Joel Osteen And The Bible
By Lance King and Rafael Martinez, Spiritwatch Ministries
Listen To Lance & Rafael's Spiritwatch Ministry Real Audio Teaching
Discernment: Every Christian's Obligation
Joel Osteen has been rightly criticized for being a theological lightweight. Undergirding his trademark fluffiness is an off-the-cuff hermeneutic which permeates his reading of Scripture. Simply put, Joel misses the mark when it comes to rightly handling God's Word.
Instead of letting Scripture interpret Scripture, Joel reads meanings into the text wherever it suits his purposes. He will sometimes focus on key words or phrases, such as “far and beyond favor,” repeating the phrase with little regard for the remainder of the verse. When Joel cites a complete verse, he may interpret it in a fashion wholly unrelated to its original context. At other times, he seizes upon a secondary detail in the text while ignoring the central point of the passage. Joel clumsily wields the sword of the Lord like a hammer, rather than as a precision tool that divides truth from error.
Some Christians sincerely hold that we should never criticize a preacher. In recent years, certain televangelists have furthered that belief by cautioning viewers to “touch not God's anointed.” These stern warnings stifle critical thought for the devout. What Christian would want to be found opposing a true servant of God? While Joel's style is clearly less heavy-handed than nearly all of his predecessors, he does attract many people who have been indoctrinated in this way of thinking by other charismatic TV personalities. For these followers, to call into question Joel's handling of the Bible is tantamount to attacking God's anointed.
The Christian's authority for challenging any teacher is grounded in the Bible's own claim to be God's inspired Word. In the Acts of the Apostles, the Bereans were commended for refusing to uncritically receive the apostles' preaching about Jesus (1). They compared the apostles' testimony with the Old Testament, seeing if this message aligned with what had been written concerning the promised Messiah.
The New Testament is replete with warnings against false teachers who would lead the church astray (2), and the apostle Paul pointedly warns against those who would preach another Gospel than the one we have received (3). Without applying this standard to popular teachers, the only standards left are subjective – that is, we are forced to rely upon intuition or even personal taste in evaluating truth claims. Even if a preacher says things that are helpful and true, but then ignores or marginalizes the gospel of Jesus Christ, he is effectively preaching another gospel by omission. The proclamation of the Gospel demands boldness.
Another reason we may hold Joel to the standard of Scripture is that he claims this standard for his own ministry. Lakewood Church's Statement of Faith begins by affirming their commitment to the Bible as God's inerrant Word, “on which we base our faith, conduct and doctrine" (4). This is a commendable standard that invites fair comparison with Scripture to see whether their leadership truly adheres to it. Any church worth its name ought to be able to demonstrate that it lives up to to its own stated position.
Each Sunday, Joel begins his sermon by holding his Bible aloft and reciting the following declaration with his congregation:
This is my Bible. I am what it says I am. I have what it says I have. 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, in Jesus' name.
In light of this declaration, the listener has every reason to believe that Joel invites an honest comparison between his teaching and the Scriptures. To say that he is not subject to the same investigation would elevate him above the apostles who subjected themselves to that same standard. Therefore we are not being unfair in studying how Joel makes use of the Bible.
Before looking more closely at Joel's use of the Bible, we should take a moment to consider some general guidelines for reading the Scriptures.
Principles of Biblical Interpretation
There have always been skeptics who assert that the Bible is a “wax nose,” meaning that one can prove nearly anything by appealing to Scripture. Certainly a person could “prove” a variety of bizarre assertions by randomly selecting quotes from Scripture. The same thing could be said for any piece of literature where context is disregarded. One could easily build a case for the benefits of inducing mental illness by selectively citing psychological journals, or develop a justification for racial discrimination by isolating partial quotes from Martin Luther King. Few people would accept such arguments as having validity, but for some reason the Bible is presumed subject to any pet theory people entertain.
In reality, there are generally accepted principles of interpretation, also called hermeneutics. While hermeneutics is a broad topic, there are some basic norms that virtually all Biblical scholars agree upon. We might summarize the most important interpretive principles under the following categories: genre, audience, occasion, major themes, context, and word usage.
There are, of course, other considerations such as dating, authorship, and grammar that are important for scholars. Our focus here, however, is on how average Christians can benefit from studying the Bible. Used with discernment, many excellent resources can be found on the Internet, making a vast array of materials available instantly and cheaply (5). Never in human history has God's Word been as accessible as it is today. Ironically, despite these many resources, we live in a day when many professing Christians are biblically illiterate. This tragedy may be laid in part at the feet of church leaders who have failed to ground their members both in the content of Scripture, as well as failing to provide them with the tools necessary to study the Bible for themselves
The Bible makes use of a variety of literary genres. Among these are apocalyptic writings, wisdom literature, pastoral letters and narrative texts. Some books may contain elements of multiple genres; for example, Matthew contains extended discussion regarding prophetic events within a narrative of Jesus' earthly ministry. Biblical writers make use of common literary conventions: similes and metaphors, hyperbole, rhetorical questions, and even the occasional sarcasm or irony. It is helpful to familiarize ourselves with all of these literary elements, and which ones are generally found in any given book. If you spent your last summer vacation looking for a beast with seven heads to crawl up on the beach, it's likely you have misunderstood a literary genre.
