Send comments and questions to:

What About Watchman Nee’s Teaching on Soul and Spirit?

My Introduction To Watchman Nee and Witness Lee

In my first ministry job, I was one of several ministers on the staff of a local church. The main pulpit preacher was using terminology and concepts that were strange to my ears, which was significant, since I had just graduated from a very intense two year ministry training school in which we went through the whole Bible verse-by-verse and memorized hundreds and hundreds of Bible verses. What I was hearing sounded definitely different from biblical concepts and wording. Further inquiry led to discovering that the minister was reading books by Nee and Lee, and appeared to be rather drawn to what amounted to a “new teaching” in the churches of which I was a part.

I then purchased some of these books and read them, being struck quickly with the obviously allegorical approach to interpreting Scriptures. The allegorical approach to studying written documents certainly predated the Christian era, but it found its way into the Christian church fairly early. Philo, an Alexandrian Jew (20 B.C. to 42 A.D.). is credited with introducing this method of biblical interpretation to the Old Testament Scriptures. Origen (182-251 A.D.) was quite influential in spreading this method of interpreting the New Testament, as one of the early “Church Fathers.” Augustine adopted a modified form of the system, and Jerome is said to be the main figure responsible for introducing it into the Roman church. But my most recent study, described in the following material, convinces me that Nee’s system is also a form of neo-Gnosticism. Actually, the allegorical system of interpretation is quite closely related in a specific way to the Gnostic approach of interpreting the Scriptures, as we shall see.

Introductory Thoughts About Interpreting Nee

In Watchman Nee’s classic book, The Spiritual Man, he combines three volumes into one comprehensive work, which well represents the school of theology that he has developed. The total number of pages in this compendium of his work is 694 − hence a substantial work. The first chapter, Spirit, Soul and Body, forms much of the basis of what he writes later, and gives the reader the keys to interpreting and understanding the terminology used and the concepts they represent. It should be said that the terminology and concepts are unfamiliar to the average Bible reader, which suggests from the outset that we are being introduced to a system of interpretation developed by a man, rather than to the Bible itself. Instead of being taught biblical things in biblical terms, we are forced to learn a system before we can understand what is being taught about the Bible, and thus, this teaching must be run through the filter of the system of interpretation being employed.

A failure to learn the system makes reading Nee’s work confusing and not really understandable to the uninitiated. For example, terms like “soulish” and “soulical” (neither of which are in the Bible or the English Dictionary) are used repeatedly. Soulish essentially represents worldly or non-spiritual attitudes and behavior, while soulical represents spiritual attitudes and behavior. Had Nee simply used the biblical terms themselves rather than inventing other terms, the book would be far more helpful to the average reader, and its errors more obvious. The insistence of using non-biblical terminology to represent fundamental teachings in Nee’s system of theology is not only confusing and demands that the reader develop a familiarity with the system, it also introduces elements of Gnosticism − which will be explained later.

Spirit, Soul and Body − the Biblical Passages

This first chapter of the book lays the foundation for the rest of the book, and thus all quotes used from Nee come from Volume One, mostly Chapter One. A failure to understand the terminology and basic assumptions upon which it is based insures the reader’s failure to grasp the rest of the book. With that in mind, I want to give a basic introduction to the theological system used by Nee. The main two passages which form the basis of the theology are the following:

1 Thessalonians 5:23: “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

A few observations about these passages are in order: One, the mention of “soul” and “spirit” contained within one verse is only found in these two passages, and neither of them defines what is meant by the distinction. Hence, basing an entire system on one’s interpretation of only two passages which are left divinely unexplained should raise eyebrows at the outset. Most biblical scholars do not elaborate upon this distinction, since it doesn’t seem to be the focus of the passage, but they rather state what the overall emphasis of the passage appears to be (i.e., God saving us completely in 1 Thessalonians 5:23). The following comment by the College Press Commentary is typical of the type explanations given:

That idea is further underlined with the combination “spirit, soul and body.” Much discussion of this phrase has concerned whether it indicates that human beings are trichotomous, consisting of three distinct aspects described by these terms, or dichotomous, really consisting of two aspects, body and spirit. In favor of the former interpretation is the fact that all three terms are used here; in favor of the latter is the difficulty in distinguishing clearly between the meaning of “spirit” (pneuma) and “soul” (psychē). However, it must be conceded that Paul is not discussing the precise nature of humanity but is offering assurance of God’s protection. The combination of three terms here is probably only intended as a means of underlining the comprehensive nature of that protection; it is no more a systematic presentation of human nature than is the combination “heart, soul, mind and strength” in Matt 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27. Paul, like the other New Testament writers, repeatedly indicates that God’s purpose is to save the whole person, not just some part.

A representative example of what biblical scholars say about Hebrews 4:12 is as follows (from Expositor’s Bible Commentary):

The Word of God is unique. No sword can penetrate as it can. We should not take the reference to “soul” and “spirit” as indicating a “dichotomist” over against a “trichotomist” view of man, nor the reference to “dividing” to indicate that the writer envisaged a sword as slipping between them. Nor should we think of the sword as splitting off “joints” and “marrow.” What the author is saying is that God’s Word can reach to the innermost recesses of our being. We must not think that we can bluff our way out of anything, for there are no secrets hidden from God. We cannot keep our thoughts to ourselves. There may also be the thought that the whole of man’s nature, however we divide it, physical as well as nonmaterial, is open to God. With “judges” we move to legal terminology. The Word of God passes judgment on men’s feelings (enthymeseon) and on their thoughts (ennoion). Nothing evades the scope of this Word. What man holds as most secret he finds subject to its scrutiny and judgment.

In other words, the main focus of these two passages is not to emphasize a distinction of soul and spirit, but to make a main point of practical application − namely that God can save us entirely and that the Word of God exposes our inmost thoughts and motivations. Building a theological system on passages intended to provide practical motivations is highly suspect, to say the least. However, Nee has not only chosen a suspect approach, he has deemed it absolutely essential to our understanding of the Bible. A couple of quotes will illustrate that point:

“It is an issue of supreme importance for it affects tremendously the spiritual life of a believer.” (page 22)

“To fail to distinguish between spirit and soul is fatal to spiritual maturity.” (page 22)

It is obvious that Nee has not only developed a system of theology and interpretation, but it is equally obvious that he believes we cannot be spiritually healthy (or maybe spiritually saved) without seeing the Bible through the filter of his system. One brother, who came out of this background himself, said that it is not uncommon to hear the adherents to Nee’s doctrine say that this issue is a salvation issue. Certainly such strong assertions by Nee are both assumptive and arrogant, and insulting to the large body of believers who are either unaware of Nee’s system or who have studied and rejected it upon biblical grounds. And as stated before, one of these grounds is the inclusion of certain Gnostic elements.

