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One of the things that has quickly become apparent in the controversy surrounding Joel Osteen's response to the victims of the Houston floods, is that trying to establish all of the facts is tricky.

The tropical storm Harvey has caused unprecedented flooding and damage to the state of Texas.

President Donald Trump has been on the scene, and celebrities including Beyoncé, Kevin Hart and Sandra Bullock have all pledged financial support to those affected. Christian ministries and churches were also quick to offer practical help. 

But Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church, which given its weekly attendance of 43,000 makes it one of the largest churches in America, has come under heavy fire for initially refusing to open its doors. 

Houston's Lakewood Church has a 16,800 seat capacity venue. Arguably its in an ideal place to accommodate those affected by the flood, and act as a distribution centre for essential supplies.

But on Sunday, reports emerged that Lakewood Church was shut, prompting a huge backlash on social media, with many saying the church had turned its back on the community. 

Lakewood Church announced via its Facebook page that the premises were inaccessible due to severe flooding. The church event sent photos to ABC News as proof that the building was in no fit state to house flood victims. 

But then, Osteen stated he and his wife cared deeply for Houston and said the doors of his church were never closed. The pastor seemingly reversed the apparent decision to close the Lakewood Church doors, days after saying the premise was deemed inaccessible. This gave credibility to reports that the church was never flooded (or at least not as badly affected by the floods as it had let on).

The criticism moved on. No longer were people complaining the church hadn't opened its doors. Now the complaint was the church had only opened its doors because of a Twitter backlash. In response, Osteen accused social media commentators of creating a  'false narrative' about his church.

The elephant in the room

What’s the real reason then for Joel Osteen getting so much heat for his response to the Houston floods?

The answer, I suspect is that many people are highly critical of Joel Osteen’s wealth, and the prosperity gospel he preaches. To put it simply, a lot of people hate him, which would help to explain why so many people didn’t hesitate to criticise his church’s seemingly sluggish response to the Houston floods.

I can't help but feel even if Lakewood Church had originally opened its doors while flooded, some would have still criticised Osteen - perhaps for allowing people into a flooded building and thereby endangering people's health and safety.

This knee jerk reaction of judging Osteen was also obvious when people compared Lakewood to local mosques who had opened their doors. But if those mosques were not flooded and Lakewood was, then the comparison is unfair. This is not a Christian/Muslim issue. It's a health and safety and practical issue.  People were eager to make a dig at Osteen’s wider ministry and sometimes the Christian faith as a whole. 

There's no doubt that Osteen has gained a negative reputation among many Christians as being the prince of prosperity preaching. His teaching often focuses on the blessings of God (money, health etc.), rather than the dangers of sin, and the need for repentance.

The problem with this type of message, and messages like it, is that it gives those who subscribe to it, the impression that the blessings of God will always include material wealth, and this is simply not the case. Not preaching about the dangers of hell undermines the need for repentance and cancels out the effectiveness of the gospel. The gospel doesn’t promise that our bank balances and assets will increase when we give our lives to Christ. But what it does promise, is that God will always be with us through the hard times (Matthew 28:20), and that anyone who believes in Christ, will live even after dying (John 11:25).

Is it a sin for Christian preacher to be extremely wealthy?

There is certainly a stigma surrounding prosperity preachers being viewed as predators of the pockets of those with ‘itchy ears’ and I believe in most cases it’s deserved. 

Nevertheless it isn’t an outright sin for a preacher of the gospel to be wealthy because Matthew 6:33 says to seek the Kingdom of God first, and its righteousness, and everything else we need will be added. So if God decides to add a 10 million dollar mansion to a certain preacher, who are we to argue? Rather it’s the love of money that is sinful, rather than money itself (1 Timothy 6:10).

So with all the flack Joel Osteen has received in response to the floods, it’s wise to not let our prejudices of wealthy prosperity preachers get in the way of our judgement concerning the Houston floods. As Christ said "Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." (Matthew 7:1-2)

Andrew Hamilton-Thomas is a social commentator, aspiring political journalist and co-presenter for a weekly Christian radio show - The Genesis Show

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