Identifying the original audience helps us to define the main purpose of the book. Discovering that the original recipients of an epistle lived in a multicultural port city awash in carnality (such as Corinth), helps us make sense of the letter. Familiarizing ourselves with the occasion for the writing can also help us apply it in our own lives in a meaningful way. Prophets such as Jeremiah made their appearance when God's people had gone astray from his Law and needed correction; they warned of judgment for sin, while promising blessings for obedience. By studying the major themes for any given book, we may avoid the pitfall of focusing on minor issues at the expense of the main message.
Once we have considered the major themes, we can proceed to look more closely at the immediate context of the passages within it. Most modern Bibles provide some guidance in this area, often grouping verses under major headings that identify those sections. While these descriptive headings are only interpretive aids, they can be quite useful in seeing how passages fit together. We sometimes forget that Luke or Peter didn't write in chapters and verses. These features of our Bibles were added centuries later for convenience. In fact, some chapter and verse divisions create artificial breaks that can interrupt the flow of the text, so we should never be slaves to reading the Bible as if the chapter divisions signaled the beginning or end of the topic being addressed.
What's true about passages is true about individual verses; we can't properly understand most verses without looking at the verses which immediately precede and follow it. Narrowing our focus, we can look at the meanings of individual words by consulting various Bible translations to get a sense of shades of meaning that the word might convey (6). It can also be helpful to look up the word in a Greek or Hebrew lexicon, which may include detailed explanations about where a word is used in the Bible, as well as providing historic information on its usage. Bear in mind that words in Greek or Hebrew, just as in English, can have different meanings depending on the specific usage. The popular assumption that a biblical word has only one meaning has resulted in many erroneous teachings over the years.
When it comes to methodology, we must keep in mind that the Bible is not a collection of unrelated, wise sayings. Each book inside is meant to be read from beginning to end. Some Christians make a habit of letting their Bibles fall open and seizing the first verse their eyes land upon as a prophetic word for the moment. This approach closely resembles divination, such as reading tea leaves or consulting one's horoscope. It can also lead to disastrous results, particularly if the verse describes the behavior of the ungodly rather than instruction for God's people, or if we mistakenly take a prophecy intended for a specific person or nation and misapply it to our present circumstances.
A well-worn, anecdotal story used by many preachers over the years humorously demonstrates the fallacy of randomly stringing together unrelated Bible verses. It involves a fellow who opens his Bible seeking spiritual guidance, and the first verse he sees tells how Judas went out and hanged himself. Discouraged by this depressing word, he flips to another verse where Jesus says, “Go and do thou likewise.” Reading the Bible as a random series of instructions can lead to a dead end. Instead of being like our misguided friend, we should strive to read God's Word in the natural way that both the human author and the Holy Spirit intended.
Following these general principles will help us avoid many errors as we seek to understand God's Word. We are not saying that interpretive difficulties don't exist; scholars often debate whether a phrase should be translated in a certain way or another. Generally speaking, however, the vast majority of the Bible's contents are clear and understandable to the average layman who seeks to grow in understanding. While we should seek guidance from mature Christian leaders and those who have gone before us in the faith, there's no reason for us to be completely dependent on the teaching of others when God's Word is available to us.
To Whom is Joel Preaching?
Joel regularly ends each sermon with an invitation to receive Christ. There is similarly an invitation on the last page of his books to pray a “sinner's prayer,” and ask Jesus to be one's Savior and Lord. (This is one of the only places in his books where we can recall him actually using the word sin.) The prayer is similar to the prayers led by many an evangelist in the past 50 years. Problematically, this invitation appears at the very end of a book affirming God's blessings on nearly every page.
Although the prayer includes a confession of one's sins, the impact of human sinfulness has already been downplayed by Joel to the point that sin is merely something less than one's best – not a condition of spiritual deadness that merits our eternal punishment. Until the reader reaches the final page, she is led to believe that she is already a child of the Most High God simply by virtue of being human. The role of supernatural conversion through the new birth is never presented as the means by which we can achieve our best lives now. Joel should be telling sinners that God can make them into new creatures, but all he offers is a “better” you. This promise falls far short of the Christian gospel. It is, in fact, another gospel.
In terms of practical impact, Joel's message is an updated version of Pelagianism (7). Pelagius, a contemporary of Augustine, held to the heretical view that mankind was not fallen and dead in sin; rather, we are only influenced by the bad example set by our human father, Adam. Consequently, Pelagius argued that we could pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and choose to live a pious life by the mere act of our will. Jesus' death saved no one, but served only as an example to us. This view has been universally rejected by Christians for the simple reason that it contradicts the many Biblical passages that inform us about man's fallen state, as well as the fact of Christ's substitutionary atonement for our sins (8).
