By Cary McMullen
Published: Tuesday, December 2, 2008 at 7:27 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 2, 2008 at 5:16 p.m.
LAKELAND | Controversy continues to swirl around Todd Bentley, the evangelist who led a faith-healing revival that drew thousands to Lakeland from around the world.
Within the past few days, a phone conversation between Bentley and the pastor who invited him here and a letter from the board of Bentley’s ministry have revealed new details about Bentley’s conduct and raised questions about the legitimacy of the faith-healing revival he led between April and August.
The Rev. Stephen Strader, pastor of Ignited Church, where the Lakeland Outpouring revival began, said he talked to Bentley by phone Monday. Bentley left the revival Aug. 5 under a cloud of rumors about infidelity and drinking bouts, and Strader had not spoken with him since then. He said Bentley called from California, where he has been staying since leaving the revival.
“It was a very good conversation. He wanted to make sure our church was OK,” Strader said Tuesday.
Bentley, a 32-year-old tattooed Canadian, was controversial for his unorthodox appearance, for his rambunctious antics on stage and for his claims of healings, which some religious leaders said were overblown.
Strader said Bentley defended himself against a couple of allegations contained in a letter from the board of directors of Fresh Fire Ministries, the British Columbia-based organization Bentley ran until August. The letter, released Friday on the ministry’s Web site (www.freshfire.ca), broke months of silence about Bentley’s status.
In the letter, the board stated that Bentley recently gave his formal resignation from the Fresh Fire board of directors. The board also criticized the evangelist for an ongoing inappropriate relationship with a former intern and for failing, until now, to submit to supervised rehabilitation.
“Todd Bentley has demonstrated himself unfaithful to his wife by entering into a relationship with another woman while still legally married. He has consumed more alcohol on a few occasions than is prudent or becoming a Christian leader (or any believer for that matter). His sins have been sins of the flesh and we do not defend them,” the letter said.
The letter described how Bentley’s downfall came about, blaming the stress of the every-night revival services that led to burnout and a lack of oversight. Bentley began having an “increased familiarity” with the intern, and in July, he told his wife, Shonnah, he wanted a divorce, the letter said.
“To our knowledge, Todd’s relationship with the female staff-member, who was a former intern and also, at his initiative, a live-in nanny in his house for over a year, is still ongoing. ... While it has been maintained that no physical contact happened between Todd and the former female intern until after he filed for legal separation from Shonnah, in the Boards’ eyes, the nature of the present relationship between Todd and his former staff member is that of adultery,” the letter states.
Strader said Bentley did not deny the relationship, and Strader said he agrees with the position of the board.
“I’m uncomfortable with (the relationship). I would probably stand with their letter at this point,” he said.
But Strader said Bentley told him he did not have a problem with alcohol as described by the board’s letter. He said Bentley admitted he had gotten drunk in the weeks he was in Lakeland, but the incidents were isolated and he has resolved not to drink again.
“He was apologetic for the harm he caused to us and the body of Christ. ... (But) he told me, ‘I’m not an alcoholic,’” Strader said.
The board’s letter said Bentley had not seen his wife and three children since July, but Strader said Bentley has maintained contact with them. Bentley has not been to their home in British Columbia because of visa problems, but he has talked to his family by phone and e-mail, Strader said.
The Lakeland Outpouring drew criticism from many in the evangelical and Pentecostal communities for its claims of hundreds of miraculous healings and even claims that people were raised from the dead because of prayers offered at the revival. The Assemblies of God and other groups also cautioned that some of Bentley’s claims of mystical experiences such as visiting with angels and figures from the Bible were suspect.
However, the Fresh Fire board’s letter praised Bentley’s leadership of the revival and reiterated earlier declarations that the miracles, prophecies and conversions that took place during the revival were authentic manifestations of God’s presence.
Strader echoed that point of view and said he continues to receive “testimonies” from people who believe they were healed as a result of the revival.
Both the letter and Strader indicated that Bentley intends to move to Fort Mill, S.C., in early 2009 to undergo supervised rehabilitation from Rick Joyner, leader of MorningStar Ministries and a fellow evangelist. The letter held out the possibility that Bentley could return to the ministry if he completes the rehabilitation process.
Strader said he has a new book about to be published that will give his perspective
on the revival. He said Ignited Church lost “several hundreds of thousands of dollars” during the past few weeks of the revival as expenses outstripped contributions, but he said the church had anticipated this, set aside a reserve fund and ended up breaking even financially. The church grew by about 10 percent and now has about 550 members, he said.
“We’re very happy. I gave Todd a great report,” he said.
[ Cary McMullen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7509. His blog, Scriptorium: A Religion Panorama, can be read at religion.theledger.com. ]