“Revivalist preacher Todd Bentley refused entry to UK” -thus states the Guardian headline. I am no fan of Todd Bentley, but having seen him live, and having friends who are supporters of his, I am more than normally interested in what’s happening here. The story raises a number of important issues.
A few years ago I went with some friends to a meeting in Dudley to hear him preach: he had the reputation of having a radical style but with dramatic healings taking place in his meetings. He was one of a number of celebrity Christian preachers, often with links to God TV, who would tend to draw large crowds whenever they appeared in this country.
I went with a sense of expectancy, but was disappointed to find that he had a highly manipulative style which, before anything else happened, resulted in many of the audience dropping cash at his feet. It was never explained what this money would be used for. Nevertheless, I spoke with a few who’d been at the front, who said they had seen dramatic events which they took to be of supernatural origin.
Shortly afterwards the Florida Outpouring took place(see here for a helpful review). This was taken to be a dramatic example of God’s supernatural action in a particular locality, and it probably received more media coverage than any event since the Toronto Blessing. A number of friends from my church in Cheltenham went out there and came back there deeply impressed by what was happening. I was under-enthused, having seen him in operation in Dudley, but slightly perplexed that I might have missed something important. In the end, after several months, the event came to an untimely close because of Bentley’s marital difficulties which led to his subsequent divorce and rapid second marriage.
In recent times people have spoken of Bentley’s restoration and there has for a while been talk of his returning to the UK. In the end the legal system has intervened. However there are some important issues that must be addressed. One of these is exemplified by a story which tended to follow Todd Bentley, and is reported in the Guardian:
In one typical claim, he is filmed telling an audience: “And the Holy Spirit spoke to me, the gift of faith came on me. He said, ‘kick her in the face with your biker boot’. I inched closer and I went like this – bam! And just as my boot made contact with her nose, she fell under the power of God.”
The story carries with it an important sub-text: I am so in tune with God that even when he tells me to do something bizarre, I know it’s his voice, so I am obedient and amazing things happen in consequence. However, unless such claims can be backed up independently, there is the suspicion that they are no more than self-generated myth. If he has invented the story himself, I suspect many will be glad to have it exposed.
However, Bentley’s claim to be able heal people of cancer (and other major illnesses) is not unusual in charismatic Christian circles. I am a part of these circles and engage in this ministry (see here; albeit not yet with headline results), so I am actively interested when these claims provoke controversy. Whenever serious claims are being made for healing from major illnesses, it is incredibly important that medical evidence is presented so that these claims can be authenticated. A healing from cancer should be possible to document properly. While it is unlikely that medical doctors would want to positively affirm a supernatural miracle, they should be able to confirm the presence and extent of the cancer before the event, its absence afterwards, and that the rapidity of the change is substantially beyond what could be explained by normal biomedicine. (For a well documented example of healing from a serious illness, see here. See also the story of my friend Jono Smithies.)
My suspicion – and it is no more than that – is that while Bentley may be a highly manipulative individual, genuine supernatural events were occurring at his meetings. There is a tendency to think that miracles authenticate the spiritual power and integrity of the preacher – but this is not a Biblical view (see here). My feeling is that at his meetings, there was a high level of faith in God that there would be healings – and because of that, God acted, in response to the faith present as opposed to the preacher. Bentley may have abused this for his own ends. It would be interesting to know whether Bentley is another example of a depressingly well-known phenomenon – of a genuinely Spirit-empowered preacher who started well but was waylaid by his own corruption.
This leaves an awkward question: why would God use such a man in any way? There may be a painful answer. This is that those of us in more conventional church positions are not prepared for the radicalism that God desires, so that we are unable to be used. Perhaps in God’s economy corrupt vessels are better than unusable vessels.