Bethel Church: Hip music, False Doctrine

“Controversy for the sake of controversy is sin. Controversy for the sake of the truth is a divine command.”– Dr. Walter Martin

The Homepage of Bethel Church: www.ibethel.org
The Homepage of Bethel Church: http://www.ibethel.org

A few weeks ago a good friend of mine recommended Bethel Music, a community of Christian musicians working together through the ministry of Bethel Church. I really enjoyed their songs, so I began to look into Bethel’s ministry. As I did, I learned that Bethel has been identified as part of the Word of Faith Movement.(1) While I knew this association didn’t say anything about what Bethel Church teaches, Word of Faith proponents have been (often rightly) criticized for unbliblical doctrines.

I decided to do a little more digging. The Church is lead by Bill Johnson, and is based in Redding California. It also seems to have garnered a world-wide influence through its ministry. As I researched Bethel, this hipster-cool church just seemed a little weird. Then weird became concerning, and concerning became deeply troubling. For example, self-proclaimed “born-again witch” Annika Mongan has written about her experience visiting Bethel Church for healing. In her articles, she describes multiple “prophecies” she received from Bethel staff telling her how “God is so proud of her” and that she’s “on the right path.”(2,3)  Clearly something is very wrong with this picture. Recall Ezekiel’s condemnation of Israel for false prophecy that “encouraged the wicked, that he should not turn from his evil way to save his life” (13:22).

I have read extensively on Bethel, both from critics and supporters, and I have found that many of these discussions focus on claims of miraculous experiences (like angel feathers and gold-dust “glory clouds” appearing  in their church).(4) I don’t plan to do that. This is not to say these claims aren’t important to consider, but I feel they can become a distraction from the far more serious issue of aberrant teaching. I have not personally witnessed miraculous “glory clouds,” but I have witnessed the spiritual and emotional harm that can come from false teaching on the gospel and the doctrine of God. Before getting started on this topic, I want to make a few things clear.

First, as the body of christ, there are many non-essential issues in which we may disagree.(5,6) I agree strongly with Rupertus Meldenius’ famous quote, “In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity.”(7) Yet I believe Bethel Church is erring on what we would consider essential doctrines. Scripture warns us repeatedly to be watch out for false teachers and (2 Peter 2:1-3, Acts 20:28-31) and to “reprove, rebuke, exhort” (2 Timothy 4:2), though we should do so with love (1 Cor 16:14). As Walter Martin once famously said, “Controversy for the sake of controversy is sin. Controversy for the sake of the truth is a divine command.”

Second, as a charismatic church Bethel makes an easy target for cessationists (8); those who hold that while the Holy Spirit has continued His work since New Testament times, He has “ceased in one function: the miraculous gifts, such as tongues, prophecy, and healing.”(9) I take a continuationist view on the ministry of the Holy Spirit, which holds that spiritual gifts such as healings, speaking in tongues, and miracles are still in operation today.(10) The reason I bring this up is that I do not want my criticism of Bethel Church to be misconstrued as simple anti-continuationism and dismissed as a squabble over the non-essentials previously mentioned.

Healing in the Atonement?

Of foremost concern for me was Bethel’s explicit proclamation of the “prosperity gospel.”(11) For those who don’t know, the prosperity gospel (sometimes called prosperity theology) teaches that faithful christians are entitled to well-being, which is interpreted to mean blessings of physical health and financial wealth.(12) I believe this theology is unbiblical, and creates a me-centered, me-glorifying theology rather than God-centered, God-glorifying theology.(13)

As John Piper explains, The prosperity gospel in action “minimizes sin, minimizes pain, and only talks about how well things will go for you if you follow Christ.” (14) In listening to Bill Johnson’s sermons, I noticed all of these trends. Specifically, Johnson teaches a doctrine known as “healing in the atonement.” This view holds that in Christ’s death, all true believers are given physical healing and can expect deliverance from all disease and infirmity in this life.

