Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Convenient Christ

The Convenient Christ is on the rise in our churches! He's a lovable, Santa-esque figure who wants to make us happy and bless us abundantly. He wants us to be comfortable in the world and for the world to comfortable with him. He refrains from saying things that might offend people. After all, can't we all just get along? The Convenient Christ loves us, so why would he ever call us into trials, sickness, or poverty? He never wants his children to suffer hardship or persecution. That wouldn't be loving. He wants us to be successful, wealthy, and healthy! He wants us to shine as his victors!

Each Sunday, tens of thousands flock to hear Joel Osteen deliver the message of the Convenient Christ at Lakewood Church in Texas, which boasts the largest congregation in America, topping 45,000 in attendance every week. And millions more tune into his sermons, which are televised weekly on national TV. Why the popularity? As Michelle Vu of The Christian Post explains, "Joel Osteen doesn't like to ruffle feathers; he is known for his open-arms, positive-thinking, God-wants-to-bless-you approach to Christianity, which has earned him a loyal following of millions worldwide and the largest and fastest growing church in U.S. history."[1] Osteen does indeed present a very attractive, very convenient, version of Christianity: "God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us," Osteen wrote in a 2005 letter to his flock.[2]

It is this God-wants-to-bless-you mantra that is promoted in the hugely popular prosperity gospel, or Word of Faith theology, preached by heavy-hitting Christian leaders like Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, T.D. Jakes, and Kenneth Hagin. And this brand of health-and-wealth preaching has certainly garnered the world's attention. Bravo TV's new reality show, Thicker Than Water, for example, features prosperity Pastor Ben Tankard and his southern family, as they "integrate their strong religious conviction with their penchant for the finer things in life." While Jesus clearly taught that it is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, and urged His followers to store riches in Heaven and not on earth, the prosperity gospel turns this teaching upside down. And the world is watching.

Despite the fact that Osteen has no theological training, he has claim to the title of most successful pastor in America. As would be expected, Osteen's Word of Faith pronouncements have been eagerly embraced by Oprah Winfrey who has glowingly endorsed his mega best-selling books. This makes sense considering Osteen's preaching certainly reflects the same self-help ethos that exists at the heart of the other spiritual gurus she promotes, like Ekard Tolle, for example. Just like Osteen, many New Age spiritualists, have adopted their own Convenient Christs (in a variety of forms, including the concept of Christ-consciousness, for example) who fit neatly into their preconceived worldview or religious convictions. 

Staying true to his Convenient Christ, Osteen's message is devoid of inconvenient truths. He sticks to positive, crowd-pleasing topics, dodging bible verses that could ruffle feathers, like perhaps those that record Jesus' own words: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?" (Matt 16:24-26). There is certainly very little emphasis on cross-bearing and denial of self from within the Word of Faith camp.

Creating your own Convenient Christ is tantamount to setting yourself up as God. It is not surprising, therefore, that there has been an effort underway among prominent Word of Faith teachers to redefine themselves as "little gods." Prosperity preacher Kenneth Copeland, for example, has stated "You’re all God. You don’t have a God living in you; you are one! … When I read in the Bible where God tells Moses, ‘I AM,’ I say, ‘Yeah, I Am too!"[3] Word of Faith preacher, Kenneth Hagin, wrote that God "made us in the same class of being that he is himself," and claims that the believer is "called Christ" because "that's who we are, we're Christ!"[4] According to Hagin, by being "born again" the believer becomes "as much of an incarnation as Jesus of Nazareth."[5] This teaching mirrors closely the self-deification of both Mormonism and of New Age philosophy alike; just like them, the Word of Faith movement veils an underlying desire to become our own, self-autonomous, God. It is an old story, far older than the Gnosticism and the destructive greed sects that first infiltrated the early church. It is a story that began in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve made that first, fatal grasp for godhood themselves at Satan's beckoning. It is a pattern of human behavior that repeats itself throughout history, reemerging over and over again in various forms, but always motivated by the same age-old desire for personal godhood.

The Convenient Christ is an enabler of selfism. He panders to our fleshly desires and lures us in with false promises of earthly security and happiness. He preys on the desperate, the weak, the sick, and the financially strained—and he is readily received by a voracious audience of religious consumers. As followers of the true Christ, we need to recognize this insidious counterfeit in our midst and stand firm against his false doctrine. Speaking out against false prophets is biblical. Jesus warned us to watch out for wolves in sheep's clothing (Matt 7:15). The Apostle Paul was by no means accommodating to, or conciliatory with, false teachers who propagated heresy in the early church. He called them out as dangerous deceivers and urged Christians to avoid them. However successful Word of Faith preachers may be, however big their following, however many books they sell, we must have the courage and conviction to stand firmly against them. Maybe the Convenient Christ calls for a little table-flipping in the Temple so-to-speak.  

This is because of the sheer tragedy that so many seekers are being led astray by the Convenient Christ. Unlike counterfeit Christs of false religions or cults that more blatantly misuse the name of Jesus, the Convenient Christ is not so easily spotted, and can certainly seem like the real dealespecially when a few misinterpreted or selectively used bible verses are thrown into the mix. For example, prosperity preachers often give out-of-context emphasis to the widely-popular verse from Jeremiah: "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'" (Jer 29:11). While this verse should rightfully give us a sense of hope, it is pretty much always deliveredin the health-and-wealth contextwithout any acknowledgement that this was God's promise through Jeremiah to the people of Israel while they were in exile to Babylon. This is not to say that the promises of the old covenant (given to Israel under Old Testament Mosaic law) are not applicable to Christians today under the new covenant (in which the law of Moses has given way to a new life in Christ). Paul clarifies this: "For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ." (Cor 1:20). Because all God's promises are now fulfilled for us in Christ, the realization of these promises for believers today is different from how they were fulfilled for the Israelites. As promised, the Isrealites came out of exile after 70 years. But for us, the promise of prosperity, hope, and a future now has eternal meaning in Christ. Hebrews 9:15 declares, “For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that He has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.” Prosperity preachers, however, misapply this verse claiming that God promises us an earthly life of material prosperity.

