Mike Winger is a pastor and apologist with a popular YouTube channel that addresses various issues related to apologetics and theology. He also does some discernment videos about theology and one of these is about Bill Johnson and Bethel Church. If you are not familiar with them, Bethel Church is a charismatic megachurch in Redding, California that is often the target of theological criticism, usually very severe in character. These critics usually come from a Reformed theological perspective, but Winger is not a Calvinist and has criticized Calvinism in the past. As I pointed in my previous post on Bethel, I don’t really understand the vehemence of the criticism against Bethel, which often portrays Johnson and Bethel more generally as false Christians. However, when reasons have to be produced for this severe perspective, it is interesting how weak they are and center mostly on Johnson’s theology of healing. Winger is more charitable in his criticism, since he does not say that Bethel members are false Christians, but he is also unfairly severe in his criticism and draws unreasonable implications from clips of Johnson’s sermons. I’m referring throughout to this video created by Winger about Bethel and Bill Johnson. (The numbers below the excerpts I quote are the approximate times in the video where the quote occurs).
First, Winger says toward the beginning:
“I actually think Bill Johnson is saved. I don’t know whether he’s saved or not in the sense that I don’t know conclusively about a lot of things. But I do think he’s saved and I think Kris Valotten, the prophet of Bethel…I think he’s also probably saved. I could be wrong here. And I think even real prophecy and real healing are coming out of this group. But I also think fake stuff is coming out of this group and I think the ratio of real to fake is concerning.”2:57
Winger certainly deserves credit for being more charitable than what seems to be standard among critics of Bethel. One reason I think it’s good to respond to Winger and not some of the more uncharitable critics is that his critique is more likely to be respected, especially since he is a continuationist himself. However, I do want to point out a little bit of a double standard. You will notice here that Winger makes the idea of Johnson and Valotten’s salvation a sort of live question, or something that isn’t clear. Later on when he’s criticizing Johnson’s theology of healing, he again brings up the question of Johnson’s salvation, even though he does not say that Johnson is unsaved. He claims that Johnson is saying that anyone who claims that sickness is the will of God in any instance is anathematized ( which we’ll look later on). Then he says:
How extreme is this? Does this mean that Bill is not saved? I’m not sure. This is such a weird, weird theology and such a strange thing to do that I don’t really fully want to go there. I want to offer the human kindness of saying, “Maybe he’s just wrong, but he’s still saved there.” And I sure hope so and I think he probably is, but God knows.”21:33
So I’m not sure why Johnson’s salvation is constantly up for discussion. The Body of Christ is full of people who disagree with one another about what should be regarded as “essential” and “non-essential” aspects of theology, or what is required in order to be saved. I draw those lines fairly broadly because I believe the New Testament draws them fairly broadly. I would not necessarily doubt someone’s salvation because they include things in the “essentials” category that I do not, so I’m not sure why Winger makes Johnson’s salvation into a live issue based upon that. Contrast this with how Winger opens a video criticizing Calvinism:
I want to offer a disclaimer for my Calvinist friends. I consider this a family matter. You are my brother or sister in Jesus. But we’re part of a family discussion here…
So Winger is very emphatic that he is disagreeing with fellow Christians in his video on Calvinism. He does not make the salvation of Calvinists into a live issue over which he is going to hum and haw, but just regards them as brothers from the outset. This is important to note also because Five-Point Calvinism touches some very important areas of theology, issues that seem far more important and essential than the issues he has with Johnson. Five-point Calvinists have a different way of understanding sin (total inability), God’s sovereignty, the atoning work of Jesus (Limited Atonement), the preaching of conversion ( which they often denigrate as “decision theology”) and several other important areas. This is no small set of disagreements, but I still regard Calvinists as fellow Christians and I don’t think we should be bringing up the salvation of someone unless they are truly and clearly denying a central belief of Christianity, nicely summarized in the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds, or are living willfully and impenitently in sin. I also want to add that I do think there are legitimate concerns about “hyper-charismatic” practices and teachings and I don’t agree with everything that comes out of Bethel. For example, as I emphasized in a previous post, I don’t think it’s great to focus too much on the anointing of older revivalists. It is great to honor the memory of those revivalists for encouragement and exhortation, but without developing an almost Catholic reverence for relics and “holy objects”. However, I think movements like Bethel, even with their flaws, should be nurtured rather than anathematized. All churches have flaws. But there’s a lot of criticism that just does not seem valid either and some of Winger’s criticisms fall in that category.