On this topic Johnson declares “I refuse to create a theology that allows for sickness”(15) arguing that “The price Jesus paid for my sins was more than sufficient for my diseases.”(16) But Johnson goes a step farther. Referring to 2 Corinthians 12:7, where Paul refers to his “thorn in the flesh” Johnson states “[this] has been interpreted by many as disease allowed or brought on by God… That’s a different gospel.”(15) Johnson believes a gospel that allows for Christians to suffer from disease is a form of the false gospel Paul warns about in Galatians 1:8.

I have reflected, studied, and prayed about this for some time. I can say with confidence that this doctrine is dangerous and unbiblical. It undermines the sovereignty of God and maximizes the autonomous reasoning of man. It plants the false hope of guaranteed healing in the heart of the believer, which can overshadow the living hope (1 Peter 1:3-5) of our salvation in Christ. This false hope leads to a sickness of the heart (Proverbs 13:12) and an unscriptural view of suffering and evil.

1 John 2:2 reads: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” Sam Storms seems to be pointing out the obvious when he notes that “sickness is not sin.”(17) It is true that sickness is ultimately caused by Adam’s fall and the corruption of mankind, but it is an effect of sin, not sin itself. Sickness is not something we are guilty of. So how do supporters of this aberrant doctrine justify the view that our sickness was atoned for by Christ? Most center their position on Isaiah 53:5, which reads:

“But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.”

Two new testament authors also quote this prophecy: “And He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed” (1 Peter 2:24). “That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases” (Matthew 8:16-17).

By drawing on what these authors had to say about the writing of the prophet Isaiah, we allow scripture to interpret scripture. In the case of 1 Peter 2:24, we need only look at verse 25 to understand his meaning: “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” Peter is clearly talking about the spiritual healing that comes to believers. If we choose to interpret Peter’s quotation of Isaiah 53:5 literally, we need to literally expect to “die” to sin as well. But that’s not Peter’s point. Peter is consistent as he speaks of spiritual death, spiritual rebirth, and spiritual healing in this verse.

In Matthew 8:16-17 we have something different. Here we see that the context requires a literal interpretation. Jesus was literally healing sickness, disease, and infirmity. But as Elliot Miller points out, Matthew tells us that Isaiah’s prophecy was then being fulfilled by Jesus’ actions during his ministry, prior to the atonement.(18) It appears that the healing of disease was to be expected as a sign of the messiah, but this does not make it a guarantee for all believers.

Sam Storms hits the nail on the head when he writes “To whatever degree we experience healing in this life, it is the fruit of Christ’s atoning death. But it does not necessarily follow that where there is atonement there is always an immediate healing. This passage in Matthew affirms that whatever healing does occur comes as a result of Christ’s redemptive work. But it does not necessarily mean that healing will always occur now as a result of that.” (17) Physical healing is then best seen as benefit of the atonement.

God does heal, often miraculously, but scripture in no way guarantees healing on demand. As blogger R.S. Lawdig humorously observed, “if healing is in the atonement why does Mr. Johnson wear glasses?”(19) A more complete view of scripture includes the reality of living in a world corrupted by sin, and the hope we have in our future glorification.

Consider Romans 8:23-24: “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?” (my emphasis) Or Phillipians 3:20-21: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” (my emphasis)

This is the great promise, that even though we are wasting away (2 Corinthians 4:16) we will have full physical healing when we are glorified in the presence of God. This is why the believer in Christ can have peace, even joy in the midst of suffering (James 1:2-4). As Charles Spurgeon says, “It is impossible that any ill should happen to the man who is beloved of the Lord; the most crushing calamities can only shorten his journey and hasten him to his reward. Ill to him is not ill, but only good in a mysterious form. Losses enrich him, sickness is his medicine, reproach is his honor, death is his gain. No evil in the strict sense of the word can happen to him, for everything is overruled for good. Happy is he who is in such a case. He is secure where others are in peril, he lives where others die.” (20)

Bill Johnson. Photo: http://www.bethel.tv/speakers/show/1/bill-johnson
Bill Johnson. Photo: http://www.bethel.tv/speakers/show/1/bill-johnson
Is Sickness the Will of god?

