Three weeks ago Stephen Tan wrote a critique of the Bethel movement, ‘At What Price Awakening? Examining the Theology and Practice of the Bethel Movement’ (published on The Gospel Coalition Australia website). The article has created quite a stir and has been followed up by a report published by The Gospel Coalition and a book review on 9Marks; both were deeply critical of the Bethel movement and Bill Johnson.
One of the good things that have resulted, is a conversation that took place last Friday in Melbourne. A small group of pastors including Stephen Tan met with organisers of ‘Awakening Australia’.
It was a robust and gracious conversation. Ben Fitzgerald (Bethel missionary and chief organiser of ‘Awakening Australia’) did not refute or disagree with most of the points raised by Stephen Tan in his article, given the serious nature of those points this confirmation is concerning. There was, however, push back on three salient points.
‘Awakening Australia’ and Bethel
First, the representatives from ‘Awakening Australia’ insisted that this is an ecumenical revivalist movement, not a Bethel event. In response, no one has disputed this fact, but the point being made by Tan (and by myself last week), is that ‘Awakening Australia’ is heavily influenced by Bethel.
At the time I wrote,
“While Awakening Australia is more than a Bethel event, the chief organiser is from Bethel, two of the keynote speakers belong to Bethel (Ben Fitzgerald and Bill Johnson), and Bethel is providing much of the music.”
Since writing, Bill Johnson is no longer a keynote speaker but will instead occupy a shorter speaking time slot during the weekend. However, the other points remain. In addition, the ‘Awakening Australia’ Facebook page last week announced that Bethel was planning to send 150-200 members to serve at the Melbourne event and were recently raising money to support for the event. There is nothing wrong doing any of those things, the point is, the Bethel relationship is more than incidental and marginal.
The use of cemeteries
Second, Ben Fitzgerald responded to commentary about ‘grave sucking’, suggesting that he had acted unwisely but that he was not attempting to draw out the spiritual powers of dead saints. Instead, he visited the tombs for inspiration and prayer (to God, not to these dead saints).
Joe Carter (writing for TGC) also notes that Bill Johnson has refuted the allegation, but then he notes a somewhat conflicting statement in Johnson’ book, Physics in Heaven,
“There are anointings, mantles, revelations and mysteries that have lain unclaimed, literally where they were left, because the generation that walked in them never passed them on. I believe it’s possible for us to recover realms of anointing, realms of insight, realms of God that have been untended for decades simply by choosing to reclaim them and perpetuate them for future generations.”
Jesus Culture* founder and director, Banning Liebscher, while not supporting ‘grave sucking’ himself, he has recently admitted that it is practiced among students at their School of Supernatural Ministry,
“I’m not a proponent for it, I’m just saying like there’s an anointing on Elijah or Elisha, there’s an anointing on his grave that made the guy come back to life, and maybe there’s an anointing [here],” says Liebscher, the founder and director of Jesus Culture. “And then it started getting to where like, I don’t know man, I don’t know what students were doing. But it was weird. But that’s the stuff that all of a sudden has blown up all over the place.”
What is and isn’t sanctioned and practiced remains unclear, and perhaps part of the ambiguity is because individuals each have their own spin on ‘grave sucking’, rather than there being an officially sanctioned position.
I won’t deal with other important matters relating to healings, the Passion translation, and what Johnson calls, “Jesus is Perfect Theology”, for Fitzgerald did not take issue with how Stephen Tan presented these Bethel teachings. This alone raises major theological and pastoral concerns for evangelical churches.
The question of Christology
A third point that Ben Fitzgerald questioned was Bill Johnson’s Christology. Does Bill Johnson teach that the incarnate Jesus was somehow less than fully Divine? This is perhaps the most important of all the issues that have been raised, and it is encouraging that a conversation could be had last Friday. Ben Fitzgerald contacted Bill Johnson and asked him for a comment. Johnson has replied via text and permission was given to publish the comment.
First, I wish to show what Bill Johnson has texted in relation to the Divinity of Christ, then to show examples of what he says in his published books, and then to offer a comment.
