Based on Lessons by Jamie Robbins and Douglas Jacoby
Evaluation by Gordon Ferguson: a Series of Articles
The Genesis of This Evaluation
At a fairly recent staff meeting of the DFW Church, our congregational evangelist, Todd Asaad, asked if I had watched the Paradigm Shift video series. I had not. He made the request that I do so, as a part time member of the Dallas staff in the role of teacher. I then began being asked for my opinion about the series by more and more people, in Dallas and out of Dallas, by leaders of all types as well as members. As a result, I spent several days watching the videos available at the time and making notes. Then I wrote up an early form of this article, but kept revising it in an effort to make it both comprehensive and clear, hopefully with a tone that would be helpful and not adversarial. I sent it to several brothers who were discussing this series on a limited basis via email. To me, it was a wise part of a vetting process, which all leaders should do if writing or teaching something potentially controversial. (I wish that Jamie and Douglas had done that.)
Steve Kinnard, the leader of the Teacher Service Team, did respond suggesting that I send my evaluation to Jamie and Douglas immediately, and he offered to write his own thoughts as a Foreword and send it plus my article to the two brothers. I asked him to do that, and followed up with my own letter to them, providing my phone number so that we might have further discussion if desired on their parts. Douglas and I had already corresponded some about the series in general and his part in particular.
Since Todd requested my evaluation, I need to send it also to our other two Regional evangelists, Mark Mancini and Derik Vett. Bill Hooper, one of our elders, requested a copy too, so I need to include our other three elders on the mailing list as well. I am sending it to them and to a broader mailing list of brothers who have discussed the PS series in some email strings. I mention all of that to say that any material sent out on this broad a basis is de facto public domain information. So, use the material as you judge best. You will note that I began the article as a letter to Jamie and Douglas, but it morphed into a more general article in places. I pray that God will use all of the discussions being generated to accomplish his purposes and will keep us all righteous and unified in the process.
Dear Jamie and Douglas,
I have recently been made aware of your series on the Jacksonville church web site. Quite a number of church leaders and members have asked for my opinion about this series of lessons. As a result, I spent several days listening to the whole series, taking notes as I listened, and writing this evaluation. I put my thoughts into writing for two basic reasons. One, I wanted you to be able to carefully consider my questions and differing perspectives regarding your presentation implications, along with a few of your conclusions. Two, given the number of inquiries I have received, I realized that I simply don’t have the time to repeatedly explain my views about what you have presented to all of the individuals who have requested my opinions. Thus, I decided that putting my thoughts into writing would be the most effective way to meet both needs.
When I first heard of this series, my original thought was that it was simply another set of studies to help people become Christians. Of course, in the last decade we have seen many such sets developed and introduced, as you note. When I was in Phoenix, we developed a new series ourselves, but soon discovered that most of our members were not even inviting anyone to church, much less asking them for studies. But many people seemed to feel better because we were casting out the old, and at that point, anything that was at all standardized was automatically viewed as being suspect. In time, when folks started studying with others again, they discovered that they were more comfortable with the older series, and so it was revised and renamed. My sense was that many followed similar paths in other places, and while making some changes in the series, recognized that thousands of people becoming Christians through the years provided some evidence that the commonly used series was not so bad after all.
At any rate, upon listening to your presentations, it was quickly obvious that you were focused on how any study is presented to non-Christians, not on the study content itself. Regarding your content, I agree with most of it (within parameters), but don’t see most of it as a Paradigm Shift for me and many others. I’ve subscribed to much of what you have presented for as long as I can remember, and I’m quite confident that I speak for many others as well. That leads me to mention that most of what I find unhelpful in the series has to do with the approaches used. While I agree with most (not all) of what is said about how we should deal with non-Christians, I think the approach used in addressing our movement, and by implication the leaders within it, employs principles that are quite the opposite. For example, you put much emphasis on the need to treat non-Christians with great sensitivity, respect and encouragement, while remaining non-judgmental. That approach is not only commendable, it biblically encapsulates the Golden Rule. However, your approach towards our movement’s history (thus us leaders within it) often employs either/or extremes and the building of straw men propped up by sweeping generalizations. I will mention these as I cover the following broad brush subjects in a somewhat of a question/answer format.
What Exactly Is This Paradigm Shift?
For starters, I believe that our traditional approach to studying with others (along with many other topics) should always be open to reexamination, clarification and change. If there is a more effective way to bring people to Christ, I’m all for it. In fact, that has been my mindset for almost 50 years. I’ve never believed that my teaching or preaching or serving in any capacity has reached the apex and can’t be improved. Growth is the very principle that drives discipleship, and the desire for better ways to be discipled and to disciple others is what drew me into this movement to begin with.
From the perspective gained by watching the series, the Paradigm Shift appears to be making the way we present Christ to the lost much simpler while avoiding any sense of making them jump through hoops to receive salvation. I think there are many good points being made here. I’m sure that many members in our churches did turn a study series into a set of requirements, just as many turned things like dating guidelines (most of which were very helpful, by the way) into laws. Once we start believing or saying that “This is the way we (must) do it here” rather than continuing to explain the biblical principles behind our guidelines and practices, we start down the path to legalism.
My concerns begin with the generalizations being used. The presentation makes it seem as if everyone in our movement of churches believed and practiced exactly the same things. That simply is not true. Some carefully spaced disclaimers along these lines would have been very, very helpful. For an example, “I’m not saying that everyone, everywhere took this approach, but it is what I’ve experienced. Therefore, understand that I’m not saying that one size fits all; I’m just describing what I’ve mostly seen and heard from others in my part of the world.” Saying something like this would have helped me not feel lumped into a category holding views that I have never subscribed to.
Regarding how we make others feel, I appreciate the emphasis on how we should handle non-Christians in order to make them feel appreciated as we approach differences in doctrine that we have with them. This is probably best accomplished by commending what they believe and are doing that is correct. Some similar balance in describing our movement would have been helpful. We are all pretty aware of our shortcomings and sins in the past as a movement, but should we continue to focus on these things without noting the wonderful things that have been a part of our history as well? As one who has certainly preached and written about our failures, I have tried to strike a balance that shows my love and appreciation for our movement. Just focusing on the failures will never accomplish this, and I think the Paradigm Shift series has pretty much done just that. I’m not questioning intentions, but I am questioning the overall tenor of the material.