Foundational to Johnson’s doctrine of healing in the atonement is the belief that God is not in control of everything that happens in the world. Bethel’s teachers explicitly endorse this limited view of God’s sovereignty. In one video Q&A session, Johnson states that  “We make a mistake in thinking God is in control of everything.” He goes on to explain that “Anything that happens, He can turn around for good, but it doesn’t mean it was His will or His purpose.” (21) Compare Johnson’s view with God’s revelation about himself in Amos 3:6:

“Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid? Does disaster come to a city,     unless the Lord has done it?”

Or Isaiah 45:6-7:

“That people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other.

 I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things.”

Or Lamentatinos 3:37-38

“Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?”

Scripture even teaches us that a sparrow cannot fall to the ground apart from God’s will (Matt 10:29). I am amazed that Bill Johnson unable to see his departure from God’s word on this point. I believe this is because Johnson’s doctrine is based in emotion rather than exegesis. In one audio clip form Johnson’s teaching, he passionately (and angrily) rejects the idea that God would allow disease and pain in our world. In the same breath he conflates God’s allowance for evil with the idea that God commands evil, asking his audience the rhetorical question “[Did God] put a gun in your hand and said ‘shoot that thing?'”(22)

What Bill Johnson seems to miss is that scripture paints a picture of God’s will as multifaceted. I. Howard Marshall brilliantly notes that “we must certainly distinguish between what God would like to see happen and what he actually does will to happen, and [that] both of these things can be spoken of as God’s will.”(23) (My emphasis) For example, we know from 2 Peter 3:9 that God does not want anyone to perish, and wants all to come to repentance, yet this is not what we see around us. To interpret this to mean that God lacks control would be to contradict the rest of scripture. Instead, we should see this verse as an indication that God’s ultimate will is for something greater than universal repentance.

This is the foundational error of Johnson’s theology of God. He cannot conceive of God allowing tragedy to occur, because he assumes God’s ultimate will is for the comfort and happiness of the believer. Yet scripture makes it clear that all creation exists to bring glory to God (1 Pet. 4:11, 1 Cor. 10:311 Cor. 6:20Phil. 1:20).

This error becomes more clear when Johnson says he finds the idea that God would allow suffering and death to be disgusting. “I’d get arrested for child abuse for doing that, if I did that to my kids,” he says, referring to children dying of cancer. Of course Johnson, in his limited, finite perspective of redemptive history would never choose to allow children to die of disease. His mistake is assuming that God is like him, that his thoughts are like God’s thoughts, and that our understanding of God’s will should come from our moral intuition rather than scripture.

I sympathize greatly with Johnson on this point. The suffering of this world is sometimes so dark, and so agonizing that we struggle to see how God could use it for good. But God owes us no explanation of his motives, and we are to trust him regardless (Rom 8:28, Prov 3:5, Psalm 46:10, Jer 17:7-8). Scott Oliphint, exegeting pslam 50, notes the foolishness in reducing the infinite nature of God so that we might fully comprehend him.The Psalmist makes God’s judgment against this belief clear in verse 21:

“These things you have done, and I have been silent; you thought that I was one like yourself. But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you.”

Oliphint explains that “This has been the problem in the history of Israel and the history of the church- [trying] to reduce God down so that we can get our minds around what he’s like and who he is. As creatures of God, that is not something we can do.”(24) Isaiah 55:9 similarly highlights the absurdity of minimizing God’s sovereignty that we might understand him:

“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways     and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

This is what Bill Johnson does when he creates a theology in which God is “one like” ourselves. It is a me-centered theology that leads to a me-centered christianity. The result of this theology can be devastating for the individual believer. Consider a sick person who has become enthralled by Bethel’s promise that God wills to heal her and Jesus died on the cross so that she could be physically healed. Yet as is the case for many believers, miraculous healing does not come. Johnson addresses this situation in a FAQ section of his website:

