Thesis: The church movement coming out of Bethel-Redding contains many harmful and evil teachings including necromancy, divination, emotional manipulation and trickery, healing on demand (instead of submission to God), and false prophecy.
This post is adapted from two of my Newslines columns in Sword & Trumpet published in the July 2019 (main body) and March 2020 (Epilogue/Part 2) issues.
There is a movement that is sweeping across parts of the conservative Anabaptist world. Some people are packing up and leaving home and church to move to Redding, California while others are staying at home with entirely new beliefs and ways of thinking. I first became interested in the movement because some folks from my community got involved and were wanting to teach others what they had learned. Though it seems novel and either exhilarating or horrifying (depending on which side you’re on), several of the older conservative Anabaptist leaders that I spoke to about this movement said quoting the words of Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun.” They’ve seen this story before: people get all excited about powerful new charismatic ideas and beliefs, but soon the chickens come home to roost, the fruit sown starts to show, and people see the false teaching for what it is. My hope for this column today is to accelerate that process a bit to hopefully save a few more folks from getting hurt or leaving the faith altogether.
Why the disagreement?
First off, I hope you resist the urge to cast this as the charismatics vs. the stodgy German Amish/Mennonites. I find myself at the charismatic end of the conservative Anabaptist spectrum. I think we as conservative Anabaptists in general are not expressive enough, do not pray enough, do not lean on the Spirit enough, and are often unbalanced on the practical/natural side and don’t live enough in the supernatural. I’ve seen AMAZING miracles by God where it served to truly build the Kingdom in places where His word was scarce. I absolutely believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to guide us in discernment and wisdom, often having a very quick, intuitive feel for a person, teaching, or situation, which has been backed up by mountains of objective facts later. I’ve also learned to trust the HS discernment of my brothers and sisters who I’m standing shoulder to shoulder with in the battle for the Kingdom.
I think we can learn a lot from our charismatic brethren. However, not all charismatics are equal. There is a great gulf between the theologically orthodox charismatics (who tend to actually be very conservative in lifestyle as well, compared to the rest of the evangelical world) and the folks at Bethel Redding, of whom I am primarily speaking today. I hope to illustrate this by referencing several charismatics who also notice something very wrong at Bethel. (This is not because I endorse their beliefs, but just to show that this is not about cessationists vs. charismatics.)
Second, let me say that I think I understand the attraction of Bethel.
I especially understand the attraction in churches that aren’t doing much meaningful outreach. Our primary task on earth is to build the Kingdom of Heaven by making disciples of our neighbors. We as conservative Anabaptists have done very poorly with that over the past 50-75 years. We are recently rediscovering our historical Kingdom focus and I’m delighted that that is happening (and I’m doing anything I can to accelerate that trend). But like any shift in thinking, it has advanced unevenly across our mainly congregational, bottom-up churches. Bethel talks a lot about the Kingdom in ways that are appealing to any true disciple of Jesus who understands the Gospel of the Kingdom. However, along with some important correctives Bethel offers, there are some subtle and not so subtle errors that do great damage to the cause of Christ.
I also understand the attraction of power. Power is very attractive. Bethel teaches that we’re all little gods: Jesus was the prototype. He was fully human and we can be exactly like him in healing people and doing other miracles. One of the primary attractions of Bethel and also its greatest error is the idea that we have supernatural power to do miracles on demand.
Arguable vs. Inarguable
I could probably take this whole column writing a sentence or three about every doctrinal bullet point in which Bethel Redding deviates from historical Christian orthodoxy. Bethel’s heterodox beliefs are rarely random. They usually have Biblical backing: out of context and out of proportion Biblical backing, but Biblical backing nonetheless. This makes talking about those things arguable. I don’t want to talk about things that are arguable. I want to devote this column to the things that are inarguable, and which persuaded me that this movement has very dark roots and effects.
I don’t have the space in this column to document these Bethel beliefs and practices the way I wish I could, but I tried to be very careful to establish a pattern from multiple, independent sources before characterizing their beliefs/practices as such. I also tried to give benefit of doubt, not wanting to believe the bad, because there are many sincere, dear people that I love that have gotten sucked into this.
