Update on Questions relating to Bethel and Bill Johnson

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.

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The Chalcedon Box (via Fred Sanders), summarising the orthodox parameters.

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.”

Really?

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

 

 

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

Critic Of The Gospel Coalition Criticises Them For Critiquing

Mike Frost has once again taken out his rhetorical shotgun and gone shooting. In the spray, there a few pellets which hit the mark, but many fall wide.

Mike is my brother in Christ, we even share a Baptist heritage. We don’t always see eye to eye, but I have never thought of him as a heretic (or even close), which is somewhat ironic given the article that he has posted today.

I had to laugh at his introduction which talks about the last heretic to be executed because that’s exactly what I want to see happening today, church heretics once again being publicly executed for their religious views. But seriously, as with much of Mike’s commentaries, he says some things that are helpful and other things are incorrect.

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picture of bearded dude who called out heresy

 

In his post, Mike is outlining concerns with Christians using the language of heresy, and in particular, he presents The Gospel Coalition as having a habit of and being quick to label others as heretics.

He says,

“I get it that the Gospel Coalition sits firmly in the Calvinist tradition. And I get that they have differences with Anabaptists (like Bruxy Cavey) and Pentecostals (like Bill Johnson) and female seminary professors. They have every right to express those differences. But could we lay off condemning every tradition we disagree with as heretical and refusing to have anything to do with them?!”

Hey, I’m all for robust exchanges. I’m not complaining about vigorous theological disagreement. But a few too many TGC writers seem to be making the assumption it’s their role to pass judgement on heresy or orthodoxy”

Mike leaves readers with the impression that there is a culture of heresy bell ringing within The Gospel Coalition. This is untrue.

The Gospel Coalition Australia (TGCA) publishes around 15-25 articles a month (similar number to that of Canada), while The Gospel Coalition (TGC) publish around 150 new resources every month. It would be accurate to say that some articles are critical of ideas, events, and teachings that have gained some prominence or momentum around the globe. It reasonable to expect notable Christian coalition would sometimes offer comments and even criticisms of significant movements within society and Christianity. These articles only represent a minority of all the material that is ever published on the websites, and even then, only on very rare occasions has it ever been suggested that a teaching is outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity. By rare, I mean perhaps 10 articles on the TGCA website out of many hundreds of articles. The New Testament books call out false teachers more regularly than TGCA!

Let’s take a snapshot of the articles that are currently being shown on TGCA’s homepage:

  • “6 ways to teach children humility”
  • “Pray for China”
  • “Which is Easier”
  • “1 Corinthians 5: Why it is Necessary and Loving Not to Associate or Eat with Certain ‘Christians’”
  • “Resilience = A Spiritual Project”
  • “The Challenge of Feminism (2): God’s Better Solutions”
  • “Use Your Singleness to Prepare for Marriage (Not)”

I noticed that Mike Frost is very selective in the examples he brings forward. He doesn’t mention TGC’s very public stance against racism, which has resulted in significant backlash in some conservative American quarters. He failed to tell his readers of the recent TGC article that refers to racism as ‘demonic’. Mike neglects to mention TGCA’s critique of Churches that have failed to properly support and care for women who are victims of domestic abuse.

If Mike’s point is simply to caution Christians about being too quick to use the language of heresy, then he has a valid and important point to make. Thank you. I agree with him. In fact, I can’t think of a single contributor to TGCA who wouldn’t agree with that point. Mike is going much further, by suggesting that the Gospel Coalition condemns every tradition it disagrees with as heresy. This is simply false.

There are different degrees of agreement and disagreement, and we find such even in the New Testament. Not every issue is a question of orthodoxy, not every disagreement means division, disunity, and breaking fellowship. Sometimes it is a matter of orthodoxy. These nuances are readily and constantly found articles published by Gospel Coalition.

It is also a caricature to paint The Gospel Coalition as a homogenous group without difference. Don Carson has recently written this helpful explanation of the nature of relationships within TGC.

No one is denying that there are many shared theological convictions among those on the TGC and TGCA Councils. Isn’t that a strength? Isn’t that a sign of Gospel unity? We must also note that these very members represent and serve in many different Christian traditions and they in turn fellowship with and serve and do mission with many other Christian traditions. And of course, there have been occasions when TGCA has published two separate articles on the same topic but from different theological persuasions. I don’t remember anyone throwing heresy grenades on this occasions, but I do recall robust and gracious discussion.

Mike is not pushing against rigorous theological discussion. He does, however, say this,

“I don’t see it as my responsibility to condemn anyone as a heretic.”

Critically assessing what we believe, teach, and practice is a biblical thing to do. Mike wouldn’t disagree with that.

Loving one’s congregation and other Christians such that we alert them to ideas and practices that are unhelpful or even dangerous, is a biblically mandated thing to do.

“Let them merely exist, but have nothing to do with them. Is this any way to speak of our brothers and sisters with whom we disagree?”

Doesn’t this depend on the issue? For many matters, this would be a gross way to speak to brothers and sisters in Christ, but on occasions, as Paul himself says several times in the NT, this is precisely what a church should do.

When Mike refers to my recent use of Acts ch.20 as some ‘wow’ moment, the fact is, the Apostle Paul did speak those words to the Ephesians Elders, and I reckon Church leaders ought to take them seriously. It loving and biblical for pastors and elders to watch over their congregations and to guard them against ideas that are wrong and harmful. In another gush of over-the-top embroidery, Mike insinuates that TGC must be denying peoples intelligence and minds. He says, “We’re not in the 11th century. Our congregations don’t comprise illiterate farmers and blacksmiths. Our church members are capable of critical thinking and basic research.”

