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.

AFL Passion

Only once have I missed the AFL Grand Final, and that was in 1999.  We were living in London at the time, but even then, I woke up at 4 in the morning to read the then minute by minute updates that were being published on the internet (yes, this was before the days of live-streaming).

It doesn’t matter whether my team is playing on Grand Final day or not, it’s un-Melbourne not watch and enjoy the game.

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mysterious photo of the MCG,  taken the night before football

There will be 100,000 people filling the MCG this afternoon and living out their love for football, with millions more watching on television at home or at the pub.

Where ever one walks in the city, there are kids and adults dressed up in their football colours. Houses are fitted out in black and white, and the very rare and very brave, yellow and blue.  Everywhere you look, men, women and children are wearing footy jumpers and scarves. The only news today is about this single game of football. Football fans are not hard to spot: they are committed to supporting their team, they’re enthusiastic, they attend matches and if they can’t they will watch it on tv, they talk about footy at work, there are footballs lying around the house to hold and caress. 

Think about how much interest we take in the footy, how many conversions begin or end with footy, how passionate we get during the game (even if our team isn’t playing), and how the entire day revolves around the AFL.

Our own household has descended into the deep navy blues, pondering the good old days of 1995 and 1987, remembering that we are still the most successful club in AFL history, and will again rise…maybe.

Grand Final day is so important to Melbourne that we now celebrate a public holiday on the day before Grand Final!

For the 3.5 Melbournians who don’t love footy, there will be something else that you’re passionate about – art, music, gardening, cooking, technology,  spending time with friends, travel.

To prove that I’m not just another nodular barely-civilised football fan (can’t think why Collingwood comes to mind!), remember that famous balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet where Juliet is standing outside in the night sky and Romeo sees her, and is smitten and starts talking to himself, 

‘See how she leans her cheek upon her hand. O that I were a glove upon that hand, That I might touch that cheek.’

Romeo would be satisfied to be a glove on her hand so that he could touch her cheek. It’s all very romantic, but that’s what happens with passions and desires. Whatever the heart most desires, we think and talk and dream about it.

Football, music, and poetry are among the many good things we enjoy under a good God, and every year Grand Final week makes me wonder why Christians don’t exhibit similar enthusiasm for the good news of Jesus Christ?

Listen to what the Apostle Paul wrote,

“I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit—  I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race.”

I think of Jesus who as he approached Jerusalem, wept, and said,

‘“If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace’

Where is this Gospel driven passion today? Where is the deep-heart-convinced desire to tell Melbournians the Gospel? We are passionate about many things and yet the purposes of God in Christ is rarely one of them.

Imagine if Christians preferenced time with Church over lazy weekends and sporting events?

Imagine if Christians gave just a portion of their football fanaticism to the Great Commission instead?

Charles Spurgeon once remarked, ‘‘Have you no wish for others to be saved? Then you’re not saved yourself, be sure of that!”

The thing is, while we may give intellectual assent to Surgeon’s question, what we truly desire is evident by what we give our energies too and the decisions we make in life.

Imagine, if Christians put first in their lives, God’s mission into the world?

Like everyone, I have limited time and energy, and so I need to be wise and ensure that how I live is being driven by the reality that I am persuaded is of greatest value. Friends, make it the Gospel.

FYI Collingwood by 11 points!

(This is a revised version of the article that was first published for the GF in 2015)

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/

Don’t “mess” with laws on freedom of religion, fix them!

At the start of the week, a news reporter stood outside on a North Carolinian street during Hurricane Florence, facing the heavy rain and struggling against winds. It looked as though he might be blown over at any moment. As he clenched his muscles and defied the hurricane’s power, two men passed by behind him, walking casually and without any trouble or concern caused by the winds.

Not all news is fake, but sometimes journalists exaggerate their case or they forget to mention other pertinent information. Maybe it’s due to ignorance, while at other times there is an agenda which they reckon can’t afford nuance or balanced reporting. I cannot say which is the case for Wednesday’s Editorial in The Age, “No need to mess with laws on freedom of religion”. Let’s assume the best and that the writer, Alex Lavelle, is simply not on top of the issues he is addressing.

