In Defense of Bill Johnson and Bethel Church

Bill Johnson is someone who the sophisticates and heresy hunters of the evangelical world love to hate. If you Google search his name you will find search result after search result of blogs and videos condemning him as a heretic, a false teacher and every other biblical ( and non-biblical) epithet for unfaithful Christians you can imagine. Johnson has also been denounced as someone who preaches the “prosperity gospel” in a popular documentary called American Gospel. From what I can see, these critiques usually have little credibility. They treat Johnson as a massive threat to the theological orthodoxy, but when they actually start to give their evidence for his supposed false teaching, it is all very tenuous. For example, one of the “models” for critics of Bill Johnson is to say that Johnson says x, which (according to them) implies y, and y implies a, and a is unacceptable! Another way critics of Johnson try to fault him is by making him responsible for the actions and words of those who are associated with him and his church, even very loosely. This is called the guilt-by-association fallacy and it is a slanderous way to attack someone’s character or competence. For example, “that Jesus fellow hangs around with the worst types of people. He must be terrible guy himself.” The behaviour of anyone claiming to be influenced by Bethel Church is used against the church and against Johnson himself.

Why have these critics decided that Johnson needs to go? The main reason has to be Johnson’s reputation as a very visible, very popular and very openly charismatic pastor. Johnson is arguably the charismatic pastor with the most visibility in the evangelical world, and unlike other charismatic pastors who have achieved some prominence, spiritual gifts and miraculous healing are an important part of his public ministry. Nabeel Qureshi, the Christian apologist who tragically died of stomach cancer in 2017, posted a review and defense of Johnson and Bethel shortly before his death. Qureshi noted how a distinctive of the church is that there is a palpable expectation among the people for God to act in the midst of them. One can see how this would rub some Christians with cessationist tendencies the wrong way, and these Christians may not even believe in cessationism as a theology, but are still cessationists at heart and in practice, because they are suspicious of and resistant against any large-scale attempt to have faith for God to move miraculously. The attacks on Bethel are also not surprising given the resurgence in popularity of Calvinism, which historically is very much associated with cessationism and perhaps also as tendency more than explicit theology. The advent of aggressive secularism in the New Atheism movement and the rise of powerful anti-Christian cultural movements ( like the campaign to legitimize homosexuality), has led the conservative Protestant world to prioritize forms of Christianity which are more palatable to the secular world, less weird and more able to defend itself against secular onslaughts. This means that Pentecostalism, while responsible for probably most of the revival and successful evangelism within American Christianity in the last few decades, has fallen out of favour, and more “proper”, more “intellectual” brands of Christianity, like the New Calvinism, have become influential. It is important to point out as we go through some of these points, that every pastor will say false things from the pulpit, especially if they have had a long career. There is no such thing as a church which has no false teaching. It is also true that the Calvinists who tend to lead the charge against charismatics like Johnson have admired figures who have said some interesting things from the pulpit. But they are very kind to their own leaders.

Heresy vs Damnable Heresy

Before we delve into the criticisms of Johnson, let’s get some clarity about a word that is thrown around very easily by critics of Johnson. “Heresy” is an extra-biblical term applied to Christians who teach incorrect doctrines. Traditionally, heresy is more severe than just that since it normally implies a state of apostasy. All false teaching should be rebuked, but not all false teaching turns one into an apostate. So is a heretic a non-Christian or is he simply a Christian who has some false ideas? This question is often not easy to answer. There are theological ideas which are clearly “essential”, which would make you a non-Christian if you fail to believe them ( these are the ideas well-summarized in the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds). There are other questions which are clearly “non-essential” such as liturgy or the specifics of demonology. There are yet other questions which fall into a grey area and it isn’t clear whether we should regard them as essential or non-essential. This is important to note, since any credibility that the accusations against Johnson have, they most certainly fall in the “non-essential” category ( such as beliefs about angels or the concept of anointing and miraculous healing). There are critics of Bethel who are either explicit that it is an evil ministry or “satanic ministry” or at least insinuate that these fairly minor points of theology places the salvation of Bethel and it’s leadership in serious doubt.

Healing

In 9 Things You Should Know About the Bethel Church Movement Joe Carter, writing for The Gospel Coalition, gives an introduction to the Bethel movement. Some of the points are neutral and purely informative while other points are clearly opinionated. However, Carter is definitely more charitable than some other critics of Johnson and his primary purpose seems to be to give a theological overview of the movement. Let’s get right into some of the non-neutral points he makes.

“The Johnsons are frequently criticized for their teachings, which often veers from the suspect to the outright heretical. A prime example is Bill Johnson’s “Jesus Christ is perfect theology,” which claims that it is always God’s will to heal someone”

I’ve heard Johnson say something similar, although I’m not sure why this qualifies as “outright heretical” and the Carter doesn’t explain why. On the contrary, a very strong biblical case can be made for this belief. The prophet Isaiah tells us that “by his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:3), not “by his stripes some of us are healed.” In Jesus’s entire public ministry, there is not a single instance where he turns someone away who asks him for healing and certainly no instance of him saying that the requestor should be “more spiritual” and should see their sickness as a way to become a better servant of God. Also, we read in Mark 16:17-18:

And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.

