Thoughts on Christian Friendship

Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord (Acts 15:36-40).

I don’t know about you, but whenever I read this passage in the book of Acts, my heart always aches a bit. My heart hurts because genuine Christian friendships have always meant a great deal to me. And this story in Acts seems to be the one instance in the Bible in which there appears to be a tragic rift in a holy friendship: the broken fellowship between Paul and Barnabas. Even more, it seems all the more tragic since it involves two of the greatest pillars of the early Church. Perhaps one might even say that the Paul/Barnabas split is the first recorded “Great Church Split” in the history of the Christian Church—even before the Roman Catholic/Eastern Orthodox split, or the Roman Catholic/Protestant Reformation split.

Now perhaps from a missional point of view, such a parting ought not to be considered too tragic. After all, before the split the Holy Spirit had only one missionary team to carry out gospel evangelization (Paul-Barnabas). After this split, the Holy Spirit now found itself with two missionary teams to work with (Paul-Silas and Barnabas-Mark). That’s doubling the mission outreach for the Gospel, right?

In either case, my heart still pangs a bit just trying to imagine the broken friendship between Paul and Barnabas. Perhaps they got back together after all and went back to the good old days as friends. You know, like traveling together to hostile cities of the Roman empire and preaching the Gospel together side by side in solidarity before angry, rioting crowds who were constantly opposing their Gospel message. Ahhhh. The good ole’ days as Gospel buddies.

But who knows what really happened with their friendship? To my knowledge, the Scriptures are silent on whether Paul and Barnabas ended up reconciling and patching things up after this incident. I’d like to think that the great saints of the early Church set the example for the rest of us by ultimately healing their friendship in the end. After all, what a close friendship they had! For example, if we read through the Book of Acts, we find that it was Barnabas who chose to befriend Paul right after his dramatic conversion. In a way, Barnabas even became his shepherd and mentor during their early days in Antioch (Act 15:25-26). Barnabas even stood by his side and testified about his friend Paul’s true conversion, even when all other disciples wanted nothing to do with Paul, since he had been one of the fiercest persecutors of the Christian Church (Acts 9:26-27). I guess that’s why the early Christians called Barnabas “son of “encouragement” (Acts 4:36). As a friend, he truly encouraged Paul.

The interesting thing is that when Paul started to overshadow his great friend and mentor, we don’t see any evidence that Barnabas was the very least jealous or resentful of his former “sheep” who was now starting to outshine him. Soon Paul was becoming a powerful preacher and defender of the Gospel, out-arguing his critics in the synagogues. Paul was becoming a great apostle to the Gentiles, bringing in more and more people from all nations into the faith. Paul was starting to take on more visible leadership roles such that even Jerusalem Council recognized that God was truly at great work in Paul’s ministry. One scholar points out that at first, the author Luke refers to the team as “Barnabas and Paul,” with Barnabas in the lead. Later in the narrative, Luke switches the order so that it becomes “Paul and Barnabas,” probably because Paul was taking on more and more of the leading role. To me, this demonstrates the genuineness of the friendship that Paul and Barnabas had; neither of them seemed to mind who was seen as greater. Together they served the Gospel mission side by side as Christian friends.

Until, of course, they finally faced their first serious dispute over the matter of Mark — a disagreement serious enough to disrupt their friendship and lead them to part ways in Acts chapter 15.

I believe there are Barnabas-Paul type friendships in our own church community that may be experiencing tragic separations. Hearing about them from time to time saddens me. Some of these friendships may never be restored on this side of the eternity. Others might experience a taste of the Gospel through a healing the breach and beautiful reconciliation. Nevertheless, I retain the hope that, either way, the Holy Spirit is working even in the midst of these broken friendships in ways that will bring something beautiful out of what has been damaged. (doubling the Gospel outreach efforts of the Church, for instance?) And in a way, it is sort of encouraging to know that even the holy saints like Paul and Barnabas went through phases in their friendships that were, frankly, not so pretty.

So as I begin a series of reflections on Christian friendship, I want to start out by acknowledging all the various Christian friends I’ve had the privilege of developing over the years, many of whom reside within my own particular church community, but many of whom also reside outside my church community. Some even come from different Christian traditions altogether, and theologically we often do not see eye-to-eye. Nevertheless, each of these friends at critical moments have helped me at various stages of my Christian journey. My life has been deeply enriched through hese friendships. I am who I am because of them. I dare say that I’ve come to know Christ better, understand the Gospel better, and love God better, all because of these diverse Christian friendships. If we ever see some sort of true unity in the Church, I’m sure it will be because of these sorts of blossoming Christian friendships all throughout the Body of Christ.

I would love to hear stories of how your friendship with a Christian who is “different” from you — perhaps someone outside your immediate church community, denomination or theological tradition — has powerfully encouraged you in your walk in Christ. We all need Barnabases, people of encouragement who come along aside us at key moments in our spiritual development. I hope to hear your story too.

My next post: Thoughts on Christian Friendship, Part 2: “What? You don’t do one-to-one Bible study?”

(Please note: based on my UBFriends writing track-record, Part 2 may be finished in about a year or so.)


  1. John, thanks for this thought-provoking article. It strikes a chord with me right now.

    I wonder — is it fair to characterize the parting of Paul and Baranabas as a church split? Or even as a breach in their friendship? Yes, they sharply disagreed and then decided to travel separately. But I don’t think Paul would have told anyone, “Come to my church; don’t go to Barnabas’ church because they aren’t doing things the right way.” I’m quite sure that members of the congregations planted by Paul and Barnabas did remain in fellowship with one another and fully recognized one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. And my hunch is that Paul and Barnabas did remain friends despite their disagreement, just as Paul and Peter remained in fellowship with each other even after Paul opposed Peter to his face (Gal 2:11).

    I’m concerned that we may be reading too much into the biblical account. I fear we may be saying to ourselves, “The fact that so many Christians have parted ways over the last 400 years and the church has split into so many denominations isn’t so bad because, hey, look, Paul and Barnabas parted ways, didn’t they?” We shouldn’t compare apples to watermelons.

    But regardless of whether Paul and Barnabas ever stopped being friends, your point is a good one.

