Bethel Church: Pimping Heresy
“That very church which the world likes best is sure to be that which God abhors.” Charles Spurgeon
Bethel Church of Redding, California was founded in 1952 and was affiliated with the Assemblies of God until 2006, when current pastor Bill Johnson led the church to dissociate itself from the denomination. The current attendance at Bethel’s Redding location is just under 8,700 each Sunday. The now denominationally independent church operates on a $9 million annual budget.
But Bethel’s impact in terms of numbers of souls it touches is far beyond the confines of its Redding headcounts. Bethel is, like Hillsong, an international influence, gaining traction for the prosperity/dominion theology that undergirds it through the primary mechanism of music.
In March 2016, Billboard Magazine noted that, since its first top ten hit on the Top Christian Albums ranking, Bethel Music has had a total of nine Top Ten appearances since that initial 2012 entrance. The album Have It All: Live At Bethel Church sold 25,000 copies in the first week of its release, placing it at number two on the Top Christian Albums chart and taking the twelfth spot on the overall Billboard 200.
According to the local Redding Record Searchlight, as reported on October 24, 2015, “Bethel Music’s album sales have increased 95% since the label launched five and a half years ago, from 22,000 to about 435,000 in 2014, label director Joel Taylor said. Revenue has gone from $200,000 to $8.5 million in that same time period.”
Not bad for a five-year-old band. But even better for the charismatic, NAR charlatanry that is Bethel Church.
Bethel’s lead pastor, Bill Johnson, who is acknowledged by C. Peter Wagner as a modern day apostle, is more than knee-deep in the heretical New Apostolic Reformation. According to Mark Galli, Editor of Christianity Today (CT), a fused mixture of dominion, or “kingdom now,” theology along with the typical charismatic prosperity gospel fare serves as the theological underpinning of Bethel. In 1996 when Johnson agreed to take the helm of the then AOG congregation in Redding, it was on the basis that the church agree to his particular vision of revival, one that, as a CT feature article noted, “emphasizes God’s supernatural presence through signs and wonders.”
Among the many “ministries” offered by the Redding campus is the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry. Headed by Johnson’s nearly four-decade sidekick, Kris Vallotton, the BSSM started in 1998 with 36 students. According to its website, today it enrolls nearly 2,000 students in a non-accredited program that trains them to become “revivalists.” The training, of course, emphasizes heavy doses of Holy Spirit charisma exhibited not only by tongues but also by healing the sick and prophesying. Evidently, for Bethel, those supernatural “gifts of the Spirit” (which are no longer biblically valid, by the way) don’t need to be gifted by God; for about $4,500 a year Bethel can give them to you.
Perhaps the most glaring example of Biblically-illicit supernatural pursuits by Bethel and its BSSM is the issue of raising the dead. Responding to what can’t be nearly enough Bethel critics, the school’s founder, Vallotton, wrote about the “Dead Raising Team” that was comprised of “some of the students of the Supernatural School of Ministry.” In an article from Charisma Magazine, February 27, 2012, he wrote:
“Another subject that has drawn a lot of attention recently is dead raising. I need to be honest; I have personally never raised anyone from the dead although I have tried twice. But here again Jesus said, “And as you go, preach, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons….,” (Matthew 10:7-8). Contextually, Jesus is only speaking to twelve disciples, but the truth is that a large portion of what Jesus taught was only given to twelve guys. And almost all of Paul’s epistles were written to specific groups of people, yet we still understand that most of what he penned applies to us today. Furthermore, Jesus commanded His guys to make disciples of all nations by, “teaching them to observe all I commanded you…”(Matthew 28:19-20)
Some of the students from the Supernatural School of Ministry read this verse and decided to go down to the morgue and “practice” raising the dead! Crazy? Maybe, but I admire their faith and their guts. It wasn’t Bill or me who gave them the idea, they were actually inspired by reading the Bible. Evidently, they thought they should believe what Jesus said. They definitely have more faith and courage than I do. So far they haven’t raised anyone at the mortuary from the dead, but it hasn’t deterred them a bit. I have heard of some students from another school that started a DRT team. You guessed it, the letters stand for Dead Raising Team! I really don’t know if they have had any success yet. I do know of several Christians who have raised the dead. Radical? Yeah! But hopefully if you’re born again, you believe that you will be raised from the dead someday so you can go to heaven.” (Emphasis Added)
The Biblically-aberrant, exegetical horrors taught by Bethel, such that resurrection powers are to be presumed for all believers, being put aside, the culture of the church is one that is defiantly non-orthodox and non-biblical. There are, indeed, stories of the sick being miraculously healed – Bethel operates “The Healing Room” ministry specifically for that (it’s reputed to have even had success in dentistry, with new gold teeth being Holy Spirit-installed) – but the overarching choreography of Bethel is experiential. It goes to any lengths to facilitate your Holy Spirit encounter.