This is reemphasized in James 5:14

Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick. The Lord will raise him up.

“They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” Johnson emphasizes the certainty expressed in this passage in a different sermon. There is no maybe; they will recover. In both passages, the authors are very unqualified and certain about the fact that the sick will recover when the request is brought to God in faith. Also, critics like these also seem to ignore the New Testament’s teachings about petitionary prayer (Matthew 18:19; Matthew 21:22; Mark 11:24; John 14:13; John 15:7; John 15:16; John 16:23–24; James 1:5–6; James 1:17; 1 John 3:22; 1 John 5:14–15).

There are some instances of divine punishment where the disease might be expressed as “God’s will”. However, even if the sickness is divine punishment, that does not mean God will refuse a request for healing brought in faith. The best candidate may be Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7). However, it is unclear what Paul meant with this phrase and any claim as to what it was must come down to speculation, given Paul’s habit of using the word “flesh” in a very broad sense to refer to human life that exists in rebellion to God. It is true that Paul talks explicitly about a physical ailment (Galatians 4:14) but that is in a different passage and a different letter and we are given no inkling in either passage that the thorn in the flesh and the physical ailment are one and the same. Maybe they are; maybe they are not. Moreover, if this is the only verse you can point to to say that God refuses prayers for healing offered in faith, your case is quite weak compared to the counter-argument. Of course, there may be a sense in which God allows disease and other evil things so that “the works of God may be displayed” (John 9:3). Paul seems to be thinking something similar about his trial: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9). There is a difference also between God’s permitting and God’s willing.

The biblical witness is quite unanimous, especially in the New Testament, that disease is something demonic that is fundamentally opposed to God’s will and design. So, on the contrary, if any belief about the relationship between God’s will and disease is heretical it is the one that says some disease is God’s will and design. It may be that Johnson should allow the nuance that God uses disease and other evil things to bring about his purposes. But even if you think that Johnson is leaving out some theological nuance here, this teaching most certainly does not deserve the label ” outright heretical” and enjoys ample biblical support. More importantly, something that has astounded me about criticism of Johnson’s theology of healing is how his critics portray him as a false Christian based on points like these. Apart from how biblically justified the view is, it is unreasonable to try to say that someone is a false Christian based on the particulars of one’s theology of healing. Some of the controversy is probably caused by the fact that Johnson calls the notion that God refuses prayers of healing offered in faith, a “false gospel.” Mike Winger ( whose objections I will address in more detail in a future post) says that this means Johnson is distorting the gospel since he is including a belief about healing in the “gospel” that most Christians would not include in what you need to believe in order to be saved. First, as a spokesman for Bethel clarified, Johnson did not mean “false gospel” in the sense of you being a damned heretic for refusing to believe it, but in the sense of “false teaching.” Second, even if Johnson is including a belief in the “essentials” category that is not normally included there, this does not make him damned heretic. (Winger does not say that Johnson is unsaved, but others do). There are many Christians who disagree with one another about what should be “essential” and “non-essential” as far as Christian salvation is concerned, including many Calvinists. So this seems to me to be a double standard.

Angels

Let’s go to the second point.

Beni Johnson also teaches some peculiarly unorthodox views of angelology, such as that there are “different kinds of angels: messenger angels, healing angels, fiery angels” who have “fallen asleep.” In a blog post she wrote, “I think that they have been bored for a long time and are ready to be put to work.” She relates a story about one of her students at the Bethel Supernatural School of Ministry who claims God told her to go to the chapel and yell “WAKEY WAKEY!”

Carter continues by quoting from the linked blog post. Beni Johnson tells of an experience or a vision a student of her’s had about hearing God speak and seeing an angel.

I’m also inclined to disagree with a strong focus on angels. While there is some suggestion of different types of angels in the Bible, I’m not fond of emphasis on angels as the basis of protection and providence (even if God uses angels to do his work). The Bible’s focus is on God himself for our hope of protection and providence. The Bible gives extremely little description of angels and they are left essentially mysterious. I think we should follow this lead and pay little attention to them ourselves. In fact, one of the only things about angels that are clear is that they enact God’s will. Nevertheless, there is no indication that Beni Johnson holds up this experience or vision as on par with the Bible in authority. Perhaps it is being told to encourage people to pray for revival and to show that the spiritual world is influenced by our prayers (which is a biblical insight). Bethel has long tried to foster a space where people can engage in spiritual gifts like prophecy and this is an example of that. As long as the Bible is still regarded as the measuring staff, and people still use their own judgment and prayer to determine whether they are going to listen to a particular word, this is not wrong. In fact, in one sense, this happens every Sunday morning in every church. All pastors say things which do not come verbatim from the Bible ( even if they believe it to be “biblical”). That is prophecy.

