The False Promise Of The Prosperity Gospel: Why I Called Out Joel Osteen And Joyce Meyer

I have been preaching for 20 years. Yesterday I did something that I have never done before in a sermon. I publicly called out false teachers and named them by name. I said:

If you listen to Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer, if you take what they teach seriously, it will not be good for you. It will be detrimental to your long-term growth as a follower of Jesus.

(You can watch my sermon here.)

I used to think that their error was so blatantly obvious that they could just be ignored. I was wrong. They are massively growing in popularity in the evangelical world and are seen as credible and helpful. Before I’m inundated with questioning emails I want to share why I distrust these two and think you should as well. So, don’t shoot me — at least not yet.

When I was a kid I could tell the difference between neighborhood kids who wanted to be my friend from the neighborhood kids who were my friends so that they could play with my toys. Joel and Joyce are the latter. They both teach a twisted form of Christianity that teaches obedience, giving and faith as a way to get things from God. They are both products of what is known as the Prosperity Gospel and The Word of Faith Movement, or the Seed Faith Movement.

John Piper does a great job of defining what the Prosperity Gospel is and why it is so sinister. Please take a few minutes to watch this before moving on to the critiques of Joyce Meyer and Joel Osteen:

Joyce Meyer

When I first heard her tell her story I was deeply moved and impressed. She is an amazing example of overcoming hurts and abuse. She will forever have my admiration and respect in that regard. Furthermore, she gives spectacular advice. If my wife or if one of my daughters went to her in a moment of crisis, I believe they would return with magnificently helpful advice. If they went to her for teaching, they would return with deadly heresy.

False Doctrine

1. She teaches that Jesus literally stopped being the Son of God on the Cross (listen here):

“He could have helped himself up until the point where he said I commend my spirit into your hands, at that point he couldn’t do nothing for himself anymore. He had become sin, he was no longer the Son of God. He was sin.”

2. She teaches that Jesus went to Hell and became the first-born again man (listen here):

.. Joel Osteen

Like Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen has some really great things to say. He is encouraging and the man is certainly happy. This should not be held against him.

The man is confused on theology. He has much of the same doctrinal misunderstandings as does Joyce Meyer. They come from the same tradition. His doctrine is difficult to discern for many because he won’t talk about doctrine. He won’t talk about theology. He quickly back pedals when asked hard questions, as seen here in an interview with Larry King.

In fairness, Joel published a letter of apology after this interview.

While I commend him for his humility and courage to publicly declare that he was wrong, this is just one of too many instances. He frequently misunderstands important matters of faith and doctrine when being interviewed. He repeatedly gets the Gospel wrong. And he does so when talking to millions.

If we take Joel at his word, our only conclusion is that he is either incapable or unwilling to understand and explain how the Gospel intersects with all of life.

We recently hosted Hank Hanegraaff (The Bible Answerman) at SMCC. He has some very helpful insights (here and here) into Joel Osteen’s confused views of faith, doctrine and Scripture:

Joel Osteen and Prosperity Gospel

The Prosperity Gospel is much like all other religions in that it uses faith, it uses doing good things to leverage material blessings from God. Essentially, use God to get things from God.

“If you are believing for your child to find God, go help somebody else’s child to develop a relationship with God. If you’re struggling financially, go out and help somebody who has less than you have … f you want to reap financial blessings, you must sow financial seeds in the lives of others … If you want to see healing and restoration come to your life, go out and help somebody else get well” From Your Best Life Now, pp. 224, 250-51

This is not the Gospel. This is a false Gospel. Joel teaches that we open ourselves to God to get more from God. He teaches that we use our words to speak into existence a better reality. This straight from the Word of Faith Movement. This is not what is taught throughout the New Testament. Consider what the Apostle Paul wrote. And remember that he wrote this while in prison.

Philippians 4:10-13 I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

Conclusion

When I was in seminary, Heather and I were poor. There were seasons in which I worked 70+ hours a week while taking a full-time Master’s load. There were times that I had to sleep every other day so that I could get all my work done. This was an extended period of exhausting financial stress.

During this time, I remember reading something from Joel Osteen. He and his wife claimed by faith a new house that they wanted. Joel was unsure, but his wife Victoria was confident. And she lovingly chastised him for his lack of faith. Sometime later, they purchased that house. Still in seminary, my wife and I were walking through our dream neighborhood and that was playing through my mind. As I walked through the neighborhood, looking at all the homes, I wanted so badly for what Joel is teaching to be true. I don’t know if you can understand how desperately I wanted it to be true.

