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Charismatic Character Clash

Journalist and pastor debate restoration for disgraced revivalist Todd Bentley.
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After ducking scrutiny that followed the Lakeland Revival's abrupt end in August 2008, Todd Bentley resurfaced this month. The Canadian Pentecostal disappeared from the public eye in August after filing for separation from his wife. Issuing a statement through the pastor overseeing his restoration process, Bentley said he was "sorry for the hurt and confusion that my decisions have caused the body of Christ." He indicated that he was pursuing a return to ministry in order to "fulfill God's call on my life."

Bentley fell even faster than he had climbed to prominence in 2008. He became a viral sensation during a healing revival that ran 100 consecutive nights and attracted 30,000 visitors per week. His renown spread with reports of his unusual healing tactics and claims that he had raised 25 people from the dead, all over the phone. But the Florida-based event could not survive Bentley's divorce and mounting criticism. One critic, Charisma editor J. Lee Grady, faulted Bentley for sending the charismatic movement into a "tailspin." He quoted an anonymous Pentecostal evangelist who said, "I'm now convinced that a large segment of the charismatic church will follow the Antichrist when he shows up because they have no discernment."

Grady said he groaned when he learned from the March 9 statement what Bentley had done since August. After divorcing his wife, Shonnah, he married Jessa Hasbrook, a former intern. The statement provided no update on Bentley's ex-wife. Grady also found fault with how Bentley's ministry was characterized by Rick Joyner, who once counseled Jim Bakker and has taken Bentley under his wing.

From Grady's perspective, gifts trumped his character in Joyner's decision to aid Bentley's return to ministry. The ends seemed to justify the means. "From the time I first met him nearly ten years ago," Joyner said of Bentley, "I knew that he had an extraordinary purpose and a gift of faith for the miraculous that would be desperately needed in these times." He closed the statement with an appeal for funds to launch Fresh Fire USA, Bentley's new ministry, now headquartered at Joyner's church in South Carolina.

"As we have been constantly reminded, the Lord had great patience with sinners, but He had none for the self-righteous," Joyner said, anticipating the inevitable criticism for his work with Bentley. "We're all here because He had mercy on us, and we know we still need it. However, we also know that true repentance and restoration can only come if we refuse to compromise the clear biblical standards for morality and integrity."

Joyner's argument hardly placated Grady. "What is most deplorable about this latest installment in the Bentley scandal is the lack of true remorse," Grady responded. He wondered how Bentley could accept responsibility for his share of the divorce and not repent of his decision to pursue the relationship with Hasbrook and marry her soon thereafter. And he asked why Bentley had not sought reconciliation with his first wife. Then Grady's argument escalated.

"Many Christians today have rejected biblical discipline and adopted a sweet, spineless love that cannot correct," Grady said. "Our grace is greasy. No matter what an offending brother does, we stroke him and pet him and nurse his wounds while we ignore the people he wounded. No matter how heinous his sin, we offer comforting platitudes because, after all, who are we to judge?"

Joyner and Grady's exchange raises a host of questions about the nature of forgiveness and qualifications for ministry. Their public debate was intensely personal. Admitting he had no time for tact, Joyner took issue with Grady's qualifications for judging. In so doing, he seemed to confirm Grady's cause for concern about ends justifying means. "If you are such [a] judge of this what gives you the credentials?" Joyner asked Grady on March 12. "What moves of God have you led? What have you built?" He went so far as to allege that Grady's judgment matched Bentley's infidelity in the economy of sin.

Joyner's indignation reflects a common misconception about judgment. Elsewhere he faults Grady for violating Matthew 18 and airing his concern publicly before going to Bentley personally. But this pattern for church discipline, taught by Jesus himself, presupposes that local church leaders will need to hold one another accountable to God's standards. Similarly, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 5:12, "For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?" Christians must judge one another in this way to preserve the church's moral witness and warn one another against sin.

But if church leaders will judge the body of Christ in order to protect it, they must be marked by godly character. And that's exactly the standard for leadership that Paul lays out in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. As they represent God in positions of authority, overseers must demonstrate God's communicable attributes, including love, patience, and fidelity. In a Christian of godly character, gifting such as knowledge, prophecy, or teaching brings glory to God alone. It does not exalt the gifted but the Gift Giver.

As Joyner suggests, King David's example shows us that God can still do mighty things with great sinners. But does God want us to learn from David's story that infidelity should be no impediment to ministry? God deposed other leaders, including Saul, when they had sinned against him. He spared David this fate because of the covenant he initiated to preserve the David kingdom forever (2 Sam. 7:14-16), culminating in Jesus. The outcome of David's life warns us against learning the wrong lessons. David's sin undermined his leadership permanently. His son Absalom rebelled and chased the king from the city of David (2 Sam. 15).

To be sure, God's Word commands Christians to forgive, because God has forgiven them (Col. 3:13). But this forgiveness does not trump judgment as properly exercised in church discipline. And it cannot erase the temporal consequences of sin. Character, not gifting, is a leader's most important asset. This is the means God has ordained to accomplish his ends.

Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.



Related Elsewhere:

See Christianity Today's earlier article, "Leaving Lakeland | The Florida Outpouring revival concerned Pentecostal leaders." (August 12, 2008)

Cary McMullen of The Lakeland Ledger has covered the Bentley story in detail.

Previous Theology in the News columns are available on our site.

December
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