Is Bill Johnson an Apostle?
First of all, Winger brings up the fact that Johnson has been called an apostle and says that he definitely does think he is an apostle.
He also thinks he’s an apostle. I’m convinced…seen hours and hours of him say this…through his teachings I’m convinced that he considers himself an apostle.13:15
Winger does not produce evidence of this claim ( that Johnson considers himself an apostle). Winger mentions, in passing, Ephesians 4:11:
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…Ephesians 4:11
So there is some vagueness about what exactly Winger is accusing Johnson of. Is he accusing Johnson of thinking himself an apostle in the sense of a New Testament author who can speak inspired teaching on the same level of authority as that contained in the New Testament? Or is he accusing Johnson of thinking himself an apostle in the sense mentioned in Ephesians 4:11? There is nothing wrong with the latter, only with the former. It is useful to keep this in mind, because Winger seems to me to be equivocating between the two different senses of “apostle”. An apostle in the sense of Ephesians 4:11 is an ongoing office of the church, and may be something akin to a church planter, or someone who is going into new territory for God. Charismatic movements often use the word “apostolic” for precisely this reason, and it seems that critics have not bothered to familiarize themselves with the way the word is used in charismatic circles. I’ve seen the “apostleship” of Johnson criticized often, but I’ve never seen a quote or clip where Johnson refers to himself as an apostle. It is possible he does and I wouldn’t be scandalized if he does, given Ephesians 4:11, but the people who point it out do not present an example of him doing it. All I’ve been able to find is a quote from C. Peter Wagner calling him an apostle. But, as we’ve covered, even if that is what he has claimed, it does not imply that he believes he can teach with the same authority as the New Testament apostles.
Winger says that Johnson implies, based on a verse in Acts 2:42, that being “steadfast in the apostles’ teaching” is referring to himself as the apostle rather than the contents of the New Testament. Winger says:
“Now I would normally think of the apostles’ teaching as being those things contained in the New Testament. He’s going to imply that the apostles’ teaching is actually the fresh word that him and people like him are bringing today.13:20
This is a misrepresentation of what Johnson says in the clip that Winger produces, partly because it presents a false dilemma. Johnson implies at most that the apostles’ teaching is both the New Testament and today’s prophetic voices, and there is no implication that the New Testament is less or equally authoritative than today’s prophetic voices. In that clip, Johnson says:
“They were able to maintain a move of God, because they continually recommitted themselves to what got them there. They recognized the distinctives of the season they were in and they didn’t try to pass from them too quickly. They continually devoted themselves to…and in today’s case I’ll say the apostles’ teaching. I think it’s interesting that the Bible doesn’t include a list of the apostles’ teaching, because I think there are things that are always true, but there are also things that he is saying now that he wasn’t emphasizing in a previous season. So I’m going to use that distinctive, that clarity, as we approach these four things.”13:54
The fact that the New Testament makes provision for prophets and teachers means clearly that there are things that are always true and things that God is saying now through his servants in the Body. A pastor is someone who makes application of the Bible to our lives in sermons, and that can be regarded as prophecy, because it is not all verbatim from the Bible. Presumably, it is right, to the extent that such pastors are preaching the truth, to apply that in our lives? Of course, the Bible is the measuring staff and is the greater authority by which things should be measured, but this clip is not necessarily incompatible with this belief.