Spirit, Soul and Body − the System Introduced and Defined

It is important that we introduce the basics of Nee’s theological approach and explanation of his terminology. Nee begins his explanation with the creation of man in Genesis 2:7, quoting from the American Standard Version: “And Jehovah God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” The term soul is from the Hebrew nephesh, which will prove to be very important in this study. Nee says that God breathing into Adam the breath of life meant that the breath of life became man’s spirit, and when it came into contact with man’s body, the soul was produced. Hence, the soul is the combination of man’s body and spirit (and assumedly would not have been formed without the spirit).

He states: “In other words, soul and body were combined with the spirit, and spirit and body were merged in the soul” (page 24). Another quote: “Soul is the organ of man’s free will, the organ in which spirit and body are completely merged” (page 25). Thus, according to Nee, the soul chooses whether to go toward the flesh or the Spirit. We are told that the body gives us “world consciousness;” the soul gives us “self consciousness;” and the spirit gives us “God-consciousness.” This interesting observation was made on page 27: “Before man committed sin the power of the soul was completely under the dominion of the spirit…The spirit cannot itself act upon the body; it can only do so through the medium of the soul.”

However, this observation was followed up by quoting Luke 1:46-47, which reads: “And Mary said: ‘My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.’” This passage is typical of scores of passages which use soul and spirit interchangeably (which Nee denies strongly). In this case, we have a simple case of Hebrew parallelism, as any commentator will note. Hence, Nee uses a passage that makes a different case than the one he is trying to make. Nee’s threefold delineation of the supposed nature of both soul and spirit: Soul − the site of personality, consisting of will, intellect and emotions; Spirit − the site of conscience, intuition and communion (worship).

Biblical and Practical Inconsistencies

The word “soul” is used in a variety of ways biblically. Prior to Genesis 2:7, where man is said to be a “soul,” animals, fish, birds and creeping things were all said to be “souls” (from nephesh). (Yet, they had no spirits to unite with their bodies to form their souls!) See Genesis 1:20-26 on the point of other animate life besides humans being souls. The word “creature” is most often the term used to translate nephesh. Thus, living “being” is a good translation for all of created animate life, including man.

Further, God himself is a soul (and has a soul):

Leviticus 26:11: “Moreover, I will make My dwelling among you, and My soul will not reject you.”

Leviticus 26:30: “I then will destroy your high places, and cut down your incense altars, and heap your remains on the remains of your idols; for My soul shall abhor you.”

Leviticus 26:43: “For the land shall be abandoned by them, and shall make up for its sabbaths while it is made desolate without them. They, meanwhile, shall be making amends for their iniquity, because they rejected My ordinances and their soul abhorred My statutes.”

Psalm 11:5: “The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked, And the one who loves violence His soul hates.”

Isaiah 42:1: “Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold; My chosen one in whom My soul delights.”

Isaiah 53:11: “As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, As He will bear their iniquities.”

Zechariah 11:8: “Then I annihilated the three shepherds in one month, for my soul was impatient with them, and their soul also was weary of me.”

In the Old Testament, as well as the New Testament, soul is often used to describe the inner part, or the spirit of man. Nephesh can describe only the man as a created being (like the animal, bird and fish world), or it can describe the part that is unique to man − the spirit.

Psalm 19:7: “The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.”

Psalm 23:3: “He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness For His name\’s sake.”

Psalm 25:1: “To Thee, O Lord, I lift up my soul.”

Psalm 30:12: “That my soul may sing praise to Thee, and not be silent.”

Psalm 33:20: “Our soul waits for the Lord; He is our help and our shield.”

Psalm 34:2: “My soul shall make its boast in the Lord; The humble shall hear it and rejoice.”

Psalm 35:9: “And my soul shall rejoice in the Lord; It shall exult in His salvation.”

Psalm 42:1-2: As the deer pants for the water brooks, So my soul pants for Thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; When shall I come and appear before God?”

Psalm 71:23: “My lips will shout for joy when I sing praises to Thee; And my soul, which Thou hast redeemed.”

Psalm 94:19: “When my anxious thoughts multiply within me, Thy consolations delight my soul.”

Psalm 103:2: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, And forget none of His benefits.”

Psalm 108:1: “My heart is steadfast, O God; I will sing, I will sing praises, even with my soul.”

Psalm 119:81: “My soul languishes for Thy salvation; I wait for Thy word.”

Many other similar verses could be quoted, but why is this point important? The following quotes from Nee answer that question.

“The spirit lies beyond man’s self-consciousness and above his sensibility. Here man communicates with God.” (page 29)

“The revelations of God and all the movements of the Holy Spirit are known to the believer through his intuition.” (page 32)

“God is not apprehended by our thoughts, feelings or intentions, for He can only be known directly in our spirits.” (page 32)

Implications from the above quotes:

    1. If the spirit lies beyond man’s self-consciousness” (his soul), and is the only place where man can communicate with God, the Psalmist was poorly informed of such.

    2. If the revelations of God and all the movements of the Holy Spirit are only known through the intuition (which is a part of the spirit, not the soul − by Nee’s definition), then the Psalms are mistaken.

    3. If God cannot be known directly through our souls, the Psalmist is again mistaken.

These kinds of contradictions will always occur when the Bible is forced into an artificial system of interpretation. Other contradictions:

    1. Before conversion, one cannot distinguish between soul and spirit. (page 34)

    2. Yet, on the same page we are told: “The New Testament does not consider those with a sensitive conscience, keen intellect or a spiritual tendency to be saved individuals.” (If conscience is a function of the spirit and is based on the intuition, which cannot be distinguished prior to conversion, how can the conscience become “sensitive?”)

    3. If the revelations of God and the work of the Holy Spirit can only be known through his intuition, one’s personal insight is exalted above the statements of Scripture. (Dictionary definition of intuition: “knowledge or conviction gained by intuition. The power or faculty of attaining to direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference.”) Such a conclusion is both unbiblical and dangerous.

