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ICOC 3.00 by Jim McCartney

The energy and enthusiasm around the recent ICOC 3.0 initiative are impressive, and I respect and appreciate all the work that is going into it. As a local church Board member, I was able to participate in the New England/New York meeting in Hartford CT and was encouraged by the focus, energy, and balance of younger and older ministry staff, elders, and administrators engaged in the process.

I have some additional thoughts, so I am taking this time to “put a pencil to paper.” For fun, I am calling this ICOC 3.00. The point: my thoughts are ancillary to ICOC 3.0, not a recommended revision or next version.

I believe that an international organization is going to help us with missions, specifically planting and maturing churches around the world. An observation from Acts 6, however, is that organization does not necessarily beget growth but it helps meet needs when there is growth. So, we need something more to bring about the level of healthy and sustained growth we desire.

My thoughts speak to two issues: 1. the spirituality and example of our most influential leaders, and 2. the role of the next generation, which I identify as age 25 up to age 40.

  1. The Spirituality and Example of Our Most Influential Leaders

And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” – Micah 6:8

In my opinion, the ills of ICOC 1.0 were not structural but spiritual, starting from the top, and not limited to just one person. There were sins of faithlessness, humanism, pride, and anger that manifested in many practical ways, such as hyper-control of people and outcomes, shame as a tool to motivate short-term behaviors, and a breakdown in discipling relationships. The breakdown in discipling relationships at the top of the organization further contributed to a whole host of other sins not appropriate to enumerate in this paper.

I do note, however, that structure can drive behavior, and therefore perhaps the structure itself made it easier for the above sins to grow unchecked and explains our consensual reticence to go back to a similar structure. ICOC 1.0 used known business and military models of success to organize and motivate us. Today’s business models of success are different (it has been 40 years!) and may, in fact, more closely resemble the structure of the early church when it experienced explosive growth. The early church and its leadership were agile and not hierarchal, which is the case with today’s most successful organizations.

At the end of the day, I believe that the most important qualities for those who exert the most influence (and will drive the current change process) are:


  • God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble
  • A learning spirit manifested in listening, learning, and openness to input
    • I saw this to be the case in our regional discussion but this should also be a daily lifestyle thing
    • When driving change (a few months into it) it is tempting to get impatient for outcomes and default to old behaviors and sins
  • The willingness to learn from critics and those who think differently rather than discounting and marginalizing; for example, our current process may be an opportunity to include and even learn from some of the churches who were not comfortable with the cooperation agreement and the delegate system

A Consistent Example of Prayer and Evangelism

  • So, being too busy traveling, organizing, administering, and making decisions should be unacceptable excuses for our top leaders and influencers
  • Lasting godly influence is rooted in personal example and relationship, not position

In the upper management of larger churches, and in any kind of a parachurch organization, it is easy to be incredibly busy but to sacrifice the basics of being a disciple of Jesus. Then it is natural to build up defensive mechanisms, justifying the lack of meaningful personal Bible study (to change me!), evangelism, hospitality, confession of sin, and one-on-one relationships that go deeper than organizational problem-solving, planning and story-telling.

In sum, a global structure to better organize missions, training of missionaries, and other global initiatives will be powerful, but we should be careful not to create a layer of leaders who exert the most influence but become removed from the daily lifestyle of following Jesus. A better structure with leaders who are spiritual and exemplary in their personal lives will be powerful.

  1. The Next Generation

Command and teach these things. Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity….Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.” – 2 Timothy 4:11-12, 5:1-2

This is what I think about the most. Being in my later 50’s, it is hard not to. I have four children between the ages of 27 and 32, three sons by birth and one daughter by adoption. When I get with my adult children I listen more than I talk – because that is my temperament but also because I want to understand what they are thinking and where they are coming from. I also spend time with some of their peers, ask questions, and listen.

I observe a generational gap that rivals or exceeds the one dramatized in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. And the gap is in the church, largely hidden. This is because we, as older leaders in the church, 1. Listen primarily to the young staff who are being paid to execute directions given by older leaders, and 2.  Success is defined by doing well within a paradigm created by my generation.  We therefore discount and marginalize younger disciples whom we don’t consider successful in ministry.

Let me provide some context. My generation broke away from the traditional church due to convictions but also in a broader social context of generational rebellion and innovation. We changed the way “church” was done, focusing on campus ministry and propagating soul-talks in the dorms and apartments to evangelize those who did not go to church. One-on-one relationships were transformative, growing into discipling relationships intended to implement the myriad of one-another passages. Church plantings replaced male only missionaries.

Churches were racially integrated, and radically so in places like Johannesburg, South Africa. The priority of serving the poor and needy was restored. Women went into the ministry. House churches were implemented and non-staff leaders were empowered to preach, teach, and raise up other leaders. Seriously following Jesus was an expectation for everyone in the church. Evangelism was contagious. Unity among churches replaced independence and division. We restored, innovated, created, and took ownership of the church – its growth, health, and future.

The next generation now belongs to their parents’ church; their parents run it and “own” it. My generation figured it all out, implemented it, and now explain it to the young.

So, what’s the problem? The next generation has its own mind and its own ideas for restoration, innovation, and creation, and a different sense of what church might look like if they “owned” it. But they also have limited influence and opportunity. Generally, they have some very different core generational values. For example,

  1. We value leadership. They value collaboration.
  2. We value control and uniformity. They value inclusion.
  3. We value confidentiality and circles of influence. They value transparency and communication.
  4. We are motivated by numbers of members, conversions, churches, and nations. They are inspired by authenticity and the Holy Spirit.
  5. We want to evangelize the world. They want to change the world (which includes evangelism but is not limited to it).
  6. The church is our community. The city/town/county is their community.

Our default will be to train the next generation to lead the church and “do” church the way we have, and because of our values of control and uniformity, we will stifle restoration, innovation, and creation. We will become what we once rebelled against.

I think the beginning of the solution is simple:

  • Be humble. The last 17 years have not been glorious; maybe we have something to learn from those who are younger or those who have thought differently from us.
  • Create a church culture that encourages restoration, innovation, and creation. Decide not to protect the status quo.
  • Be open to both custom and flexible solutions to address challenges and opportunities.
  • Be willing to try and fail.
  • Reframe the mistakes of our youth. We did not have or respect elders; this generation does.

In sum, let the next generation lead, make mistakes, and take ownership of God’s church. Let me explain. As my generation reflects on our 40-50 year history, and as we restore the biblical role of elders, we focus on mistakes we and others made when we were young, and we are now guarded against their repetition. And as we get older, we raise the experience level required to lead. It is now easier and more attractive for many of the next generation to lead in their careers and in their community, rather than to lead in the church. We need to give the next generation the space to innovate, and the time to try, test, fail and then succeed.

Our most mature leaders (Gempels, Bairds, Shaws, Fergusons, and others) are retiring, slowing down (officially), and facing increasingly significant health challenges. Our other leaders (those in their 50s and 60s) have miraculously held our fellowship together but are not the engine of growth and innovation they once were. We stopped shrinking (overall) but have been going sideways.

We need youth, energy, continued restoration, innovation, and creativity. We need the next generation to take ownership of the church and how to reach their peers. What will be the next iteration of a soul-talk or a house church? How do we become more community-centric? How do we unleash the talent and enthusiasm of the next generation (and not just those who go into the ministry)?

I don’t think it is just about passing the baton. The next generation may drop our baton and map out a new race. In fact, the next generation may not be so interested in an ICOC 3.0 or 4.0, a tweaking of the current, but may be dreaming about something more disruptive – like what Jesus did in his day.

On Not Being Judgmental…An Introduction to “The Gospel Divide”

Being judgmental is an interesting concept. An over-used and often misapplied verse from Jesus is this one: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1). Jesus also said, “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly” (John 7:24). Paul wrote about judging in opinion areas in Romans 14:4, 10: “4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand…” “10 You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.”

So what should we make of these passages? That judging by mere appearances, based on our assumptions, and by our personal opinions is forbidden. On the other hand, we are to judge correctly, or righteously, which means using the Bible’s teaching as a basis for judging rather than our assumptions and opinions. The problem is that we often have a difficult time distinguishing between personal opinions and biblical doctrine. Dogma is easily mistaken for doctrine. Dogma is defined thusly: “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.” If that authority is man and not God, error has entered the picture.