“Without question Ben I believe that Jesus is 100% God, and Jesus is 100% man. That is the great and beautiful mystery of the gospel. Some people think I believe Jesus isn’t God. It isn’t true. But it probably comes from my emphasis of his humanity. I do that only to encourage the believer – Jesus gave us an example that could be followed. I certainly understand anyone who opposes me if they think I believe Jesus is not God. It would be well-founded. But in this case it isn’t. Jesus is God. He never stopped being God. He is eternally God.
Paul said that Jesus thought the equality was God was not a thing to be grasped. That’s a tough thing to communicate well. And I’m sure that in my efforts to do that I have created misunderstanding. I am sincerely sorry for that, but I also try in every setting where I teach on every subject to emphasise the Divinity of Jesus. So thank you for carrying the banner well. Much love”.
This statement differs substantially from the position he has repeatedly presented in various books and online articles. For example (bold is my emphasis),
“He laid his [sic] divinity aside as He sought to fulfill the assignment given to Him by the Father: to live life as a man without sin…The sacrifice that could atone for sin had to be a lamb, (powerless), and had to be spotless, (without sin).” (When Heaven Invades Earth, p85)
“Jesus Christ said of Himself, ‘The Son can do nothing.’…He had NO supernatural capabilities whatsoever! …He performed miracles, wonders, and signs, as a man in right relationship to God…not as God.” (When Heaven Invades Earth, p29)
“…Jesus had no ability to heal the sick. He couldn’t cast out devils, and He had no ability to raise the dead. He said of Himself in John 5:19, ‘the Son can do nothing of Himself.’ He had set aside His divinity. He did miracles as man in right relationship with God because He was setting forth a model for us…Jesus so emptied Himself that He was incapable of doing what was required of Him by the Father – without the Father’s help…” (The Supernatural Power of a Transformed Mind p.50)
“While Jesus is eternally God, He emptied Himself of His divine powers and became a man (see Phil. 2:7). It’s vital to note that He did all His miracles as a man, not as God”. (Charisma Magazine)
One of the difficulties lays in the fact that Johnson’s teaching is often unclear and even contradictory. For example, Johnson’s text explanation of Jesus’ identity differs significantly to what he has said in his writings. Why is this the case? I trust that his text is an indication of wanting to make further public corrections and clarifications on his Christology. The reality is, Bill Johnson’s and Bethel’s teaching about Jesus Christ has caused so much confusion that it has led people to believe that the incarnate Jesus is less than fully Divine. This has been rightly pointed out as a major problem for Christian orthodoxy.
The issue of Jesus’ humanity and Divinity is of such central importance to Christianity, that Johnson’s erring statements require more than a text message explanation which only a few people will read. Is there any subject more imposing and vital than that of Jesus Christ? Does any topic have greater glory attached and greater consequences than understanding and knowing the Lord Jesus Christ? Accepting Bill Johnson’s acknowledgment that he has “created misunderstanding”, every effort now ought to be made to publicly correct this ambiguous-at-best teaching and to affirm the ancient creeds of the faith. Chalcedon wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
“We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable (rational) soul and body; consubstantial (coessential) with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather of the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God, the Word the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning (have declared) concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.” (The Creed of Chalcedon, 451 AD)
In an interview where Bill Johnson was asked about faith and place of revival, he spoke at length about miracles. He shares, “the most normal thing in the world is for Christians to experience miracles on a regular basis; it’s abnormal not to…it’s the normal Christian life…we need to repent on lowering the standard of the Gospel to our level of experience…Jesus is perfect theology.”
This is so far off the mark that it would be absurd if it were not so destructive. One can pray that this is not the type revivalism that ‘Awakening Australia’ is seeking to bring to these shores
Encouraging Update (July 29 2020): One of the keynote speakers from Awakening Australia, Todd White, has now publicly acknowledged that God has convicted him of preaching an errant gospel and that he is repenting. For the story – https://au.thegospelcoalition.org/article/a-real-miracle-in-prosperity-network/
A new article with update information was published October 25th – https://murraycampbell.net/2018/10/25/concerns-with-awakening-australia-remain/
* ‘Jesus Culture’ is one of Bethel’s ministries, most notably known for their music