The shady side of Joel Osteen

Joel Osteen has endured plenty of criticism throughout his career. The toothy preacher has come under fire for everything from his physical appearance to his spiritual beliefs to his lack of theological training. However, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the Houston, Texas-based pastor attracted a lot heat for allegedly not doing enough to help. Beneath Osteen's bright smile lurks a potentially shady side.

He did not condemn white supremacists

Though leaders of other mega-churches condemned white supremacists and racist attitudes after an August 2017 neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va. left one woman dead and several others injured, Osteen kept noticeably mum. His only commentary on the incident, and on the topic as a whole, was a vague Facebook post: "One of the biggest challenges we all face is getting along with people because everyone is different. We have different personalities, different temperaments. We come from different backgrounds. When somebody doesn't agree with us or not doing what we like, it's easy to get in conflict with them, to argue, to try to straighten them out, to prove our point. No, you have to be the bigger person. Just because they're doing wrong doesn't mean you have to engage."

His church was accused of being idle during Hurricane Harvey

In August 2017, Osteen faced enormous criticism for not opening his Lakewood Church, which can house 16,800 people, to serve as a shelter after Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston, Texas and left many homeless. However, Osteen's camp insisted the controversy was a misunderstanding.

"We have never closed our doors," a Lakewood Church spokesman told CNN in a statement. "We will continue to be a distribution center to those in need. We are prepared to house people once shelters reach capacity. Lakewood will be a value to the community in the aftermath of this storm." Osteen's reps told the press that the church was closed due to flooding inside and on the surrounding roads in the area and opened its doors on Aug. 29, 2017.

Much of the scrutiny came from apparent first-hand reports of dry conditions at Lakewood, which were picked up by TMZ and other outlets. However, Osteen soon started making the rounds in the media, telling Today that Lakewood was dealing with "safety issues" during the initial impact of the storm. He also said that the church waited until the city asked them to operate as a shelter to start doing so. "The fact is that I don't know that we would've opened any sooner because again there were safety issues,” Osteen told the morning show, adding, "I think some somehow social media can be very powerful and they can create this false narrative."

He has friends in high places

After coming under fire publicly, Osteen gained support from pal Tyler Perry, who announced in a Facebook video that he donated $250,000 to the Lakewood Church.

"I know that there's been some controversy about Joel Osteen and him not opening doors of the church. Let me tell you something: Joel and Victoria are amazing people. There is no way they would lock people out of the church and not let people in for shelter," Perry said. "There were some safety concerns. I spoke to them on the phone, and it all made perfect sense to me so before you just run and judge somebody really quick, you need to know the whole circumstances… This million dollars, I'm breaking it up into quarters. I'm sending $250,000 to Lakewood to make sure that they can get all the supplies that people need. I know that they will, I know for sure that they will, because that's the kind of person he is."

He told Harvey victims not to feel sorry for themselves

In his first sermon since the Harvey floods, Osteen defended his church's decision not to open its doors until the internal flooding had subsided, and he told his parishioners, many of whom lost their homes, to buck up and deal with it.

"Had we opened the building sooner and someone got injured, or perhaps the building flooded and someone lost their lives, that would have been a very different story," Osteen said. "Now I don't mind taking the heat for being precautious. But I don't want to take the heat for being foolish. This is not just an attack on me, it's an attack on what we stand for—for faith, for hope, for love."

Later, he said, "We are not going to understand everything that happens but, you know, having a 'poor old me' mentality or 'look what I lost' or 'why did this happen,' that's just going to pull you down. Like we've been talking about all night, you just got to turn it over and say, 'God you're still on the throne.'"

He was accused of 'colluding with the devil'

Well, this is awkward: in May 2017, Osteen attended his son's graduation at the University of Texas. While there, Osteen and his son posed for a photo flashing the school's signature "Hook 'Em Horns" hand gesture, a sign meant to mimic the university's longhorn mascot. Unfortunately for the preacher, that led some of his followers down a dark rabbit hole. 

Twitter users slammed Osteen for allegedly worshiping the devil, with one user writing (via the Daily Mail), "The sign sir… I honor you but that hand gesture sent a very bad signal sir.!!!! Can't believe it's you." Another wrote, "Why on Earth would you use a devil sign? My goodness, a thumbs up would work." 