    Jesus never said, “It’s sad if you disagree and part ways, but don’t worry too much about it, you’ll all be friends again in heaven.” On the contrary. Jesus viewed visible unity among his disciples as crucial to our gospel witness (Jn 17:21). That unity should not be built around common ideas about how to do mission, around obedience to human authorities, etc. Christian unity is rooted in gospel. It’s rooted in the Trinity, in the fellowship Jesus had with the Father and Spirit.

    And Jesus strictly warned us to go and settle our differences with our fellow Christians in *this* life, not in the next (Mt 5:23-26). I hope those words of Jesus light a fire under our rear ends to start reconciling with those who feel hurt by us. The command to reconcile is no less urgent than the command in Matthew 28 to make disciples of all nations. In both cases, Jesus said, “Go!” In a sense, reconciliation is more urgent because Jesus told us to go and do that as our first priority, even before we attempt to worship him and offer sacrifices at the altar. Disunity seriously hinders our worship and our witness.

    When Christians disagree on important matters, there are no easy solutions. But I believe we must pursue unity with one another and with the whole Body of Christ in the form of loving relationships that persist in the midst of differences. The question is not if we should do this, but how. Please pray for me to have wisdom in these matters.

    • Joe, everything you said I agree with you there. My (mis)characterization of Barnabas/Paul disagreement as a church split was actually tongue-in-cheek. I don’t believe their disagreement and church splits throughout historic Christianity to be the same thing. Apples and oranges comparison, as you say. Just trying to drive home the observation that at that early stage of Christianity, a split between two apostles was probably a huge event in the Church — but who knows, maybe as you point out they just amicably parted ways and there was no breach in friendship or evidence of Church division.
      My general point in the post is basically what you better articulated for me in your comment: “When Christians disagree on important matters, there are no easy solutions. But I believe we must pursue unity with one another and with the whole Body of Christ in the form of loving relationships that persist in the midst of differences. The question is not if we should do this, but how.”

    • Good points, Joe/John. To emphasize one point even further, what is the ministry and the message God gave Christians? I told one UBF leader (who is one the board of elders and came to visit me) that conflict will not go away. We cannot let people go, and then “get back to the business of one-to-one student ministry.” God gave us the ministry of reconciliation and the message of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-19). 

    • No disagreement on my end with what you said. On that note, I would love to read stories of “reconciliation” on this website, whenever they do occur. (I’m an optimist so I say WHENEVER, not IF). And boy, are there many folks praying for God’s church to be serious about such a ministry of reconciliation, with God and with one another!

  2. John, thanks a lot for this article.

    The subject of friendship is one of greatest importance for Grace and me. Our main prayer topic and hope for Sam Paul is that he may become a friend of God and friend of people. Every time when i bring Sam Paul to bed i would hold him and pray for him to become a true and genuine friend. (and sometimes, the little one says “amen”, too). 

    But it makes me realize my own shortcomings when it comes to friendship. Unlike you, it has been very hard for me to be and stay friends with people who are not in my particular church fellowship. My “reasoning” went somewhere along these lines: “it is impossible for me to even love the people in my church group the way i should. Loving people who are outside (as in different Christian churches etc) would certainly make it no easier. Maybe i should start loving the people who are close to me before i start extending it to people outside…” What a narrow, selfish heart! 

    One more remark: when we were studying the book of Acts last year, i was also fascinated by Barnabas and the fact that he was called “son of encouragement”. It can be (and has often been) translated as “son of comfort”. The Greek word is paraklesis, which is very similar to parakletos. This is the term Jesus uses when he refers to the Holy Spirit as comforter in John 16. To be an encourager, advocate, comforter and helper (all of which is included in the term parakletos) are qualities of a true friend. 

    • Agreed. In fact, it is good to be good friends with one’s spouse. I probably should start there too and work on that first. :)
      I like your comment on the Greek words and the similarity between “encouragement” and the Holy Spirit. Interesting insight.

  3. Hi John, thanks for posting this.

    You asked for stories of how someone greatly encouraged me, outside of my immediate church circle. For me, sometime around 2005 or so, it was several people in the “ex-UBF” group who greatly encouraged me by speaking truthfully and bluntly to me. The best encouragement I ever received in the past 10 years was from one ex-UBF person’s critique of my Sunday message about “rest” vs. “work”. Such objective criticism was healthy, helpful and honest. I am so thankful for honest words, pointing out my incorrect teachings.

    Last Sunday, our church teaching was on Acts 10 and deeply profound for me. The message was about Peter going to Cornelius (a dreaded Gentile leader). Peter could be friends with his fellow Jews and Jew-sympathizers perhaps, but never with some unclean Gentile. The teaching on this event was a clear rebuke and challenge to me and all who say we are Christian: Think of the group of people you least like, the group of people you are least likely to be friends with, and then pray that God would send one of those people into your life.

    (Note that in Acts 10, the Gentile took only one prompting from God to obey. It was Peter, the Christian leader, who needed 3 strong “pushes” just to even consider obeying. Sometimes it is not the sinner who needs to be prepared or who is hard-hearted; it may be the Christian who needs prepared and softened!)

    Also, I am wondering if you could explain a few things to help me understand your thoughts further. Why is the title “Christian friendship”? How is that different from friendship? Why is the Holy Spirit an “it”? “After this split, the Holy Spirit now found itself with two missionary teams to work with (Paul-Silas and Barnabas-Mark). “ (John 14:17; John 15:26; John 16:13)

    • Thanks for sharing that story, Brian. Yes, the Holy Spirit is a He not an It. That was a typo. Theological oopsie, there. There are actually many typos to this posting, which is why I cringed when I found out it got posted.
      I used the term Christian friendship to designate friendships I have with other Christians. I do have friendships with folks who are not Christians, but that was not the focus of this article. I’m not implying anything else beyond that. By the way, I don’t even remember submitting this article to UBFriends. I thought I wrote it up and then tucked it away somewhere for more reflection. So some of these thoughts are off-the-cuff. Don’t take me too seriously. My general point: Friendships have been important to my spiritual development. Period.

    • John, I am out of the admin business here, except for helping out with technical issues from time to time. But I do see your submission to the admin email account a while ago.

