On Babies and Bethelwater image

On Babies and Bethelwater

“What do you think of Bethel?” I don’t keep count, but I would imagine that this is the question I am asked these days more than any other. Some people ask seeking reassurance: they know that people have theological reservations about Bill Johnson, Kris Vallotton and company, and are looking for me, presumably with my theological hat on, to sign off on them. Others ask seeking critique: they are concerned about Bethel’s emphases, methodology, ministry philosophy or influence, and are looking for me, presumably with my theological hat on, to explain that I share their concerns and think you shouldn’t touch them with a bargepole (in case they are American, in which case bargepoles are replaced by ten-foot poles. They should really have more waterways in the US.) Occasionally, people are seeking outright condemnation: this is heretical, a cult, or whatever. Bethel, it seems, is actually a fairly suitable name for the church—on encountering it, people either say, “Surely God was in this place and I didn’t know it!” (Gen 28:16), or “Do not seek Bethel, for it shall come to nothing!” (Amos 5:5). The question I am often being asked, it seems, is the one Old Testament worshippers were asking: Bethel is either the most powerful expression of God’s presence on earth, or an idolatrous shrine. Which is it?

And my answer, as may already be clear, is: neither. It is a local church, with some gifted leaders, some gifted musicians, some good things to say and some bad things to say. Depending on my audience, I might emphasise one side of this or the other. Some people need to hear that yes, you eat the fish, but if you don’t spit out the bones, you will choke; some people need to hear that yes, there are some unhelpful things coming out, but there is plenty of good as well, and you mustn’t throw the baby out with the Bethelwater. Assuming a mixed audience here, for better or worse, I’m going to try and do both.

So, firstly, here are ten things I have heard coming out of Bethel that I find problematic, troubling, concerning or even dangerous. (I should say upfront: I don’t know whether each of these are official confessional positions, common beliefs, or marginal ideas—but in many ways, that is part of the problem. Because the key leaders simply don’t seem to do theology that way—that is, in such a way that clarifies and defends key convictions in dialogue with brothers and sisters who disagree—it is very difficult to engage them theologically at all; it’s like catching a bar of soap in the bath.) Anyway:

1. “The problem is never at God’s end.” Well if you call it a problem, that sounds true, but it isn’t.

2. “Let go your heart, let go your head, and feel it now.” When a time of corporate worship ends up quoting David Gray’s Babylon, you know things are getting dicey; when it explicitly invites people to let go of their heart and their head, as if that was a godly or biblical thing to do, there is a big problem; when it is recorded and deliberately placed on an album (You Make Me Brave), then discernment has gone out the window. Similarly floaty ideas pop up in too many of their albums and recorded worship times, from what I’ve seen, for all the merits of many of their songs (see below).

3. “If I did to my children what many people believe that God does to His, I would be arrested for child abuse.” The inappropriateness of this analogy from Bill Johnson, and the amount of biblical material that has to be sidelined or even denied in order to sustain it, is astonishing: it would involve rewriting God’s relationship with Israel (unless any of us would send plagues/defeats/enemies/famines/destruction/exile/death upon our children), the atonement (unless any of us would willingly crush our children, lay the iniquity of others on them, and put them to grief), and huge swathes of what the New Testament says about suffering and hardship (unless any of us would allow our children to be thrown in prison, stripped of their property, or even executed). It should be too obvious to need mentioning, but since we are not God, not all-knowing and not all-powerful, we would expect God to do things for our ultimate good that we, as fallible human beings, would never consider doing for our children. Having said all that, of course, we do do things that hurt our children in the short-term, and which they may very well not understand - giving unpleasant-tasting medicine, disciplining them, giving them injections, constraining their diets, or whatever - and which are nevertheless for their good. It should not surprise us, then, when God does things which we find painful, but which yield the fruit of righteousness in the future (Heb 12:10-11).

4. “God cannot give what he does not have.” Gosh. This, if taken at face value, would mean there were no such things as incommunicable attributes of God (invisibility, eternity, incorporeality, and so on), since God couldn’t give us finitude or temporality unless he was finite or temporal; it would imply that God never sent plagues upon Egypt (if God doesn’t have boils, then presumably he can’t give boils?), or fire and sulphur upon Sodom and Gomorrah; it would imply that any biblical stories of God killing people never happened; and it would play havoc with the doctrine of hell. It’s also not true.

5. More faith will lead to more healing. No, not necessarily. And it is a very, very short step from here to the idea that if you haven’t been healed, it’s either your fault, or the fault of your church.

6. The goodness of God means that he never brings adversity to us, and it’s blasphemous to suggest he does. Well: bunk, and senior leaders really shouldn’t make charges like this about orthodox Christians (let alone when we/they are right). It simply isn’t true biblically, and only a heavily individualistic, rich, therapeutic and Western-influenced culture could think it was. Look at Hebrews 12:1-11 (God brings painful discipline to produce righteousness), or 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 (God makes people in the church sick even dead as a result of fooling around with the Lord’s Supper, but in order that they might not be condemned), or 2 Corinthians 12:1-11 (whatever the thorn was, it hurt, but it was given to prevent pride), or Acts 5:1-10 (two Christians are killed for lying, but the church grows in the fear of God and in gospel success), and so on. If you’re prepared to go into the Old Testament, which some of the key leaders at Bethel appear not to be on this point, there is obviously far more food for thought here.

