Following Up on the UBF Conversation, Part I

John ArmstrongMissional Church

On January 27, I wrote a blog titled: “The Korean Revival and the Ministry of UBF.” UBF is the University Bible Fellowship, an indigenous and international tent-making mission that was birthed through the impact of the Korean Revival some 75 years ago. UBF is a mission that has produced a dynamic movement of evangelism that follows the principles developed by people like John Nevius and other influential Asian missional thinkers who encouraged every-member ministry and tent-maker leadership. This approach is so different from North American forms of local church development that is has both incredible strengths and potential weaknesses, both of which I briefly cited before.

I knew when I posted this particular blog that I would engender the kind of response that appeared on my site over the next several weeks that followed. I have read the numerous responses, and kept an open mind through it all. I will continue to observe UBF, learn from them, and speak the truth in love to them as best I know how. And I assure all of the critics of UBF that I am not an "easy target" for any kind of UBF propaganda, not if you actually knew me personally. I have my own share of opponents. I have gained opposition over many years of ministry because I have time and again spoken truth to power when I felt I had a clear reason to do so. UBF does not own me nor does UBF owe me anything except Christ’s love. I am a free man in Christ, who alone is the Lord of my conscience.

Do I see certain "control" issues in the history of the UBF movement? You bet. I assure those of you who wrote to me, or posted comments on my site, that I remain vigilant in my relationships with all UBF leaders and members about such issues. I will also give them the human benefits that love demands, even if some of what the critics say proves me, and them, wrong. I never suggested that UBF had made no mistakes in the past or that there were not problems in the movement at-large.

Churches and movements always have to face their own problems if they would be faithful to the renewing witness and work of the Holy Spirit. UBF is no exception to this principle. I believe there are many in UBF who recognize this principle and are working to help the movement mature and develop in these areas of concern.

Having said this I do find it quite odd that the critics of UBF generally have never come to me openly and directly. (The only exception is one or two private letters that I received from really concerned former-members who wrote me with dignity and obvious love.) The tendency that I have seen, for well over a year now, is that critics make various accusations against UBF, even ones that carry some weigh with generally impressive words, but then the critics tend to remain anonymous, using the Internet as their means for criticism in most cases. I find this odd and very unfortunate. If UBF had controlled me in the past then I would be the first to come out in the open and make my case in the light of day, not to attack them per se but to help bring about reformation in every way possible. (Again, remember we are not talking about a group that teaches heresy here but one that is accused of bad shepherding practices!)  If UBF leaders rejected you, or hurt you wrongly, then you may have no choice, in some cases, but to move on and allow God to be their judge and yours. I will not be personally controlled by another human leader who exercises false and ungodly influence over me. I do, however, submit to human authority. I am required by Scripture. Finally, we must all submit to Christ alone in our conscience and I will defend the freedom that we all have in Christ against every false claim. Even if my biological family might call upon me to disobey Christ, which the gospel clearly demonstrates can and does happen, I would follow Christ. This very point is a major argument in Paul’s letter to the Galatians as well thus Paul is your model and mine about freedom in Christ as a new man and how we all ought to rightly defend it.

So, what should a former UBF member do? In short, make your case, state your concerns in the open to the proper UBF leaders, but move on in Christ to a healthy place where you can grow and mature. And do not spend endless effort on “correcting” UBF in public as if God has now called you to draw a target on these brothers and sisters and you have the unique calling of “exposing” them to the world via the Internet. (This underscores how dangerous the Internet can be and how it can be used to do much good and great harm. I am convinced we will all answer for every word we speak or write, at least if I read Scripture properly.)

Having said this, the numerous comments made against UBF neither surprised me nor did they reveal anything that I did not already know about the movement. I have time and again discussed these kinds of issues with present UBF leadership in North America. Could it be that some of you did have a really bad experience, which I do not doubt, but that UBF is improving and changing as they interact with the wider Christian world beyond their own history? Could it be that UBF is simply not the right place for you now in your journey but it might be a good and wholesome place for many others? We must charitably allow for growth and change on the part of other believers, including UBF leaders. If UBF leaders do begin to reach outside their movement to study, to get training and real positive exposure to the larger Christian church, and to receive direct input such as what I gave them on January 26 in Chicago, on being true servants, this may help them mature as a movement. You may never be led to go back to UBF, if you left in deep pain and anguish, and I would not suggest that you do. But you can surely "believe the best" about UBF, as Paul tells us love will always seek to do (1 Corinthians 13). You can become more positive about their future even if you do not intend to be a part of it. (And if your friends are in the movement and you tell me you are concerned for them still being there then I suggest to you that your extremely negative approach will not, generally speaking, help them understand your concern.)

