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Bethel Church's recent LGBT controversy: What's the real story?

CHANGED founders Elizabeth Woning and Ken Williams
CHANGED founders Elizabeth Woning and Ken Williams | Screenshot: Facebook/Bethel Church

Kim Zember was 17 when she first began dating other girls. She’d felt these desires for a few years, but kept them from her family and friends out of guilt and shame. Her same-sex relationships only added to her sense of unworthiness; as she puts it, “​I was living a double life, and it tormented me.”

This double life followed her into a heterosexual marriage ultimately that fell apart after she cheated on her husband with another woman. Kim was now forced to live her life with her secret out in the open, going from relationship to relationship, all the while knowing, she says, “that my lifestyle wasn’t good for me.”

She hit rock bottom when she discovered her girlfriend had been cheating on her. It was in this space that Kim cried out to God for help. That was when “the heaviness…was lifted.” From that moment forward, she began reading books about sexuality, going to seminars, and processing her same-sex attraction with a priest. Today, Kim chooses not to act on her same-sex desires and lives with an “authenticity I didn’t know was possible.”

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Kim’s first-person account is one of fifteen #OnceGay stories that can currently be viewed on the CHANGED website. CHANGED is a ​group​ founded by Elizabeth Woning and Ken Williams, two pastors from Bethel Church who previously identified as homosexual and are now married to members of the opposite sex.

Although CHANGED has existed for a few months now, it garnered widespread attention—and backlash—through a series of posts in August by the Bethel Church Instagram account. “Can a person leave homosexuality behind?” reads one post. The post also describes the group’s mission: “CHANGED is a community of friends who once identified as LGBTQ+ and through encounters with the love of Jesus, have experienced His freedom in their lives.”

The online response was swift. Jamie Lee Finch, a relationship coach and author,​ took to Twitter to denounce the posts and claim that CHANGED is “not simply harmful—their theologically and scientifically unexamined #oncegay stance is recklessly evil.” The Trevor Project, an LGBTQ+ suicide-prevention non-profit, urged Bethel to stop supporting the initiative. Q Christian Fellowship even went so far as to create “UNCHANGED,” a ​website​ that tells the story of LGBTQ+ Christians and seeks to be “an affirmative counter to the damage wrought in the name of God through ex-gay theologies and philosophies,” according to their homepage.

Bethel Church responded to these accusations via its Instagram: “The message of CHANGED has never been ‘All Must Change’…For those of you who feel fulfilled and happy as you are, we love you!…We stand against any and all forms of shame, manipulation, force, humiliation or physical harm in so-called ‘ministry’ or’ therapy.’”

This statement created a reprisal of a different sort. Some traditional Christians voices pointed to the post as evidence of Bethel Church moving away from their values. “This sounds weak!” one commenter wrote. “I love Bethel Church, but you better watch your theology.” An ​article​ at “The Pulpit and Pen” criticizes the CHANGED website for not using the words “sin” or “repentance,” arguing that the ministry is “designed to present Christianity as a lifestyle enhancement for homosexuals.” The title of that article is “Bethel Church Goes Gay.”

Bethel Church has made plenty of headlines over the years. Founded in 1952 as an Assemblies of God church, Bethel is now an independent church serving over 8,000 members weekly, with a television channel and weekly podcasts that reach millions more. Their music label, Bethel Music, has produced some of the most popular worship acts in recent years. The Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry (BSSM) was founded in 1998 for the express purpose of being “a ministry training center where…students embrace their royal identity.” While enrolled at BSSM, students from all over the world to practice healing, prophesying and speaking in tongues. ​According​ to Bill Johnson, one of the co-founders of the school and the Senior Pastor of Bethel Church, “​Every Christian is supposed to do this.”

Bethel’s emphasis on revival has ​increased its notoriety; it’s also prompted concern. Critics point to the church’s extreme emphasis on supernatural experience. According to one Redding local, Bethel is all about “​experience,” and not “a call for repentance or faith in Christ…” ​For instance, the church keeps a catalog of miracles and healings on its website. Other controversial stories include gold dust falling from the ceiling, a tragic case of forgoing medical treatment in favor of prayer and some Bethel leaders practicing “grave soaking”: that is, lying atop the grave of a deceased Christian and “absorbing” their spiritual essence.

Of course, these stories are not representative of the whole of the church body or the ministry. But it does speak to Bethel’s mission of radical revival.​ “I don’t know how to learn except to experiment,” Johnson said in an interview with Christianity Today. Bethel takes risks, and often reaps the consequences.

The CHANGED controversy could be seen as the next phase of Bethel’s experimentation. Some have noted that Bethel has been especially adept at appealing to Millenials, with BSSM and Bethel Music as prime examples of that. Every evangelical church is trying to reach young people, scholar Brad Christerson ​says​, but “the difference is that Bethel is actually successful.”

By entering into the conversation about LGBTQ+ and sexual identity, CHANGED is certainly meeting the culture where it is at, something that Bethel has always striven to do. “The nature of apostolic ministry is to target the shifting of culture,” Johnson has said. In doing so, though, Bethel has waded into a murky middle ground, asking if one can “leave homosexuality behind” while also claiming to love those who feel “happy and fulfilled” as they are. They’ve opened them up to criticism from both sides.

Will CHANGED be successful?

As one Religion News Service article ​pointed out​, one of CHANGED’s slogans, “Changed Is Possible,” bears an uncanny resemblance to “Change Is Possible,” the slogan of Exodus International. EI was a Christian conversion therapy organization that was dismantled in 2012 after its president, Alan Chambers, declared that conversion therapy was damaging and did not work. Chambers is just one of the many ex-leaders of the conversion therapy movement to renounce the whole enterprise. The psychology used by many ex-gay ministries has been debunked by the American Psychological Association and the American Medical Association. A recent ​study​ from the Trevor Project demonstrates that young people who have experienced conversion therapy are more likely to commit suicide. By and large, conversion therapy as practice has been debunked and abandoned.

Woning and Williams have emphasized that CHANGED is not a conversion therapy ministry. In a ​video on Facebook​, they explained that they were simply trying to create a safe space for individuals who are in the process of leaving or thinking about leaving their “LGBTQ lifestyles.” Williams says that “​it’s much easier now to find a safe space to go into LGBTQ than it is to leave there.” Woning and Williams claim that they “know hundreds” who have walked away from their LGBTQ+ life and desires, and they are here for those that want to do the same.

Plenty will take issue with the clarifying comments as well. Some will question why, if CHANGED is not about conversion therapy, it continually presents stories about people who found their lives more fulfilling and meaningful once they stopped acting on their same-sex desires. Others will take issue with the fact the CHANGED is treating same-sex attraction as a potential option when it’s clearly a sin. And for those for whom this ministry is exactly what they needed to hear, CHANGED will probably serve its purpose.

There are no easy answers with Bethel. There never have been. Christianity Today journalist Martyn Wendell Jones put it best when he wrote: “Bethel remain a parallax phenomenon: it changes depending on your point of view.” In that way, perhaps Bethel and the CHANGED controversy is the perfect microcosm of America and its church right now. Depending on where you’re standing, it looks like a travesty—or a miracle.

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