Winger interprets him here as saying:
The implication is that the apostles’ teaching is open and that the teaching he’s bringing today, the distinctives he’s bringing…that this is the apostles’ teaching for today. I’m trying to be gracious here, but I don’t know how to interpret that in any way other than elevating his teaching up right alongside the word of God…15:16
Johnson is very clear that there are things that are “always true” referring presumably to the Bible. So is Winger’s interpretation accurate, that the “apostles’ teaching” is “actually” words from people today? No, Johnson explicitly does not say that. He perhaps says that it is also the fresh word, but not only the fresh word, as Winger interprets Johnson. The fact that Johnson speaks about God emphasizing things in different seasons possibly suggests that the truths of the Bible are being applied and illuminated to God’s people according to their spiritual needs, perhaps through different prophetic voices. That is one possible interpretation here. Another possible interpretation is that he believes the apostles’ teaching is both the New Testament and modern teaching and prophecy, but without the assumption that he believes that modern teaching and prophecy is on par with the New Testament in authority. I don’t think the assumption that he is making modern prophetic voices equal in authority to the Bible or surpassing the Bible in authority is clearly implied here at all. It seems to me that if this is truly what he believed, it would be explicit in his teaching elsewhere. Winger’s interpretation is the worst case scenario and you would need something far more explicit and clear before accusing someone of this error. If you want to accuse Johnson of saying that his own teaching supersedes the New Testament or is on par with the New Testament, you really need fewer vague implications and more solid, explicit statements from Johnson and Bethel to that effect. Presumably, if Johnson was saying that his own teaching is the gospel and authoritative equivalent of the New Testament for today for the members of Bethel, this would probably show up explicitly in his sermons, not implicitly in one place ( and not through such a tenuous and vague implication, at that.)
So what was the point of Winger mentioning that Johnson thinks himself an apostle and then playing this clip? Is Winger trying to imply that Johnson is claiming that being “steadfast to the apostle’s teaching” is to be totally devoted primarily to Bill Johnson’s preaching even over the Bible? That would be an unreasonable suggestion as the clip does not even come close to saying ( explicitly or implicitly) that you must just be steadfastly committed uniquely or primarily to Bill Johnson’s teaching. He doesn’t even refer to himself when he talks about prophetic words apart from the Bible in that clip.
Furthermore, Winger passes over the four things that Johnson calls the “apostles’ teaching”, because all four of them are biblical , giving further reason to believe that Johnson is talking primarily about biblical teaching that is being emphasized at different times and in different ways. Winger himself says after playing the clip:
So then he’s going to give…After that he gives four things that they believe. The things themselves are not what I’m going to focus on, because they’re just really generic things. He goes “God is good”, “nothing’s impossible”, “Jesus’s blood purchased everything”, and “we are significant.” It’s super generic. I sort of agree with them, but it depends on what you do with them.14:55
These 4 things are all part of the apostles’ teaching as contained in the New Testament, so why would you think that Johnson was implying directly before that the “apostles’ teaching” is actually the fresh word that him and others like him are bringing and not the New Testament teaching?
Does Bethel Distort the Gospel?
Now we get to the part of Johnson’s theology that may have caused the most controversy. In one clip, Johnson says:
I refuse to create a theology that allows for sickness. Here we got a problem… The apostle Paul gives a warning in Galatians. He says “If I or even an angel, comes to you, and preaches to you a different gospel, you got to reject it…Let me illustrate. Paul refers to his thorn in the flesh, which has been interpreted by many as disease allowed or brought on by God. That’s a different gospel. Jesus didn’t model it and he didn’t teach it. And Paul said, “You can’t change the standard”.18:43
Even though Johnson does not explicitly say that people who believe that sickness can be the will of God are false Christians, I can understand why people would interpret him that way. A spokesman for Bethel has recently pointed out on Remnant Radio that Johnson was not implying that cessationists are false Christians, but “false gospel” was being used in the sense of “false teaching.” This makes sense in light of what Johnson said, since his focus, in the quote above, is not on anathema and not on salvation, but simply about rejecting a false theological idea. His reference to the Galatians passage is only to support the notion that “you got to reject it.” Even if Johnson is trying to make his theology of healing into a theological “essential”, I’m not sure why you would think that this is such a severe error. The church is full of people who put all sorts of extra theological doctrines on the list of things you have to believe in order to be saved, including many Calvinists. There is a double standard at work here. As long as the true essentials are there, it should not be a reason to say that someone is teaching a false gospel, even if you can legitimately bring it as a point of criticism.