The Soul and Spirit of Man in Normal Biblical Usage

Spirit refers to man’s inner being, made in the image of God. Soul may refer to the animate life itself, or to man’s inner being − depending on the context. Some OT verses use Hebrew parallelism to show the interchangeable nature of soul and spirit, when soul is used to refer to man’s inner being.

1 Samuel 1:15: But Hannah answered and said, \”No, my lord, I am a woman oppressed in spirit; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have poured out my soul before the Lord.

Job 7:11: “Therefore, I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit, I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.”

Isaiah 26:9: At night my soul longs for Thee, Indeed, my spirit within me seeks Thee diligently; For when the earth experiences Thy judgments The inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.

The NT is even clearer in its interchangeable usage of the terms soul and spirit:

Matthew 10:28: “And do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (According to this passage, man cannot kill the soul.)

Matthew 22:37: “And He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’”

Matthew 26:38: “Then He said to them, ‘My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me.’”

Luke 1:46: “And Mary said: ‘My soul exalts the Lord.’”

Acts 2:27: “Because Thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades, nor allow Thy Holy One to undergo decay.”

2 Corinthians 1:23: “But I call God as witness to my soul, that to spare you I came no more to Corinth.”

Hebrews 6:19: “This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil.”

Hebrews 10:39: “But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul.”

James 5:20: “let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death, and will cover a multitude of sins.”

1 Peter 2:11: “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts, which wage war against the soul.”

2 Peter 2:8: “for by what he saw and heard that righteous man, while living among them, felt his righteous soul tormented day after day with their lawless deeds.”

3 John 1:2: “Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers.”

Many observations could be made on the above passages, but a mere reading of them pretty much makes the point. Trying to force biblical terminology to fit a system imposed upon it always leads to confusion and false teaching.

Dangers of Watchman Nee’s Teaching (and Those Patterned After Him)

His teaching is a system which is based on his theology and terminology, and cannot be understood without first being trained in that terminology. Thus, instead of just studying the Scriptures, time must be taken to study the philosophy of a man. Many of his teachings are merely assumptions and opinions, and yet are emphatically declared by him to be Scriptural. The essential ingredients of Gnosticism are present in both subtle and blatant forms.

Gnosticism (which was present in incipient forms in many places in the New Testament) has the following characteristics: The name comes from the Greek word, gnosis, for knowledge. It is built upon the premise that anything material was bad. In the realm of personal practices, the NT contains two manifestations of it: asceticism (see 1 Timothy 4:1-3 and Colossians 2:20-23) and libertinism (see 2 Peter 2:13-22 and Jude). The reasoning was that since the flesh was inherently bad, either deny it or indulge it. In the latter viewpoint, as long as you had the right knowledge (gnosis), what you did with the body didn’t matter. In defining the nature of Christ, those with Gnostic tendencies denied that he could have come in the flesh. He just “seemed” to be in the flesh. We call this the Docetic doctrine. The Apostle John attacks this heresy in no uncertain terms in 2 John 1:7: “Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.”

Further, and this is where Nee’s and Lee’s teachings especially converge with Gnosticism, those who succumbed to Gnosticism believed that they had a special insight to spiritual knowledge, and saw their insight (intuition) as more important that the Bible’s specific teaching. They were very prideful and looked down on those who just simply clung to the specifics of the Bible. They had the idea that in spite of what the Bible seemed to say on certain points, they had been given the illumination of the true will of God. (They could read between the lines to get the real meaning God intended.) This tendency is seen in some of the Christians in Thyatira, according to Revelation 2:24: “Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets (I will not impose any other burden on you).” In other words, these people claimed to have the “deep teachings of God,” but God said that they actually were holding to the “deep teachings of Satan!”

Nee’s form of Gnosticism comes through the development of a rather complicated system, with its own specific terminology, which means that the uninitiated cannot really grasp the “deep teachings” of God. The focus on the intuition as the real means of grasping truth, rather than through the specifics (including the wording) of Scripture is a definite type of Gnosticism, complete with its arrogance and exclusivity (regardless of intentions to the contrary). His claims that the conscience is based on one’s intuition opens wide the door for being directed by a supposed inner voice from God rather than taking God’s written Word as the true basis of conscience training. The conscience is only as accurate as the training upon which it is based. (See my recent article on this subject, entitled: “Matters of Conscience: a Deeper Look.”)

The allegorical approach to interpretation is a part of the discovery of so-called “deeper truths.” For one example, Nee on page 29 compares the three-fold nature of man to the three parts of the temple (outer court, Holy Place, Most Holy Place) − as if God had made the comparison. Such allegorization is common to Nee and Witness Lee. Mentioning Witness Lee, who picked up the torch of Nee’s theology, Lee is even more blatant in his Gnostic statements. Consider the following quotes from The All-Inclusive Christ:

“First of all, I would ask you to realize that according to the Scriptures all physical things, all the material things that we see, touch, and enjoy, are not the real things.” (Chapter 1, page 7)

“…material objects: we are eating food, drinking water, putting on clothes; we are living in our houses and driving in our cars. I would ask you to realize and remember well that all these things are not real.” (Chapter 1, page 7)

“What about the earth? There was chaos upon the earth. Waste and void and deep waters were upon it. It was buried under the deep. So God came in to work; God began to recover the earth…Then He divided the water from the earth, and the earth came out from the waters on the third day. It was the third day when the Lord Jesus Christ came out of the depths of death. So, you see, this is a type. On the third day God brought the earth out of the waters of death. From this type you can realize what the earth is. The earth, or the land, is a type of Christ.” (Chapter 1, page 10)

“Whenever you want to do something, whenever you enjoy something, whenever you use something, you must immediately apply Christ. For instance, you are sitting on a seat. Do you realize that this is not the real seat? This is but a shadow, a figure point to Christ. Christ is the real seat. If you do not have Christ, it means that in your entire life you have never had a seat. There is no rest for you. You have nothing to rely upon. You have something false, for Christ is the real thing.” (Chapter 2, page 19)

These quotes from Witness Lee show us two important pieces of this dangerous Gnostic-type teaching. One, the alleged lack of realness of material things is very Gnostic in nature. Two, the typology (allegorization, in this case) is merely speculative, but a part of so-called deeper truths. The only way we can be sure that an allegory is intended in Scripture is when the writer makes an allegorical application. For example, in Galatians 4:24-26, God inspires Paul to use the following allegory:

These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. [25] Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. [26] But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.