Well over a decade ago, our movement of churches went through a time of upheaval, examination, repentance and change. The repentance often was expressed in public settings by individual leaders and by leadership groups. One oft-repeated apology by church leaderships was that we had been too judgmental of others outside our fellowship of churches. However, we did not define that well, if at all, leaving the impression that anyone who claimed to be a Christian probably was. One result of that poorly defined statement was that evangelism dropped off rapidly because it became hazy regarding who was a Christian and who was not. Another result was that we actually did not become less judgmental in how we viewed others. Without a specific definition of sin, how can anyone repent of it?

A brother sent me a letter and an article recently in response to an article I had posted on this website entitled, “How Important Are Doctrinal Differences?” He came into our family of churches in the same year that I did – 1985. He and his family have been a part of several different congregations, but are now members of the Los Angeles church. He is a sales representative / account manager by career, but he is also a very good student of God’s Word and of restoration church history. His article addresses the topic of judging righteously, and one point he makes caught my attention especially. It is going to raise some eyebrows, but I think in a good way. Read the article carefully and see if you can discover that eyebrow-raising point!

The Gospel Divide

By John Teal

How in the world could Christians divide over the gospel? The answer largely depends on how they define the gospel. Gospel means “good message,” and it is biblically used to describe the message of salvation through Jesus.[1] Yet, sadly Christians throughout the centuries have defined the gospel in ways that encourage sectarian divisions. Good hearted disciples have embraced false assumptions leading to unnecessary divisions.  The gospel gives birth to the baby Christian and doctrine feeds the child into maturity. In The Twisted Scriptures, Carl Ketcherside explains how equating the gospel with the entire New Testament revelation leads to disunity.

The common fallacy assumes that all of the apostolic epistles are part of the gospel of Christ and any exposition of the doctrine contained in these letters is preaching the gospel…It is further assumed that those who do not subscribe to the orthodox interpretation placed upon every passage thereby “reject the gospel.” Each sect, party or faction, thus makes its traditional explanations and deductions “the gospel” and we end up with as many “gospels” as we have parties. It is easily understandable that the ones who so reason will conclude that only those who are allied with the party will be saved, and all others are outside the pale since they have not “obeyed the gospel.”[2]

Thousands responded to the gospel long before the first word of the New Testament was penned.[3] Yet, Peter set the standard for conversion at Pentecost – faith, lordship, repentance, and baptism. We should not add or subtract to the gospel he preached. Certainly, converts were fed by “the apostles’ teaching.”[4]  But, they were added by grace through faith and not by obedience through knowledge.[5] Isn’t defining the borders of the kingdom based on knowledge or performance inconsistent with the gospel of grace? Surely, knowledge leads to repentance and repentance to a change in behavior. But, knowledge or performance is not a biblical litmus test for salvation.

Baptismal cognizance is one such doctrine.[6] Some argue that the one who lacks understanding that sins are forgiven at baptism, even in the presence of faith, lordship, and repentance, are lost because they lack understanding of the purpose of baptism. This argument is based on inference – not sound exegesis. Certainly, we can guard against soft teaching and at the same time embrace that we are not the judge or the spiritual police force – we are ambassadors of Christ.[7] Gordon Ferguson, in his paper on baptismal cognizance, warns against extreme positions yet challenges us to hold firmly to biblical truth about baptism.

We cannot soften or alter the message of passages like Acts 2:38; 3:19; 22:16; Romans 6:3-4; Galatians 3:26-27; Titus 3:4-7 and 1 Peter 3:21. Baptism is inseparably connected to the forgiveness of sins as we come out of darkness into God’s marvelous light, and no man has the right to disconnect it. Period. [8]

Let us protect biblical truth and at the same time avoid extreme judgments. Furthermore, let us guard against using knowledge as a test of fellowship, for when we do we become exclusive and we compromise grace.

After being “pierced to the heart” and responding to Peter’s message of the lordship of Jesus, Peter issued the following:

“Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.”[9]

In this passage, there are two commands and two promises. The commands are to repent and be baptized and the promises are forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. When we repent and are baptized in faith, surrendered in lordship, we receive forgiveness and the Holy Spirit. There is no need to discuss exegetical arguments over “eis,” for clearly sins are forgiven at baptism.[10] The question is are we saved by a responsive faith or by specific knowledge.

Being in the state of California does not depend on whether one accurately identifies the precise time and place he/she entered the state, i.e. crossing the state line.  A legal marriage does not depend on one’s precise understanding of when it became effectual. Was it at the vows, the pronouncement, the kiss, signing the license, or the actual recording of the document? The specific knowledge of this is not a prerequisite. Likewise, salvation does not require an understanding of the precise point in time or the efficacy of baptism for sins to be forgiven.  One must simply respond in faith, lordship, repentance, and baptism to receive the promises.

In Romans 14:4, 10, and 13 Paul challenges attitudes and judgments regarding disputable matters. He says:

Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand…But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God…Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.

Many in the ICOC are concluding that the lingering exclusive attitudes toward those outside our fellowship are negative and spiritually toxic. They are realizing that one can hold firmly to the gospel truth and at the same time refrain from judgmental attitudes. They are not compromising on the expectation that the one placing membership should embrace a clear understanding of the biblical purpose of baptism. However, they are concluding that one who has made Jesus Lord, and who has been immersed outside of our fellowship, may not need to admit they are lost or require rebaptism.

They are reasoning that these decisions should be left to the individual and their God. If we have taught the gospel truth, if they are confident in their conversion, and if they accept and adhere to biblical conversion, then we should welcome them into our fellowship as fellow members of our congregations. As we struggle with our tendencies to define the borders of His church we might ask ourselves the following: “Could we be trusting our discernment over and above the power of the Holy Spirit to inspire, lead, and move His people unto salvation?”

The church of Christ functions more like an organism than an organization. It is the universal body of believers – the redeemed regardless of tribe or sect. Organisms are fragile and they require sustenance to survive. Their health can be compromised by a toxin or virus. False narratives or assumptions, like the one above, can jeopardize the health, well-being, and growth of the fellowship. Let us hold firmly to sound doctrine, for it will ensure the health of our fellowship.  However, let us distinguish between the gospel that brings salvation and doctrine that matures and sanctifies. Let us apply caution when tempted to define the borders of the kingdom with doctrine. May we surrender all forms of legalism and fully embrace grace.

As humble servants and ambassadors, we recognize that “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”[11] The important distinction is that the “Lord added,” thus we are not the ones who add to the body. As we grow in our understanding, let us value open and healthy dialog. Let us coordinate, communicate, and collaborate. Let us value all, ask all, and listen more than we speak.  Let us pray diligently and trust the One who judges justly. And let us preach the gospel boldly remembering “we are free to differ but not to divide.”[12]

[1] Gospel: Neuter Noun: εὐαγγέλιον euangélion, yoo-ang-ghel’-ee-on; from the same as G2097; a good message, i.e. the gospel:—gospel. /  Verb: εὐαγγελίζω euangelízō, yoo-ang-ghel-id’-zo; from G2095 and G32; to announce good news (“evangelize”) especially the gospel:—declare, bring (declare, show) glad (good) tidings, preach (the gospel).

[2] e-book accessed July 12, 2017, Chapter 4

[3] James was the first NT book written, dated approx. 49 AD. Acts written approx. AD 63.

[4] Holy Bible: New American Standard Bible (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Acts 2:42

[5] Ibid. Eph. 2:8-9

[6] The Church of Christ debated baptismal cognizance fiercely between 1897 and 1907. It was referred to as the Tennessee and Texas Traditions (rebaptism). John Mark Hicks article Rebaptism: “The Real Rub” is a must read.  Accessed July 15, 2017

[7] Holy Bible: New American Standard Bible (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 2 Cor. 5:20

[8] Accessed July 14, 2017

[9] Holy Bible: New American Standard Bible (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Acts 2:38-39

[10] εἰς eis, ice; a primary preposition; to or into (indicating the point reached or entered), of place, time.

[11] The Holy Bible, New International Version, Biblica, Inc, 2011, Acts 2:47

[12] “We are free to differ but not to divide” was a slogan of the American Restoration Movement.