While Joel declares his belief in Jesus as our Savior, by relegating this core truth to a mere addendum of his teaching, and by not taking the sin nature into account, he nullifies what he formally professes. The fact that a preacher officially subscribes to orthodoxy is far less important than the content of what he preaches every Sunday. A paper orthodoxy that takes a back seat to pragmatism is of no real value. It just doesn't do to affirm Jesus as Savior in a “sinner's prayer,” but then deny so great a salvation by excluding the subject of redemption from every sermon.
It's not clear whether Joel believes that all of those reading his books are Christians, but he seems to take the spiritual condition of his readers for granted at every turn. In multiple places he encourages his readers to affirm that we are children of the Most High God, that we can rest sure in the knowledge that Jesus' sacrifice proves our worth before God. At one point he even asserts that we can find comfort in the knowledge that our loved ones are sure to be “in a better place" (9). On page after page, he takes for granted that all of his readers, along with all of their dead loved ones, are already in a right relationship with God. No distinction is made between the hope of the one who believes in Jesus and the lost state of the one who does not believe. Not every dead loved one is in a better place if Jesus is to be believed. Most, in fact, are not (10).
Unbiblical platitudes like this one are particularly troubling for a book that's widely distributed in mainstream retail giants like Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart and chain grocery stores. His oversight in something so important might be a consequence of living as a Christian among Christians in the Bible Belt. Perhaps he doesn't actually know any unbelievers in his personal life. Pastors do tend to be surrounded by fellow believers most of the time; that's a common liability that comes with being a professional minister, and one could hardly fault him for that. We would like to believe that such is the case. It is precisely at this point, however, that his own words betray him.
While he is ambiguous about the identity of his audience in his books, Joel has made it clear in various interviews that he consciously preaches to an unchurched audience as much as he does to those who are already believers (11). Countless unbelievers will buy his books and read them, wrongly believing that all the promises of Scripture apply to them. Joel cherry picks verses that speak of God's blessing, yet according to Scripture God's promises are for his people and – particularly in the case of ancient Israel – are often contingent upon their obedience. Non-Christians by definition simply do not share in the gift of saving grace or heavenly rewards.
In a day when “spiritual” advisors like Marianne Williamson regularly appear on talk shows telling people that everyone is a child of God, there is a great danger that Joel will mislead people into believing that they are in God's favor when they are still dead in their sins. God's righteous and holy wrath rests upon the “sons of disobedience" (12), and only the atoning death of Jesus can save us from eternal punishment. Joel labors admirably to reform people from their “mistakes,” but, unlike the central redemptive role it occupies in the New Testament, the Cross plays only a peripheral role in his theology.
Joel's Faulty Scholarship
Joel makes no secret about the fact that he has no formal theological education, and for many postmodern people that's actually considered a selling point over traditional preachers. His calling card is his own professed simplicity. Certainly God can use a man with no formal training to do his work, but that is really beside the point. That God can use even a donkey doesn't excuse a preacher from the duty to properly exposit God's Word. There are countless Bible study tools available to any minister in America today, even if he lacks the benefit of advanced training.
Christian author Richard Young defends Osteen against his theological critics. In an interview with The Christian Post, Young argues: “Critics say Osteen lacks biblical references in his books and claim that he preaches prosperity gospel. However, I found nearly 130 scriptural references in 'Become [sic] a Better You,' Osteen's newest book." (13)
Rather than leaving it up to his readers to scramble for a concordance, Joel usually provides direct citations in endnotes. Notwithstanding his numerous citations and allusions, the fact that Joel liberally quotes the Bible does not in itself disprove the charge that he preaches a prosperity gospel. Nor does quoting 130 verses demonstrate that he is making appropriate use of these verses. One can pick up any recent copy of The Watchtower, the principle teaching vehicle of the Jehovah's Witnesses, and find dozens of quotes from the Bible. Citing verses only demonstrates that one is proficient in the use of a concordance. How those verses are handled is the critical issue.
In some instances, Joel's use of the Bible is fairly conventional, and he most often cites verses that are well-known to a Christian audience. Where he misuses Scripture might be classified in two broad categories: trivialization and violation of context.
Trivialization of Scripture
Joel tends to domesticate a verse or passage by quoting it in context and then turning it in such a way that the central point is lost. One example of this trivialization arises in telling the story of the Samaritan woman of whom Jesus asks a drink (14). Joel begins to tell the story of Jesus' offer of living water, and the woman's confused reply. He summarizes the dialog between Jesus and the woman as follows:
I wonder how many times God tells us that He wants to do something great in our lives, that we are going to be healthy and well; we are going to get out of debt. We feel it strongly, but like the woman at the well, we start thinking about what we don't have, and all the obstacles in our path, and before long, we've talked ourselves out of God's best (15).
