Should Bible-believing churches use worship songs from Bethel in their services?

edwin-andrade-6liebVeAfrY-unsplash[This paper was originally written on November 19, 2019. I am now posting it as an online, public resource – I hope and pray you find it helpful!]

This paper is meant to serve as an evaluation of the use of any worship music that finds its origination in the ministries of Bethel Church in Redding, California, in the services and ministries of any Bible-believing, Gospel-preaching church. To be clear, the worship music in question would include any worship songs or other resources that come from Bethel Music,[1] Jesus Culture,[2] or any other Bethel-associated songwriters, worship bands, or organizations.

For many contemporary believers, the question of whether or not a church should use Bethel worship songs may seem a little ridiculous, somewhat sad, and rather legalistic. The worship music that has emerged from the Bethel movement is, quite frankly, unparalleled in quality and artistic value. The songs sound good, are easy to sing, and seem rather enriching to the soul. Further, the mass cultural popularity of Bethel Music and Jesus Culture proves just how enticing this music is – for example: Bethel Music’s live recording of their song “You Make Me Brave” peaked at #10 on the Billboard 200 chart,[3] Bethel Music artist Cory Asbury’s song “Reckless Love” was named Song of the Year and Worship Song of the Year at the 2018 GMA Dove Awards,[4] the lyric video for Bethel Music artists’ Jonathan David and Melissa Helser’s song “No Longer Slaves” has over 109 million views on YouTube,[5] Francesca Battistelli’s version of “Holy Spirit,” written by Jesus Culture artists Bryan and Katie Torwalt, won a Grammy award in 2015 for Best Contemporary Christian Music Performance/ Song,[6] and, currently, four out of the top ten songs on CCLI’s Top 100 worship song list are either written or co-written by Bethel-associated artists.[7]

However, the church simply cannot judge the validity of any resource based on its aesthetic appeal or enormous fanbase. Instead, believers must be aware that wolves really do come into the church wearing the clothing of sheep (see Matthew 7:15). As Paul warned the church in Corinth, “even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14; see vv. 13-15).[8] An honest evaluation of the role that worship music from Bethel should have in the church must go deeper than mere appearances and the widespread acceptance of others – instead, one must first examine the teaching of the Bethel movement and seek to discern whether or not the brand of “Christianity” espoused by Bethel is, in fact, in line with historic, orthodox, biblical Christianity.

Historically, worship music has been used to spread false teaching.

Before providing an assessment of the theology and practice of Bethel, it is important to first answer the most common objection to this whole conversation, which is usually communicated like this:

“Well, yeah, Bethel might be kind of sketchy, but I don’t really find anything wrong with the music. It sounds so good, it makes me feel so close to God, and I really don’t find anything specifically wrong with the lyrics in most of the songs. I don’t really support Bethel, but I just like the music.”

And, for many, this comment ends the conversation. The argument is that, while the Bethel movement itself may have some problems, the music, for the most part, doesn’t seem to be that theologically off, and so it’s perfectly fine to use those songs in the regular corporate worship of the church. Yet, when filtered through the lens of history, this argument does not hold weight.

In the fourth century, the orthodox church faced a massive conflict: the Arian Controversy. Essentially, this battle was over the nature of Christ’s divinity; while the orthodox church boldly declared that Jesus is completely God and equal with the Father, followers of a charismatic teacher named Arius claimed that Jesus is, in fact, not God and, instead, a created being.[9] This conflict exploded in the church, leading eventually to the First Council of Nicaea, wherein Arius was declared a heretic and his ideas were denounced. This episode from church history bears direct correlation to the discussion at hand regarding the use of Bethel’s music.

According to an early church historian and Arian sympathizer named Philostorgius:

…Arius, after his secession from the church, composed several songs to be sung by sailors, and by millers, and by travellers along the high road, and others of the same kind, which he adapted to certain tunes, as he thought suitable in each separate case, and thus by degrees seduced the minds of the unlearned by the attractiveness of his songs to the adoption of his own impiety.[10]

That is to say, Arius intentionally wrote catchy songs to be sung by the common people with the express purpose of spreading his false teaching. The link between the spread of Arian heresy and song-writing is further confirmed by the writings of Athanasius, a legendary defender of the Trinity and lead opponent of Arianism, who referenced Arius’ “ballads” in his defense of orthodox Nicene theology, De Decretis.[11] It seems historically valid to understand that Arius used songwriting as a strategic technique to popularize his teaching.[12]

In the same vein of thinking, Jesus Culture explains on their website that the “songs they release capture the heart of the movement.”[13] To shed more light on this idea, Bethel Music states on its website that its mission is to “carry the culture of Heaven to the nations through worship and to see the global expansion of God’s Kingdom through His manifest presence.”[14] One should note that the phrase “culture of Heaven” is hugely important here – this is a loaded phrase which is central to the unique theology and practice of Bethel.[15] This points to an intentional relationship between Bethel’s music and its core teachings, which is further proven in this quote from Bethel Senior Leader Bill Johnson:

Music bypasses all the intellectual barriers and when the anointing of God is on a song, people will begin to believe things they wouldn’t believe through teaching.[16]

Here’s the point: just as Arius used music to spread his false teachings in the fourth century, so now, over 1,600 years later, Bethel is actively using vastly popular worship songs and music to spread its own teaching.