The Mystery Solved!

The Mystery Solved!

I first met the group of churches in 1981 that was later to be called the ICOC movement (International Churches of Christ). I was highly impressed with their evangelistic effectiveness and level of commitment, and figured out almost immediately that those two things were a result of discipleship. Bottom line, our lives should be all about discipleship, from both the vertical and horizontal perspectives.

Up, Down, and Sideways

Vertically, we are Christ’s disciples, totally committed to him and his purpose for our lives. To help people climb that lofty pinnacle, we not only have to preach commitment, but also love for Jesus. We cannot obey just out of fear or duty, but out of love for him because of his ultimate sacrifice on the cross for us.

Then we have the horizontal discipleship – our “one another” relationships within his Body, the church. This “discipling” relationship is also focused on Jesus – helping each other to become more and more like him and working in his power to carry out his mission to seek and save the lost. We have to not only teach it, but leaders must expect it, which means that we must have a return to clear expectations and accountability – applied in the right ways this time. The Bible has become an ideal for far too many, rather than a standard of what God actually expects of us.

Getting Off Track

When the challenges of 2003 came, for those familiar with our history, I knew immediately that several things would be discarded, and quickly. One of those was the practice of discipling and all that makes it function effectively. This one biblical concept and practice (even though it was too often practiced wrongly) was what drew me into this movement. I wrote a lengthy book about the topic back in 1997 and the book was later condensed in order to make it easier for younger Christians to use. It is still available after having gone through several revisions, and now carries the title, “The Power of Discipling.”

When the majority of our people stopped practicing discipling, I understood that a big part of the reason was because they had experienced wrong applications of it and been hurt. I was almost immediately hoping, begging, teaching and praying that we would return to what was a clear biblical teaching and expectation of God. You simply cannot dismiss the large number of passages that speak of our “one another” responsibilities. Yet, that is what many did and continue to do. But why?

Why, Why, Why?

The common answer, of course, is that people have been hurt and simply don’t seem to be able to get past their hurts and associated fears. I confess that I bought into that excuse too readily, especially when it kept being held up for so long as the main reason that people were not practicing what I believe the Bible clearly teaches. I recently read an article by a retired Methodist minister that jarred me. Keep in mind that the Methodist Church is not known for its evangelistic outreach with the concept of discipleship driving it. However, this one minister in that group makes his case strongly – more strongly than most of us who claim to still believe in the concept would make it.

So what is the real issue behind our all but missing ingredient of discipling? Is it the fact that we have been hurt and can’t get over our fears of a repeat experience? No, that’s not really it. The same people who cling to this excuse have also experienced wrong applications of marriage dynamics, parenting dynamics, and other interpersonal dynamics. Yet, they have worked through those challenges to try and correct these wrong applications and find smoother sailing in healthy applications of these other human relationships. They are not dumb folks; they realize that humans are imperfect and “bumps” between them in all types of relationships are a part of life that will take ongoing work to keep correcting. They handle those situations pretty well.

The Honest but Painful Answer

Why won’t they apply these same principles of seeing relationships to be an ongoing, learning process when it comes to discipling? The old Methodist preacher nailed it. Listen to what he wrote: (See his full article at: (

We don’t like being disciplined. The word “disciple” comes from the same Latin word discipulus as does the word “discipline.” The dictionary defines a “disciple” as one who is a pupil or an adherent to the teachings of another. Discipline is defined as the “training to act in accordance with rules.” It also means “behavior in accord with rules of conduct; behavior and order maintained by training and control.” Do you see the problem? We don’t like to discipline ourselves, much less submit ourselves to the discipline of others. We Americans are radical individualists. We don’t want anyone else telling us what to do or when to do it. We avoid accountability like the plague.

It is not rocket science, but people must have real convictions about what following Jesus is really all about. As interested onlookers outside of our movement have said of us, we are now a nicer, gentler, more comfortable version of our former selves. We are enjoying our comfortability, and enjoy no longer feeling the need to be radical in our religion. We have for the most part become just another nice little church on the corner of Main Street, USA. We thus have fallen prey to the American view of church and Christianity. We may not be fully engaged in the race to catch that “American Dream” of materialism and worldly success, but we are almost fully invested in the race to catch the “American Church Dream.”

Rather amazingly, the old Methodist bard sees this one pretty clearly also. Listen to him:

We have an unregenerate church membership/culture. The quote above comes from Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship. Many leaders in today’s church are so concerned about attendance numbers they lower the cost, hoping more will be willing to buy. The results have been that with each new generation the American church culture has become less and less “disciplined” with fewer experiencing genuine spiritual regeneration. Once the church culture makes this transition it is extremely difficult to restore an environment where lives are truly being transformed… Making disciples is a process that takes a great deal of time and personal investment. Accountability is more important than entertainment. It requires submission and vulnerability and sacrifice.

Is this us? Are you getting defensive reading this? If yes, I have one word to describe it – Bingo! If it doesn’t describe you, you wouldn’t be getting defensive, now would you? The idea that past hurts are behind the loss of discipling one another is merely a smoke screen. The real reason is that we like having the freedom to pick and choose what we will and will not do as church members. We don’t like having people in our lives spiritually who have expectations of us and are willing to hold us accountable – even if those expectations are God’s!

The Bottom Line

Here’s the real bottom line of this issue, and it’s not a pretty thought. We have missed the very foundation of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. “Then he said to them all: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it’” (Luke 9:23-24). So there we have it; a refusal to deny self and embrace whatever Jesus asks of us, including even a cross – and certainly including the goal of becoming as much like Christ as possible in order to carry out his Great Commission of trying to help save a lost world.

Of course about now, I can just sense someone asking, “Are you saying that we are not disciples?” Listen, I’m just quoting Scriptures and sharing obvious observations; that’s my job. Your job is to examine yourselves, if Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 13:5 are going to receive due consideration. “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you–unless, of course, you fail the test?”

I’m also reminded as a preacher of Paul’s words to Timothy, when he commanded him to “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2). Finally, as Jesus concluded his very strong admonition to a church that he described as being “lukewarm,” and about to make him vomit (the literal translation), he said this: “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent” (Revelation 3:19).

The ball’s in your court; what will you do with it? What do you need to do with it? What does God want you to do with it? What are you going to do with it? Enough questions; you and God must provide the answers.

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! 

Objective Negativity

(The primary material in this article was taken from my book, Dynamic Leadership, Appendix 7, and later expanded.)

 We Live in a Negative World!

The subject of negativity is a broad one, and although we are going to focus on a certain highly dangerous type of negativity, some general observations will prove helpful. In case you haven’t recognized it, we live in a negative world. Bad news sells and good news doesn’t. At least that seems to be the message of our modern media organizations. Further, many of us grew up in negative families. I know I did. My parents would not have been characterized as positive thinkers and talkers by any stretch of the imagination.

Then, besides the effects the environment has on our perspectives and subsequent conversation directions, we have our own inner struggles with which to deal. We all develop some forms of insecurities as we grow up, and a common way to compensate for our bruised egos and warped self-images is to tear others down in an attempt to feel less inadequate about ourselves. This brand of negative speaking about others is far more common than the so-called “common cold” (and it makes us a lot sicker!). Those who are consistently critical of others are first of all critical of themselves. They may act otherwise, but rest assured that it is only an “act.”

When I was in high school eons ago, we spoke of certain classmates having a “superiority complex.” There is no such thing. That prideful and smug presentation of oneself was a charade, a cloak used to cover what we called an “inferiority complex.” That last term is relatively accurate, although outmoded in this era. Now we just say that a person who feels badly about themselves is insecure or has a poor self-image. If we are familiar with Schema Therapy, we would perhaps say that they have a defective schema. In other words, they feel defective as persons.

Get Your “Buts” in the Right Place!

Anyone not really comfortable in their own skin has the problem thus described, and one dead giveaway is that they are defensive and handle almost any form of correction (however well-intentioned and well presented) poorly. They already feel badly about themselves, and don’t seem to realize that input from others can help them change – which would result in them feeling better about themselves. Another evidence of this malady is seen in how they view and talk about others. They do tear others down in order to feel better about themselves, but it never works. Sin cannot make you feel better inside your heart of hearts.

