My Letter to Joe-2005

Dear Joe-2005,

This is my response to your report “How to Read and Study the Bible” which you gave at our 2005 summer conference. Please accept this as constructive criticism from an informed source. I know a great deal about you, more than you realize. And my existence and prosperity depend on you.

When you said those things in your report, you spoke with an air of certainty and conviction. You tried to sound as though you were declaring absolute truth directly from God’s mouth. Face it: those declarations were applause lines. To that audience, they made your message “powerful.” But none of them are absolutes. For each of those statements, an informed reader of the Bible could give counterexamples. Real life and the Bible are more complicated than you suggest.

Here’s something I’ve noticed about you, Joe-2005. Whenever you give a message, you talk about principles. You seem to think that the Christian life is about identifying biblical principles and mixing them together in just the right proportions. Don’t get me wrong. The Bible does contain principles. But a principle-based approach to Scripture grows tiresome and stale, because that’s not how people really think. The human mind is a processor of stories. That’s why most of the Bible is written as narrative. The Pentateuch is not a list of laws; it’s a story of how Israel was given the law, and that story is more important than the laws themselves.

I could go through your message and critique all your principles, but I won’t. Instead I will make some general observations about story.

Observation #1: Your message affirms your community’s story.

Why did the people in your audience like your message? Was it because you got your principles just right? Of course not. As they listened, they were reading between the lines. What they heard was a well educated American man validating and promoting a story that is very dear to them, a story for which they sacrificed their lives.

All your messages have this same basic quality. They are built on the story that’s told again and again at through UBF messages, testimonies and mission reports. The story is based on actual events, but it’s a selective and subjective shaping of those events. To longtime UBF members, that story sounds beautiful and exciting. It evokes powerful memories and makes them feel privileged to be a part of it. They see it as the great story of their lives, and they long to see others adopt the story and live in it too.

In a nutshell, the story goes like this. In the early 1960’s, God began a great work in South Korea. A young female American missionary left her missionary compound and lived among the poor. Together with a young Korean pastor, they taught the Bible to university students. Instead of relying on outside funds, the movement became independent and self-supporting. Students overcame their “beggar mentality” and sacrificed everything to support this work. In absolute obedience to Jesus’ world mission command, they went overseas to preach the gospel. God blessed all their sacrifice, hard work, simple faith, etc. and transformed Korea from a nation that receives outside help to a nation that sends missionaries throughout the world. Unlike other churches and movements, this group raises highly committed disciples who are extremely disciplined in Bible study and prayer. They marry by faith, support themselves on the mission field, excel in their studies and become leading doctors, engineers, diplomats and professors. Although they seem highly intelligent, their success is not due to their intelligence but to their self-denial, their boldness in proclaiming the gospel, their absolute obedience and their uncomplicated, childlike faith. Their unique disciplines (Daily Bread, testimony writing, obedience training, marriage by faith, etc.) and their pure, inductive approach to Bible study are extremely potent, and other churches could learn a great deal from them. As they faithfully continue in this special calling, God will use them to sent thousands more missionaries and raise countless disciples on university campuses throughout the world. And this is going to transform the nations. For example, it will turn the United States from corruption to its former glory as a nation of people who trust in God. As disciples are raised and missionaries are sent out, each nation will become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

This was the story told by Samuel Lee. When he spoke, he told stories that made people smile. Those stories were repeated over and over and became community folklore. The details of his stories were not always factual. He often stretched the truth to make his points. But people didn’t mind because, even if the details weren’t true, those stories supported the larger community that they believed. This, I think, is a key reason why the disciples he raised are so strongly committed. People won’t sacrifice their lives for a principle. But they will give anything to support a person whom they love and to advance a story that deeply inspires them.

And this, Joe-2005, is why you get invited to speak so often: because you affirm the community story and enhance its credibility. You are a feather in their cap. You are an anomaly, a white North American with a Ph.D. from Harvard who has remained in this Korean-led church to live within its story and advance it. Within UBF, you are a mythical hero who has done great things. Those stories don’t really reflect who you are and how you live. But you aren’t willing to reveal your true self yet. You still want to enjoy that recognition and acceptance.

Observation #2: That community story cannot explain the Bible.

