Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Todd Bentley and the Florida Revival

Having not posted for some months, this is a longer one to make up for lost (or should I say gained) time.

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Cripples walking, the deaf hearing, the blind seeing, broken arms re-fusing, cancer disappearing, even the dead being raised?

Since April this year, what many are calling a huge “healing outpouring” has been taking place in Lakeland, Florida, USA. Under the ministry of a 32 year old Pentecostal evangelist, Todd Bentley, it seems thousands are claiming to have been healed. And it is not just those who attend the revival meetings. In truly 21st century style, this revival is being beamed worldwide across the internet and God TV, with emails and testimonies constantly coming into Florida that speak of healings in or through those who have been watching.

This makes the scale of this phenomenon huge. Literally millions have been able to watch. Yet Bentley encourages as many as can to come. His vision is for people to attend Lakeland, “receive God’s glory” or “touch” and then “give it away” by returning to their home church and praying for others, so that they may that experience healing or just the manifest presence of God.

Principles

How does one asses such events? Their details can be easily found on the Fresh Fires website and by putting “Todd Bentley” into Google or YouTube.

First we must clarify some principles from the Bible:

1. We must be cautious of to quickly denouncing such things as demonic if we struggle with them. This was after all what led the Pharisees to blaspheme the Holy Spirit (Matt 12v24-32).

2. Nevertheless, we are called to “test” everything (1 Thess 5v21).

3. In particular, we are warned that “false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and miracles to deceive even the elect – if that were possible.” (Matthew 24v24). More than that, Jesus regularly plays down the miracles, knowing how fickle belief on the basis of them can be, and in order to stress a preference for hearing and believing his words (Jn 2v23-25; 14v11). Likewise Paul speaks against those who “demand miraculous signs” in such a way that takes attention from the message of the cross (1 Cor 1v18-25).

4. More than that, we are warned against accepting someone as from the Lord because they are what some might call an “anointed” speaker. Again, Paul speaks against looking for wisdom that is not the wisdom of God in the gospel (1 Cor 1v18-25; 3v10-15). He also implies that the “super-apostles” that were leading the Corinthians astray were good and eloquent speakers (2 Cor 11v5-6).

5. We know that false prophets will be not obvious but convincing, for Satan masquerades as “an angel of light” and his servants as “servants of righteousness” (2 Cor 11v14). Again, Jesus declares that false prophets come in “sheep’s clothing” – that is, with the appearance of being one of his flock (Matt 7v13).

6. The means Jesus gives us for discernment is in many senses simple: “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matt 7v16-17). In other words, no-matter how much a false prophet may confess Christ, their lack of the genuine Spirit of God will show itself through the cracks. And the wider NT is clear that this bad fruit will be seen in either their teaching or their lifestyle. So in combating the “super-apostles” in Corinth, Paul stresses (a) that they preach a different Jesus and different gospel from the apostolic one (2 Cor 11v4), and (b) that his own faithfulness is proved by his sufferings and his desire to boast in his weakness rather than the sort of spiritual revelations the super-apostles seemed to glory in (2 Cor 11v16-12v11).

7. It seems that some who should be classed false prophets may be in a sense “misguided.” That is, they may consider themselves Christians, but in fact not be. So Jesus declares that on the last day some will say: “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me you evildoers!’ (Matt 7v22-23). Interestingly here, these people were conducting what seemed to be a genuinely miraculous ministry, and “in the name of Jesus.” Yet still they were deluded.

8. The fact that a genuine miracle is experienced then, does not necessarily mean that we should accept the ministry of the one performing it.

Assessment

Having clarified this scriptural principles, one cannot help but have concern about what is taking place in Lakeland.

The miracles

It is always hard to assess genuine spiritual experience within the hyped atmosphere of the revival meeting. No doubt, alongside real experiences of God in these contexts, others caught up in the moment assume all sorts of feelings may be God given. Nevertheless, miracles seem to be occurring outside that context as people watch on their TVs, or as others pray for them – sometimes without their knowledge. And it seems hard to claim these are all fabrications.

Yet we have seen that Jesus explicitly taught that we should not to try and discern what is of God by the performance of miracles per se, even though these were the marks of apostleship, and even though they may have genuinely occurred and been done in Jesus’ name.

