Any pastor who regularly addresses even a handful of souls from God’s word, knows the burden of wanting to be faithful with communicating accurately what God has said to His people. Every preacher feels the weight of Paul’s injunction,
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (2 Tim 2:15)
This is why seminaries offer four year degrees that cover Greek and Hebrew, Theology and Counseling, Preaching and Pastoral Care. The more training preachers get, the better. Now, I agree that formal theological training at seminary level is not a biblical prerequisite for being a preacher of God’s word. The Apostle Peter, for instance, had no MDiv degree hanging on his office wall. But I’m sure we all agree that his 24/7 intensive, three year internship with Jesus was, um …adequate preparation. But if an excellent theological education is available to you, there is wisdom in being a good steward of that opportunity.
Should you eschew a formal course of training, and rely instead on your gift of gab, you may end up being outed as a theological neophyte on global TV, like Joel Osteen.
Bestselling author Joel Osteen is the preaching pastor of the biggest church in America. There are regularly 30,000 attendees who pitch up to hear his sermons. This is quite a responsibility. Especially considering Hebrews 13:17 warns that pastors will give an account for each soul in their flock.
And I’m not even referring to the zillions who plug into the televised programming, nor the touring success of sold-out stadiums that hold 60,000 fans (at $10 a ticket).
But when he was interviewed on the Larry King Live show, the result of being ill-prepared for ministry was painfully obvious. I feel for him as Larry grills him on this sensitive topic.
KING: Where were you ordained?
OSTEEN: I was ordained from the church there, Lakewood, under my dad’s ministry.
KING: So you didn’t go to seminary?
OSTEEN: No, sir, I didn’t.
KING: They can just make you a minister?
OSTEEN: You can, you can.
KING: That’s kind of an easy way in.
… [then Larry turned up the heat; I italicized the repeated phrase that makes my point] …
KING: …we’ve had ministers on who said, your record don’t count. You either believe in Christ or you don’t. If you believe in Christ, you are, you are going to heaven. And if you don’t no matter what you’ve done in your life, you ain’t.
OSTEEN: Yeah, I don’t know. There’s probably a balance between. I believe you have to know Christ. But I think that if you know Christ, if you’re a believer in God, you’re going to have some good works. I think it’s a cop-out to say I’m a Christian but I don’t ever do anything …
KING: What if you’re Jewish or Muslim, you don’t accept Christ at all?
OSTEEN: You know, I’m very careful about saying who would and wouldn’t go to heaven. I don’t know …
KING: If you believe you have to believe in Christ? They’re wrong, aren’t they?
OSTEEN: Well, I don’t know if I believe they’re wrong. I believe here’s what the Bible teaches and from the Christian faith this is what I believe. But I just think that only God with judge a person’s heart. I spent a lot of time in India with my father. I don’t know all about their religion. But I know they love God. And I don’t know. I’ve seen their sincerity. So I don’t know. I know for me, and what the Bible teaches, I want to have a relationship with Jesus.
[...Then Larry pounces on the fact that Osteen is known as a prosperity preacher...]
KING: What is the prosperity gospel?
OSTEEN: I think the prosperity gospel in general is — well I don’t know. I hear it too. I don’t know. I think what sometimes you see is it’s just all about money. That’s not what I believe. It’s the attitude of your heart, and so you know, we believe — but I do believe this, that God wants us to be blessed. He wants us to be able to send our kids to college, excel in our careers. But prosperity to me, Larry, is not just money, it’s having health. What good is money if you don’t have health?
[...Then Larry asks about the tragedy of 9/11 terrorist attacks...]
KING: But don’t you want to know, why would an omnipotent — assuming he is omnipotent — God permit that?
OSTEEN: I don’t know, Larry. I don’t know it all.
KING: A deformed baby had nothing to do with free will.
OSTEEN: Exactly. I don’t claim to know it all. I just think that trusting God means we’re going to have unanswered questions and God is so much bigger than us we’re never going to understand them all. And I tell people that have lost a child or that have gone through some kind of tragedy, you’ve got to have a file in your mind called and I don’t understand it file. And you’ve got to put it in there and not try to figure it out and not let it ruin the rest of your life and not get bitter. And that’s what we see so many people do.
[...then a caller phones and asks ...]
CALLER: …Do you know why it’s not God’s will that everyone is healed of cancer?
OSTEEN: You know, I can’t answer that. I think it’s a good question.
[...then another caller...]
CALLER: … I’m wondering, though, why you side-stepped Larry’s earlier question about how we get to heaven? The Bible clearly tells us that Jesus is the way, the truth and the light and the only way to the father is through him. That’s not really a message of condemnation but of truth.
OSTEEN: Yes, I would agree with her. I believe that.
KING: So then a Jew is not going to heaven?
OSTEEN: No. Here’s my thing, Larry, is I can’t judge somebody’s heart. You know? Only God can look at somebody’s heart, and so – I don’t know. To me, it’s not my business to say, you know, this one is or this one isn’t. I just say, here’s what the Bible teaches and I’m going to put my faith in Christ. And I just I think it’s wrong when you go around saying, you’re saying you’re not going, you’re not going, you’re not going, because it’s not exactly my way. I’m just…
KING: But you believe your way.
OSTEEN: I believe my way. I believe my way with all my heart.
KING: But for someone who doesn’t share it is wrong, isn’t he?
OSTEEN: Well, yes. Well, I don’t know if I look at it like that. I would present my way, but I’m just going to let God be the judge of that. I don’t know. I don’t know.
Ok, so Pastor Osteen doesn’t know who goes to heaven, he doesn’t know why Muslims/Hindus/Jews are wrong, He doesn’t know what the prosperity gospel is, he doesn’t know why God permits suffering, or why God doesn’t heal everyone. These are pretty important topics for the pastor of America’s biggest church.
It would seem that a few years of seminary could have helped prepare him for the ministry of preaching God’s word and pastoring God’s flock. The “success” of Osteens ministry goes to show that oratory, charm, and dare I say good looks, can draw a crowd. But what is the content that the crowd is imbibing when their host isn’t quite sure of the gospel?
A note to seminoids: If you are in the ministry, or aspiring to the ministry, and were never able to go to seminary, you may be feeling discouraged. I mean, who wants to end up a being the pastor who doesn’t know who goes to heaven? Well, next week we’ll look at the other side of the coin. Why is it that Charles Spurgeon, arguably the greatest Baptist preacher in history, was so successful without any seminary education? Tune in next week for more of the discussion.