When God inspires a biblical writer to use an allegory and make an application that we might not have otherwise thought of, that is his prerogative. When non-inspired men do the same thing, they are assuming what God has not said and are in danger of adding to the Scripture and of being false prophets. Additionally, and this is not necessary Gnostic-related, Lee is clearly Premillennial in his interpretation of prophecy (which I believe to be false, in spite of its popularity in the Evangelical world).

Concluding Observations

Upon a close examination of the theology of Watchman Nee and those who ascribe to his theology, I believe it to be biblically erroneous in many ways and thus clearly dangerous. This is not to say that the faulty exegesis and danger was in any way intentional by him, nor is it to say that his followers are intentionally deceived and deceptive, or unspiritual in their overall desires or actions. However, regardless of intention, false doctrine is false doctrine and therefore dangerous.

Recently, I heard a disciple commenting on Nee’s books, saying that they were “deep” and contained things that he never would have thought of. I told him that there was a good reason for that − the Holy Spirit never thought of them either! But this brother provides a good example of how reading subtle but erroneous teachings can influence those without a real foundation of biblical knowledge. My hope and prayer is that this study can be profitable to those who have unknowingly ascribed to a false system of theology, and will help them to decide to adopt a much simpler and more accurate approach to Bible study by being willing to call Bible things by Bible names and accept the simple teachings of God’s plan of salvation.

Paradigm Shift Evaluation

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.


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!



By Gordon Ferguson

Introductory Thoughts

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.

Remaining Questions

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 and I will send it to you in an excerpted article. I will also post it on my web site (

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!


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! 

Are We Saved By Faith Alone


The doctrine of salvation by “faith alone” (Sola fide in Latin, a historically popular usage) has its roots in the Reformation Movement, with men like Martin Luther emphasizing this concept in reaction to certain teachings in the Catholic Church. The Reformation teachers were correct in asserting that we cannot in any way earn or deserve salvation, and if you understand what was taking place in the Catholic Church of their day, you can understand why they were so focused on faith as contrasted to meritorious works. However, the way the doctrine of “faith alone” was stated originally and interpreted as church history unfolded led to some misunderstandings of how the Bible actually defines faith.

To state the obvious, this doctrine was focused on the human part of salvation rather than on God’s part (the main part ─ grace). Thus, in considering this narrow focus, we could quickly say that we are not saved by faith alone. But this wasn’t the intent of the Reformation writers; they were in fact focusing on man’s response to God’s grace. One of the best passages to show the overall way of salvation is Ephesians 2:8-10.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God ─ 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

This is a marvelous passage, as it encapsulates the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith. One reason it is such a significant passage is because it deals with both sides of salvation, the Divine side and the human side. Another reason it is so important is that it deals with both types of works ─ meritorious works (which cannot earn salvation) and works of faith (which are produced by our love and commitment to God). A common way to describe the difference is to say that we are not saved by our works but we work because we are saved. Romans develops this topic in much more detail and helps us really understand this important difference.

In stating that we are saved by grace through faith, Paul is not saying that the Divine and human parts of salvation are equal ─ far from it. The real basis or ground of salvation is the grace of God ultimately expressed in the death of Jesus on the cross. The human part is simply our acceptance of what God has done to make salvation possible. Describing God’s part in our salvation as the ground of forgiveness and our part as conditions of acceptance is a helpful way to look at the subject. Grace is a gift and our acceptance of this gift is the faith of which Paul speaks. Having said that, our faith is essential to our salvation, and understanding exactly what is meant by the term faith is likewise essential. The challenge is that this term is defined biblically in a number of slightly different ways, at least six by my count, and these differences matter, as we will see.

1 Corinthians 13:13 says that the “Big Three” are faith, hope and love – with love being the greatest.

Love isn’t that difficult to define, since several different Greek words are all translated into English as love, and each of the Greek terms can be clearly defined. Hope isn’t difficult to define either, but it does receive far less attention among believers than it deserves. However, faith is the most challenging to define, simply because the Bible uses it in a number of slightly different ways, and understanding the context in which it is found is often the only way to define it accurately. This challenge should come as no surprise to us, since Satan is always trying to deceive us. Since Ephesians 2:8-10 says we are saved by God’s grace through our faith, you can predict that he is going to work very hard to confuse us about such an important issue involving our salvation. So, with that background, let’s delve carefully into God’s definition of faith, as found in the Bible.

Faith: a Word of Many Nuances

First, sometimes the term denotes simply intellectual belief. Romans 10:14 – “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” As intellectual belief, faith is a part of a process in accepting Christ, not the whole process. Second, sometime faith or belief describes the concept of trust. 2 Corinthians 5:7 – “We live by faith, not by sight.” The context is about trusting that there is life after death and a spiritual body awaiting the saved, suited for eternity. Third, sometimes faith is preceded by the definite article and is being used to refer to the New Testament as God’s covenant with us. Jude 1:3 – “Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” Thus, “the faith” would be synonymous with “the gospel.”

Fourth, faith is used in reference to a miraculous gift of the Holy Spirit. 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 – “To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues.” Most of these miraculous gifts are easy to define while others aren’t. The exact nature of miraculous faith is one of those gifts more difficult to explain precisely.

Fifth, faith can express the idea of a personal conviction, based on our conscience. Romans 14:23 – “But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.” The whole context is about matters of opinion, and in these matters we must grant others liberty while living personally within our own convictions. Sixth and finally, and this is a very important usage, faith is used in a comprehensive sense that encompasses the entire faith response to God and his Son. Many passages could be cited that show this usage, including John 3:16 and Ephesians 2:8-10. However, we can get confused about how the term is being used and miss out on some essential concepts that relate directly to salvation. One way to help avoid this confusion is to realize that all faith is not saving faith.

Some Faith Does Not Please God

For starters, self-righteous faith doesn’t please God. John 8:30-33 – “Even as he spoke, many put their faith in him. 31 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’ 33 They answered him, ‘We are Abraham\’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?’” Next, fearful faith or hidden faith certainly doesn’t please him. John 12:42-43 – “Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; 43 for they loved praise from men more than praise from God.”

Further, faith in words only, without being put into practice, is dead and cannot please God. James 2:14-17 – “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”

What Is the Faith That Pleases God?

My favorite passage to define a saving faith is Hebrews 11:6 – “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” It shouldn’t be surprising that the three components of faith that apply most directly to man’s response to God are all included in this definition of a faith that pleases God. First, it is a faith that believes. Second, it is a faith that trusts. Third, it is a faith that earnestly seeks. Thus, a saving faith is comprised of faith, trust and obedience. But what do we believe and what do we trust and what do we obey?

