(And for those of you who don’t get the reference in the
title, you don’t have children who watch CBeebies.)
Last week I read with interest some of the posts on Richard Hall’s blog
regarding the possible ‘revival’ in Florida associated with the ministry of Todd Bentley. At the time, it was just
interesting reading. On Monday, it became more important for me to grapple with
this for myself. I received an email from my friend Peter Balls, the pastor of Chelmsford Community Church,
a church that has a wonderful heart for the community surrounding the school
where it meets for worship (see, for example, Our Cabin). Peter has invited a number of
local church leaders to meet next month and pray about whether we could do
something together for the kingdom of God in Chelmsford, in the light of the
Florida happenings. I am free on the date he suggests, and will attend.
So I watched one of the YouTube videos that Richard had
posted. What struck me first was the similarity to watching clips of the
dreaded Benny Hinn. The associate with the hand-held radio microphone tells the
big name the story of the person who has come onto the stage to testify. Big
Name then briefly interviews, and then prays, expecting the person to fall
under the power of the Spirit. I started comparing and contrasting this with
what I witnessed in 1995, when I visited the Toronto
Airport Christian Fellowship at the height of the ‘Toronto Blessing’. I
thought this would be instructive, because some supporters and opponents of
Bentley seem to have been making connections.
Here’s what I thought: yes, in Toronto, people could offer
testimonies with the hope of being selected to share it on the main stage
during one of the evening renewal meetings. Yes, they would be interviewed and
prayed for. They normally fell under the power of the Spirit. However – I never
had any worries while I was there that they were being pushed in order to fall.
Sometimes I was sitting quite close to the stage: I think I would have noticed
anything that would have made me suspicious. Furthermore, the person leading
the meeting changed from night to night, and so no personality cult developed.
Not only that, the vast majority of prayer ministry there happened at the back
of the auditorium. It was not a show. (You can legitimately debate the way they
asked people receiving prayer to stand on lines marked ten feet apart, with
‘catchers’ behind them. Their reply was that in a culture that resorted quickly
to litigation, they had to protect themselves, and they preferred to risk the
charge that they were suggesting people should fall. Every night I was there, I
accompanied one of their team who was praying for people, and at close hand, I
never saw anyone pushed.)
However, with Bentley, I’m less convinced. Naturally, I have
only the evidence of the YouTube videos. That is inferior to the close personal
observation I was able to engage in at Toronto. However, it looked to me as if
there was movement of the hand and arm as he laid his hand on people’s
foreheads. At least one man in the video didn’t go down to the floor
immediately, and Bentley laid his hand on him two or three times until he did.
Strictly, I’m not offering conclusive proof, but I am disturbed enough about
If that’s what happened, what might it mean? I have no doubt
that falling under the power of the Spirit is a legitimate experience of God.
It has happened to me some times, and it is a feeling that the body cannot cope
with the presence of God. (By the way, I don’t call it being ‘slain in the
Spirit’. That’s an awful term, and as far as I’m concerned, the only people who
have ever been slain in the Spirit were Ananias and Sapphira in Acts chapter
5.) But if you asked all the responsible church leaders who were heavily
involved in the ‘Toronto Blessing’ at least in this country, they would have
said that the outward manifestation was not itself the proof of the Spirit’s
work. Certainly, that was the line I heard David Pytches hold. The
evidence of the Spirit’s work is the fruit. Outward signs at the time may be
commentary on the manifest presence of the Holy Spirit, or they may be
‘fleshly’ human responses.
If that were the case, why would anyone push someone to the
ground? One possibility might be insecurity. Certain immature charismatic
cultures want to see ‘falling under the power’ as the clear sign that God is at
work. Suppose Bentley or others felt they needed to ‘prove’ they were men or
women of God: they might then find it tempting to do something like that. I
don’t know the man, I’m just speculating. But I do know that many Christians,
leaders included, get their sense of security from the wrong source. There is a
great pressure to show results (and not least in elements of North American
Christianity). Does Bentley feel he has to prove he’s getting results? Were
that to be the case for anyone, the antidote is to know that our security is in
the Triune God, and in grace. God has made us in his image; in Christ, he has
redeemed us in love at immeasurable cost; the Holy Spirit indwells us. Results
don’t make us loved and accepted by God: grace does. Someone not acting out of
grace is capable of unintentionally hurting people.
However, it could be worse. It could be a show of power.
