Joel Osteen in the Land of Knox: Liberalism and Legalism

Having spent the last six years on Skye, and having opportunities to minister in a variety of places such as Glenelg, North Uist, and the Island of Lewis – and now finding myself back on the mainland, I find myself thinking a fair bit about the spiritual condition of certain parts of Scotland.

There are many differences between the Highlands and Islands and the mainland. One particular difference is that evangelicalism in central Scotland, like the rest of the UK, is largely broad. Independent churches, of various shades, are the norm. Charismatic Christianity is pretty wide-spread. You will find charismatic influences, and charismatic churches, everywhere. You will find guitars, choruses, tongues, the Toronto Blessing, and the influence of tele-evangelists like Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer all over the place.

In the Highlands, this is not quite so obvious. Just try finding a Baptist church, on Skye, for example. In fact, try finding any of the churches that are the norm in central Scotland, in the Highlands, and you will be hard pushed. If you look at the following Church Finder Maps the three main Pentecostal denominations (AoG, Apostolic, and Elim) and the map for the Baptist Union, you will notice a pattern. The further North/North West you go, the less churches they have. The same would be true for other independents, such as the Brethren, New Frontiers, Vineyard, Hillsongs etc. etc.

AoG church map

AoG Churches UK

apostolic find a church

Apostolic Churches 

Elim find a church

Elim Churches

scottish baptist union find a church

Scottish Baptist Union Churches

Why is this? Quite simply, The Highlands and Islands are Presbyterian land. These other styles of church have found it very difficult to make inroads. In fact, I once asked a Brethren elder why they had not planted more churches in the Highlands. His answer? There was no point. People were too entrenched in their own church tradition. That was his view.

Free Church of Scotland (add to this picture stats for CofS, APC, FP, FCC etc, and you begin to get an idea of just  how dominant Presbyterianism is the further North you go).

Of course, it would be naïve to think that the more mainstream evangelicalism has no influence in the Highlands and Islands. Of course it does, and has for some time. God-TV, Pentecostal Church Planters, the inroads of the charismatic movement, and the relocation of mainlanders to the Highlands and Islands, changes the culture. The charismatic and independent movements may not have gained much territory in the Highlands and Islands, but they have taken root.

This is perhaps even more so now that there are a number of independent churches forming due to the state of affairs in the national church. Not everyone from the CofS is joining the Free Church. For the less reformed evangelicals who want to leave, there are not many other options other than to form some kind of new church. And this is what is happening. And, in these new churches, you will find many of the weaknesses that you find in mainstream evangelicalism. This includes prosperity theology.

Here’s a question. Why are these new churches springing up? And not only that, why are some of these churches seeing people join? Quite simply, they are the friendly face of evangelicalism. Most non-Christians, and non-Presbyterian Christians I have met, do not have a positive view of traditional Presbyterianism. Either they have had a bad experience, or they know someone who has – and that is enough. From cold funerals that barely mention the deceased, padlocked play parks on the Sabbath, a communion table fenced by a thousand man-made regulations, churches splitting and warring over buildings – the list of reasons for driving away Christians, adherents, and non-Christians from the churches is endless. This isn’t some caricature or stereotype that doesn’t hold up to the hard facts – these are the hard facts.

So broad/charismatic/contemporary/ (delete as appropriate) Christianity in the Highlands and Islands is slowly on the rise. To those in that camp, it’s a sign of hope. A sign of a new day. A time to celebrate the throwing off of the shackles of religion. A time to enjoy freedom. But is it good news? Is this a sign that fresh life is emerging? Or is it a sign of further decay?

On one occasion, I had the opportunity to attend one of these new churches. The people were lovely. The word was encouraging. But I could not help but feel that it was a pastoral minefield. One fella, during the fellowship after the meeting was arguing that Christians should be able to celebrate communion on their own as individuals. Another person, who was struggling with his local presbyterian church, was expressing how he felt that Christians should not need to be members of any church. And so it went. Lovely, nice but pastorally and theologically – a mess.