Winger says that the thorn in the flesh was definitely a physical ailment. I don’t agree. The “flesh” is used very broadly by Paul to refer to human life in rebellion against God, which means that he is not necessarily referring to his body. The thorn in the flesh could refer to anything uncomfortable or frustrating in his life. He could even be talking about a sinful tendency or desire that is troubling him. Please refer to my previous article on Bethel, for more on why Johnson’s theology of healing is well-supported by the Bible.
The Red-Letter Hermeneutic
Another criticism Winger brings is the fact that Johnson and Bethel adhere to a type of Christ-centered hermeneutic that refuses to allow biblical interpretations that are incompatible with Jesus. I don’t agree with how Winger frames it: “we myopically look at Jesus, we focus completely on Jesus in the Bible, and we ignore everything else. And we filter everything through Jesus.”(22:55) Johnson is not saying that we should ignore everything apart from Jesus in the Bible. This is also another example of a bit of a double standard. In American Gospel, a very popular and widely acclaimed Christian documentary about theology, a Christ-centered hermeneutic is also advocated whereby Old Testament stories are interpreted in light of the gospel message. That Christ-centered hermeneutic is different from the one Johnson is advocating, but I’m just pointing out that this is not some theological novelty. I also believe in a version of the Jesus hermeneutic advocated by Johnson, even though it is often applied wrongly, such as to say that severe Old Testament judgments are invalid because they are not found in Jesus. There is a lot of severe judgment in Jesus’s teaching, so I’m not sure why this is believed. I also don’t agree with all of the ways in which Johnson applies it in the clips that Winger plays. For example, I think Winger’s critique of Johnson’s claim that God doesn’t strike people with sickness is correct. This doesn’t mean that God will refuse to heal people he has punished with disease, but the Bible does quite clearly teach that God can and does punish people with disease. But I’ll sketch out a quick defense of the general principle.
First of all, the New Testament is implicitly regarded by every Christian to be more authoritative than the Old Testament, otherwise the New Testament would not be able to abrogate the Old Testament. We do place hermeneutical priority on the words of Jesus and the Apostles because we think ( and all Christians have thought) that when they decide to abrogate Old Testament law, their doing so is legitimate. If they did not have more authority than Moses and the Old Testament prophets, they would not be able to do that legitimately. The rule of regarding the New Testament as the primary authority or standard for faith and practice and only secondarily the Old Testament is implicit in a great deal of Christian theology. It is also a principle that comes from the Bible. Jesus is called the image of the invisible God or the most perfect revelation of God, the Word of God ( John 1:1-18, Colossians 1:15, 2 Corinthians 4:4, John 14:9, Hebrews 1:3). The law of the Old Covenant is referred to as a “shadow” in light of the truth that has come through Christ (Hebrews 10:1, Hebrews 8:5, Colossians 2:16-17).
Take a look at the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. Most of the content of those confessions are about the life and identity of Jesus Christ. Another example: most protestant Christians lift up a few New Testament theological truths as having special importance and authority. This is the gospel message or the promise of salvation through Jesus Christ. If other parts of the Bible seem inconsistent with this message, we would probably conclude that we are interpreting it wrongly. For example, 1 Timothy 2:15 says that women will be “saved through childbearing.” There may be interpretations that avoid the difficulty implicit in this statement. However, no true Christian would allow this verse, if interpreted by what it appears at first glance to be saying, to hold hostage the gospel message. Anyone who preaches it would be preaching a false gospel and those women who believe that they are saved by childbearing and not Christ or a combination of Christ and childbearing are believing deception. Most Christians have this attitude implicitly. No true gospel teacher would allow this verse to undermine or qualify the gospel teaching. I believe the New Testament has a greater and more authoritative revelation than the Old, and the ministry and life of Jesus is especially authoritative even within the New Testament. Please see my article about this for more on why I believe that, including the scriptural passages which teach it. However, there needs to be a very clear inconsistency before we can disregard a passage of scripture because it seems to contradict the teaching of Jesus or the gospel message.
