Following Up on the UBF Conversation, Part 2

John ArmstrongMissional Church

My goal in writing about these various reactions to my initial post on UBF has primarily been one—reconciliation between brothers and sisters in Christ. My motives and my insights have been attacked fiercely by some former UBF members. Meanwhile, UBF members have expressed appreciation, generally speaking. I also continue to pursue my real concerns with leaders within UBF and conduct a civil and respectful conversation. For this I am seen as foolish, unwise, self-promoting myself and unstable.

A friend wrote to me in private, after this discussion began on my original January post, saying: “It is very easy to take sides if you become friends with one party and feel their pain. However, if you appear to be taking sides—by, say, defending one group and at the same time criticizing the other—then you will not help them move closer to each other. I don’t think anything can be more important to God than reconciliation. Paul described the Christian mission as ‘the ministry of reconciliation’ and Jesus said ‘blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.’” I so agree with this and realize former-UBF people are likely to see me as taking sides with UBF and thus this is the end of the matter for them. I am no longer a credible agent of reconciliation or even of the message of Christ, at least to some extent.

One former UBF member, living outside of North America (UBF is an international ministry) wrote the following letter to me in private:

My fundamental problem with UBF is regarding heavy shepherding. I personally feel that UBF makes the mistake that some people were falling into when God inspired the apostle Paul to write his letter to the Colossians.

There is a great sense in UBF’s teaching that God will punish you if you do not obey your Bible teacher. I have been speaking with a current member for a while and he was recently told that if he left the ministry God would punish him. I was told this when I left the ministry and had been told it regarding a number of decisions in my life with the Lord Jesus while I was involved in the ministry. I was reading authors like John Piper where I saw that a love for Jesus and a delight in the gospel were what should motivate us in the Christian life, a teaching I now see dripping out of the Bible.

Before then I tried to do what I knew the Bible called me to do but I did it in my own strength, fearing God’s punishment if I failed.

I want to beg you to look into the complaints of ex-UBF members. Many are angry and upset. Many have been seriously wounded and may not appear to have faith in the Lord Jesus, because there is so much hatred and pain. Still many, many people have felt the strong arm of a shepherd. A strong arm which is not the model given by the Lord Jesus in Mark 9:30-50 or Mark 10:35-45.

I feel the reason UBF wants you on their side is to give them legitimacy. Speaking to a member thinking of leaving UBF your article has been used to show that UBF is not a cult. (I would want to say it is an abusive church). This is a young man who has been told that if he were to leave he would be punished by God because he would be disobeying God’s will for his life.

Please do consider the testimony of those who have left UBF and not just dismiss them. Please carefully consider if you should support them because your words will be used all over the world to keep people studying with UBF. If abusive shepherding is taking place you will be helping that abuse to continue by supporting UBF. If you end up feeling that abuse is not institutional then obviously you should support their work.

I have not reproduced every single word of this brother’s letter in order to protect him from any unnecessary personal misunderstanding and to cut out a few extraneous comments that might hinder the reader from hearing his primary points of concern. I have no doubt that he is earnest and that he has some serious points to be made that should be made and appropriately heard. I also believe there is, in his appeal, a word that UBF leaders should listen to and seriously consider in the days ahead. If he is wrong then they can learn much from him anyway. If he is right, in the slightest sense, then they can improve and correct excessive practices by hearing him out. If I see what he states in my own relationship with UBF leaders I will gladly make it known to them, as I have already indicated.

Another brother wrote the following accusation against UBF to me, again in a private letter. Once again I share only part of this and do so without his name for the same reasons as given above.

Where UBF gets its reputation as a cult is the abusive practices that it performs on members behind the scenes and the demands of absolute obedience of members to the leadership. You will not see this kind of abuse and psychological pressure while visiting the group or interviewing its leaders. New members are often attracted to the group because of their friendliness, their passion for the Bible, and the differences from typical US churches that you have witnessed. It’s only after members become somewhat committed to the group that the strange practices and teaching start really coming out. Obviously they will not showcase these things to outsiders.

Still another former-UBF member wrote to me:

I think that the sheer number of long-term Christian critics of UBF should raise a red flag.

Could there be truth in these kinds of statements that I do not see? Of course. But I also believe that most churches in America are in such a sad state that any group that practices serious church discipline, that disciples people with real intentionality, and that seeks a deeper abd whole-hearted commitment from its followers, will face similar challenges to its authority structure in every single instance. There can be problems, as John Bunyan once noted, on both sides of the road. There is a ditch to be avoided on the side of too much human authority and there is a ditch to be avoided on the side of human freedom and self-determination. UBF needs to recognize this more clearly as do former UBF members who are quite obviously convinced of its abusive patterns. The fact that these strong charges are made, that Web sites regularly attack UBF, and that people have been harmed by UBF does not finally mean that UBF is an evil cult. I repeat what I stated in my first blog. UBF has two major problems, at least from my perspective: (1) It retains an expression of Korean culture that is not always in its best interest, especially in non-Korean settings. This is an issue of missiology as well as an issue of authority. (2) It has been ingrown for decades and therefore less than open to outside voices and teachers. This is an issue of development and one that calls for improving ministerial accountability. Many evangelical groups that function like UBF have similar problems. Some correct them and some do not.

I also agree that UBF leadership should answer more of the general questions that are raised against it. I know why they choose not to respond, feeling that answers take time and serve no positive purpose. But I think they would be served, as some critics have noted, to provide some general acknowledgement of past mistakes and some present public recognition that they are attempting to listen. I have offered this advice to UBF, and I will continue to encourage them to follow it where possible, but in the end there is nothing they can do that will please many of their critics, so it seems to me.

Surely every present member of UBF, as well as every ex-member, must recognize that I am not personally the person who can solve these claims and counter-claims, contrary to some of the posts that have appeared on this site. I am only one inconsequential teacher seeking to faithfully follow Christ and to serve my brothers and sisters wherever possible. I have discussed every single issue that has been brought to me with my friends who are among the UBF leadership that I personally know. I have tried to listened to these criticisms with an open mind. I will continue to do this in the future but this blog spot will not be dominated by discussion about UBF.

I will post a few final comments over the next two days. Then, unless there is reason to say more, I am done with this discussion since it does not help me or ACT 3 to fulfill our commitment to the well-being of the kingdom of Christ to continue this type of debate as a regular part of my ministry. Further, comments that are rude or inappropriate are not welcome. If I read comments that cross this line I will delete them if that becomes necessary. Finally, I urge ex-UBF members to respond to present living UBF leaders as much as possible, not to me. Your issue is not with me. If your problem is with me then you have made it so since all I have done is share my heart in ministry to UBF groups when invited to do so. I can not resolve your issues with past abuse that you believe was inflicted by UBF. I began these comments only because I was asked to speak for UBF and then began to receive personal attacks on my motives when I did so. I have also received phone calls from third parties telling me to back off from helping UBF and open accusations that I was being used to advance cult purposes. None of these attempts to correct me serve a positive purpose at all.