Jesus' offer of living water, and the ensuing conversation in which he reveals himself as the long-awaited Messiah, is not a promise that she will get out of debt or overcome career obstacles. It is a promise that if she will but ask him, he will grant her eternal life. All other worldly concerns are secondary to the promise of life that he offers her. In shifting the focus away from Jesus' offer of salvation to one's own mundane concerns, Joel rips the heart out of this momentous revelation.
In order to experience God's best, Joel tells his readers that we should stay focused on the “positive things of God”:
We must continually choose to keep our minds set on the higher things. The Bible says, 'Set your mind on the things which are above.' Notice again there is something that we are to do – we must continually choose, day in and day out, twenty-four hours a day, to keep our minds set on the higher things. What are the things that are above, the higher things? Quite simply, they are the positive things of God (16).
The citation for this claim is Colossians 3:2, which in context reads:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (ESV)
Notice Joel's emphasis on keeping in view the “positive things of God.” Certainly our heavenly future is a positive thing, so there is a grain of truth here. Yet the way in which he makes use of the verse deadens its impact: We are to keep our mind on what's above because that's where our Savior sits, interceding for his people. There's far more entailed in such an attitude than merely pondering the “positive things of God.” Stripped of its context, this verse loses its luster and sounds as vacuous as any self-help guru telling us to think happy thoughts. Only those who are “born from above" (17) can grasp what it really means to think about what is above.
You know that Joel may be about to reveal something really interesting when he cites a Bible passage, and then follows it up with the phrase, “In other words...” A particularly striking example occurs when he retells the well-known story of Adam and Eve:
Back in the Garden of Eden, after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they hid. In the cool of the day, God came to them and said, 'Adam, Eve, where are you?'
They said, 'God we're hiding because we are naked.'
I love the way God answered them. He said, 'Adam, who told you that you were naked?' In other words, 'Who told you that something was wrong with you?' God immediately knew the enemy had been talking to them (18).
According to Joel's interpretation, the central issue for Adam and Eve was not that they had sinned and disobeyed God. The problem is that they now erroneously believed that “something was wrong” with them. The lesson Joel draws is that Satan had told them that they were defective, and they had believed the lie. They had forgotten their divine DNA.
This passage is pivotal to understanding God's redemptive purposes in Christ, whom the apostle Paul refers to as the “last Adam." (19). Mankind lost far more than our self-esteem on that day; we died to God by a willful act of disobedience. The overwhelming witness of Scripture is that something was in fact wrong with the couple now hiding from their Creator. The fellowship they had previously enjoyed with the Lord had been severed, and they – along with all their offspring through the ages – were eternally lost.
Violation of Context
If Joel's misuse of Scripture ended with the above examples, we might overlook his errors as simple carelessness in handling the text. Unfortunately, there are many additional examples of poor exegesis in his writings. The degree to which Joel has been impacted by the false prosperity “gospel” is evident in his misuse of Romans 4:17, cited for the following claim:
In the natural, physical realm, those statements may not seem to be true. You may not feel up to par that day. Or you may have many obstacles to overcome. The Scripture tells us that we are to 'call the things that are not as if they already were.' (20).
If we (presumably believers, though he makes no distinction), possess within ourselves this tremendous power to create reality using the power of our tongue, there is no limit to what we might achieve. Is that really what the apostle Paul intended to communicate in this passage? This verse is frequently misused by adherents of the Word of Faith movement as justification for their false teachings.
Here's the verse in its entirety, with additional context:
That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations"—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist (21).
Three facts become apparent when we read the verse in context. The promise being referenced in these verses and in the surrounding context is clearly referring to God's providential salvation that comes by faith (see verse 13). It's not a promise of anything that we might speak into existence. Secondly, the subject of verse 17 is God, not us. It is not the sinful, finite creature who speaks things into existence, but the omnipotent Creator. Thirdly, the verse is not a command for us to follow – as Joel wrongly asserts – but is descriptive of God's own activity. Just as it is God who who gives life to the dead, so he also calls into existence all that exists.
Joel's habit of citing verses without regard to their context has a long history. A particularly striking example of this practice is found in this quote:
...God wants us to constantly be increasing, to be rising to new heights. He wants to increase you in His wisdom and help you to make better decisions. God wants to increase you financially, by giving you promotions, fresh ideas and creativity. The Scripture says that God wants to pour out 'His far and beyond favor.' God wants this to be the best time of your life. But if you are going to receive this favor, you must enlarge your vision. You can't go around thinking negative, defeated, limiting thoughts (22).
While nobody is suggesting that Christians should mope about with a perpetually negative attitude, Joel errs in his misappropriation of yet another Bible verse. The footnote here cites Ephesians 2:7, which in context reads:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (23).