Moreover, reflection on how miracles are being dealt with in the revival meetings do raise questions:[1]

1. The focus on them is a far cry from the way Jesus plays them down in the gospels.

2. Although Bentley does seek to point people through the miracles to Jesus, I have heard no coherent gospel proclamation alongside them. And this is a far cry from the model of the apostles, especially that of Paul in 1 Corinthians 1-2 and Peter in Acts 3.

3. In ever instance that I saw Bentley prays specifically for an individual on stage who desired healing, an instant healing did not occur. Rather he boldly claims healing, shouts for it to happen, but moves off to another candidate before something definitely miraculous has taken place. This happened with a paralysed woman whose legs only started moving slightly. This happened in a phone conversation with a woman who he claimed would have a new liver or kidney. In one case a crippled boy spoke of a dream in which he was running across a stadium. The meeting was taking place in a stadium and Bentley claimed that this was fulfilment. Yet the boy could stagger but not run. These all therefore seemed partial restorations that one might be able to explain on the basis of the individuals’ sheer belief. Again, they were a far cry from the full and instantaneous healings of the NT. Moreover, stories are starting to come in of so called healings that only lasted days. Indeed, one Pastor Larry Reed was apparently declared as healed from cancer by Bentley, only to die from it the following week!

4. As for the testimonies coming in from elsewhere. These too were somewhat suspect. A teacher who had been to the meetings spoke of how she had been praying for her pupils. Yet one of them died, and then before they operated to remove her organs came back to life. Now this was certainly remarkable. But can it be boldly claimed as a healing linked with the revival?

I guess the problem in all this is the hyped setting in which things are occurring. There is just not settled way of establishing the genuine from the spurious.

Lifestyle

In fairness, the above are just question marks over some aspects of the healings. However there are much clearer problems with the areas Jesus and the apostles urge us to consider in assessment – Bentley’s “life and doctrine.”

1. He speaks openly of his spiritual revelations in which he has met King David, Abraham and an angel, and in which he has visited heaven. Yet his whole manner here is the exact opposite of that of Paul who had experienced deeply profound things of a similar nature, but saw it as proud to boast in them as the super-apostles did (2 Cor 12v1-12).

2. Likewise, when one can hardly equate his ministry style with the fruit of the spirit which includes, love, peace, patience and gentleness (Gal 5v22). This seems so obvious as to be laughable. But Bentley unashamedly speaks of the Holy Spirit telling him to kick a suffering believer in the face with his “biker boot”, “leg drop” another, bang the legs of a cripple up and down like a “baseball bat” and much more. Certainly some strange actions surrounded the miracles of Jesus and the apostles – spitting in the eye, handkerchiefs giving healing etc. But no-where do we see anything of a violent nature. Could it be that what Bentley thinks is the Holy Spirit speaking to him, is just his own creative imagination or something worse?

Now I have asked myself whether these things can be put down simply to Bentley’s imperfections, for none of us minister faultlessly. However, we must consider the fact that Jesus and the apostles explicitly encourage us to look to fruit as the test of a false-prophet. And so it is not unreasonable on this basis to expect the Lord to ensure that someone who is genuine and who is involved in such a large scale work is in fact “blameless” as the NT calls ministers to be. Indeed, it would raise questions about the reliability of Christ’s teaching in its entirety, if having said what he did he then chose to use those who don’t bear good fruit. How then could we know he meant what he said in other areas?

I might only add at this point, that to my view Bentley doesn’t display an especially proud attitude, but more a certain immaturity of personality caught up in the excitement of everything. It may well be that he is not therefore consciously deluded.