Of course, we’re not living in 1066. And just as in the 11th Century, the Holy Spirit is given to every believer today, but this does not undermine or reduce other instructions in Scripture about how God gives gifts to some believers to teach and to have responsibility for congregations.

Mike has a habit of using of hyperbole, and in doing so he sometimes misrepresents the people he is criticising. This has been pointed out to him in the past. In this most recent article, Mike is quick to paint Stephen Tan with a furious and negative brushstroke. He describes Stephen as an “inquisitor” and acting as “a theological gatekeeper”. The very choice of words is designed to remind us of those terrible days in history, that no one wants to see returned. Let’s get the facts straight. Stephen attended a Bethel connected Church for several years and has first-hand experience and knowledge of Bethel teaching. He is not a distant gatekeeper or armed spiritual warrior descending on helpless victims. Stephen knows what he’s talking about. He has seen and experienced the damage caused by Bethel teaching. Of course, Mike could have mentioned this, given that he also quotes a post of mine where I explicitly point out this important fact.

Can Christians (on any platform) ever make mistakes and misunderstand and mispresent others? Of course, none of us are immune to this, including TGCA. Where we are wrong, we need to correct and to apologise. It is true, Stephen did make a couple of mistakes in his original post, and he was quick to fix these as soon as they were pointed out; these did not alter the overall concerns he was expressing.  Mike says that ‘Awakening Australia’ have responded to Tan’s article. Perhaps he could provide readers with a reference, for the only remark I have seen thus far is from the organiser, Ben Fitzgerald, who has referred to criticisms of Bethel as “smaller issues” and “tiny things”. There has been no explanation of what they do believe and no refutation of the criticisms in Tan’s article.

It is only a minor point but Stephen Tan is not a TGCA member. He is an Aussie Pastor who has twice submitted articles for the website, for which we are appreciative.

Perhaps the strangest thing in Mike’s article was this remark,

“Interestingly, in response to a critical blog post I wrote recently about Franklin Graham, someone from a TGC-like tradition asked me, “So if Franklin Graham tried to attend your church would you bar him?”

What does Franklin Graham have to do with any of this? Why refer to a nameless “someone from a TGC-like tradition”, in an article aimed at criticising TGC?  If Mike really wants to drag American politics into this discussion, shouldn’t he tell his readers of the two Gospel Coalition writers whom he knows have publicly agreed with his concerns about Franklin Graham’s upcoming visit to Australia?

One gets the impression that Mike is setting up a false dichotomy, and for what purpose? Surely he isn’t implying that like Franklin Graham, TGC is somehow ardently supportive of Donald Trump, over and against the ‘righteous’ left? Really?

It is healthy for us to take the kernel of truth in what Mike has presented here. Yes, let’s be very careful in how we use the language of orthodoxy and heresy.  Sometimes though, people do present and encourage beliefs that are outside of Christian orthodoxy, and it is wise and loving to warn our brothers and sisters about it. It is unfortunate that in offering a caution, Mike needed to caricature people and organisations.

Did Jesus empty himself of his Divine Powers?

“Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.” (John 14:11)

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

 

No one likes to be misrepresented; it hurts and offends. We don’t appreciate it when people attribute to us characteristics, words or actions that are false. If faithful representation matters to us, how much more important it is when we are speaking about God.

“The study is arduous, for we are dealing with matters too great for us, which we must bow in worship, recognising, our utter inadequacy.” (Calvin)

Bethel Church, Redding, and their Senior Pastor, Bill Johnson, have received significant attention in recent days, with two important articles being published: one by Stephen Tan (who formerly attended a Bethel connected Church) and the other by Joe Carter. Their commentary includes serious charges, and I trust that the leadership of Bethel and ‘Awakening Australia’ will soon offer a considered response. Among the more weighty concerns is Johnson’s view of Jesus’ Divinity.

Throughout the history of the Church, there have been many attempts to explain the Divinity of Christ and the humanity of Christ. Many different formulations have strayed from the Biblical testimony, either undermining the humanity or the Divinity of Christ or fusing the two natures together in compositions that once again err. These errors are sometimes referred to as heresy, for they misrepresent the person who is Jesus Christ, which unavoidably impacts our understanding of God, and which leads to confusing and even denying a corollary of important Christian doctrines.

One of the more modern Christological heresies is known as the kenosis heresy, which speaks of an emptying, and it argues that the incarnate Christ gave up or lessened his Divinity during his earthly ministry. There are variations within this view, from Jesus ceasing to be God while on earth to Jesus laying aside certain Divine attributes, in particular, the omnis (ie. omnipotence, omniscience).  To put it simply, was the Lord Jesus on earth, in any way, less than fully God? It is this issue that is being asked of Bill Johnson and Bethel Church.

The question is being asked (and has been raised for some years now) because Bill Johnson has made several comments in which he appears to deny the Divinity of Christ on earth.

 

For example, writing for Charisma Magazine Bill Johnson explains,

“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. 

If He did them as God, I would still be impressed. But because He did them as a man yielded to God, I am now unsatisfied with my life, being compelled to follow the example He has given us. Jesus is the only model for us to follow.”

