Thursday, 12 January 2017

Supernatural or super-natural? Some thoughts around Bethel Church Redding

A disclaimer: I've never been to Bethel Church in Redding. But over the past few months I've read a couple books from key Bethel leaders. The first was Danny Silk's Culture of Honour: Sustaining a Supernatural Environment. The second was by Bethel's senior leader, Bill Johnson, When Heaven Invades Earth: A Practical Guide to a Life of Miracles. I'll be interacting with these books in this post.

I believe that most people who take time out to write Christian books or lead Christian communities are genuinely seeking after God, and there is usually something I can learn from them. I also believe we need to be in conversation with people who think differently from us to continue learning and seeking what God is saying to us and what he thinks about is.

Three points of critique
1) The titles of both books tell the story. They are both obsessed with the supernatural. Johnson says this:

'Salvation was not the ultimate goal of Christ's coming. It was the immediate target...Without accomplishing redemption, there was no hope for the ultimate goal--which was to fill each born again person with the Holy Spirit. God's desire is for the believer to overflow with Himself, that we might "...be filled with all the fullness of God"...Consider this: we could travel off of this planet in any direction at the speed of light, 186,000 miles a second, for billions of years, and never begin to exhaust what we already know to exist. (p. 71)'

My issue with this statement is not that God is not capable of the miraculous signs and wonders, but the lofty place in which they rest in his thinking. Christ's death on the cross and resurrection three days later was not so we could travel at the speed of light. Redemption was achieved to draw humanity and all of creation into right relationship with God.

Moreover, why should we elevate the supernatural over the way God uses everyday, ordinary acts to draw people to himself: someone offering a friend down the road a meal because they're unwell, speaking a kind word to someone who has had a rough day, the church inviting less-than-popular folks to join in their fellowship because of an unwavering belief that everyone is made in God's image. Why are those acts less important, less spiritual than miracles?

In fact, I could argue that God has been at work helping us understand biology, chemistry and medicinal studies so we can create cures for illnesses like smallpox which has claimed many lives. This may lack the 'supernatural' edge but is no less miraculous or the provision of God.

In my opinion, the elevation of the 'supernatural' over the 'natural' has more to do with Greek philosophy than it does the Bible. Plato taught that what we sense with our 5 senses is merely a pale reflection of what we can't see: our intellects and the world of the gods. However, the Bible teaches that God created this world and that it is good. While the world is corrupted by sin, it still retains in some sense that goodness. Christ, in his death and resurrection, wasn't seeking to do away with God's original creation, but seeking to restore it. God doesn't hate what is natural. Indeed, God created it to be part of our ordinary, everyday lives. And so God takes those moments and uses them for his glory as he does with the miraculous. It's not either/or, but both/and. God uses normal, human practices as he uses supernatural ones to bring glory to his name.

2) A second critique of these books is the way they talk about revelation (not revelation as in the book in the Bible, but revelation as God revealing himself to us). Christians by and large believe that knowing God can only be accomplished through God making himself known to us. Primarily, we come to know God through Scripture (or God reveals himself to us through the Bible). But some have believed that God reveals things directly to them. A famous example is Joseph Smith. He believed he received many direct revelations from God, and from those revelations was born the Church of the Latter Day Saints or the Mormons. In the 2nd Century AD, these kind of direct 'revelations' were called gnosticism and labelled heresy. The early church then gathered what they considered to be the canonical scriptures--which today we call the Bible--to become our standard for understanding who God is and what he says about us. The sustained reflection upon God and the Bible is what we call theology.

I believe Silk and Johnson are close to a modern day form of gnosticism. Silk gives us the best example. In talking about the role of apostles he states:

'It is as though God himself has given blueprints to certain individuals to reproduce Heaven on the earth'

Then about teachers he says:

'Most (Christian) teachers today are fixated on the written Word of God (the written Word of God is the Bible). They say that the Word of God is the source of life and truth on earth. Their value for the Word is much higher than their need for the supernatural. These are the lawyers, scribes and Pharisees of our day...The role of the teacher is to help replicate the processes of the supernatural and then train and equip the saints to cooperate with those processes. (Culture of Honour, 68-70).'

I'm sure Joseph Smith considered himself an apostle.

There must be a dynamic where we listen to God and search what Scripture says. Otherwise we run the risk of having one or two powerful leaders who lead us from God into something else (i.e. Joseph Smith). So the apostles and the prophetic must be informed by Scripture and not the other way round. Further, the hierarchical nature in Silk's five-fold ministry (1. apostles 2. prophets 3. teachers 4. pastors 5. evangelists) makes it difficult to push back on the prophet and apostle as they are 'hearing' or 'seeing' directly from heaven.

This leads me back to gnosticism. While Bethel perhaps doesn't quite fall into that category, it strays very close to it and if left unchecked can become that.

To be fair, Bethel still holds the Bible as authoritative. But in some places it sounds like other forms of revelation are elevated to an uncomfortable degree and the Bible is downplayed.