The Word itself takes a backseat to a Holy Ghost experience. Contributing to your experience, Bethel has produced such Hollywood effects as “glory of God” gold dust that appears during particularly Spirit-rich worship meetings or the “angel feathers” that have been reported as miraculously appearing, confirming, of course, the presence of God. So experience-driven and Word-avoiding are the faithful at Bethel that it is reported that Johnson’s wife, Beni, engages in “grave sucking,” a maneuver that presumably allows one to absorb “the spiritual anointing of deceased Christians by lying atop their graves.” (Source)
Now, pause for a moment and use a bit of Biblically-informed common sense. For the Christian, there are two supernatural forces at work in the world. There is, of course, our Sovereign, Creator God who has given us a revelation of Himself and His expectations of us in His Word. Those whom He has saved are eternally secure in Christ. The other, much lesser, and already defeated, power is the current ruler of the world. (1 John 5:21) He seeks to “steal and kill and destroy.” (John 10:10) He is the father of lies. (John 8:44) And he can, and does, “disguise himself as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14), his false teachings brought by wolves in sheep’s clothing as Christ warned in Matthew 7:15.
Which force is at work at Bethel? Its anti-biblical, false theology is not just a slight departure from Christian orthodoxy. You can’t even see the narrow path from the wide road of heresy that Bethel trods. Bethel’s teaching more closely reflects a pagan, new age fusion of mysticism and spiritualism (perhaps that’s why their “Alabaster Prayer Room” features a glowing red pyramid atop its building) than Christianity, though they do slather their presentation in (wrongly used) Scripture. Indeed, as Phil Johnson of Grace To You commented, Bethel “constitutes a whole different message from biblical Christianity,” one that is “totally devoid of any true and consistent proclamation of the gospel.” (Source)
If a church proclaims a message not substantiated by Scripture, then what is the source of that message? Right. Bethel is not of God, but, as Christ admonished the Pharisees, “you are of your father, the devil.” (John 8:44) This is the seriousness of false teaching. If it is not Scriptural, it is not of God. If it is not of God, it can only be one thing … evil … and thus a false message, enamoring and embraceable though it may be, is yet damning to adherents. The job of the believer in spiritual warfare is to expose the error and contend for the truth. (Ephesians 5:11, Jude 3)
Bethel’s appeal, especially to young people, in its experience-focused faux Christianity is not fixed merely by the boundaries of its Redding, California campus or on the discernment-free frequencies of the nearest Christian radio channel. In a superstar idolizing culture, the celebrity “Christians” that Bethel, like Hillsong, churns out provide a logical “I wanna be like them” model for enamored fans. Following the faith path of a Bethel celebrity doesn’t lead to the cross, however, but to a gospel-void, feelings-focused faux form of faith based on “signs and wonders” that does not save or sanctify. Bethel’s theology damns.
But don’t think that you, your church, or the prone-to-celebrity-worship youth you might care about are relatively immune to Bethel’s influence. While Bethel Music has a vigorous tour schedule, and while their tunes are readily available on the airwaves, they also are infiltrating – by invitation – churches you just might never expect to see them show up.
Bethel Music goes on tour. They may be coming to a town near you. Living in the Jacksonville, Florida area, I’ve been the regular recent recipient of targeted Facebook ads for the upcoming Bethel “worship night” at a wanna-be, doctrinally-loose, mega-church in my area. There are, in fact, on Bethel Music’s website nearly a dozen “come and worship with us” events listed for the remainder of 2016.
But the tours, hosted in local churches, under such spiritually monikered event names like the Come Near Conference in Warsaw, Indiana, or the Divine Conference in Gainesville, GA or the Encounter in Phoenix, AZ are not the only places the insipid theology of Bethel makes its inroads into non-charismatic churches. As we’d expect, there are plenty of charismatic churches that deny Scripture and embrace spiritual emotionalism eager to host the band of a co-conspiring charlatanic church. But Bethel doesn’t stop there. Through their multi-million dollar, chart-topping music “ministry,” Bethel’s reach goes beyond merely the hometeam fanbase of charismania.
Bethel invades even non-charismatic churches. A Southern Baptist Church in my area recently hosted a conference that featured Leeland, an artist from the Bethel Music Collective. Now, this is a church in good standing within the SBC and the Florida Baptist Convention, active in local association activities. It’s a typical conservative Southern Baptist church. While this particular SBC church does, in fact, preach the Gospel, (Not all SBC churches do that) what it doesn’t do is exercise biblically commanded discernment. Else it would never have invited to its conference the musical agent of a drastically divergent and theologically damning church like Bethel. “Have nothing to do with them” means HAVE-NOTHING-TO-DO-WITH-THEM. (Ephesians 5:11, Romans 16:17-18)
(In multiple attempts to reach the host church’s pastor prior to the event – at which at least two other Jacksonville area SBC pastors participated – I was unable to elicit a response.)
