Is Larry Osborne a false teacher?

Verdict: Larry Osborne is not a false teacher. We welcome the debate on how to model the church and respectfully disagree with Osborne. Our biggest concern with Osborne were exegetical errors.

 

Preface

At the request of one of our readers, we have been asked to investigate whether Larry Osborne is a false teacher. You can make a request here, and we will honor it. It is a source of joy to be trusted in such a way. It is most reasonable to have never heard of Larry Osborne, but part of what we want to do in our Discernment ministry is to go beyond the low hanging fruits like a Joel Osteen or a Brian Houston.

Background

Larry Osborne is a pastor of a megachurch network in California called North Coast Church. This is one church that meets in several locations at several times. Over the years that Larry Osborne has led North Coast Church, the church has seen massive growth. This experience has led Osborne to publish several books. Osborne describes his upbringing as being in a legalist church.

North Coast Church

A cursory investigation of North Coast Church’s website shows that the church passes what we call the “website test.” They have a transparent statement of faith that is doctrinally sound enough. Furthermore, the church provides an online resource called Christianity 101. The short videos were created by them with their teaching pastors speaking in them. But these videos, intended to explain Christianity to new believers, are not quite a Mere Christianity explanation of what Christians believe and why. And while they have a salvation video explaining adequately how salvation works, these videos are too colloquial rather than theological, giving rather human explanations for different aspects of the Christian life. So instead of being conversational like a CS Lewis, they appeared to be very roundabout ways of answering questions like why we worship or what the purpose of fellowship is. What’s conspicuously absent is an explanation on what the Holy Trinity is, for why a Christian would pray, serve, or worship seems self-evident to the new believer. One would think that helping the new believer understand the Trinity would be worthy of making a video because people who are new to faith may not understand our trinitarian God.

At North Coast Church nearly every sermon is part of a series, and for the entirety of 2019, the sermons started from the Gospel of Mark. On a tertiary note, the sermons almost exclusively use the NIV translation, and every sermon, despite being a part of a series, feels the need to explain how to find where in the Bible a passage is located.

Does Larry Osborne preach a false gospel?

During this process, I took the time to listen to numerous sermons preached by Larry Osborne.[1] In a more recent sermon, he preached on the crucifixion of Jesus out of the Gospel of Mark. This sermon presented the good news of Jesus Christ in a manner worthy of being called to ministry without dumbing it down in digestible bite size pieces for the masses. Osborne in his preaching confronts sin and repentance.[2]

I have also observed his sermons to confront false teaching and not competing false teachings. I do believe that that there are bits of his sermons that flatline sin, and how Pastor Larry Osborne feels the need to qualify condemnation of homosexuality in his sermon on Romans 1. That could denote problems, and perhaps he believes in the idea of a celibate “gay Christian”[3] which would go against his denomination’s stated belief on the issue. Further evidence is required before we can make a judgement off of this intuitive suspicion based on language used.

A more evidently problematic statement was his sermon on the Sabbath where one could gather that the Sabbath is fulfilled law, therefore no longer necessary.[4] The Sabbath is something Christians should still be keeping because God worked six days and rested on the seventh, so to should we do the same. Now, how this manifest itself is an entirely different discussion, one where accommodations should be made and legalism avoided, but honoring the Sabbath is still a way of honoring God. It is likely that this statement would be agreed with by Osborne.

One habit that was noticeable was that Osborne tends to insert his own teachings into Scripture, and this is not to say that his own teachings are not found in Scripture. For instance, in a recent sermon on Mark 12:35-40, he used this passage as a springboard for the materials in his books.[5] In the passage, Jesus is talking about charlatans and what would in modern time resemble Big Eva televangelists. His takeaway from this passage is that the Bible “goes wrong” when we use it as binoculars instead of a mirror. That’s not what the passage is about. He then uses the plank and speck passage, ignoring the message of repentance in that passage. The passage is not about using the Bible as a suggestion either or focusing on speculation instead of obedience. The exegesis in this sermon was bad, and the passage was merely a springboard into his book material.

