June 24, 2013

Why Seminary? Exhibit A: Joel Osteen

by Clint Archer

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.

Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • Dave

    I’ll maybe have time to share a little on my view of seminary. Although I don’t think it’s a bad thing I certainly don’t believe it’s the best option, but perhaps more later. For now I’d really just like to make one point – how can you say that one of the biggest false teachers of our time would have been able to preach the gospel correctly had he went to seminary. He’s a false teacher! 99% of Christians don’t go to seminary, yet they know the gospel and are able to convey of to others. Surely there was a better way of making your point.

    • I can’t be sure a false teacher would be able to preach the gospel if he went to seminary, but I can’t help but feel that the in-house training Osteen got from his dad missed something that most seminaries would cover on day one, namely the gospel. As for a better way of making my point: I don’t know.

      • Cranios

        Didn’t Robert Schuller go to seminary?

      • Dave

        Thanks Clint for the response. My issue here is that the “I don’t knows” that osteen gives would be covered on day one in the gospel service of a biblically sound local church. It’s not that Osteen lacks any knowledge of the true gospel. It’s that he chooses to reject it despite knowing what the bible says, in my opinion. Regardless of wether osteen does know the true gospel, he is a false teacher and he will only change with repentance by the working of the Holy Spirit and not simply some extra hours in a classroom. I hope this doesn’t come across as offensive to those involved in seminary. Your great guys and I agree with most of what the guys on here put forth and love reading what you have to say

  • Dave

    Ok, not going to have much time today so ill leave you this quote from a friend I read last week. But I must add, that I truly love and appreciate many of the men who have attented seminary. I am not saying it is a wrong way to go about learning the word of God but I do feel there are better ways and that eery Christian should strive to know more of Gods word through personnel study aided by the Holy Spirit and the teaching of the local church. Here goes :- – A local church should be led and fed by a plurality of elders and deacons according to 1 Timothy and Titus. The qualifications for leadership are not academic but relate to character, which is only formed through the understanding and application of the Word of God by the Spirit of God. None of this requires formal education but is gained through personal study and learning in a local Church context, under spiritual authority. The formation of Christlikeness is a process which is not dependant or consequent upon an understanding of Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Church History … if it were, most Christians in the World (if not the West) could not be Christlike.

    • This is a good foreword for my post next week, Exhibit B.

  • Clint, generally concur, but would like to add this perspective from Martin Luther -“Be assured that no one will make a doctor of the Holy Scripture save only the Holy Spirit from heaven.” As a general rule it seems God uses seminary to train men so that they will know how to answer questions like the ones King asked Osteen. Otherwise, they fail at the very reason for which God calls men to shepherd – e.g., “… for the faith of those chosen of God and the knowledge of the truth which is according to godliness, in the hope of eternal life … (See Titus 1:1-4). Of course we know seminary is not always God’s way, Spurgeon being an extraordinary example since he accepted the pastorate without having earned a degree. We could say Spurgeon’s professors were Jonathan Edwards, John Bunyan, Cotton Mather, John Calvin, etc. Read somewhere he had over 12,000 books in his library, many of which had notes in them. I bet he could have answered King’s questions! I think another remarkable example and one from our time, is Todd Friel. While he went to seminary (one of the best – The Masters Seminary) he didn’t know the Lord at the time. Had God not saved him, his knowledge would have been no use at all. However God did save him and He is (in my opinion) a very powerful theologian at work spreading the gospel via radio. Luther is right – the Holy Spirit makes the man a “doctor of the Holy Scriptures”, generally through seminary, sometimes without seminary, or even in spite of seminary. Why Seminary? Exhibit B – Providence.

    • Hey, don’t steal my thunder! Spurgeon is Exhibit B, next week. I didn’t know that about Todd Friel. I absolutely agree that no theological training is of any use for the unbeliever. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

  • Shamgar

    I have to concur with the sentiments above. I don’t object to Seminary as an entity, and given the amount of history, and the tremendous work done by those who have gone before us they serve a valuable purpose.

    However, the idea that if Joel had just gone to seminary he wouldn’t be a false teacher is really reaching. The problem for Joel (aside from the apparent heart issues) is that he was not appointed in a healthy church, with true elders. That is where the truth is taught, passed, and instilled.

    Sure, Peter had 3 years with Jesus. However, Timothy did not. He had godly family, and Paul. The Elders at Ephesus didn’t have a seminary, but they had men to come and teach and instruct them.

    On the other side, this post completely ignores the scores of people who DID go to seminary, and still teach the same kind of poppycock that Osteen does. I think it’s important to remember that “I don’t know” is not so much “I’m not aware” as it is “I don’t want to say” in many contexts.

    • Good point: seminary doesn’t guarantee orthodoxy either, especially knowing some “seminaries” out there.

