Oral Roberts: A Complex Legacy

I was in my office last Tuesday, when I heard the news that Oral Roberts had passed away. I saw it on Twitter first, a tweet from a nationally-known leader and author. I quickly goggled it and found it to be true when I read the official press release on the Tulsa World website. I knew this day was coming. Oral Roberts had been retired from his service as president of ORU when I attended seminary there from 1996-1999. I felt the loss as did the rest of the ORU community and the many people who had been impacted by the life of Oral Roberts.

I located “The Forth Man“, the one lone Oral Roberts sermon in my iTunes and began to listen and reflect on the man, his ministry, his message, and his impact on my life.

While listening to Oral preach, I saw (again on Twitter) that Al Mohler was going to discuss the life of Oral Roberts on his radio show. As I pulled up the live feed for the radio show, I saw their call in number. So I called. I told the guy on the other end of the line that I am a pastor, an ORU graduate, and I have done some research in the area of Pentecostal/charismatic history and theology and I had some things to share with Dr. Mohler if he was interested. The guy put me on hold and then quickly came back to say that Dr. Mohler wanted to talk with me on the air. Talking about Oral Roberts and his influence with Dr. Mohler was a highlight of the day.

I ended up putting my two minute conversation with Dr. Mohler on YouTube as a tribute.I had much more to say, but time was limited.

Al Mohler said to his radio audience that Oral Roberts had a complex legacy. I cannot disagree. As ORU President Mark Rutland said at Oral Roberts’ Memorial service, Oral was not a perfect man, but he was a giant. As I have reflected on this giant of the faith, here is what I will remember about his complex legacy:

1. The Pentecostal/charismatic tradition

As I look back at my own spiritual journey, Oral Roberts has been one of the Pentecostal/charismatic voices that has influenced me. Oral Roberts’ own life dipped into the three waves of the Pentecostal/charismatic movement: (1) the classical Pentecostal movement, (2) the denominational charismatic renewal, (3) the non-denominational charismatic renewal. He has been an influential figure in each of these “waves” of charismatic renewal. He is a historical giant in the history of Pentecostalism and my faith has been enriched because of him.

2. Great faith/passion

The Bible encourages us to imitate the faith of our leaders (Hebrews 11:7). Oral Roberts made mistakes during his life. There are things that he did and said that I do not agree with. I am not trying to imitate his way of doing ministry. I am not trying to imitate his style, his way of teaching, his philosophy of ministry, or his spiritual journey. I am, by God’s grace, trying to imitate the faith of Oral Roberts. One of the things that made Oral Roberts such a dominate figure in my mind is that he was unique. Before he started his healing ministry under the “big tent,” Oral felt directed by the Lord to read through the Gospels and Acts on his knees and God would show Oral how to heal the people the way Jesus did. Oral put his trust in God and became a forerunner in the area of healing evangelism. His passion for Jesus and his passion to carry on the ministry of Jesus captured the imagination of hundreds of thousands.

3. Christ-centered

Oral Roberts loved Jesus Christ of Nazareth (as he was known to call him). His entire life was given to Jesus and Oral saw himself as a true disciple of Christ. He sought to love and minister to people like Jesus did. Oral Roberts never intended on building some great “Roberts” empire as his critics claimed. He lived to worship Jesus, preach Jesus, and serve as an instrument for Jesus to heal others.

4. Obedience

In his memorial service, his daughter Roberta shared just a few things she learned from her dad; one of those things was obedience to God. Regardless of how he would be perceived, Oral Roberts obeyed what he believed to be the voice of God. Oral deeply believed God called him to take God’s healing power to his generation. He obeyed and spent more than a decade traveling preaching the gospel and praying for the sick under the “big tent.” Oral deeply believe God called him to build God a university on “God’s authority and on the Holy Spirit.” Oral obeyed and Oral Roberts University has graduated over 20,000 students who have been sent out into “every person’s world.” Oral recklessly obeyed when he believed God directed him, no matter the cost.