Neither Joel nor his co-pastor wife, Victoria, commented on the allegations, probably because, well, they're patently ridiculous.

He expressed contradictory views on Christianity

In a 2005 interview on Larry King Live, Osteen, who had no formal seminary training, came under fire from critics for seemingly contradicting himself.

When King asked Osteen if he believed people of other faiths who don't believe in Jesus would go to heaven, Osteen offered a somewhat rambling and unclear response: "You know, I'm very careful about saying who would and wouldn't go to heaven. I don't know… 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." Of atheists going to Heaven, Osteen said, "I'm going to let God be the judge of who goes to Heaven and Hell… I present the truth, and I say it every week. You know, I believe it's a relationship with Jesus. But you know what? I'm not going to go around telling everybody else if they don't want to believe that that's going to be their choice… God's got to look at your heart, and only God knows that."

Osteen later published a letter on his website apologizing for bumbling during the interview, writing, "It was never my desire or intention to leave any doubt as to what I believe and Whom I serve. I believe with all my heart that it is only through Christ that we have hope in eternal life. I regret and sincerely apologize that I was unclear on the very thing in which I have dedicated my life… I believe that Jesus Christ alone is the only way to salvation. However, it wasn't until I had the opportunity to review the transcript of the interview that I realize I had not clearly stated that having a personal relationship with Jesus is the only way to heaven. It's about the individual's choice to follow Him."

Did church staff body slam a baby?

In March 2017, Radar Online reported that Osteen and Lakewood Church were being sued by a family accusing a church staff member of body slamming its baby girl. Court documents obtained by the site claim that in May 2014, "A representative of the church grabbed a child safety seat housing Victoria Wedderburn, a minor, and threw the seat off the church pew… [Victoria] landed face first on the floor, while still strapped to the safety seat…[causing] serious bodily injury and extensive mental and emotional damage."

Osteen's attorneys claimed the "incident [that] made the basis of this suit was caused by the actions of third parties over whom the [Osteens] had no control." Osteen also claimed the church and its employees he had no liability for the incident, based on the "Charitable Immunity Act." The church reportedly settled with the Wedderburn family for $15,000, despite asserting it had no wrongdoing and that the claims were entirely made up.

He allegedly flip-flops on homosexuality

When talk show host King asked Osteen about abortion and same-sex marriage in his 2005 interview, Osteen replied, "You know what, Larry? I don't go there."

But he did go there in January 2011, telling Piers Morgan Tonight, "I've always believed, Piers—the scripture shows that it's a sin, but I'm not one of those that are out there to bash homosexuals and tell them they're terrible people and all that."

During another interview in October 2011, Morgan asked Osteen if his views on same-sex marriage and homosexuality had evolved. The preacher said his belief "really never changes" because it's "based out of the scripture. That's what I believe that the scripture says—that homosexuality is a sin… I believed it before and I still believe it now. Again, I would just reiterate what I said, I'm not after—I'm not mad at anybody. I don't dislike anybody." He later added, "I'm not against anything but I just believe that's what the Bible teaches…" 

CNN journalist Soledad O'Brien asked Osteen how he could call himself an "uplifting" pastor if he declares homosexuality a sin. "I don't necessarily focus on that," Osteen said. "I only talk about that in interviews. It seems like in Christianity we categorize sin… I don't think [homosexuality] is God's best."

A church staffer may have cheated with a Cheetah Girl

Radar Online reported in March 2016 that Israel Houghton had been suspended from Osteen's church for allegedly cheating on his then-wife of 20 years, Meleasa, with actress Adrienne Bailon of The Cheetah Girls (2003). However, Houghton and the Lakewood Church insisted Houghton was on a "personal sabbatical."

"Lakewood Church is not at liberty to discuss publicly any details regarding Israel's personal situation, but stands ready to provide Israel with spiritual counseling and guidance should he choose to seek it," the church said in a statement to Radar.

Houghton firmly denied that he and Bailon were anything more than friends until after he and Meleasa divorced. Bailon and Houghton wed in Paris November 2016.