Your short introductory lesson, “The Health Club,” is perhaps the most illustrative of the concerns I have about approach. The main point was that a health club invites you to first become a member and then starts helping you to get healthy. This was compared to our supposed approach of insisting that people get largely healthy spiritually prior to being granted admittance into our spiritual health club, the church. My concerns arose when repeatedly encountering the building of straw men and situations, assuming extremes, with no allowances made for the possibility that not everyone did it the way being described. Perhaps you would say that a technique was being used, one often used by Jesus, that of hyperbole ─ overstating something to make a point. That is a valid teaching technique, of course, but the more potentially sensitive the area, the more care must be used in employing it. Mere humans are not quite as wise as was Jesus.
By the way, although I don’t know you personally, Jaime, I find you to be an effective communicator with a winsome personality. I welcome yours and other’s attempts to help our churches improve and reach more people. That is what I’ve been trying to do for decades, and I think it is what most disciples want to see happen and to help happen. I don’t question our desires along these lines. I’ve known Douglas for decades and appreciate so many things about him and his work, especially his love for going to places to teach that not many others go. You two brothers described your perspectives about how much we need a Paradigm Shift and how wide a shift you think is needed. Let me provide my thoughts and experiences along these same lines.
I came into what I called the “Discipling Churches” movement exactly 30 years ago. I came into the movement believing that any study series used was merely a tool and that conversion was not that complicated (as long as biblical repentance is understood and accepted). I’ve never changed that view, and I certainly wasn’t the only one to hold it. The year after I joined in with this movement, we had a big campaign to meet and study with people in San Diego. Gregg Marutzky, my younger co-evangelist, expressed a concern that the disciples in our church were legalistic about the study series and needed some help. So during the two week campaign, we very pointedly taught that people could be taught and baptized quickly, and used all of the passages mentioned in Paradigm Shift (PS hereafter for short) to make the point. One single women almost immediately shared with another single woman, studied with her and she was baptized in two days. Some of our members questioned it and said she wouldn’t last, but we never wavered on teaching and doing what the Bible allowed. I see that quickly converted sister every time I visit the San Diego church, several decades after her baptism, plus all of those in her family that she has introduced to Christ.
During most of my years in Boston, Randy McKean was the congregational evangelist. He used himself as an example many times to show that someone getting baptized is not complicated, as long as people are indeed ready to make Jesus the Lord of their lives. As I recall his story, his brother reached out to him, brought him to a church service one Sunday and baptized him about a week later. Randy, Gregg, I and many others have been teaching these things for decades. Everyone in our movement never fit the generalized description consistently presented in the PS material. Did many? Yes. But why not say “many” rather than leave the strong impression that our movement was all the same. It wasn’t and it isn’t. Again I say, if instruction and correction shouldn’t be demeaning for non-Christians, a point well taken from PS, shouldn’t that principle be followed with those who are already God’s children?
What About Using a Study Series?
It is stated several times in the PS that a study series isn’t wrong, but to me, so much was said negatively about using a set series that the overall impression certainly discouraged it. I’ve already said that any approach in Christianity, including a study series, can be turned in a legalistic direction. I think it was also said in PS that denominational thinking does make studying with religious people (if their religion is Christianity based) different than what was going on in the first century. Hence, most of our study series are aimed at both parts of the Great Commission, meaning that everyone doesn’t necessarily need the material aimed at the second part (“teach them to obey all things…”). What about holding people back from being baptized until a series is finished? If they are indeed ready prior to that time, they shouldn’t be held back, as long as they grasp the basics of the gospel and are ready to truly repent. (I will address repentance prior to baptism a little later in this paper.)
But what about using a study series in the first place, in light of the fact that many have made a series into a law? It isn’t the series itself that is the issue, but rather the view of it and use of it. That same principle applies to everything else in Christianity too. The fact that something can be misused doesn’t mean that it should not be used at all. Otherwise, we would quit doing everything, for just about everything has been mistaught and misused at some point. Personally, I subscribe wholeheartedly to the idea of new Christians learning some type of basic series that will help them study with their friends. I also believe that they should be taught to adapt the lessons to the needs of those that they are studying with by adding or subtracting, based on those needs.
When I started preaching, I wasn’t given any helpful training in lesson development. I just “stole” the lessons of others and often preached them verbatim. In time, I took what I learned from many different preachers and developed my own style and my own approach. Imitation was a good place to begin, in fact a very helpful place, but we all become our own person with time and experience. That’s the way it should be in studying with people. I’ve used a study series many times exactly as it was designed and I’ve varied significantly from it many other times. And, I’ve encouraged others to do the same, after learning a basic series of some sort to begin with.
I’m not sure just what they are doing in the Jacksonville church to help people become Christians, but based on the strong de-emphasis on study series and the mention of a “Discovery Class” series taught by a leader, one could assume that the main focus there is to invite your friends to church to be taught by a leader (through some sort of series). I’m not assuming that this is the case, but based solely on what I heard in the presentations, it could logically be assumed. We’ve digressed way too far in that direction as a movement already, for leaders have the responsibility (Ephesians 4) to train the membership to do the work of ministry, not do it for them. This training should certainly include teaching their friends the basics of the gospel (using some approach that works for them).
What About Repentance?
Quite a number of things presented in PS bring questions to mind on this subject. Let’s start with how much people need to know prior to baptism and what types of decisions they should make. One addenda here: In lesson six of the PS series, scientific proof was mentioned regarding the fact that story telling is one of the most effective ways to teach and learn. Jesus’ teaching approach would certainly confirm that fact. As an anecdotal teacher, often a long-winded story teller, I rather liked that bit of information, and will continue to use that approach in this evaluation!
