Dear friends and fans of Jesus Culture,
You may or may not be aware that Jesus Culture is an outreach of Bethel Church in Redding California, a neo-charismatic fellowship led by Pastor Bill Johnson. Both Bill Johnson and Jesus Culture are deeply rooted in a group called the ‘New Apostolic Reformation.’ Though Jesus Culture and Bethel Church claim they are a new move of God, their signs, wonders and teachings have been around for ages. Jesus Culture is a proud and direct descendant of the Word of Faith and Vineyard movements; it is their latest marketing scheme aimed at the next generation. Kim Walker Smith, (who has apparently had a personal meeting with God the Father and a very stretchy Jesus), Chris Quilala, Banning Liebscher, and the others have been immersed and saturated with the heresies of Kenneth Hagin, Oral Roberts, Joel Olsteen, Benny Hinn, John Wimber, Todd Bentley, John Crowder, and most especially, their pastor, Bill Johnson who has shaped their doctrine.
Why This Letter?
Recently I was part of a conversation where a Jesus Culture fan was frustrated with “naysayers” trying to find something wrong with what she felt was obviously God at work. She had personally participated in some of Bethel’s services and insisted that she had experienced the Lord. It seemed to her that the dissidents were attacking, not just Jesus Culture and Bethel, but God Himself, by supposing that He is no longer able to pull off the miraculous. But, of course, that is just not the case. I doubt that any true believer would say that God cannot heal people, send out prophets or reveal himself in a cloud of glory. We all know that He has done this and can do it whenever He pleases. Nevertheless, there is good reason for all of us to be skeptical of this ‘movement.’
The Bethel advocate raised several common accusations against her opponents in the discussion. We were accused of putting God in a box and making him smaller than He is. We were called biblically ignorant, accused of being divisive, condemning the church, judging the Jesus Culture and Bethel by a handful of ‘rumors’ and ‘bad apples’. We were even likened to the blind pharisees. These are some serious allegations which you may agree with; but please bear with me and consider my objections before dismissing me as just another malcontent provocateur.
Judging Bad Apples and Rumors.
First, I confess that I am, indeed, judging Jesus Culture by a few bad apples. But let’s be fair, these aren’t a couple of fruit loops that sneaked in the back door during the service and got carried away in the excitement. No, these ‘bad apples’ are the people on stage talking about how the Holy Spirit looks like the blue genie from Disney’s ‘Aladdin’ and go on about how ‘silly’ and ‘sneaky’ He is. The ‘bad apples’ are the people using music to generate a hypnotic environment to manipulate emotionally hyped parishioners and whip them into a frenzy. The bad apples are the self appointed ‘Apostles’ lying on graves to conjure the anointing of the dead. The bad apples are the leaders of the movement and I don’t think it is unfair to judge a movement by the teaching and behavior of its leaders.
On the other hand, my ‘judgment’ of these ‘bad apples’ and their movement is not based on mere hearsay and rumors. The teachings of the New Apostolic Reformation, Bethel, and Jesus Culture have been formally published in the authors names, sold in stores and used as textbooks in their schools of prophecy and healing. These teachings have been analyzed and researched and debated by both cessationists, like John MacArthur and Justin Peters as well as continuationists like Hank Hanegraaff and John Ankerberg. There has been extensive dialogue between all parties on the doctrinal errors. The “Apostles” of these Neo-Pentecostal movements have consistently declined to reconcile their teachings with scripture. Instead, they insist (in Bill Johnson’s words) that “God is bigger than His book”; meaning they don’t need to answer to the scripture.
A large portion of the debate that I have seen is concerned with the issue of healings and signs and wonders. This movement practices contemplative prayer, the standard hysterical phenomenon like the ‘slaying in the spirit’ trick along with psychosomatic healings, kundalini seizures, being drunk and laughing in the spirit, and other questionable manifestations like falling gold dust, gold fillings appearing in people’s mouths, falling feathers and, of course the ‘glory cloud’. But I want to set all of that aside for a moment and look at their doctrine.
