If you do any kind of evangelism in the Land of Joel, Joel Osteen’s will quickly come up. It will probably come up even if you are just having a casual conversation about religion. Love him or hate him, his is the face of Christianity in Houston, the person about whom everyone has an opinion. I have spoken with ardent supporters and members/attenders of Lakewood who defend him and I have spoken with opponents of Osteen who see him as a false teacher betraying the God he claims to serve.
Most of the folks I speak with, including some of his supporters, are quick to point out that Joel isn’t really a traditional pastor, but rather a kind of innocuous “motivational speaker” who just wants to help others. They concede that Joel does not talk much about sin, forgiveness, the cross (1 Cor. 2:2), and instead has carved out a niche as the “power of positive thinking” pastor.
The “motivational speaker” phrase comes up again and again. I’ve decided that it is either strange compliment or a weak critique. Mostly, I think it is how people come to peace with Joel, because in their hearts, they know something is wrong with what he is doing. It’s almost like an admission that he’s a sub-par pastor because he’s really acting as a motivational speaker. Or they are excusing him from his pastoral mandates because he has intentionally decided not to be a pastor. So he’s immune from critique by the discernment crowd because, well, he’s not really a pastor, he’s a motivational speaker.
The problem with letting him skate by as a mere “motivational speaker” is that it belies what the man says about himself, and by extension, his wife. Driving by Lakewood regularly, I am reminded that both Osteens are clearly labeled “Pastors” on their signage. So it is Joel who calls himself and Victoria “Pastor”.
If his exterior sign does not convince you that he really thinks of himself as a pastor giving sermons, then note how he begins each and every sermon. He does not begin by saying, “Now, just to be clear, I am not going to teach you the word of God. Today you are going to hear a motivational speech so you are encouraged.” Quite the contrary! He says this: “This is my Bible. I am what it says I am. I can do what it says I can do. Today, I will be taught the Word of God. I boldly confess: My mind is alert, My heart is receptive. I will never be the same. I am about to receive The incorruptible, indestructible, Ever-living seed of the Word of God. I will never be the same . [sic] Never, never, never. I will never be the same. In Jesus name. Amen.” That is from Joel’s site here.
From those words, you certainly get the impression the guy thinks pretty highly of God’s Word and intends to preach it. Yet, his supporters and critics alike think of him as a motivational speaker. Well, which is it? What gives?
I say we judge him by the way he describes himself and hold him to that standard. He is not a motivational speaker. He is a pastor. He claims to have a high regard for the incorruptible and indestructible Word of God. (Couldn’t he have just said “inerrant” and “infallible” and fallen in line with other serious evangelicals?)
So stop giving the man cover! We have the right to judge him by his own words and judge him by the book he claims to be his authority. Test his ministry against Paul’s qualifications in 1 Timothy 3. Listen carefully to his sermons with an open Bible, and follow each of his citations. (You should do the same for me, by the way.) Read them in their context and see if he faithfully explains the passage, or if he ducks and dodges and contorts and even lies. If he is going to insist on being a pastor, then judge him like one. Don’t let him off the hook as a “motivational speaker” when he never claims to be any such thing.
And when you’re in conversations with others and the name Joel Osteen comes up, listen for this description. Is this what others call Joel? If so, don’t let it slide. Remind them that regardless of what they think Joel Osteen is, he claims to be a pastor and should be judged as such. Then the question is not whether he is a good or bad motivational speaker, but whether or not he is a faithful pastor. If he is, great! He sure is doing a bang-up job of saving souls. If he is not, he is not only not a motivational speaker, he is a destructive force for the Kingdom of God and should be openly confronted by the Church as one who is not saving souls, but more likely killing them.
By claiming to be a pastor in Christ’s Church – but then giving the impression he is a safe motivational speaker – he is actually giving his adherents a false sense of security. He is convincing them that it is safe to believe his Gospel instead of the Biblical Gospel. He is practically winking at them and saying, “Trust me.” The question is: is he trustworthy? As a motivational speaker, absolutely! As a pastor, not even close.