‘Look at me and my power.’ If someone takes that attitude, then s/he is trying
to stand in the place of God. Of course, in Bentley’s case he is quick to
attribute the healings to God. However, that falls by the wayside is the rest
of a person’s demeanour is of the ‘Look at me’ variety. While I don’t believe
the nonsense about just being channels for God (it’s rather like ‘worm
theology’ – ‘O Lord, I am just a worm’) and I believe that God uses
personalities, I believe that in every way we must be quick to give the glory
to God and deflect it from ourselves. It comes back to the old Corrie ten Boom quote
about compliments. She said that when she received a compliment, she saw it
like a bunch of flowers. She enjoyed the perfume, and then said, ‘Lord, these
Then we have the question of the healings. Richard referred
in one of his posts to the Gospel story of the ten lepers, where Jesus tells
them to go and show themselves to the priests. I have long felt this is an
important test of healing. Some months ago, a friend of mine was diagnosed with
cancer. At one point, after prayer, he believed he was healed. I understand he
came off his medication. A month or two ago, I attended his funeral. I believe
that God can and does heal in response to prayer (just as I also believe he
gives grace when healing doesn’t materialise). However, if God has done
something like that, it is verifiable. Rushing someone up to testify before
there has been time to test the claim is dangerous. There may be other
explanations for short-term improvements or remissions. In that respect, I
think the Toronto church made mistakes. Clearly, Bentley does, too. If God has
done something, it sticks. It doesn’t matter if we have to wait awhile before
that person gives public testimony. It is probably better for the Gospel that
Other issues to consider include finances and politics. With
regard to politics, I found the Toronto church was dangerously interested in
Christian Zionism. That isn’t just a question of politics, it’s also the desire
to feel part of God doing something amazing today, but that desire does lead to
a lack of discernment, and hence to a cultural captivity to a kind of politics
that doesn’t always favour the well-being of individuals, especially the poor.
If we care enough about someone’s physical plight to pray for their healing,
then it seems concomitant to me that we care for their social needs, too.
Unfortunately, many Christians don’t make that link. I’ve yet to hear any
connection with ministry with the poor and social justice from Bentley, and –
if he fits the rest of the stereotypes – I’m not expecting to hear anything.
Perhaps I do him an injustice: I hope so, but I suspect not.
Then, what about the issue of finances and the handling of
money? Billy Graham led the move towards financial accountability of
evangelical Christians in the States, especially after the TV evangelist
scandals of the 1980s. I couldn’t find Fresh
Fire on the Evangelical Council for
Financial Accountability website. That may be because FF is a Canadian
organisation, not American, but since Bentley seems to work a lot in the
States, I would have thought he’d have had an official US operation. Maybe
someone who knows the North American scene better than me can offer an
explanation, but it initially looks worrying.
To some people, all that I have written so far will elicit a
reaction of ‘So what?’ It’s all obvious stuff on one level. However, what if
Bentley is dubious? On the other hand, even if he’s perfectly genuine, we need
a lot of reflection on the question of why such people flourish. Yes, there is
what my blogging friend Kim Fabricius calls on one or Richard Hall’s posts
‘gullibilitus’, but why are people gullible? I’ve already mentioned two
paragraphs above that people want to believe they are part of something epic in
the purposes of God. Some believe so in the light of the ‘prophetic movement’
that often speaks in large, visionary terms about what is going on in the
world. Days of small things are despised.
In addition, there is the whole ‘Touch not the Lord’s
anointed’ problem. This mantra has been repeated for decades in certain
Pentecostal and charismatic circles. In its rightful original context in
Scripture, it captures the humility of the fugitive David in the days before he
was King of Israel, while his predecessor, Saul (ironically, a classic example
of someone who practised spiritual abuse) was hounding him. It is never in
Scripture a reason to accept everything a certain person says uncritically, and
surely it is highly unflattering to be compared to Saul! Nevertheless, ‘the
Lord’s anointed’ gets elevated. David was very aware of Saul’s frailties and
sins. In our day, ‘Touch not the Lord’s anointed’ is misused to build up people
who ought instead to be removed by church disciplinary procedures.
Worse than that, it is used to create a climate of fear.
‘Woe to you if you speak against the person the Lord has chosen.’ That is
unhealthy and dangerous, creating the conditions for abuse.
‘Touch not …’ is also used as the trump card against
cynicism. Yes, we need to guard against that in the church, although we should
always remember the saying that a cynic is a failed idealist. What needs
recovery is the gift of discerning spirits. Discernment is vital in the church,
and a valuable part of church leaders’ gifts. When someone doesn’t permit me to
weigh things carefully like the Berean people of Acts 17, I have every right to
This post has started with Todd Bentley, but has spun off
onto wider issues that may or may not be relevant to him. On Bentley himself,
the jury is out, although I have seen enough to be concerned and need
convincing. He could be a holy man. He could be a charlatan. He could be a
mixture of sincere Christian and someone with dangerous weaknesses. And which
one of us doesn’t have a major weakness? However, unresolved weaknesses are the
fuel for spiritual abuse. As Marc
Dupont argued ten or so years ago in his book ‘Walking
Out Of Spiritual Abuse’ (and see also his more recent ‘Toxic
Churches’), it is not downright evil people who tend to cause spiritual
abuse: it is those with unresolved ‘baggage’. If Bentley’s behaviour stems from
serious insecurities, then watch out: danger is coming. We must not inhibit a
sincere and open process of discernment. No peer pressures should be allowed to
militate against that.
Before I wrap this up, let me put in a good word for a book
I am reading at present, ready to review for Ministry Today. Rob McAlpine knows a lot about spiritual
abuse in charismatic circles. His ‘Post-Charismatic?’
looks like it will be essential reading on topics like this.