I do agree though, that our interpretation and understanding of Scripture is lifeless without the work of the Spirit as we read it and hear it preached. Knowing God is not just amassing information. Knowing God is being drawn deeper into relationship with our Creator and Saviour which is the work of the Spirit.

3) The third critique is the way--Johnson in particular--seems to have no time for critics. While no one likes being critiqued, no one person has everything right. My theology is deficient. Johnson's theology is deficient. If we isolate ourselves and only listen to voices that mimic our own, we can easily become inflated with our own ego. The irony here is that Johnson creates a straw man out of 'intellects' saying they are afraid of God's activity in the world and that knowing Scripture leads one to pride (p. 94). The antidote to pride, Johnson argues, is being able to do miracles (p. 90-91).

I personally believe that anyone can be prideful with what they have. Whether we are doing amazing things for God or offering the only thing we can (i.e. serving cups of tea after a Sunday service), we can become prideful. Pride, I suggest, is best dealt with by constantly bringing ourselves to Christ and allowing ourselves to enter into meaningful dialogue with other people...even people who may disagree with me.

Johnson says that someone gave him a book critiquing the Toronto Blessing. Johnson would not give it the time of day and threw it out. While I can sympathise with Johnson that there is not enough time to read all the books I'd like to, the attitude is (in my humble opinion) prideful and not open to entering into conversation. The need to be open to others is especially heightened by events like the Lakeland Revival and how that movement was inseparable from Todd Bentley and the Nine O'Clock Service which descended into chaos after allegations of sexual and spiritual abuse by its leader.

While we may disagree with what the other says, inviting people into conversation and being willing to hear what they have to say is a sign of humility. Maybe this is partly what was in my mind in reading these two books (as it must be clear by now I'm on a different theological side than the Bethelites!).

Three points of appreciation
1) One of the things I appreciate about these books is the unflappable belief that God is at work in the world. While that largely pertains to signs, miracles and wonders, I think we can extend that further. God is at work in the hearts and minds of folks. God is drawing this world to himself. God is healing broken hearts and desperate people. God is doing miracles in all kinds of ways, including the unexplainable, supernatural kind. Once we stop believing that God is at work in the world we might as well agree with Friederich Nietzsche that 'God is dead'.

2) Another thing I appreciate is Johnson's talk about surrendering ourselves to Christ. Paul in Romans 6 talks about becoming slaves to righteousness. We give ourselves to God for his glory and take up life in the Spirit which produces in us, as Galatians says: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

3) A third thing I appreciate about Bethel is the excitement and enthusiasm they bring to many young people in their pursuit of God. While I may disagree about exactly what is causing the excitement (is it Jesus or the 'experience'?) I know that God can use all kinds of things to draw us to himself. For myself, God used an 'ecstatic' experience to make me realise that he was God and I was not. My life since then has never been the same again. Even though I wasn't looking for that experience, God came and found me. I long to see people, young and old, excited about following Jesus and passionate to see his mission done here on earth.

Putting it all together
In my opinion, Bethel has an obsession with the supernatural over and against seeing God at work in the ordinary, everyday. What perhaps frustrates me most is the way they seem to discount the heartfelt and faithful service of many over the years who have humbly and quietly gone about God's business and responding to his call on their lives as second rate simply because they've never done miracles (186-187).

In his book, Participating in God, Paul Fiddes says:

'The New Testament word (for the gifts the Spirit gives) is charismata, but unfortunately this term is frequently drawn into a distinction between two separate realms that are named "the supernatural" and "the natural". Spiritual gifts are often contrasted with natural gifts, and so a kind of spiritual elitism develops, as well as an escapism from the natural world. Usually, more spectacular phenomena like spiritual healing, prophecy, deliverance from evil powers and speaking in tongues are classified as "spiritual" or "supernatural" gifts, and activities like hospitality, generous giving, acts of kindness and efficient administration are dismissed as "merely natural gifts", despite the fact that they appear in a list of charismata in the New Testament (Rom 12:7-13).'

God is indeed at work in the world. And he uses the superstars of the faith, and the barely faithful in his mission. He calls those with 'spiritual' gifts and those who go about doing administrative work for the Kingdom. We participate as Kingdom of God builders as we love those around us, as we seek to know God more, as we gather together in worship and are sent out empowered by God's Spirit in his mission.

Fiddes talks about the Holy Spirit as 'the disturber' (Participating in God, 264). God enters into our lives by his Spirit and disturbs us. He did it to the prophets in the Old Testament. He did it to a group of folks in an upper room on Pentecost. He does it to us today. He breaks into our lives and disturbs us. He calls us and enables us to enter into relationship with Father, Son and Spirit. He disturbs us by doing signs, miracles and wonders. He disturbs us by someone forgiving someone else for a serious crime committed against them. He disturbs us by offering us grace. He disturbs us by calling people we don't like to follow Jesus.

The Spirit is the disturber and he disturbs us in all kinds of ways. And I'm sure he is at work amongst the faithful followers of Christ at Bethel Church in Redding. But he's also at work amongst the struggling parish in a small rural town in New Zealand. And that's because that's who our God is, a God that disturbs us by doing the most unlikely of things with the most unlikely of people.


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