Those in the church who have not yet conquered this problem have certain patterns to their negative speech. One pattern is just to talk negatively about others behind their backs, thus committing what the Bible defines as gossip and slander. Another pattern is saying both good and bad things about others, but doing it in a certain order, thus creating a certain emphasis. Compare these two sentences in how they affect your feelings about someone we will call “Betty” for purposes of illustration:

“Betty is a great wife and mother, but she doesn’t seem to get very involved in serving others.”

“I don’t always know what Betty may be doing to serve people generally, but I do know that she is absolutely a great wife and mother.”

The point of the illustration is to show that whatever is said after the little conjunction “but” is what we go away with – it is what we tend to remember. In the first example, we are left with the thought that Betty doesn’t serve those who aren’t in her family very well and in the second example we are left with the warm feeling that this woman really loves her husband and children, and shows it by her actions. Note a couple of things in the first example. The speaker is making an assumption (shown by the word seems) and leaves us with what appears to be a conclusion. If you want to have troubled relationships on all levels, assume what you don’t really know to be factual and state it as a conclusion!

 Don’t Be Fooled by One of Satan’s Favorite Tools!

Both of these speech patterns described are negative and hurtful to relationships, but they are not nearly as dangerous as the one about which this article is mainly addressing—objective negativity. The most dangerous form I have ever found of unhealthy talk is also understandably the most subtle. This form is one of Satan’s favorite tools for destroying relationships on both an individual and group basis. I have seen several of his human agents use this tool in an almost unbelievably effective way (in being destructive). But rather than simply describing how they used it, we have the perfect biblical example in the child of a king (and a very good king at that). Turn to 2 Samuel 15:1-6 as we read about Absalom.

“In the course of time, Absalom provided himself with a chariot and horses and with fifty men to run ahead of him. He would get up early and stand by the side of the road leading to the city gate. Whenever anyone came with a complaint to be placed before the king for a decision, Absalom would call out to him, ‘What town are you from?” He would answer, “Your servant is from one of the tribes of Israel.’ Then Absalom would say to him, ‘Look, your claims are valid and proper, but there is no representative of the king to hear you.’ And Absalom would add, ‘If only I were appointed judge in the land! Then everyone who has a complaint or case could come to me and I would see that he gets justice.’

Also, whenever anyone approached him to bow down before him, Absalom would reach out his hand, take hold of him and kiss him. Absalom behaved in this way toward all the Israelites who came to the king asking for justice, and so he stole the hearts of the men of Israel.”

Absalom’s work described here very nearly led to the killing of his father and to his usurping of David’s throne. He stole the hearts of the men of Israel, Scripture says. He didn’t merely win their hearts by serving them; he stole their hearts by tainting their thinking toward the king whom they had loved and followed for years. How sad! How powerful is Satan’s tool of objective negativity! Negativity we understand to some degree, but how does the term objective fit in to its use? Now that is a hugely important question, make no mistake about it.

We have all come away from certain conversations saying something to this effect: “Wow, that guy is really something; he’s about the most negative person I have ever heard in my life!” Someone skilled in the use of objective negativity never evokes that reaction, but what they do to a person’s heart is something akin to what a hidden cancer does to a person’s body. It is an undetected destroyer, doing its deadly work mostly in secret until drastic results emerge. The presentation of such soul-damaging information is cloaked by the sense of objectivity created, and the more spiritual it sounds, the better the cloak. With that in mind, we shouldn’t be surprised that those looked upon as spiritually mature, or better yet, as spiritual leaders, are the most effective in using this approach.

In actuality, those skilled in this deceptive work are basically “seed planters.” They plant tiny seeds that grow quietly inside hearts until a plant or a tree is produced. Isn’t that exactly what Absalom did? He kept planting seeds as he validated the concerns of people and showed them affection, and those seeds were aimed at undermining trust in his father and building trust in himself. He was one sharp dude, one smart cookie. He knew exactly what he was doing for the four years he did it. Gossips tend to be impatient and have to say it now; the Absaloms of the world are patient and content just to plant and water, waiting for the tree of doubt, discontent and rebellion to grow.

Absalom Types Are Usually Leaders (Often Former Leaders) Themselves

My intent is not to make anyone mistrust spiritually mature people or spiritual leaders—far from it. I think most would say that I would fall into both of those categories. But like Paul, I want to help you not fall prey to those whose skills are found in this form of negativity that we are discussing. In 2 Corinthians 2:11, Paul said that he didn’t want his readers to be unaware of Satan’s schemes. Thus, his teaching was aimed at exposing Satan’s schemes (and he has many). Paul could not have described a person skilled in the deadly scheme of objective negativity any better than in this passage from the same book. “For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).”

The claim that most Absalom types are leaders is demonstrated in the earliest stages of the Old Testament. Numbers 16 contains one of the most chilling accounts in the history of Israel, an event that dates back near the origin of the Israelite nation. We are generally familiar with the names of Korah, Dathan and Abiram because God opened the earth to swallow them and their families for their rebellion against Moses and Aaron (verses 25-33). However, this chapter in Numbers opened with the account of these men inciting the rebellion of 250 other well-known leaders within Israel (verses 1-3). They were not content with being counted among the leaders; they wanted to be among the very top leaders, which led to instigating a rebellion against them. God dealt suddenly and decisively with them, just as he had with those who sowed the seeds of their rebellion. Verse 35 says that “Fire came out from the Lord and consumed the 250 men.” Sadly, Absalomic undermining of top leaders by influential people trickles down to infiltrate the average person, sometimes almost imperceptivity. In this case, the whole Israelite community challenged the leadership of Moses and Aaron, resulting in a God-given plague that killed 14,700 of them (verses 41-49). What a sobering and terrifying account of what the work of a few leaders controlled by an Absalomic spirit can cause.

Perhaps you are thinking that all of these examples, including Absalom, come from the Old Testament period. What about the New Testament? Do we find the same phenomenon there? The logical answer is that wherever you find humans, you are going to find this insidious practice. However, as has been noted repeatedly, it is a subtle sin which is not noticed quickly or easily. Read on for the biblical answer to the question.

 A Classic “Absalom” in the New Testament

 What person in the NT do you think was the classic Absalom type? Pause a minute and think about who you believe it could be (waiting, waiting, waiting…). If you guessed Judas, you made the same choice I did. What do we know for sure about him? One, he was obviously a person of high talent or he wouldn’t have been chosen by Jesus to be an apostle. Two, he was an incredible expert at hiding his true nature from others, for even just prior to his betrayal of Jesus, the other apostles could not guess which of them was going to be the betrayer. Three, and this is the point that directly connects with the concept being developed in this article, he influenced the other apostles in negative directions.

This ability to subtlety lead others into bad paths is perhaps best shown in comparing three Gospel accounts of one event near the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. It took place at a dinner being held at the home of a man named Simon. Notice the progression and what it reveals about this aspect of Judas’ nature. Let’s begin with the more general account in Mark 14:3-6 (NASB):

While He was in Bethany at the home of Simon the leper, and reclining at the table, there came a woman with an alabaster vial of very costly perfume of pure nard; and she broke the vial and poured it over His head. 4 But some were indignantly remarking to one another, “Why has this perfume been wasted? 5 “For this perfume might have been sold for over three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they were scolding her. 6 But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you bother her? She has done a good deed to Me.

From this account, you wouldn’t know who was objecting to the woman’s use of her costly perfume. You just know that a group was discussing it among themselves. Matthew’s account gives us more details about the identity of the group:

Now when Jesus was in Bethany, at the home of Simon the leper, 7 a woman came to Him with an alabaster vial of very costly perfume, and she poured it on His head as He reclined at the table. 8 But the disciples were indignant when they saw this, and said, “Why this waste? 9 “For this perfume might have been sold for a high price and the money given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you bother the woman? For she has done a good deed to Me. (Matthew 26:6-10)

Now we know that it was the apostles discussing the issue, and it seems that they are becoming more outspoken as the discussion continued. John’s account in John 12:1-8 fills in some striking details:

Jesus, therefore, six days before the Passover, came to Bethany where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they made Him a supper there, and Martha was serving; but Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with Him. 3 Mary then took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of His disciples, who was intending to betray Him, *said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and given to poor people?6 Now he said this, not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it. 7 Therefore Jesus said, “Let her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of My burial. 8 “For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me.”