In my first fulltime ministry staff role, I worked with an older preacher whose role was focused entirely in doing personal evangelism and teaching others to do it. He and I held weekend “Soul-Winning Workshops,” as they were termed. During the week, we knocked doors, set up studies and studied the Bible with those who were open to doing that. We used a particular chart study of his entitled, “A Few Minutes With Someone Who Loves You.” It took about an hour to go through this study with most people. The study had enough basics in it to convince people that they needed to get baptized. We used the example of Acts 2 (baptized the same day they were taught), Acts 8 (baptized as soon as he was taught), and Acts 16 (baptized the same hour of the night ─ after midnight). There was absolutely no cost counting involved at all; we just wanted them to enter the church through the door of baptism for the forgiveness of their sins. Would it surprise you to know that we were able to baptize quite a number of people with this approach? Would it surprise you to know that quite a number of those baptized never attended church afterwards? It was our “Baptism” version of the Billy Graham approach, producing most of the same long term results. Was this the right way to do it? Obviously not ─ but one thing was sure: we were not judges at the front door of the kingdom, deciding who was ready and who was not. We were at the other extreme, and it wasn’t a good one.
That being said, I do agree with the observations in PS regarding Matthew 28:18-20. Making disciples is the first part of the directions given here, and surely Jesus is talking about helping someone reach the decision to live as his follower for the rest of their lives. It is about being a disciple in heart prior to baptism, not being a disciple in all aspects of lifestyle. The latter refers to being taught to obey all things that Jesus commanded. However, as we develop that heart of a disciple, we will want to start putting into practice what we are learning. I remember studying with one single man who was living with his fiancé ─ until they attended their very first Bible talk. After that, they never had sex again until they were married. Why? They had the heart of disciples pretty much from the start.
What about the Holy Spirit’s part in life change? I heard both sides of this question in PS in ways that could be seen as contradictory. I heard that we cannot expect people to change until they are baptized and receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38) to help them. Yet, it was noted that God works in our lives to bring us to himself in many ways. If the Spirit works in our lives prior to baptism to get us open to the gospel, why would he not also start enabling us to make changes? The fact is that we do make changes prior to baptism, often radical ones, and people that we may not think are yet saved make radical changes also. Arguing both sides of issues like this one amounts to once again presenting either/or fallacies. In the past decade or so, after our period of upheaval, we have seemed to major in either/or when both/and is closer to the truth much more often.
My extensive experience in the Mainline Churches of Christ taught me a lot about the subject of repentance, in addition to the little story described above about my earliest ministry days. I think the “baptize disciples only” emphasis was an overreaction to what was often occurring in the Mainline churches. I would say a majority in those churches of which I was once a part were baptized with a very incomplete understanding of repentance. Repentance meant to most of them that we should stop doing the bad things, rather than viewing that as a first step in really living a Jesus’ life to influence the world. Baptism was viewed more as fire insurance than a decision to represent Jesus to that lost world. That is the background that produced the concept of “Lordship baptism” in the early days of the Crossroads Church in Florida.
The ultimate proof of that inadequate viewpoint of repentance became clear to me when I worked very carefully and patiently for four years to introduce the concept of discipling to both leaders and members in my last Mainline church. They simply were not ready for that level of commitment. In their minds, baptism was more about avoiding hell when they died than being disciples as Jesus described it. I still share that concern, as I described it in Chapter Nine (Restoration Churches) of my book, “Prepared To Answer” (2nd edition). This article is now included in this expanded series, and immediately follows this first article. However, the terminology revolving around Matthew 28:19 was admittedly confusing. What was meant by the statement about baptizing only disciples (and you do have the terminology used in John 4:1) was to baptize only those willing to make a lifetime commitment to be disciples of Jesus. However, as a movement, we did usually equate becoming a disciple with being baptized, whereas living as a disciple may long precede actually getting saved.
When people ask me when I became a disciple, meaning when I became a saved disciple, I answer “a long time before I got baptized.” I lived as a disciple for years before I came to the conclusion that my original baptism at age 13, based purely on emotion and accompanied by zero repentance, was invalid. So I understand that we misinterpreted the passage in that sense, and I have patiently taught this to many people. We should have focused on the necessity of having the heart of a disciple prior to baptism, not the deeds of a disciple (although some changes should come as we are learning).
What About Cost Counting?
My concerns about cost counting are in some ways almost the polar opposite of those expressed in the PS materials. Paul’s emphasis on faith not works was aimed primarily at disciples, not those becoming disciples. The early part of Galatians 5 says that these Galatian disciples started off with Christ well, but then started listening to the law/works folks. The PS series makes it seem as if legalism has its most dangerous application in dealing with non-Christians, but that is not the focus of the NT, and it does not square with the experiences of many of us. I was at an Elder’s Retreat back when we didn’t have many elders among us, so it was at least 15 years ago, probably longer. One elder’s wife had this to say about the conversion process: “When we are studying with people, we tell them how great it is in the family of God and that they are about to join the family. Then right after they are baptized, we tell them that they are in the Lord’s army and it’s time to roll up their sleeves and march!” Everyone in the room was shaking their heads in agreement. That has been a much bigger problem in my estimation than how we study with people, although I don’t want to dismiss valid criticisms of both.
Continuing with the subject of cost counting, I think many churches (not all, of course) developed the opposite problem of the one being described in PS. When I first became a part of the movement, we often told the one we were studying with that we were in a sense going to play the devil’s advocate and bring up reasons for them not to be baptized. We explained that it was simply a way to help them discover their reservations and questions and to get help with them. As our movement focus grew into numbers and statistics, cost counting became too often a matter of trying to convince people to get baptized. I’ve re-baptized people who said that they were pushed into being baptized based on the convictions of the one studying with them and not their own. Thus in many places, we moved from “making disciples” to “getting baptisms.” That became far more concerning to me than the concern that we were serving as judges almost trying to block people from being baptized. I’m sure that happened in places, but the general tendency in most places I visited was the other extreme.