      In any case, this topic is well worth a ubfriends go-around. These days I am finding out who my real friends are. I found that most of my UBF “friends” were really only acquaintances. And many of those “friends” only liked me when I was defending UBF. Now that I speak my heart and mind openly and think critically for myself, I get an icy shoulder. So many UBF people have de-friended me on Facebook that I stopped trying to keep track.

      A friend of mine, who really is and has been a friend for 20 years, told me on the phone last year that he almost doesn’t want any Christian friends. At his workplace, he can manage million dollar projects well, and not one person prays. But at church, he is told that he is not intelligent, and church “friends” can’t even agree on how to study the Bible.

      Personally, I would have to agree with him. I don’t want anymore friends who call themselves Christian. If someone is my friend and happens to be Christian, then fine. But I would much rather be friends with so-called sinners. For example, I like to drink rum and coke…there goes half my Christian “friends”. I have two openly gay Facebook friends… there goes the other half….my new pastor rides a Harley…there goes anyone still left…

  4. Thanks, John, for your post on friendship, perhaps the single most important attribute needed and desired among men. I’ve often wondered why friendship is so crucially important among men, beginning from our spouse. One reason perhaps is because the Trinity is BFF, and we are made in the image of the Trinity to be BFF with God and with each other.
    How can we truly be friends? The answers are countless. I will say trust and transparency are critical. Tim Keller says friends absolutely need candor and constancy. A friend always lets you in but never lets you down. Non-disclosure or dismissiveness, however subtle, never leads to friendship. Obviously, we all fail. Thus, we all need Jesus, our peacemaker and mediator.
    Since even friends disagree, we need a healthy channel to voice disagreements in a safe place. That should be the home, followed by the church, where we can disagree agreeably and not feel the need to dominate or impose ourselves on others. Otherwise, we will be disagreeable even when we agree! Hopefully, by God’s grace, UBFriends may be a safe place, where sinners can be themselves, and be heard, embraced and loved.

    • Thanks Dr. Ben for being my friend. I agree: the church should be a place where true friendships can develop. I know we have a long way to go in terms of our particular community, but we’re getting there :) As for being transparent, I’m not brave enough to share all my sins online yet, but Dr. Ben – um, well in that respect, you’re definitely my hero.

  5. Darren Gruett

    I think it should also be noted that Paul later reconciled with both Barnabas (1Co 9:6) and Mark (Col 4:10; 2Ti 4:11; Phm 24).

    • I guess it sort of depends on the dating of those respective letters (not sure if 1 Corinthians was dated before the recording of the Barnabas/Paul disagreement in Acts or not), and whether the Mark of the other passages is the same Mark of the Book of Acts, and whether the 1 Corinthians passage is truly indicating reconciliation.
      But with that said, I’m with Joe. I’m betting on the fact that they patched things up and moved on.
      Wow, thanks for the comments guys. If this posting can rise to the #1 viewed article on UBFriends and topple the one I wrote with GerardoR, I mean, that would be swell. Then I don’t have to share this glory with a Catholic.
      Ok, well I really gotta go back to work now everyone. So I’m going to take my leave, make like a Protestant and “split.” (that was truly a  terrible joke, I know. Shouldn’t be making jokes at the expense of the Church)

    • Darren Gruett

      First Corinthians was written during Paul’s third missionary journey, while the dispute happened at the outset of his second missionary journey. As for it being the same Mark, the reference in Colossians is pretty clear that it is. Also, that epistle was written during his first Roman imprisonment, which was long after the dispute in Acts 15.

    • I wasn’t aware of the 1 Corinthians 9:6 passage. Thanks, Darren.

    • Darren Gruett

      Henoch, I should also thank you for that insight into the relationship between the words parakletos and paraklesis. In fact, I was up late last night doing some word studies on this because it was so intriguing to me.

  6. First. John, you are hilarious. I appreciate your humor.

    Second. A story about Chrisitan friendship.

    The Christian school where I work at is full of children of: southern baptists, presbyterians, reformed theologians, arminians, nazarene (weslyans), pentecostals, catholics (but I’m not sure if they attend currently), orthodox, etc. All the parents get together and are friends because their children are good friends. (Parents learn from their kids; kids learn from their parents. Parents + Kids = beautiful relationship when they get along.) Admittedly, Bible class would get rowdy, especially if the topic was predestination or when the speaker at chapel was pentacostal (and spoke in tongues).

    But we are unified by the Great Commision, our calling to preach the gospel, good news. Of course, we each have our respective ministry, we go different places on Sunday (or Saturday) but get together for soccer/bball games, workshops, etc.  I see this as a mini picture of the body of Christ we have different functions; but one goal. We are still one body who shares the same joy and the same pain. And I’m so glad to learn from fellow believers. My friend recently said, “I’m Baptist on paper, but in my heart of nothing. (She follows Jesus)”

    I’m aware of this rare opportunity/community and I thank God for it. We are bonded by our love for our kids, our love for this country and our love for Jesus.

    • Thanks for sharing that story, MJ. It made my day.
      In my professional circle, I go to conferences where I meet together with Christian professionals from many different traditions (Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed, evangelical, etc). I love hearing their stories of their spiritual journeys: the pains, struggles, joys of their own congregrations (it’s just our community that has problems!). But in our field, these Christians were all committed to bringing forth the Gospel in a secular environment and contending for the Christian worldview in their professional field.
      I remember one dinner very distinctly. We were gathering after an evening of sharing stories together, and one person expressed the positive sentiment of the evening and said, “I know all of us probably can’t start a church together; but I hope we can work together to contend for the Gospel and be a witness of Christ in this field.” Since then, I’m steadily seeing this community of scholars grow into a larger community that is really impacting my professional field like a brewing tsunami. It is really exciting. Too bad I’m not smart enough to join them but I loved witnessing it.
      I don’t know if John Armstrong would technically call this missional-ecumenicism but if it is, I sure want to experience more of this in the Church in everything I do.

    • Oh, and I meant to say it’s NOT just our community that problems. Bring on the stories!

    • That’s good to hear JohnY! Perhaps more leaders should participate in such communities. But I must point out that “our community” not only has the “normal church problems”, but also has official teachings like this that would surely make Mr. Armstrong, and any of the churches you mention, cringe: teachings.