Lavelle has stated a simple case, arguing Australia does not need further religious protections. Responding to the Prime Minister’s suggestion that religious freedoms require legislative protections,  Lavelle contends,

“There is a real risk such undue interference by government, which could undermine separation between church and state in a secular democracy, might unleash further discrimination, including the refusal to employ or provide goods and services to people of other religions or from the queer community. In short, Mr Morrison risks needlessly reducing the rights of many.”

Two important corrections need to be made.

First, existing laws do not adequately protect people of faith.

Alex Lavelle cites Section 116 of the constitution, which reads,

‘‘The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.’’

His point is that Section 116 provides adequate protections for religious people in Australia. What Lavelle ignores or is perhaps unaware of, is that  Section 116 has been interpreted so narrowly by the High Court that no successful litigation has ever been brought under it. Also, this section of the Constitution only binds the Commonwealth, not the States and Territories, and most of the growing problems in relation to religious freedom have arisen at a state level where S116 cannot help. 

When it comes to state laws, protections for religious freedom are inconsistent and often weak. In Tasmania, you can find yourself in serious trouble for doing nothing more than teaching the basics tenets of one’s religion. And in NSW, religion is not even a protected attribute for anti-discrimination law.

Second,  examples of religious restrictions are real and growing

The second major problem with this editorial is Lavelle’s reason as to why Australia is considering religious protections. He suggests,

“The issue exists only because former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull commissioned a review by former Liberal Party minister Philip Ruddock to assuage minority concerns about same-sex marriage.”

This is simply not the case, or at the very least, it is not the full story. The Ruddock Inquiry was initiated because there already is an issue relating to religious freedoms in Australia, and there are concrete reasons for thinking such freedoms will be further weakened and even denied.

Recent examples abound:

  • Archbishop Julian Porteous wrote to Catholics, explaining Catholic teaching on marriage, and he soon found himself facing the anti-discrimination laws of Tasmania
  • A Presbyterian preacher in Hobart wrote a blog article in which he addressed same-sex marriage from a Bible and pastoral perspective. The Anti-discrimination commissioner accepted a complaint against him.
  • A Queensland doctor is currently in trouble with the Medical Board for committing the horrendous crime of retweeting a selfie of Lyle Shelton and author Ryan Anderson (and expert in transgenderism), with Lyle encouraging people to read Anderson’s book.
  • In 2016, the Sydney University student body attempted to deregister the Evangelical Union, because it required students to affirm, “Jesus is Lord”.
  • Last September at the University of Sydney, a mob of 200 students violently attacked a small group of Catholic students who were peacefully handing out literature on marriage and encouraging a ‘no vote’ during the marriage plebiscite.
  • Churches were vandalised in the lead up to the marriage plebiscite.
  • A young university student asked another student if she would like prayer. He was told by university authorities that he had challenged a student’s beliefs, and was subsequently suspended. The university informed him that he was to attend fortnightly counselling and that he would be forcibly removed should he step foot on the university campus.
  • The Victorian State Government is seeking to ban ideology that does not fully embrace transgenderism and homosexuality. It may become unlawful to even question a person’s sexual self-identity or to present the Biblical view of abstinence outside of heterosexual marriage. Federal Labor is also putting forward for their national platform, policies that will include as child abuse, any persons (including parents) who do not support young children in transitioning from one gender to another.
  • The chief executive of a Queensland Baptist agency sent an email to staff, calling for people to respect differing views on marriage while also presenting his case against same-sex marriage. One employee complained and a case was taken to Queensland Industrial Relations Commission.

We praise Qantas when they wrap themselves in rainbow colours and when their chief executive officer publicly advocates gay marriage, but it’s deeply offensive and outrageous for a religious person to express an alternate view in their organisation (and a religious organisation at that!)? Had the Baptist chief executive sent an email to staff in favour of same-sex marriage, the outcome would be vastly different. To begin with, the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission would almost certainly be disinterested. On the off chance that he sent an email in which he advocated for a ‘yes’ vote in last year’s plebiscite, and one of his staff complained to the Baptist Union of Queensland, and he was reprimanded as a result, can you imagine the public outcry? How dare Baptists stifle this man’s freedom to voice an opinion and to share his views amongst his staff!

