Momentum: What do Eric and Bill Johnson (Bethel) teach?

In previous articles I’ve talked about the challenges of interacting with specific people when we disagree. There is the risk that we personalise things that should not be personalised and that we also use famous names, to provide a theological kind of click-bait.

At the same time, elders have a responsibility to guard as well as to feed and so, no matter how reluctantly and cautiously, there are times when we need to step into the fray and to name names.  The challenge is that there are so many novel ideas and big personalities around that we cannot keep up with anything and everything.

With those things in mind, I decided to pick up a book by Eric and Bill Johnson from Bethel Church in Redding California. I picked it up because it was being promoted, on prominent display in our local Christian Bookshop. Also, I’ve been aware of the fuss surrounding Bethel for a little while. There’s two sides to this. First of all, Bethel is extremely popular both in terms of its reputation as a “revival centre” and in the music that is coming out of it.  Secondly, a number of people have questioned the theology underpinning the church and whether or not its orthodox.  Of course, Christian leaders are there to be shot down, especially when amazing things are happening around them, so it is possible that they are being misunderstood or misrepresented. However, the popularity and prominence of Bethel means that this is something relevant to the life of our local church. It is important that our members are able to discern truth from error.

So here goes. It is important at this point to remember that

–          I am engaging with one book -that means I am not dealing with everything that the Johnsons have and haven’t ever said.

–          This is not an attempt to evaluate what is and isn’t happening at Bethel.

–          Nor is this an attempt to assess the personal faith of Eric and Bill Johnson.

  1. Inheritance

The book is all about inheritance. At the heart of the Christian message is God the Father and God the Son. This provides a paradigm for life.[1]

Eric and Bill use the analogy of earthly inheritance to talk about the church’s inheritance and identify what has gone wrong.

“While most people would love a large financial inheritance, there exists in the subconscious mind a resistance to its purpose because of such abuses. And the church has failed for centuries at receiving and utilizing the full inheritance promised us through the Scriptures. Much like lottery winners, heirs to wealth often lose what they were given because they may never have been trained to manage the wealth they were to receive.”[2]

It is important to note at this stage first of all, that their primary focus is not on finances in the classic prosperity gospel sense. In fact they warn that both wealthy and poor people can be lacking if they fail to discover spiritual poverty.

“If either the rich or the poor are not poor in spirit, they become crippled with the spirit of entitlement. The poor feel the government owes them a life of success without needing to work for it, while the rich believe their wealth entitles them to special treatment by laws, courts and government officials.”[3]

They also point out that:

“You can’t use the ways of the world’s system and expect to inherit the benefits of God’s kingdom.”[4]

However, at the same time, there does seem to be a little confusion in their thinking because the book displays a strong attraction and attachment to those who are successful particularly in terms of power and influence so that they comment:

“Inheritance is power. It has a purpose that must be captured to be a benefit. We must be blessed to be a blessing.”[5]

Later on (and we will return to this) they argue that:

“In every generation, men and women of God rise to the top because of the gifting and the favour on their lives. Many of them attract crowds wherever they go. They use their gift to inspire the Church through their gift and often bring multitudes to Christ. But when their gift is used only to inspire instead of equip and release, people admire the gift but are never able to emulate anything similar to this one they admire.”[6]

And whilst their expectation is that those gifts and anointing are to be shared with all so that the whole church is meant to grow into spiritual maturity, there is also the intriguing belief that blessing is hereditary not just in the sense of being passed on to future generations within the church but physically through human bloodlines so that Bill Johnson tells us about his ‘spiritual heroes’ from the past that:

“If any of those I’ve mentioned were alive today, I’d try to do something to honour them. As it is, I am left to preserve the memory of what they accomplished in God. When I meet a family member of theirs, I honor them and thank them for their heritage. I also have them pray for me whenever possible. Several years ago, I met the granddaughter of a great revivalist who had died within the previous decade. She was 12. I asked her if she would please pray for me, knowing that she carried a family anointing that could be imparted.  Both she and her friend prayed a powerful, but childlike prayer that really impacted me. I was so grateful for the chance to receive something in prayer that was never made available to me in person from the revivalist.”[7]

This is important because I think all Christians would want to agree that spiritual inheritance is important. Last year, we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation because there is a sense of a legacy passed on to future generations. That legacy was the recovery of the great Bbilcial truths of salvation by grace alone through faith alone.

