Is Bethel Church A Cult?
Some time ago, someone left several comments on one of my Facebook posts, warning about Bill Johnson as a “false teacher.” I’ve never been to Bethel church, but I have friends who have. Bill Johnson’s teaching has had a strong positive impact on my life since 2005. I don’t see everything the same way as Bill Johnson does. I even strongly disagree with him on one point. But how many of us share exactly the same doctrine?
A “false teacher” isn’t just somebody who has a different viewpoint than we do. A false teacher undermines the fundamental truths of the Christian faith, such as Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection. False teachers teach that there is a way to God other than through Jesus.
The Facebook comments went on, repeating “do your research” and “don’t be deceived,” but still didn’t state what was wrong with Bill’s teaching. So I asked, “Why is Bill a false teacher?” It took a bit of digging to get past the long warnings of deception and find out why exactly why this guy believes Bill Johnson is a false teacher, but when I insisted that he be specific if he is going to call someone a “false teacher,” he finally posted this article by “Pastor Gabe”:
So I read the article. I also followed the links it included to other articles or videos. It reminded me of several things people had pointed me to earlier, including a book called “Christianity in Crisis” by Hank Hanegraaff.
I’ve seen several sincere Christians very disturbed and confused by such articles. Similarly, as a teenager, I was confused by what other Christians said about the “Toronto Blessing.” So I thought I’d write a response to some of the reasoning in the article “Bethel Church Believes A Different Gospel,” in the hope that my articles get picked up by search engines along with several others that are spreading such a negative report about Bethel. Honest criticism is sometimes necessary, but honest criticism attempts to accurately represent the teaching of the person or group it is directed to. These articles people are sending me about Bethel church do not.
Let’s start by responding to some of the more generic criticisms of Bethel church in Pastor Gabe’s article.
What Is False Prophecy?
The article starts by criticizing prophesy that isn’t 100% accurate and sharing a one-sided account of two “incidents” that happened with people associated with Bethel.
Pastor Gabe seems to believe that prophecy must be 100% accurate or else the person prophesying is a “false prophet.” Bethel doesn’t claim 100% accuracy with prophecy. They see it as a spiritual gift which we step out in and take risks with. We miss it sometimes, which is why we must test prophesy and listen to the Holy Spirit’s confirmation. It’s also why we take a humble attitude and often use phrases like “I feel like God’s is saying…”
I agree with this view. Yet even if your view is different, a fair article on Bethel church should give an honest representation of their attitude and approach to prophesy. Teaching a way of salvation other than through Jesus makes a person a false prophet. Not saying “I feel like God is showing me something” and missing it.
As for the statement “Only one out of every hundred prophesies are true”—where did Pastor Gabe get that number? Is this in any way an objective number? Or is it subjective, pulled out of thin air by someone who is starting with a bias against Bethel Church?
Quoting: “Only one out of every hundred prophecies are ‘true.’ We hear all about those, which they catalog along with their ‘miracles’ like a Baptist church does its baptisms. We never hear about the failures.”
It’s sad to see the word “miracles” in quotation marks, as if to say “so-called miracles. Bethel church has specific criteria for how to document their testimonies in order to avoid exaggeration, even if unintentional. What reason do we have to believe that these hundreds of testimonies are false? Are the people sharing their experiences of healing at Bethel lying? Do their experiences have a purely natural explanation? Shouldn’t we expect miracles if Jesus is the same “Yesterday, today, and forever?”
Take some time to read some of the stories for yourself on Bethel’s healing room testimony page. I find it sad that someone could read all these stories of God’s mighty works and so easily dismiss them rather than catching a glimpse of Jesus through them.
The word “miracles” is in quotation marks, not because there is anything less than an abundance of credible testimonies of miracles happening at Bethel, but because Pastor Gabe’s worldview does not allow for such an abundance of miracles. Does he believe God no longer has the same compassion today as he did when Jesus walked the earth? Or does he believe the miracles Jesus did had little to do with God’s love but were only to “prove his divinity?”
The statement that “We never hear about the failures” is patently false. Anybody who has heard very much of Bill Johnson speaking knows that. Bill has often talked about losing his own father to cancer. Neither Bill nor Bethel have ever claimed everyone who goes there gets healed. They believe it is God’s will to heal everybody.
It’s funny that people would tell me to “research Bethel” and “research Bill Johnson,” yet they themselves have only listened to what people say about Bill Johnson and Bethel. If they want to do good research, shouldn’t they at least take as much time to listen to what Bill Johnson himself teaches instead of what people say he says? It’s not like it’s inaccessible. Many videos of his sermons are on Youtube. If they would listen to what Bill says, they would know how many people are lying about what Bill says. “We never hear about the failures” is just one of those lies.
After that, the article mentions two “incidents” that happened with Bethel students. Even if the accounts of these incidents were perfectly accurate, it is problematic to condemn a leader (like Bill Johnson) or a whole group (Bethel Church) because you were able to find someone associated with the movement who did something irresponsible.