Therefore, if Bethel’s teaching is – as this paper will contend – false,  destructive, and highly dangerous, then it seems highly problematic and, at best, extremely irresponsible for any Bible-believing, Gospel-preaching church to use the songs put out by Bethel Music, Jesus Culture, or any other Bethel-affiliated artist or band in its services. Simply put, Bethel has made it clear that it seeks to further its mission, spread its culture, and publicize its teachings through the music it produces. If Bethel’s mission, culture, and teachings are contrary in any way to the mission, culture, and teaching given to us by the Lord Jesus in His word, then it is the responsibility of the leadership of any orthodox church to guard their flock against this treacherous, subversive attack on the truth.

Bethel Church has established itself as a propagator of false teaching.

That being said, there are many, many reasons why any perceptive Christian should have a good deal of concern about the validity of Bethel, its leadership, and the various ministries under its umbrella. There are the more fantastical reasons, like the practice of “grave-sucking”[17] and the miraculous appearance of feathers, gold dust, and “glory clouds” during services;[18] there are theological reasons, like Bethel’s belief in modern apostles[19] and affiliation with the so-called “New Apostolic Reformation;”[20] and there are an assortment of other varied reasons, like Bethel’s endorsement of the highly problematic Passion Translation,[21] Bethel Music co-founder Jenn Johnson’s comparison of the Holy Spirit to the genie from Disney’s Aladdin,[22] and the pay-for-power Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry.[23] While each of these aspects of Bethel’s ministry deserve evaluation and should be considered as reasons for the avoidance of Bethel and its influence, this paper will, unfortunately, not be able to assess all of the troubling features of the Bethel movement. (For a more detailed critique, see Defining Deception: Freeing the Church from the Mystical-Miracle Movement by Anthony Wood and Costi Hinn. [24]) Instead, four particularly significant issues will be addressed here: 1) Bethel openly integrates New Age religion into its version of Christianity; 2) Bethel interprets Scripture based on a flawed hermeneutic;  3) Bethel’s methodology is rooted in a heretical Christology; and 4) Bethel’s gospel is a false gospel.

  1. Bethel openly integrates New Age religion into its version of Christianity.

According to the Christian Research Institute, the New Age movement is “ an extremely large, loosely structured network of organizations and individuals bound together by common values (based in mysticism and monism—the world view that ‘all is one’) and a common vision (a coming ‘new age’ of peace and mass enlighten­ment, the ‘Age of Aquarius’).” Furthermore, within the New Age movement are “hundreds of smaller (but still sometimes very large) networks and movements encompassing a wide variety of interests and causes (all compatible with the ends of the larger network). The consciousness movement, the holistic health movement, the human potential movement, all have contributed generously to the New Age movement, as have the followers of many Eastern gurus and Western occult teachers.”[25] By any standard, the spiritual experience offered by the New Age movement is a totally different religion than any recognized version of orthodox Christianity.

And yet, by their own admission, Bethel is influenced in an extreme manner by the New Age movement. One of the most obvious ways to see this is in the 2012 book, The Physics of Heaven, written by Ellyn Davis and Judy Franklin (the latter of whom is Bill Johnson’s administrative assistant). The book features a forward from Bethel Senior Associate Leader Kris Vallotton, chapters from both Bill Johnson and his wife Beni Johnson, and an endorsement from Jesus Culture Lead Pastor Banning Liebscher.

In a chapter titled “Extracting the Precious from the Worthless,” Ellyn Davis says,

It wasn’t that I wanted to become a New Ager, I just wanted to find out if maybe they had uncovered some truths the church hadn’t… I decided to examine New Age thought and practice for anything ‘precious’ that might be ‘extracted’ from the worthless.[26]

Do not miss this: Davis plainly admits to adapting New Age thoughts and practices into her version of Christianity. This is the point of the entire chapter, as shown by the title. And while Davis claims that “much of what [she] saw and heard embodied biblical principles and could be backed up by Scripture,” any discerning, Bible-believing Christian would raise eyebrows at the contents of this book. Topics covered include “Dolphins and Healing Energy,” “The God Vibration,” “Spiritual Synesthesia,” and more.[27]

The New Age movement’s influence on Bethel is not restricted to The Physics of Heaven. For example, Bethel Senior Leader (and Bill Johnson’s wife) Beni Johnson has relayed some rather unorthodox ideas about angels in the past,[28] and many of the spiritual experiences at Bethel mirror aspects of the Hindu and New Age idea of “Kundalini.”[29] Additionally, Bethel has affirmed and defended a self-proclaimed “large undercover prophetic evangelism deliverance ministry” that uses “destiny cards” at New Age festivals to try and spread the Gospel; while there is certainly a need for the Gospel to be shared to those who are in the New Age, the resemblance that the nature of this practice has to traditional tarot cards (but with a Christian twist) is fairly hard to deny.[30]

The fact is, believers must be aware of this pagan sway on the brand of so-called Christianity that is held by Bethel. As the Christian Research Institute states,

New Age religion is thoroughly occultic, and totally unchristian… if the basic New Age beliefs… are adhered to, the central components of the Christian faith cannot remain intact.[31]

  1. Bethel interprets Scripture based on a flawed hermeneutic.

As this critique of the teaching of the Bethel movement moves forward, the majority of this paper’s attention will turn to focus on the writings and preaching of Bethel Senior Leader Bill Johnson. As one of the head leaders of the Bethel movement, his teaching is indicative of the overall position of Bethel and the ministries that have been birthed from Bethel – like Jesus Culture and Bethel Music. For example, here is part of an answer given on Johnson’s own website in response to the question, “Is it always God’s will to heal someone?”