“Realize the problem isn’t God, and seek Him for direction as well as personal breakthrough… Also, don’t take it personal. There are other factors involved besides great faith. That is only one element in the equation. Just learn to do your best to be faithful to His gospel, and honor Him for the results. It’s also not wise to blame the person who is sick.”(25) (my emphasis)

What “problem” is suppressing the will of God and allowing illness to prevail? Johnson vaguely references “other factors” but doesn’t identify them. Note that he doesn’t say the sick person isn’t the problem, just that it’s not wise to blame her.

In a separate interview on the subject, Johnson identifies reasons that healing might fail to occur. Each example points to the “problem” being the sick person herself: uforgiveness of the heart, self-criticism, and bringing disrespect to the table of the Lord. He simultaneously (and paradoxically) teaches that the sick should avoid self-condmenation, again vaguely referencing “other factors” that could cause healing to be unsuccessful.(26)

The spiritual burden this puts on the sick person is abhorrent. She is lead to believe the lie that her personal failure and sin can thwart the will of God, despite God’s claim that no purpose of his can be thwarted (Job 42:2). She is lead to believe the lie that she could be healed if she can summon enough faith, despite scripture’s claim that faith is itself a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-9, 1 Corinthians 12:7-9). She is moved to sanctification not for the love of God, but to earn God’s promised gift. This is loving the gift more than the giver. This is idolatry. I have seen this play out with people I care about, and it breaks my heart to see how this false doctrine drains the hope and life from the sick.

The Gospel is not made more powerful by adding the gift of physical healing to it. In fact, I believe this cheapens what Christ did for us on the cross. Elliot Miller, speaking for Christian Research Institute, writes “It seems to us that one who needs to conceive of Jesus bearing all the cancer and leprosy in the world in order to understand the extent of His agony has an inadequate appreciation of the infinite weight and horror that was involved in Christ’s taking upon Himself the sins of the world.”(18)

  1. “Bethel’s ‘signs and wonders’ include angel feathers, gold dust and diamonds”http://www.redding.com. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
  2. “Born Again Witch: Witches at a Pentecostal Church – Healings and Prophecies”Agora. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
  3. “Born-Again Witch: Why I Took Witches to a Pentecostal Church (Part 1)”Agora. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
  4. “Bethel’s ‘signs and wonders’ include angel feathers, gold dust and diamonds”http://www.redding.com. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
  5. “Have the Charismatic Gifts Ceased?”CARM – The Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
  6. “The Essential Doctrines of the Christian Faith (Part One) – Christian Research Institute”Christian Research Institute. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
  7. “Ligonier Ministries”Ligonier Ministrieshttps://plus.google.com/107926024921378362573. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
  8. Strange Fire Conference – Panel Q&A – Friel, MacArthur, Lawson, Pennington & Peters, 2013-10-20, retrieved 2016-01-20
  9. “Strange Fire Conference: A Case for Cessationism”challies.com. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
  10. “Signs and Wonders: Then and Now”Desiring God. 1991-02-01. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
  11. “There is a big difference between… – Bethel Church, Redding | Facebook”http://www.facebook.com. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
  12. “Prosperity theology”Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
  13. “Apologetics 101 – Free Podcast by Westminster Theological Seminary on iTunes”iTunes. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
  14. Why I abominate the prosperity gospel, 2009-10-27, retrieved 2016-01-20
  15. Bill Johnson False Teacher, 2010-08-19, retrieved 2016-01-20
  16. Johnson, Bill (2005-01-01). The Supernatural Power of a Transformed Mind: Access to a Life of Miracles. Destiny Image Publishers. ISBN 9780768422528.
  17. “Sam Storms: Oklahoma City, OK > Is There Healing in Atonement?”http://www.samstorms.com. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
  18. “Healing: Does God Always Heal? – Christian Research Institute”Christian Research Institute. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
  19. Ladwig, R. s (2011-01-06). “The Puritan’s Sword: A Biblical Examination of Philosophical, Theological, and Political Trends: The Teaching of Bill Johnson and Bethel Church Examined Part II: Bodily Healing In the Atonement Error”The Puritan’s Sword. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
  20. Spurgeon, C. H. (1990-01-01). The Treasury of David. Hendrickson Publishers. ISBN 9781565639454.
  21. Bill Johnson – Word Faith-Dominion Now, 2010-09-03, retrieved 2016-01-20
  22. Bill Johnson on Healing, 2012-05-22, retrieved 2016-01-20
  23. Piper, John (2013-09-30). Does God Desire All to Be Saved?. Crossway. ISBN 9781433537226.
  24. “Apologetics 101 – Free Podcast by Westminster Theological Seminary on iTunes”iTunes. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
  25. “Is it Always God’s will to heal someone?”Bill Johnson Ministries. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
  26. Bill Johnson on Healing, 2013-02-05, retrieved 2016-01-20

