A deeply spiritual man with a shallow theology

Oral Roberts lived and believed in the American dream. He was also a devoted Christian. The tension between the two … Continued

Oral Roberts lived and believed in the American dream. He was also a devoted Christian. The tension between the two is a good predictor of the successes and failures of an important American and Christian life. Roberts was a complex man who lived a long time and it would be unfortunate if he only receives hagiography or dismissal.

Roberts did much that was good, but it came at a very high theological and intellectual price. Roberts was born in the lower middle class, never graduated from college, but founded a fully accredited university. With little training, he launched a highly successful television franchise, changed the reputation of Pentecostalism in America and helped bring “Spirit-led” worship to a new generation. Sadly, Roberts also introduced some very bad theological ideas into the bloodstream of that same movement.

Roberts was born in 1918 in rural Oklahoma and died in 2009 in Newport Beach, California. He tracked the movement of many Americans in his generation from relative poverty to comfort in the Golden West. His American populism was his most attractive feature, but an inherent disdain for elites led to his problems. Roberts understood the changes that were going on in the culture and was able to negotiate the relationship between his faith and those changes, but often the integration was overly shallow.

Oral Roberts had a vision for education that has served thousands of students and will serve thousands more. However, Roberts failed to learn from the responsible scholarship of people he helped educate as his ministry grew and demanded more resources. Ironically, the good works of Roberts in educating Pentecostals undercut support for his less responsible theological pronouncements within mainstream Pentecostalism.

There is no justification for the “seed faith” theology that Roberts helped mainstream. It is bad theology, bad philosophy, and does not work in the real world. Seed faith theology is based on the proper idea that giving is better than receiving. As the Catholic Church discovered to its shame in the late Middle Ages, people eager to make a buck easily can twist this truth. If you work for a charity, there is a fine line between urging people to give to good works and urging them to give to you.

Seed faith theology pushed past historic warnings about these problems. It also went further and began to treat the blessings of God as a mechanism. God, in good American fashion, was reduced to a slot machine dispensing blessings after the proper input.

Roberts knew that the God of the Bible does not hate prosperity or pleasure. He desires good things for His children and Roberts rightly saw that some forms of American Christianity had forgotten this truth. Roberts was correct in preaching that in Christ “something good was going to happen to you” and that God was a God of second chances.

Sadly, this idea too can suffer abuse when it is not matched by the counterbalancing truth that God wants us to grow up and to learn. Our ultimate reward is not, after all, in this life. While God is not opposed to prosperity, not all good things are good for us. It is also all too easy (as many of us know) to slide from a proper condemnation of puritanical killjoys to a lax love of money.

Many ministries that followed Roberts’ had even less checks and balances in their teaching than he did. Globally the “seed faith” theology has done significant harm. Roberts bears some responsibility for not recognizing these dangers.

Like many Americans, Roberts wanted the benefits of modernity, but failed to see the downsides. He should be credited for recognizing the possible educational and religious benefits of the new media of his day. His life is a warning that uncritical use of that media can change a ministry more than the ministry changes the media.

Roberts’ television programming, recordings, and music gave hope and comfort to millions of Americans. They encouraged millions to develop the habits and personal characteristics that made them better citizens and Christians. Thousands gave up destructive habits such as drug use and thousands more salvaged marriages and relationships.

If Roberts raised money, he did not do so from unwilling people, but from millions of folks who enjoyed his programming and benefited from his ministry. We insult them if we stereotype all of them as “exploited” or “conned.” Roberts gave more than he got to most of his audience.

Oral Roberts took Pentecostalism from poverty to lower-middle-class almost-respectability, but he could never cross the last barriers to social acceptance. Partly that was the result of the class and intellectual prejudices of the world in which he ministered. Mostly, it was because Roberts moved away from the “cutting edge” of change and growth. The Oral Robert’s style evolved rapidly from the fifties to the seventies, but then stopped changing. By the now risible standards of the seventies, Roberts made fairly mainstream television and was effective, but the standards changed and Roberts did not.

His theology and philosophy did not adapt well to a new age and he left his ministries in incapable hands. Shallow theology and an overemphasis on the charismatic leader leave a ministry too pliable where it should be strong and not adaptable where it should change.

Fortunately, it appears his University will be saved to continue the best part of Roberts’ work. I know people who teach at Oral Roberts University and it is a fine school that continues to improve and build on the best part of Roberts’ legacy.

Roberts recognized early the need to minister to the whole person. Roberts wanted the masses to find, and I personally have known people who found, God, comfort, and healing through his ministry. In a time when Christianity had become too glum, his cheerful proclamation that Christians could be happy was a needed balance for many.

The ORU singers cheered up many an overly grim Christian by reminding them that they “were more than conquerors.”