    • Brian – I love your perseverance and persistence, but can I make personal selfish plea that this posting thread contain positive “kumbaya” stories? I’m not trying to silence your voice or anything, or put my head in the sand. But as a UBfriend, I just ask if you post such comments (which often strikes me as a hidden swipe against UBF–I don’t know–just my impression) at least in the other articles where the conversation is befitting a proper discussion of the issues you want to address. These days I need a dose of edifying conversation in the form of encouraging stories. anyway I’m just whining – sort of a “it’s my post-y and I want to cry if I want to” sort of request. :)

    • No problem, John. Perhaps we all need a kumbaya moment. Just trying to facilitate your “most comments” goal :)

    • Thanks. You’re a true UBFriend.

  7. Hi John, I almost agreed with you that “it’s just our community that has problems!” (^_^)
    You and U of C UBF coworkers might be interested in Armstrong having a public conversation dialogue on “missional ecumenism” with Cardinal George on Mon Mar 25 at 7 pm at the Chapel of Wheaton College:

  8. Yesterday I finished studying Genesis with my Bible student and then it hit me about the answer to conflict resolution. How could Joseph forgive his brothers who betrayed him and sold him as a slave? It was the biggest offense anyone could do to another not to mention to your own brother. When Joseph received the letter from his brother asking for his forgiveness, he wept. He was really sorry that they were still guilt ridden. Then he called them and reassured them that he held no grudges against them. It was because God intended for good the evil they intended for him. He saw God’s greater plan, the saving of many lives. When I thought about our church plant, it began with conflict and pain but the result is amazing. I don’t think we could reach as much new people if we have remained with our mother church. God is also working in their ministry in a different way with out us. May I say that God is blessing them and raising new leaders to replace us. Like John Y said in his article after the split of Barnabas and Paul the Holy Spirit was working in two different missionary group instead of just one. Our church still meet with the members of our mother church. Also we have open communication with the top leaders there. We must see the over all picture of God’s work which is the saving of many lives. With this in sight we can forgive the offenses of our brothers and forgive ourselves for the offenses we cause to others.

    • I think it is helpful to remember all the facts.  First, It took years for reconciliation with his brothers to take place.  Second, during the course of his interaction with his brothers, Joseph wept at least three times, once so loudly that the whole household heard him.  I don’t want to assume that his tears were only for his brother’s pain.  I am quite sure he had his own strong emotions to deal with.  Third, it seems to me that Joseph kept his brothers at quite a distance for some time, in order to see what what was really in their hearts.  Lastly,  the balance of power in the relationship had been completely reversed and I think that this provided a unique opportunity for reconciliation to take place.

  9. James Kim

    Well said, Maria. Joseph has image of Jesus. He named the second son’s name, Manasseh, which means, “It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household”. There is no hint of bitterness or grudge against his brothers in spite of all his troubles and painful memories. I believe because he lived before God and God gave him enough strength.

    • As a teenager, Joseph was betrayed by his brothers and suffered horrible abuse at their hands. People who experience this kind of abuse will typically suffer from PTSD and the wounds and scars remain all their lives. True forgiveness of one’s abusers, if it is even possible, may take a lifetime, and it is still not without much pain. Are you saying that the naming of Manasseh proves that Joseph had no more bitterness whatsoever? I find that hard to believe.

    • Human wounds run deep, as expressed by many who comment on this website. Though I believe they are sincere Christians, I also realize that the wounds caused by some UBF leaders’ abuse of their leadership authority do not just simply “go away.” I believe they forgive those leaders in Christ. But the pain and agony, frustration and angst, lingers for years, especially when the leader thinks he said or did nothing wrong. That’s why we need Jesus. Maybe that’s why we need a safe place like this website for people to share their stories they could not share in their own chapter.
      Simply quoting a Bible verse or story narrative, like Manasseh, and then applying it to Christians today, is quite a simplistic and reductionistic way of looking at the Bible. It is not the intent of the author, nor the point of the Bible, nor the teaching of this particular verse/passage.

  10. Well said, Maria and James. Joseph has image of Jesus. (Though in our chapter it has been taught that missionaries have image of Joseph and have authority to train others). I know a story about my wife’s friendship. She had a friend, a girl named Olga. They studied together and played together and lived nearby since they were 7 years old. Once upon a time Olga went to Moscow and was invited to UBF. In 1994 however she was kicked out along with a woman-missionary and about 10 brothers/sisters for they “became proud and preached on their own”. But she had brought my future wife to Christ and to UBF. When she left UBF she called to my wife, the our chapter director answered, “She is not going to talk to you anymore, never call to her”. My wife didn’t even know about the call. So the best friends and sisters haven’t heard about each other for 18 years. Now after our family and “sheep” left UBF the friends could find each other. It had been always told that Olga was demon-possessed and was satan, but she turned out to be a pastor’s wife, a presbyterian seminary graduate. (BTW a korean missionary founded the church and left it for indigenous leadership). I believe that those who left UBF have faith and God’s grace to forgive, but does it make UBF brothers’ sins less sinful (even though the UBF brothers are still busy with the same “brothers/sisters selling” ministry)? I have some more friendship stories. Thank God that so many friendships are restored but unfortunately they are restored and are possible only after leaving UBF and “brother selling” ministry.

    • I’m glad to hear about friendships being restored, whether inside or outside of our particular UBF ministry.

    • It seems to me, Vitaly, that you are describing a situation where real friendship never actually existed, and where reconciliation could not possibly be achieved without reframing the relationship altogether.   Paul and Barnabas were coworkers and friends, and one never claimed authority over another.  

    • Exactly, Sharon. When I left the ministry, several people told me to reconcile with my shepherd. I wondered, reconcile what? What friendship ever existed? If “reconcile” means submit to my shepherd’s authority over my life again, then I will never “reconcile”. 

      My leaving was for unity, to bring attention to numerous problems and to actually begin building a new relationship with my shepherd, because I realized I had no such relationship. 

      All my friends are still my friends. People who were acquaintances or fans of my ministry defense material, faded quickly and don’t talk to me. But something surprising happened when I left: reconciliation. I began meeting in person and virtually many former members. We apologized for fighting in the past. We had dinner together. We had several 3 hour conversations in person. We worshipped together at Grace Community church. All these things were only possible for me and my family when we faced the facts and left the “brother selling”, authority-demanding, hamster-wheel structure of “spiritual discipline.”