What about the idea of needing to help people follow through with some changes prior to baptism? If they say they are ready, then are they always ready? Really? Many of them are just engaging in the spiritual battle, know little of what lies ahead of them, and yet they are the very best judge to know if they are ready ─ without any assistance from mature Christians? Wow! Some years back, Theresa and I reached out to and studied the Bible with our neighbors across the street, a couple slightly older than us. The woman came along faster than did her husband in understanding the gospel and its implications. But her husband wanted to be baptized at the same time his wife did. I could see him in his garage drinking beer for hours at night. In the sin study (in whatever form, by whatever name), I asked him how much he was drinking. He was quite honest in his answer: 18 cans every night. He had been doing that for years. But he said he was ready to be baptized. I told him that my best judgment was that he needed to take some steps in advance to give him the best chance for victory with his addiction after baptism. Specifically I said that if he found an in-house program and would check in the same night after his baptism, I would think that to be an acceptable starting place, and that is what he did. He still had some struggles after baptism and after the program, but it gave him the best shot to deal with those struggles. Whatever else may be said, it worked and he’s now gone home to be with the Lord.
Common sense based on lots of experience has to come into the picture somewhere in helping people deal with repentance. John the Baptist wasn’t bashful about telling people what the specifics of repentance looked like (Luke 3:7-20), although it got him killed. Jesus said a number of times, “If…then.” Go through the Gospels of John and Luke and you will see the conditionality repeated over and over. Trying to separate repentance from immediate actions as a result of that mind shift is an artificial way to do explain it, in my opinion. Faith and actions are co-joined as are repentance and actions. Of course, spiritual judgment has to be used to help others figure out just where they are in their spiritual journey, but this either/or thing is quite an extreme.
Since we are referencing Luke here, it should be noted that this Gospel was written by a Gentile with a Gentile audience in mind. If we only use passages that are addressed primarily to a Jewish audience, we are going to miss some important principles in working with our Gentile friends today. Luke is the book of discipleship and repentance, shown by passages like Luke 14:25-33 (cost counting) and perhaps most strikingly, by the Great Commission in Luke 24:44-49. Here we find only repentance and forgiveness of sins mentioned (not faith or baptism, both of which are obviously presupposed). Whether using a formal or informal series or study, I never intend to study with a Gentile without using Luke. It is in the Bible for a pretty clear purpose. True repentance was and remains the biggest challenge for Gentiles becoming Christians. I don’t want to be a judge at the door of salvation trying to hold anyone back. Neither do I want to dilute Jesus’ demands about repentance.
Potential Dangers in the Paradigm Shift Presentations
As I’ve already hopefully made clear, I am in agreement with much of the content of the material presented (with exceptions noted). The approaches used in those presentation are my main concern. I’ve commented about either/or extremes and given examples of what I think falls into that category. I also at least mentioned the construction of straw men through generalizations and the use of extreme examples. Let me mention a few of these.
Discovering a new approach that excites us, and others, is a good thing. Presenting that new approach in a way that demeans other approaches is not a good thing. In my opinion, Paradigm Shift is demeaning in some ways about our past, and not just corrective ─ and there is a difference. The impression is left with me that something entirely new has been discovered, and now an enlightened few see what everyone else has been missing. Once again, it is that generalization approach that puts everyone into one box (and not a good one) and leaves the impression of “Aha, now we see what has been wrong all along that no one else has seen!” I believe that approach is arrogant, demeaning and can easily result in some level of discord. The assertion that our movement is stuck (and I think it is as a whole in many ways, with some clear exceptions) primarily because we have tried to control the conversion process is an amazing assertion, simply amazing! That is a simplistic answer to a more complex problem. I hope we all work together to find the answers. A big part of the answer has to be what Paul wrote about in 1 Corinthians 3:6 and 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. Love for the lost, faith, prayer and hard work will always be a part of the growth equation. If it is granted that the conversion process isn’t complicated, the explanation of conversion progress isn’t either.
The “new discovery” scenario can be a good or bad thing, depending on how it’s presented and plays out in time. I think back to last time I lived in the Dallas, Texas area some 40 years ago (we moved back in December). I was a full time teacher in what was called a “School of Preaching.” Although I taught a number of different in-depth courses (over 50 classroom hours per course), Romans became one of the courses that I taught repeatedly. Most of what is in my book, “Romans: the Heart Set Free,” was taught over and over in that setting decades ago.
When a certain minister moved into the area and began preaching for one of the larger Mainline Churches of Christ, he quickly made it known that his focus was going to be on preaching and teaching grace. That news was good news to me, because I thought grace was a much neglected subject in many congregations in that fellowship of churches. However, he presented his material as if he had discovered grace in a way that the rest of us were totally unenlightened about. That came across to me and most others as arrogant and demeaning. Making the beliefs and actions of others look ignorant is a poor way to get them excited about a new or needed approach or emphasis. I have seen this technique used any number of times through the years, and it leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths. But I always try to avoid being dismissive, or have a “confirmation bias” (Jamie’s term) that would keep me from learning from anyone or any situation. My goal is to grow, and even when I think material is not being presented in the most effective way, I still want to embrace all truths I see or hear in order to keep growing personally. I would also wish that I could help younger people avoid presenting helpful material in unhelpful ways. My friend in Dallas 40 years ago who “discovered” grace made rather bold assertions about what his discovery and focus was going to produce. To be graceful myself, let me just say that it didn’t.
Extremism in building straw men is another example of what I think can be hurtful. When I hear us as a movement being described in cost counting as saying, “Are you really, really, really sure you are ready to repent?” it doesn’t sit well. I’ve never said that or heard anyone else say that or anything close to it. I can’t speak for what may have happened in other places, but I can say that generalizations that leave the impression of “always,” “never” and “everyone” are not going to be received well. (Fifty years of marriage have proved that point for me quite sufficiently!)