What are the additional details John provides us in his account? One, Simon must have had a reasonably close relationship with Lazarus, Mary and Martha, since they were present at the dinner and Martha doing her usual thing of serving. Two, the woman with the perfume was none other than Mary, one of the three siblings. Three, it was Judas who almost certainly initiated the complaint that then spread to the other apostles. That is the point most relevant to our discussion. Closely associated to it is the fact that Judas was a frequent thief and the other apostles never suspected anything. His true nature was not perceived by his closest associates. His complaints about the “waste” of expensive perfume sounded quite objective and reasonable to them – even spiritual (helping the poor).

Hence, they joined into the discussion, prodded into it by his initial comments – which most likely were shared rather privately with them in the earliest stages. Good-hearted people like Peter blurted out what they really thought, not fearing either the vulnerability or the correction that often followed their comments. Individuals like Judas were very careful about what they said and to whom they said it. Knowing human nature makes the assumption likely that this discussion began with Judas planting the negative seeds, which the others picked up on and expressed more openly. Like Absalom in the OT, Judas gives us a perfect example of someone skilled in the use of objective negativity.

What about Judas’ motives? Did he always have evil intent of which he was quite aware? In this case, the answer would be yes, based on the wording of the text. In the case of his betrayal of Jesus, some believe that his intent was to force Jesus to become the kind of Messiah that most Jews were looking for by having to use his power to save his own life. If a true hypothesis, it could explain why he committed suicide rather quickly after that plan didn’t bring the desired result. If this were a reasonably accurate assumption, it would mean that Judas wasn’t always aware of his inmost motivations or of the true impact of what he was doing. It was to him second nature, having become so ingrained in his sinful nature through a long series of deceitful choices.

I am not sure if those most effective in the use of objective negativity are always aware of what they are doing. They certainly know how to cloak their true nature from others, and it may be that they are fooling themselves as well. In my own experience, those who resort to spreading negativity in this manner are perhaps self-deceived as they deceive others, because helping them see themselves and the effects they are having has usually been a fruitless endeavor. I’ve seen temporary change that appeared to reflect repentance, but the fact that it has nearly always been temporary perhaps indicates that they are self-deceived. As with all other sins, the long-range changes are the ones that indicate true repentance. I add this thought to help us not be naïve and overly optimistic when dealing with those who commit such damaging sins. I’m not suggesting that we be cynical or faithless, but I am strongly suggesting that this sin indicates some deeply imbedded heart issues that we must be very careful in dealing with. May God grant us wisdom and discernment as we are trying to protect the flock as a whole while also trying to help those individuals who may be hurting it, intentionally or unintentionally.

What is the Solution – the Antidote?

The solution begins with recognition of the types of speech patterns underlying the Absalomic approach. Well, what do such people sound like in everyday life? Here are some samples from a very long list of possibilities:

“I really love our elders, but some people have shared a few things with me that sometimes make me wonder…” But you do have to appreciate their sacrifice of time and energy.

“I think we have a great staff, but I did hear one or two things in confidence that have made me a little nervous. I guess we will just have to trust the Lord that he will work out whatever needs to be worked out.”

“I appreciate the fact that our leaders are following a carefully planned process of looking for additional staff members, but I really hope that they will keep ____________ in mind and not just make decisions out of personal preferences. I am glad, though, that they seem to be focused on finding someone soon.”

“I am certain that our small group leader has a real heart to serve, but I do wonder if he has the time to be serving in that role right now with all that he has on his plate. But don’t you just love their two little girls—they are the cutest things!”

“The couple we have leading our small group really loves people, and that is such a valuable and appreciated quality. I have heard some disciples question whether they had the gift set to be able to do it. But getting people to lead is no easy matter, so I suppose that we should just appreciate their willingness to serve in this way.”

“Betty is one of my best friends and I feel like I can tell her anything, but I am praying that she can keep a confidence. We all need a safe place to share our struggles.”

“I really love this church, and have a lot invested in it for these nine years that I have been a member. I hope our direction for the future is clearer to others than it is to me. I guess I just need to pray more.”

My examples of actual conversations mention leaders quite a bit, as I’m sure you would expect by the time you have read this far. Satan knows that he can destroy churches if he can erode trust in leaders. But let me make one thing perfectly clear: I’m not defending bad leaders in any way. Wyndham Shaw and I wrote a little book a decade ago entitled Golden Rule Leadership should demonstrate that point clearly. Although what we wrote is now “old hat” and generally accepted in our movement today, it was strongly resisted by a number of leaders in high places when it was first published. My most recent book on leadership, Dynamic Leadership, deals much more directly and strongly with ineffective, unbiblical and sinful leadership. Having said that, Satan has always, and will always, do his best to destroy trust in all leadership—not simply that which you and I might agree is poor leadership. Destroy the mom or dad in any family, and you’ll see the family severely damaged.

Maybe you are thinking that those who practice the fine art of objective negativity sound almost the same as those who have their “buts” in the wrong place. Well, they are similar in some ways, but different in key areas. Both use the word “but” as a key part of their processes. However, the Absalomic approach sounds much more spiritual. It not only begins with positive statements; it also ends with them. The effect is much more subtle. When you hear a person like this, especially if you trust them and or look up to them, you leave the conversation feeling mostly good. You can recount the positive, spiritually sounding things they said. On the other hand, the more spiritually in tune you are, the more you leave feeling unsettled, perhaps ever so slightly. Seeds have been carefully planted, and if you do not come to realize that something is amiss, those seeds may well grow. I have seen people thus influenced who eventually left the church that I never imagined would possibly leave.

The further solution to dealing with this malady is to pay attention to your own heart. If something seems slightly out of kilter after a conversation, tending to pull you in a negative direction, go back to the person with whom you talked and start asking questions.

“When you said that some have questioned the leadership gift of __________, who are those some?”

“You expressed some doubt about your good friend Betty being able to keep a confidence. Have you told her that?”

“That statement you made about the direction of the church—what exactly are you questioning here? I think you and I need to go talk to some of the leaders of the church together, because I want to make sure that your doubts are dealt with and not spread to others—including me.”

Bottom line, we need to be very careful about what we listen to that has a negative bent to it about anyone or any group that is not present for the discussion. The Lord knows that we must learn to talk to others about sensitive issues and concerns—but we need to do it with them, face-to-face and not behind their backs. People sometimes ask me if I am feeling something toward them that isn’t positive, and the answer is pretty simple. “If I am, you will be among the first to know it, because we will be talking in an up-close and personal way.” If someone seems to perhaps have funny feelings toward me, I ask them about it. If they do, I want them to encourage them to come to me, but I am quite willing to go to them as well. Matthew 5 and Matthew 18 say that we should meet each other going and coming if relationships are not in a good place.

Disciples are learners. That’s a basic meaning of the term itself. Let’s learn to recognize sinful speech, whether it is coming out of our own mouth or the mouth of another. And by all means, let’s learn to get beyond our conflict avoidance tendencies and resolve relationships that are strained or we think may be unsettled in some way. If we have good marriages, we have done it hundreds of times because we don’t want to be under the same roof with another person with whom we are not at peace. For the Lord’s sake, let’s refuse to live under his same big sky with our brothers and sisters without cultivating and maintaining that same peace. It is the will of our Father, who loves us all as his dear children. Amen and Amen!

What Do We Now Believe?


This article is a written form of a spoken message delivered on February 29, 2004 to the Phoenix Valley Church of Christ.  Due to the subject matter and its broad nature, I wanted to enable our members to be able to study out this material in more depth, and the written format will allow that possibility.  (Incidentally, having author’s prerogative, I will likely add a tidbit or two that was not included in the oral presentation of the lesson, and leave out a few other items in interest of space.)  I just returned from Abilene, Texas, where I and several others from our movement participated on a panel in the Forum part of the Abilene Christian University Lectureships – an annual event among the mainline Churches of Christ.  A brief report of the Forum is available as a separate article.  I suggest you read it before proceeding further with my sermon, since I do make mention of my Abilene experience several times within the sermon.