We don't even need to leave verse 7 to see that Paul's message about God's immeasurable riches of grace (“far and beyond favor,” in Joel's translation) is talking about a present reality that entails a future dynamic - “in the coming ages.”
Joel's argument runs roughshod over the main point of God's redemption, which reaches from the moment of our salvation and spills into the future. Joel argues that “God wants this to be the best time of your life,” contradicting the very verse he uses to bolster his teaching. The best time of our lives lies beyond the grave at the resurrection when God's plan for redeemed humanity is fully realized. Imagine the despair a Christian in the underground church in China would feel if Joel somehow convinced him that the persecution he suffers now is the best time of his life!
In a chapter entitled “Being Good to People” in BABY, Joel encourages his readers to care about the needs of others. Of course that is a good thing for all of us to do. There's no question that we live in a self-absorbed, even narcissistic age. Focusing on the needs of others will help us avoid the pit of selfishness. Once again, though, Joel forces an idea into a passage that is entirely unrelated to the point he wants to communicate. A good example is the following quote, referencing 2 Timothy 3:1-5:
The Scripture says that in the last days the love of the great body of people will grow cold. That simply means that people will be so busy, they'll be focused on their own needs, they'll be so caught up in their drive for success they won't take time to make a difference (24).
In point of fact, this passage is not merely talking about people who are self-absorbed. It is a description of the utter godlessness that will characterize the last days. In context, Paul warns Timothy:
But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people (25).
There is a difference between being overly busy and the kind of depraved living that Paul describes in this passage. Words like unholy, heartless and brutal are considerably more emphatic than describing a person who is just preoccupied with selfish concerns. Is this the worst misuse of the Scriptures that someone has ever committed? No, but it does serve to demonstrate that Joel habitually reads an alien meaning into passages (a practice known as eisegesis), thereby redirecting the meaning in a way that the writer did not intend. This practice violates the basic rules of interpretation, and sets a precedent for further error.
One final example relates to the unorthodox definition of “faith” that Joel employs in his writing. In trying to build up the faith of his hearers, he writes:
The Scripture says, 'God is effectually at work in those who believe.' Notice, His power is activated only when we believe. God can work in your behalf your whole lifetime and you never really get the full benefit of it because you didn't believe (26).
The Scriptural citation provided is 1 Thessalonians 2:13, which reads as follows:
And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. (ESV)
In Joel's interpretation, faith is the agent that causes God to work in us. That is, by believing, we unleash God's power. By not believing, we tie God's hands so that he is unable to do the good things in us that he wants to accomplish. In this model of spirituality, man is at the center of the world, and God is akin to some cosmic force that we can tap into to improve our relationships or get a promotion. Elsewhere, Joel develops this idea by urging that faith that can be positive or negative (27). Faith, for Joel, is a neutral power that can be harnessed for good or evil. He comes dangerously close to the Eastern mysticism popularized as the dark and light side of “the Force” in the Star Wars movies.
Considered in their original context, Paul's words to the Thessalonians have nothing to do with “activating” anything. It is the Word of God which works in the believer, and not some hidden power inherent to our faith. Our response to God's Word shows that his Spirit is at work in us. He is, in short, doing his own work in us. God is not summoned by some quality that resides within us, as though he were a genie awaiting our bidding..
Some of Joel's misuses of Scripture defy easy classification. Consider, for instance, his “double for your trouble” doctrine. This teaching appears twice in YBLN. He says:
If you will keep the right attitude, God will take all your disappointments, broken dreams, the hurts and pains, and He'll add up all the trouble and sorrow that's been inflicted on you, and He will pay you back with twice as much peace, joy, happiness, and success. The Bible says, 'God will give us a twofold recompense for our former shame.' If you'll just believe, if you'll put your trust and confidence in God, He will give you double for your trouble (28).
In each instance, Joel cites Isaiah 61:7 as proof of this teaching. In context, this verse is talking about God's promise to restore Israel to their homeland following their captivity by the Babylonians. This passage also has a strong Messianic significance; Jesus applied the opening verse of this passage to himself as the fulfillment of prophecy (29). The chapter proclaims the year of God's favor, in which the cities of Israel would be rebuilt from ruins, and the Jews would once again prosper as God's people.
The one thing this passage doesn't provide is a guarantee that Christians will be rewarded “double for your trouble” in this life. The Bible teaches that our citizenship is in heaven, as is our eternal reward. We cannot properly isolate a verse that specifically applies to national Israel and extract from it a general principle for worldly gain. As Christians, our eternal hope was only foreshadowed by the land of milk and honey, just as Old Testament sacrifices of bulls and rams prefigured the atonement wrought by the true Lamb of God. Ours is a different, and infinitely better, covenant in Christ (30).