7. We need to measure success by whether or not God is on our meetings. No we don’t. God is in our meetings; that’s the joy of being a temple (1 Cor 3:16-17 etc). Far too much of the language coming out of Bethel is subjective on points like this (does it feel like he is here?), where we most need objectivity (he is here!)

8. Jesus was born again. Yikes.

9. The writing of (and endorsement of) nonsense like this and this. The lack of discernment shown here is worrying, and should at the very least prompt us to be cautious when weighing things said by the key leaders.

10. “He laid his divinity aside as He sought to fulfill the assignment given to Him by the Father.” No, no, no, no, no. The Chalcedonian Creed is pretty good on this, I’m told.

So there are some problems, and several of them are big ones. Putting the point sharply, there are worrying correspondences here with several of the biggest heresies the Church faced in the first few centuries, including Gnosticism (2, 7, 9), Marcionism (3, 4, 6), Arianism (8, 10) and Pelagianism (1, 5).

Having said all that, my initial read on the church was that they were passionate, beautiful, courageous, loving brothers and sisters who, though theologically clumsy in places—and who isn’t guilty of that somewhere?—were mostly victims of a mixture of misunderstanding, envy, an anti-charismatic US church culture, tall poppy syndrome, rumour and insinuation. I actually wrote an article about this some years ago, but was advised by an older and wiser pastor not to post it—and although I have since discovered many more things that I think are unwise or unhelpful, I broadly stand by my initial view. In particular, I am astonished how eager other Christians are to throw Bethel under the bus by branding them controlling or even cultish, when all that I have seen indicates plurality, transparency, openness and authenticity. So here are ten ways in which I, or friends of mine, have been hugely helped, encouraged and blessed by the ministries coming out of Bethel.

1. Hospitality. Almost everyone I have spoken to who has visited Bethel has told stories of a remarkable welcome and a very open church, in which enquirers and even sceptics are welcome. A number of journalists have gone there looking for an angle on a story—and we all know where that can lead sometimes—yet returned with nothing but praise for the way they were received. That is remarkable, given how often it must happen.

2. Community impact. Bethel is huge relative to the size of Redding, and it shows: shop assistants, taxi drivers and passers-by mention the church, and often mention having been served, prayed for or healed by church members. I would love my church to have that kind of impact in the local community.

3. Faith. People at Bethel believe God. If he says they can move mountains, they believe him. If he says they will speak to the sick and see them healed, they believe him. That matters far more, in my book, than most of the things people criticise them for. (It’s like the old comment, “I like their way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.”)

4. Healing. Say what you like about Bill Johnson, but he has an outstanding gift of healing. So do many of the key leaders, and much of the church. If I was to see just a fraction of the healing that the Johnsons have seen in their ministry, I would be extremely happy. We might add that the assumption at Bethel, namely that sickness is caused by the devil and should be fought as such, plays a massive (and vital) role here. Far too many modern evangelicals fail to pray for healing at all, saying that it is obviously God’s will for them to be sick (often, right before going to the doctors to get medication for it!) Where the assumption of Jesus (“this daughter of Abraham whom Satan has bound”) is the assumption of his people, we would expect to see more healing. And they do.

5. Equipping for healing. Bethel seems to have a history of not just seeing people healed, but seeing people equipped to heal in other contexts, so that when they return to their original churches, they bring gifts with them. Our church has seen that. Many churches have. Just last week I was listening to a friend describe how a story from Bethel (the checkout story, if you know which one I mean) was effectively responsible for launching them into new levels of healing power as a community. That’s a wonderful gift.

6. Love. Given the way in which they are frequently spoken of, the church has remained astonishingly kind towards the wider church, demonstrating the love of Jesus in often quite difficult circumstances. The reverse is also true: many who have criticised them have done so without the love and affection that befits brothers and sisters, even when we disagree with them. As Burk Parsons puts it, “If I have all my theology right, but have not love, I have none of my theology right.”

7. Music. This is highly subjective, but I don’t care: some of Jesus Culture’s music is just incredible. Both my wife and I have been served wonderfully by their versions of Your Love Never Fails, or How He Loves, and their willingness to record wonderful versions of songs (not many vocalists work as well together as Chris Quilala and Kim Walker-Smith) and make them available has served, literally, millions.

8. Songwriting. God I Look to You. You are Good. It Is Well. One Thing Remains. You Have Won Me. On and on and on and on it goes. (See what I did there?) These songs are gifts to the church, and I am so grateful for them.

9. Fighting disappointment and cynicism. I doubt there are many bigger enemies to the work of the Holy Spirit in the Western church than disappointment and cynicism, and Bethel have repeatedly and courageously punched them on the nose. In doing so, they have helped many others break through as well (see #5).

10. Global vision. In a world where too many churches are turned in on themselves, looking to their own survival and without much thought for the world around them, Bethel have consistently pursued a bigger vision, and that is one of the main reasons why they are shaping churches all over the world. For those who are troubled by their influence—and in many ways, as I have said, I would put myself in that category—there is something to learn and be provoked by there.

So there’s a Yes-and-No here. Eat the fish, yes: but spit out the bones, and make sure there aren’t so many bones that you choke. Throw out the bathwater, yes: but there’s a baby in there, it’s beautiful (even if we might judge it immature or unwise in certain ways), and it’s well worth preserving. Above all, let’s ensure that we don’t allow our discernment to stop us from loving God’s Church—and that we don’t allow our enthusiasm for experience to stop us from loving God’s Word. It might take nuance, and time, and thoughtful reflection, but it will be worth it.

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