TGC Australia recently published an article examining the theology and practice of the Bethel movement. The Awakening Australia event—and its main speaker, Bill Johnson—are increasing the awareness of the controversial church throughout the continent. Here are nine things you should know about the Johnsons and the Bethel movement.
1. Bethel Church is a charismatic megachurch in Redding, California, that is primarily known for their popular music label (Bethel Music), worship music, and the teachings of the controversial senior pastors, Bill and Beni Johnson. The Johnsons became pastors of Bethel Church in 1996. In 2005, the congregation withdrew from the Assemblies of God and became a nondenominational church. Since then the church has increased to approximately 9,000 members.
2. Bethel Music is a ministry of Bethel Church that includes a record label, music publishing, and an artist collective that frequently holds tours and events around the world. The president and co-founder of Bethel Music is Brian Johnson, the son of Bill and Beni. One of the most famous musicians to come out of Bethel Music is Jeremy Riddle. A song written by Riddle, Phil Wickham, and Josh Farro titled “This Is Amazing Grace” was listed No. 1 on Billboard’s Christian Airplay Songs chart for 2014. Other Bethel worship songs are also popular in churches throughout the United States and Australia.
3. The Johnsons are frequently criticized for their teachings, which often veers from the suspect to the outright heretical. A prime example is Bill Johnson’s “Jesus Christ is perfect theology,” which claims that it is always God’s will to heal someone:
How can God choose not to heal someone when He already purchased their healing? Was His blood enough for all sin, or just certain sins? Were the stripes He bore only for certain illnesses, or certain seasons of time? When He bore stripes in His body He made a payment for our miracle. He already decided to heal. You can’t decide not to buy something after you’ve already bought it.
There are no deficiencies on His end—neither the covenant is deficient, nor His compassion or promises. All lack is on our end of the equation. The only time someone wasn’t healed in the Bible (gospels) is when the disciples prayed for them. For example, Mark 9 when they prayed for the tormented child. They did not have breakthrough. But then, Jesus came and brought healing and deliverance to the child.
Jesus Christ is perfect theology—He is the will of God. We can’t lower the standard of scripture to our level of experience . . . or in most cases, inexperience. It’s a very uncomfortable realization—not everyone can handle it. Most create doctrine that you can’t find in the person of Jesus. He is the will of God.
4. Beni Johnson also teaches some peculiarly unorthodox views of angelology, such as that there are “different kinds of angels: messenger angels, healing angels, fiery angels” who have “fallen asleep.” In a blog post she wrote, “I think that they have been bored for a long time and are ready to be put to work.” She relates a story about one of her students at the Bethel Supernatural School of Ministry who claims God told her to go to the chapel and yell “WAKEY WAKEY!” As Johnson says,
Nothing happened for about five minutes, so [the student] turned around to cross the road to go over to a shop. As she turned around, she felt the ground begin to shake and heard this huge yawn. She looked back at the chapel, and a huge angel stepped out. All she could see were his feet because he was that large. She asked him who he was, and he turned to her and said, “I am the angel from the 1904 revival and you just woke me up.” She asked him, “Why have you been asleep?” The angel answered and said, “Because no one has been calling out for revival anymore.”
5. Some members of Bethel—including senior pastor Beni Johnson—have allegedly engaged in the practice of “grave sucking” or “grave soaking”—lying on a person’s grave to “soak up” the deceased’s “anointing.” In an interview, Bill Johnson has said that neither he nor Bethel encourages the practice of grave sucking. However, in his book The Physics of Heaven, Johnson says:
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.
6. Bethel Church claims to frequently encounter unexplained phenomena both during their services and also in their everyday lives, such as falling gold dust and “angel” feathers. (“The feathers, gold dust, etc. are not things we do,” Johnson says. “They happen.”) They also claim to see a “glory cloud,” the appearance of dust/smoke in their services that they say is a supernatural sign of God’s presence, similar to the pillar of cloud that traveled with Moses and the Israelites (Ex. 13:20–22).
7. Bethel churches frequently promote and teach and preach from The Passion Translation, which Johnson describes as, “One of the greatest things to happen with Bible translation in my lifetime.” As the sole translator, Brian Simmons, says, “The Passion Translation is distinct from other modern English Bible versions in that it is an essential equivalence translation.” But in a review for Themelios, Andrew G. Shead concludes that Simmons abandons “all interest in textual accuracy, playing fast and loose with the original languages, and inserting so much new material into the text that it is at least 50% longer than the original. The result is a strongly sectarian translation that no longer counts as Scripture; by masquerading as a Bible it threatens to bind entire churches in thrall to a false god.”
8. Bethel runs a ministry training center called the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry (BSSM). The school says that what makes the academic instruction at BSSM unique is that it “is taught by apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.” The school says, “Students will learn how to read, understand, and ‘do’ the Bible, how to practice His presence, to witness, heal the sick, prophesy, preach, pray, cast out demons and much more.”
9. Bethel has a program similar to a church-planting network that “equips and empowers leaders who desire to transform lives and communities through schools of supernatural ministry (SSMs).” Part of the role of such schools is to “pastor people with unique spiritual giftings.” As an article on the school planting website explains,
I knew a man who would know people’s secret sins the moment he laid eyes on them. From what I know this was not a gifting he wanted or sought after, it was just something he experienced. It was a testament to the character of this man that he was also one of the best lovers of people that I’ve ever known. I know quite a few people who, from a young age, saw into the spiritual realm like you and I see into the physical realm. They see angels and demons constantly, without actively looking for them.
I don’t know about you, but until a couple of years ago this was different to how I experienced the supernatural. I’ve never seen someone’s secret sin written across their forehead. Until a couple of years ago, I had never seen demons and angels flitting about, going about their business. I’ve never fallen into a trance, and I’ve yet to be supernaturally transported anywhere. Spiritual gifts manifest differently for different people, and there are those out there who have very unique manifestations of spiritual gifts, and very unique relationships with God as a result.
People label them as mystics or seers. Personally, I believe this is what should be normal for Christians, and is actually accessible to all of us.
Joe Carter is an editor for The Gospel Coalition, author of The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. He also serves as an executive pastor at the McLean Bible Church Arlington campus in Arlington, Virginia.