Edit: Bill Johnson apologized on Instagram on July 14th. No word from Brian Johnson yet.
It is because I value Bethel Church’s ministry that I am deeply grieved by the actions some of their leaders took on social media a few days ago. Brian Johnson, their senior worship pastor, and Bill Johnson, his father and the church’s senior leader, each posted a meme to their Instagram accounts that featured the picture of a noose and the words “We kill more black lives in two weeks than the KKK lynched in a century.” The words were subtitled with “Planned Parenthood. Eugenics no matter what.”
When commenters asked them to take it down, saying that the language and imagery around lynching was hurtful and triggering to the black members of their church, their responses were deeply uncharacteristic of what I have come to expect from their ministry. In the comments I saw, both men seemed dismissive, even contemptuous. Bill Johnson told a black woman who objected that he “expected more” of her. Brian Johnson, replying to someone asking him to be mindful of how his actions impact black members of their congregation, said “for the most part many [black people] live with a victim mentality and that is difficult to handle when you are trying to work with them.” Both men eventually deleted their posts.
As much as I am dismayed by the meme, I am even more dismayed by Bill and Brian Johnson’s responses. While it is their prerogative to have conversations about abortion and its impacts, if they base their arguments on experiences that do not belong to them, invalidate the responses of people who those experiences do belong to, make sweepingly racist statements, and, most crucially, do not respond with humility and compassion when engaged in dialogue, I do not think the conversation is edifying to anyone.
Having been shaped by books such as Culture of Honor, Keep Your Love On, and The Supernatural Power of Forgiveness - all written by Bethel leaders - not to mention the vast catalogue of worship music Bethel has released, I have long been enriched by this church’s ideas. As a fellow believer, as someone who has valued Bethel’s ministry for years, I want to hold them accountable to their own standard of approaching others with a heart to honor, serve, and extend grace. This was not the heart on display this week, and I would be squandering the inheritance I have received from their ministry if I simply looked away.
My brothers and sisters on Bethel leadership - if you are reading this, my heart is not to criticize or condemn you. I think we are all growing in our ability to love across lines of culture, class, race, and gender, and there is not a single person who can say that they have loved perfectly, except Jesus. It is because I am a fellow learner that I think we must learn to engage each other with humility. Obtaining a perfect vocabulary for talking about race or politics is not the goal. Staying out of conflict or error is not the goal. Given where the conversation currently stands, I think humility is the goal, and a powerful antidote to the racism embedded in our systems, speech, and culture.
If we can give credence to stories we may not identify with, consider the value of ideas we do not subscribe to, and offer compassion instead of defensiveness when confronted, I think we can steward the ministry of reconciliation that Christ entrusts us with. Postures of self-preservation and defensiveness allow racism to thrive, whereas humility empowers us to draw near to one another in love, and prepares us for the work of justice.
To the believers who may share the anger, sorrow, and confusion I felt when I saw the Johnson’s posts — I want to affirm that it is the heart of God to unite the church in a way that celebrates and does not erase our cultural and ethnic differences. Revelation 7:9 describes a multitude containing every tribe, tongue, and language assembled to worship. If these distinctions are rendered in heaven, they must be within the realm of what the Lord chooses to value. Even when the church equivocates, the Lord is clear - our languages, skin colors, histories, and experiences are beautiful in his sight.
And finally, to my black brothers and sisters in the church — I honor your voices and experiences. I thank God for you. I cherish your bodies and lives. I pray that the Lord empowers me and the broader American church to love you with greater excellence.
Christ’s prayer ends with the words “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The last clause is the tagline of Bethel Church’s website. I pray it for the broader church, and today I also pray it on Bethel Church’s behalf. Lord, if the picture of heaven is every tribe, tongue, and nation worshipping together in uniqueness and unity, let it be so on earth.