Necromancy: Grave Sucking and Mantles
The first clear heretical teaching is in regard to “grave sucking” and physical mantles. Bethel Redding teaches that the “anointings” and “mantles” of dead prophets and apostles can be gained by physically occupying the space where they had their revivals or where they were buried. This led to the bizarre practice of grave sucking where students from BSSM, the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry (which has the nickname “Christian Hogwarts” from the Harry Potter books’ “Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry”), lay on the graves of deceased preachers to gain their anointing or mantle. Many Bethel critics classify this under the sin of necromancy. (Joseph Mattera is a charismatic “apostle” who wrote “7 Biblical Arguments Against ‘Grave Soaking’” in CharismaNews which explains how this is a terrible teaching even from a charismatic perspective.)
Divination: Tarot Cards
An Australian organization “Christalignment” uses “Christian” tarot cards to tell people’s futures and to reveal their spiritual gifts. Kris Vallotton, a senior pastor at Bethel, first condemned this divination in a Facebook post. But then when he found out the organization was run by the parents of a long-time Bethel pastor, he deleted his post and praised them as “amazing people trying to be destroyed by the fake news media.” Full details here.
There are also really creepy videos available online of Bethel students exhibiting what seems like to me to be demonic possession; certainly drunken behavior that they attribute to the HS. (Eph. 5:15-20 says being drunk and filled with the spirit are opposites, not similar.)
There are other single-source, thinly-documented, or insufficiently researched allegations along these lines that I do not feel comfortable printing, but there is a clear pattern among those allegations of Bethel disciples and leaders engaging in and blessing questionable practices that seem very similar to various dark arts.
Emotional Manipulation and Trickery instead of Actual Healing
The third lies in the dishonesty and emotional manipulation that I saw in Bethel disciples as they tried to heal. When one believes in healing on demand, this behavior is almost necessary to avoid cognitive dissonance.
I was walking into our local Walmart when I spotted a former member of our local Anabaptist community who had since been a student at BSSM. As the scene unfolded, I paused to watch and listen. A lady walked out of the Walmart with a cast on her arm and my friend intercepted her. He asked if he could pray for her arm to be healed. The lady said, “Sure!” So he prayed that it would be healed. He then asked her if it felt better. She very bluntly and honestly said, “No.” He said, “Are you sure it doesn’t feel a little better, even just a little bit?” They went back and forth like this for what seemed like an eternity to me with him trying to persuade her that she had been healed. I wanted to sink into the ground for embarrassment for Jesus, that His name was being abused in this way. This was the behavior of a carnival charlatan or used-car salesman, not a follower of Jesus. (I’ve heard other similar stories as well, such as the one in the fifth section below, so this was not an anomaly.)
This kind of trickery strongly echoes the “healings” of Benny Hinn (who is embraced as a dear brother by the leaders of Bethel) who uses trickery to fake healings. Hinn has been exposed as having fake sick people and doesn’t need to rely as much on emotional manipulation, but both are clear dishonest trickery. The writings of his nephew Costi Hinn who escaped that wealthy charlatan preacher life are excellent commentaries on this brand of “Christianity”.
Healing on Demand
The fourth lies in the belief of healing on demand. They believe that because God wants good for us that it is usually God’s will that people are healed. I don’t understand all their theology behind this, but the practical result/pattern is that it’s healing on demand: When a follower of Jesus filled with the Holy Spirit meets anyone sick, they will heal them, according to Bethel practice and teaching. This flies in the face of even Jesus’ pattern at times saying to His Father, “Not my will, but thine be done.” But more importantly, the end of James 4 tells us that we ought not to be sure about doing even natural things, but ought to say “If the Lord wills”. How much less should we then presume upon doing supernatural things without leaving the decision up to God, whose power it is? James puts it very bluntly when he says, “All such boasting is evil.”
One of our pastors, Gary Miller, recently preached an excellent message laying the Biblical foundation for the idea that we earnestly seek God for healing and then we say “if the Lord wills” and He then chooses whether or not to do a miracle in “The Gift of Healing” on 4/14/2019.