According to Bill Johnson (Tan cites other references where Johnson makes a similar point), we should expect to see and even do miracles because Jesus did so and he performed his miracles not as God, but as a man. Apparently, if Jesus had performed miracles as God, we shouldn’t expect miracles by Christians today. This is problematic for at least two reasons. In the first place, while Jesus’ miracles were loving acts of compassion and mercy, they were designed to point to his Divinity. Second, Johnson has misinterpreted Phil 2:7 in a very significant way.

To begin with, Bill Johnson cites Philippians 2:7 as evidence of Jesus giving up his “divine powers”. Does this verse teach what Johnson is claiming? Let’s take a look,

In Philippians ch.2 the Apostle Paul writes,

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!”

A number of important points need to made here:

  • Verse 7, ‘he made himself nothing’, can also read, ‘he emptied himself’ (kenosis). This family of words appears rarely in the New Testament, and when it does, it is most often used metaphorically rather than literally.
  • Far from Jesus losing his Divinity or giving up Divine attributes, in verse 6 Paul indicates that Jesus’ Divinity continues (he uses the present participle, ’being in very nature God’).
  • In verse 7, the emptying is given particular expression: taking the form of a slave and being found in human form. In other words, as Robert Letham explains, “He empties himself by addition, not subtraction, by adding his human nature with all that that entails, not by abandoning his deity.”[1]

Mike Bird concurs, “The emptying occurred not by what he left behind but through what he took on, humanity – humanity in humiliation no less.” [2][3]

This is precisely what we find when reading the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry. Jesus repeatedly identifies himself as God and his actions reveal that he is God.

Firstly, the incarnate Christ identified himself as God, not as somehow less than God or partially God, but God. He didn’t deny his humanity nor his Divinity but expressly affirmed both.

“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 5:58).

Following this statement, Jesus’ opponents pick up stones with the intent of killing him? Why? Because they understood that Jesus was claiming to be God.

“I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Once again, people understood Jesus’ meaning and attempted to kill the alleged blasphemer.

Following the resurrection, Thomas exclaimed, “my Lord and my God” (John 20:28)

The phrase used by Jesus in John 5:58, “I am” (γώ εμί), is spoken by Jesus many times during his earthly ministry. It is a peculiar phrase that harkens back to Exodus ch.3 where God appeared by Moses and revealed his name, “I am”.  Jesus would repeatedly identify himself as the God who appeared to Moses at the burning bush: “I am the true vine”,  “I am the Good Shepherd”, “I am the bread of life”, and so on.

Not only does Jesus identify himself as God, his deeds also point to this reality.

While many miracles that are recorded in the Bible serve to point people to God, the miracles of Jesus point to the fact that he is God. Jesus’ miracles were acts of compassion and kindness, and they were also identity markers, explaining and revealing both that he is the Christ and is God.

Take, for example, the calming of the storm in Mark ch.4. The question is posed by the disciples, who is this? By a word, Jesus stilled the storm, which for a Jewish reader, would remind them of Genesis 1 and also Psalm 107.

“28 Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
and he brought them out of their distress.

29 He stilled the storm to a whisper;
the waves of the sea were hushed.

30 They were glad when it grew calm,
and he guided them to their desired have” (Psalm 107:28-30)

When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, Jesus comforted Martha with words that not only affirmed the promised resurrection but  Jesus signally that he is the great I AM, he is God who raises the dead. As a demonstration of the validity of these words, Jesus moves to the tomb’s entrance, he speaks a word and Lazarus came out of the tomb: living, breathing, walking, no longer dead.

Somewhat ironically, but importantly, far from Johnson’s suggestion that Jesus’ miracles point to him not being Divine, Jesus’ miracles are signs pointing to the fact that he is God.

The testimony of the Gospels don’t support Johnson’s interpretation of Philippians 2:7, and even Philippians ch.2 doesn’t support his thesis.

In no sense should we undermine either the humanity of Christ or the Divinity of Christ. At the incarnation, the eternal Son of God also became man. On earth and at his resurrection and now in heaven, Jesus remains fully man and fully God.

It remains unclear what Bill Johnson and Bethel Church really believe about the Divinity of the incarnate Christ, although what I’ve so far read is concerning. One thing is clear, Bill Johnson’s teaching has been interpreted by some of his followers as advocating the kenosis heresy, and some of Bethel’s critics have also understood Johnson’s words to mean such. Therefore, at the very least, Johnson is communicating unclear and unhelpful words about Jesus and he is using them to build an unbiblical case for miracles today.

It seems as though the crux of the issue for Bill Johnson is that he wants to claim miracles for today and to guarantee the performance of signs and wonder by Christians today. It’s as though Johnson starts with a premise, namely that Christians can and ought to perform miracles today, and in trying to prove his point, he then goes back to the Bible and reconstructs Jesus’ identify in order to fit with his argument. Now, of course, one does not need to do any of this in order to believe that God can perform miracles today. But Johnson wants to push further and to insist that signs and wonder are necessary for authentic Christian experience.

I don’t know Bill Johnson or those organising ‘Awakening Australia’, but I do know people who have been confused by and damaged by the teachings and expectations of Bethel.

As a growing number of stories come to light from past Bethel members, and as more concerns are raised, I trust that Bill Johnson and Bethel’s leadership will take the time to respond and to bring clarity where there is murkiness. The spiritual wellbeing and eternal state of people is too important and the glory of God in Christ Jesus is of such weight that these matters require clarification.

 

 

 

 

 


1. Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity, p41.