      • Kay

        Even a TMS guy with a degree doesn’t automatically qualify to be a pastor/elder and neither does ordination automatically guarantee that he would be a good one. I hold the highest regard for a TMS grad who said before he would look for a full time teaching pastor position, he needed to be tried and tested and gain experience as an elder. Wise man. I think he will be a true and excellent teaching pastor/elder.

  • Melissa Collins

    Interesting, thought provoking post – I would agree though, that seminary, while it prepares the student in the deepest meanings and translations of the scriptures, cannot necessarily change a man’s heart. Education is held in high esteem, however if the heart doesn’t change, all the education in the world doesn’t matter a bit. I understand the point of your post, to expose Osteen for the false teacher that he is – the “feel good” preaching of today sucking in all the unhappy people who just want to feel good about themselves – all the while missing the point of the purpose for the cross. I agree with one of the comments, that “I don’t know” in the case of Osteen was more an unwillingness to commit to a solid answer lest he be put in jeopardy of losing some of his followers. But “take up your cross and follow me” is a serious command for those who want to have eternal life and it calls us to stand up for Jesus at all costs. Thanks for making us think this morning!

    • I’m glad it got you thinking. Make sure you tune in next week for the other perspective, and Charles Spurgeon’s example.

  • John Downey

    I’d argue an even more interesting case study for the “Why Seminary” question would be Mark Driscoll. Close to being right, but wrong on many levels…

    • That would be a good case study. He gets his education directly from the Holy Spirit though, so no seminary can compete with that.

      • Jason Pratt

        Clint, great article, thank you. Looking forward to exhibit B! Request a point for clarification regarding you reply above. When you refer to “He gets…” are you referring to Driscoll? If so would you be interested in a mountain of evidence that proves otherwise? Thank you!

  • Clint, I thought your point came across clearly. In fact, the piece was so well written and persuasive I thought Jesse Johnson had written it!

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to the Spurgeon exhibit. I appreciate that you pointed out that seminary isn’t the only way or even necessarily the best thing. Sometimes, I think people put too much stock in it, even unintentionally.

    Let me recount a bit of a struggle I faced. I was saved while attending a megachurch and after some time I began to really have difficulty with the doctrines of those teaching. When I would “argue,” I was often met with the “you just haven’t been Christian as long as this guy” argument, “therefore, you need to sit down and just listen.”

    I felt like they were disavowing the power of the Holy Spirit to have illuminated the same scriptures for me! That seemed crazy to me.

    I can see people using the same logic with seminary vs non-seminary. I think seminary can definitely make a man better than he is, but not necessarily better than another man! That is, seminary may help my preaching and teaching and ability to answer questions…but that doesn’t mean someone else who went to seminary will preach, teach or answer questions with any more dexterity than I.

  • Cranios

    “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.”

    I’m not so sure – after all, he then went on to found the Roman Catholic Church! 😉

    • Funny. Let me guess, you learned that at a Catholic seminary.

      • Cranios

        No – Rob Bell and Brian McLaren! 🙂

  • Billy_Quan

    Clint, I enjoyed reading your post (as usual) and I look forward to “exhibit B”. But using Joel Osteen as a reason FOR seminary is a bit weak. The proponents for no seminary could just as easily throw up a seminary trained nut job as Exhibit A: why to avoid seminary. I generally agree with the “Daves” below and enjoy reading the diologue. Thanks.

    • I’m not going to disagree with you. I just really liked the plethora of “I don’t know’s” in the context of Kings question about his seminary training. Thanks for your input.

      • Billy_Quan

        without a doubt! Mr Osteen is quite an embarrassment! You could have just titled your post “I don’t know”. And posted the transcript. That would have been funny.

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  • Stephen Gray

    The selection of the seminary would be critical, just as the selection of a proper translation of the Bible is critical in presenting the true Word of God. Neo-evangelicals and neo-liberals are teaching the same garbage that Osteen does, and more.

    • Totally. Some seminaries are so bad that a degree from there would be cause for disqualification!

  • Jim

    This is a conversation for wealthy westerners. Make seminary affordable and relevant and more people might attend.

    • Yup. What I call on Twitter, #firstworldproblems. That said, some seminaries do a great job in enabling financially challenged foreigners to attend. I am the posterboy for that. TMS highly subsidized my studies, and were instrumental in getting me work, books, scholarships, and grants. The cost of my education was totally prohibitive, except for the grace of God through the generosity of the seminary and friends/donors of the seminary. Where there’s a will (of God) there’s a way.

  • Machel

    Someone who’s had no exposure to Christianity other than reading the much-maligned 4 Spiritual Laws booklet could give better answers than Osteen. My 3-year-old has spent the last week insisting that her name is “Paper Towel”, she’s never been to seminary, and I can guarantee her answers wouldn’t be worse than Osteen’s.

  • METOWNSEND Townsend

    The “success” of Osteens ministry goes to show that oratory, charm, and dare I say good looks, can draw a crowd…

    ..and might I add false doctrine, tolerant teaching and acceptance of everything and everybody without correction or Biblical instruction will also draw a crowd.

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