I wanted relief and I wanted more. But I knew that it wasn’t true. I knew that my exhaustion and desperation made me emotionally vulnerable to this false Gospel. I’m educated and well read. I’ve haven’t just read the Bible, I’ve translated large chunks of it from the original Hebrew and Greek. I think I understand it. I think I have a relatively significant level of discernment. But for a moment, I was emotionally vulnerable to this false doctrine.

What about the millions of others who are desperate, searching, hoping and vulnerable without the discernment? We owe it to them to not tolerate a false gospel any longer.

If you made it to the end of this blog post, congratulations. This is a thick and heavy subject. Even though I’ve written much, this only begins to scratch the surface of the repugnant nature of the Prosperity Gospel.

Modern day prophets. They’re not who you might think.

.. But Biblically and historically, true prophets spoke out about injustice and exploitation. They spoke on God’s behalf when his people went astray and forgot the poor.

They punched up. Not down.

They spoke truth to power, not condemnation to the downtrodden and marginalized.

(As a fun exercise – have a read through the book of Amos and see how much these words resonate, or not, with the words of the so-called “prophets” of ultra-right wing Charisma News).

There are a whole lot of people who call themselves “prophets” today. But most of them barely ackowledge poverty, expoitation, or injustice. Jesus knew this, and that’s why he warned that there will always be a bunch of false prophets and false teachers running their mouths off who will “deceive many people” (Mt. 24:11).

You will know them by their fruit, because they only have one key message – God is going to “enlarge your tent” and “expand your influence”, he’s going to “give you great favor” and “bless you mightily”. 

Bollocks.

Of course God blesses. Of course God gives people favor, and even gives them influence sometimes. But these were not the main priorities of the Biblical prophets. This did not form the core of their message.

In Biblical times, there were two types of prophets.

  1. Firstly, there were those who feasted at the King’s table because they had been co-opted to speak well of evil leaders (1 Kings 18:19). They were always bringing these smarmy words of favor and influence and prosperity to the king. And the king lapped it up. Like a sucka.
  2. Secondly, there were those who were exiled to the caves, or beheaded (like John the Baptist) because they spoke out about the injustice or immorality of their leaders (1 Kings 18:4). The king didn’t like them very much. He tried to have them knee-capped.

I would suggest to you that, the leaders of the religious right in America, Charisma News, and so-called “prophetic leaders” of the charismatic and evangelical church (like James Dobson and Franklin Graham), have become the false prophets of this generation.

 

Case in point, their support of Donald Trump – possibly the most corrupt, immoral and unjust man to run for leadership in the Western World in recent years.

This man and his evangelical groupies have led a majority of white American evangelical Christians astray. (A Pew survey showed that 78% of white evangelicals support Trump).

These false prophets claim he is “God’s Trumpet” who will restore the power they long for – power over Supreme Court appointments. They hope to feast at his table when he comes into power and are willing to turn a blind eye to things they have been talking about for decades, including adultery, sexual assault, racism, misogyny, violence, etc.

They are the very definition of false prophets. And to my mind this calls into question every aspect of their ministry and teaching. They clearly DON’T have a hotline to God, because I know that God is particularly concerned about orphans and widows and foreigners. The very people that Trump bulldozes to build his next casino.

I urge you to consider what a true prophet sounds like. Listen to people who echo the prophets of the Bible, speaking truth to power and grace and love to the downtrodden.

Here is a sampling of Biblical prophets just to remind you what they sound like:

“Hear this, you who trample the needy and destroy the poor of the land!”
Amos the prophet (Amos 8:4)

“Seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”
Isaiah the prophet (Isaiah 1:17)

“Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice”
Jeremiah the prophet (Jeremiah 22:13)

“Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”
Ezekiel the prophet (16:49)

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Micah the prophet (Micah 6:8)

“Thus says the Lord of hosts… do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the immigrant, or the poor…”
Zechariah the prophet (Zechariah 7:9-10)

Got it? It’s pretty clear to anyone who has immersed themselves in these scriptures.

The teachings of many modern day evangelical church leaders just do not resonate with God’s heart for justice, the way the Biblical prophets did.