In the lesson done by Douglas Jacoby, he made it clear that he was an enthusiastic supporter of the overall series. As I mentioned earlier, Doug is a personal friend of long-standing, and more knowledgeable in the academic realm than most anyone I know. He used an illustration in describing what we demand of people before they are baptized, speaking specifically of what someone is asked to affirm or confess. I have heard our traditional questions asked of someone being baptized many times in many places. It always goes something like this: “Do you believe that Jesus died for your sins and was raised on the third day?” “What then is your good confession?” I’ve never heard anyone ask the questions DJ used as illustrations, such as “Do you believe Jesus was born between 6 and 4 BC, and was crucified on a cross shaped like this (traditional view) and not this (T shape)? In another place, he elaborated on the concept of whether God answers the prayers of sinners. I don’t know where that one came from. The last time I remember hearing any discussion of that was in 1970 as a student in the Preston Road School of Preaching. One contentious type brother quoted John 9:31 and made the assertion that God doesn’t even hear the prayers of non-Christians. Another student quickly turned to Acts 10:1-4 (about Cornelius) and read it. End of discussion that day. Perhaps Doug is hearing this argued in the circles he travels, but I know I am not. (By the way, Doug’s explanation of the issue itself was done well.)
By painting a picture that is extreme about cost counting generally, it leaves the very strong impression that none of us led people to Christ in a way that avoided both extremes. I’m not saying that being demeaning by building straw men, using either/or portrayals and generalizing was intentional in teaching this PS series. I’m just saying that I think that this is what ultimately occurred. As one who has pointed out the down sides of our movement in sermons and in books, I’ve tried to stick with the facts without inventing situations or embellishing known facts. Goodness, they’ve been serious enough without adding anything to them! At the same time, I have tried to avoid generalizing and making it seem that everyone is guilty of whatever is being discussed. Please let’s give credit to those who didn’t fall prey to everything that was bad in our movement, for thousands among us lovingly led people into the kingdom and lovingly did many other things.
One final, yet painful, reminder of what using extremes and generalities can lead to. Henry Kriete wrote an infamous (in my mind) letter regarding highly sensitive areas, and made it seem like all ministry people were guilty of everything that any leader had ever done wrong anywhere at any time. That lit a fuse that immediately led huge numbers of people in our churches to see everything in our past in the worst light possible and to react accordingly. To be fair, I don’t think Paradigm Shift is going to have that sort of effect, but I do believe it uses over-generalization similarly, casting an overall negative light on our movement as a whole (which by implication points at our leaders). Being instructive and corrective is one thing; being demeaning is quite another. If we are going to work hard on treating non-Christians with loving concern, shouldn’t we do the same toward those in our movement? Unity is never served well using such approaches.
I agree with most of the content in this series, at least the broad principles of how we treat people lovingly and help them discover and embrace Jesus. I totally appreciate the emphasis on asking questions, rather than just lecturing. From my earliest days in the movement, I have taught that discipling (before or after baptism, for that matter) is not thinking for another, but helping them learn to think like Jesus. Asking questions is a major way to help them learn that process, and I’m hearing from a number different places (including different countries) where this approach is being increasingly emphasized and developed. It’s all about respecting people and appreciating what they already know and not making them feel stupid. But to imply that none of us have done that in the past is not going to achieve positive results. It is another case of arguing for the need to treat non-Christians in an accepting way, while at the same time doing the opposite for fellow Christians ─ who might actually have done many things right and thus have been used by God to accomplish some quite noble ends.
Finally, I want to avoid the extremes of being defensive for myself or our movement of churches, or being focused on our wrongs. I love our movement and the myriad ways God has used it to bless my life. What does it mean to love a person or a movement? When we talk about loving someone, think of them as a circle, filled with plus marks and minus signs. Then, think about what you mean when you say that you love someone. Do you mean you love their pluses, or you love them as a whole, with both pluses and minuses? When we say we love our movement, do we love it as a whole, or only the good things we see and only certain people in it that we like? When I hear anyone refer to our movement history mainly in negative ways, it does raise a real concern, for it is out of the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks (Luke 6:56).
Given all of what could genuinely be helpful in the material, I hate to think that the approach may well subtract a great deal of what otherwise would likely be widely accepted and used. I don’t want to see any gifted teachers (and these brothers clearly belong in this category) limit their influence through poor choices in presentation. As with all teaching we experience, including mine, we have to be discerning by spitting out the bones as we swallow the fish. May God grant us all that wisdom as we learn, and especially as we teach (James 3:1). To that end I write.
WHEN REPENTANCE IS NOT REPENTANCE
Excerpt from Prepared to Answer, Second Edition, Chapter 9
One of my doctrinal concerns for restoration churches is shared by both the Mainline Church of Christ and the Christian Church. Again it is important to state that all generalizations have exceptions, and I pray that there are many exceptions to the concern addressed first. This concern has to do with the biblical process of conversion, which is surely a most important and fundamental issue. A careful study of the writings produced by the restoration movement reveals that there has been little emphasis on responding to the gospel in baptism with a radical commitment to discipleship. What is so central to Jesus’ message shows up in precious few places in the sermons and articles which influenced this movement. From research and from personal experience, I believe that the key failure in teaching about the new birth is a failure to properly emphasize the doctrine of repentance. Nearly all restoration churches will affirm that baptism is an immersion in water for the forgiveness of sins. To substantiate that affirmation, passages like Acts 2:38 are quoted. However, the focus is on baptism for the forgiveness of sins (in stark contrast to what most evangelical churches teach, by the way), and not on the repentance that is to precede baptism.
This lack of emphasis produces a view of conversion that approximates something like fire insurance for the Judgment Day, rather than the understanding that baptism is the total commitment of one’s life to the Lordship of Christ. And there is a huge difference between the two viewpoints. My own experience in the Mainline group was that repentance was viewed mainly as the avoidance of evil (sins of commission), rather than vowing to follow Jesus’ example and mission, thereby forsaking sins of omission as well. Some questions must be asked: one, is halfway repentance really repentance at all? Two, if repentance isn’t biblical repentance, is the baptism that follows valid before God? Those are probing questions to contemplate, and while only God can fully answer them, we at least ought to wrestle with them.