The Primary Issue; Christology and The Sovereignty of God.
To her credit, the Bethel advocate insisted that we should test this movement in light of the scriptures, which I am happy to do. The first and most important question I must ask is, what ‘Jesus’ is Bill Johnson and Jesus Culture preaching? Is he the Jesus of Luke 8:22-49, John 1:14; 5:22 & 26, Colossians 1:15-18? Is he God incarnate, the almighty divine second person of the trinity wrapped in human flesh? The God-Man? The first and the last who is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8)?
No, he is not.
What god does Bill Johnson and Jesus Culture teach? Is He the God of Psalm 29, Job 38-42 & Daniel 4:34-35 who is sovereign over everything? The God of Isaiah 45 who creates well being and calamity? Is He the Lord of Romans 9:18 who will have mercy on whomever he will have mercy and harden whomever he wills?
No, he is not.
Functional and Ontological Kenosis
Johnson, along with his fellow “Apostles” and proteges hold to various forms of “Kenotic (meaning empty) Christologies.” The essence of this teaching is that Jesus, in the incarnation, either emptied himself of at least some of his divine attributes or that, while retaining his divine nature, never used it to do anything during his earthly ministry.
According to appraising.org Johnson states in his book “When Heaven Invades Earth,” that Jesus performed his miracles as a human in right relationship with God, not as God. On other occasions he has said that if Jesus did miracles from his divine nature, he (Johnson) is impressed, but “not compelled to follow.” Instead Johnson teaches that an emptied, non-divine Jesus did his signs and wonders through the Holy Spirit- and you, therefore, can too! Johnson even says “If Jesus performed miracles because He was God, then they would be unattainable for us.”
According to this teaching, the calming of the sea, the raising of the dead, the exorcism of the demon possessed man (Luke 8:22-49), were not demonstrations of Jesus’ divinity, they were only a model for us to see what we can do when we have a perfect relationship with God. Prior to the incarnation and after the resurrection, Jesus was divine. While he was on the earth, however, he was just a man walking by the power of the Holy Spirit. The other popular variation (one I’ve heard Johnson elude to) is that Jesus became divine at his baptism. Jesus, was indeed a man walking by the power of the Holy Spirit during his earthly ministry. However he was also the divine Son of the Father who is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8).
Why is that a problem? Well, first, the word “God” has a particular definition, much the way the word “bachelor” does. A “bachelor” is, by definition, an unmarried man. If a bachelor ceases to be unmarried, he ceases to be a bachelor. In the same way, God is, by definition, self-existent, eternal and unchangeable. He can not empty himself of his divine attributes. For him to divest himself of his essential attributes would require him to discard his essence. He would cease to exist and immediately all that He sustains (which is everything) would end. If He were able to alter the essence of who He is, it would mean that he was never really God to begin with because God cannot and does not change; He is eternal.
At the same time, if Jesus was only a man and not God during his earthly sojourn, but managed to become God after he rose from the dead, then any one of us could do the same. Beyond that, Jesus and His Apostles teach clearly that Jesus was, is and always will be, God.
The view that Jesus ‘emptied’ Himself of divine attributes is often supported with passages that emphasize Jesus’s human nature, in that he was hungry, he slept, and he didn’t know the hour of his return. Proponents, however, always point to Philippians 2:6-10 which says:
“…Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men…”
Johnson seems to interpret this to mean that Jesus ceased to be God in the incarnation. Unfortunately for him, the broader context of the passage shows that Paul is not talking about Jesus’ divine nature, he is talking about the glory of his position. He did not come to us as a majestic king dressed in bright glory but as a humble common man and teacher. Nevertheless, He both retained and used his divine nature during his earthly ministry. In the incarnation, Jesus stepped down from his throne of glory and covered himself, not with “splendor and majesty and garments of light,” but with human flesh, as one who “had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.”