Even so, Pastor Gabe’s is all too quick to latch on to the worst report he can find. He writes “There’s another about a young man who died after an asthma attack. Neighborhood Bethelites wasted precious time trying to heal him instead of calling 911.”
I read the article Pastor Gabe got this story from. Quoting from it:
(Several months after this article was published, the woman who said she called 911, Andrea Martin, reached out to BuzzFeed News with a different version of events than the ones Zibull had described. Martin, a Bethel churchgoer, gave a detailed account of the incident when she found Orian gasping for breath in the street: once she realized he was having an asthma attack, she said she immediately returned to her house to get her cell phone and call 911, asking her neighbors, who were watching, to pray for him as she called. When she returned, she tipped Orian’s head back to clear his air passageway, as paramedics had instructed her. Only a “minute and a half” elapsed, at most, between her call and when she first found Orian, Martin claimed.
The neighbors who first prayed over Orian were Catholic, Martin said, and not members of Bethel. Martin said she did keep in close touch with Orian’s mother and returned to Orian’s hospital room with friends to pray for his “restoration,” and that other Bethel members may have also come to the hospital. But she said the art she gave Zibull’s daughter was from local children who had witnessed the incident, not a Bethel child.
“I want to make clear that there was no wasting of time in calling 911,” Martin told BuzzFeed News. “From the time I found [Orian] to the time he passed away, my actions were always for his well-being. In any way that my words and prayers misled and/or upset the family, I do apologize to them. They are wonderful people who I grew to care for and continue to care for. I am truly sorry for their loss, and hope nothing but comfort and love for them all.”)
So there are two sides to the story! Doesn’t fair “research” consider both sides of the story? In such a situation it would be very easy for an observer to miss the fact that the lady who first found the boy was already getting help? And thus the observer might assume that “Bethelites” were “wasting precious time trying to heal him rather than calling 911.”
As for the other story about some Bethel students trying to heal a man who fell off a cliff before getting help…well, how about reading the original newspaper story about the incident:
“The biggest criticism has been the delay in reporting the incident to the authorities, but this criticism isn’t an issue with respect to this lawsuit,” Haslerud said. “The delay was the result of having just witnessed a very traumatic event coupled with fear and confusion and the possibility that Mr. Carlsen has just committed suicide. The delay was not occasioned by some religious belief Sarah had that they were going to ‘raise the dead.'”
Doesn’t scripture say that love does not delight in evil, but rejoices in the truth? All I hear in Pastor Gabe’s mention of these stories is confirmation bias from a guy who already has a problem with Bethel church. He already wanted to believe the worst before he even found these stories.
Even if Bethel students had withheld medical care in order to pray for someone, Bill Johnson and the leaders of BSSM (Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry) encourage people to seek timely medical help, to appreciate medical professionals, and to have doctors verify supernatural healings. I know because I’ve actually done more research than the guy who told me to do my research. I’ve heard what Bethel teaches and not just what people say (or imply) they teach.
The New Apostolic Reformation
The next item on Pastor Gabe’s list of problems with Bethel is that it’s part of the New Apostolic Reformation, or NAR.
So? What is the New Apostolic Reformation? What makes Bethel a part of it?
“Didn’t you know? The NAR is a heretical movement in the church. Doesn’t everyone know that? Bethel is a part of it.”
The “NAR” is just a label that gets slapped onto a wide variety of people and groups, with a wide variety of different beliefs. It is regularly used to “prove” that certain Charismatic Christians are heretics without actually saying why, and without demonstrating that their teaching is contrary to the essentials of the gospel.
Once someone asked Bill Johnson if he was part of the NAR. He wasn’t even sure what it was!
A few critics of the NAR have pointed to some extreme teachings that really are out of line with orthodox Christianity. However, what makes the people who taught those things “NAR” other than the fact that you decided to slap that label on them? And most of the people or groups that are labeled “NAR” along with them (including C. Peter Wagner), also reject those teachings as unorthodox.
So you call Bill Johnson a false teacher and Bethel a cult because they are “NAR” and someone else whom you also call “NAR” taught something false? And by the way, “NAR” is your label, not theirs? That is guilt by association. It’s like calling someone a Nazi because they are German. At least being German is not as subjective as being labeled “NAR.”
It’s amazing how some people can go on and on with phrases like “Don’t be deceived,” “NAR,” “do your research,” and “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” without actually stating what it is they disagree with. When the critic finally does find a reason that this person is a “heretic,” it becomes clear that the real problem is that the critic has a problem with the fundamental Christian doctrine that Jesus came in the flesh.
After these weak criticisms of Bethel church, none of which convince me that Bethel is a cult, Pastor Gabe gets down to the real issues by accusing Bill Johnson of preaching a different gospel. He says that the real issue is doctrine and that Bethel is not a doctrinally sound, Bible-believing church.
His allegations against Bill Johnson backfire, revealing that he is the one who does not fully accept the orthodox Christian doctrine of the incarnation.
We talk about that in the next article, “Is Bill Johnson A False Teacher?”