How can God choose not to heal someone when He already purchased their healing? Was His blood enough for all sin, or just certain sins? Were the stripes He bore only for certain illnesses, or certain seasons of time? When He bore stripes in His body He made a payment for our miracle. He already decided to heal. You can’t decide not to buy something after you’ve already bought it.

There are no deficiencies on His end – neither the covenant is deficient, nor His compassion or promises. All lack is on our end of the equation. The only time someone wasn’t healed in the Bible (gospels) is when the disciples prayed for them. For example, Mark 9 when they prayed for the tormented child. They did not have breakthrough. But then, Jesus came and brought healing and deliverance to the child.

Jesus Christ is perfect theology – He is the will of God. We can’t lower the standard of scripture to our level of experience . . . or in most cases, inexperience. It’s a very uncomfortable realization – not everyone can handle it. Most create doctrine that you can’t find in the person of Jesus. He is the will of God.[32]

The phrase used here – “Jesus Christ is perfect theology” – is actually a staple Bethel teaching. On Johnson’s website, the same idea is repeated to answer another, related question, “Does God ever cause sickness?”

What about verses in the Old Testament?

The Old Testament is filled with questions that the cross has answered.  Who did Jesus not heal when they came to Him for healing? When did He ever say that the Father had given them a sickness so they would become more holy or humble? Never. A question cannot cancel a revelation, which means that any question I may have has no power to cancel what God has shown me. Jesus is the perfect revelation of the Father. As such, Jesus Christ is perfect theology.

People ask, “What about Job?”  I tell them, “I’m not a disciple of Job; I’m a disciple of Jesus.” Job was the question; Jesus is the answer. If I read Job and it doesn’t lead me to Jesus, then I never understood the question. All the law and the prophets were to create an awareness of need. That awareness prepared Israel for a savior. To return to the standards of the law and the prophets at the expense of ignoring the perfect revelation of the Father given to us in the person of Jesus Christ is to fall to the ultimate expression of arrogance. It puts us back in the place of control where we do what is humanly possible—and call it ministry.[33]

Johnson actually summed up this idea in a short 2016 book, Jesus Christ is Perfect Theology. In the book, Johnson explains the basic premise of the “Jesus Christ is Perfect Theology” idea in this way:

Jesus Christ is perfect theology. Whatever you think you know about God that you can’t find in the person of Jesus, you have a reason to question. Jesus Christ is the precise revelation of the nature of the Father.[34]

To many believers, this initial idea may sound pretty orthodox – texts like John 1:18 and John 14:8-11 come to mind. However, Johnson quickly takes this idea beyond the bounds of established orthodoxy by setting it up as a wildly subjective hermeneutical approach:

Conflict often arises when discussing the nature of God’s goodness. The portrayal of God “as one who afflicts” usually has an old covenant Scripture as its proof text. It is wrong to take an Old Testament revelation of God, of His nature, and preempt or trump the New Testament revelation of God found in Jesus Christ. Inferior covenants do not provide clearer insights into the nature of God. Scripture is Scripture. All of it was written for our instruction. But what is observed in the Law and the Prophets does not possess the clarity that is found in the person of Jesus.[35]

Essentially, Johnson is attempting a Christ-centered hermeneutic here, but he does so at the cost of real biblical inerrancy. In an article written for The Gospel Coalition Australia, Stephen Tan remarked,

Johnson teaches that Jesus is the perfect revelation of God’s character. What that looks like in practice is to treat the four gospels as a canon within the canon. The historical account of Jesus’ life and ministry becomes a hermeneutical grid for interpreting the rest of the Bible. Truths about God that are found in other parts of the Bible are secondary to what we see Jesus model in the gospels.[36]

While Bill Johnson’s “Jesus Christ is Perfect Theology” may seem like a Christ-exalting approach to biblical interpretation, the reality is that this hermeneutic dishonors Christ by distancing the God of the Old Testament from the Messiah of the New Testament. It should be noted that this attempt to distinguish the Old Testament view of God from the New Testament view of God is not unique to Bill Johnson – Marcion, a 2nd century heretic, denied the authority of the Old Testament for Christians and went so far as to teach that the deities of the Old and New Testaments were literally two different gods,[37] and, likewise, popular contemporary pastor Andy Stanley recently came under fire after suggesting that the Christian faith should be “unhitched” from the Old Testament.[38] In contrast, Jesus declares, “I and the Father are one.”[39]

Ultimately, it seems that Bill Johnson purports this sort of heretical hermeneutic largely in an effort to justify his teachings on supernatural healing:

There is a deep personal need in the Body of Christ to see Jesus for who He is. Jesus healed everyone who came to Him. That doesn’t change because not everyone I pray for gets healed. He stilled every life-threatening storm that He encountered. And deliverance came to all who asked. And this is the Father exactly…

If Jesus healed everyone who came to Him, and the Father wills people to be sick, then we have a divided house – one that according to Jesus cannot stand. Invariably it’s at this point in the discussion that people bring up Old Testament verses in an attempt to prove the point that God causes sickness…

Such mindless approaches to Scripture must stop.[40]

For Bill Johnson, the “Jesus Christ is Perfect Theology” hermeneutic is essential to defending Bethel’s stance on divine healing. And, while there are many aspects of what Johnson said in the aforementioned quote that should be addressed in light of Scripture, the easiest way to debunk Johnson’s hermeneutic is by realizing one simple truth: Jesus didn’t always immediately heal everyone who came to Him for physical healing. Take, for example, Mark 1:32-39:

That evening at sundown they brought to him all who were sick or oppressed by demons. And the whole city was gathered together at the door. And He healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. And He would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, He departed and went out to a desolate place, and there He prayed. And Simon and those who were with Him searched for Him, and they found Him and said to Him, “Everyone is looking for You.” And He said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” And He went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.