I was just reading the other day a commentary on Acts by Ajith Fernando. Here is what he said,

“The postmodern existentialist mood has significantly influenced today’s church. I would go so far as to say that, in many segments of evangelicalism, experience is replacing the Bible as the supreme source of authority. . . the evangelical movement has been markedly influenced by the postmodern emphases on feelings and on the subjective at the expense of absolute, objective truth. Such emphases may well lead to evangelicals opening the door to pluralism.”

This is exactly what has happened in the church. The rise of experientialism, individualism, and relativism are all signs that the church has become increasingly postmodern and pluralistic. The embracing of ministries like Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar et al are simply the symptoms. And when you dare to bring the Bible to the discussion you soon discover that there is no place for scriptural authority within evangelicalism. What this means, in Highland contexts, is that legalism has given way to liberalism. And that is tragic.

There is a better way. Why not aim to be a theologically robust, Gospel-declaring, missionally orientated, Holy Spirit empowered reformed church? Why not lift our standard higher?

theologically robust

What does this mean? A church which takes theology seriously. This is one of the problems, the new churches don’t do serious theology – and the people love it. In a conversation, someone recently defended Joel Osteen and Bethel Church, by saying, “I believe that in a time when most denominations are stuck in a theological debate over who has got the shiniest buttons, they are a refreshing change from the norm.”

There you have it. Theology is sinful and prideful. Joel and Johnson are God’s men bringing blessing. This is why need to demonstrate why good theology is important.


Surely if you are ‘theologically robust’ you will be Gospel-declaring. Maybe. But often it is preaching to the choir. To be truly gospel-declaring we need to be declaring the gospel in the presence of unbelievers.

missionally orientated

Aye, it’s a buzz word. It’s misused. It can mean numerous contradictory things. But at basic level, the church is a missionary people. From the Latin word, ‘Sent’ – As Jesus was sent by the Father into the world, so the church is sent into the world by the Son. Jesus came speaking, and doing, and the church is called to speak and do.

Holy Spirit empowered

Is this not a given? If we have sound theology, and declare the gospel, will we not be anointed? No. The presence of the Holy Spirit comes at a cost. We can’t take the presence of the Spirit for granted. The older reformed believers spoke about ‘unction’ – and it is this unction that makes the difference. We need to pray for this. The great irony today is that the Pentecostal and charismatic movements were once renowned for re-emphasising the ‘forgotten member of the Trinity’ – today, that same movement, in many places, has forgotten the same Spirit. Professional bands, lights, smoke machines and sick marketing have all replaced the “old-time power”. Consequently, the people are gathering at dried up river-beds wondering where the blessing has gone. Others are running from one ‘revival’ (usually in the US) to another in a desperate hope to find it, and bring it back, before the purveyor of the revival gets caught in adultery or some other sin. Where are they to find the blessing? Where are they to find God? I believe the answer lies in a rediscovery of the power of the living God which is manifest through the faithful and prayerful preaching of the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit. This was how it was in the time of the Apostles, and this is how it should be today. “Our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction” 1 Thess 1:5

reformed church

If we are theologically robust, will we not be reformed? As they say in Glasgow. ‘Maybes Aye, Maybes Naw’. However, the reformed faith has a rich theology of the Holy Spirit (just check out the catechisms and confessions), and highland and Island spirituality has a long history of deep spirituality. The power of God has moved in these lands – yes the land of Presbyterianism – with great power and glory. Contemporary evangelicals need to know that reformed Christianity has not been all legalism and gloom, but it has also been great movements of the Spirit in the lives of individuals, churches and communities.

So, why must it be dead religion, or pop-culture Christianity? Why not a theologically robust, Gospel-declaring, missionally orientated, Holy Spirit empowered reformed church? Let’s lift our standard higher.