Let’s also note that this was a single blog post on Beni Johnson’s personal blog, not Bethel’s official website and it draws heavily on someone else’s experience. In other words, that blog post is not evidence that this is an established part of Bethel’s theology. So, even though this may be something to disagree with, it is not something on the basis of which one should dismiss Bethel’s ministry or doubt their salvation. Most importantly, as with the previous point, angelology is a very non-essential part of theology, so it certainly could not identify someone as a false Christian if they have wrong views here ( unless they worshiped angels or made angelology central to their faith).

Grave Soaking

Another point of contention:

Some members of Bethel—including senior pastor Beni Johnson—have allegedly engaged in the practice of “grave sucking” or “grave soaking”—lying on a person’s grave to “soak up” the deceased’s “anointing.” In an interview, Bill Johnson has said that neither he nor Bethel encourages the practice of grave sucking.

He links to a YouTube video. The people in the video do not seem to identify themselves as being from Bethel, though perhaps they are. Also, Beni Johnson is not in the video, as far as I can tell, and they don’t talk about Bethel or the Johnsons at all. The people in the video stand by the graves of revivalists and pray to God that the anointing that was on these revivalists and evangelists would come upon them or this time, but one of the guys did refer to other people who were “leaning over the back of the grave” though this didn’t happen in the video itself.  Nevertheless, I don’t think we should be praying for the anointing of specific individuals in the past, when we can pray to God for our own anointing. This reminded me a bit of the Catholic revering of saints ( and their bones). Why go through a saint and pray to a saint when you can go directly to God? Why pray for the anointing of someone with great faith when you can receive your own powerful anointing from God? Solus Christus is very important. But I don’t think that praying for the anointing of past revivalists is some serious error, especially if all you mean is that God would move in the powerful way that he did through these revivalists. There is nothing wrong with this prayer if that is what they meant. I was also inspired by the prayers in that video and a lot of what they said was spot on.

The author then quotes from Bill Johnsons’ work to show that he may actually support the practice of “grave soaking” even though he has explicitly said that he does not support it. Even if this is true, it’s unclear what argument Bethel’s critics will make based on it, because it has already been disavowed by the leadership. We can take it as some inevitable strangeness and “wanderings” that occurs as a by-product of any revival, including the Reformation itself. Is the argument: “It’s so weird and strange so it has to be evil!”. That is not a good theological argument at all, because a lot of things in the Bible are also very weird. But it is nevertheless an argument which cessationists and Reformed Christians seem to rely on a lot in criticizing charismatics. Carter quotes Bill Johnson saying the following:

There are anointings, mantles, revelations and mysteries that have lain unclaimed, literally where they were left, because the generation that walked in them never passed them on. I believe it’s possible for us to recover realms of anointing, realms of insight, realms of God that have been untended for decades simply by choosing to reclaim them and perpetuate them for future generations.

This is clearly not an endorsement of “grave sucking” and this quote is quite vague about what exactly these revelations are and what we are supposed to do about them. It may mean that there are certain types of worship music perhaps or various other kinds ministries that have been blessed by God, that seem to lead people to repentance and a stronger faith, but that people don’t pay attention to anymore. It is definitely a stretch to say that this implies “grave sucking” unless you have already decided that they are doing it.

More generally, and what Johnson is probably teaching in that passage, is the concept of the anointing, which is biblical. See for example Acts 19:12:

God did extraordinary miracles through the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and the diseases and evil spirits left them.

The Passion Translation

Another point that is made is that Bethel promotes and uses the Passion translation. Carter cites an article in Themelios, which is a journal published by the Gospel Coalition, that condemns the Passion translation in very severe terms, and goes as far as saying that those who use it are worshiping a false god. In researching this, I have read about problems with the Passion translation, which seems to be a Message-like paraphrase of the original text, which puts the work of translation and interpretation together. According to Michael Brown, the Passion translation is not as radical a paraphrase as The Message. It’s true that Bill Johnson recommends the translation, although I don’t know how often it is used by him and by Bethel. I’m not an expert in biblical languages so it’s difficult for me to make a judgment yae or nay about the translation. You can read a negative review here ( from Andrew Wilson) and a more positive take here (from Michael Brown). My own preference is for literal translations ( like the NASB) and I would recommend that people mostly read literal translations for their primary devotion, and perhaps use more paraphrase-like translations to supplement or for more relaxed reading. That being said, is someone who reads The Message or The Passion Translation just for that reason a heretic who worships a false god? No.

Conclusion

It’s a good and necessary thing to challenge prominent preachers when they say or do things which appear to run counter to the apostolic tradition. However, there should also be more of an attempt to be charitable and not to constantly draw people’s salvation into doubt as a result of non-essential theological issues. Raise the issues, but be careful what implications you draw from them.

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