It seems pretty clear that Jesus turned down healing people in this passage in favor of preaching the Gospel in other places. One could also turn to John 5:1-9 (wherein Jesus walks past multitudes of sick people to only heal one man), John 9:3 (wherein Jesus claims that a man was born blind specifically to display “the works of God”), or 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (wherein Jesus refuses to take away Paul’s thorn in the flesh), among other texts. The biblical hermeneutic which has been embraced by Bethel is, at best, flawed.[41]

  1. Bethel’s methodology is rooted in a heretical Christology.

As has been previously alluded to, at the core of Bethel’s methodology is a belief in the ordinariness of the miraculous in the Christian life. Bethel clearly states on its website, “It’s our goal for God’s love to be manifest in signs, wonders and miracles;”[42] this goal is rooted in a belief that “[t]he Holy Spirit gives every believer the supernatural power to witness and release miracles, signs, and wonders.”[43] This belief permeates every aspect of Bethel’s identity and is taken as seriously as one could possibly imagine, as can be easily demonstrated by Bethel’s Healing Rooms ministry[44] and the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry (BSSM).[45] To illustrate this point, one BSSM graduate has taken the supernatural culture of Bethel so far that he has formed a ministry called the “Dead Raising Team,” which claims to have seen “about 15 resurrections” thus far.[46] As Bill Johnson says, healings and miracles are “normal” at Bethel[47] – and while this culture of the miraculous may seem appealing to many, one must understand that the supernatural practices of Bethel find their roots in heresy.

In his book When Heaven Invades Earth: A Practical Guide to a Life of Miracles, Johnson very clearly explains why Bethel teaches that a supernatural lifestyle should be the norm for any true Christian:

JESUS COULD NOT HEAL THE SICK. [sic] Neither could He deliver the tormented from demons or raise the dead. To believe otherwise is to ignore what He said about Himself, and more importantly, to miss the purpose of His self-imposed restriction to live as a man.

Jesus Christ said of Himself, “The Son can do nothing” (John 5:19). In the Greek language that word nothing has a unique meaning—it means nothing, just like it does in English! He had no supernatural capabilities whatsoever! While He is 100 percent God, He chose to live with the same limitations that man would face once he was redeemed. He made that point over and over again. Jesus became the model for all who would embrace the invitation to invade the impossible in His name. He performed miracles, wonders, and signs as a man in right relationship to God…not as God. If He performed miracles because He was God, then they would be unattainable for us. But if He did them as a man, I am responsible to pursue His lifestyle. Recapturing this simple truth changes everything…and makes possible a full restoration of the ministry of Jesus in His Church.

What were the distinctions of His humanity?

  1. He had no sin to separate Him from the Father.
  2. He was completely dependent on the power of the Holy Spirit working through Him.

What are the distinctions of our humanity?

  1. We are sinners cleansed by the blood of Jesus. Through His sacrifice He has successfully dealt with the power and effect of sin for all who believe. Nothing now separates us from the Father. There remains only one unsettled issue—
  2. How dependent on the Holy Spirit are we willing to live? [48]

Johnson goes on to connect this idea to Philippians 2 later in the book:

Jesus lived His earthly life with human limitations. He laid His divinity aside (see Phil. 2:5-7) as He sought to fulfill the assignment given to Him by the Father: to live life as a man without sin, and then die in the place of mankind for sin. This would be essential in His plan to redeem mankind. The sacrifice that could atone for sin had to be a lamb (powerless), and had to be spotless (without sin).

The anointing Jesus received was the equipment necessary, given by the Father, to make it possible for Him to live beyond human limitations. For He was not only to redeem man, He was to reveal the Father. In doing so, He was to unveil the Father’s realm called heaven. That would include doing supernatural things. The anointing is what linked Jesus, the man, to the divine, enabling Him to destroy the works of the devil. These miraculous ways helped to set something in motion that mankind could inherit once we were redeemed. Heaven—that supernatural realm—was to become mankind’s daily bread.[49]

To summarize, Johnson’s foundational premise (based on a specific understanding, it seems, of the word ἐκένωσεν in Philippians 2:7) is that Jesus completely laid aside His divinity in His incarnation. Building on this idea, Johnson asserts that Jesus did all of His miracles as a Man by the power of the Holy Spirit. Johnson’s reasoning, then, is that, since Jesus did His miracles a Man by the power of the Holy Spirit, all believers – as human beings empowered by the Holy Spirit – should operate in the same miraculous power of Jesus.[50]

While this may seem to be an attractive line of reasoning, modern believers must realize that there is grave danger in the unorthodox Christology that glues the entire supernatural methodology of Bethel Church together. This particular Christological idea– that Jesus gave up some or all of His divinity at the incarnation – is known as the “kenosis theory” and represents a view called “kenotic theology” (to note, the terms “kenosis” and “kenotic” are derived from the Greek verb κενόω as used in Philippians 2:7). This view first emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and has historically been condemned as heretical by the church. Wayne Grudem explains in his Systematic Theology:

In fact, if the kenosis theory were true (and this is a foundational objection against it) then we could no longer affirm Jesus was fully God while he was here on earth. The kenosis theory ultimately denies the full deity of Jesus Christ and makes him something less than fully God. S. M. Smith admits, “All forms of classical orthodoxy either explicitly reject or reject in principle kenotic theology.”[51]

To his credit, Bill Johnson reportedly has affirmed that Jesus is 100% God and 100% man, and he has apologized for any “misunderstanding” he has created.[52] The fact is, however, that When Heaven Invades Earth is still in print; Bill Johnson has never publicly condemned the book. Rather, Johnson even still pointed to his main application of Jesus’ role as supreme example in his clarifying statement – and in order for that application to be made, one must first, it seems, support kenotic theology.