It is certainly true that Jesus did his work through the Holy Spirit, but the kenotic view, I think, separates the persons of the Trinity too deeply. It suggests that Jesus, in his divine nature, and the Holy Spirit, are different people at the essential level; so that one is employed and present while the other has resigned divinity and is human only. The divine persons are eternally distinct persons, but that distinction does not reach to the essence of the triune God who is one God, not three. If one of them ceases to be divine, they all do, because they are all one God. Thus God ceases to be eternal and cease to exist along with all that depends on Him, namely us. The trinity is a precarious doctrine that is easy to misunderstand and difficult to explain without slipping into heresy. The ontological kenotic doctrine fails to understand the relationship of the persons of the trinity to each other and the two natures of Jesus to each other. The divine nature did not become human, it took on humanity as an addition.
As I said, Johnson “seems” to teach the ontological view. But, as is often the case with false prophets and apostles, he has made conflicting statements about Jesus’s divinity. The authors of beyondgrace.blogspot.com make the statement that they believe Johnson is teaching Functional Kenosis which they claim is not heretical. Bill Johnson himself, apparently posted a comment in the comment section of this blog stating that Jesus was God during his earthly ministry. On the other hand, the author of Crosswise makes a strong case that Johnson’s published statements on the matter conflict with the idea that Jesus had a divine nature on earth which he just didn’t use. If orthodoxy is important to Johnson, I would expect that he would make more of an effort at clarification than posting a statement on an obscure blog. Anyone can post an orthodox statement by “Bill Johnson” on a blog.
The Gospel of Dominion Theology
In Addition to this, Johnson teaches a heretical form of Dominion Theology, a Gnostic gospel which holds that God gave all the dominion and control of the earth to mankind in the garden. When the Devil caused the fall, he took control of the earth and locked God out until people like Noah, Abraham, Moses and David came along to give God permission to do great redemptive works in their life. The greatest of these heroes, of course, was Jesus who wrestled the keys of hell and death from Satan in Hell between His death and resurrection. In this system, the church has lost the truth of man’s dominion (mostly because we have spent too much time studying the bible) and the work and people of God have suffered through the ages because there have been few such heroes since the first century.
This view teaches that God is restrained by our lack of faith and cannot move forward with His plans until his super Apostles (or ‘sons of God’) arrive on the scene to get things back on track. Conversely, the implication is that the substandard believer who doesn’t perform miracles everyday (especially those, like me, who have never spoken in tongues or spoken extra-biblical prophetic words from heaven, or healed anyone) are standing in the way of God’s program.
Who is Sovereign?
On this system, God is obligated to answer every prayer of faith. In fact, in his “Essential Guide to Healing” Bill Johnson instructs practitioners to avoid praying “Thy will be done.” He says that it is not as though we are commanding God, we are acting as ambassadors of heaven, speaking to the body, releasing healing. But it doesn’t matter how he spins this practice, it amounts to the same thing. Assuming that it is always God’s will to heal and therefore consciously determining to refrain from praying for His will to be done, or to presume to give God “permission” to do what one thinks God should do, is using His name presumptuously and is laying commands rather than requests at God’s feet.
Johnson and Bethel maintain that it is always God’s will to heal and bless. This would, no doubt, come as a surprise to people like Job and Paul, who suffered all kinds of misery, including sickness (2 Corinthians 12, Galatians 4:14-15). It Would also be news to Jesus who pleaded 3 times in the Garden of Gethsemane that the cup of God’s wrath might pass from him and was 3 times met with silence. It stands to reason that a God who is always against sickness, suffering, pain and poverty, would certainly be against the brutal suffering, death, and divine punishment of “the most normal christian in the bible.” Perhaps Jesus lacked faith. Perhaps he shouldn’t have prayed “thy will be done.” But if Johnson is right and consistent, how much of an example can Jesus be if he can’t even pray correctly?