However, what is being described here is not the same. It is as I suggest, at best confused and seems to imply a mystical type experience with spiritual power being imparted and inherited through physical means.

2. Revelation 

We get a better sense of what Eric and Bill Johnson mean by inheritance when they talk about Revelation. They quote from Deuteronomy 29:29 using the NASB version:

 “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.”

They comment:

“There are two parts to this verse that are important for us to consider: the value of mystery and the value of revelation. Both are essential realities in the Christian life. Mystery represents things withheld from us by God, Revelation represents what God has given to us to be stewarded as a treasurer. The latter is to be passed on as a permanent possession to our descendants for ever! This stunning statement carries a ‘snowball’ effect in that its potential gets bigger and bigger throughout time. Because of that it is truer today than in any previous day.”[8]

Now, so far we may think there’s no major problem here,[9] especially as they go on to say that:

“First, we need to have areas in our lives that we have no understanding of so we can learn to trust God. If I understand everything about my Christian life, I have an inferior Christian life. What I don’t understand is often as important as what I do. This becomes the grounds for the relationship of trust.”[10]

Their understanding of how the “secret things” or “mystery” functions is telling:

“Second, and this must be held in tension with the first, God has chosen to give us the realm of mystery as a gift. This basically means we have to access hidden thing. Hunger and development of character are two essential elements to this process of searching out mysteries. Hunger is the driving force that enables us to take possession of what God has promised. And character provides the ‘container‘ to place the blessing in. The bottom line is that mystery is completely managed by God/ It is not ours to demand or control. Yet our influence in the matter through dependence and hunger is seen in his delight to give us more than we could ever ask for.”[11]

In other words, the “secret things” described in Deuteronomy 29 are mysteries that are meant to desire to know and hunger after.  This is actually the opposite intention of Deuteronomy 29. It’s not that God has revealed so much so far but there’s privileged information we need. Rather, the sense is that there is so much happening around us and we won’t understanding everything because we cannot know everything but God reveals to us what we do need to know in order to love him and serve him. Specifically for the Israelites this was the Law.

This means that when Paul talks about “mystery” in the New Testament. It is not that some Christians get first insight into hidden secrets through private revelation. Rather there were things that were hidden but are now revealed. These things were not revealed because individuals at a given time had proven themselves worthy of the special knowledge. Rather, the mystery was revealed because the time had come. Christ had come and with him the fulfilment of revelation in the Gospel.

This links to the next point. The Johnsons go on to state that:

“Look at the phrase things revealed in Deuteronomy 29:29. Every generation has received a measure of revelation from God.”[12]

Their understanding is not of God’s Word fully revealed in Scripture because Scripture points to Christ and the Gospel. Rather it is about he desire for ongoing personal revelation that continues after Christ and the apostles because what we are seeing is spiritual evolution.  Talking about people like Moses, they say

“The list of those who made their mark with God is nearly endless. And each of them obtained something that was supposed to be inherited by the following generation and then built upon, reaching new heights in humankind’s journey with God.”[13]

You will see that this idea is very similar to the Redemptive Movement Hermeneutic and John Henry Newman’s view of tradition where the church gradually increases its knowledge of God as each generation receives more revelation.  This goes against the point made in 2 Timothy 3:16 that it is Scripture that is God breathed and because it is useful for teaching and correction, it is sufficient for the purpose of making us complete in Christ. We do not need additional revelation.

This misunderstanding about revelation leads to a further confusion.  Earlier we saw that the Bethel leaders have a particular interest in those who seem to be successful in Christian life.  They comment:

“In every generation, men and women of God rise to the top because of the gifting and the favour on their lives. Many of them attract crowds wherever they go. They use their gift to inspire the Church through their gift and often bring multitudes to Christ. But when their gift is used only to inspire instead of equip and release, people admire the gift but are never able to emulate anything similar to this one they admire.”[14]

And then go on to say:

“It’s not that we as leaders are to create clones of our personalities and gifts. It’s just that gifts from God are to be released for the whole Body to benefit from. What once caused  person to stand out as an unusually gifted person should become the new standard for the Body of Christ through the process of equipping the saints. This is spiritual inheritance made practical. It happens directly through training, discipleship and impartation, and indirectly through honor, respect, study and prayer.”[15]