The Federal member of Goldstein, Tim Wilson, was asked about the particular case on Sky News only two weeks ago. Mr Wilson said,

“it’s not a good trend. It’s not a good principal, and it’s certainly inconsistent with the very basis of free speech”

He also pointed out how in the workplace free speech needs to be used “reasonably and respectfully”, and from what he had seen, this Queensland Baptist case hadn’t crossed that line.

Maybe Alex Lavelle is unaware of these and many other examples that have been disclosed in recent times. Perhaps he is unaware that his own newspaper has reported on some these cases. Perhaps he is also unaware of Fairfax journalists who have written articles arguing for the restriction of religious freedoms. To cite two examples,

Auberry Perry

“This survey offers us a conscious opportunity to make a firm stand in support of a secular government and to reject discrimination or favouritism based on religion. It’s our opportunity to say that religion has no part in the shaping of our laws. A vote against same-sex marriage is a vote for religious bias and discrimination in our legislation, our public schools, our healthcare, and ultimately, in the foundation of our social structure.”

Matt Holden,

“‘the best guarantee of religious freedom is keeping religion out of politics”.

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I  imagine that a decade ago most Australians would probably have agreed, there is little need to offer legal reform in relation to religious freedoms, for most Australians accepted that we should have freedom of association, and be free to speak and to have a conscience that accords with our religious convictions. Australia has changed and is changing. The move away from cultural and philosophical pluralism and toward domesticating and conditioning religion according to the zealotist rules of humanistic secularists is no mere trickle.

We can choose to ignore the evidence and to proffer that there is no issue, but we can only pretend for so long before that leaky tap spills over the sink and floods the entire house. The agenda to squeeze out religious beliefs from politics and schools and businesses and universities is all too real, and the fact that many cases are already reaching anti-discrimination tribunals demonstrates that there is a problem. Even if some of these cases are being thrown out or overturned, the tide is persistent, and without proper and positive protections in place, we will see an increasing number of religious Australians losing their freedom to believe and practice their faith.

The Magpie: Melbourne’s Most Dangerous

 

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It is time for the wisteria,

to send her sweetness into the warming air.

Sun rays are gently descending,

Rebirthing the dormant soil.

 

Playgrounds, parks, and backyards,

are once again filling.

Children, joggers, and dogs.

Cyclists are speeding to work.

Couples holding hands, plagarising that romantic walk at dusk.

 

As winter closes her door,

And the new season begins,

Moods lift and conversations shift.

Smiles erupt for September is here.

 

Yet, not all is well for a Melbourne spring.

These streets with blossom filling,

And the pungent fresh of newly mowed grass,

Forewarn a coming danger.

 

Tis the season of the magpie!

No, I don’t mean that scrawny football team,

The 18 to deride and despise.

That team of bogans,

The belly aching black and white of Collingwood.

 

I mean that Luftwaffe of birds,

Patrolling the suburban sky.

Waiting to swoop on innocence below.

Like the crack of a rifle which follows the bullet,

There is no warning for victims of the magpie.

The first known sign is the strike to the head,

And only thereafter, the woosh of wings soaring past.

 

Sirens sound, screams are heard.

It’s too late.

Another child, another cyclist has been hit.

Bleeding, scratched, afraid,

Resembling the Collingwood fan club.

 

The tropics have beaches and crocodiles to share.

The surf is a blood bath for surfers and sharks.

The bush floor is a game of hide and seek for strolling walkers and venomous snakes.

But from the sky, comes our most aboding fore.

 

Land, sea, and air, there is no escape.

Australia is made to scare.

Touch the water.

Tip toe on land.

Reach your hand inside that dark crack.

Duck, cover, put that helmet on.

 

It’s the magpie,

That makes us cower.

It’s happy laugh which signals spring.

The sirenic call, that ironic laugh.

How beautiful we say,

Final words for those for whom it’s too late to take cover.