      And even more amazing, I started to be friends with my beautiful, intelligent, faithful, wonderful wife! We had been married 17 years, but lived like single college students who didn’t know each other. Now we are struggling through meeting each other for the first time, yet having raised 4 children and built a life together. 

  11.  I want to ask Maria: are you and Shpagin (and those who left along) still friends? Thank you.

    • yes Vitaly we are friends. you can call Andrey and ask him. We were friends when he was in UBF and after. I am also friends with Stas, Ivan, Ira, Marina,
      Daniel, and all who left. I consider them good Christians. I love them. Perhaps you had a bad experience in your chapter. I am very sorry to hear that. But not all UBF is like that. I know some Catholics who say I’m going to hell because I’m not Catholic anymore. I know other Catholics who are better than I am in their walk with God. I can not say all Catholics are bad. In Afganstan one American massacred a lot of people. Now the whole world is saying Americans are violent people. There are violent people in all nations. We must stop the bitterness. Because if we look hard and honestly in ourselves we are not perfect either. If we expect others to be perfect or behave the way we think a perfect church should behave then you’ll only be disappointed. Because the perfect church is not the organization but the people who believe Jesus as their Lord and Savior and follow him. They are the true church who are the bride of Jesus. I can tell you all the offenses that happened to me but what will that do except prolong my bitterness and pain. God helped me to come to him and he healed me. I want to belong to Jesus’ universal church. Whether I am in UBF or not does not matter. I am a Christian first and follower of Christ Jesus.  

    • Hi Vitaliy and Maria. Thanks for sharing
      As for me I had and in some ways still having problems in relations with former UBF members.  Now, I think, much better though. But now I am to learn how not to show to current UBF members with whom I can not agree the same atittude which I have shown before to former UBF members. How still to be truthfull and humble and merciful? It’s really up to me. And if I can not do it – I really did not change. that is sad.

  12. Sometimes one has to leave a ministry to find healing and peace in Christ’s grace and love.  It is said time heals all wounds.  It is the quiet time with Jesus wherein one finds healing.  Away from conflict and pains one can focus more fully on Christ and come to be restored.   Jesus also gives hope of having joy again.

  13. Perhaps I am idealistic. But I wish that resolution, restoration, and reconciliation may happen in the church where the conflict arose, rather than after leaving for another church, usually with some bitterness, disgruntlement, unresolved and unaddressed issues.
    After writing 3 articles on church division, I’d have to say that it surely does not please God if we are unable/unwilling to resolve our differences and disagreements in the church. For this an honest and transparent dialogue between parties is absolutely crucial (Matt 5:23-24, 18:15-17). Non-disclosure never resolves anything.
    Yes, it always takes 2 hands to clap. But if a problem/conflict/disagreement arises, the onus of the responsibility should fall on the older/senior/elder/leader humbling themselves to take the initiative to promote reconciliation. For if God did not take the initiative, we’d all be in hell.

  14. Thank you, Maria. I am very happy to know that you are friends. You know I haven’t been a friend of Andrey and don’t know his phone number or e-mail. But from what I know about him I can see that he is a very and really good christian. How sad it is that there is no place for good and somewhat the best christians I know in the organisation of UBF! Hebrews 13:12,13 come to my mind: “And so Jesus also suffered OUTSIDE the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us then go to him OUTSIDE the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore”. Andrey didn’t want to leave, he wanted to discuss, he had hope, he was so humble. But if even he as a result left and lost hope for any change in your chapter (not our) was my chapter an exceptional one, the only bad one?

    And I’d like to ask some more questions.

    1. Are you real friends with the director of your previous chapter? (I can say that in our chapter the director and friendship are antonyms. The director used to say: “Never become a friend to your sheep, keep the distance, otherwise it will be difficult for you to rebuke them, and there is no spiritual growth without rebuking!”) 
    2. Are those who left and the director friends? (Both questions could be united in one: can a UBF director be a friend to someone? If not, then, can there be friendship in UBF at all under such leadership?)
    3. What to do if “the american continues to massacre a lot of people”? To love him? To reconcile? To trust him and the massacred to God and do nothing keeping silence? Or to try to stop him or at least to help him understand that he is wrong and to start to discuss “the issue” with him?
    (Maria, I know that you are such a joyful christian. I like you )) and these questions – may be you have already answered them for yourself and could you just share?) Thank you.

    • Vitaly, you’re asking a good question: “can a UBF director be a friend to someone”? Well, he may be a friend of a UBF director of a sibling chapter, but he cannot be a friend of a member, because he believes to be “over” them in “spiritual order”. He cannot be the friend of the regional director either, because he believes to be “under” him. Being “over” or “under” somebody is mutually exclusive with having *real* friendship, even though many UBFers want to believe it is possible. But when it comes to the test, these “friendships” will fail.
      To give a personal example, in the last years my chapter director gave me the impression that he was my good friend. He often talked like a friend to me and I really believed he was one. But then a few days before my marriage and having been engaged for a year already, he cancelled our marriage and kind of kidnapped my fiance to another UBF chapter, telling her I had become “unspiritual”. Apart from everything else that needs to said about such hocking behavior, would a friend do that to a friend? Of course I hadn’t become unspiritual at all, I just disobeyed one his commands for good reasons. It turned out he never had considered me being a friend, but only his underling, and when he found out I was not putting myself sufficiently “under” him, he freaked out. There also was a Korean missionary in my chapter who my chapter leader claimed to be his *best* friend. But when that missionary had different opinions and left our chapter, the friendship immediately stopped from the side of the chapter leader.