You can also listen to “The God Who Doesn’t Answer Prayer” by Arthur Nisly the same day, which provides a very personal testimony of the power of God and faith even in the midst of unanswered prayer. Arthur is a man who has dedicated his life to building the Kingdom and walking with God. He’s someone who has taken up his cross daily and followed Christ. His life fits Jesus’ warnings of how hard the lives of his disciples will be; not “angel feathers” gold dust “glory cloud” fluttering from the ceiling (another likely fake Bethel miracle that doesn’t fit with Jesus’ teaching). His testimony fits with the Apostle Paul’s “thorn” example of unanswered prayer in 2 Cor. 12:7-9, in stark contrast to Bethel belief.
The fifth lies in false prophecy. This is the final and strongest point, because the Bible warns so strongly against false prophets and because it’s a universal and deep-seated human understanding that when someone says something demonstrably untrue, they’re not to be trusted. False prophecy is also the most clearly and consistently attested attribute of Bethel across every kind of source that I have access to.
It is common in Bethel circles to sit in a circle and prophesy over each other. They try to hear God’s “words” that He wishes to speak to peoples’ lives in the circle. They say something like, “God is telling me that someone in this circle is feeling very discouraged about something in their past. God says that that is forgiven and you should be walking in victory.” These prophecies tend to be very generic and highly likely to apply to someone in the circle (and often apply to multiple people), especially with a dash of confirmation bias, wishful thinking, and trying to avoid cognitive dissonance.
One of the conservative Anabaptist pastors in our community attended a class put on by the same “Walmart” BSSM student mentioned above. One of the classes was teaching local Anabaptists how to prophesy over each other. The pastor told me that what caused him to get up and walk out of that class was when the teacher casually and explicitly endorsed false prophecy as normal and OK. He taught that you will make mistakes in prophesying and it’s all right because you’re practicing and learning how to prophesy. That is a common Bethel teaching and stands directly contrary to Scripture which has extremely harsh words against anyone who prophesies falsely.
This pattern of casual false prophecy was reinforced by a non-Mennonite, charismatic friend of mine who visited Bethel, having heard good things and was going expecting to be blessed. He writes, “We were passing through Redding and decided to stop in and check it out. It felt like a joke: the leaders prayed over the group of us, guessing at ailments and prophesied canned statements over individuals. When we got to pray with a group of individuals, they were controlling, and tried to elicit a reaction from us. [Just like Walmart.] Only one in the group had the spirit of Christ in them. The rest I do not judge their standing with God, but may I say they were not filled with the Holy Spirit? I believe in the power of the HS, in the working of miracles, healings, prophecy, words of knowledge, and speaking in tongues, but I believe a Spirit filled believer will recognize the HS in another individual and can recognize the truth of Jesus Christ. The humility, and piercing truth of Christ is undeniable, and cannot be contrived, or controlled. I felt the individuals we encountered were boxing the HS to their will and not following where the Spirit leads. I know there are imperfect human beings, but the workings of the HS and for those who claim to operate in the Spirit—those things must and can be judged as it is the Spirit that gives power, the Spirit that gives truth, and He is unerring. That is what is so profound about the Christian faith: that a perfect work of God can be performed through the imperfect works of man if he/she is in submission to and working through the power of the HS of God.” [Emphasis added.]
Though the internet is filled with testimonies of ex-Bethel folks whose faith was crushed by the deluge of false prophecies coming from this belief system, none strike quite so close to home as this following story that recently occurred. I won’t use names here (and haven’t in previous stories) because it’s not about singling people out, but it’s about learning and growing.
A man who was a conservative Anabaptist pastor got involved with Bethel, so stepped down from his role as pastor and left his church. He had held Bible Studies to teach others what he had learned, as is common. He discovered recently that he had terminal cancer. He and his family received multiple sure words of prophecy that he would be healed and they posted them online for all to see. He died. They then posted prophesies from multiple prophets that he would go see Jesus and be given the choice to remain in Heaven or return to earth and be raised from the dead and that he would choose to return. He did not rise from the dead, so his family relented and buried him. (I would like to commend his family for their honesty through all this. They’re not trying to hide this at all. Best I can tell, they’ve been very transparent. That speaks very well to the sincerity of their hearts.)