The point is this: Bethel’s over-emphasis on the ordinariness of the supernatural in the life of the believer is rooted in a historically-identified heresy regarding the God-hood of the incarnate Christ. The whole modus operandi of Bethel hinges on a heretical idea about Jesus.[53]

  1. Bethel’s gospel is a false gospel.

In his letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul is strikingly clear:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the Gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. [54]

To preach any “gospel” that is contrary to the historical, orthodox Gospel given in the inspired Scriptures is an extremely serious matter. In this passage, Paul literally pronounces “anathema” (ἀνάθεμα) on anyone who proclaims a false gospel; in like manner, it would seem natural, then, that the church must pronounce “anathema” on any individual or organization who dares to divulge from a biblical understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

With this in mind, here are Bill Johnson’s own words about the gospel taught at Bethel Church from a sermon preached on August 15, 2010:

Hebrews 1 says, “In times past, God spoke to us through the prophets, but now He speaks to us through Jesus.” What’s the point? That message was for them; Jesus is for now. Without that shift, there is a constant reproducing of an anointing and a ministry that is not for today. Yesterday’s anointing is like yesterday’s manna. And so this ministry of Jesus that dealt with every single person that came to Him with affliction or torment – He ministered to them – that’s the only standard to follow. I refuse to create a theology that allows for sickness.

Now here, we got a problem. Only one, small one. The Apostle Paul gives a warning in Galatians, and he says this,  he says, “If I…” – and he’s the one who brought the gospel to them – he says, “If I, or even an angel, comes to you and preaches to you a different gospel, you are to reject it.” That’s amazing. An angel shows up, and he brings you a different standard, a different gospel – reject it. He says, “Even if I come back to you and I change my mind, don’t pay any attention to me.” Alright, what gospel is it? It’s the gospel of Jesus, the gospel of the kingdom.

Okay. 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.”[55]

In this sermon, Bill Johnson clearly states that anyone who teaches that God might send sickness is in fact preaching a different gospel from the gospel preached at Bethel. Quite obviously, Johnson is pulling heavily on his “Jesus Christ is Perfect Theology” hermeneutic here, but the point is this: Johnson believes that the gospel he preaches is different from the Gospel of most other Bible-believing evangelicals. In other places, Johnson makes this point even clearer by pointing to Bethel’s emphasis on signs and wonders; for example, while preaching on Romans 15:19 in just this year (2019), Johnson said,

…power [in context, signs and wonders] must be displayed for this gospel to be revealed for what it is, to touch the hearts of people, because it is that power that changes the life; without power, it’s not good news.[56]

Johnson clearly believes that there is a gospel being preached at Bethel Church that is, in his reckoning, the actual biblical gospel and is wholly different, it seems, than the Gospel being taught at most other churches. So, what is the gospel that is taught at Bethel? Listen to Johnson’s words from a sermon given on August 12, 2018, entitled “The Power of the Gospel”:

Romans chapter 1 says, “The gospel…” – the good news of the kingdom of God – “…is the power of God unto salvation.” Salvation… Back in the Reformation days – we give great honor to what took place in the Reformation – but one of the mistakes that was made is that the gospel of the kingdom was reduced to the gospel of salvation, specifically, to the gospel of forgiveness of sin.

The word “salvation” includes in its meaning “deliverance” and “healing” as well as “forgiveness.” So, the gospel of the kingdom, the gospel of salvation, is the power of God – the gospel of the kingdom – is the power of God for deliverance, for healing, and for forgiveness of sin. It was never meant to be separated.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said, “Pray this prayer: deliver us from evil.” The word “evil,” of course, refers to sinful activities, but it comes from a word that is the, it comes from a word that is the word “poor,” which comes from a word that means “pain.” So, it’s interesting: there’s three levels of this one word, “evil:” “evil” – sin; “pain” – sickness; “poor” – poverty. The redemptive brushstroke of Jesus was to wipe out the power of all three realms, all three, all three areas.

