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. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the Houston, Texas-based pastor attracted a lot heat for allegedly not doing enough to help, like so many selfless community members actually did, becoming heroes in the process

But this preacher had already weathered plenty of controversy prior to the waters of Buffalo Bayou raising up around the southeast Texas city. From not being quick enough to condemn some clearly objectionable behavior, to being accused of misrepresenting the basic tenets of Christianity in a variety of ways, Osteen's public image is far from that of a flawless saint.

Let's take a look at what potentially lurks beneath this holy man's bright smile. This is the shady side of Joel Osteen. 

Joel Osteen chose not to 'engage' with Neo-Nazis

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."

Did Joel Osteen's 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.

A church volunteer was accused of child abuse

In February 2010, a Lakewood Church volunteer in the church's special needs children's ministry, the Champions Club, 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 a female volunteer "allegedly witnessed [Alvaro Daniel Guzman] 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 sued Lakewood Church for "lost wages, damage to [his] reputation," and "anxiety, pain, and illness." He accused the church of negligence in its investigation of the indecent and claimed it "failed to properly secure video" that may have exonerated him. Guzman's lawsuit ended with "a summary judgment in favor of Lakewood" in December 2012; a judge claimed Guzman presented "no evidence."

Joel Osteen is 'not mad' at sinner homosexuals

When talk show host Larry 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" and that he's "not against anything," but it's "based out of the scripture. ... Homosexuality is a sin." He added, "Again, I would just reiterate what I said, I'm not after — I'm not mad at anybody. I don't dislike anybody." 

CNN's 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."

Hurricane Harvey was a PR disaster for Joel Osteen

In August 2017, Joel 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. However, Osteen's camp insisted the controversy was a misunderstanding. Claiming the church "never closed [its] doors," and that it would be "a value to the community in the aftermath of this storm," a Lakewood spokesman told CNN in a statement, "We will continue to be a distribution center ... We are prepared to house people once shelters reach capacity." 

Osteen's reps told the press that Lakewood temporarily closed due to flooding, but first-hand reports of dry conditions in the area were picked up by TMZ and other outlets. In his defense, Osteen told Today that Lakewood was dealing with "safety issues" during the initial impact of the storm. He also said the church waited until the city asked it to operate as a shelter to start doing so. "I think some somehow social media can be very powerful and they can create this false narrative," Osteen told the morning show.

Joel Osteen told Harvey victims not to feel sorry for themselves

In his first sermon since the Harvey floods (via Fox News), Joel 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.'"

Is Joel Osteen's church just a front to sell books?

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."

Joel Osteen is not Heaven's doorman, okay?

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 in which he said, "I'm very careful about saying who would and wouldn't go to heaven. ... I believe there's what the Bible teaches and from the Christian faith this is what I believe." Of atheists going to Heaven, Osteen said he leaves it up to God to "be the judge of who goes to Heaven and Hell," adding, "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."

Osteen later published a letter on his website apologizing for perceived waffling, writing that upon "review" of the show "transcript," he saw that he "had not clearly stated that having a personal relationship with Jesus is the only way to heaven." Osteen apologized and further clarified, "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."

Joel Osteen messed with the bull

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.

Tyler Perry Presents: Joel Osteen's Not A Scumbag

After coming under fire publicly, Osteen gained support from his equally shady 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."

Joel Osteen's collab with Kanye West isn't exactly a match made in... well, you know

Joel Osteen teamed up with Kanye West for the rapper's Sunday Service program and will do more events with him in the future — but West's religious services have come under as much question (if not more) than Osteen's own work. NPR reported that some aspects of West's Sunday Service program seem more self-promotional and capitalist than pious and Christian.

"He is the church ... he is the text of the sermon. It's his songs. He is the worship. He is creating a church in himself and selling it, really," Jia Tolentino, a New Yorker staff writer who attended West's Sunday Service, explained on NPR's All Things Considered. Tolentino claimed that the reason West hosted Sunday Service at Coachella was to sell merchandise, including $50 tube socks and a $225 sweatshirt emblazoned with "Sunday Service at the Mountain." "It comes down to this complicated relationship between, you know, being a prophet or a supplicant," Tolentino said.

However beneficial it may be to Osteen's congregation and West's fans, Yeezus' praise definitely helps the prosperity gospel preacher and clothing designer alike: TMZ reported that West's guest appearance on Osteen's Sunday night service at his Lakewood Church in November 2019 raked in 4.17 unique viewers — a huge uptick from Osteen's usual 1.3 million.