2. Michael Bird, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction

3. Other theologians have suggested that by ‘emptying’, Jesus was limiting or holding back from revealing his full glory. Where the transfiguration was a moment’s unveiling of God’s glory,  This is a possible interpretation, but it is a far cry from how Johnson has interpreted the verse.

Pray for China

The Chinese Government has recently reasserted Sinicization, the project aimed at conforming Christianity into the likeness of Communist China.

Over the past 70 years China has born witness to one of the greatest movements the world has ever seen. At the close of the Second World War and with the rise of Communism, Western missionaries were removed from China and many left wondering what would happen to the fledgling Churches left behind in that extraordinary land.

Communism has little time for religion, as has been demonstrated in 100 years of socialist run States. Belief in God is deemed to be a threat to social harmony and to those who have power over the people.

As the bamboo curtain descended in the 1950s, God did not turn away from the Chinese people, but behind the scenes, he began an amazing work which has led to so many people becoming Christian, no one can count the number. Estimates range between 40 and 80 million followers of Jesus Christ in China today, possibly more Christians than in any other nation on earth.

It is somewhat ironic that the most ‘Christian’ nation is one with a communist Government with a capitalist facade!

 

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unsplash.com

Over the past 20 years, China has gradually opened its doors to the world outside, and in some Provinces, religious toleration is greater than in others. As the bamboo curtain rose a little, Anglo-European Christians discovered that God does not need Western Christianity in order to grow the Gospel elsewhere. The Holy Spirit does not travel through western missionaries into indigenous groups but rather, the Spirit is God’s gift given directly to all who come to faith in the risen Christ. This is not to denigrate centuries of European witness to the Gospel, for we should be thankful for the fact that men and women traveled to China, and many died in order to give the Gospel to that great land. Today there are still many non-Chinese men and women who are serving in a variety of ways inside China, to love the people and show people the reality and good news of Jesus.

Once again, Chinese Christians are facing persecution. The Government is clamping down on Christianity with new intent and severity. According to a report in the ABC, the crackdown includes:

  • removing Bibles from online stores
  • removing Christian objects from buildings
  • closing hundreds of churches
  • and forcing Christian icons to include or be accompanied by images of Mao Zedong.

The last of these measures reminds me of Daniel ch.3 where King Nebuchadnezzar exercised religious toleration by requiring all of his subjects to submit to a statue in his image. Who doesn’t like to think of the cross with an image of Mao Zedong standing over it!

One Pastor explained what has happened to his church,

“And then they [the authorities] came into the church saying that things inside should be removed.

“For example, the banner saying: ‘For God, so love the world’ and the scriptures were torn down, and all things related to the Bible and faith had to be cleared out.”

All this would be bad enough, but news this week is highlighting collusion with the Chinese Government by the Vatican.

While President Xi Jinping is beginning to sound like King Nebuchadnezzar, Pope Francis is appearing as one of his astrologers who betrays Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.

Writing for the New York Times, Ian Johnson has suggested that recent negotiations between the Chinese Government and the Vatican are designed to further stamp out underground Churches. In other words, to reduce even further any little autonomy and freedom Christian Churches might have had in China.

“Beijing’s goal in the agreement, however, appears to be the same as with the church demolitions: greater control over the rapid spread of Christianity, which gained a permanent presence in China in the 16th century.”

The deal will allow the Vatican to have greater say in appointing future Bishops in China (but not full control), and this was contingent upon Pope Francis formally recognising seven Catholics Bishops who have already been appointed by the Chinese Government.

According to Johnson,

“The ruling Communist Party sees the compromise with the Vatican as a step toward eliminating the underground churches where Chinese Catholics who refuse to recognize the party’s authority have worshiped for generations. With the pope now recognizing all bishops and clergy members in the official Catholic churches approved and controlled by the party, the underground church may have no reason to exist.

The move is part of a broader push by the government to clamp down on all aspects of society since Xi Jinping took power as the party’s leader in 2012.”

The founder of ChinAid, a Christian human rights organisation, Bob Fu, has responded to the deal,

“While we understand the eagerness of Vatican for seeking more legitimacy in the eye of the Chinese Communist Party, this reported deal is nothing but a betrayal of both the millions of suffering persecuted Christians in China and the global Catholic Church.” 

In other words, Pope Francis has struck another deal with the devil, one which will essentially hand over millions of Chinese Christians (especially Protestant Churches) into the unforgiving hands of the Government. According to all accounts, the Chinese Government is using the Vatican as a tool to increase pressure on underground Churches, to either close or to formally register and come under their authority and control.

It is fair to say that many Christians in Australia are concerned with where things are heading in our own country. There are signs suggesting that new forms of authoritarian secularism are gaining momentum, and the project to limit religious freedom and to control public Christianity has certainly gained ground in recent times. These moves need to be called out and pushed back for the sake of all Australians who believe in social pluralism and freedom of conscience, speech, and association. Do we really want to live in a country where the government or where self-appointed militia get to choose how Christian Christians can be or to police how Jewish Jews can be or how Hindu Hindus can be? 

Perhaps we should have one eye looking toward China, and ask ourselves, is that the kind of religious freedom we want to have here? We are a long way from the politico-religious scene of our northern neighbour, and yet it is not irrational to suggest that should some Australian political parties and notable social commentators have their way, we would be aiming toward an Australian Sinicization, conforming Christianity into the likeness of Australian humanistic secularism.