It is important to note that true faith is directly tied to the Word of God, as Romans 10:17 tells us: “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” So, in short, faith is based on the gospel message about Jesus. Another key to understanding saving faith is to realize that the Bible comes to us in the form of facts, promises and commands. Hence, we believe the facts, we trust the promises and we obey the commands. A faith that pleases God is simply one that takes him at his word – believing facts, trusting promises and obeying commands.

Matthew 28:19-20 is what we call the Great Commission, and it has two parts to it – becoming a disciple of Jesus (getting saved) and then maturing as a saved disciple by learning to obey everything that he has commanded. Now let’s look at an example of someone in the Book of Acts doing that first part, as the salvation process is shown to include all three parts of the type of faith that pleases God and results in salvation.

Acts 16:25-34
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” 29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. 33 At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. 34 The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household.

The jailor asked a very basic question about how to get saved, and Paul’s answer was also basic, starting with the need to believe. Of course, the jailor and his family had to know what to believe, which led to Paul preaching the Word to him, because belief must be based on the Word of Christ (Romans 10:17). Repentance is also a part of the salvation process, and washing the wounds of Paul and Silas demonstrated that the jailor and his family had repented. Finally, they were baptized, the final step in the initial salvation process. (See my article on this site entitled “Biblical Baptism Explained” for further details.) Note that their baptism took place after midnight, and by taking prisoners out of jail, they were putting themselves at risk if Paul and Silas were not being honest with their intentions. It would be difficult to come to any other conclusion than the fact that baptism is a part of the salvation process. But it is a part of the process because it is a part of the faith process. Notice the wording of verse 34: “he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God.” Coming to believe in God summed up the entire salvation process from start to finish, from hearing the message and believing it to being baptized into the death of Christ (Romans 6:3-4).

But now let’s take a look at ourselves if we have already done that – where are you in the maturation process, in becoming more and more like Jesus? The second part of the Great Commission is by far the most challenging, for it encompasses obeying all that he has commanded and it lasts a lifetime. Where is your faith in continuing to make Jesus the Lord (Master) of your life? I expect most of us don’t struggle with believing the facts of the Bible. But how about trusting the promises of the Bible? Perhaps the quickest answer to that question comes from an examination of our anxiety level. It has been said that anxiety is practical atheism. That is surely a disturbing definition for many. I recall the wife of an elder being quite a worrier. I once mentioned to her that studies have shown that about 95% of what we worry about never comes to pass. She replied: “Exactly. I am keeping many things from becoming realities!” A relative of a minister’s wife known for negativity said of her, “Well, given her negative outlook on life, at least she is never disappointed!” How about you ─ are you an anxiety prone person as a disciple? The answer to that question says a lot about your faith, the trust you have in God’s promises.

Then, how are you doing in obeying the commands of the Bible – have you been satisfied with obeying certain ones, but yet not taking seriously what Jesus said about obeying everything he commanded? Certainly we could delve into many topics when considering this question, but some specifics come to mind as I consider the lives of church members I observe regularly. I think about participation in all of the activities of the church that the leaders have asked us to participate in. I think about finances and giving of both time and money. I think about evangelism through the example of Jesus (who came to “seek and save the lost” ─ Luke 19:10). I think about a number of other basics of what it means to follow and imitate Jesus, knowing the human tendency to pick and choose what we find comfortable or enjoyable. That approach ultimately leads to a rejection of God’s Word as a whole, and can so deceive us that we don’t even see it. Faith in accepting Jesus initially must lead to an ever maturing faith that causes us to become more and more like him all the days of our lives.

I love the term faith, partly because of its complexity and therefore its richness. For those wanting to enter a saved relationship with God through Christ, it is essential that we understand this richness and respond appropriately. For those of us who have already entered this relationship, we have to continue to examine our faith and ask especially about how well we are doing with trusting the promises and obeying the commands of the Bible. For all of us, we would do well to take these words of Jesus to heart, as he said in Matthew 7:21: “Not everyone who says to me, \’Lord, Lord,\’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Let’s make sure that we are doing his will ─ with an understanding mind based on the Scriptures and a grateful heart that produces the needed trust and obedience. Then our hearts will be entwined with his heart for us! “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

Biblical Baptism Explained


 The Commonly Accepted Viewpoint

The standard approach of Protestant churches (including those who immerse adults) is that a person is saved at the point of faith (their definition of faith) and then baptized at some later point.  Baptism is often described as “an outward sign of an inward grace” or as a “demonstration to others of what has already occurred between a person and God.”  In other words, baptism is much like observing the Lord’s Supper ─ it is an act of one who is already a Christian.

This definition of faith is incomplete and therefore needs a closer examination biblically.  The passages used to supposedly prove salvation by faith without baptism are the ones which mention only the words “faith” or “belief.”  This approach necessitates the ignoring of other passages which do mention baptism.  A common line of argument is that since many more passages mention faiththan mention baptism, faith must be the essential ingredient while baptism is important but not essential.  The ultimate result of such reasoning is that baptism passages have to be explained away, and even faith passages have to be taken out of context.

Romans 10:9-10 is often quoted as proof that we are saved without baptism.  However, these verses cannot be used to exclude baptism from the salvation process ─ for several reasons. One, chapter 10 follows chapter 6, and in verses 1-4 of that earlier chapter, baptism is clearly taught to be a part of dying to sin and being raised to begin a new life. Two, “trust” in verse 11 and “call on him” in verse 12 go farther than simply believing and confessing.  The progression in verses 14-15 is preaching, hearing, believing, and calling.  Calling on the name of the Lord includes baptism, as may be readily seen in Acts 2:21, 38, and also in Acts 22:16.  In Acts 2:21, Peter quotes from Joel 2:32 which reads:  “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  Then, when the people ask, in essence, just how to do that, Peter tells them to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins (Acts 2:37-38).  Acts 22:16 is even clearer, as Paul is told to “Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.”

Three, an even more important aspect of Romans 10:9-10 is the focus of the context.  Paul is talking about the Jews who had failed to accept Christ, and addressing the reasons for that rejection.  He was making the point beginning in verse 5 that the righteousness which comes by faith is not a complex issue nor an unreachable goal.  God has already done the difficult work by sending his Son to the cross.  Now in response to what he has done, we just need to accept him as Lord and Messiah.  That was the challenge to the Jew.  Being baptized was not a hard concept for them.  It had been a part of John’s ministry, and large numbers of Jews had accepted it at his hands.  Matthew 3:5-6 says that “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.  Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.”   Proselytes to Judaism were customarily baptized as an initiation rite into Judaism.  Therefore, Paul had no reason to mention baptism again in this chapter.  That was not their stumbling block.

