The Church Fathers ABCs
Meet Joel Osteen's Forefather, Charles Finney
Yet for the sake of the gospel, Paul was more than willing to flex on the medium: "to Jews I'll be a Jew, to the Gentiles a Gentile, to the weak as one who is weak"—whatever it took as long as it never took away from the radically charged claims of the gospel.
Paul never succumbed to the temptation to de-claw the hard words of Christ into some domesticated self-improvement scheme or some transitory pleasure-inducing experience. Paul wanted to win everybody but didn't care about pleasing anybody. You come to Jesus on His terms. Joel Olsteen preaches how "you must choose to be happy now." But Jesus said it is those who weep now who are truly blessed; they recognize the disconnect between the promised kingdom and the way things are in a world bent on self-destruction.
Finney's theology tilted back toward the mean as he aged, and as American optimism regarding human reason upheaved with the bloody onslaught of the Civil War. Still, Finney's insistence that revival wasn't revival unless it changed society was right on. "Revival is a renewed conviction of sin and repentance," he wrote, "followed by an intense desire to live in obedience to God. It is giving up one's will to God in deep humility." Finney's passion for reform was influenced by his confidence in human ability, but also by his hope in the imminent return of Jesus.
You've probably heard somebody ask, "If Jesus returned during your lifetime, what would he find you doing?" This question is usually reserved for youth group retreats, the implication being that Jesus could catch you doing something you should not be doing. But from Finney's purview, the question would have been more about what you should be doing. Would Jesus return to find you feeding the hungry and working to alleviate poverty, caring for the sick and the prisoner, sharing the gospel, praying for your enemies, promoting peace, confronting injustice? In New York City, the enormous 2400 seat Broadway Tabernacle was built to house his following. Not long after, an angry mob burned it down because Finney wouldn't stop preaching and recruiting against slavery.
Finney eventually left New York and became professor of theology and later president of Oberlin College, a school established by some of Finney's most ardent admirers. It was the first coed college in the world, the first to grant bachelor's degrees to women, and the first to train women for ordained ministry. African-American students were fully integrated from its inception and the college soon gained notoriety as a major station on the Underground Railroad. Some church historians insist that Finney be included among the most influential Americans of the nineteenth century, if not the most revered—right up there with Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Carnegie.
Nevertheless, our church elder was right. Charles Finney's ideas are at least partly responsible for much that is wrong with American Christianity. But at the same time, heirs such as Lakewood's Joel Olsteen, while at times terribly misleading and deserving of critique, are also the very messengers through whom thousands upon thousands of people first consider the possibility that they matter to God. Throughout Scripture and history, God has displayed a penchant for somehow using even the most questionable of characters to accomplish his work. People like Charles Finney. Even people like you and me.
Daniel M. Harrell is Senior Minister of The Colonial Church, Edina, MN and author of How To Be Perfect: One Church's Audacious Experiment in Living the Old Testament Book of Leviticus (FaithWords, 2011). Follow him via Twitter, Facebook, or at his blog and website.