When I say that your church’s members are living in a story, I’m not saying that they are deluded. They are just doing what human beings do. Every person has a story, and every community has a story. Those stories get shaped and revised over time. Stories are the means by which people make sense of their lives. Stories are the stuff of human culture.

The Bible is also a collection of stories about specific people in specific times. The Old Testament is about Israel and the Jews. The New Testament is about Jesus, the apostles and the Church. But taken together, they declare the Great Story, the metanarrative that tells all people what life is all about. It explains how we came to our present state, and it reveals where the world is headed. Protestants tend to describe this story into four great acts: Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration. Redemption was achieved through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Now we are living in the time of Restoration. It is the age of the Church and the Holy Spirit, bearing witness to Jesus until he returns to fully unveil his kingdom. To be a Christian is to accept that Great Story as true and to live within its context. Christian communities must maintain their own stories, but they need to understand how those stories fit into the Great Story. Their need to keep putting that Great Story in the front and center and make their own stories subservient to it.

In your approach to the Bible, Joe-2005, you haven’t been doing this. Here is a revealing quote from your message: “It is when we study the Bible within the context of our own purpose and mission that the application becomes relevant and the word of God really comes alive” [italics yours]. You are resting on your local community story and confusing it with the Great Story. When you read the Bible, you instinctively focus on elements that support your community’s activities and values. All the elements that don’t fit your paradigm are glossed over; your eyes don’t see them anymore.

You read into the Bible your community’s categories. Your community has a category called “Bible teacher.” This is an idealized person who finds sheep and engages in one-to-one Bible study, which means sitting down with a sheep, reading short passages of Scripture, and discussing those passages by responding to questions typed on a sheet of paper. That activity may work well in certain contexts. But none of the characters in the Bible did that. You said that Joseph, Moses, Samuel, David, the prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus and the apostles were all Bible teachers. Those men engaged the word of God and taught others. But none of them resembled your community’s category of Bible teacher. If you could travel back in time and ask them, “What is your mission?” none of them would have said, “I study the Bible with sheep and help them to do what the Bible teaches.” They couldn’t think in your terms. The Bible as you know it didn’t exist at that time. Bible teacher is your category, not theirs. Please hear me out. I’m not saying that becoming a Bible teacher is wrong. I’m saying that when your church members hear “Bible teacher,” they have a specific concept in mind. And when you state that characters in the Bible were Bible teachers, you treat that community concept as a divinely inspired principle that work for all people at all times. You state that with such conviction and certainty, even though there is not a single example of anyone in the Bible who fits your image of a Bible teacher.

And you insert into the Bible your community’s language. Here is another quote from your message: “Jesus was not merely a teacher; he was also a trainer.” That statement would be okay if you understood training as what Jesus did with his apostles. But that’s not how your church members use that word. For them, training is a loaded term. It includes all the methods that Samuel Lee used to fashion disciples, first in Korea and then in the United States. Whether you realize it or not, you are implicitly lumping together all those practices that your church members think of as training and then suggesting that Jesus did it all. But Jesus didn’t do many of those things. Is there any record of Jesus or the apostles acting as matchmakers and arranging marriages for anyone in the church? No, there isn’t. Matchmaking is not found in the New Testament. Nor is testimony writing, testimony sharing, and so on. When you state with conviction that Jesus was a trainer, you plant the idea that your church is doing exactly what Jesus did. You equate things that are not equal. Your message is full of sloppy language that results from sloppy thinking.

This is what you have done. You have canonized your community’s story and are reading the Bible in light of that story. It’s a provincial approach to Scripture that resonates with members of your church but sounds strange to outsiders. How would your message be received by Christians outside of UBF? They would sense that it is infused with the values of a small, insular community that they do not understand. They would sense that you think your community’s story is superior to theirs. You have gotten so wrapped up in your community’s story that you no longer critique it.

You’ve shrunk the Great Story into a handbook for how to be a successful campus evangelist. Nothing in the Bible surprises you anymore. Nothing in the Bible disturbs you anymore. You’ve stopped wrestling with fundamental questions because you’re convinced that you’ve got the big picture figured out.