The point is, Bill Johnson and his disciples (which make up Bethel Church and Jesus Culture) teach a different Jesus; one that more closely resembles the Jesus of mormonism. Furthermore, they teach a different gospel. Johnson elevates himself and his “experiences” above the scripture when he asserts that his god, being “bigger than the bible,” doesn’t need to adhere to the scriptures. Experience is the standard for Johnson (as it is across the neo-charismatic sensation) and we must interpret the scripture in light of our experience. But, friends, if God’s self disclosure in the word is not consistent with His behavior today, then either the bible is not a trustworthy source of revelation or the God of the bible is not immutable, not trustworthy, not God.
Johnson teaches a god that is subject to Satan, subject to our prayers and our “faith” and a Jesus that was not divine. Johnson’s god NEEDS him and his fellow ‘Apostles’ in order to complete His work on the earth. Without Bill and his friends, god is up the creek.
So, I have to ask, whose God is small? Who is it that is putting God in a box? Who is biblically ignorant (indeed, biblically stupid is more appropriate)? Who is dividing the church? Who is condemning, not just the church, but Christ Jesus himself as a liar and as “uncompelling?” Is it the followers that submit themselves to God’s word over their experience, believing that God is sovereign over all things? Or these ‘new apostles’ that insist that they are sovereign over God and the scriptures?
Toying with lures.
“But I don’t go in for all that,” you say, “I just like Jesus culture’s music; they have some great songs!”
Fair enough. For my tastes, I am “not compelled to follow”, but they are popular for a reason. Let’s look at one of their songs which seems simple enough to be mostly harmless. It’s called “Holy Spirit.” The lyrics are as follows:
“There’s nothing worth more / That could ever come close / Nothing can compare / You’re our living Hope / Your presence Lord
I’ve tasted and seen / Of the sweetest of love / When my heart becomes free / And my shame is undone / Your presence Lord
Chorus: Holy Spirit You are welcome here / Come flood this place and fill the atmosphere / Your glory God is what our hearts long for / To be overcome by Your presence Lord…
…Overwhelm us with Your presence God / Overwhelm us now…”
As I analyze this song (yes I do that) without knowing anything about Jesus Culture or Bethel, it just barely passes. It doesn’t stand out to me, there is no real ‘meat’ to it, but as I said, it seems harmless. Why? Because I am assuming that the author and I agree on several things. For one, it’s true there is no comparison to being in God’s presence; it is the essence of what it means to be “blessed” according to Numbers 6:24-25. It is the hope of every believer to have God’s face shine on us.
It is also true that God’s love sets me free, especially from the fear of man and from my sin and shame; it compels me to walk in the Spirit. Knowing the author of creation and the judge of all the earth, loves me unconditionally because Christ has paid my debt and set his righteousness on me means that I can have fellowship with God, hoping to someday, see Him as He is, when I am made like Christ. Then I will see that his glory does and always has filled the atmosphere because his glory, says Isaiah, fills the earth. I can only see it now as it were, through a glass dimly, but I have a hope that doesn’t disappoint that I will, by and by, see him fully.
Finally the thought of being overcome by God’s presence, in my mind, means being completely surrendered to and ruled by God because He is always with me (no matter how I feel). The concept of surrender is wrapped up in Jesus command that his disciples must lay down their lives, take up their cross and follow Him. It’s complete trust in God and His gospel which is manifested in consistent obedience regardless of circumstance or feeling.
As it turns out, none of this is what the author has in mind. Kim Walker Smith’s concepts of God’s Presence, healing and deliverance, experiencing glory and being overwhelmed are all wrapped up in the doctrine and practice of Bethel Church. Her “welcoming” the Holy Spirit indicates that she is giving Him her permission to exercise His power (which in her brand of dominion theology, God really needs). God’s presence and healing is experienced through participation in mystical services or through esoteric meditative practices such as contemplative prayer and “Sozo” prayer (an innovation in contemplative prayer developed at Bethel). These forms of prayer are akin to what one finds in yoga, Buddhism and Hinduism where one enters a trance and has visions and dreams. The idea of being “overwhelmed” and seeing glory has to do with the signs and wonders of Bethel and other neo-charismatic movements; the twitching, laughing, being ‘drunk’ and being slain in the spirit, and so on.
