had no peace about it every time we were overseas on several small mission trips. Throughout my 'colourful' christian walk, my family sees me as blessed and full of joy- experiencing God's blessing, favour and love in every part of my life; God fulfills my desire/long lost dream to be a teacher, I'm married to a wonderful husbaand, and a joy that is always in my heart that makes me want to love others. This is a far cry from the old me who was frustrated and extremely judgemental because I didn't get to fulfill my dream, hatred and feels unworthy. If this Jesus can change me from poor to rich, curse to blessing, shame to 'proud' (to be me), hatred to love, unskilled to skilled, lack to plenty, sorrow to joy, and sick to healthy,and in which all these point to prosperity in life -success and wealth, why is it so wrong for Joel Osteen?

I have been attending church since I became a christian and have not had my 'food', except for the times I spend with my Father privately and chosen books, mainly because I love the 'meaty meals'. However, I have been encouraged by the prosperity gospel of Joseph Prince, Joyce Meyer and so forth, yet my eyes are still fixed on Jesus to fulfill his great commission to the unreached peoples group.My blessed/prospered life now is a withness to my family; the change in me, in EVERY area of my life. For this 'season' in my life the prosperity gospel shed some light about God's abundance and in which is manifested in this group of believers. Will I go for this trend? Love to.. if He commissions me to help the 'needy' thru such channel.

The one thing I love about christianity is the love of Jesus amongst christians and the freedom that comes with the cross. The Jesus that you love and Joel Osteen loves is the same Jesus......Does Jesus make an issue about doctrines?

The fundamental of christianity is THE CROSS and his resurrection. In my understanding it is manifested in his believers in many creative ways.
Lets put away our stones.