Perhaps some examples will illustrate the reality of the potential problems in this realm. Decades ago in my home congregation (Mainline group), the preacher’s wife had the practice of going up to fairly young children (at least as young as 10 years old) and asking if they had been baptized yet. If they said no, she then told them that they should seriously consider it. A week or so later, these same very young children were often seen in the baptistery being baptized. At their ages, and through this process, I would certainly have to question what they understood about repentance. If they understood the subject much at all, it is likely that they only understood the need to forsake the bad things (sins of commission) and not the sins of omission (taking up the mantle of Christ in the world).
After entering the ministry myself, one of my first roles was holding personal evangelism workshops in Mainline congregations. Once during an afternoon session about door knocking and setting up studies, a hippy (this was back in the early 70’s) walked in off the street and asked if he could be baptized. The men present said “sure,” and proceeded to take him back to the baptistery, and in a matter of minutes he was baptized “for the forgiveness of sins.” After the baptism, he dried off, got dressed, said goodbye and left. Whatever he knew about baptism was not increased in that particular setting. As far as I know, he was never heard of again by the group that baptized him. Even back then, I was left in shock by what I had witnessed. That is why the term “fire insurance” comes to mind when thinking about baptisms where repentance seems to be all but absent. Baptism is not simply about getting saved; it is primarily about accepting Jesus as both Lord (Master) of our lives and as Savior. But as the old saying goes, if he is not Lord of all (in our lives), he is not Lord at all.
Very recently, a member of my present congregation attended a service at a very large Christian Church in our area. It would qualify as a Mega Church, and as such had a professional quality music service and an effective speaker delivering the lesson. Near the end of the service, the minister made the comment that last year (2008) 600 people were baptized and that anyone who wanted to come up to be baptized was welcome. He wanted to make it as inviting as possible from a physical perspective, explaining that robes, towels and baptismal clothes to wear were all available and plentiful. About 60 people of all ages came forward and were baptized. The youngest appeared to be in the 10-12 year old age category. My acquaintance said that when people came up from their immersion, they shook hands with the one who baptized them, but showed little excitement or exuberance about having found the Pearl of Great Price and experienced a life-changing event. That sort of practice seems so different from the conversion stories one reads about in the Book of Acts.
Toward the end of my ministry among the Mainline fellowship, I began teaching and preaching much more about discipleship and evangelism as I was learning it from those in discipling churches. The puzzle to me was that this teaching that I was trying to pass on met with so much resistance. After all, it was a Biblical emphasis, although one which was generally missing from those churches. Finally, it dawned on me that the people in that group had been baptized with a different concept of Christianity—one that did not involve a total commitment to the mission of Christ. They evidently had been baptized for the forgiveness of sins in order to avoid hell and go to heaven after they died. The emphasis seemed to me to be much more about preparing for death rather than preparing for the new life in Christ, representing him before a lost world and carrying on the mission that he began two centuries ago of seeking and saving the lost.
A preacher friend of mine in a nearby church had much the same experience in the mainline church for which he preached. As he was teaching about discipleship in a Sunday morning Bible class, one young married man commented that if he had known what it meant to really be a disciple, he would never have been baptized. That rather blatant comment does get to the heart of the issue, and it explains why a minority of members in those churches are seriously committed to changing the world for Christ. It also helps explain why most of the ones they do baptize are not brought to spiritual maturity, because Christ’s plan for producing both numerical and spiritual growth is discipleship (Matthew 28:18-20). Being baptized is the new birth, but being taught to obey all things that Jesus commanded the disciples is the lifelong process that demonstrates true repentance.
Additional thought (not in the book)
Repentance not only has two parts (repentance of both sins of commission and omission, the latter of which includes a failure to fully accept the Lordship of Christ and imitate him), it has two phases. The first phase is what takes place in connection with our original salvation at baptism. It is a one-time for all time decision to repent and give our lives to Jesus for the rest of our lives. But practically, what does that mean? It cannot mean that we have a perfect understanding of all that is right in God’s sight or wrong in his sight. When we become Christians, we simply don’t have that kind of biblical knowledge, nor does God expect us to have it. But it is nonetheless a one-time decision to make Jesus the Lord of our lives as we repent of all that we know is wrong and dedicate ourselves to doing all that we know is right. It also means that as we grow in our understanding of the Bible, we will stop anything we have in our lives that we discover is contrary to his Word, and we will start doing anything that we are missing in our lives that he wants us to be doing. (Regarding how much we have to know at the outset of accepting Jesus, read the article on my web site entitled, “Baptismal Cognizance: A Deeper Look.”)
The second phase of repentance is the ongoing repentance on a consistent basis that comes when we know that we have sinned. 1 John 1:5-10 is a very important passage in this regard.
This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. 8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.
What an amazing passage! Walking in the light means that our sins as saved people are never marked down on God’s record at all. The word “purifies” is a present tense verb, denoting continual action. Just as windshield wipers continually remove rain water, the blood of Christ continually removes our sins, as long as we are walking in the light. Walking in the light is clearly not sinlessness, or there wouldn’t be any sins to cleanse. It is a way of life; Christ’s way of life. Yet, God is very clear about our need to confess our sins (and repent). In view of verse 7, this cannot mean that sins are in fact marked down on our record until we confess and repent. God is not into “hopscotch” grace, lost when we sin and reinstated when we confess. It must mean that he wants us to stay conscious of our need for his grace at all times, admitting it to ourselves and to him. Dependence on self is one of our biggest “self” sins, and self is to be denied as we follow Christ. Bottom line, repentance is a part of our daily walk with God, recognizing that we are a mess without Christ’s blood, but rejoicing that we are absolutely cleansed and saved with his blood.
Thus, the doctrine of repentance is both an initial lifetime decision, leading to an ever-growing learning process as we mature in Christ, and an ongoing dependence on the grace of God for all that we aren’t and yet desperately long to be. With that type of heart, we can keep growing into the image of Christ as we recognize our sins and rejoice in his grace. And that is the wonderful life-changing news that we call the gospel! Praise God!