Another instance in which Joel just plain gets it wrong is his explanation as to why Israel ended up wandering in the desert for 40 years. He uses the very same illustration in YBLN as he does in BABY. The fullest presentation of his view can be found in his earlier work:
... when God led the Hebrew people out of Egypt, where they had lived in slavery for four hundred years, they headed straight toward the Promised Land. It was an eleven-day journey, but it took them forty years to get there. Why? Why would they wander around in the wilderness, going around the same mountain, time after time, not making any progress? After all, God had prepared the land flowing with milk and honey. It was a place of great abundance, a place of great freedom. But God's people had been beaten down by their oppressors for so long – mistreated, used, and taken advantage of – now, even though God wanted to do a new thing, they couldn't conceive it. They couldn't make room for it in their own thinking. Instead of moving forward with an attitude of faith, expecting good things, they insisted on going around with a poor, defeated mentality. Around and around they went, focusing on their problems, always complaining, fretting about the obstacles standing between them and their destiny (31).
Joel calls this same attitude a “victim mentality” in BABY. In all fairness, there is an element of truth contained in the above statement. Certainly the Israelites had complained often regarding their circumstances; at times they pined for the old days in Egypt, missing the comparative comforts they had enjoyed there even as slaves. At other times, they were overcome with fear, such as the time when Caleb and his companions went to scout out the land and his companions came back with a negative report regarding the strength of their enemies. On other occasions, the people – with the full participation of Moses' own brother, Aaron – engaged in rank idol worship, denying the true God who had delivered them.
Nevertheless, Joel's contention that their “victim mentality” was the reason they wandered for forty years is considerably off the mark. The biblical reason they wandered for forty years is that God was weary of their idolatry and unbelief, and he determined that an entire generation would not be permitted to enter the holy land because of their faithlessness (32). It was God's decree that kept them from entering, not a victim mentality. In Joel's theology, man is the center of the story, which accounts for these kinds of errors. No amount of positive thinking was going to secure the Israelites double for their trouble after God had declared his judgment.
Closely related to this misuse of Scripture is Joel's teaching on sowing. He has this to say regarding the subject:
Maybe today you are believing for your marriage to be restored or some other relationship to be improved. Perhaps you are hoping to buy a new home or to get out of debt. Sow a special seed that relates to your specific need. We can't buy God's goodness, but like Cornelius we can exercise our faith through giving (33).
Despite Joel's careful qualifier that “we can't buy God's goodness,” this is exactly the message that comes through loud and clear. A bribe by another name is still a bribe. That he is speaking of financial seeds reaping financial benefits is clear not only from the above statement, but from many similar examples in the book. In this instance he is referencing the story of Cornelius recorded in Acts 10. Joel makes much of the fact that Cornelius' prayers and giving of alms had been noticed as a “memorial” before God.
There is some basis for believing that Cornelius, while not yet baptized, had already heard and possibly believed the Gospel (34). Nonetheless, the fact that Cornelius was instructed by an angel to send for Peter should not be taken as a kind of reward for “planting a seed” to obtain some desired result. Joel misuses the Scriptures when he suggests that it was Cornelius' charitable actions that planted the seed for his salvation. Likewise, nowhere in Scripture is the believer encouraged to give as a means of obtaining earthly reward.
Early on in BABY, Joel is clear that divorce is not “God's best” for us. He argues that married people should try to work out their problems and not look to divorce as an easy way out of relational difficulties. Further on in the same book, he shares a story from his own ministry in which he counsels a woman not to remain in an abusive marriage (35), asserting that this is not God's best for her. She ultimately decides to “close the door” on her relationship.
Based upon the limited details he provides, it appears that Joel had shaky biblical grounds for his counsel. If adultery was involved, it seems strange that Joel would omit that important detail. While secular counselors would endorse Joel's counsel, following his advice may have caused this woman to violate Jesus' teaching that marital unfaithfulness is the only legitimate grounds for divorce (36). While domestic violence is a serious breach of the marriage vow, and inexcusable in every case, there is never justification for a minister of the gospel to give counsel contrary to the teaching of Scripture. If we are to obey God's Word, we must look for solutions other than divorce in these situations (37).
One particularly problematic aspect of Joel's teaching is that certain Biblical principles work for anyone, regardless of whether that person is even a Christian. This unqualified assertion strongly suggests that Joel makes no categorical distinction between believers and unbelievers in preparing his messages. In his earlier book, Joel cites the example of a man from Saudi Arabia who was known for his generosity. Citing him as an example of giving, Joel asserts the following:
I doubt that the Saudi man practices the Christian faith, but the principles of giving are spiritual principles. They work regardless of nationality, skin color, or even religion. If you give unselfishly, it is going to be given back to you. If you meet other people's needs, God will make sure your own needs are supplied in abundance.
The Bible says, 'When you help the poor you are lending to the Lord.' That Saudi man has developed a lifestyle of giving, especially to the poor, and not surprisingly, that which he sows comes back to him exponentially. He has lent to God by helping the poor, and God will not be in debt to any person (38).
