Joel and His Critics: a Case of Clashing Prooftexts

Joel Osteen’s name has appeared a lot in the blogosphere as of late. It started with Chris Tilling’s unfavorable comparison of Rudolf Bultmann with Joel, which got Jim West riled up in Tilling Attacks Bultmann. Ben Witherington III had his jab for Joel in his October 27 post, “Memo to Mr. Osteen from John Wesley.” Adrian Warnock then posted a video in which Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church tried to refute Joel’s prosperity doctrine, which prompted a thoughtful response by Peter Kirk in Mark Driscoll head to head with Joel Osteen.

You can probably see from my links on the right that I am a Joel Osteen fan. Listening to him each week encourages me and gives me hope. I have his two audio books, Your Best Life Now and Become a Better You, which I have listened to at school and at home. I like them because they give me positive, faith-filled thoughts. My thoughts naturally go in the direction of negativity (e.g., bitterness, resentment, unforgiveness, self-pity, anxiety, low self-esteem), and Joel’s hopeful message and friendly manner help me have a more positive attitude toward life.

At the outset, let me articulate my biggest problem with Joel’s critics. They quote Bible passages that criticize wealth and that uphold the poor, and yet many of them lead comfortable, middle-class lives. They live in nice homes, have jobs, eat good food, and have spouses and friends. Those among them who do not possess all of these things are probably working to have them. And they consider these things to be blessings from God. Take your harshest critic of the prosperity Gospel who has a good, high-paying job, and I’ll bet that he praises God for his position. So what is wrong with me desiring these things, or trusting that God will bless me with them at some point in my life? Am I supposed to live my life in hopelessness?

Let me get something else off my chest: I’m tired of Joel’s critics saying that he doesn’t use the Bible much. Joel is such a nice person that he even agreed with his detractors about this in an interview. What he should have said was, “Do these people actually watch the show?” I have heard the Bible quoted in virtually every one of his sermons. He backs up what he says with Scripture.

My third criticism is my usual problem with many evangelicals: they act as if the Bible teaches one, univocal message on every issue. The problem is not that Joel is deceived while his critics are “biblical.” Rather, the situation is that both sides can get prooftexts for their viewpoints from the Bible.

Let’s start with Joel. Does the Bible ever promise material prosperity for obedience? All over the place. Abraham was rich. God blessed Jacob (and Esau) with children and flocks. Joseph got a high-ranking position. In the Torah, God promised abundance of crops and national prominence in exchange for obedience. Psalm 37:25-26 says that the righteous person has enough to lend, and his seed never begs for food. Psalm 104 mentions physical blessings (oil, wine, bread) that God created for humanity. Proverbs gives advice on how to become rich and influential. Job had wealth, which God restored in double measure after his temporary test. God promises to rain down blessings from heaven if Israel tithes (Malachi 3:10). As far as the New Testament goes, Jesus brought people healing. Moreover, II Corinthians 9 says that the one who sows bountifully will reap bountifully, and Paul says in vv 8-9 that God will bless his people with enough to take care of their own needs and help with the needs of others.

On the other hand, the anti-prosperity Gospel side can point to some Scriptures. There are poor people in Old Testament Israel, and God looks out for them because of his compassion. He does not treat them as vile sinners on account of their poverty, saying, “You are poor because you disobeyed!” Also, the Bible does not assume that every rich person has wealth as a reward for righteousness, for some gained their possessions through oppression or corruption. On some level, a person’s poverty or wealth does not indicate whether or not he’s a good person. Proverbs acknowledges that a person can be materially poor and yet have riches, such as wisdom and understanding (Proverbs 13:7; 28:6). The New Testament condemns covetousness and says that the rich will have a hard time entering God’s kingdom (Matthew 19:23-24). Jesus tells a parable in which a poor man enters Abraham’s bosom while a rich man does not (Luke 16:20ff.). The early church was composed of many poor people, whom God chose to be rich in faith (James 2:5). I Timothy 6:5-6 contrasts seeing gain as godliness with the true principle that godliness with contentment is gain in itself.

Then, there are parts of the Scripture that accord with “name it, claim it,” and there are parts that do not. Jesus says in Matthew 21:22, “And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.” I’m sure prosperity preachers appeal to that verse to say that we should confess abundance over our lives so that God will provide it. At the same time, there are passages that seem more realistic, or less certain about future abundance. Ecclesiastes 11:6 says, “In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand: for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good.” In other words, you don’t know if God will prosper you, but you at least have a shot at prosperity if you work.

So what do I do with all this? I don’t know. I think both positions have their merits. God created material blessings and he wants them to be enjoyed, yet he does allow poverty, which is not necessarily the consequence of sin. At the same time, God wants the impoverished to enjoy some prosperity, since the Torah has laws about gleanings and sharing with the poor at festivals. In addition, there is such a things as spiritual wealth, meaning that a person can lack abundance yet have contentment (Philippians 4:12-13).

As far as my own life is concerned, I have to believe that God wants me to be useful. He gave me my talents for a reason, and he would like for me to use them for his glory. So I believe that God will give me a job, and also that he will use me to make some difference my current environment. I also expect God to provide for my needs (e.g., food, clothing, shelter, relationships), for he promises to do so throughout the Bible. And, since he likes to make his children happy, maybe he’ll throw in some nice extras, who knows?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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4 Responses to Joel and His Critics: a Case of Clashing Prooftexts

  1. John says:

    Not long ago, I heard Rudy Rasmus speak, who also pastors a megachurch in Houston like Joel Osteen. I’m pretty impressed by what Rudy is doing. But Rudy only had good things to say about Joel. Interesting.


  2. James Pate says:

    Yeah, it’s always good when pastors build one another up rather than being jealous or competitive.


  3. Anonymous says:

    I suppose everyone is going to have their critics. I wonder if everyone who attended the mega churches went out and did a good deed, how much things would change in America.
    It is nice to go away feeling “good about yourself”. There is a time and a place for everything…a time to build up, for example. I don’t think Joel Osteen has ever really professed to be anything but what he is…an edifier and encourager. That seems to be his great gift from God. I don’t even think what he is doing is not biblical. He doesn’t do a “full spectrum” church and doesn’t claim do as far as I know.I read his books and watch him, along with my regular in depth studies. Here a little, there a little.


  4. James Pate says:

    Yeah, that’s my approach. I don’t restrict my spiritual diet to Joel, but there is nothing wrong with receiving regular encouragement.


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