With a wonderful sense of Divine irony, the future of Christianity in Australia, at least in part, lays with Chinese believers. As many Aussies of European descent turn their backs on God, preferring to worship plastic images of the self, large numbers of Chinese men and women, and of many from other ethnic descent, are becoming followers of Jesus Christ in Australia. It is exciting and encouraging. It’s as though the stupid identity politics and intersectionality ethics created by white middle-class university students, is being blown up before their very eyes.

The reason for writing this post is to raise further awareness of what is unfolding in China and to encourage Christians to pray.

When Paul shared his troubles with the Church in Corinth,  he mentioned the efficacy of the prayers offered for him by the Corinthians,

“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. 10 He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, 11 as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.” (1 Corinthians 1:8-11)

Sometimes when we see terrible things in other parts of the world; we are saddened, concerned, but we feel helpless not knowing what to do.  As Christians, there is always one thing we can do, no matter where we are are in the world,  and that is pray.

Prayer is not wasted breath to a nonexistent God, as our atheist friends might suggest. We pray to God our Father, who remains Sovereign over all nations even today, and who loves his people dearly, and who is committed to seeing his Gospel grow both here in Australia and in China.

A season for pruning churches in Australia

Does God sometimes allow unbelievers to do the work Churches should be doing themselves?

God used Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians as a weapon of judgement against Judah, and God used Cyrus as an instrument to bring God’s people back to the land and to see the Temple rebuilt.

While we cannot say with certainty that any specific person or organisation has been handed the pruning shears by God (for the simple reason, God hasn’t told us), we do know from the Scriptures that God is concerned with cutting off dead branches, pruning lives branches, and bearing fruit in the lives of his disciples.

In John ch.15 Jesus uses one of his many analogies to describe his relationship with his people, namely that of the vine and branches.

Jesus says,

 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

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There is no doubt that churches have been entangled in many scandals over recent years. Clergy have been guilty of committing terrible abuses on children, while other ecclesial authorities have at times covered over these crimes. Popular preachers have been called out for marital unfaithfulness, embezzling money, acting like mini-dictators, and saying some really dumb and unwise things relating to an array of social and political issues.

Australia has a band of public figures and journalists who are always quick to castigate, shame, and then to investigate, all manner of evils perpetrated by Christians (and by people of various kinds of religious perspectives). This is no bad thing, for why should Christians be given a jail free pass, simply because they allege a diplomatic Jesus card?

At the same time, Churches and Christians are being increasingly condemned for believing and practising things that are in line with their Scriptures. Whereas abusing children is abhorrent and aberrant to the Christian faith, believing in heterosexual only marriage is consistent with biblical and historical Christianity, and yet many do not care for such moral distinctions.

Broader Australian culture has lost its cognitive awareness, rarely knowing what is and isn’t Christianity (and this blurring will only increase as Governments further squeeze out Christian education and religious freedoms); let’s return to the good old days of Pliny the Younger, who assumed the Lord’s Supper consisted of Christians eating the flesh and drinking the blood of fellow human beings! Weeds, plants, trees, and grass, all look the same, and the temptation to mow it all down is too great for some. This unfortunate and unsurprising trend toward religious ignorance is one reason why our society struggles to differentiate between the real sins in Churches and Churches who are properly exercising their faith.

Another problem is that in the world of today’s social media madness, the noise is at a crescendo, with people shouting and screaming at everything they don’t like, forgetting that not everything that they disagree with is necessarily wrong or harmful or evil. Religious and irreligious people are both guilty of the unsociable new norm, and it’s a worrying trend because when the volume reaches triple forte, it becomes near impossible to any worthwhile and important discourse.

Juxtaposed to these Metallica like screams is a deafly quiet that we find in some religious quarters. Rare moments of stillness can be of some value, but we should not confuse the appearance of saint-like silent meditation with spiritual authenticity; sometimes it’s nothing more than a magician’s trick to hide cowardice or complicity.

You see, at one level we can’t blame the culture, because it defines good and bad by its own standards, even if those moral lines keep moving around like a cat chasing a laser light. We are not expecting secular Australia to define moral goodness according to the Christian faith, because we understand, even as Jesus taught, that the two are not synonymous.

It’s not as though God’s righteousness is only true for the Church and is irrelevant to the outside world, for there is nothing in creation that escapes God’s good design and intent. The entire cosmos, including Governments, is subject to the rule of God, and yet they are in a state of rebellion, whereas the Church is meant to be a redeemed people, a city on the hill revealing the glory of Christ.

The greater responsibility lays with Churches and religious organisations, who have too often neglected the faith once for all delivered, and have instead adopted the moral and epistemological posture of the prevailing culture.

One of the persistent problems we have in Australia is with many Christian leaders failing in their responsibility. They have failed to stand for orthodox teaching. Instead of refuting bad and dangerous doctrines, these ideas are promoted and taught, or they give a silent endorsement. After all, can anyone really say that they know what the Bible says? Surely, only a puffed-up bigoted Pharisee would ever suggest that Biblical truth is clear and mandated? While far too many theologians and pastors have hired smoke machines to create ambiguity over pretty much every Christian doctrine, others have failed to act against bullies and abusers, perhaps through incompetence, more often, through neglect or not being willing to pay the cost.

The question is if Churches are unclear about discipleship and if Church leaders are failing to fulfill their ordained responsibilities, perhaps God will employ another to do that all-important work of pruning?