To reduce the teachings of Scripture to “principles” that anyone can use to their advantage sets a dangerous precedent. What other principles of blessing might we falsely derive from Scripture? If, as the Bible says, “God loves a cheerful giver," (39). Does Joel suppose that an unbeliever can merit God's love through his personal generosity? We have already seen that God's blessings are not necessarily temporal, and certainly the unbeliever cannot store up treasures in heaven. Scripture is particularly clear concerning the fact that even the best works of unregenerate people are unacceptable to God. No one, not even a generous and kind businessman, can please God apart from faith in Jesus (40). God certainly owed this man no debt. Scriptural promises made to believers, which are contingent upon a right relationship to God through Christ, do not apply to the non-believer. We shall see in our last article where Joel's reduction of Scripture to broadly universal moral laws lead those who are in need of Christ in the case of another Muslim.
Joel's teaching suffers from ambiguity regarding biblical promises. As a general rule, Joel does not concern himself with the object of God's promise in any Biblical passage. Where God promised material prosperity to Abraham, the same is held as a promise to the individual believer today. Where God promised victory to Israel in her military campaigns, Joel takes this to mean that we will be victorious in achieving a promotion at work, or in overcoming bad habits. While he sometimes measures success in spiritual terms, more often he upholds earthly blessings as examples. Joel makes no apparent distinction between Old Testament promises to national Israel and the riches of God's grace displayed to believers in Jesus under the new covenant. Jesus' assurance that the world will hate us because it also hates him (41), never gets airtime.
Whereas Jesus taught us to store up our treasures in heaven rather than on earth, Joel's focus is on – well, your best life now. Perhaps he figures that readers would be disappointed if he didn't deliver on the hope of earthly gain. Jesus was, after all, a world class disappointment to those who followed him merely for the fish and the loaves. They enjoyed the display of his miraculous power, and the food he provided for them, but they took offense when he claimed to be the true bread of life necessary for their spiritual sustenance (42).
Joel's Responds to the Critics
In BABY, Joel finally addresses some of the charges of his critics in writing. As evidenced in multiple television interviews, Joel is aware of the frequent charge that his message is light and fluffy. In response, he writes:
I'm called to plant a seed of hope in people's hearts. I'm not called to explain every minute facet of Scripture or to expound on deep theological doctrines or disputes that don't touch where real people live. My gifting is to encourage, to challenge, and to inspire (43).
This rejoinder explains Joel's view of his ministry (Click to hear Joel clarify his calling in a video clip) , just as it also reveals his view of doctrine. Few people would argue that sometimes a pastor fulfills the role of encourager. It is also his duty, however, to teach about sin, the fall, the terrors of hell that Jesus mentioned so often in his ministry, the centrality of the cross in God's redemptive plan – in other words, the full counsel of God. Where in Joel's teaching is the recognition of our alienation from God, apart from the grace shown to us in Christ? It would seem that Joel considers these truths to be among the “deep theological doctrines that don't touch where real people live.”
What other conclusion could we possibly draw from his neglect of these central Biblical truths? How can Joel offer genuine hope when his hearers have no concept of their very real rebellion against a Holy God? It's good that Joel apparently affirms these doctrines, at least formally. If, however, he considers these basic truths irrelevant to where real people live, then he is neglecting the fullness of his calling as a minister to preach the word, to reprove, rebuke and exhort the people of God.
Could it be that Joel is unwittingly feeding into the rising trend within evangelicalism of those who refuse to endure sound teaching? Paul warned his ministerial apprentice Timothy against the dangers of only preaching to people's “felt needs”:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (44).
The fact that his biggest critics are Christians, and not the world, ought to give Joel pause. It's possible that his Christian critics are not merely jealous of his success, as he claims in his latest book (45).
There's a vastly larger market today for ear-scratching than exists for Gospel-preaching. While it's been that way since the earliest days of the church, the trend seems to be growing in American evangelicalism. Consider the Christian book industry. Books on achieving financial success, overcoming bad habits, and “inspiring” fictional stories sell by the boatload, while books by classical Christian authors on important theological issues require special ordering. Fluff sells, and there's little room on retail shelves for anything else.
The Bottom Line Of Joel's Use Of Scripture
We don't believe that Joel is deliberately misleading people. We are inclined to agree with other concerned Christians who maintain that Joel is a brother in Christ who is ignorant of how to handle the Word. Unlike some televangelists who are parasites and false prophets seeking only personal gain, Joel seems to be the real deal with respect to his sincerity. Nevertheless, his chronic abuse of the Scriptures, along with his adherence to the so-called “prosperity gospel” and other theological errors, seriously undermines his ability to teach with clarity, conviction and power from God's Word.