 

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7 thoughts on “Bethel Church: Hip music, False Doctrine

  1. Great article about Bethel. I have been researching them for about a year trying to understand their theology. There are some much bigger issues than the ones listed to stay away from anything Bethel. One of their biggest teachings is “dominion theology or kingdom now theology” they use the portion of the Lord’s Prayer “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” to mean that this physical earth should be the same as heaven. They have the view that our purpose as Christians is to take over the systems of this world “7 mountains mandate” and set up the Kingdom of God here on earth. Only then can Christ come again to take his perfected bride ( the perfected church) They also believe that the church can only be perfected if the 5 fold ministries are active. This is not the same as gifts of the spirit. This is the office of Apostle, Prophet, teacher, etc. These officers are considered on par with the 12 Apostles and biblical prophets and they cannot be questioned. Their word carries the same weight as scripture and they are allowed to interpret scripture as they see fit. To be in-line with the 5 fold ministry pastors in each region or state are to submit their leadership to an Apostle who has the final say on any decision in each church. Each church is to send a tithe to the apostle as support. If you look closer at Bethel you will find that Bill Johnson is the “Apostle” and his sidekick Chris Vallatonn is his “prophet”. The signs and wonders they promote are supposed to authentication of their offices as apostle and prophet. Check out Bill Johnsons book “When Heaven invades Earth” for some of these teachings. Another big one is the view that while Jesus was on the earth and before his baptism by John he was not divine and that was only a man in right relationship with God. Because of this relationship he was able to access power from the Holy Spirit and was able to perform all his signs wonders and miracles. This belief is a huge key to thier theology as they feel since Jesus was just a man doing these great wonders, they can do the same accessing the Holy Spirit. They expect they can do even greater miricles than Jesus. Bill Johnson says it would not be fair if Jesus was more than a man while on earth, otherwise they would not be able to duplicate his miracles. Another big one is Bill Johnson claims that Jesus had to be born again just like we do because “He became sin” as the verse states, so he had to ask for forgiveness and be born again. He also claims that the cross was not sufficient attonement so that is why Jesus descended to Hell after his death. He had to fight the devil and complete the redemptive work through the this action, only then he was able to ascend into heaven. That should give you a few months of research topics to check out if you are not already aware of these issues.
    Thanks for the article.

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  2. Some of the points I mentioned above are broader beliefs that are followed by NAR churches and leaders. If you are not familiar with the NAR ” New Apostolic Reformation” you may want to research it. This movement is not centrally controlled but is a loose network of self proclaimed apostles, prophets and churches that push this “dominion” agenda. Bethel Church is huge in this movement and Bill Johnson is a poster child for it.

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  3. Except for a complete misunderstanding of Ephesians 2:8-9 and 1 Corinthians 4:7, this is a great read. It’s either John Calvin or Jesus Christ; it cannot be both. The ever present error of making Bible fit Calvin instead of making Calvin fit Bible is all over this writing.

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