Bethel puts its musical charlatans out for hire. Seventeen artists (shown below) are listed as available for booking. As evidenced by the example in my area, these agents of heresy aren’t being hired just by the holy-roller, pew-hopper churches. They’re showing up in conservative Baptist churches. Denial of the authority and sufficiency of Scripture isn’t just a charismatic problem; Baptists do it too.
When Martin Luther stated that “the pulpit is the throne for the Word of God,” and we consider that the enemy’s initial – and subsequently persistent – attack was on that Word, it can be little surprise to the authentic believer that the church is ground zero for Satan’s attacks. If the church is where the Word is (or should be) pre-eminent, you can be certain the threat of its twisting, contorting, and mishandling will be a paramount endeavor of the father of lies. Satan lusts over pulpits.
As Southern Baptist evangelist Vance Havner once so aptly warned, believers – and especially pastors – must be wary of the influence of false teaching entering the flock. Wolves are not at bay; they are in the pews. And now, as is seen with the evil of Bethel, even Southern Baptist churches are inviting them in to lead worship and stand in pulpits. (One of the for- hire options you must indicate for booking a Bethel artist is “Type of Ministry Requested;” do you want them either for “teaching” or for “worship?”)
“The devil is not fighting religion; he’s too smart for that. He’s producing a counterfeit Christianity so much like the real one that good Christians are afraid to speak out against it.” Vance Havner
In the local example, did the host pastor, or those pastors standing on the dais, know what insipid, damning theology Bethel represents? Did they know a representative of heresy had been invited to the conference? Were they worried that a young attendee might be eager to know more about the exciting, experience-intense worship leader, and follow the thread of deception that leads to the diabolical, twisted theology of Bethel? Was any concern given to Paul’s rhetorical rebuff to the Corinthians – and to us – “what fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14)
Perhaps the appropriate question for these pastors isn’t “did they know” but shouldn’t they have known? Were they just, perhaps like many today, so interested in getting and pleasing a crowd that practicing shepherd-expected discernment, watching over the souls of the flock, was justifiably avoidable? (Acts 20:28, Hebrews 13:17, 1 Peter 5:2) Sadly, in this case, the shepherds didn’t fight off the wolf; they invited him in and shared a stage.
If a local Southern Baptist church isn’t immune to the deceiving influence of Bethel and its hire-a-charlatan music ministry, it’s cause for concern to genuine believers across the church world. It’s one thing that in the upper echelons of the SBC there is a clear disregard for the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, but that’s also occuring at the grassroots level too. (Given the trends of late in the SBC, it may be going “full Benny” in any case.)
Who is your local pastor willing to hire or cooperate with in a spiritual endeavor? (Scripture forbids spiritual enterprises with unbelievers and false teachers, by the way; 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 is a good example) If you’d balk should your pastor share a ministry platform with the local leader of a Satanic temple, how much less concerned should you be that he’d share the stage with agents from diabolically-influenced, heresy-hurling churches? Just because something calls itself Christian doesn’t mean it is. The wolves, remember, look like sheep. If a church intentionally teaches error, it is not of God. Christ said “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6)
“The pastor ought to have two voices: one for gathering the sheep and another for warding off and driving away wolves and thieves. The Scripture supplies him with the means of doing both.” John Calvin
Please, be aware that the Bethel charlatans are pimping their heresy for hire. They’ve gotten in at least one otherwise conservative church. It’s how heresy spreads. Undetected. Slathered sufficiently in Scripture and Christian-ese so as to be unassuming and enamoring. The crowds love it, but as Spurgeon said, if the world loves a church, it’s a good bet that God hates it.
If you’re a pastor, do the diligent and biblically obedient thing; shepherd your flock by being both proclaimer of the Word and defender of the sheep. If you’re a Berean-obedient believer, support your pastor with discerning truth about the many drooling wolves who are eager for an invitation to dine on your flock.
This is not a game; it is not a concert; it is not an experience. It is about Truth. Eternal souls are jeopardized when believers do not stand and contend. As J.C. Ryle said, “We have the truth and we need not be afraid to say so.” Indeed, and we need not be afraid to defend it. It’s the task of every shepherd and of every believer.
Abide in the Word. (John 8:31) See to it that no one misleads you (Matthew 24:4) … even if they come with a hip, enticing tune.
[Contributed by Bud Ahlheim]