“The kingdom of God is not meat or drink, but it is” what? “Righteousness, peace, and joy.” “Righteousness” deals with the sin issue. “Peace” deals with what? The torment issue. “Joy” is laughter, is good medicine – deals with the healing issue. The kingdom of God is about this triune, this triune gospel to impact the whole person: spirit, soul, and body.[57]

In When Heaven Invades Earth, Johnson lays out this same idea of a “triune gospel” and attributes his understanding of the term to John G. Lake, a controversial faith healer and missionary to South Africa in the early twentieth century:[58]

The gospel of salvation is to touch the whole man: spirit, soul, and body. John G. Lake called this a Triune Salvation. A study on the word evil confirms the intended reach of His redemption. That word is found in Matthew 6:13 (KJV), “Deliver us from evil.” The word evil represents the entire curse of sin upon man. Poneros, the Greek word for evil, came from the word ponos, meaning pain. And that word came from the root word penes, meaning poor. Look at it: evil-sin, pain-sickness, and poor-poverty. Jesus destroyed the power of sin, sickness, and poverty through His redemptive work on the cross. In Adam and Eve’s commission to subdue the earth, they were without sickness, poverty, and sin. Now that we are restored to His original purpose, should we expect anything less? After all, this is called the better covenant![59]

As Johnson asserted, the gospel preached at Bethel is in fact a different gospel than the Gospel preached by most Bible-believing Christian churches – and, to take it one step further, Bill Johnson’s gospel is strikingly different than the Gospel preached by the Apostle Paul. While Johnson’s gospel diminishes the horror of sin and instead argues that Jesus’ death paid for sin, sickness, and poverty as equal issues to be dealt with, Paul clearly taught that Jesus died on the cross in order to address the root issue of all that is wrong in the universe: sin. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul said,

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you… that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…[60]

In all reality, while Bill Johnson may prefer to use the confusing phrase “triune gospel” to describe the gospel preached at Bethel, there’s a better term for it: the prosperity gospel. British sociology professor Stephen Hunt has described the prosperity gospel (which he refers to as the “health and wealth gospel”) this way:

In the forefront is the doctrine of  the assurance of  ‘divine’ physical health and prosperity through faith. In short, this means that ‘health and wealth’ are the automatic divine right of all Bible-believing Christians and may be procreated by faith as  part of the package of  salvation, since the Atonement of  Christ includes not just the removal of  sin, but also the removal of sickness and poverty.[61]

To confirm this, note how eerily similar this teaching on the atonement from infamous prosperity preacher Kenneth Copeland’s website is to Bill Johnson’s understanding of the gospel:

When trouble arises, the most natural thing to do is to place the blame for it on someone or something. Sadly, many Christians have been falsely accusing God of being the cause of their troubles. They wrongly believe that trials and tribulations are God’s tools for developing and strengthening our character. Even worse, they may have been taught that God, Himself, is the author of our troubles or that God is the One who makes us sick in order to teach us something.

This is absolutely against the Word of God. Why? Because the very basic principle of the Christian life is to know that God put our sin, sickness, disease, sorrow, grief and poverty on Jesus at Calvary. For God to put any of this on us now to teach us or to strengthen our faith would be a miscarriage of justice. To believe that God has a purpose for sickness would mean that Jesus bore our sickness in vain. What an insult to His love, care and compassion for us![62]

Simply put, the gospel taught at Bethel is a false gospel. And while Bill Johnson and other teachers from Bethel do an admittedly phenomenal job of making their false gospel seem very logical, bold, attractive, nuanced, and trendy, the false gospel propagated by Bethel isn’t really anything new – it’s the regular-old prosperity gospel, the health and wealth, name-it-and-claim-it, word of faith fallacy that plagues the contemporary church like a virus.

For any who doubt, this identification of Bethel as a hip prosperity gospel powerhouse can be further confirmed through the multiple recognized prosperity gospel teachers that have been affirmed by Bethel. For example:

  • Benny Hinn was featured as a guest speaker at Bethel Church Redding in 2017.[63]
  • Bill Johnson recently met up with Kenneth Copeland to discuss their “vision for the future of the body of Christ.”[64]
  • D. Jakes was a featured speaker at the 2012 Jesus Culture conference in New York City.[65]
  • Joyce Meyer has been a special guest on the Jesus Culture Podcast.[66]
  • Kris Vallotton has unashamedly praised Joel Osteen in at least three social media posts.[67]

What does all of this mean for the church?

The conclusion is clear: Bethel is a hotbed of false teaching. Individuals from Bethel have openly admitted to integrating ideas from the New Age movement into their version of Christianity. Many teachings from Bethel originate from a thoroughly flawed and incredibly dangerous hermeneutic. The supernatural methodology of Bethel is rooted in a heresy about the very nature of Jesus. And, perhaps most damning of all, Bethel’s gospel is a false gospel. These issues are not secondary and must be taken seriously by the Christian church. As Paul exhorted the Ephesian elders:

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which He obtained with His own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.[68]

In like manner, Paul instructed Timothy on the action he ought to take in response to worldly believers from whom false teachers spring up: “Avoid such people.”[69] To the Romans, Paul gave the same instruction: “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.”[70] The Apostle’s stance towards false teaching and the attitude that clergy must take towards false teaching was unapologetically rigid – false teachers must be avoided at all cost.

Furthermore, Bethel has expressively stated, like Arius of old, that they intend for their music to spread their false teaching. When a church incorporates songs from Bethel Music, Jesus Culture, or any other Bethel-affiliated artist or band into its liturgy, that church is literally placing open doors for unbiblical, heretical, and damning doctrines to creep into the church. No matter how beautiful, wonderful, and truthful the music that comes from Bethel may seem, it is poisonous; Bible-believing, Gospel-centered churches cannot stay faithful to their Lord while singing the songs of Bethel. In short, the answer to the question at hand – “Should Bible-believing churches use worship songs from Bethel in their services?” – is a resounding, “No.”