The problem that the Jew did have was in accepting Jesus as the Messiah to which their Law had pointed, and to then make this crucified Jew from despised Nazareth their Lord and King.  Now that was a challenge!  This background focus explains why the passage was worded as it was.  Similarly, the problem with Gentile acceptance of the gospel was repentance.  Therefore, Luke focused on that need all through the Book of Luke.  In fact, his account of the Great Commission only mentions repentance.  “He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day,  and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47).  The lack of Luke specifically naming faith in this account does not mean that he was excluding it from the conversion process.  He was simply focusing on their principal challenge.  Thus, Luke’s approach follows exactly the same principle used by Paul in Romans 10. Paul was addressing the main stumbling block for the Jews and Luke was addressing the main stumbling block for the Gentiles.

But what about those who do immerse adults as this “outward sign of an inward grace”?  How should we view their baptisms?  More importantly, how does God view them?  The understanding and convictions with which we respond to God’s teaching on any subject either validate or invalidate the response.  Christianity is a religion of motive and purpose.  Outward acts, without the proper understanding in the heart of the person involved, have never been acceptable to God.  Under the Mosaic Law, even the sacrifices were to be offered with a clear grasp of the purposes behind them.  The statutes in the Pentateuch spell out these purposes in no uncertain terms.  Likewise, the New Testament defines the purposes of baptismvery plainly.  Baptism is for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16), the point at which one is born again (John 3:3-5), the means of entering a relationship with Christ where salvation is (Galatians 3:27; 2 Timothy 2:10), and the act which places us into the one body which God promised to save (1 Corinthians 12:13; Ephesians 4:4; 5:23).

A real question is this:  “Can one be taught incorrectly and baptized correctly?  Let’s use an interesting example to help us think through this question. Certainly a person could sing, pray, give, and partake of the Lord’s Supper in a wrong manner.  This being true (and surely no one would disagree on these matters), one can also be baptized in a wrong manner, even if the person is sincere.  For the sake of illustration, let us consider a hypothetical case involving the Lord’s Supper.  Someone could be taught to partake every Sunday, but be taught wrongly concerning the purpose.  He could be told that in partaking, he is to remember Christ as the agent in creation (and he was ─ John 1:1-3), rather than as our sacrifice.  The person involved would be observing the Supper regularly for a sincere religious motive, but for the wrong purpose.  Would God accept this worship? Would not the traditions of men make this worship vain (Matthew 15:9)?

Likewise, sincere and even “religious” purposes in the act of baptism can be unacceptable to God.  The evangelical denominations who teach that baptism is “an outward sign of an inward grace” teach those being baptized that they are baptized after they are saved, and not in order to be saved.  This is totally unscriptural. Consider Colossians 2:12:  “Having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God…”   We are raised to walk a new life (as Romans 6:4 also mentions) through our personal faith in the power of God in the act of baptism itself.  How can our “faith in the power of God” be transferred to another act (belief alone), and another time (before baptism), and still be acceptable?

Some are opposed to “re-baptism” but Paul was not (Acts 19:1-5).  These whom Paul baptized had previously been immersed according to John the Baptist’s teaching, but needed to be immersed according to Christ’s teaching of the Great Commission baptism.  Bear in mind that Jesus Himself administered the baptism of John at one time (through his disciples ─ John 4:1-2).  However, after the cross only one baptism was acceptable (Ephesians 4:5), and that was the baptism of the new covenant.  Although other baptisms are mentioned in the NT, by the time Ephesians was written, only one remained as a necessary part of our response to God.

A few years later, Peter wrote that “this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also ─ not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21).  Thus, this one baptism was water baptism, and it was connected to salvation.  Any variation of this baptism was not acceptable to Paul, and it should not be to those of us today who are seriously trying to follow the Bible.  No one can be taught incorrectly and then baptized correctly.  The logical and biblical route to take should be obvious, and certainly God would not be displeased with any person who was doing all that he could to conform to accurate teaching.  I have never found an honest and sincere person who was satisfied for long with a questionable baptism once taught accurately.

Bible Baptism: Inseparably Connected To Faith

Properly understood, baptism is a response of faith to the cross.  Romans 6:3-4 says that “all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”  Far from being a “work”, as some claim we teach, baptism is a recognition that we are hopelessly lost in sin without the death of Jesus, and a commitment of our hearts to him and the cross.  Biblically, baptism is inseparably connected to faith in the substitutionary death of Christ on the cross.

As has already been explained, many are taught that a person is saved by faith only, without further acts of obedience.  This view is held by a majority of people in the religious world, especially by those in evangelical churches.  It is true that the Bible often just mentions faith in connection with salvation. The key issue is how the Bible actually defines this faith that saves us.  Of course other passages command repentance, confession, and baptism, but these are in the minority.  Since this is the case, people are prone to line up the majority passages against the minority passages, claiming that faith is essential while the commands in the other category are optional.  This pits Scripture against itself and is therefore erroneous.  Several approaches can be taken in answering this misconception of faith only.

One such approach is to explain that faith mentioned alone is a common figure of speech where the part is used when the whole is intended (synecdoche).  Usually faith is mentioned since it is the beginning point out of which all other conditions grow.  Even though faith is the salvation term most often used in connection with this figure of speech, other salvation terms are also used in this way.  The Great Commission of Luke (24:44-49) mentions that “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached.”  Since faith is not mentioned, it is obvious that repentance is mentioned as a part of the whole process of salvation which would certainly include faith.  Obviously, when the term “faith” is used in this manner, it is meant to include all other aspects of the salvation process, including both repentance and baptism.

Another approach to clarifying the steps of salvation is to compare the passages containing these steps of obedience to a recipe.  All items must be included which pertain to the end product.  A cake recipe may place sugar and shortening on the top of the list, but these alone would not make a cake.  The Bible recipe for salvation may place faith by itself in some passages, but the recipe is not complete without the rest of the list.  In this manner, the Bible forms a pattern, and therefore all parts must be considered before the recipe is complete and salvation secured.