The title of my sermon reflects a question that I have received repeatedly in one form or another during the past year.  We have as a movement gone through major upheavals, and our members are left wondering what we will be left with when things are totally settled back down.  We have historically held to certain convictions and practices that have made us who were are as a movement – hence, the question.  However, although the title definitely suggests the direction of the sermon, it is actually meant to be humorous.  A reading of Acts 17:11 will show why I say that.  “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”  Do you understand the humor in the title?  I cannot tell you what we now believe.  I can tell you what I believe, and urge you to do as the Bereans and decide what you believe based on the Bible.  I will say that I have discussed these things with the ministry staff, and I think they are in agreement with my convictions and conclusions.  I pray that you will be as well, but not until you take the time to develop your own biblical convictions.

As I have repeatedly said since coming to Phoenix, I think that we as a movement have done many right things in many wrong ways.  I believe that we must own the wrongs in order to repent and change, but I don’t want to stop teaching and practicing the right things, for they are based on important biblical principles.  What are the right things, the wrong ways, and what should we now believe and do?  Let’s proceed by asking and answering ten questions that are arranged in logical fashion, but not necessarily in order of importance.

What About Our Preaching and Teaching? 

One of the panelists from the mainline church at Abilene made some very interesting comparisons between their movement and ours.  He claimed that both had substituted the message of the movement for the message of Christ.  Sadly, I had to agree in both cases.  The mainline church has generally preached about doctrinal correctness within their movement, and we have preached about our successes within ours.  Without doubt, our preaching and teaching have been far too much about the movement and man’s accomplishments, and even responsibilities, and far too little about God and what he has done.  Therefore, we must have more of a God focus and a Bible focus, delivered with more of an expository approach generally.

I do think it is highly important to say that we still need challenge, not just being made to feel good no matter what.  The strength and honesty of the preaching and teaching that I heard in the earlier days of the movement were a big part of what attracted me in the first place.  Those preaching were obviously serious about serving God and carrying out his mission on the earth.  Paul’s inspired directions to the preachers of his day are unmistakable along these lines.  Read carefully the following passages:

As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer [4] nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work–which is by faith (1 Timothy 1:3-4).

Command and teach these things. Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching (1 Timothy 4:11-13).

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life (1 Timothy 6:17-19).

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. [4] They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry (2 Timothy 4:1-5).

These, then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you (Titus 2:15).

It has been said, with a bit of humor, that the preacher’s job is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable!  Whatever else may be said, we need more and better teaching – which calls for a better exposition of Scripture, a clearer focus on God, and the challenges that keep our hearts set on God and his will for our individual lives.  We are looking for ways to better meet these needs, and we welcome your suggestions as we are thinking and planning the teaching diet of the church.

What About the Need For Leaders and Leadership?

We need leaders and leadership in the church, as does any organization on earth.  Our families certainly need leadership, and this being true, it is logical that God’s family does also.  However, the history of our movement has some glaring weaknesses in how our leadership has functioned.  These weaknesses prompted the writing of a book entitled “Golden Rule Leadership,” by me and Wyndham Shaw, a fellow elder and friend during our years in Boston.  An authoritarian manner and a hierarchical structure too often defined what we thought leadership should be.  To many of us who were leaders, our structure seemed to have more in common with a military organization than a family.  Another of the panelists from the mainline church commented about his early experiences in the campus ministry movement, stating that most of our young leaders seemed to be too anxious to become leaders and too anxious to correct others – including other leaders.

Although I did explain to this panelist that in a fast growing ministry, new leaders had to be raised up quickly, I essentially agreed with his assessment.  I do think we have glorified the idea of becoming leaders, and have too often appointed leaders whose worldly talents outdistanced their spirituality.  The idea of appointing leaders with natural gifts and then trying to make them spiritual is an idea that has failed time and time again, leaving a wake of negative consequences behind.  If our greatest ambition was to imitate Christ, we would have no shortage of leaders or of those exercising any other spiritual gifts.  All such gifts are from God, and leadership gifts are just one category.  Why exalt those gifts to the point of making those with other equally important gifts feel like second class citizens?  There are no second class citizens in God’s kingdom, for we are all sinners on level ground at the foot of the cross.

Having said that, I hasten to say that we still need leadership in the church, and strong leadership at that.  By strong leadership, I do not mean harsh or prideful leadership.  I do mean that we need leaders who lead by example and call others to follow that example.  The passages quoted above clearly indicate that leaders in the church must be decisive leaders who call God’s people to obey his teaching and commands.  As leaders, they have both the authority and the responsibility to do so.  Two verses that bring these principles into sharp focus are found in Hebrews 13.

Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith (Hebrews 13:7).

Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you (Hebrews 13:17).

The literal translation of the last verse carries the idea of “being persuaded” by leaders.  This means two things:  leaders are in the business of persuading with the Scriptures, not simply commanding; and, followers must have the heart of wanting to be persuaded.  Is that your heart?

In recent weeks, we have talked about the need for leadership to be of the Golden Rule type, to be carried out in a team leadership style.  We want more inclusion and input from all quarters to insure that we really understand the needs of the church.  Please help us lead in this way by keeping the communication flowing between those leading and those being led.  Those of us who are leading are grateful for the opportunity to help others spiritually by exercising our gifts, and the purpose of our leading is in large part helping you to develop and exercise your gifts.  When this is being done, the Body of Christ is truly reflecting him to the world and to one another.

What About Commitment? 

In past years, I recall others calling us the “Total Commitment Movement” because of our emphasis on being sold out for Christ.  This concept is a good one generally, although we went to some unfortunate extremes in trying to carry it out.  Matthew 6:33, which reads, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well,” was often misapplied.  “Seeking first the kingdom” was interpreted in ways that defied both common sense and Scripture.  Interestingly, one of the panelists from the mainline church made an intriguing comment about the concept of total commitment.  He said that this terminology put too much emphasis on man and his work, and not enough on God’s part in our life.  He said that we should think of being “totally captured” rather than “totally committed.” I see his point, and I like the sound of what he was saying.  In my human weakness, my commitment is often lacking, but thinking of being totally captured by the love and grace of God provides me with a much higher motivation, and will likely result in a more consistent commitment.

Regardless of our terminology, the Bible leaves no doubt that our lives must be centered on God and on serving him and his Cause.  Luke 14:25-33 has long been one of the most convicting passages in the Bible to me.

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: [26] “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes, even his own life–he cannot be my disciple. [27] And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

[28] “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? [29] For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, [30] saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’

[31] “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? [32] If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. [33] In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.

No one can read this passage and come away with the idea that following Christ is anything less than being totally dedicated to him and to his will for our lives.

One of my biggest concerns for us at this point in our history is associated with what many are viewing as a newfound freedom.  Certainly freedom in Christ is wholly biblical, properly understood.  But many are not properly understanding it.  As with all biblical subjects, one verse cannot be set against others that would contradict it – all passages that relate to the subject must be harmonized.  Surely as free moral agents by right of creation, we have the freedom to make choices.  However, the choices can be wrong ones or right ones, depending on how they square with Scripture.  Freedom in Christ includes the concepts of self denial and servanthood, as the following passages demonstrate:

Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave–just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).

I’m afraid that many of us are seeing freedom as a license to be self indulgent rather than spiritual.  We are fast becoming “pickers and choosers” in what we do for God, as seen in our participation in the activities of the church.  It is more difficult to get people to serve in settings such as in children’s ministry than ever before.  The price that we and our families are paying for this uncommitted attitude is higher than we imagine.

Let me recount some experiences that may be helpful to you.  My last ministry in a traditional type church years ago taught me some valuable, but painful, lessons.  I had met up with discipling type churches and was trying to put into practice the things that I was learning from them about evangelism and discipling.  I started leading Bible talks on two nearby military bases, with some very gratifying results.  A number of people were studied with and baptized into Christ.  Their experience with the church was not so gratifying.  They came in with much zeal and commitment, but were hurt by what they saw in the church generally.  We had an exciting Sunday morning worship assembly, but at our Sunday night assembly (the custom in those churches), the attendance was about half of the morning attendance.  Midweek attendance was perhaps one-third of the Sunday morning attendance.  New converts were so turned off by the lack of dedication of the “pickers and choosers” that a number of them fell away – disillusioned by the difference in what they read about in the Bible and saw in the church.