Again, here is something that at first glance doesn’t seem too bad. There is a positive nod towards the point made in Ephesians 4:11 that leaders are gifts, it isn’t about heir status of them receiving gifts for their own benefit. However, their understanding of how this works is gain off centre. Leaders equip by virtue of their charisma and by their ability to impart spiritual power to others.  This goes against what Paul makes clear through Scripture.  As we have looked at what it means to lead in the church, we have seen that:

-Elders and deacons are marked out not by super charisma, intellect or influence but by the s       simple traits of godliness seen in self-control, a faithful home life and hospitality.

– Elders are qualified by the role by their ability to teach. This is how the church is equipped in order to grow into maturity.

We are being subtly shifted away from dependence on the clear objective revelation of God’s Word through the prophets and apostles about and from Jesus Christ to dependence upon specific gifted leaders who claim their own private revelation.

Throughout history, there have been numerous occasions when such a shift has been attempted. So I think it is perhaps helpful to remind ourselves of the words of a Christian leader from a much earlier generation facing a similar challenge.

Irenaeus was responding to the Gnostics who argued that they had access to additional, secret revelation and it was only through coming to them and having this spiritual gift imparted to you that you could fully access your true spiritual status.

Irenaeus noted that:

“For the church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith in one God, the Father Almighty, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation, and in the Holy spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead….”[16]

He then argued that there was no special secret knowledge. As someone who had known Polycarp giving him a direct link to the apostle John, he was in a strong position to refute the claim. He pointed out that:

“If the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to ‘the perfect’ apart and privy from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the churches themselves.”[17]

Now, this is important because first of all, it was the apostles who were promised that the Holy Spirit would lead into all (not some, not partial) truth.  We are not in a position to claim that God withheld some revelation from those who saw Jesus face to face and were witnesses to his death and resurrection in order to give to us at a later date.

Secondly, the force of Irenaeus’ argument and logical conclusion is that there isn’t some separate source of revelation, an alternative inheritance to be passed down either by some kind of physical contact leading to spiritual transfer or the separate recording of private revelations as Johnson suggests.

  1. What is the Gospel?

Now, oddly given that the forward to the book claims that the relationship of The Father to the Son provides the paradigm for how inheritance works, these seems to be very little mention of how the Father and the Son relate in the book. That is strange, because when the Bible talks about sonship and inheritance it is explicitly focused on Jesus as the only begotten Son and true heir. It is not just that this provides a paradigm or model for how Father/Son teams are meant to function (which seems to be a little bit of the implied meaning in the introduction) but rather that is is only in Jesus The Son that we can be heirs.

So, it is only when we get to page 87 that we really find out what Eric and Bill Johnson think the Gospel is about and why Jesus came.  This is what they say:

“On a certain day many years ago, two unseen forces collided as a result of one man’s decision This day was fashioned in the heart of God from days of old. A force was at work that was putting a limit on what humankind could accomplish. This limit was much like a governor on an engine. The governor on an engine is designed to allow only a certain amount of fuel into the motor, which limits the true strength of the motor. This unseen force was a governor for humankind; it put a limit on people’s capacity to do things. However, that was about to change when this one man, Jesus, decided to do the unthinkable – to pay the price for us to have life beyond what people were even capable of imagining.[18]

To understand what someone’s take on the Gospel and why Jesus died, it is helpful to know what they think the problem was. For the Johnson’s our problem was that we ere limited, held back, prevented from reaching our true potential. Now, that’s going to affect your understanding of the Gospel and of the Christian life. They go on to explain what that unseen force was. It was “The Law.”

“This unforeseen force that limited humankind can be summed up in these words: the Law. The Law was designed to show people what was required of them outside of relationship with God. When we can’t live in relationship, then the Law is a default to show us how to live our lives.”[19]

They add:

“The Law had entrenched many into a lifestyle of slavery to a list of words, and it gave them no hope of freedom. It wreaked havoc on people’s ability to see God as loving.”[20]

Now, it shouldn’t take you too long to spot the series of missteps here:

  1. The Law is presented as an unforeseen force instead of God’s clear revelation.
  2. The Law is presented as something in opposition to relationships and for those outside of a relationship with God when in fact, the Old Testament presents it as given in the context of covenant for the very people who were living with God in their presence and wanted to know how to relate to him
  3. The Law is presented as something in antithesis to love. It prevents people from seeing that God is loving. This goes against Scripture’s presentation of the Law as an expansion on two commands, to Love God with your whole heart and your neighbour as yourself.