Overall, the sermons surveyed by this process found that Larry Osborne’s messages are challenging and dig deep into Scripture. He makes a point to remind us that Jesus is not Mr. Rodgers, which is not what the Popularity Gospel would say. But his sermons are very repetitive as he used the same exact points throughout the sampled sermons watched. Though he recycles much of the material in his books, the messages present no signs of heretical beliefs or doctrinal deviancies on issues of primary concern.

Why was this questioned?

I want to give credit to our reader who brought Larry Osborne to our attention. Larry Osborne’s great contribution to the Evangelical movement is his model for the church. There is a debate in the Evangelical church on whether to use small groups or Sunday school. There’s a debate to be had, and Larry Osborne stands firmly on team small group. However, Osborne is a pioneer to a special emphasis of small groups being extensions of the Sunday messages. Sermon based small groups is how North Coast Church has been able to sustain growth.

However, his contribution to team small group raises ecclesiastical issues. The questions to posit are who is the church for? What is the purpose of the church? And how should the church be organized?

Osborne is in league with expert church planters. The megachurch planting industry has its problems with the Popularity Gospel. This is not to say that Osborne preaches this substandard gospel. Rather, this is what I was looking for when listening to his sermon. However, it is highly likely that Osborne does associate with those who preach the Popularity Gospel.

Ecclesiastical problems with Larry Osborne

Larry Osborne sees a problem in the church having an open back door. Meaning, the church has a problem retaining attendants as opposed to drawing them in which would be a front door issue. Controlling the front and back door are the ways in which grow a church according to Osborne and others What’s missing in this picture is the Holy Spirit as the driver of growth, and we see this a lot with the Popularity Gospel and the church planting industry.

Osborne is famous for his leadership and management book series called Sticky, but there are reasons to doubt that his church has a biblical model of leadership. In addition to these concerns his materials seem to lack appropriations for the biblical organization of the church laid out in the New Testament.

In Sticky Teams, Osborne writes about effective church leadership and organization. But his conception of a church is a Pastor and then Board and Staff. This is his division of church leadership, and it must be said that this model for church leadership is unbiblical.

In the New Testament, we see a church that has the office of pastors and the office of deacons. There is no mention of deacons in his participant material of Sticky Teams. There are however whole sessions on the board and leadership teams.

Let’s visit Acts 6:1-7:

1Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. 2So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. 3Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. 4But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5The statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch. 6And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on them.

7The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.

In this passage we see the importance of deacons in church leadership. The ordination of deacons fulfilled the social ministry of the church thereby keeping peace among the congregants so that the pastors can focus on scripture and preaching the gospel. Because of the role of deacons in the church, it is necessary that leadership material on church leadership make mention of this God ordained office. Furthermore, we should look at 1 Timothy 3:8-16:

8Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain, 9but holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10These men must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach. 11Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things. 12Deacons must be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households. 13For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

14I am writing these things to you, hoping to come to you before long; 15but in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth. 16By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness:

He who was revealed in the flesh,

Was vindicated in the Spirit,

Seen by angels,

Proclaimed among the nations,

Believed on in the world,

Taken up in glory.

In this passage we see how the church is supposed to conduct itself. And no amount of managerial theory can really replace that which God-breathed scripture has already spoken on. Scripture is sufficient. In this passage we see ministry standards for being in an officer of the church. This is not to say that those making church wide decisions should exclusively be deacons, elders, and pastors, as we recognize other stakeholders at play, but the absence of mention of the ordained office of deacons is conspicuous at best and alarming at worst.

A great focus of Osborne’s material focuses on having a clear mission communicated. And this is very corporate managerial theory talking points because the church has a clear and self-evident mission. The purpose of the church is to baptize believers and make disciples. The church’s mission is made clear in the Great Commission. How lost does a church have to be to have forgotten its mission? In the effort of charity, let’s assume that Osborne confused the word “strategy” with “mission.” This would then mean that not only is Osborne using managerial theory to run a church, his understanding of the terms is wrong. People often conflate strategy and tactics, but not strategy and mission. The mission of the church is laid out quite clearly:

18And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Matthew 28:18-20

While the mission is or should be the same in every church, the strategy of local churches is likely to very. Why? Because different local churches have different needs. They have different resources and capabilities despite the fact that their value proposition is the same.