THE PARADIGM SHIFT WEBINAR ─ SEPTEMBER 28, 2005
ONE PERSON’S PERSPECTIVE
By Gordon Ferguson
Since I wrote a recent article about the Paradigm Shift series that was made public, I thought I should follow up with my thoughts about the Webinar last night. I’m sure that those who read what I wrote earlier will now likely want to know what I thought about last night’s session. What I originally wrote and am writing now is, of course, simply one person’s perspective. Whatever help that may provide, amen. I listened carefully to the full presentations and to all of the Q & A session as well, and commend Jamie and Douglas for taking the time to prepare well for their presentation and for making the time to present it. Those efforts alone made a positive statement.
As stated in my original article, my bigger concern about the series as a whole was not content but rather tone and approach in presentation. I felt like Jamie and Douglas made a genuine effort to not only avoid those things that brought on the concerns many of us had, but did some backtracking, correcting, clarifying and apologizing. That spells humility to me, and it was much appreciated. While I do have a few questions remaining about content, I did gain a better understanding of some foundational aspects of the series and definitely appreciated some of the emphases even more. All in all, I enjoyed the presentation and felt good about what I heard. Let me mention a few first impressions about some of what stood out to me and also a few remaining questions.
The Growth Focus
Jamie made it clear that what drove much of his own reexamination of evangelistic approach was a concern about numerical growth. He said in an earlier presentation that he thought we were stuck as a movement regarding growth. I can’t disagree with that, although there are some wonderful exceptions to that general condition. I fully appreciate the fact that we as a movement of churches are growing again, after going through quite an upheaval over a decade ago. Progress is always good. The amount of progress with which we are satisfied may not be so good. I have heard church leaders say that they would be happy with an annual five percent growth rate or some other figure in that general range. I’m with Jamie on that one ─ I think God wants to help us grow much more than that, and is fully able to help us do it. That means we are missing something and need to discover what it is. Actually, the answer isn’t simplistic, so it is more accurate to say that we are missing some things.
When I was preaching for Mainline Churches of Christ, we grew. In fact, the leaders were happy about the growth. I wasn’t. I repeatedly reminded them of this fact: “If every church grew at the same rate we are growing (and most weren’t), the huge majority of the world would still meet God in Judgment without ever hearing the truth of the gospel.” Isn’t that statement accurate in describing our movement right now? Our growth rate outside the United States is definitely higher than within the US, and yet most of our financial and human resources are in this country. We have to be very careful about doing what Paul forbade in 2 Corinthians 10:12: “We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise.” My opinion is that we are doing too much comparing of ourselves to each other, instead of to what Jesus said in the Great Commission ─ and to what we read about in the Book of Acts.
What Are We Missing?
Honestly, I’m not really sure, but I do have some ideas and some questions. Jamie sees the “Discovery Class” approach to be a key part of the answer for them. He said other things that showed he wasn’t viewing that as the only way to accomplish effective evangelism, mentioning also individuals studying with other individuals. The latter is what we have most relied on, and the point about letting tools become rules is well taken. Too many of us have allowed that to happen in a number of areas. I think our history as a movement shows that our more entrepreneurial days were much more effective than when we systemized most of our approaches and practices.
With that in mind, I wholeheartedly endorse some reasonable experimentation in methodology and approach. When leading churches or overseeing multiple ministries within churches, I was always quite open to one group trying something that the rest of us were not yet doing. Jamie’s comment last night was that their present approach could help the rest of us by either introducing us to something that was working long-term, or to something that failed and should be avoided. I like the approach and the honesty inherent in that statement. The proof’s always in the pudding, so to speak, but it always takes time before the effective and the ineffective become really clear.
One question I have ties in to larger concerns about true repentance and Lordship. When I first met this movement in the early 1980s, I was both thrilled and mystified by the amazing numbers of people being baptized. I was looking for the answers for why it was occurring and others less acquainted with the movement were asking me what I thought was producing the amazing growth (really amazing from our Mainline perspective). My early assessment was that every member was on the same page in terms of commitment to Christ and commitment to his mission of seeking and saving the lost. While every member was not on that page in their heart and motivation, most were when I became a part of the movement in the mid-1980s. A large majority were actively sharing their faith almost daily and were actively involved in studying with non-Christians. (By the way, thanks brothers for avoiding the term “ganging up” to explain bringing in one or more extra people into studies. There are pluses to doing that, but your “labor intensive” explanation was rational and helpful.)
At this point in our history, we are not seeing in the large majority of our members having the same degree of commitment in either realm, to Christ or to his mission. My opinion, of course, but I doubt that many will argue with the observation. So, what is the answer? Is it the “Discovery Class” approach? Maybe it is a part of the answer. Jacksonville and others who are using it as a main emphasis for helping people come to Christ will provide some evidence one way or the other in time.
Do we just need much more emphasis on the Lordship of Christ, and an approach to discipling and accountability that helps us return to a total commitment to Christ and his mission (and a lifestyle that reflects it clearly)? I do think that is a big part of the answer, but the question is how we get from where many disciples are to where we need to be once again? To be honest, sometimes I wonder if the large majority of our members can get back to that type of lifestyle, and if so, how? I’ve talked to a growing number of leaders who are convinced that the only way it can be done is through a consistently strong emphasis on simply being disciples of Jesus ─ meaning that we study him intensely with a commitment to follow him, learn from him and imitate him in every way possible (no, not walking on water!). I think the term “disciple” has become almost synonymous with being a member of an ICOC church. As John 6 puts it, being a true follower means to eat and drink Christ, to be totally captivated by him in heart, motivation and lifestyle. I think nearly all of us are more “of the world” than we would like to think, and yes, I include myself. God, help us!
Regarding motivation to regain this kind of commitment and all that accompanies it, just demanding it in sermons and discipling won’t get the job done. We need the type of motivation that changes our hearts. I don’t think just strongly preaching total commitment will produce what God is looking for. Neither do I think that preaching the types of sermons so currently popular in the evangelical world (self-help types, essentially) that are becoming popular among some of us is the answer either. It has to be preaching and teaching and discipling in ways that so focus on Jesus that our hearts become different and then our lives reflect that difference.