Fake Healing and Fake Signs?
Here Winger says that the group encourages fake healing because Johnson encourages people to raise their hands if they’ve been healed after there was prayer for healing. Winger says:
How do you even know you’re healed… Say you got a hernia…And you go “Am I healed? Well I don’t know. It’s not protruding at the moment, but I’m so excited and I thought I would be… I’m raising my hands and when I raise my hands up, people start shouting and cheering and it’s this wonderful moment… But what they’ve done is they’ve lowered the bar for actually confirming that you’re healed.46:16
I don’t think this is a reasonable complaint. It assumes that the people getting healed are just saying they’re healed because of the excitement. Bethel cannot be blamed then if someone inaccurately says they were healed when they weren’t. Some ailments are definitely such that you’ll know immediately and there is nothing wrong with inviting people to say if they’re healed. That’s a good thing to do, because it provides an opportunity for people to both praise God and be encouraged corporately as a result of something God did.
If you go to a prayer room at Bethel and you pray and you’re like, “I can’t move my hand. It really hurts.” And they pray over it and they pray over it. And they go, “Try to move it now.” And you move it. And they go “How’s it feel.” And you go “It feels a little better”. And they go “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! Let’s pray again. How’s it feel now?”. “It feels a little…” “Let’s pray again”…And I love the persistence in prayer. That’s not a problem. But the pressure on the people to say that they’re healed and the immediate, instantaneous celebration as though this healing is totally legit. It encourages an environment where fake things happen.46:50
I don’t think this is a reasonable criticism either. There is only “pressure” when there are negative consequences if you fail to testify that you’ve been healed. But there is not as far as we know. Asking people if they’ve been healed is a good thing, because it encourages people’s faith by showing that this is not just some motion that we go through. We are actually expecting God to act. Also, Winger seems to insinuate in this quote that the healing is not legitimate. Why not? I’m not necessarily going to point to lessening pain in my arm as evidence to someone doubting God, but that does not mean I cannot have faith that my prayer had an impact on the ailment even if there is no hard evidence. That is not fraudulence and that is not fake. For example, say I’m almost run over by a car and at the last moment the car swerves and doesn’t hit me. I will thank God’s protection for that. I will have faith that God protected me, because I know he has promised to do so, even if that would not be persuasive to some skeptic. I’m sure there are people who think they’re healed and later find out they are not. There may even be people who lie about their healing just to get the applause. If you can prove that someone has lied, then you can rebuke it, but Bethel critics often just assume that it was fake without any particular reason. The practice is worth its abuses. That is to say, just because there are sometimes a whole lot of bad things that happen in churches and theology is even used to justify it, that does not mean that the church as an institution or the theology used to justify the bad things is bad and that we shouldn’t have churches or theology. Bethel encourages an environment where they expect God to act, which is an environment of faith. If that sometimes causes some fake things to happen, so be it. The goodness of the practice far outweighs the badness of the fake things.
They decrease their ability to say that someone has not been healed. And one of the ways they do this is they say if you leave the building and you felt pretty good like you might have been healed so you said “Maybe I’m healed”, and they celebrated like you were. Then you leave later and you start feeling your symptoms again. They don’t say “Oh you weren’t really healed, you just had an adrenaline rush.” What they say is “You lost your healing.” So ‘cause now I can still feed the idea that those healings are really taking place.47:24
Winger doesn’t actually provide a clip here. He just says they’re teaching this. There is some possible scriptural support for someone who can lose their healing, such as Matthew 12:43-45, in which someone is possessed again by demons. In John 5:14, Jesus tells someone he healed to stop sinning or something worse may happen. I’m not so sure of the idea that one can lose one’s healing, but I would have to investigate it more fully before making up my mind. So there are cases of obvious healing which has hard evidence. There are many other cases of healing where it is much more unclear. In the unclear cases, we would want to err on the side of giving glory to God for healing. There is also no reason why God cannot lessen the discomfort of a disease and no reason why we cannot thank God for that. There is a reluctance probably on the part of Bethel to say that it was not legitimate, because they want to err on the side of faith, which I think is right. This is not a case of saying that something is true which clearly is not (which I think is how some critics would portray it). This is a case of having faith that something is true when it is not clear either way, which is good.