Oral Roberts insightfully rejected a low view of the body. His failed medical school was part of a noble vision to minister to the whole person. This integrative educational approach continues as a hallmark of Oral Roberts University and is a good legacy for Oral Roberts. As heterodox as “seed faith” theology was, there is much to be learned from the holism of Oral Roberts in caring for body, soul, and mind.

I suspect that it is the good idea, enshrined at ORU, that will live and that the heresies that cluster around “giving to get” will die.

Money and how to deal with it in a booming nation was the problem for the Roberts legacy from the beginning and right to the end. Money is easy to get in America if you have the right talents, and Oral Roberts would have grown rich in many fields with his abundances of raw intellect, charm, and work ethic, but money is a great danger.

America teaches that you can never be too rich and Christianity teaches that a rich man will find it difficult to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. This is a tension for anyone who lives in the United States. Free markets are, on the whole, the best for most people, but they are not the greatest good for Christians.

Roberts had a deep and persistent interest in helping the poor in his ministry and personally. He was committed to making college, private college, affordable to many of them, but his own lifestyle often undercut his ideals or caused many to question his integrity. He never solved this contradiction, but then the nation that birthed him has never solved its own contradictions with money.

We are the most generous and charitable nation in human history, but we squander billions on self-indulgent behaviors. We resent the rich, but ape their lifestyles using credit cards. We are populist would be plutocrats.

Jesus never let Oral Roberts down and inspired good works that will live on in Oral Roberts University and in lives he personally aided, but America and American Christianity did let him down. We did not give Roberts an adequate vision of the relationship between technology and personhood or between freedom and personal responsibility.

Like so many Americans, Roberts lived a wonderful life, but like so many American Christians, his is also a cautionary tale.

John Mark Reynolds
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  • LeeH1

    Oral Roberts also used God to exploit his supporters, telling them that God will kill him (call him home) if not enough money was collected. Anyone who would use the Christian God as a murderous extortionist does not know God, and is not and never was a true minister of the Gospel.This was not seed faith. This was not shallow Christianity. This was emotional extortion and a slander of God’s will and a challenge against the Holy Ghost, which is not Christian at all.I shudder to think of Oral Roberts now facing God’s judgement. I only know it will be just.

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    But if Oral Roberts said his theology was true, and based on the Bible, then wasn’t it? What is shallow about that?

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    He took money from poor little old ladies, who couldn’t afford it. I know, because my grandmother was one of those little old ladies. And then he built a great financial empire. Then he became a crooked and narcisist business man. In the end, why could he not heal himself?

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    Some people who followed in his steps:Ernest Angely, Peter Popoff, Rex Humbard, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, Jim and Tammy Bakker, Jimmy Swaggert.I call these people spiritual materialists, people who have a spiritual nature, but also lust after wealth and luxury with no legitimate profession, so what do they do, but reach their hands out, and take, take, take, from whomever’s pocket they can.No wonder Christianity is on the skids.

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    Do you suppose if we had just given him a little more money, God wouldn’t have killed him?

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    Except for extreme cases, I think it is wicked to speak ill of the dead.And Oral never was one to sit around for very long. Surely, he would not wish us to indulge ourselves in our grief endlessly. He would want us to soldier on, somehow.He would say, “Feel the power, David Waters, feel it, and close these mournful threads on my demise.”These, of course, would not be his own words, but those which passed through him courtesy of the Holy Spirit.RIP, Oral, and let’s move on.

  • douglaslbarber

    “Roberts understood the changes that were going on in the culture and was able to negotiate the relationship between his faith and those changes, but often the integration was overly shallow.”I’m trying to figure out whether that’s better or worse than being insufficiently shallow.

  • johnmarkreynolds

    Douglas,Good catch on a silly modifier. It should just read “shallow.” What I get for not editing carefully!John Mark

  • cornbread_r2

    I’m sure you could find thousands of people who have contributed to prosperity theology ministries who will tell you it was worth every penny and that they never felt exploited in the least bit. But, of course, that’s why good con games are so effective; the person being conned doesn’t even realize it, or when they do, they’re too embarrassed to admit it. A hugely popular minister like Oral Roberts could have jerked a knot in the tails of the likes of Mike Murdock, Benny Hinn, Todd Coontz, Morris Cerullo — or dozens of other prosperity preachers — long ago, but he didn’t. Epic fail.

  • Guneenya

    Shallow theology. How’s that for a redundancy.

  • ender2

    At least Johnmarklukeandpaul has the gumption to call Roberts “shallow”. How many other preachers ever have anything to say against the lowlifes of their profession?Come on Preach, lets have it in plain English just once.Oral Roberts, Ernest Angely, Peter Popoff, Rex Humbard, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, Jim and Tammy Bakker, Jimmy Swaggert are all con artist and swinders for whom religion is just a business and in the case of at least the Bakkers, an illegal one.By being crooked and dishonest leaders with so many followers they have done more to destroy Christianity than to spread it.These folks are true Shepards of Men and expert at fleecing the flock.