So who will you listen to? I’d love to know, who you see as prophetic in this day and age? Share in the comments.

A Welcoming Church No More

Now I’m no longer comfortable with the label of “evangelical” because I have become slack-jawed with disgust at friends who will defend Trump harder that they defend the gospel.

.. We cringe when pastors and church members have no qualms about praying for law enforcement and hear deafening silence when it comes to victims of police brutality — or pointed accusations that it was the victims’ fault.

.. It wasn’t “fair” policy criticism, and people — black people in particular — understood what he meant: Donald Trump was saying that a person of African origin was incapable of being president of the United States.

And for eight years Trump ran with that flag. He waved it around and beaned people over the head with it. He tweeted he had detectives in Hawaii combing through birth records and leaving no stone unturned. In his hands, the birther movement took life and grew.

.. I noticed the obvious token smatterings of black faces in the crowd.

.. I saw him talk at people who looked like me as opposed to talking with us. And most disturbingly, I saw bigots line up behind Trump. People who felt Obama was “other,” people who swallowed the birther foolishness, people who felt that it was the victim’s fault when they were shot by police, individuals who felt their skin color made them superior and somehow “oppressed” by social justice.

.. What we are now seeing is a break in the fragile alliance between black and white evangelical Christians, which was always fraught with historical baggage.

.. It has been observed that black men go into jails as “Christian” (i.e., raised in a Christian home and often identifying as Christian) but come out Muslim. In this transformation to Islam, they find a sense of self-worth and inner value. They develop a love for their communities, pride, and militancy for upliftment: factors the Christian church tends to miss, with its focus on the hereafter while the oppressors enjoyed a heaven here on earth.

These churches were on almost every corner in a community infested with squalor. Pastors were well dressed, decorated in jewelry, and escorted around in luxurious cars. But their parishioners were impoverished, fleeting lives surrounded by drugs, alcohol, and vice.

..  I came into my faith by way of the white evangelical church. The initial shock of seeing a pastor not dressed well, but in jeans and a T-shirt, gave way to a sense of peace. I enrolled at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, started leading Bible study, and worshipped next to people of all shades and hues. God helped me toward a broader definition of “brothers and sisters.”

.. church has two diametrically opposite meanings within black and white societies. For the black community in America, since the early 19th century, church came to personify a refuge, a place of spiritual sustenance and succor. It was a foundation of perseverance that allowed black men and women to face their days dealing with bigotry, discrimination, hatred, and injustice. The black church also cultivated a robust demand for social change, which even in my days of being an angry, young rebel, I could not deny.

.. For white America, church is seen differently. It is a place to celebrate the success of life. Church is a joyous reveling for the fortunate in what God has done for them. It seemed eager to embrace glib political jargon and to conflate the doctrines of Christianity with a vague Americanism.

.. Church isn’t about injustice, because the people raising their hands to thank God for Donald Trump probably never had to face it.

.. The white evangelical church today now seems to me like a cruise ship with a mad captain at the helm. The passengers are dancing and partying as the band plays, totally oblivious to an oncoming catastrophe

.. But they don’t see the holes in the ship. They miss the small ones naturally, but even the bigger holes strangely elicit no cause for concern.

.. The evangelicals who voted for Trump effectively discarded the chapters of the Bible that extolled patience, love, forgiveness, peace, care for the poor and suffering, and replaced them with pamphlets for guided tours of the Wall, white nationalist jargon, and juvenile vitriol. They have gained the uncanny ability to campaign against “snowflakes,” following up a heartless bigoted statement with a profession of faith or a selective Biblical verse.

.. Despite my absence and feelings of brokenheartedness, white evangelical churches across this country are gleeful with self-congratulated accomplishment as they thank God for Donald Trump

.. “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

The Christian sect that has always cheered on Donald Trump

Why Donald Trump’s biggest Christian champions love him so much.

Observers have characterized evangelical support for President Trump as reluctant yet highly durable. But this depiction ignores Pentecostal-Charismatic Christians who, from the beginning, have been largely enthusiastic Trump supporters.

Sixty-one percent of Pentecostal pastors surveyed in 2016 planned to vote for Trump, and they are a force on Trump’s “evangelical advisory board.” And notably, the Pentecostal-Charismatic media consistently gives the president favorable coverage. Unlike the evangelicals who see Trump as a necessary, but distasteful, conduit for their policy preferences, sincere theological conviction drives many Pentecostal-Charismatic Christians to see the president as a prophetically foretold leader.