 

[1] Bethel Music is the songwriting and worship arm of Bethel Church Redding, which has expanded beyond the immediate context of their local church to include artists around the country. See this link for more information: https://www.bethel.com/ministries/bethel-music/

[2] Jesus Culture is the overgrowth of the youth ministry of Bethel Church Redding, which has become an organization in its own right. Among other things, Jesus Culture creates worship music. See this link for more information: https://www.bethel.com/ministries/jesus-culture/

[3] https://www.billboard.com/music/bethel-music

[4] https://www.tennessean.com/story/entertainment/music/2018/10/16/dove-awards-2018-cory-asbury-zach-williams-win-big/1581798002/

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f8TkUMJtK5k

[6] https://www.grammy.com/grammys/artists/francesca-battistelli

[7] https://songselect.ccli.com/search/results?List=top100&CurrentPage=1

[8] Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. All rights reserved.

[9] A simple overview of Arianism can be found at this link from Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (CARM): https://carm.org/arianism-and-its-influence-today

[10] Quoted from book II, chapter two of Epitome of the Ecclesiastical History of Philostorgius, compiled by Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople, translated by Edward Walford – full text: http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/philostorgius.htm

[11] See part 16 in chapter IV of Athanasius’s De Decretis  16 – full text:  https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf204.xiv.ii.iv.html

[12] I first got the idea to explore the link between Arianism and Bethel from this post by Todd Wagner at The Gospel Coalition: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/use-bethel-songs-worship-4-diagnostic-questions/

[13] Taken directly from Jesus Culture’s website: https://jesusculture.com/music/

[14] Taken directly from Bethel Music’s website: https://bethelmusic.com/about/

[15] See The Way of Life: Experiencing the Culture of Heaven on Earth by Bill Johnson (Destiny Image 2018) for an example of how this phrase is part of the unique theology and practice of Bethel: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07DGY4K4F/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

[16] Taken from this page on Bethel Music’s website: https://bethelmusic.com/bill-johnson-quotes/

[17] Here’s a video of Jesus Culture Lead Pastor Banning Liebscher discussing “grave-sucking”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hYRKMYhigeU (start at 16:15 and hang in there); here’s a video of it happening: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LrHPTs8cLls.

[18] Here’s a video of the “glory cloud” at Bethel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lvJMPccZR2Y; here’s another “glory cloud,” and in this video Bethel Senior Leader Bill Johnson also mentions the feathers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tcPkOR4Lwj0; here’s a testimony on Bethel’s website about the appearance of gold dust: https://www.bethel.com/testimonies/gold-dust/.

[19] https://shop.bethel.com/products/mission-apostle

[20] Although Bill Johnson has repeatedly claimed to have no affiliation with the New Apostolic Reformation, this video from 2008 shows Johnson participating in a commissioning ceremony with other prominent, recognized leaders of the movement – in this clip C. Peter Wagner, the man who coined the term “New Apostolic Reformation,” even refers to Bill Johnson as an “apostolic pillar” of today’s church: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w4YlqSV949g (start around 3:30).

[21] Bill Johnson has said that the Passion translation is: “One of the greatest things to happen with Bible translation in my lifetime” (https://www.thepassiontranslation.com/endorsements/ – Banning Liebscher of Jesus Culture is also listed as an endorser here). For a scholarly dissection of what’s wrong with the Passion translation, see: http://themelios.thegospelcoalition.org/article/burning-scripture-with-passion-a-review-of-the-psalms-passion-translation.

[22] Here’s a montage: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Wu-WqLjoJo.

[23] http://bssm.net/

[24] I would strongly urge any follower of Jesus to read this book – here’s an Amazon link:  https://www.amazon.com/dp/B079Q766J3/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1 (Defining Deception: Freeing the Church from the Mystical-Miracle Movement by Anthony Wood and Costi Hinn, Southern California Seminary Press 2018).

[25] Quotes are from an article entitled “The New Age Movement – What Is It?” by Elliot Miller on the Christian Research Institute’s website: https://www.equip.org/article/the-new-age-movement-what-is-it/

[26] Here’s an Amazon link for the book: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B011H5G32K/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1 (The Physics of Heaven by Judy Franklin and Ellyn Davis, Destiny Image 2015). There’s also a nice little website set-up that contains chapter excerpts from the book: http://heavensphysics.com/

[27] Quotes and section titles from The Physics of Heaven, accessed on Kindle. I should note here that there is a disclaimer at the beginning of the book which states,  “…the reader should be aware that this information is not intended as spiritual advice, doctrinal position, or comprehensive scientific fact, but rather is intended to be a sharing of knowledge and information from the research and experience of the authors and contributors. The publisher and the authors encourage you, the reader, to thoroughly investigate and prayerfully consider for yourself the topics introduced in this book and come to your own conclusions about them.” Take that as you will.

[28] See this article on Beni Johnson’s website: http://www.benij.org/blog.php?id=1

[29] Dr. John MacArthur addressed this particular issue at his Strange Fire Conference in 2013:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HFKnsFwTrOI

[30] All of this is taken directly from a statement on Bethel’s website: https://www.bethel.com/about/christalignment/

[31] Quoted from the same article as earlier: https://www.equip.org/article/the-new-age-movement-what-is-it/

[32] Quoted from an article entitled “Is it Always God’s will to heal someone?” on the Bill Johnson Ministries website: http://bjm.org/qa/is-it-always-gods-will-to-heal-someone/

[33] Quoted from an article entitled “Does God ever cause sickness?” on the Bill Johnson Ministries website:  http://bjm.org/qa/does-god-ever-cause-sickness/

[34] Quoted from Jesus Christ is Perfect Theology by Bill Johnson, Destiny Image 2016, accessed on Kindle. Here’s an Amazon link for the book: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01M7V7QJT/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

[35] Quoted from Jesus Christ is Perfect Theology.