For instance, North Coast Church is a megachurch with several campuses. The reason why one church has several locations is because they do not have the amenities to be a local church. Therefore, in order to have their congregation grow in the word they need a strategy that recognizes the limitations of their facilities as it relates to their masses. Therefore, the North Coast Church employed a strategy to use small groups to have their congregation grow in the Word, and that is being charitable about their intentions because they emphasize the whole front door and back door dichotomy of why churches fail. But when one believes that the church is the mission field as opposed to a mission headquarters, member retention and numbers growth is a priority. North Coast Church successfully employs a strategy to meet their vision of the church.

Diving deeper into how Osborne views small groups, further ecclesiastical issues are at play. Small groups are essentially the local church and community for his church. There are thousands of attendants attending one of scores of church services. There’s an impersonal aspect to a megachurch that the small groups make up for; however, they essentially are the real local church from a community standpoint. So, while he, the lead pastor, is on top of the organizational structure, the rest of his structure resembles the organization of Ghangis Khan’s massive horde.

Furthermore, the small groups at North Coast Church are mostly sermon based. This means that the small groups do a deeper dive into the Sunday sermon. So, the lead pastor has a firm control on the curriculum of the small groups. Since, North Coast Church does an entire sermon series on books in the Bible, the small groups will be focused on the same passages that are emphasized in the sermon. So then if a sermon series persists for several months as it does in North Coast Church, the sermon based small groups will spend, also, these several months in the same book. What is at risk is a more holistic dive into Scripture, though the sermons themselves, by Osborne, do bring up multiple passages from multiple books. And while there is no issue with the pastor exercising veto authority, because of the need for discerning false teachings, how much authority should the lead pastor have over small group curriculums? Alternatively, the use of sermon based small groups could be in this instance a means to start a small group with less effort and planning because there’s a turnkey system to tap into. All that’s required is a small group leader. Thus, this turnkey system allows for scalability. While majority of the small groups are sermon based, second in line on that list is prayer and support, which sounds like there is not a whole lot of bible studying going on. Otherwise, they are book/DVD small groups that choose their own curriculum. Ultimately, individual responsibility is on the Christian to explore depth of the Bible not explored in a corporate setting.

The infrastructure of Larry Osborne’s church if corrupted at the head will trickle down as orders do from the Khan to the Khanate.

Other Dangers

Osborne’s definition of being a Pharisee in his book, Accidental Pharisee, is premised off of a misinterpretation of who the Pharisees in Jesus’ day were. In order to understand who the Pharisees were, we must also understand who the Sadducees were. The Sadducees were Jews who believed only in the Torah but were sort of deists yet literalists. They did not believe in the Resurrection, afterlife, angels, or demons. Meanwhile, the Pharisees inserted oral law and tradition. Watch this video for a more in-depth break down. These are competing political parties in Judaism. But let the record show that Pharisees, believing in the Resurrection were more receptive of the gospel than the Sadducees (Acts 23). The Pharisees were looked up to by the common people, which is why not only Jesus interacts with them more but also condemns them more.

With that said, the Pharisees had harsh words thrown at them for various reasons. In John 3, Nicodemus is lambasted by Jesus for being in a position of spiritual authority but not understanding Scripture. In the woes during Holy Week, Jesus calls the Pharisees “hypocrites” which was a Greek theater actor. Calling them actors is calling them frauds. They were false teachers who did not know God, therefore led people astray. It’s not because they were merely “religious.” Jesus does not condemn people ever for studying Scripture too much, praying too much, or being overzealous in their faith which is Osborne’s interpretation of the Pharisees. In fact, the people who would be the fundamentalist-legalist types that Osborne is passionate about were those who wrote and preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls in those days. Teachers are held to a higher standard by God according to Scripture, and the Pharisees were wrong on several issues. That’s what Larry Osborne fails to understand in his assessment of the Pharisees.