The acid test of a true minister of the Lord is that which distinguishes his message from all other religious or spiritual alternatives. If a non-Christian guru or therapist could offer the same advice, then that minister is not being a faithful ambassador of Jesus Christ. No matter how practical or sincere his teaching, Joel is neglecting the Gospel. So central to the apostles was Jesus' redemption of his people that the apostle Paul resolved to speak of nothing else when he was among the Corinthians (46). By contrast, it would seem that Joel goes to great lengths to talk about anything but Jesus' atoning sacrifice on the cross – the one element of Christianity that the unbelieving world considers a scandal. He argues that his message is “simple,” but what part of Christianity is more simple, more basic to Scripture itself, than the proclamation that Jesus Christ died to save sinners?
While Joel offers much useful advice on building healthy interpersonal relationships, treating others kindly and cultivating good habits, his egregious lack of Biblical understanding compromises his effectiveness, as does his unwillingness to preach the Gospel as being of first importance (47). If we could excise from his writings every reference to God, his church and the Bible, his books would make decent self-help manuals. Taken as the gospel by the biblically illiterate, his teaching can only distract from the cause of Christ. Joel could more productively spend his time on learning to become a better student of God's Word.
In our next article, we will take a look at how Joel's glaring lack of in-depth Biblical understanding and immersion in the culture of Word of Faith Charismatic Christianity resulted in his most well known teaching, that of a literal "prosperity gospel." We will see what kind of fruit has been harvested due to Joel's towering ignorance of the Bible's central themes and magnified by a global media empire.
(1) Acts 17:10-12
(2) Acts 20:26-31; 2 Corinthians 11:13-15
(3) Galatians 1:8-9
(5) One such resource is the free Bible Gateway (http://www.biblegateway.com/), which allows online searches in multiple Bible versions. Another excellent website is the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (http://www.ccel.org/), which features hundreds of books by various authors that can be read online.
(6) A useful translation that demonstrates the meaning of various words in context is The Amplified Bible. This version is helpful for steering the reader in the direction indicated by the original language. Where other Bible versions decide upon one word (e.g., “believe”), the Amplified Bible may suggest several synonyms that clarify the intended usage of the word (e.g., “trust,” “rely” and “have faith in”). To a lesser extent, paraphrases like The Message serve a similar purpose in making the meaning understandable, but at the price of accurate translation.
(8) Ephesians 2:1-6 is one such passage.
(9) BABY, p. 226
(10) Matthew 7:13-14
(12) Ephesians 5:6
(14) John 4:7-30
(15) BABY, p.10
(16) YBLN, p. 105
(17) This phrase is another possible rendering of the expression “born again” found in John 3:3.
(18) BABY, p. 9
(19) 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, 42-49
(20) BABY, p. 111-112
(21) Romans 4:16-17, ESV
(22) YBLN, p. 5
(23) Ephesians 2:4-7, ESV
(24) BABY, p. 190
(25) 2 Timothy 3:1-5, ESV
(26) BABY, p. 290
(27) BABY, p. 329
(28) YBLN, p. 31-32
(29) Luke 4:16-21
(30) See Hebrews 10:1-14. The major theme of Hebrews is that Jesus came to establish a new and better covenant than that which was symbolized by the Old Testament sacrificial system. Joel sells the Gospel short by focusing on temporal blessings rather than Christ's once for all sacrifice (v. 11-14).
(31) YBLN, p. 30-31; see also BABY, p. 320
(32) Numbers 14:20-38
(33) YBLN, p. 264
(34) Acts 10:34-37 reveals that that the Gospel was apparently already known to Cornelius and his household. This was the view of John Calvin and others. Contemporary scholar John Piper takes exception to this argument, however, and points out that that Acts 11:14 seems to suggest that Cornelius was not yet saved. Neither position would affirm the idea that Cornelius was planting the seeds for his own salvation, since salvation comes by grace rather than good works.
(35) BABY, p. 27
(36) Matthew 5:32
(37) The only other instruction we have on this matter in the New Testament comes from the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16, where Paul gives counsel regarding the unbeliever who “abandons” a believing spouse. Paul is careful to note that this was his own advice (v. 12), and not a divine command. In the case of abandonment, it appears that the one being abandoned is freed from their marriage bonds (not “enslaved”), and may remarry if they so choose. Some scholars argue that abandonment might refer to more than literal abandonment (encompassing also physical or mental abuse), and that the one who so abandons their spouse might be regarded as an unbeliever even if they are a professing believer. There remains considerable debate surrounding both the authority of Paul's counsel as well as how far his words might be applied to cases where the divorce is based neither in adultery nor literal abandonment. Regardless of where Christians stand on this issue, we must not allow the world's reasoning on these matters to compromise our commitment to the final authority of Scripture. Sadly, the church too often has adopted the world's casual attitude towards what God instituted as a lifelong commitment.
(38) YBLN, p. 229
(39) 2 Corinthians 9:7. In context, the passage is written to people who are already believers.
(40) Hebrews 11:6, Romans 8:5-8
(41) John 15:18-25
(42) See John 6
(43) BABY, p. 236
(44) 2 Timothy 4:1-5, ESV
(45) BABY, p. 237
(46) 1 Corinthians 2:2