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    Once, I called the telephone number advertised on the Peter Popoff show, and was asked to leave a message; I hung up without leaving a message. After that for several days, I received computer robot calls from the Peter Popoff people that were so annoying and so persistent that I had to leave my phone off the hook.I remember watching Jim and Tammy Bakker. Tammy exclaimed in mascarra soaked tears, “you people would buy chewing gum and soda pop for yourselves, but you wouldn’t even give a dollar to Jesus.” And she raised up her jewelry laden arms in anger and shook her fists at the camera lens, the viewing audience at home. And I remember that Jim Bakker would cry too. He would just break down and sob, over some little non-event. And then Tammy, and the guest, and camera man, and volunteers from the audience and whomever else, would gather around him to help him collect himself, until he was ready to continue the show. And then, at his very first word, he would just dissolve into tears again. I thought to myself, “Oh my God! someone send this poor guy some money!”And I will always remember Gloria Copeland, talking about “Krast!” because she was so Southern that she just plain could not pronounce “Christ” correctly. And her husband Kenneth, (I think all her fame was from being married to him, but she has actually been more successful) whose Southern accent is so heavy and garbled, that I cannot even tell what the heck he is talking about, most of the time. When people are begging for money, they are bound to get more, if they would learn to speak plain English.And what about Jimmy Swaggert? He was never very nice or appealing on any level. Then after being caught cruising for hookers in his red caddillac, he literally threw himself on the mercy of his followers, crying like a little boy, exclaiming that he had sinned.Rex Humbard used to speak in a soft voice, from a desk, telling about how the Communists and homo-sexuals were going to take over everything, so donate some money to stop them.Ernest Angely use to say “Come OUT! Foul Spirits, in the name of the Lord, I command it!” But if he was so good at healing everyone else, why did he have to wear that bad toupee?

  • CalSailor

    One of the key Lutheran insights that has helped me immensely over the years is the distinction between law and gospel. In a very simplistic description, Law is a standard that we are unable to meet. It demands perfection and shows us that we fail in the demands of faith. Its purpose is to drive the sinner to the gospel. The gospel, or “good news” is to announce that the impossible standards HAVE been met, through Christ’s death and resurrection.The law/gospel distinction has been very handy when evaluating the assertions of people in the field of religion. When I see the prosperity gospel preachers, I find that there is very little gospel and a lot of law. “God wants you to have all good things” is great, and a true assertion. HOWEVER, for the believer, it becomes law, because no one can possibly achieve all the good things that these preachers say we should be receiving if only our faith as good enough, pure enough, etc. A believer whose child has a chronic and uncurable illness. How has the believer failed? A loved one dies suddenly and WAY before a life well lived; a job ends and another cannot be found. In all of these, and many others, the believer experiences it as condemnation. What do you tell the soldier’s family when he is killed in war: It is God’s will? What did the soldier or family member not do “right”? Did they not have enough faith? Pray enough? etc. Or the flip side: It was a miracle I survived the tornado. But what about the one who didn’t survive. Didn’t they measure up?Rather than tell a grieving family that it was “God’s will” that their child was hit by a car or stray bullet and died, reminding them that God, too, mourned the death of his son, and he, too, knows the sorrow of death, and yet, he will be with us, no matter what. And that his grace will be with the family, and that “all things work together for good, to those who love God.” All things are NOT good…but God can bring good out of them. He will never forsake those who mourn. The prosperity “gospel” does not have an answer to suffering, except the implicit acknowledgement of failure. There is a lot of law and very little gospel in their “gospel.”Pr Chris

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    John Mark,Do you have any news on this? I’ve been unable to find any follow-up info.Officials say priest attacks menorah in MoldovaBy CORNELIU RUSNAC, Associated Press Writer Corneliu Rusnac, Associated Press Writer Mon Dec 14, 12:35 pm ETCHISINAU, Moldova – Dozens of people led by an Orthodox priest smashed a menorah in Moldova’s capital, using hammers and iron bars to remove the candelabra during Hanukkah, officials said.The 1.5 meter(5-foot)-tall ceremonial candelabrum was retrieved, reinstalled and is now under police guard.Police said they were investigating the Sunday attack but there was no official reaction from Moldova’s Orthodox Church, which is part of the Russian Orthodox Church and counts 70 percent of Moldovans as members.The U.S. Embassy and Chisinau city government condemned the attack. City officials called on the church to investigate. The head of the church, Bishop Vladimir Cantarean, was at his mother’s funeral in Ukraine on Monday and was expected to make a statement when he returns, the church said.The national government said in a statement that “hatred, intolerance and xenophobia” are unacceptable.Jewish leader Alexandr Bilinkis called on the Orthodox Church to take a position over the priest’s actions.The Jewish community was thriving before World War II but there are now estimated to be just 12,000 Jews in the former Soviet Republic. Twenty years ago there were 66,000 Jews. Many emigrated to Israel.