.. the groups are historically distinct— until the mid-20th century, Pentecostals and their Charismatic descendants weren’t routinely grouped with their evangelical counterparts.

.. he uncannily demonstrates deep affinities with certain Pentecostal-Charismatic subcultures. Here are five historic subcultures and theologies that explain why some Pentecostal-Charismatics proudly support Trump.

1. Pentecostal-Charismatic celebrity culture

Trump has cultivated support among Pentecostal-Charismatic celebrities such as Jim Bakker, Paula White and Mark Burns, who, like the president, are media moguls with scandalous histories. These televangelists attain authority as Pentecostal-Charismatic leaders through celebrity culture over (and in some cases, against) traditional qualifications for the ministry, such as ordination or seminary education.

.. the general public historically viewed tongue-speaking, emotive Pentecostals — who burst onto the 20th century American religious scene with a black leader (William J. Seymour), interracial services and female preachers — as delusional or even dangerous.

.. as the movement grew, presidents seemingly warmed up to Pentecostal-Charismatics — even the televangelists. Televangelist Oral Roberts met with Kennedy, Nixon and Carter; in 1985, Ronald Reagan gave a very friendly interview to Charismatic Baptist media mogul Pat Robertson.

.. Trump’s invitation to Charismatic televangelist Paula White to deliver an inaugural prayer alongside evangelical legacy Franklin Graham — a role traditionally performed by respectable religious leaders from mainstream and mainline religious organizations — reflects the changing terms of politics and religion in the U.S. It is a cultural coup to promote White, seen in more traditional evangelical quarters as a “heretic” and “charlatan,” into these honorable ranks.

.. 2. Prosperity

Engaging with devotees of the “prosperity gospel” — whose believers celebrate overt displays of wealth as clear signs of God’s favor (see: the cast of Preachers of LA) — makes sense for the wealthy, celebrity-friendly Trump. His prosperity theology, coupled with his unabashed embodiment of conspicuous consumption, resonates with Pentecostal-Charismatics, who are leading creators and purveyorsof this much-maligned theology.

.. 3. Lowbrow know-how

Pentecostal-Charismatics hail from a long line of anti-institutionalists.

.. Some present-day Pentecostals perpetuate this anti-authoritarian stance, preferring (by wide margins) common sense to intellectual know-how, and viewing cultural elites with deep suspicion and antipathy. Trump’s repeated rejection of scientific consensus regarding climate change and his rowdy approach to foreign policy resonate with Pentecostal-Charismatics. In their view, educated elites don’t faithfully describe the world as Pentecostal-Charismatics know it, and those elites sure don’t know how to fix it.

4. Zionism

Like many evangelicals, especially those who identify as fundamentalist, Pentecostal-Charismatics have been steadfast, passionate supporters of Israel, an integral part of their beliefs about “the end times.”

.. Trump’s moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, therefore, is not just fulfilling a campaign promise; to many Pentecostal-Charismatics, it’s fulfilling God’s plan for the end of days. The value of this move can’t be overstated, because it confirms and gives physical reality to Pentecostals’ mystical perceptions of Trump as more potentate than president — a ruler in the order of the biblical kings of Israel.

.. 5. Monarchy

.. For Pentecostals, how America’s democratic government works in tandem with God’s monarchy isn’t always clear. But for most, “the people” don’t ultimately decide the fate of the United States or the world. God decides the future and “brings it to pass” through his own means.

.. When he disregards conventional wisdom, they see someone who, like themselves, goes against a coercive mainstream intellectual grain. When he supports Israel, they see a king, however flawed, and an instrument for the purposes of God. When he moves his embassy to Jerusalem, they see verification of their sacred narrative.

.. When Pentecostal-Charismatic advisers to Trump talk about their role in this divine drama, it is as godly intercessors on the president’s behalf.

From this vantage point, it hardly matters whether Trump behaves morally, won the popular vote or even colluded with Russia. Trump is not just a leader selected by the people: he is an intervention — God’s anointed, divinely elevated ruler. Actually, the sheer unlikeliness of Trump’s win fits the Pentecostal-Charismatic imagination for miraculous intervention, and moves Trump far above the reach of critique.