A third approach can be well demonstrated with examples of conversions in Acts.  In three such cases, the teaching sounds like it differs, but it simply corresponded with the people’s present position.  For example, a man traveling from Texas to New York may ask what the distance is while still in Texas.  The answer he receives will be different from the answer to the same question asked when he is halfway to New York.  In both cases, the answer is based on his present position.  Similarly, the Philippian jailer was told to believe (Acts 16:31) because he was just beginning his trip to salvation.  The audience on Pentecost had already believed, so they were told to “repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38).  Saul was already a repentant believer when he was told to “get up and be baptized” (Acts 22:16).  In each case, the command was based on the present position of those being addressed.

The last approach that we will mention is more detailed, but possibly the most effective when trying to help a person who is really grounded in the faith only doctrine. In this approach, we show that the Bible uses the term “faith” in both a restricted sense and in a general comprehensive sense.  Many passages use belief as a type of mental assent, which would be the narrow or restricted sense.  For example, Acts 18:8 states that “many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptized.”  Something besides faith is mentioned, so faith here is used in the narrow sense.  Other similar passages are Acts 11:21; Mark 16:16; John 12:42; and James 2:19.

The general or comprehensive use of faith is seen in passages like John 3:16; John 20:30-31; Romans 1:16; and Acts 4:4.  The familiar statement in John 3:16 that “whoever believes in him should not perish” actually includes baptism rather than excluding it.  This point may be demonstrated by considering such passages as John 3:36, which states:  “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life…”  The NASB provides a more literal translation as it contrasts faith and obedience in these words:  “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life…”

Notice that belief and obedience are used interchangeably in the two phrases.  Here belief is used in the broader general sense and is synonymous with obedience.  See Acts 14:1-2; 19:1-3; Acts 16:30-34; and, Hebrews 3:18-19 for further illustrations of the same principle.  In both of the Acts accounts, it is obvious that the phrases “when you believed” and “he had come to believe” included the act of baptism.  Understood correctly, these passages will show that faith is often used in a manner that includes all obedience, of which baptism is a part.

Several additional illustrations and analogies also should prove helpful in establishing the proper relationship of faith to baptism.  The fall of Jericho illustration is one such approach.  In Joshua 6:2, God said that he had given (past tense) the city into the hands of the Israelites.  Surely no one can doubt that the promised victory was a gift from God and not earned by works!  However, God then places specific conditions on the reception of the gift (such as walking around the city a number of times).  But when the conditions were met, the promises were received, and they were received by faith.  Hebrews 11:30 reads:  “By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the people had marched around them for seven days.”  Bottom line, faith receives the promises of God, when the conditions (if any are specified) are met!  Faith does save us, but when does it save?  That is the issue.  In the NT setting, our faith saves when we obey the conditions which God has given us.

Another illustration concerns a marriage analogy.  In the OT, a beautiful lesson may be learned by showing that God married the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai, and through her, had a son named Jesus.  Many Scriptures fit into this analogy.  As with all marriages (except arranged ones!), the beginning point of the relationship is an attraction to one another.  In the NT analogy, Jesus was attracted to us enough to leave heaven in order to win us over.  When we became aware of his love, his miracles and his teaching, then the attraction became mutual!  However, it must be kept in mind that a mutual attraction does not mean that we are married yet.  For example, I was strongly attracted to my wife, Theresa, well over 50 years ago when we were both in high school.  Amazingly, she was also strongly attracted to me!  (There is a God!)  But when we were merely high school sweethearts, no one would have called her Mrs. Ferguson.  A few years later, they started doing that, but only after we were married.

But, back to the analogy of our relationship to Jesus.  How does this attraction develop into a marriage relationship?  Actually, much like it develops between a man and a woman!  After the attraction stage, we then move to the going steady stage.  Others are ruled out in favor of this special one.  The Bible calls this stage repentance! Then this stage leads to an engagement ─ in biblical terms, we are now really counting the cost!  Finally, we go through the legal procedures which are required in order to be officially married.  In the spiritual realm, this ceremony (the entrance into the covenant) is described simply and beautifully with these words:  “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ (Galatians 3:27).” At this point, we are now married to the Lord according to the official requirement of God himself (the Bible)! See Ephesians 5:22-33 for this analogy, especially verse 32, and also 2 Corinthians 11:2.

Another explanation had to do with getting intoChrist.  The blessings of being “in” Christ (in a relationship with him) are mentioned in such passages as 2 Timothy 2:10; Romans 8:1; and, Ephesians 1:3.  Only three passages in the NT tell us specifically how to get “into” Christ:  Romans 6:3; 1 Corinthians 12:13; and, Galatians 3:27.  All are baptism passages.  Thus, baptism is the culminating act of faith through which we enter that precious relationship with Jesus.

Further, note that in John 8:31-32, holding to the teachingindicates more than faith.  Here the people were listening to Jesus and “even as he spoke, many put their faith in him” (verse 30).  Yet, in verses 31-32, Jesus makes it clear that much more was demanded.  Similarly, in John 12:42, many “believed in him” but would not confess it.  Therefore, their faith was not biblical saving faith at all!  (See Mark 8:38.)

Another issue often arises with those who are confused about the relationship of faith and baptism.  That issue is usually raised with this question:  “But what about the thief on the cross ─ he wasn’t baptized?”  Whether or not he was baptized no one knows.  Since huge numbers of people had been baptized by John (Matthew 3:5-6), he might well have been.  However, this is not the main consideration.  This issue is a covenant issue.  Jesus himself lived and died under the Judaic covenant as described in the Old Testament.  The Great Commission baptism was not required nor preached until the day of Pentecost as described in Acts 2.  No one could have experienced this baptism before then because it was a baptism into the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.  It was not possible before Jesus accomplished these things, nor could it have been required until the new covenant went into effect.  Read Hebrews 9:15-17 with this principle in mind.

For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance–now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.  In the case of a will, it is necessary to prove the death of the one who made it, because a will is in force only when somebody has died; it never takes effect while the one who made it is living.

Therefore, what the thief did or did not do has little to do with us.  We live in the times of the new covenant and are thus under its requirements.  And one of those requirements is the one baptism of the Great Commission.

One final approach may prove helpful in trying to move a resistant person who is blocked is his understanding of baptism by his denominational background.  Take out a sheet of paper and write down these two opposite statements:

                                    Baptism that now saves you also.

                                    Baptism that now does not save you also.

