BIT of a long-winded title, but it says it all. We were given the book The Way of Life by Bill Johnson, the founder of Bethel Church in Redding, California. I seemed to recall seeing some criticism of Bethel in the past so I did a quick search and, sure enough, the Internet is littered with articles “warning” about the dangers of Bethel, and Bill Johnson in particular.
The critical articles include, for example, this one from Gospel Coalition. You’ll also find posts and comments all over social media. That being so, I questioned whether I ought to even read the book. But then I did a slightly different search and found other articles and comments seeking to cut through the near-hysteria. There were two such posts on the site Go to Heaven Now entitled Is Bethel Church a Cult? and Is Bill Johnson a False Teacher?. They’re worth a read.
A key point made in those articles is that many of the criticisms are “jumping on the bandwagon”, second-hand comments based on what other people say Bill Johnson says, rather than on what he actually says. And when you look at what he actually says, the position is very different.
What are the criticisms?
My crude summary would be:
- They teach dodgy or downright heretical stuff.
- They do weird stuff that can’t be from God.
- They mistreat people who disagree with them.
Well guess what? These criticisms could be fired at many, many churches or Christian movements, to some extent, and with varying degrees of truth. It seems we believers in Jesus can’t stop ourselves taking pot-shots, particularly at large, “successful” churches. “Surely if they’re that big and popular there must be something wrong with them?” I’ve heard or read criticisms of Rick Warren (Purpose Driven Church), Andy Stanley (North Point), Hillsong (everywhere, it seems), the Church of England, the Catholic church, the Methodist church, etc., etc., etc. They, of course, are all imperfect. But that doesn’t necessarily mean these churches are to be boycotted.
One of the Bethel detractors points out that they were involved in “The Toronto Blessing” back in the nineties, and, well, that was definitely weird and definitely not from God, so Bethel is clearly terrible. But then, R T Kendall, the respected former minister of Westminster Chapel, loves to tell the story of how he warned people off the Toronto stuff, saying it wasn’t from God – but then had to change his mind and retract his warnings. Doubtless there are now articles out there explaining why R T Kendall got it wrong.
The upshot is, I decided to read the book and decide for myself what’s helpful and what’s not. I think there’s enough prejudice outside the church without us bringing in more of it. The Bible tells us to “test everything” and “test the spirits”, so I’ll let you know how it goes…
UPDATE: 23 July 2019: Shock, horror: No heresies found!
Well it took me over three months, but I finally finished Bill Johnson’s book. I didn’t find a single suggestion, teaching or comment that made me shudder. I did find a lot of helpful comments about bringing God’s Kingdom in “on earth as it is in heaven”. I even used a highlighter.
I’ll probably forget most of those helpful comments, but as Bill Johnson says at one point in the book, “I can’t remember what I had for breakfast two days ago, but I know it nourished me.” Clever.
I can’t remember what I had for breakfast two days ago, but I know it nourished me.
If I have a criticism, it’s that I couldn’t discern a thread, a progression, a natural sequence of where things were going. I did, however, find it to be a collection of pretty good stuff that was worth ploughing through.
Controversy? What controversy?