I understand why some Aussies look at our backyard, and conclude, religious and especially Christianity is waning. The culture has shifted, and every leaf and twig not conforming to the new pattern will be picked off for mulch. But that is to misunderstand what is happening. When a tree is pruned, it looks so bare and feeble that some might mistake it for being dead. That was certainly the reported diagnosis in the wake of last year’s national census, and with regular reminders about church closures and dipping church attendances. Is the Church dying? Is Christianity on the way out? Or is God in the process of cutting off dead branches and pruning those that bear fruit?

While many Australian Christians are concerned with happenings both inside Churches and in our surrounding communities, it would be wrong to respond with despair or hopelessness. It is a work of grace that God so loves his church that he attends to it: watering, feeding, and yes even pruning her. The vine is Jesus, and the branches are those who have been united with him. Remaining in Jesus is the only way to be fruitful, and remaining in Him is to remain in his word, namely to keep trusting and obeying his words. 

Surely we can be thankful as dead Christendom is removed from the scene, and while the culture isn’t savvy enough to discern between real and fake Christianity, the season can also be used of God to refine and prepare. In other words, pruning may hurt, but it’s good, and it’s the necessary prelude to a bumper crop. 

 

‘Awakening Australia’ won’t wake the dead

“fair is foul and foul is fair” (MacBeth Act 1, Scene 1)

 

If you didn’t think grave soaking was a thing, think again!

Ben Fitzgerald, a former Pastor at Bethel Church in Redding, California, and one of the organisers of Awakening Australia has a thing for visiting cemeteries and attempting to ‘suck up’ the spiritual powers of dead Christians. I kid you not!

 

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This is only one of many crazy and unbiblical practices that are encouraged and taught by Bethel teachers around the world.

The reason why this is of interest to us in Australia is partly because Bethel music is hugely influential in many churches today, and because of the ‘Awakening Australia’ movement which is being sponsored by and promotes Bethel. Awakening Australia, an upcoming revivalist event in Melbourne (November 2018).

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.

Awakening Australia website explains their aims,

“Our vision is to raise up a nationwide prayer mandate for the salvation of our families, friends and our country.

Right now our country is at a critical point in history, so now more than ever we must lift up prayer that grips us for our loved ones who do not yet know God.

God clearly gave us the number of 100,000 Australians coming to Him in 2018. If we all take our place in this mandate this is very possible.”

This all sounds exciting and amazing until one scratches the surface and reads that the Jesus believed and preached by Bethel is not the same as the Jesus revealed in the Bible and the Christianity that is promoted also differs to the Gospel that is outlined in the Scriptures. I am not saying that everyone involved or who is planning to attend aligns with Bethel theologically, for no doubt there are many genuine followers of Christ who will be there. But surely, because of such influence, it’s important to make people aware of concerns regarding Bethel’s influence and involvement.

Stephen Tan has published an insightful and important article on the Bethel Movement and its connection with Awakening Australia.  At What Price Awakening? Examining the Theology and Practice of the Bethel Movement has already been read widely by 10,000s of people all over the world, especially in Australia and the USA.

As with any article, there are people who agree and there are people who disagree. Some of the criticisms suggest that Stephen Tan (and the Gospel Coalition) are just mounting an attack on a legitimate Christian group, simply because they are different to TGCA. People should know though that Stephen has not written an anti-Charismatic or anti-Pentecostal article; he’s not a cessationist! Stephen Tan is not writing from the perspective of an outsider, but as someone who once attended a Bethel connected church in Melbourne, and who has first-hand experience of Bethel teaching and practices. Also this, he has carefully and fairly laid out the theology and praxis of Bill Johnson and Bethel, citing many examples which anyone can source and investigate for themselves. It is also interesting to see many people coming forward as a result of this article and sharing their own experiences from being part of the Bethel movement.

It’s important for me to be upfront, I know Stephen personally. He was an intern at Mentone Baptist for two years, and 18 months ago he planted a church with a team from Mentone. He is a man of integrity and with a deep love for Jesus and for people. Before his article was published on the Gospel Coalition Australia website, I had an opportunity to read the article. Having read the draft, I know there is much more that can be said of the Bethel movement but we wanted to keep the article short enough so that people would read it.

Another criticism being leveled against Stephen is that he’s been uncharitable toward Bethel, pointing out negatives and not the positives. Regardless of how many niceties and positives one might say, none of them can cover up and denude the very serious theological concerns that have been raised.

I have also noted that some critics have confused disagreement on secondary matters, with disagreeing over primary core doctrines. Bill Johnson holds that the incarnate Christ is less than fully Divine. He preaches the necessity of miracles and healing attached to the Gospel. let the reader understand, we are not talking about insignificant matters, but ones that question the power and definition of the Gospel and the identity of the Lord Jesus Christ.

It is not uncharitable of a Christian leader to inform others of a popular movement that is gaining acceptance in the broader church. The New Testament outlines how Christian leaders have a responsibility to alert fellow believers to dangerous ideas and doctrines. Correcting and exposing a movement like Bethel is important because the glory of God matters, the purity of the Gospel matters, and the health and life of people matters. The Apostle Paul exhorted the Elders of Ephesus,

“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.  I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.  Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!” (Acts 20:28-31)

Over the past week, the Australian news has been dominated by the story of strawberries. There have numerous incidents of people biting into strawberries, only to be stabbed by pins and needles that have been hidden by some yet unknown persons. Beautiful, sweet and tasty strawberries have been contaminated, and so it’s vital that the public is made aware. When the good news of Jesus Christ has been contaminated, it is incumbent upon pastors to warn people and to explain what is wrong, and to point people to fruit that is safe and good.