Winger plays a clip where Johnson says that he encouraged people to start prophesying by asking them what they think Jesus would have said if he was there now. Winger says the following about that:
What I hear there and I think you hear it too is that he encouraged people to just say something that they imagined and then he called it prophecy.55:35
Winger goes on to dispute that this is prophecy. He says it’s not wrong to do it but that it’s wrong to call it prophecy. He connects this type of prophecy to the false prophets described in Jeremiah 23:16 where false prophets “speak a vision of their own heart, not from the mouth of the Lord.” By the way, I think this is a great way to get people prophesying, because they have to think about Jesus’s ministry and apply it. The reference to imagination is interesting, because Peter quotes Joel in his Acts 2 speech and refers specifically to dreams and visions that God will speak through. I’m sure that could also be denigrated as just imagining things or saying things from your own heart.
Strangely, Winger goes through this whole thing without defining what he believes prophecy to be. In order to know what prophecy is not, you first have to know what it is. You can accuse anyone who prophesies or anyone who says anything about spirituality that doesn’t come verbatim from the Bible, especially if it’s positive, to just be speaking from themselves or from their own heart or from their imagination. So Winger’s critique here is vacuous. What does the Bible say is prophecy?
But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified.1 Corinthians 14:3
So prophecy is words of strengthening, exhortation, encouragement and comfort or edification. In verse 31 of the same chapter Paul implies that “instruction” is also a form of prophecy. There is a misconception that all prophecy must reveal some sort of hidden knowledge, either of the future or of someone’s life that the prophet could not have known by natural means. The primary purpose of prophecy always, even in the Old Testament, is to get people closer to God. Even when there are predictions of the future, these are there usually for the purpose of getting people to repent or to believe the message, not for its own sake. That is why mere prediction is not prophecy. For example, perhaps someone says there will be a man in a white coat who comes to your door tomorrow, and it happens. So what? How has that helped anyone? How has that edified the Body? How has that functioned to get people closer to God? This means that every pastor prophesies. So the biblical idea of prophecy is far broader than what is sometimes believed.
I should say here that there is a very biblical idea that is neglected outside of Charismatic churches ( and sometimes within them). This is the idea that Christians ( people who already believe in Jesus) can commit a wrong of having little faith. Jesus often rebuked his disciples for not having enough faith. Jesus rebukes his disciples ( people who already believe in him and who left all to follow him) for lacking faith. He says that they could not cast out the demon because they didn’t have enough faith (Matthew 17:20). When Peter sank after being invited to walk on water, Jesus rebukes him for lacking faith (Matthew 14:31). Jesus includes the same rebuke of those who are worried about physical provision, for not believing that God would care for them (Matthew 6:30). He gave them the same rebuke before he calmed the storm (Matthew 8:26). Jesus did not do miracles in a particular place because of their unbelief (Matthew 13:58, Mark 6:5). There is also a principle regularly taught by Jesus and the apostles, especially in his teaching of petitionary prayer, of believing and not doubting in your heart when you pray to God for some request (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). Jesus said that miracles would be a sign that followed those who believed (Mark 16:17, John 14:12) which means that it is not some optional thing that some Protestant leaders portray it as. Not only is this teaching ignored, those who teach it and attempt to implement it are vilified and portrayed as heretics by people who fashion themselves as guards of orthodoxy, often for the very “crime” of implementing these teachings. Bethel is attempting to implement these teachings and they should be supported rather than attacked for it.