My heart breaks in grief for this family and it also breaks in grief for the name of Jesus being defamed through false prophecy. There is no reason to say “Thus saith the Lord” when you don’t know that. It’s categorically wrong in the Bible and leads to devastating results. Don’t do that to yourself or to God’s reputation.
Here is a collection of verses that speak about false prophecy, which seem very directly aimed at what we see with Bethel Redding:
“[God said,] ’But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak… that same prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.” (Deu. 18:20-22)
“For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.” (2 Tim. 4:3)
“For false Christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.” (Matt. 24:24)
“For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve.” (Rom. 16:18)
“Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord.’” (Jer. 23:16)
“And the Lord said to me: ‘The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds.’” (Jer. 14:14)
“And her prophets have smeared whitewash for them, seeing false visions and divining lies for them, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord God,’ when the Lord has not spoken.” (Ez. 22:28)
“They have seen false visions and lying divinations. They say, ‘Declares the Lord,’ when the Lord has not sent them, and yet they expect him to fulfill their word.” (Ez. 13:6)
If you’re someone who has believed the teachings of Bethel, it’s never too late to turn around. We have all sinned and come short of God’s glory and brought His name into disrepute. Each of us has done so in different ways. I have done so, often in sincerity and sometimes in rebellion. You’re not alone and it’s not too late. There is forgiveness, there is mercy, there is healing. Reach out to someone you trust, who can help you walk through this.
The teachings of Bethel-Redding are not of God. We are commanded to not try to communicate with dead people in necromancy or engage in divination through tarot cards, no matter what kinds of Christian labels we put on it. The actual power of God does not need ever need to be propped up by emotional manipulation to persuade people that God has done a work in their life against all evidence—No! The power of God is obvious and indisputable! We should always entreat our father for healing, never demand it. When Jesus called on His Father, even He prayed, “Not my will but thine be done.” And finally, the most clear and damning evidence of the rotten fruit of Bethel-Redding is the many examples of false prophecy they’ve left in their wake. They’ve prophesied on many occasions that people would be healed or rise from the dead and they did not. The Bible tells us very clearly that those are false prophets and we should not listen to them.
As a followup to my column about Bethel Church in the July 2019 issue, Bethel has continued to flaunt their false prophecy, this time causing the name of Jesus to be blasphemed worldwide1 with their social media campaign to #WakeUpOlive. The two year old daughter of a Bethel Music musician tragically died. So they prophesied over and over that she would be raised from the dead. They held huge prayer and praise services to “with confidence wield [resurrection which is] what King Jesus paid for.” Olive’s mom (who is a singer for Bethel Music) continued by saying in various Instagram posts, “It’s time for her to come to life.” and then finally with a bold, direct, false prophecy of “You will live.” A singer from a related Christian music group Hillsong chimed in with an analysis of the #WakeUpOlive movement as “THIS. IS. WORSHIP.”
It is with deep sadness that I believe this incident is a clear warning from God to me personally to avoid Bethel and Hillsong music. Their singers are false prophets. Judge for yourself. I say this with reluctance and pain because I like some of their music on the basis of lyrics and music alone. I also have a lot of friends who may reject Bethel’s false doctrine and false prophecy, but still wholeheartedly embrace their music. Why would we want to listen to music by false prophets who defame the name of Christ?
In regard to #WakeUpOlive, there is a principle used by Nigerian prince email scammers (who try to persuade spam recipients that they are a Nigerian prince who needs help moving money out of the country in exchange for a generous cut of the proceeds) in which they deliberately make their pitches unbelievable so that only the most gullible with the least critical thinking and discernment respond to their proposal. They self-select as the ideal mark. Like Nigerian scammers, I doubt the leaders of Bethel are deluded. Leaders of such groups rarely are. They knew when they began this #WakeUpOlive spectacle and publicity that Olive would not be raised and that it would very publicly mark them as false prophets to 99.9% of the population, followers of Jesus and atheists alike. But they know with such wide publicity, they will very effectively reach those still prone to believe such contradictory false prophecies. History is replete with passionate believers in false prophecies even after proven as such. There’s always an explanation for why the prophecy was not quite right and why there’s a new prophecy to believe in instead. There is nothing new under the sun.