This leads to Law and Grace being presented as in conflict so that what Jesus did on the Cross was:

“When Jesus reached the age of 33, the ‘unthinkable’ plan was beginning to unfold.  This decision to sacrifice His life so we could live was more than just a means of getting to heaven; it gave us access to a realm of righteousness and life that was only possible through relationship with God.  Jesus then introduced us to an even greater unseen force called grace.”[21]

So that:

One force called the Law was being overthrown by a greater force called grace. This would ultimately alter the course of history.”[22]

Again we can easily see the missteps here as Johnson and Johnson seem to forget that:

  1. It is not the Law that is at fault but sin. The Law is unable to deal with the problem of sin. Romans 8: explains

“ The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature.[c] So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have.”

Note that some translations put the emphasis on the Law itself being weakened by our sinful nature. The problem is not that the Law restricts us. The problem is that we are dead in our sin. The problem is not that it misleads (although legalism does) but that it is unable to save us.

  1. Jesus said that he had not come to abolish the Law but to fulfil it.

Our problem is not that we are restricted from reaching our full potential although such a message certainly fits into the zeitgeist of our contemporary culture. Our problem is sin. Our problem is that we were rebels against God. Our problem is the penalty of death. The problem was not that the law was unfair or restrictive. The problem was that we neither could obey it nor desired to.

The Gospel tells us that this put us outside of God’s Family. We were the disobedient Son. We had no rightful claim on any inheritance. Jesus, the obedient Son came and fulfilled all the requirmenets of the Law. Jesus, the obedient Son died in my place and yours and rose to life so that through him, not only is our punishment taken but we are adopted into the Family and can call God our Father. That is the sole basis for inheritance. Sadly, we have to wait until chapter 11 and page 113-114 for the briefest mention of being adopted into the family or infrared. Even then it is as I said, brief, a passing mention to reassure those who don’ have Christian parents, grandparents and great grandparents that they’ve been infrared into the family. Then we are off into biography as the description of adoption and ingrafting provides a launch pad for more stories about the Johnson family. Once again the point is missed that the Father Son relationship means it is Christ himself that we are ingrafted to.

Conclusion

On one level, Momentum is an attractive book. It is well written in conversational language. It’s a positive, feel good book. There may even be some practical nuggets in there. However, if you have a true hunger to know what it means to  belong to God’s family, to be adopted, for Christ to welcome you as a brother then this book will leave you extremely dissatisfied. It leaves you will a distorted view of God’s revelation and a distorted view of the Gospel.

[1] See Jack Taylor’s forward in Eric Johnson & Bill Johnson, Momentum: What God starts never ends (Shippensburg, PA.: Destiny Image Publishers, 2011), 17-19.

[2] Eric Johnson & Bill Johnson, Momentum: What God starts never ends (Shippensburg, PA.: Destiny Image Publishers, 2011), 26-27.

[3] Johnson and Johnson, Momentum, 27.

[4] Johnson and Johnson, Momentum, 31.

[5] Johnson and Johnson, Momentum, 32.

[6] Johnson and Johnson, Momentum,39.

[7] Johnson and Johnson, Momentum, 73.

[8] Johnson and Johnson, Momentum, 35.

[9] Although I suggest there’s a warning clue in their understanding of a snowball effect.

[10] Johnson and Johnson, Momentum,35.

[11] Johnson and Johnson, Momentum,35.

[12] Johnson and Johnson, Momentum, 36.

[13] Johnson and Johnson, Momentum, 37.

[14] Johnson and Johnson, Momentum,39.

[15] Johnson and Johnson, Momentum, 39.

[16] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.2 ( New Eusebius, 111-112)

[17] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III.3.1 (New Eusebius, 114).

[18] Johnson and Johnson, Momentum,87.

[19] Johnson and Johnson, Momentum,87.

[20] Johnson and Johnson, Momentum,88.

[21] Johnson and Johnson, Momentum, 88.

[22] Johnson and Johnson, Momentum,88.

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