The problem is, the prosperity gospel relies on soundbite theology with a feel-good twist that neglects huge chunks of Scripture and replaces the gospel of Jesus Christ with a cheap substitute. It is short-sighted preaching that is of this world, not of God. While the Convenient Christ wants nothing more than for us to get cozy in the world and to chase after the carnal pleasures it has to offer, we are reminded by Scripture that this is not God's best for us. It is not "our best life now" to coin an Osteen-phrase. Paul teaches us that we "must no longer live as the pagans do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed." (Eph 4:17-19). We are described in Scripture as sojourners in an alien world, as "foreigners and strangers" whose "days on earth are like a shadow, without hope." (1 Chron 29:15) . The beguiling pleasures of this world can deceive us into losing sight of the true riches that await us in Glory. Peter reminds us of this when he writes, "Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul." (1 Peter 2:11). Our earthly lives are vaporous (James 4:14), but living life in the here-and-now clouds our Eternal perspective. 

Despite all this, I am often stunned by the number of (even mature) Christians who have told me how much they like Joel Osteen's sermons and books. Osteen does have a slick interview style, often giving vague, evasive answers to tough questions, which he occasionally peppers with choice Bible verses and smothers in Christianese. But a closer look into what Osteen actually teaches reveals very quickly that his message is actually more akin to that of New Age philosophy than sound biblical teaching. In his most recent book, Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential, Osteen tells his readers: “You have to begin speaking words of faith over your life. Your words have enormous creative power. The moment you speak something out, you give birth to it. This is the spiritual principle, and it works whether what you are saying is good or bad, positive or negative.” As is often the case with false teachers, Osteen mixes partial truths with heresy. It is true that the tongue is a powerful force for good or evil, but human words have no sovereign power. Only God's Word does. God doesn't have to do what we say; the Bible teaches that God's will determines the answer to our prayers (Rom 8:26-27). Yet Osteen is committed to the notion that faith is a force that shapes our lives and our own words are conduits for that force. It is a concept that is shared by New Agers like Rhonda Byrne, for example, whose best-selling book, The Secret, "teaches us that we create our lives, with every thought every minute of every day" and is based on the idea that the law of attraction determines our destiny (i.e. positive thinking brings good health and prosperity, negative thinking brings the opposite). The difference between the Word of Faith movement and its New Age counterpart is largely semantic; the former talks of a "faith force," the latter refers to "the power" or "Christ force" depending on whom you are reading. Yet the Word of Faith movement is still mistaken by many as authentic Christianity.

The Convenient Christ can creep into our hearts if we let himif our eyes aren't fixed on Jesus. Authentic Christianity is counter-cultural. As soon as our faith starts to mirror the worldly values and teachings around us, or feel a little too convenient, we need to check ourselves and ask, who is it that I am actually following?

[1] http://www.christianpost.com/news/interview-joel-osteen-on-prosperity-gospel-crystal-cathedral-and-jesus-74040/#Y4H2sJJWGfJzjRkO.99
[2] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/opinions/outlook/worst-ideas/prosperity-gospel.html
[3]Kenneth Copeland, "The Force of Love", (Teaching tape, Kenneth Copeland Ministries, 1987)
[4] Kenneth E. Hagin, Zoe: The God-Kind of Life, (Kenneth Hagin Ministries, Inc., 1989)
[5] Kenneth E. Hagin, "The Virgin Birth" in Word of Faith Magazine (December 1977)


Bethany said...

Great article. And the Convenient Christ can't save, as he's not the real Christ. So many are being led astray these days into believing in a false Christ. We are all responsible for our own actions, but I shudder to think of the judgment on these "pastors" who preach this Christ.

EYang said...

Very well written article. You will never hear Osteen talk about topics like hell, sin, the narrow path, predestination, the martyr deaths of the apostles, holiness of God, judgement and punishment. Osteen is leading people straight down the wide road of destruction.

WhimsicalMadCap said...

"CONvenient"---operative syllable being the first. ;)

Osteen appeals to a culture saturated with entertainment, a mentality out of touch with the very realthorns and thistles that permeate the very paradigm of our existence. The image (!!!) has totally deluded the masses.

Cedric Fisher said...

Great article! I shared it on my TruthKeepers page. There are so few Christians that are standing up boldly for truth that it is refreshing and encouraging when I discover one who is.

dragonfly318 said...

If all were the eye ,where is the hearing? I say do your part, let the others do theirs. The Lord says stop attacking one another before you consume one another . It takes the whole body ,not just your clique. Because you are not the hand you can't say I have no need of you. Christ himself says his yoke is easy and his burden lite. He's very convenient ,even to you! There are different operations but the same spirit. People are giving their hearts to Christ the Lord, turning from evil and serving God. At which point they are in the Kingdom, wealthy or not. IJS

WhimsicalMadCap said...

Hey, Dragonfly!

It's true that all genuine believers are part of the Body, and that the Body is motley. But don't forget that there are (a)false Messiahs, (b)false "Gospels," (c) false teachings, which is why someone like Jude warns us to "contend for the faith once delivered to the saints."

As for "wealthy or not," what does that have to do with this article? Nobody said anything about income or possessions being relevant to this topic.

bidonit said...

Heaven is where our treasure should be and Jesus is our treasure. American culture has become intoxicated with itself we are headed for destruction and can't even see it. One thing is for sure you won't see a hearse pulling a u-haul. Even so Lord come quickly.