We pray for revival, longing to see many Australians coming to Christ, but no one has ever been saved by a false Gospel, no church has ever grown closer to God through a spirituality that has more in common with MacBeth’s three witches than the God of the Bible.

I agree with Stephen’s concerns with the gathering that is taking place in Melbourne later this year. I would encourage people not to attend, for the sake of their own spiritual health and for the good of their friends. I would urge churches to reconsider their participation and for pastors alert their congregations.

“I am concerned that the upcoming “Awakening Australia” event also fits the description and has the potential to cause much confusion and spiritual damage to thousands of unsuspecting Australians. To those who are supporting this event in the name of revival, may I ask this question: “At what price, awakening?” Is it worth pursuing awakening if it means that the gospel is compromised and that false teaching is promoted? I am reminded of the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:6If anyone causes one of these little ones–those who believe in me–to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

 


UPDATE September 27th

Following a story published in Eternity, Ben Fitzgerald offered this comment on Eternity’s Facebook page,

“you guys did a great job in this article- we are very thankful for your editorial gifts. As one the organizers I’d like to add something to this. A fair amount (not all) of the focus of this article is about Bill Johnson and some concerns / comments from one other pastor about him and Bethel. But to clarify a few things, Bill only speaks one time in the whole event- literally 1 hour from all 3 days, and right now most churches in Australia (maybe even those who don’t like Bethel) are probably singing a Bethel worship song every Sunday in their church. I don’t think it’s right people get so concerned over one of 8+ speakers..and focus on the fact that he said to “pray for trump”- by the way he never told anyone to go vote for him. The Bible tells us to pray for leaders so that’s scriptural. People can get so caught up on smaller issues and think of the many reasons to divide “yet again”- but the fact is Australia is in desperate need of the love of God and we certainly aren’t going to show them that as long as we are focusing on small division. The goal of this event is someones unsaved brother meeting Jesus. The goal is us bringing the real gospel to hurting people…we don’t have time to lose as our nation has clearly shown a radical decline in those who believe God these last 10 years. Already since we began this campaign over 1 year ago we have seen close to 1000 Aussies meet Jesus, and I hear similar reports from churches all across the nation- that something is changing. We work as an “All church” event…many Baptists leaders, free church leaders, Anglican, Pentecostal…the list goes on will be at the event and as of now we’ll over 200+ churches are already supporting this and its growing daily. Aussies churches are coming together not just for this event, but doing many other things like it because they sense an urgency to act and to show Australians and Undivided church. Last time I checked unity wasn’t an option in the Bible, but rather a command. I encourage people to lay down their tiny things, gather around Jesus, gather around the fact that our country needs God and if we do it together we are stronger. Bless you guys”

 

To which I have responded,

“A number of things can be said in response to this:

  1. Bethel’s involvement is greater than you have suggested here. Not only is Bill Johnson a key note speaker, but so are you and as you state, you’re an organiser of the event (and formally a Bethel pastor). The Bethel music band are performing. As the Awakening Australia facebook page has shared, you recently visited Bethel Church to give a report about the event, where Bethel members contributed financially to Awakening Australia and who are sending hundred of members to be present at the event. It may not be an official Bethel event, but it is certainly heavily influenced by and supported by Bethel.
  2. The criticisms of Bethel that were published last week are significant and substantial. While you may describe the differences “smaller issues” and “tiny things”, many of us think that the fully Divinity of Jesus Christ is a big deal. The fact that you are dismissing these criticisms as ‘tiny things’ only adds weight to the concerns of a growing number of Aussie Christians.”

 

 


For the latest update, which includes and explores a statement from Bill Johnson and which unpacks why Awakening advertising excludes most Aussie Churches,  read here.  https://murraycampbell.net/2018/10/25/concerns-with-awakening-australia-remain/

The Sound of Papal Silence

 There is “a time to be silent and a time to speak”.

Pope Francis has been mastering the technique of silence in recent weeks, although I suspect there has been little quiet behind Vatican walls. Last month, former Vatican envoy to Washington, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò,  published an 11-page document, outlining allegations of cover-up by Vatican officials in relation to hundreds of cases of abuse in Pennsylvania. Included in the list of those who had knowledge of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s appalling history of sexual abuse, is the current Pope.

Pope Francis’ initial response to the allegations was to say, 

“I will not say one word on this. I think the statement speaks for itself and you have sufficient journalistic capacity to reach your own conclusions.”

Then eight days ago, he added,

“With people who do not have good will, with people who seek only scandal, who seek only division, who seek only destruction, even within families,” the answer is “silence. And prayer.”

“May the Lord give us the grace to discern when we must speak and when we must be silent. And [to do] in all of life: in work, at home, in society…” to become more closely imitators of Jesus Christ

As it says in the day’s Gospel, the people “rose up, drove [Jesus] out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill… to hurl him down headlong. But he passed through the midst of them and went away.”

Those who drove Jesus out of the city were not people, but “a pack of wild dogs,” …They shouted instead of using reason, and in the face of this, Jesus’ response was to remain silent.”

I certainly hope Pope Francis wasn’t inferring that he is behaving like Jesus and that those asking for clarification of the allegations are not like ‘a pack of wild dogs.’