His wife was sued for an alleged in-flight tantrum

In 2005, Osteen's wife, Victoria, reportedly threw a tantrum on a flight after a small spill on her armrest wasn't immediately cleaned up. According to The New York Times, that spill was the size of a quarter, but the incident resulted in Victoria being accused of assault on a flight attendant and fined $3,000 for causing the flight to be delayed due to her interference with a crew member.

The case went to trial in 2008. The flight attendant, Sharon Brown, sued Victoria, claiming the preacher's wife "insulted her, shoved her against a door and elbowed her in the breast," allegedly causing Brown to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. A psychiatrist reportedly confirmed Brown's suffering during court proceedings, and another flight attendant suggested Victoria may have been "dismissive and abusive to [Brown] because of her race."

However, a jury found after just two hours of deliberation that there was little to no evidence to support the claim that a physical assault took place. Victoria was exonerated. "I'm glad it's over," she told the press after the trial. "It's the truth, and the truth always stands firm."

He was accused of shady financial dealings

In January 2015, New York attorney Richard Garbarini told the National Enquirer that despite listing Lakewood Church as a non-profit, "[Osteen is] leveraging the church as a money-making vehicle! The church pays [to air] his sermons, which are just de facto infomercials to promote his books. The Lakewood Church is a shell to funnel people to his website so he can sell his books." 

Daniel Boroff, head of Charity Watch, concurred, telling the tabloid, "A non-profit needs to be acting in the public interest and not in the private personal business interests of Joel Osteen. The church should benefit from the royalties of these books when they are shouldering at least some of the cost of promoting them. If it isn't getting something back, it oughta be. It's too much a promotional vehicle for him."

Osteen and Lakewood Church denied the allegations, telling the Enquirer that Garbarini's claims were "false and baseless," adding, "For more than 50 years Lakewood Church has adhered to the highest standards of honesty and integrity."

He was sued by a band for using its song in commercials

In 2011, Joel and Victoria were sued for $3 million dollars on the grounds of copyright infringement by two members of the band, The American Dollar. According to The Christian Post, band mates Richard Cupolo and John Emanuele alleged that their song "Signaling Through the Flames" was used without permission in promotional materials for the Osteen's DVD, Supernatural. Cupolo and Emanuele believed they'd signed an agreement allowing the use of their song for a period of one year, which they claimed the Osteens and Lakewood Church exceeded. 

A judge essentially sided with the Osteens, according to the Houston Press, ruling that "the licensing agreement unambiguously limits perpetual-use Internet rights to those productions created or revised prior to the agreement's expiration," but allowed "the defendants two weeks to amend their suit and pursue some courses of action."

Interestingly, the money didn't seem to be the main motivator behind the band members' lawsuit. Rather, according to their lawyer, "They don't want to be tied to a global televangelist for the rest of their careers, and a controversial one at that." Given Osteen's reach of a reported more than seven million weekly television viewers as well as his more than 40,000 weekly church attendees, it's hard to believe a little-known band wouldn't want a piece of that kind of exposure. It begs the question: what does The American Dollar know about Joel Osteen that we don't?

A church volunteer was accused of child abuse

In February 2010, a Lakewood Church volunteer was accused of "inappropriate" sexual conduct with a special needs child, leading to a Child Protective Services investigation into the organization, Radar Online reported. Court documents obtained by Radar revealed that Alvaro Daniel Guzman, a volunteer in the church's special needs children's ministry, the Champions Club, was accused of misconduct after a female volunteer "allegedly witnessed [him] touching the child assigned to [him] in an inappropriate fashion." The female volunteer reportedly told higher-ups, who "advised her that she should contact Child Protective Services and report to them what she had witnessed." Guzman was subsequently dismissed from his volunteer position.

By May 2011, Guzman was arrested and charged with "the offense of indecency on a child," though the charges were dismissed after a grand jury failed to indict him, reported Radar Online. In February 2012, Guzman filed a lawsuit against the Lakewood Church, accusing the church of negligence in properly investigating the indecent and claiming Lakewood "failed to properly secure video" that may have proven his innocence long before his arrest. Guzman claimed in his suit that as a result of the charges, he suffered lost wages, damage to his reputation, anxiety, pain, and illness, Radar reported. Guzman's lawsuit ended with a summary judgment in favor of Lakewood Church in December 2012; a judge claimed Guzman didn't present enough evidence.