[36] Quoted from “At What Price Awakening? Examining the Theology and Practice of the Bethel Movement” by Stephen Tan, 2018, on The Gospel Coalition Australia’s website: https://au.thegospelcoalition.org/article/price-awakening-examining-theology-practice-bethel-movement/

[37] Got Questions has a helpful article on Marcionism: https://www.gotquestions.org/marcionism.html

[38] Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr. wrote a thorough analysis of Andy Stanley’s statement here: https://albertmohler.com/2018/08/10/getting-unhitched-old-testament-andy-stanley-aims-heresy/

[39] John 10:30, ESV

[40] Quoted from Jesus Christ is Perfect Theology.

[41] Just to note, Johnson’s favorite proof text for saying Jesus always healed everyone who came to Him, from what I have heard, is Acts 10:38. Further, while listening to Johnson’s sermons, I heard him give defenses against three of the passages I use in this paper to refute his claim (Jn. 5:1-9, Jn. 9:3, and 2 Cor. 12:7-10).

[42] Quoted from the “Who We Are” page on Bethel’s website: https://www.bethel.com/about/

[43] Quoted from the “Our Core Values” page on Bethel’s website: https://www.bethel.com/core-values/

[44] https://www.bethel.com/ministries/healing-rooms/; https://bethelredding.com/ministries/healing-rooms/testimonies

[45] http://bssm.net/

[46] I kid you not: http://deadraisingteam.com/our-director/

[47] Quoted from the Bill Johnson Ministries website: http://bjm.org/bill/

[48] Quoted from chapter 2 of When Heaven Invades Earth (Expanded Edition): A Practical Guide to a Life of Miracles by Bill Johnson, Destiny Image 2013. Here’s an Amazon link to the book: https://www.amazon.com/When-Heaven-Invades-Earth-Revised/dp/0768430542

[49] Quoted from When Heaven Invades Earth, chapter 7.

[50] To be clear, Bill Johnson’s kenotic theology is not restricted to When Heaven Invades Earth. See this article in Charisma Magazine: https://www.charismamag.com/site-archives/1570-spirit-led-woman/bible-study/10226-the-reflection-of-the-father. Also, see pages 42-43 of The Supernatural Power of a Transformed Mind (Expanded Edition): Access to a Life of Miracles by Bill Johnson (Destiny Image 2014): https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00KPSQRO0/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1.

[51] Quoted from chapter 26 part B section 3 of Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine by Wayne Grudem (Zondervan Academic 2009), accessed on Kindle. For those interested, Grudem does a great job of breaking down kenotic theology in this section.

[52] See this article from Murray Campbell: https://murraycampbell.net/2018/10/08/update-on-questions-relating-to-bethel-and-bill-johnson/

[53] For more information on Johnson’s kenotic theology and other heretical ideas that Bill Johnson writes about in When Heaven Invades Earth, see David Schrock’s review of the book for 9Marks: https://www.9marks.org/review/book-review-when-heaven-invades-earth-by-bill-johnson/,

[54] Galatians 1:6-9 ESV

[55] Quoted from a sermon titled “The Real Jesus” given by Bill Johnson on August 15, 2010 –  https://www.bethel.tv/watch/740 (21:34 through 23:54).

[56] Quoted from a sermon clip titled “The Full Gospel | Bill Johnson | Bethel Church” on the Bethel TV YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HrRkH9MKJY  (4:50 to end); also, see this article by Johnson in Charisma Magazine for further explanation: https://www.charismamag.com/spirit/supernatural/13781-super-natural-by-nature.

[57] Quoted from a sermon titled “The Power Of The Gospel” given by Bill Johnson on August 152, 2018 – https://www.bethel.tv/watch/7339 (26:48-28:51).

[58] Here are a few articles I found to give some background on John G. Lake: http://theconversation.com/resurrections-miracles-and-faith-healing-the-religious-legacy-of-john-g-lake-112654; http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1017-04992017000200002. For a fuller analysis of the totality of Johnson’s spiritual heritage, see chapter 2 of Defining Deception by Wood and Hinn.

[59] Quoted from chapter 2 of When Heaven Invades Earth.

[60] 1 Corinthians 15:1,3-4, ESV

[61] Quoted from: Stephen Hunt (2000) “’Winning Ways’: Globalisation and the Impact of the Health and Wealth Gospel,” Journal of Contemporary Religion, 15:3, 331-347, DOI: 10.1080/713676038, 333.

[62] Quoted from an article titled “Why Do Bad Things Happen?” on the Kenneth Copeland Ministries website: https://www.kcm.org/real-help/spiritual-growth/learn/why-do-bad-things-happen

[63] https://www.bethel.tv/watch/4634

[64] https://www.instagram.com/p/B3-L1-ZJUhU/

[65] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hxkJAAZybgo

[66] https://jesusculture-be1.jesusculture.com/podcasts/show-episodes/episode-001-joyce-meyer/

[67] https://www.facebook.com/kvministries/posts/10153508681893741; https://twitter.com/kvministries/status/208970258361499649; https://www.facebook.com/kvministries/posts/some-peoples-comments-about-joel-osteen-frankly-are-flat-rude-he-doesnt-use-the-/10152202391973741/

[68] Acts 20:28-31, ESV

[69] 2 Timothy 3:5, ESV

[70] Romans 16:17, ESV

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