Then hand them a pen and ask them to mark out the statement that is not true.  If they mark out the first one, they mark out 1 Peter 3:21!  If they mark out the second one, they admit that their doctrine is wrong.  Forcing the issue in this way is not the place to start, but if nothing else works, it is worth a try.  Everyone needs to see and accept what the Bible says about this important salvation issue.

In conclusion, faith is man’s response to God.  Hebrews 11:6 provides us with a great definition of a saving faith.  “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”  This passage identifies three aspects of such a faith:  belief, trust, and obedience.  The faithful person believes the facts in the Bible; he trusts thepromises in the Bible; and, he obeys the commands in the Bible.  Therefore, faith which pleases God is the appropriate response to his Word.  We cannot obey a fact, nor can we simply believe a command.  We must match our response to the form of teaching found, thereby taking God at his Word.  Since we are commanded to be baptized, our obedience to that command is not faith plus baptism.  It is simply faith in the cross when being baptized into Jesus. (Please see the more complete article on this web site regarding the biblical definition of faith in its various uses entitled, “Are We Saved by Faith Alone?”)

The Unnatural Leader

At first glance, that is an unusual title, isn’t it? It could bring to mind someone who was pressed into leadership out of pure necessity, although leadership wasn’t his or her gift (Romans 12:8). Sometimes the need does in fact call for such a decision and those who serve in such situations are to be commended for their efforts. However, I am using the title in another way, a way that may seem unusual, but with closer examination I think you will agree that it is a perfectly normal and necessary part of true spiritual leadership.

Although I have authored one book on leadership (Dynamic Leadership) and co-authored another (Golden Rule Leadership), I am always trying to learn more about such a vital subject. I believe that we have wonderful disciples of Jesus in our churches who want to be their best for God, and who will do about as well as they are led to do. That realization makes me want to keep growing as a leader in order to better help them grow as Christians. Further, the more you learn about any subject, the more you become aware of how much more there is yet to learn. I certainly view my knowledge of spiritual leadership in exactly that way. I’ve much still to learn.

So, what do I mean by the term “unnatural leader?” Actually, several related things. In the Golden Rule Leadership book that Wyndham Shaw and I co-authored years ago, we made a point about the importance of leading in an age-appropriate way. The parent who tries to lead their fifteen year old child the same way that they led them when they were five is headed for conflict and likely rebellion. The ministry leader who tries to lead a 45 year old disciple in the same way they led that same person when they were a new campus convert 25 years previously is making a similar mistake. The older disciple may not openly rebel, but at the very least they will not respond by wholeheartedly following that leader.

This leads us to the observation that leaders must be flexible enough to adjust their leadership style to the needs of those whom they are leading. All true leaders have a style that is natural to them. I call it their default style – they just do what comes naturally to them. That is not good enough. One style doesn’t meet all of the needs of the different types of people being led. Thus, all leaders have to learn to expand their leadership approaches beyond their own comfort zones in ways that are unnatural. At first, doing this will feel unnatural to both the leader and those being led, but in time, it will actually become fairly natural.

Does this sound something like hypocrisy to you? After all, it puts the leader in a position to do something that seems awkward and unnatural, perhaps making them appear as someone they are not. I have watched many leaders, perhaps the majority, lead in only one primary way – the way that comes most naturally to them. If they have a leadership gift, then they may well be effective with the majority of those whom they lead. But what about the minority of their group who doesn’t respond well to their particular leadership style? Can we just say that they are poor followers and leave it at that? That’s exactly what many (most?) leaders do, by the way. As a leader, I’m not satisfied with that answer, although I’m tempted to be. What if I can expand my leadership style in ways that would actually be effective with some of those minority folks who are more difficult to lead? If I could do that, wouldn’t God expect me to do it?

If you are a parent and have a child with learning difficulties or other behavioral challenges outside the norm, you can answer that question for us rather quickly, can’t you? You want teachers who adapt to the needs of your child, not teachers who just dismiss those needs because it is too much trouble to deal with them. Do you really think God wants those who lead his kids to just dismiss the needs of those who are more difficult to work with?

What are the real biblical issues involved here? “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Oh, you mean that this verse about self-denial and taking up daily crosses might just apply to me as a leader? “in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3-4). So now you are saying that these verses also apply to more than just ordinary Christian relationships − that they also apply to leader/follower relationships? Does not agape love demand that we do all that we can in any capacity to help every person as much as we can possibly help them, no matter the amount of sacrifice demanded on our parts?

Perhaps I’ve asked more questions than I’ve answered, but the answers are pretty obvious aren’t they? Being a leader is not about me; it’s about God first of all and then about his children. I don’t lead just because it’s my “thing.” I lead because God has given me a gift that carries a huge responsibility with it, the responsibility to help as many people as possible get right with God and then grow to be more and more like Christ. Every aspect of being a disciple is about the imitation of Christ in every area, especially in the area of leadership because of its increased influence on others.

Some leaders find it natural to be very challenging in their style and they love the passages that describe Jesus rebuking the Pharisees or turning over the tables of the money changers in the temple. Now that’s real leadership, right? That same Jesus had this said of him: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out…” (Matthew 12:20). That seems a bit different leadership style, used no doubt on those who were weak and damaged both emotionally and spiritually.

Other leaders find it natural to be gentle and encouraging. They love the Matthew 12 passage, but are uncomfortable with the Jesus who overturned those tables and rebuked the Pharisees. They pick and choose which parts of Paul’s well-rounded admonition in 2 Timothy 4:2 they want to follow: “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.” They are good with the encouraging, the patience and even the careful instruction, but they are not so good with the correcting and rebuking parts.

Leadership is about leading in the most effective way for the most people possible. 1 Thessalonians 5:14 demands that you adapt and expand your leadership style to meet those varied needs: “And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.” (Note that Paul is addressing all disciples here, not just leaders.) Leaders are not called to lead within their natural personalities and comfort zones; they are called to lead like Jesus. They give encouragement when that is most needed by whomever they are leading; they give a timely rebuke when that is what is most needed. Neither discipleship nor leadership is about you doing what comes naturally. Following Jesus in any area and in any capacity means that we deny what comes naturally and do what is right before God, and through such heartfelt obedience, we will become like Jesus and what was once unnatural will become natural or at least much more natural. All leaders have to deal with their selfishness, and it comes in many forms. But if we take seriously the imitation of Christ as a lifelong process, the words of the old hymn will become an increasing reality in our lives: “Less of self, and more of Thee; none of self, and all of Thee.”