5. Healing ministry

The name “Oral Roberts” is synonymous, in my mind, with “the healing ministry.” He was quintessential Pentecostal in his approach to the healing ministry. He believe that the healing ministry that Jesus began nearly 2,000 years ago continued through the life of the Church today. God used Oral Roberts to communicate this message to those outside of Pentecostalism in a way that was clear, compelling, and biblical. One of the things I picked up from Oral Roberts is that God does desire to heal people and it doesn’t matter if his healing comes through miracle or medicine. My own theology of healing is slightly different than Oral’s, but I share with him these basic truths: God is our source of healing and our God is a healing God.

6. The Holy Spirit in the Now

Through the 1970s, God used Oral Roberts to give clarity to the ministry of the Holy Spirit throughout the Church in its many denominational forms. He did these through conferences called “The Holy Spirit in the Now.” In doing so, Oral helped many confessing Trinitarian Christians to become experiential Trinitarians. All Christians confess a belief in God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but so many had only experienced the Father and the Son. One of Oral’s memorable phrases was “When you receive the Holy Spirit, you are receiving more of Jesus.” How true!

7. ORU

Oral Roberts University, the liberal arts Christian university that bears his name, will be one of the lasting legacies of Oral’s ministry. ORU has had its ups and downs, but I believe the greatest days for the university are still ahead. I am so thankful that I spent my first seminary experience there. It literally changed the course of my life. Oral’s vision was for “whole-person education” emphasizing strong academic education, physical education, and spiritual/moral education.

8. Prosperity

Perhaps Oral Roberts’ most well-known statement is “Something good is going to happy to you!” Oral Roberts believed that the goodness of God was not reserved only for “rewards in heaven,” but that God’s goodness could be (and should be) experience in this life. For Oral Roberts, God’s blessings included financial prosperity. This became the most controversial part of Oral’s message and one of the reasons that Oral Roberts’ legacy is so complex. This message of prosperity has caused Bible teacher and author John MacArthur to say at Oral’s passing: “Oral Roberts’ influence is not something Bible-believing Christians should celebrate.” I find MacAruthur’s statement despicable and a complete misunderstanding of Oral Roberts, his life and ministry. I have more to say below.

9.”Seed Faith”

Tied to his message of prosperity was his message of “seed faith” which contained three points 1) Believe God is your source, 2) Plant a seed of faith, 3) Expect a miracle. Because this very simple and biblical message has been tied to fund raising and financial prosperity, let me make a few comments about Oral Roberts and the issue of prosperity. Oral Roberts raised money with the purest of motivations. I find John MacArthur‘s comment: “(Seed faith) was a simple, quasi-spiritual get-rich-quick scheme that appealed mainly to poor, disadvantaged, and desperate people. It generated untold millions for Roberts’ empire” to be offensive, maligning, disrespectful, and unhelpful. I agree that the teaching of “seed faith” has been used by unscrupulous men to do unthinkable evil in the name of Jesus, but this was never Oral’s intent. I do believe Oral took a biblical truth and over-extended its purpose. We need to rethink the message of prosperity and “seed faith” in the light of sound biblical/historical study. However we do not need to smear Oral’s reputation in the process.

10. Expecting miracles

The third component to the message of “seed faith” was to “expect a miracle.” This was the title of Oral Roberts’ 1995 biography. When Al Mohler asked me to sum up Oral Robert’s life, I talked about Oral’s reminder that God is Father, Son, AND HOLY SPIRIT and that Oral Roberts gave us the hope to expect God’s power to break into our daily lives. And I am thankful he did.

Oral Roberts University was founded on the words Oral Roberts believed God spoke to him, words that I believe did indeed come from the Lord. I am thankful to be one of “his” students, carrying on a small part of his legacy. Here are the words: “Build Me a University. Build it on My authority, and on the Holy Spirit. Raise up your students to hear My voice, to go where My light is dim, where My voice is heard small, and My healing power is not known, even to the uttermost bounds of the earth. Their work will exceed yours, and in this I am well pleased.”