Accidental Pharisees seems as though a rebuttal against David Platt, who lives a lavish lifestyle while calling others not to. There are flaws in Platt’s Radical, but Osborne’s alternative is troubling. Larry Osborne is passionate about not being a legalist, not adding to Scripture. However, the extent in which he takes this quest breeds a glaring lack of orthopraxy. Is there not instruction that comes with applying Scripture? Do Osborne’s words not excuse complacency? There’s a verse that he uses:

11and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you,
1 Thessalonians 4:11

There is a danger in taking this verse out of context. After consulting many commentaries, the Thessalonians were eagerly anticipating the second coming and therefore neglecting their daily work. The context was vocational: do not give up your jobs to proclaim the second coming thus causing trouble for yourselves being less able to provide. This is explained in verse 12:

12so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.

This verse explains the reason for the previous verse suggesting that not following verse 11 leads to improper behavior and seeking outside assistance or unnecessary inside assistance. So, this work values labor, but it does not mean quiet in the sense that we are not to give a defense for our faith. It does not mean we are not to evangelize or otherwise be quiet in our faith. The vocational context of this verse does not permit a characterization of the entirety of Christian living. This error is what I gather from Larry Osborne.

However severe this error in orthopraxy is, it is not tantamount to heresy, neither this nor the ecclesiastical issues, as heresy is reserved for primary issues. But North Coast Church is a church likely to churn out evanjellyfishes because Larry Osborne’s focus is on introspection. He trivializes the pursuit of deeper theological knowledge, insisting that we will neglect obedience to Christ if we were to study eschatology or even soteriology. This creates an environment where the church will not call out sin and demand repentance out of its members or society as a whole.

The biggest concern is the bad exegesis. Being wrong is not heresy, but being wrong for the wrong reasons is dangerous. His exegesis was wrong in aforementioned instances because he has internalized tropes about Christianity that the world says. They are rebuttals against “overzealous” Christians, using false premises founded on bad exegesis with worldly definitions of hypocrisy and Pharisees.

Conclusion

Larry Osborne and North Coast Church are very capable of preaching the Gospel and articulating salvation. There is no reason to doubt his salvation or that of the members of his church beyond the average. However, Larry Osborne’s teachings are hyper-obsessed with not falling into legalism and this leads to poor exegesis and no instruction on orthopraxy. As a result, his followers are at high risk of being lukewarm evanjellyfishes. Osborne also preaches an unimportance on secondary issues, but largely strawmans denominational struggles[6] which is very easy to do from a church that comes off as nondenominational though in formality is Evangelical Free Chruch. It’s almost a backdoor gnosticism to warn against a deeper theological understanding, suggesting that such knowledge outside the ecumenical in unnecessary to learn. However, this and the lack of orthopraxical teaching suggests a lack of confidence in the sufficiency and clarity of Scripture to impact how we ought to live our daily lives and what is correct on secondary issues.

Ultimately, we cannot recommend Larry Osborne’s teachings, nor can we recommend North Coast Church, because we want Christians to grow beyond an elementary level of faith and discipleship.

 

Updated 02/2020 to include more information on Osborne’s denominational affiliation.

 


 

[1] This is a verdict only on Larry Osborne’s preaching, not his fellow teaching pastors. Some of their material was listened to, but in all frankness, I found one of the pastors to be insufferable to listen to, in large part because of his gimmicky style and his man-focused message.

[2] Larry Osborne – December 14, 2019 50 – A Price We Could NEVER Pay, An Example We CAN Follow

All sermon references retrieved at https://www.northcoastchurch.com/sermons/sermon-archive/

[3] Larry Osborne – January 14, 2017 2 – How A Culture Crumbles

[4] Larry Osborne – March 2, 2019 9 – How Zeal Goes Bad

[5] Larry Osborne – October 12, 2019 41 – How The Bible Goes Bad

[6] There aren’t serious Baptists saying those who do not believe in immersion aren’t saved, they just believe that immersion is the correct way. You do see a lot of this between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, but there are primary issues at play in this debate, and occasionally you see this between Calvinism vs Arminianism and cessationism vs charismaticism.

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