3 thoughts on “Joel Osteen in the Land of Knox: Liberalism and Legalism

  1. Spot on piece. In my neck of the woods, the current fad is Open Heaven meetings which are seeking God’s presence to bring revival to the west coast. Sadly these gatherings are not rooted in their local communities or in the wider local church, but are simply well intentioned gatherings of charismatics who talk about revival and community transformation. In this culture, ‘spin’ is king as revival is constantly ‘talked up’ and facts are manipulated to suit a particular desired direction of travel. Sadly, little is rooted in sound Biblical teaching and is a world away from the reality of life in these local communities. My plea is for a return to the simple honest God honouring preaching of the Gospel and the dumping of the ego driven, shallow, manipulative antics which has reduced the living God who is holy to a ‘pal’ who can be made to turn up at meetings at the beck and call of the so-called anointed leaders.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have only heard of Open Heaven meetings once in a church in Oban and I thought it was a bit of an oddity. The first thing that came into my head was that it does not say much for their other services! It is interesting that you speak about Holy God being treated as a pal. I often think the difference between true and false Christian spirituality is that one treats God as pal and the other as a committed life long friend; one we like to mess around with and is a superficial and the other is one who is seriously committed and there with you come what may. The excesses that we see in our churches are no different from pagan spirituality where one is seeking to get some experience to take them outside of their self and to escape away from life and its hard knocks. It is actually dehumanising. The reality in true Christian spirituality is that God is meeting us in the hard knocks of life. Here, and through his Word he is sanctifying us and bringing us to a closer and fuller relationship with him. As God works in us and stays by us, never leaving us nor forsaking us, he is bringing us to be the people he wants us to be, Holy, like Jesus. That is what God intended us to be like in the beginning, what he created us to be, that is what it is to be truly human. Of course that does not mean that we do not have spiritual experience and that it is not important. It is just not so important and not so spiritual as we might think.

      Again, John, this is a good piece and pretty much sums up the reality in the Highlands and Islands Christian scene. As you say, we need to ‘lift our standard higher’!


  2. I wanted to offer a couple of points of “push back”, although I broadly agree with much of what you say, and your experience of the highlands and islands far outpaces mine.

    1. A lot of the smaller, “independent” denominations like those you mention will regard the H&I as (for want of a better phrase) a poor return on investment. It’s not about entrenchment, it’s about volumes of people. (Some, I suspect, would also follow the argument that you start by changing the culture in the cities, and allow this to flow into the countryside).

    2. New churches, regardless of the denominational or theological affiliation, *always* attract a bunch of people who have removed themselves from churches, or have been cut off from society for some reason or other. They are *always* a pastoral minefield, partly because every “new” person receives far more attention than they would in a normal church, and this attracts them.

    3. I find it interesting that you mention Osteen. My impression was that his influence in the UK was far less than the US. Certainly I know many people who are fans of Bethel, but I’ve not heard them talk about Osteen at all. (Personally, I find Osteen’s “brand” of Christianity more repugnant than Johnson et al, even though I don’t agree with Bill on everything)

    4. All church planters (with the exception of the “new charge” due to population growth style) go through a phase of trying to work out what church actually means to them. A lot of “new churches” *are* doing serious theology. The problem is that it’s being done by the leaders and it’s in the area of ecclesiology & missiology and doesn’t always present itself well in the Sunday morning public gathering. Most church planters, especially if they’re coming out of an existing church system, will spend time throwing off the baggage of the past, and will likely throw some of the baby out with the bathwater. This will eventually be reclaimed (the metaphor falls down somewhat), but it can take time. Mostly they know what they *don’t* want church to be like, but haven’t really thought as much about what the *do* want it to be like.

    So – I love your idea of “a theologically robust, Gospel-declaring, missionally orientated, Holy Spirit empowered reformed church”. But (with the possible exception of ‘reformed’) I suspect that a vast majority of “new churches” across all denominations would agree with you, and often will see themselves as that. The problem is not convincing people that we need this – it’s helping people understand where they’re not matching up, and *how* they can move towards it.


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