I need to make one correction to my previous column where I did not state their doctrine strongly enough because I didn’t feel I had sufficient proof (and was trying to be very careful to not misrepresent their beliefs). I wrote, “The fourth lies in the belief of healing on demand. They believe that because God wants good for us that it is usually God’s will that people are healed.” I put it in “usually” terms because I had not heard it authoritatively said as “always”, but since then I’ve found the following on Bill Johnson’s (founding pastor of Bethel Redding) website:
Is it 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.
Jessica Miller further explains in “The tragedy of Bethel’s #WakeUpOlive: Why it isn’t always God’s will to heal” in Premier Christianity:
This teaching is based on some verses which are pulled out of context, such as, ‘by his wounds we are healed’ (Isaiah 53:5). It’s often claimed that Jesus never said ‘no’ to anyone who asked for a healing. This can sound compelling at first, but is factually wrong. There are examples where Jesus chose not to heal people who were seeking a healing (see Matthew 13:58, Mark 1:29-38, John 5:3-8). There are other New Testament examples where people remained sick or died (1 Timothy 5:23, 2 Timothy 4:20, 1 Corinthians 11:30) even though the apostles had been given authority to ‘heal the sick’ and ‘raise the dead’ (Matthew 10:1-8). We need a more nuanced theology than the Word of Faith movement provides.
[…] when you study Matthew 10:8 in context, it is clear from that passage that the twelve were also commanded to preach only to the Jews (10:5-6) and to not take any money with them (10:9-11). This is a very selective hermeneutic if we are going to pull verse 8 totally out of context and apply it to our lives today while ignoring the rest of the passage. Preaching the scriptures out of context has the destructive effect of making God out to be a liar. […]
The Bible actually teaches that ‘no’ is a possible answer to our prayers (Luke 22:42, 2 Corinthians 12:8-10) so the theology that God always says ‘yes’ is conclusively unbiblical.
Furthermore, from Bill Johnson’s website:
Take risk – pray for people (NOT – ‘if it be thy will’ kind of prayer. In the thousands of people I’ve seen healed, I’ve never seen anyone healed from that kind of prayer.2) It’s hard to hurt someone’s faith by praying for a miracle. Not praying for a miracle gives them no chance for increased faith. That is what hurts faith. The real goal is to show people God’s love. And faith grows in the display of God’s love. His love is seen when we show compassion and display God’s power.
Jesus, the divine son of God, prayed to God the Father, “Not my will but thine be done.” but Bethel puts us above Jesus by saying we should demand and claim what Jesus has “promised”. Also, it’s a straight up falsehood that it’s hard to hurt someone’s faith by “claiming” and prophesying a miracle instead of requesting “if it be thy will”. There have been a large number of people’s faith that has been destroyed or nearly destroyed by Bethel’s false prophecy because they came to believe that the Bethel prophecies and teachings were of God and then when it was proven false, God was “proven” false.
In a Sunday School class where we discussed the beliefs of Bethel-Redding, the teacher, Jason King, a young father himself, very effectively pointed out that God is our father. As a father himself, Jason delights to give good gifts to his children, but is far less inclined to do so if they demand and claim it rather than asking respectfully in a way that defers to the father’s far greater wisdom.
We can have legitimate, passionate disagreements about how and when God heals or chooses to do other miracles, but there is no debate to be had about outright, objective false prophecy.
1 This is not theoretical. The internet is filled with triumphant atheists mocking and cursing God because #WakeUpOlive “proves” He is imaginary. Bethel set it up like Elijah with the prophets of Baal, but in reverse. Of course, we realize that false prophets cannot disprove God, but they can give easy reasons to blaspheme and destroy the faith of many.
2 I have seen people healed from that kind of prayer.