Another sad part of this experience was in seeing the children of members grow up and reject what they had been taught.  Children are not blind to our hypocrisy in claiming to be disciples of Jesus, while not living according to his standards.  We parents may put on a good Sunday face, but our children know where our hearts and priorities really are.  Children who grow up with their own commitment to Christ are most often those who first see it in their parents, and those whose parents use “Christian freedom” as an excuse to live uncommitted lives seldom stay with the church as adults.  Praise God for freedom, but let’s make sure that we are exercising his brand of freedom.  “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13).

What About Discipling? 

Discipling– now there is a loaded term!  Can we still use it?  No doubt many will have a negative emotional response to hearing the term, given the abuses that fell under the heading of discipling.  What were those abuses?  Primarily, an over/under authoritarian approach, in which one disciple sometimes exercised worldly authority over another.  Some thought that the discipler was almost “God inspired” to give the right advice in about any area of life.  (What a mess that was!)  Others felt that the “assigning” of discipleship partners was also wrong, with no regard to anyone’s feelings or opportunity given for input into the process.  Some wondered if their assigned discipleship partner was really their friend or only an assignment.  Personally, I never struggled with that concept.  I saw any new “DP” as a potential new close friend, and strove to make them become that.  By and large, my experiences were very positive and I’m grateful for all of those relationships.  But make no mistake about it, discipling as we practiced it was often hurtful due to the authoritarian approach often employed.

However, is discipling wrong or only the erroneous practices associated with it?  I think that discipling properly understood and lived out is simply “one another” Christianity in practice.  The number of verses in the New Testament calling for us to be in each other’s lives is amazing.  Surely we are our brothers’ keepers!  Outside our fellowship of churches, I have never seen many of these passages actually put into practice.  Just look at the following verses and ask how these admonitions can be carried out without some form of discipling:

I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another (Romans 15:14).

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21).

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God (Colossians 3:16).

See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness (Hebrews 3:12-13).

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24).

Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective (James 5:16).

When I first saw the discipling movement in an up close and personal way, I was struck that all of the churches of which I had been a part were missing a vital ingredient in Christianity.  One of my sermons back then, delivered in a traditional church, was entitled “The Missing Ingredient.”  The benefits of discipling in my life and in that of my family are unmistakable.  My marriage, my family, my walk with Christ would not be nearly the same without the discipling help received.  Were there some abuses in our discipling?  Sure.  But there were more pluses than minuses by far, at least in our case, and I suspect that this is true for the large majority of us in the church.  Is this not another example of a right thing sometimes done in wrong ways?  Let’s change the wrong ways, but hold on to a right and vitally needed thing.

Early last year, as discipling began to be called into question and the structures forsaken, I began giving two pieces of advice:  one, seek out discipling help no matter what happens to the structure; and two, take responsibility for helping others when you see things in their lives that need attention.  I think that now we can reintroduce some structure that can help us carry out Jesus’ teaching for his family.  Our small group ministries can function as a discipleship group, and beyond that, we can voluntarily pair off as prayer partners within those groups – spiritual peers to help one another.  Any “over/under” type arrangement should be reserved for mentoring type relationships for younger Christians and for younger ministry staff members in training, and even then, it is a “more mature/less mature” mentoring arrangement without any semblance of authoritarianism included.  Let’s practice the best of what can still be called discipling, being real spiritual friends with one another, confessing our sins, praying for each other, and giving biblical advice to one another.  We need each other – now more than ever.

What About Evangelism? 

Again, we are discussing a very right practice, but often practiced poorly in the past.  Wrong ways of doing a right thing would include a focus on statistics for the purpose of being “successful,” thereby comparing well to other people or churches; oppressive accountability that made what should have been privilege and opportunity seem like mere duty; and fear of losing our relationship with God by not being “fruitful” or not fruitful enough.  Who of us has not had our guilt mechanism kick into full gear when reminded of our failure to be “fruitful” in a given calendar year?  (Where is that concept in the Bible, by the way?)  Due to the pressures we felt to evangelize, what should have been our joy ended up too often being just another burden, accompanied by a fear of failure.

Anyone acquainted with the life of Jesus knows that his love for the lost was the driving passion behind just about everything he did.  As Luke 19:10 puts it, “the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”  If we have his heart for God, we will also have his heart for the mission of saving souls.  His love and concern for lost people came through in many, many ways, not the least of which was the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20.  He shared this with his disciples on the verge of leaving them, which is significant, since we share what is most important to us when leaving those whom we love.  Jesus’ heart for the lost was passed on to those disciples, who went everywhere preaching the Word until the known world of that day had heard the gospel of Jesus.

Looking ahead, how are we to do this right thing in right ways?  One, we need to share our faith in Jesus, not simply invite people to church.  Two, we need to see evangelism as a lifestyle, instead of an occasional activity.  Hence, it should be what we are, not simply what we do.  Three, we should focus on the process, not on the results.  We plant and water, while God makes it grow (1 Corinthians 3:6-8).  Any accountability we have should about sowing and sharing, not about successful results in numerical terms – that’s God’s part in the process.  If we don’t view it in this way, we end up taking credit for results, thus robbing God of his glory.  It is fine to report what God has accomplished through us, but it must be done in a way that takes the focus off of our feeble efforts and places it on his magnificent grace.

Four, we just need to pray for God to put his heart for the lost in each of us.  I remember standing beside my son’s bed when he was a baby and being emotionally hit by the thought that he would grow into a man and one day meet God.  That thought motivated me to want to be the best dad possible and to raise my children to know and love God.  Let’s pray that God would help us to feel that same urgency toward all of his children who are yet unsaved.

What About Our Study Series?

The study series we have often used, called the First Principles Studies, has some pluses and some minuses.  On the positive side, having a set group of studies designed to teach persons what to do to enter a saved relationship with God is a good idea.  I have taught our study series countless times, and baptized many people after going through the studies with them.  For newer disciples, having such a series available gives them an immediate track to get on in teaching their friends about Jesus’ plan for their lives.  It also insures that those being studied with are taught the basics in a systematic way.  In the absence of some sort of series, each of us would no doubt end up designing one on our own.  The effectiveness of what we designed would be totally dependent on each person’s overall understanding of the gospel and knowledge of the Bible, which would result in only knowledgeable disciples having the confidence to study with others.  This would further promote one of our movement weaknesses – a distinction between the “clergy” and “laity.”  Having a well-developed study series that is relatively uncomplicated to learn and teach puts us all much more on level ground.

Having said that, I think our present series has some serious weaknesses in it.  Overall, it is too focused on man and his response (performance), and not enough on God’s provisions of grace.  That would especially be true of the discipleship study.  It has often been used as one of the first studies, with the evident purpose being to convince people that they are not saved, which does put the focus on man’s performance rather than God’s love for them.  That, in my opinion, is a poor place to begin.  Further, I think the Kingdom study, if used at all, needs some serious re-working.  In general, I think our studies must focus more on God and his crucified Son as motivation for man’s response.  Some of the studies I will continue to use much as they are, and others I would want to see eliminated or changed.  Additional studies could be added to the series and used on a needs basis.

Actually, that leads us to a good discussion point – how the studies are used.  If we see them as the only way to lead someone to Jesus, we have once again made a law out of a guideline, a requirement out of a recommendation.  I have taught straight through the series many times, and I have varied the series by going in a different order and/or by adding other studies, depending on the knowledge, background and needs of the person with whom I was studying.  My own preference would be to have a new or revised series, with additional studies available for use when needed.  From there, training would be important as we learn which studies might be most appropriate in which situations.  But under no circumstances would I want anyone to feel slavishly bound to teach the series in a particular way.  Learning to think biblically and practically is our greater need, and simplicity is a good guide in doing that.  Becoming a Christian is not nearly as complicated as we have sometimes made it.

What About Missions?