How do you read those passages about the military conquest of Canaan? You treat them as allegories for living a victorious Christian life and conquering the fallen world with the gospel. Once upon a time, you didn’t know what to make of those passages. You were horrified that God’s people were apparently being commanded to engage in ethnic cleansing and genocide. You had no idea how to reconcile the cruelties of the Old Testament with the gentle image of Jesus and the apostles. For two thousand years, Christians have tried various ways to address these and other problematic aspects of Scripture, and they haven’t been able to agree on any single approach. In so many respects, the Bible remains enigmatic and elusive. But you’ve taken those difficult aspects of the Bible and allegorized and spiritualized them away. You’ve stopped asking tough questions about the Bible because others have suggested to you that raising those questions could weaken your faith and distract you from your mission.

In your allegorical reading of the Old Testament, you place yourself and your group and the Church in the position of God’s chosen people and identify the outsiders as Canaanites. Those are dangerous waters, Joe-2005, and you don’t have the experience or maturity to navigate them properly. Isn’t that the essence of what the Pharisees were doing? Isn’t that the fatal mistake of Constantine which eventually led to Crusades, colonialism, and missionary triumphalism?

Ideas have consequences in real life. Those ideas about how to approach the Bible are influencing you more than you realize.

Your approach affects how you relate to the people in your life. Based on your reading of the Old Testament, you’ve concluded that the ideal Christian is a courageous tough guy who always soldiers on, staying on task even if some people get hurt along the way. Broken relationships have become acceptable losses along the road to victory. You expect people in your fellowship to stay in line and keep marching no matter what. You treat them as fellow soldiers and coworkers but not as friends.

Your approach makes it hard for you to relate to other Christians. You’ve invested so much in your community’s story that you can’t understand people whose stories are different. Do their stories have the same validity as yours? Does yours supersede and override theirs? Those are tough questions, and you don’t know how to process them. For now, you avoid those people and the questions they raise.

And your approach shapes how you relate to God. You read promises into Scripture that aren’t really there. You think God has been saying to you, “Joe-2005, if you just stop being a wimp and live as a one-to-one Bible teacher and help me make America into a kingdom of priests and holy nation, then I will bring you into the promised land and make you prosper.” You assume that all the problems in your life stem from the fact that God is not pleased with you, because you’re failing to live out that idealized mission of your community’s story.

Your present approach to the Bible isn’t categorically wrong. It did help you for a while. But you’ve gotten stuck in this approach and, as a result, you’ve stopped growing. You’ve locked up Scripture into a box and aren’t experiencing its creative power. It’s been a long, long time since your reading of the Bible challenged your fundamental understanding of God and the gospel. That, my friend, needs to change.


  1. Thanks, Joe. You have articulated clearly what I have been attempting to address in bits and pieces over the past half a dozen years or so while experiencing varying degrees of displeasure and marginalization in order to “minimize my influence.”

    I’m thinking that some who have lived in the UBF story for many decades will find what you wrote hard to understand, swallow and digest. More than that, they may become defensive and find it offensive and critical. Most of all, likely none of those to whom this may apply will read this or respond in a meaningful way. I hope that I am wrong.

    Nonetheless, of the 3 that remain–faith, hope, and love–the greatest of these is love (1 Cor 13:13).

    • Joe Schafer

      Thanks Ben. When I wrote this, I really tried to be honest and charitable. If someone finds it offensive, I hope they will respond and tell me why. I am ready and willing to listen.

      I think Joe-2005 would have found it hard to swallow for one reason: It identifies the UBF community story as a subjective story, not as absolute objective truth.

  2. I do think that some might find your well written commentary of UBF’s story since 1960 offensive.

    Though you are not doing so at all, your UBF story will be perceived as invalidating or minimizing or cheapening their love for Jesus, their costly decisions, and their sacrifice for the sake of world campus mission, all of which are real and tangible and tearful to them.

    • Joe Schafer

      This article was partly motivated by a chapter in the book Reading the Clouds by Anthony Gittins, one of the readings for John Armstrong’s cohort. Gittins ( a Catholic priest and anthropologist) wrote about the importance of story. Every faith community needs to tell a story about itself. But that story is dynamic and cannot be frozen in time. It must be allowed to evolve as new members join the community. One generation cannot control the narrative because the story doesn’t belong to them; it belongs to God. The story must continually be handed off to others who are given freedom to reshape it according to their own understanding. And Gittins repeatedly says that if the community story is self-aggrandizing and self-indulgent, it won’t last very long.