Yesterday (September 11), Pope Francis once again broke his silence, by preaching a sermon in which he accused Satan of undermining Rome’s Bishops. He said,

“In these times, it seems like the ‘Great Accuser’ has been unchained and is attacking bishops. True, we are all sinners, we bishops. He tries to uncover the sins, so they are visible in order to scandalize the people. The ‘Great Accuser’, as he himself says to God in the first chapter of the Book of Job, ‘roams the earth looking for someone to accuse’. A bishop’s strength against the ‘Great Accuser’ is prayer, that of Jesus and his own, and the humility of being chosen and remaining close to the people of God, without seeking an aristocratic life that removes this unction. Let us pray, today, for our bishops: for me, for those who are here, and for all the bishops throughout the world.”

I’m presuming Pope Francis hasn’t read my particular recent criticisms, but in case he has and this is what he reckons,  I think he and I need to have a chat. Far more likely, this is a veiled attack on Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò and others who are bringing to light details of a very sordid history. Notice there is no sense of what Jesus asks his followers, “Blessed are the poor in the spirit…Blessed are those who mourn.” There is, however, a game of blame the Devil for the bishopric scandal!   Don’t get me wrong, I believe in a real Satan, one who is an architect of evil, but surely the evil is of men pretending to be of God and penetrating shocking acts against children. Surely, the work of the Devil is to obfuscate the beauty and goodness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ by introducing ideas that are septic.

So why the Papal silence?

There are 3 reasons why one would choose silence in the face of serious allegations, such as those being leveled by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò.

First, there is weight to the allegations, and so one is working out the best strategy before speaking up. There is something to be said about this. Not every word needs to be spoken along the high-speed highway that is Twitter. It is okay to slow down a little and to offer considered responses rather than instant tweets. I think it is appropriate given the gravity of the allegation, that a thoughtful response is offered. It has however been several weeks now and the Pope has been speaking, but just not answering.

A second reason for choosing silence is because you consider your interlocutors or accusers as fools. As Jesus said, why cast pearls before swine?

A third reason for keeping quiet is because it’s an effective rhetorical tool. I will bore people to the point of giving up, and they’ll soon enough be swept up in a controversy somewhere else.

One of the suggestions being made is that there is a civil war breaking out in the Vatican. Perhaps this is true, but of course, that does not mean the allegations are any less true (or untrue as may be the fact).  I’m not interested in internal bickering inside the Vatican unless of course, it involves calls to return to the Gospel of the Lord Jesus, in which case we praise God for such a movement.

I also remain amazed at how the mainstream media have played down this story, given that it is potentially the biggest religious stories of this Century thus far.

Since the story broke in August, much of the media have either sided with Pope Francis, arguing that this is nothing more than internal fighting with conservatives trying to push back on the enlightened progressives inside the Vatican, or they have kept quiet. It’s as though the Pope said, “shh,” and the media answered, “ok.”

Since becoming the Pope, Francis has bedazzled onlookers, with his vintage styled uniforms with glittering gems, and his seemingly progressive views on social issues.

The behavior is most unusual, given that journalists are usually trigger happy when it comes to reporting the sins of Christians. Even when there is a sniff of an allegation or rumours of another religious nut saying espousing an outrageous message, we can sure that there are journalists at hand, with shovel ready to dig it up. If you think I’m exaggerating, as a veiled attempt to mock Scott Morrison’s Christian faith, last week The Guardian uncovered a Pentecostal preacher whom no one has ever heard from a church that no one has ever heard of,  and they reported his scandalous message ‘from God’ about our new Prime Minister. Yes, the preacher was saying dumb things that were not from God, but was it really worthy of public attention? Catholic clergy who have been accused of abusing children or of covering up abuse, have been rightly highlighted in our news. And yet, when the head of the Roman Church and other most senior Catholic clergy are named as co-conspirators to protect child abusing priests, the cone of silence descends not only on the Vatican but also on the media.

One of the accusations leveled at religious organisations is their lack of transparency and their long attempts to cover up abuse. Peoples’ anger at religious institutions is understandable and largely justifiable. It is beyond outrageous that ecclesial authorities should hide evil men who have destroyed the lives of thousands of children in their care. It is an automatic pass to hell.

If I had friends who were victims in Pennsylvania, for their sake I’d be wanting answers. If my children had ever been placed in such a vulnerable position, I would be in Rome right now with placards and a megaphone and a list of verbalisms to compete with any that Martin Luther ever preached.

This is time for reform inside the Roman Catholic Church. They ignored the opportunity when it came around 500 years ago, but they cannot afford to ignore it now. Bad theology leads to justifying bad living, and a trail of broken people in the wake.

 

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In the growing strange web of paradoxical ‘silence’, Rome refuses to break the seal of the confessional, but the Pope is still breaking God’s rules about praying, as he sends out more tweet prayers to Mary and to other saints.

I say all this, being aware of the plank in my own eyes, and the wood-paneled rooms of my own denomination. This is not about, ‘let him who has no sin throw the first stone’. Our broader society often misinterprets Christianity and Churches, and claims wrongdoing when there is none, but on this issue, people are right to be horrified. The harshest words Jesus ever spoke, were not toward those who admitted ignorance about God, but those who claimed to know and represent God, but by their actions denied him.

There is no glory or good to be found in the silence or in feeble half measures. If Jesus is Lord, then we must obey his call for repentance. Repentance repudiates cover-ups and superficial penances or forced retirements; repentance begins with confession and true contrition.

We wait to hear the silence end.