When a church growth expert started calling our movement the “International Church of Christ,” it was because of our emphasis and effectiveness in mission work.  The “Six Year Plan” to plant a church in every nation that had at least one city with a population of 100,000 or more was quite a plan.  No one could claim that we were not taking the Great Commission seriously.  That emphasis prompted the raising of millions of dollars and the sending out of nearly 200 mission teams to plant churches.  The goal was a great one, and through it much good was accomplished.  However, it stretched us as a movement almost to the breaking point in many places.  The Boston church alone planted 53 churches, which took its toll.  Overall, some leaders were sent out who were unprepared – which hurt them, the ones they led and the mission they had in the first place.  All in all, our mission focus has been much more a blessing than a curse.

When any church or group of churches loses its mission emphasis, it will lose other elements of spirituality as well.  I remember reading some startling statistics years ago about missions in the group of churches of which I once was a part.  According to the article in one of their publications, that group had 800 mission units (either a couple or a single was defined as a unit) outside the borders of the United States doing mission work in 1975.  As a result of losing their mission focus, the number of mission units dropped to less than 200 in the year 1990, according to the article.  My experience with a number of individual congregations left me with the clear impression and conviction that their overall evangelistic zeal at home diminished at almost the same rate.  None of us can have a zeal to save the lost at home without having that same zeal for the lost in other places.  The concepts are tied together and will not exist for long if separated.  Therefore, a continuing missions emphasis is vital to our being and remaining the church of Jesus.

One very good reason for continuing our missions focus is that we have helped plant churches that cannot survive without our support.  To let them die is tantamount to bringing children into the world and not caring for them.  Our support structure of a movement organization (the ICOC) and World Sectors is no longer functional.  Therefore, we must figure out ways to cooperate with other larger churches in helping out the mission churches.  We may not have the same organizational setup we had in the past, but we must develop some kind of organizational cooperation if our present mission plantings are to be sustained.  As we do continue to send money and personnel for missions, it is imperative that we share the exact details of how the money is being spent. Past failures in this area cannot be repeated.  Neither can we allow past failures to lead us into present failures of failing to support existing missions and to once again expand into new areas that are crying out to be evangelized.  Matthew 28 still reads the same regarding this responsibility and privilege.

What About Financial Giving and Tithing?

Financial giving and tithing are not necessarily the same thing.  Giving is certainly taught in both Old and New Testaments, and no wonder – God is a giver and to become like him, we must be too.  The concept of tithing, the giving of a tenth of one’s income, is primarily an OT requirement.  However, tithing is not limited to the Mosiac Law.  If you go back to Abraham’s day, five hundred years before the Law of Moses was given, you will find Abraham giving a tithe to God (Genesis 14:20).  Although the tithe was not a law requirement until centuries later, somehow tithing was a part of Abraham’s service to his God.

I have never thought of tithing as a Christian requirement, but I have tithed for years (almost always gone beyond that amount), and intend to continue doing so.  To me, it is a matter of dedicating my “firstfruits” to God, a specified amount that goes to him no matter what, rather than giving him my “leftovers.”  Tithing is something that puts us all on equal ground in one sense, no matter what the actual amount given.  Therefore, while I will not attempt to bind this type giving on other Christians, I still plan to give this much, and more, of my firstfruits to God.  You will have to figure out what you are going to do regarding giving and then do it.  But as for me and my house, we have a plan that is biblically and practically recommendable.  As I heard once, I think we will do better financially with 90% of our money and God’s blessing than 100% of it without his blessing.  Of course, I am not saying that God will bless one thing and not another, for I’m sure he looks at many factors about our giving.  The study of the widow’s giving in Luke 21:1-4 shows that God is not only very interested in what we give, but even more interested in what we have left after giving.

As a young married man, I heard some teaching about money and giving that has continued to influence my thinking and practices.  In Matthew 6:21, Jesus said:  “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  I used to view the teaching of this verse in reverse – where your heart is, there your treasure will be also.  It seemed logical to think of it in that way, for if your heart is in something, you will also put your money there.  However, the verse says that if you put your money into something, your heart will follow.  Jesus always looks at things differently than we tend to see them.  Most people who have cut back their giving in the past year have either left the church or will end up leaving unless they begin giving their money again.  Isn’t that exactly what Matthew 6:21 teaches, that the heart will follow the use of money?  Then a few verses later, Jesus says:  “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money” (Matthew 6:24).  Materialism is an insidious disease, and one that I am afraid of in my own life.  The cure for this malady is multifaceted, but the starting place is consistent, sacrificial giving.

Before ending this section, I do want to express my appreciation for your response as a church to the financial appeals I and others have made this year.  Our giving has increased sufficiently to avoid further layoffs of staff and the reduction of other expenses that would have hurt the church.  As I have said repeatedly, I believe that our financial challenges are short term challenges, and that God is going to bless us greatly in the long term as a church.  With our increased giving, the short term needs can be met while our health as a congregation continues to improve, and improve rapidly.  Of course, our giving is ultimately not simply to meet budgetary needs, but to honor our God for who he is and for what he continues to do with us and through us.  Let’s keep our primary motivation for giving focused on him.

What About the ICOC and Our Unity?

This question has been asked many times in one way or another.  Well, are we still a part of the ICOC or not?  The answer is yes…and no.  There is no ICOC organizational structure that ties our churches together.  Los Angeles nor San Diego will ever dictate directions or policies for the Phoenix Valley church again.  Those days are over.  Actually, the lack of a central organization has both pluses and minuses.  The former outweigh the latter, for sure, but we do lose some things such as lower insurance costs and a simple means of cooperating financially to help mission churches.

The real challenge with our changes is how to remain unified with sister congregations and to figure out how to work together in missions.  I think this concern is shared by almost all of us.  Isolationism as congregations is not a desirable option.  Last fall, the Dallas church hosted a unity leadership meeting, which went very well.  All leaders were welcome, whether on the ministry staff or not, and no decisions were made nor suggested for the movement.  Decisions are going to be left in the hands of local church leadership rather than made via some kind of central organization, for there is no such organization in place.  But we do want to have fellowship with one another and learn from one another.  Another leadership meeting is planned for the fall in Chicago, and many others on smaller scales are occurring and will occur.  We want to be a united movement, but one united by choice and with the freedom to decide our own directions as individual congregations.  Mature unity is a forged unity rather than a dictated one, and we are in the process of forging at present – a noble endeavor for which Jesus prayed (John 17:20-23).

What About Our Exclusivist Attitudes As A Church?

Here we are talking about how we view other churches – are we too narrow?  Many apologies by church leadership groups in the past year have included admissions of being too exclusivist and self righteous.  A recent statement by a ministry friend put it well:  “In my opinion, our movement became so consumed with our ‘distinctiveness’ and defining ourselves as different (which often meant ‘better’) than other groups that much of our eventual troubles came as a result of those very peculiarities.”  If our biblical teaching results in others viewing us as narrow, that’s one thing, but if prideful, competitive comparisons result in the same, that is an entirely different matter.  Our task it not to outdistance other groups in performance; it is to honor God by loving him, following his teaching and doing his will.  Period.

It seems to me that we need to avoid two extremes in being judgmental.  One is to decide for God who is ultimately going to be lost.  He is the Judge and not us.  If some are in heaven that I didn’t expect to be there, Amen – praise Jesus!  The other extreme is to decide for God who is ultimately going to be saved, and to be so broadminded in that judgment that we go beyond Scripture.  All I know for sure is what God said in his Book, and I am going to try and get everyone to do what it says (including me), while leaving the final judgment up to him.  Surely that cannot be an erroneous approach.  Bottom line, I intend to continue to teach the Bible as I now understand it, keep studying it with an open mind, and reserve the right for God to judge us all.


Obviously, the ten topics discussed briefly are not an exhaustive list of important and relevant topics, but are some of the main things that made us who we were in the past.  God has allowed us as a movement to accomplish some pretty amazing things, in spite of our systemic sins.  Now he is calling us to repent of the sins of our youth as a movement and mature spiritually.  As I will continue to state, we have done many right things in many wrong ways.  For the sake of God and a lost world, let’s not stop doing the right things.  Let’s just repent of doing them in wrong ways.  I can’t live with the wrong ways any longer, but neither can I live with becoming a traditional, lukewarm fellowship.  The question before you is what you believe about these matters and what you can live with.    Those are the questions with which you must now wrestle.  I commend you to that noble task, with the Bible in your hand and prayers in your heart.  May God help us all to reach his conclusions!

—Gordon Ferguson (March 2004)