Having said that, I don’t think the total answer is either easy or simple. It will not be an either/or approach, but a both/and approach, and I don’t think we have all of it within our understanding right now. I recently watched the movie “War Room.” I think that room is where we will most likely find God’s answers to just about everything we need. The Holy Spirit is going to have to be in charge of us individually and collectively. Surely a study of how the Great Commission was carried out can teach us that. Jesus gave the apostles a pretty sketchy plan of how to carry it out in Acts 1:8. Acts 13:1-3 strikes me as a huge part of the answer they found and we need. What we call the First Missionary Journey began with the leadership being so spiritually in tune with God (worshiping and fasting) that the Holy Spirit took over.
The leaders didn’t have the specifics of the plan; they just sought to be so spiritual that God made his plan known through the Spirit. I’m not saying that plans are not good, for Paul definitely had his (Romans 15:23ff), but I am saying that our plans are not nearly as important as the Man and where he is in our hearts and lives and churches. Well, enough of my preaching! I started off discussing a Webinar, didn’t I? But think about these things, along with the things we heard last night. Let’s keep looking for more and better ways to see the Great Commission become a reality and not just an ideal. If it could cause an explosion in the first century church, it can cause the same in our churches.
While I felt much better after hearing the Webinar presentation last night, and appreciated what I perceived as a clear change in tone, I do have questions about two things primarily. One, the definition of repentance. Hearing Jamie emphasize a Lordship commitment prior to baptism, followed by continuing discipling (the two parts of the Great Commission) was reassuring. Yet, my experience in the Mainline churches with what I call incomplete repentance, is a concern (for all of us). I know what the fruits of that are, all too well. I still suggest that you read the section of my book, Prepared to Answer (Second Edition) that I mentioned in my earlier article. If you don’t have the book, write me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send it to you in an excerpted article. I will also post it on my web site (gordonferguson.org).
Two, my concerns about effective cost counting, done wisely and respectfully, are still concerns. I don’t want to swing the pendulum either way here, but knowing the Gospel of Luke as I do makes me intent on doing the kind of cost counting Jesus did. Many today are all too satisfied with having large crowds with at least some level of interest in following Jesus (Luke 14:25), but the response of Jesus to those large crowds (verses 26-33) was nothing short of shocking to modern ears. Following Jesus is still a matter of denying self, taking up our cross daily and following him. Whatever our study approach and our cost counting approach, it must that of Jesus ─ including Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The committed life is the abundant life, and we cannot present or emphasize one to the exclusion of the other. Once again, it is a both/and matter, for Jesus is both Lord and Savior.
That’s Enough for Now (Almost)!
I went to sleep very peacefully and thankfully after the Webinar last night, but woke up at 5 am. I think what woke me up (besides needing to go to the bathroom, an old guy problem) was that I felt obligated to follow up my previous article with a quick response to the Webinar. In a nutshell, my understanding of some background issues has grown, my appreciation has grown, and my concerns have either been alleviated or morphed into questions more than concerns.
A final thought is that both Jamie and Douglas seemed very intent to not be any sort of catalyst for promoting disunity. That thread ran all the way through the presentations and the Q & A session, in both content and the manner in which it was presented. That warmed my heart. We probably don’t agree on every last one of the content issues, but after 50 years of a happy marriage, my wife and I don’t agree on all of our content issues either. The main thing is that we love each other, we discuss all of what we are pondering, and we give each other grace as the dialogues continue. That is what I sensed clearly that our two brothers were trying hard to do. As one old Restoration preacher once said, “Let us remember that while we may disagree in the hundredths, we agree in the thousands.” Well said. Let’s keep the dialogue going, and let’s look forward to two other highly respected teachers, Steve Kinnard and Ed Anton, sharing their perspectives at the next Webinar in November. It’s time for breakfast and copious amounts of black plasma (coffee), so I’ll close. Thanks for listening to a long-winded old story teller! I love you all!
A FINAL THOUGHT
After listening to the Webinar of September 28, 2015, I wrote the above article the next day. The following day, I had an additional thought. Jamie was very specific about originating his material for the Jacksonville church only, not imagining its spread (which was likely primarily due to Douglas Jacoby’s influence, a well-known teacher). Jamie made this point regarding his original purpose very clear in his Webinar. Thus, I wrote him the next day with a suggestion. Why not take the first part of the Webinar that he did (before Doug’s part) and use that as an introduction to the whole series? That would give a very important context to the entire series and avoid some of the concerns that many others (leaders and non-leaders) have voiced to me. Through various email strings from different sources, I discovered that others had made similar suggestions. One such brother shared with me Jamie’s response, which showed no openness to such suggestions. He made it clear that he had no intent to change anything that had already been done.
Since Jamie didn’t respond to any of my three communications to him (the two articles, accompanied by introductory emails, plus the third email with my additional suggestion in it), that left me with more questions, sending a type of mixed message in my mind (openness/not openness). I don’t intend to add any more comments to this whole discussion beyond these articles, since I’ve said about all I have to say already and I am not overly concerned about long term negative effects anyway. I think most of our people have enough biblical knowledge and common sense not to react with extremes. If they do, time will demonstrate where those extremes lead.
My opinion is that those who get most excited about Paradigm Shift fall into three basic categories. One, those who are genuinely excited about finding ways to convert more people, and see this approach as a shorter way to convert people who are genuinely open. Two, those who are still nursing hurts and negative attitudes toward our movement of churches, especially for our mistakes of the past, and anything with a negative tinge toward our history appeals to them as a result. Three, those who honestly have deeper emotional issues, and find it easier to be upset at something or someone besides the person they see in the mirror every day. I pray that those in the latter two categories get the help they need and those in the first category are highly successful in bringing more and more people to Christ.
In summary, just keep studying your Bible and studying with people who need Jesus. Don’t be wedded to any systematic study series, but rather adapt your material to the needs of each individual with whom you are studying. Further, don’t become wedded to any lack of a study series ─ that’s the other extreme. We’ve had quite enough pendulum swings in our movement of churches in the past decade or so, have we not? God bless!