    • To answer your question Vitaly,

      1. I respect the director of my previous chapter as God’s servant. Just like David never lost repect for King Saul. He is God’s servant no matter what. Like King David whom God called a man after His own heart, committed adultery and murder. Just like Abraham whom God called his Prophet even though he lied to Abimelech and didn’t protect his wife. My previous director didn’t do any of these things. Yes, I am still friends with my previous director. In fact I went to his church last night because they had a guest speaker on healing. It was really interesting. It was in Russian so I understood only about 80%. Maybe if I get the translation I will have it posted in UBFriends and see what you guys think of it. It was a 3 hour lecture so I will need to just summarize it. I greeted him and he welcomed me. I love his wife. I call her often and even invited her to lunch for sushi. She hasn’t taken me up on it. (She’s busy) When their youngest son broke his foot and her husband was in Korea she called me and I brought him to the hospital. Their older son skypes my daughter and they talk for hours about spiritual issues(that’s what she told me). Their daughter comes to my house for movie night and any party we have. Their children are like our children. My previous director is a man of God. I am not close to him like I am with his wife but I consider him my friend. 
      2.  Can a UBF director be a friend of someone who left UBF? Yes, ask Dr. Ben he is the director of Westloop UBF. Brian Karcher is one of his good friend. John is a friend of Andrey S. and others who left and he is the director of Podil UBF. I can’t say about others because I don’t know about them.
      3. The American who commited that terrible crime should be tried and the court must decide his fate. In the previous article that Dr. Ben wrote “Your sin will find you out.” talks about what happens when we commit sins. God is Love but he is also Holy and Righteous.

  15. Thanks, Vitaly, Chris, for sharing your stories. From just reading your accounts, I feel some pain and heart ache, what I often call “cringe factors.” I am so sorry that you had to go through such unpleasant experiences in the church, which are sadly not uncommon in UBF worldwide, as more and more people begin to share their stories. It is sad and unfortunate. What makes it worse is that perhaps until now, it CANNOT be addressed or raised, because you are “breaking spiritual order!”
    It all boils down to the fact that UBF as a whole has not studied or examined cultural contextualization, nor truly studied the majesty and mystery of the Trinity in the Bible. As a result, we have cultural imperialistic practices, and an artificial spiritual order, which is close to being quite unbiblical, not to mention being friendship destroying.
    Thank God that we can be friends on UBFriends, even if it is just in cyberspace. You are all my brothers and sisters even if I have not met you in person.

  16. Dear all, may i kindly ask you to try to avoid sweeping generalizations as indicated in the commenting policy?

    I am personally very aware of the shortcomings of the church, which i call my spiritual home. The stories you tell are really terrible. I do not doubt for a second that your pain is real. However, i am also aware of the fact that UBF is huge and diverse. 

    There are UBF directors, which do not see themselves “over” their people and who understand submission as a mutual thing.

    • Henoch, sure, there are UBF directors who think and behave differently. Ben has been given as an example. But the point is Ben was only able to do that after he changed his thinking and started to question UBF “spiritual order”. Some leaders of sattelite chapters also behave differently for sure. But again, they are not following the party line in doing so, and if it becomes too obvious to the top leaders they will be kicked out. Take Augustine Song from Moscow for example. Lastly, the reform movement of 2001 started in exactly that same way, by many directors of smaller chapters starting to talk openly and demanding accountability. You know what the end was, they were expelled for breaking the “spiritual order”. So the top leaders in the headquarters and those chapter directors who stayed in UBF and let this happen obviously did *not* understand submissions as a mutual thing. That’s the crucial and problematic thing.
      I don’t think it can count as a “sweeping generalization” if I describe the behavior of those who follow the official teachings. Therefore I wrote “a UBF director” and not “all UBF directors”. But it was also the behavior of all the top mainline UBF directors in Germany I have personally experienced. Anyway I will be more considerate regarding generalizations, thanks for pointing that out. Actually I wanted to restrain myself from posting here and leave this forum to those who are still inside UBF. Yesterday it just was too difficult for me not to respond.
      But I need to mention one more thing because it was irritating me. You wrote “I do not doubt that your pain is real.” Why didn’t you write “I do not doubt that the abuse has been real?” Your words sound patronizing and as if what I write is only my personal subjective perception, but not something that was and is really existent in UBF and that affected and affects not only me, but so many more people. It also sounds as if I’m still feeling pain and wallowing in self-pity and as if that was my motivation for writing here. That’s not the case. I’m just encouraged to see people in UBF talk about these issues again. Your being aware of the shortcomings is also encouraging me. The questions you should ask yourself are: How fundamental and serious and “systemic” are these shortcomings, and what is done by the top leadership to solve these issues? If you really want to do something about these issues, the first thing would be to really name and frame the problems. It will not help if whenever one of these problems is mentioned you point out that it’s a generalization because there are always exceptions that prove the rule.

    • I didn’t mean to be patronizing. Sorry for giving you this kind of impression.

      Sentences, such as, “How sad it is that there is no place for good and somewhat the best christians I know in the organisation of UBF!” or “…he cannot be a friend of a member, because he believes to be “over” them in “spiritual order”. He cannot be the friend of the regional director either, because he believes to be “under” him” are generalizations.

      In my opinion, such statements do not reflect reality and they are disheartening and unhelpful for the many people in UBF who actively seek change in the ministry.

    • Henoch, I still don’t understand why pointing out the problems is “unhelpful for people in UBF who actively seek change in the ministry”. You can only change things if you acknowledge problems and listen to those who have a different opinion and experience. We are not saying this without any reason or evidence.

    • Chris, that’s true that we should learn from others with different perspectives and we MUST acknowledge problems in ministry.  But Henoch is pointing out that some of your statements (the ones he quoted) are generalizations.  I think some of the comments you said are helpful, but when you make statements like those, which are not entirely true, it might lead people to not take your comments seriously and view those comments as coming more out of bitterness.  Just my two cents.  I like some of the things you wrote, so I think I’d like to hear more, and I think others might too.