Doctrine

  1. Other than urging people to enter a relationship with God, I have not heard Bentley preach the gospel and so it is impossible to assess what his gospel is. However the very fact he is not clearly teaching it is call for concern. Surely God’s purpose in displaying signs of the kingdom is to authenticate the preaching of the kingdom (Heb 2v1-4).
  2. In his organisation’s statement of faith we read: “We recognize that God is continually restoring truth and light to His Church. Therefore, we place no limit on further revelation; however, each must be substantiated according to the Scriptures.” This probably means no more than the general charismatic view that prophecy continues today. But we should note that the general charismatic view holds that in post-apostolic times the church can expect no new revelation of doctrine or ethics, but only of more circumstantial matters. In the light of this, it is concerning indeed that Bentley speaks of his insights into the nature of heaven. This is to fly in the face of the church’s convictions throughout history, and suggests that Bentley is not actually submitting to scripture on this matter or the wisdom of the wider church. If his visions are genuine, they can surely be taken to give new doctrine on the next world. Yet we are told that the Son speaks in these last days through his original apostles (Heb 1v1; 2v1-4). Given that, we should be sceptical indeed of any who claim God has told them to share insights that would effectively provide new doctrinal revelation.
  3. In terms of justification for the healings, Bentley preached a sermon whose basic argument was: The Lord’s prayer is for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven, in heaven there is no sickness, therefore we can expect no sickness amongst his people on earth. Though superficially convincing, this is an astonishingly weak argument: (a) Because God’s will is not actually for restored bodies in heaven now. It is for resurrected bodies in a new creation after Christ returns. (b) Even if this future will of God were to be present today, we would see people receiving glorified bodies not healed bodies. (c) “Will” in the Lord’s prayer is most likely to do with godly living – i.e. God’s kingdom coming in the sense of his rule coming in human hearts. God’s will currently being done in heaven is that of moral perfection in angels and deceased souls. (d) The NT clearly teaches that God’s will is often that we suffer some physical affliction. Consider Paul’s thorn in the flesh (2 Cor 12v7-10) – possibly poor eyesight (Gal 6v11). Consider Timothy’s “frequent illnesses” (1 Tim 5v23). Consider Epaphroditus’ illness (Phil 2v25-30). These were thoroughly godly men, who certainly didn’t lack faith. Yet God chose to display his power through their weakness.

Claims

This is the final area that raises course for concern.

What do we make of someone who claims to have met Jesus, Paul, King David and Abraham; to have visited heaven itself; to have seen visions akin to those in revelation; to have seen an angel called Emma?[2]

Without such claims, we might suggest Bentley was genuine, but perhaps a bit immature and irresponsible in how he is ministering his gifts. But with these claims, we surely have only a number of options open to us. Either…

  1. He did not experience these visions, and so is deceiving vast numbers of people to his own gain.
  2. He did not experience these visions, but somehow deluded himself into thinking he did.
  3. He did experience these visions, but they were not from God, meaning that he is mentally disturbed.
  4. He did experience these visions, but they were not from God, meaning that he is demonically possessed.
  5. He did see all these things and they were of God. In which case he should be treated as at least equivalent to the apostles John and Paul who had similar encounters. Moreover, his revelations should be recorded as scripture as they teach God’s will for us today and give insights into the NT letters.

In short, there is no half way house. Either we totally reject Bentley as deceitful, disturbed, delusional or demonic, or we give him a status given no-one else in the last 2000 years. And let’s pause on this last possibility. This would be to equate a blaspheming man who kicks people in the face as he heals them with the greatest and most godly apostles!

Bentley’s claims in many ways are therefore his undoing. They alone show how cautious we really must be. Yet combined with our concerns over how he conducts his miracles and over his life and doctrine, there really are substantial reasons for rejecting his ministry.

Having said this, we should say more on his claims. This link outlines them from Bentley’s own pen. And even a cursory read of it should start to raise alarm bells.

Bentley writes: “[Paul] was saying that, above all, God is releasing the message of the cross, the gospel, in power (preaching and salvation), but not without hidden mysteries and not without revelation. So the message of the hour is actually a twofold message. One: the message of the cross. Two: the message released with hidden mysteries revealed by revelation.”

This is a reference to 1 Corinthians 2. But on exegetical grounds we just cannot accept this was Paul’s message. The mysteries he was talking about were the gospel, not something else (see Eph 1v9, 3v2-13). Bentley is back to the charismatic drum about needing something in addition to scripture. I do not doubt prophecy can occur today. But can he really expect us to believe that the one who said “I resolve to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified” actually meant “I resolved to know nothing except Christ crucified and the need for hidden mysteries and revelations?” 1 Corinthians 12-14 are tackling an overemphasis on these things not an underemphasis.

The seriousness of what Bentley is implying is picked up elsewhere: “I want to challenge some of you by asking a few questions. Is there a greater realm than just conferring with other apostles and disciples [even though I believe in all that]? Is there a greater realm than just what man teaches? Is it possible that today by revelation, by the Spirit of revelation, God is teaching believers? Look. Fresh Fire Ministries has a Supernatural Training Centre and I have an internship program.”