Furthermore, Dr. Lee is now gone. I sense that he did many very positive things but that he was a flawed man in several ways. (Most strong leaders are greatly gifted and very often flawed. A long list of great names in church hsitory could be provided at this point.) I am not his judge, and cannot render anything close to an intelligent response other than this very broad statement: Whatever he did that might have been improper I know, and so should you, that God is his judge, as he is both your judge and mine. UBF is clearly seeking new paths since his death and it seems to me to be a movement that is learning from many of us who are not being duped in any way. Robert Coleman, for example, spoke at the North American UBF leaders’ meeting in Chicago recently. This man is no fool. He is a senior statesman who possesses immense wisdom and is respected across almost every spectrum of the church. (Coleman is a Methodist, by the way, and I am Reformed, so you have some very significant theological divergence in that fact alone.) He has made perhaps the greatest contribution in our lifetime on real discipleship and true evangelism in his two great books on these subjects. I talked with Dr. Coleman in December about UBF. He has the same response that I do. UBF has a history, has made some mistakes, and it needs to move forward but it is not a cult if a proper definition of a cult is employed. Comparisons to the International Church of Christ are most unfortunate. The ICOC is not only guilty of major control issues in ways that go far beyond UBF’s issues but it is a group in denial of several basic orthodox Christian doctrines, teaching that it is not only the true church but that it alone practices the only true saving baptism. Any comparison is both unwise and unfair to UBF.

I suggest that if you who disagree with UBF pray for the rest of us, asking the Father to help us and impact UBF through our collective labors, you will be doing a far better kingdom service than by attacking UBF month after month. I also urge you to "put behind you" those things that have so deeply hurt you, as much as God can give you the grace to do so. I have been crushed, attacked, and nearly run out of the ministry on several occasions. I have seen the harm of this even in many I have loved over the years. I know there can be real pain in these things thus I am very serious in saying this. In God’s kindness, through much love and prayer, most of these relationships have been altered for the better. There are a few who have hurt me, or whom I have hurt, that I have found it impossible to be reconciled with because they refuse to talk to me but with most I now have meaningful reconciliation, though we have gone our own ways in terms of ever sharing ministry together.

I want to reiterate that I do know what control is about in relationships within a church. I meet with people regularly who are led to doubt their own salvation (falsely it often seems to me), often because a group becomes too heavy-handed and authoritarian. I have known group leaders who do this well. In one case a group leader loved me, at least for a short season, and then turned on me when I became deeply involved in his church schism where he was also involved as a small group leader. He was sweet, very kind and always helped people at every turn. He was also magnetic and powerful. He knew his Bible inside and out. People sat at his feet and soaked in his every word. But those who could not get into his gifts and style felt lost and hopeless, out of touch with Christ and his strong demanding faith. He was very intimidating. So, yes I know these types of dangers are very real. I fear there has been some of this in UBF and thus I am determined, as God grants me the grace, to keep working to address anything that I see that strikes me as approaching such a form of control. The difference here may be that I have not been personally hurt by UBF thus I am not threatened by UBF in any personal way. I can more easily love them and speak the truth in that love. If they reject me then I will move on knowing that I have done what I can and should do. If they love me they will be loved back by me and I will teach them as faithfully as possible. It is really that simple.

I suggest that all of you who are concerned about this friendship pray for me and for UBF as we get to know each other better. I am not the answer to anyone’s problems but as a servant of the living God I can speak truth in the freedom that I have in Christ wherever I am asked to teach. I promise you, by God’s grace, this is what I will do with UBF as I do with everyone else.

I will expand on this blog over the next few days, with a concluding postscript about UBF. I will include some comments taken anonymously from letters to me, and show how I think some of the pain of the past should be processed for the glory of God. I am praying for all of you who have been hurt, for those who are growing to love Christ more every day because of the ministry of UBF, and for the healing of all who have been touched by this unusual movement of Christians that clearly shows deep love for Christ. Clearly the issue with UBF is not doctrinal, in the essential sense. And clearly it is not about true love for Christ. No one denies that there is deep love for Christ in UBF groups. What is consistent is the charge of some that UBF abuses people’s freedom in Christ. I will say more about that tomorrow, God willing. I hope my heart and concern will show through clearly in these words, which are written for the purpose of healing and reconciliation.