    • Btw, Henoch, you shouldn’t generalise either. For instance I have not written the sentence “How sad it is that there is no place for good…”, that was Vitaly. And I think this sentence was not meant as a generalisation, but referred to the concrete example of Andrey S. and I think it was very appropriate in that context.
      In the other sentences you quote, my whole point was to show 1) how the UBF concept of spiritual order and the concept of real friendship preclude each other, and that 2) according to my opinion and experience the majority of Korean UBF directors are deeply rooted in that UBF concept of spiritual order.
      The discussion would be more fruitful if you pointed out exactly where I am mistaken besides of using a simplifying and clumsy formulation. What do you disagree with? Do you think that 1) the classical UBF concept of spiritual order *is* compatible with friendship? Or do you think that 2) the majority of UBF directors, are *not* rooted in that mindset (any more), i.e. they don’t believe to be “over” or “under” somebody?
      My experience is from 10 years ago in Germany where it *did* reflect reality, sorry to say. If the UBF leaders had been real friends, the big split at that time would not have happened, and not in such a way. It happened because the hardliners believed that criticising the top leadership meant breaking “spiritual order”.
      But I have also spoken with many UBFer outside of Germany and who were members in later years, and they all mentioned similar problems. For instance, my wife was in Maria Peace’s chapter before her. She said that nearly all members literally *feared* the chapter leader, because he used to shame and blame members publicly in meetings. Outwardly it looked like a harmonic chapter and there seemed to be much more love among members than in my own chapter. And I still believe most members are and were genuine Christians and nice people and there *was* love among them. But even that chapter was tainted with authoritarism by the director. And that was also the primary reason why many members like Andrey S or Andrey+Ivan K left the ministry, which happened not so long ago, and because of which many friendships broke or cooled down.
      Remember that it often takes a long time, years or even decades, until you learn that what you believe to be friendship never really existed. A real friendship must stand the test and that test comes when people leave or criticise the ministry. I have experienced that many long-term friendships immediately were nullified when this happened. In some cases “friendships” that had existed for 20 years or more.

    • Chris, can you tell us about the spiritual community you and your wife are in now? What are the structure and friendships like? Maybe we can learn from some examples from the real friendships in your ministry.

    • You asked about our own spiritual community. Most of the time we were with a small community of Messianic Jews, because there we experienced real friendship and free and open discussion. This actually had not much to do with the fact that it was a Messianic church (there are also very fundamentalist Messianic groups like Jews for Jesus which have problems similar to UBF), though open discussion is obviously a good Jewish tradtion.
      As a side node, Acts 19:9 mentions how the disciples had discussions with Paul in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. These people were mostly Jews and Greeks (who are known for liking discussions, too). It’s unfortunate that UBF often claims that they did not discuss, but had UBF style bible study (when the Bible hadn’t even been written). E.g. a Bonn UBF message claims that they had 2 hour Bible study a day and testimony sharing and writing, which accumulated to 2880 hours of Bible study over the two years, and this was the reason why there was a revival. Then it is concluded, that we need to do more UBF style Bible study and testimony writing to experience a similar revival. I think this is completely misunderstand the character of the discussions and fellowship they had.
      The main difference I think is that in UBF the fellowship was kind of “artificial”. When we shared testimonies in UBF, we had to use a podium, speaker’s desk, microphone etc. even in a relatively small room. All these meetings were obligatory. UBF Bible study was not an open discussion, but along a questionnaire with a predetermined learning goal. In our community all of this was very different. Nothing was mandatory, and everything felt much more natural. People dealt with each other like good friends do. There was no compulsion, no blaming and shaming. People were free to have vacations, visit other churches or conferences.
      This community recently dissolved because many of the core members had to move away. We’re still friends and in contact, though. All of us learned a lot and matured a lot in faith in these years. Actually I think it’s good to change your spiritual community from time to time because people tend to focus too much on the community, or the community develops unhealthy ideas, practices, traditions or hierarchies over time.
      In any way, this experience showed us that a different, non-hierarchical way of Christian fellowship is possible in real life and so much better.

    • thanks for sharing.. what about the spiritual community you’re currently participating in..?

  17. GerardoR

    Amen Henoch. I always imagine what it must feel like for people like you that are well involved in UBF. It reminds me of children who hear neighbers bad mouth their fathers as no good lazy drunks when they see how badly kept their children are. I think those comments are more painful to a child than the resources he may lack 

    • In reading the other comments and response I can say that many people were hurt in UBF. My family included. As Sharon pointed out with Joseph’s story it took a long time for healing to come. As Joe said he doubts it if Joseph never felt any bitterness. Our family were also thinking about leaving UBF. But several people helped us and supported us. Sarah Barry, Pastor Ron W., Dr. John Jun, Ben Toh and countless others. When our daughter also met some conflicts and also wanted to leave UBF, John and I unconditionally supported her and took her in our chapter. Also again Sarah Barry and Pastor Ron W. helped her. We are still in UBF because of the help and support of our top UBF leaders whom we consider as our friends. In God’s time forgiveness and healing came to us toward our own Church leader in our former chapter. But it took a long time. If you read what I posted before in UBFriends it had a tinged of bitterness in it. We’re not bitter anymore because God helped us. We want to remain in UBF because this was the church where we met Jesus personally. This was the church that God used to help me see that God is my true shepherd. My Bible teacher, Christy Toh loved me like her own daughter. Dr. Ben was like my father who teased me because I ate too much pizza. The one to one Bible study answered many of my questions. Yes people, UBF have problems. But that’s what a family is like. Full of problems that needs to be fixed together. But we need to support our brothers and sisters who are struggling by loving them and not criticizing them. Jesus said, ““A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:34,35. I believe God is using this forum to help us support our other brothers and sister who do not have support. Those who have to leave UBF I believe it is God’s calling in their lives. But we are still brothers and sisters in Christ. Any one who want to visit Kyiv, Ukraine please stop by our home and have some borshch.:)

  18. James Kim

    “(contextually appropriate leadership) –We must recognize the fact that different cultures are attached to particular leadership style. In some contexts authoritarian leaders are the expected model, providing security through every person knowing their place in the hierarchy and what is expected of them. In other contexts followers gather around a person who has vision and relational skills. Missional leaders must be aware of these various expectations, and must sensitively and respectfully address the issues in seeking to introduce a concept of shared leadership responsibility.” (Eddie Gibbs, Leadership Next)
    In American context, authoritative leadership style is not well accepted. Team leadership can share the responsibility of the complex matters of the ministry. Thank you for your comments, Ben, Maria. In Chicago, we have team leadership and try to build up consensus. In this way we can avoid many problems and conflicts. Thank you, Maria, about the quote of New Commandment, John 13:34,35. By loving one another with Jesus’ love, we will be disciples of Jesus. This is tremendous challenge for all of us.

    • Thank you for this.  I am sure that the leadership of our Korean missionaries was carried out with good intentions, according to the best practices of leadership as they understood them.  I appreciate what you are saying.