According to the scripture, however, the presence of the Spirit is not characterized by passions, sensuality, sorcery or drunkenness but by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness and self control (Galatians 5:19-24). Jesus, in John 14:21-24, defines the mode of His manifestation as well as the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer as being the keeping of his word; knowing and practicing his command to love God and love one another as Christ had loved them.
Given their definition of Jesus, God and worship, I must ask at this point, would you want Jesus Culture playing at your church? I would bet they are already playing at your church if you are part of a continuationist congregation. Would you want them teaching your brothers, sisters and children about God and about how to worship? Sure, Jesus culture looks and sounds great! Bait is supposed to be appealing, friends. Jesus culture is powerful bait. They are the lure drawing people into the movement. The Word of faith movement is a carnivorous vine and Jesus Culture is the pretty sap covered leaf. Sure, a mature christian may be able to distinguish between the heat and the light but his children may not; they may be led astray by his negligence. How much more true is that for a pastor and “worship leader?” Would they stand up on stage with Jesus Culture? Say “amen” to their prayers? Why not say “amen” to prayers to the god of Mormonism or the Jehovah’s Witnesses? After all that is pretty much who Jesus Culture has been singing to.
The Prophets and Apostles in scripture always called for believers to cut off the evil from among us. Whenever the Old or New Testament church tried to play both sides, they ended up in idolatry and sin. Even Chuck Smith managed to draw a line at the vineyard and word faith movements; he, at least, put some value on what the bible teaches. If worship leaders, in particular, took doctrine as seriously as they take the task of sounding good and generating a worshipful ambiance, they might find their doctrine shaping their choice of songs, they might find themselves very unsatisfied with the fluff of modern christian music. Imagine a world where biblical doctrine actually shaped our time of singing praises; a world where biblical doctrine mattered enough to people that they had no taste or time for what fell outside the pale of orthodoxy; Groups like Jesus Culture and Hillsong would never be able to get off the ground in that world.
A True Sign of Genuine Worship.
From the very beginning true worship has been marked, not just by sincerity, study and service, but by sobriety as well (Leviticus 10:8-10, Deut 29:14-19, 1 Thessalonians 5:5-9 1 Tim 3:2, Titus 1:8, Titus 2:2, Titus 2:6, Titus 2:12, 1 Pet 1:13, 1 Pet 5:8 ). This has always set the worship of God apart from pagan worship; which is more akin to what we see in Bethel and the word of faith movements. We are commanded to be sober, not emotionally or psychologically overwhelmed to the point of losing control of our minds and our bodies. We are commanded to love the Lord with all our heart, our mind, and our strength, which is to say, all these things ought to be balanced and united in subjection to God as we serve. What we see in these other movements is not balance or service, but madness and foolishness.
Consider, friends, the “Jesus” of ‘Jesus culture.’ It is not the Jesus of scripture that they worship, but one of their own making; a Jesus who isn’t God incarnate but is a mere man in pursuit of godhood, an example of how we can become a god or goddess. Consider the god of Jesus culture and Bethel, he is just a puppet, a cosmic vending machine in whom one deposits their 50 cents of “faith” to get a fun miraculous experience.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if they have signs and wonders or if they become incredible evangelists or if they have angels as guest speakers, they preach a different Christ and a different gospel. Their god is small; he is subject to just about everyone and everything except, of course, the scriptures. Can you really trust a god like that? Can you really stomach a band who sings to a god that has more in common with the god of Mormonism? Can you really participate in a movement led by people who (like the pharisees) calls the true Jesus a liar when He says “I and the Father are one” and “If you have seen me you have seen the Father?” People who are not content with God’s revelation of glory in Christ Jesus and his power in the gospel, but demand signs and wonders? People who see themselves as the dominant power in this world so that God must depend on them and must gain their approval to do his work? Is ‘Jesus Culture’ your culture? Because, friends, it isn’t Jesus’s.
“…Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. See,I have told you beforehand. So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” Matthew 24:23-27An Open Letter to Friends and Fans of Jesus Culture