Now by “apostles and disciples” he means minister and believers today, not the twelve. But even so, he is denigrating the importance of teaching, which the Bible itself stresses with the greatest of all emphasis (2 Tim 4v1ff, Col 3v16-17). The implication is that what we individually sense the Lord saying is of greater authority than those the Lord has gifted with the ability to teach. It is not too had to see how quickly private interpretations that are justified by tales of supernatural experiences will be given weight over the plain meaning of the Bible. And how quickly this will all benefit Fresh Fire’s training centre! Yet again, these are just the sorts of problems Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to tackle. It may seem less exciting. But in his wisdom God entrusted teachers to the church to teach with prayerful reflection.

Again, Bentley writes: “In this hour God wants us to realize that He is causing a great shift to take place in the church. Today He is releasing keys to unlock some of the hidden mysteries and He is giving crucial revelation to willing believers because God is building up His kingdom “on the earth as it is in heaven” NOW. But it’s for those who want it!”

This is where everything seems to be heading – a new Gnosticism: special knowledge for the willing. But what of the sufficiency of scripture (2 Tim 3v16-17)? What of God speaking in the last days by his Son and by the accredited apostles of his day (Heb 1v1, 2v1-4)?

Bentley also writes: “Paul also said that—in the sense of the revelation of the gospel to the Gentiles—he was the greatest carrier of that revelation to them.” Later he quotes Paul as saying “But what made me a great apostle was my great love . . . my great love . . .” Again, the Paul we know in scripture is the one who would boast in nothing except Christ. He was the one who called himself “the least of the apostles.” This is totally out of character, and just what you would expect a worldly assumption about Paul to be. This should make us doubly unconvinced that the one Todd was speaking to (if he was speaking to anyone) was the real apostle Paul.

One final comment on Bentley’s visions: He mentions Bob Jones. Look him up. He is covered in controversy in terms of his past ministry and admissions to sexual misconduct.

Conclusion

I have tried as far as possible to give Bentley the benefit of the doubt. However, one has to ask, if he was just an evangelist, with no mass miracles linked to him, what would the church make of him? Undoubtedly they would reject his ministry on the grounds given above. Given this, and given the fact that the NT explicitly teaches that we should not let the miraculous be the grounds of accepting someone’s ministry or teaching, I just cannot see how we can do justice to the scriptures by endorsing Todd Bentley.

Is he then demon possessed? Or is he just deceitful, delusional or disturbed? We might answer: “Who knows?” The important thing either way, is that with reluctance and caution, we really are driven to reject his ministry and certainly not allow it to lead us into sympathy with his message. Rather, we should stay well away, recognising that God does not promise healing in this life, but often uses suffering to mature us in faith and display that faith to the world and to the glory of is name.

Of course, if you or a loved one is seriously ill, your desperation may urge you to accept Bentley and perhaps consider going to be healed. To you can I say as gently and as strongly as I can, that if God desires to heal you, he can do it without the need for you to fly to Florida or log on to a website. More than that, whereas the gospels and Acts do display indiscriminate healings, the scriptures teach that God desires to heal Christians differently. They are to call the elders, confess their sins, and be anointed with oil (James 5v14-16).

The reasons for this requirement are obvious. By keeping the healing of believers within the local congregation, the Lord protects against the pastoral fallout of hyped expectation, potential disappointment and the tendency to follow miracle workers who may lead people astray. Rather he ensures we are ministered to with all the gentleness of those who genuinely know and love us and who we can be sure are trustworthy. It strikes me that these protections are the very ones Bentley’s ministry overrides. Who knows the fall out this is already causing? There is certainly no platform for voicing it in the meetings or through the sponsor of the meetings, God TV.

So if you desire healing, just tell the Lord that you are staying away from Forida because you want to honour him by being discerning. Even if you were mistaken, that would be a godly motive. And then go and see your pastor to ask for prayer.



[1] Bentley gives words about people’s healing needs. However, when one boy came on stage Bentley asked “how do you want to be healed?” The boy replied “I’ve already been healed.” Bentley interpreted this as certain belief that he was going to be. But it was clear that the boy no longer needed healing and Bentley hadn’t discerned that. With many who come on stage, Bentley slaps them on the forehead or chest with words like “Bamm”, expecting them to fall over in the Spirit into the hands of the catchers. However, on a number of occasions he expects this to happen, only to find it doesn’t. We add these footnotes, because they could be legitimately explained by saying that Bentley doesn’t necessarily know all the Lord will do.

[2] To consider these claims, read the appendix.