    • James, authoritarian leadership style is always wrong, in all contexts, because Jesus said so.
      When Peter admonished the shepherds to “not lord it over those entrusted to them” he meant all of the shepherds, not those in a certain cultural context. It is not a matter that depends on culture or context. If people in a certain culture “expect” authoritarian leadership you must teach them that it is wrong, not give them what they “demand”. Jesus told us to teach *all* that He has commanded us, not only the things that fit a certain culture. And Jesus commanded us to treat each other as brethren, not lording over people. In Jesus’ time, authoritarian leadership by the Pharisees and teachers of the law was en vogue as well. But Jesus told his disciples they should not follow their bad example (read Mt 23).
      Apart from that, remember that the reform movements in 1976 and 2001 were driven by Korean leaders who were fed up with authoritarian leadership. It is not as if they all expect it and believe it is good.
      You write “By loving one another with Jesus’ love, we will be disciples of Jesus.” But Jesus love is *not* authoritarian. If you lord over others you are not loving with Jesus’ love. If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. People who employ authoritarianism are notholding to Jesus’ teaching, so they are not His disciples. It’s as simple as that.

  19. I think a lot of problems stem from an idolatry of ministry. This is not an exclusively UBF thing (UBF has a propensity towards it yes, but UBF is not doomed to it). Correct me if I am wrong, but we are not called to fight an institution, UBF in this instance. I am tired of the simple reductionist view, UBF= bad, non- UBF= good, or vice verse, UBF= good, non- UBF= bad. There are so many levels, no black and white. We are dealing with dynamic people/relationships. And ultimately (here it come…) it doesn’t matter whether you are in/out of UBF before God, UBF is not going to save you, only Jesus saves. Praise the Lord.

     But let me illustrate an effect of ministry-idolatry (and im not writing this to put anyone down). I got a Christmas card from a child and it said, “I hope you have many one-to-ones, SWS attendants and raise 12 disciples.” I was like, “Child, do you even know what you are talking about? Are those really your words?” From a young age even children start to value numbers as most important, but this has so many negative effects. How can a missionary survive when his value depends on the number of one-to-ones and SWS attendants he has? When his “sheep” aren’t doing “well”, i.e. not attending SWS, daily bread, conferences, meetings, it gets ugly. Just as when you try to take alcohol away from an alcoholic (this is just an analogy, I’m not calling anyone an alcoholic). If a leader receives his value from his ministry then anything that doesn’t go his way in “his” ministry is a threat that must be destroyed. We have heard instances of it right here on this site, some of us have been personally affected by it.

    But the golden commandment is to “Love the Lord your God.” The first commandment is, “You shall have no other gods before me.” The second one is similar, “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the the earth beneath.” Nothing must take the place of God, which is the first place in our hearts. This is a struggle every Christian deals with.

    • Thanks, MJ. Sinners, including Christians, default to self-justification. Non-Christians might default to their net worth. Christians might default to the size of their church, or number of disciples under them. Only the Gospel that justifies us freely, not based on our performance (Rom 4:5), liberates us from our performance trap.

  20. “Friendship is the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words.” ~ George Eliot
    This is hard because we just have to be ourselves without pretense and without any airs about ourselves. In our hierarchical UBF context, it makes it even harder, because we are expected to act deferentially toward some people. I do not mean to be rude or disrespectful, but can we NOT do that? Is that even possible?

    • Ben, it is definitely possible. Over this last year, the Lord has been granting me friendships with those whom I thought would always be “above” me or see me as a “boy” or “life-long sheep.” Rather than having to act deferential, I can be myself and speak face to face as a man would speak to his friend. This was not possible in the past because of the “hierarchical barrier” and other issues, but somehow the Lord worked in our hearts so that we were open to becoming friends with mutual respect. Through these friendships, the Lord is using them to speak into my life in powerful ways though I had begun to arrogantly think that I had nothing to learn from an older “Korean missionary” at this stage of my Christian journey. Perhaps they are also learning things from a cocky whipper-snapper like me. Lord, make us a ministry of genuine Christian friendships.

    • whenever i read Gen. 18, I am shocked. How could God be a friend with Abraham? Abraham left God hanging for 13 years after Ishmael was born. Abraham used God time and time again. God is God and yet he shares his plans with Abraham, his creation. God listens to Abraham and in the end accepts his suggestion of saving Sodom for the sake of 10 people. (Ultimately, God does destroy Sodom, but he still listens to Abraham.)
      If Gen. 18 had been a conversation between a senior misn. and a younger one it would go something along the lines of this (hypothetically):

      junior misn: Please spare the city for the sake of 50 people.
      senior misn: you are a young misn. you don’t know what you are talking about.
      junior misn: please. I’ve been here for several years. I just have a suggestion.
      senior: no you will always be a young misn. humble yourself. if you are not happy with the situation go and start your own chapter, prove yourself. We will not compromise. 
      (as Dr. Ben said, “shape up or ship out”)

      end of discussion….
      hope no one gets offended, but this is just a pattern that I’ve noticed.
      But, i dont think this behaviour reflects God’s heart.


    • Thanks, John. I definitely agree that it is possible. Honestly, I cannot expect some older people to change. But I want to encourage the younger to take courage, change and press the case (unacceptable to some older folk), but to do so gently, prayerfully and respectfully.
      Thanks MJ. Your dialogue is cute! I would have to say that it is quite spot on. But the problem is that sinners can’t see their own blind spots: I think that you should write spiritual parody!

  21. It is possible, but only with certain people. There are leaders who make you feel as though they are the greatest men alive. There are other leaders who make you feel as though you are the greatest man alive. Unfortunately one of my second gent friends, who no longer associates himself with UBF, says that he can’t even talk with his own dad! True friendship is very rare, even within families sadly.  

    But I personally have experienced true friendships in UBF. Friendships, like all relationships take work from both parties. The best Bible teacher I ever had told me, “I want to be your friend.” She was the first Bible teacher to ever say that to me and she meant it. If you stumble across people who don’t want to be your friend, I suggest you shake the dust of your feet and leave them. Of course, do your best to make friends, but if nothing changes after 4 years then leave. But when you find someone willing to be your friend hold on to them and treasure that friendship. “Friendship is one soul living in two bodies.” You are not going to have that with everyone, but 3 or 4 would be nice:). 

  22. Lord, may you continue to make beautiful things out of us and our Christian friendships!

    Random, I know.