      “Humanity has a remarkable capacity to translate across languages and cultures, so we should be able to ensure that a range of stories are gathered and transmitted from one community to another. Nevertheless, this must be done in an appropriate manner, for if our stories are self-indulgent they will be of no more significance than a whimsical butterfly collection; attractive and dazzling perhaps, but not particularly informative, and certainly not bearing wisdom for new generations.” (Gittins, pp 62-63)

      I don’t want to cheapen anything that God or people have done. My hope is that the community will honestly examine its story and revise it if it seems too self-indulgent, to increase the chance that it will survive and instruct future generations.

  3. A great article, Joe! When I translated SL at a conference he said that UBF is like the Jesuit order. I returned to Russia and bought a book about Jesuits and read it through. I found out that a disciple of Jesuits, named Pascal, eventually wrote a satire book about them and actually killed the order in France and Europe. I think that the latest two articles by a Harvard Ph.D. will kill UBF as it is, at least in the hearts of thoughtful people, if UBF is not going to change. I see that Joe-2005 is already dead in that sense.

    • Joe Schafer

      Thanks, Vitaly. I do not regard my two articles as satire. I tried to remove all elements of sarcasm and I wrote as plainly as I could. And I assure you that it is not my intention to kill or destroy anything, but merely to understand and explain to others what has happened in my life. Whatever God has been doing in UBF, that work will survive; it cannot be stopped by my puny, insignificant writings. As Gamaliel said in Acts 5:38-39, “For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

    • Thank you, Joe. I didn’t mean that your articles have anything of satire or sarcasm in them, not at all; but it was Pascal who wrote a satire book. I know you have no intention to kill or destroy. But your articles are really helpful to understand what UBF is, at least for me. And about God’s work, the words of Gamaliel are not an absolute truth. The reality is that there are many sects and cults and even religions which have nothing to do with God’s work and still God doesn’t destroy them. More than that, Jesus promised, that they will be many in the last days, “For many will come in my name…”. As far as I understand God is not going to destroy false prophets and their organisations until Jesus comes. So it is about one’s choice, “They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie…” (2Thes.2:10,11). Everyone has a choice: to believe the truth or to believe a lie, to decide before God about to be in this or in that organisation or church. I mean that your articles help to see what is true, come closer to the truth of the Bible and believe the truth. And I don’t think that you are trying to oppose “whatever God may be doing in UBF” with your “puny, insignificant writings” :) May be you are in an opposition to whatever God may not be doing in your life and in the life of others in UBF.

    • I agree with Vitaliy that we should be careful with the Gamaliel argument. Joe mentioned the idea that “if a story is self-aggrandizing and self-indulgent, it won’t last very long”. In the case of the Nazis who dreamed of the “1000-Year Empire”, their dream indeed lasted only a decade. But other stories lasted much longer, e.g. the background stories of many age-old religions or well-established cults. Therefore I think this statement is only true from God’s point of view for whom thousand years can be one day, but not from a human point of view. If we see a movement that seems to be successful for decades or even centuries, it may be flawed anyway, and its success should not be an indicator for us to believe it must be right. The “Gamaliel argument” has often been used to legitimate questionable movements and to silence criticism (see also and

    • Joe Schafer

      Vitaly and Chris, you make good points. I mentioned Gamaliel only to reassure any people who may disagree with me. If they are truly carrying out a divinely ordained plan, my insignificant words cannot stop them.

  4. Gerardo R

    Very powerful article Joe. Definitely brought up many UBF trends I have noticed myself.

    I think many of these reinterpretations that go on in UBF circles probably don’t start as conscious decisions. UBFers just seem to have a strong affinity for using certain theological words very broadly. Eventually, people end up associating the word with the more frequent practice. A good example of this is DAILY BREAD. Why cant it just be called daily devotionals?

    One component that alarms me slightly is when I see new students go through a transformation in which they begin to sound like a traditional UBFer in their prayer. For instance, when they pray in the very sporadically affirmative and deep way “and I pray Father, that we may learn to DEPEND ON YOU! Oooonly BY YOUR GRACE!”
    I am not sure why this is troubling to me since people are simply modeling the prayer like of their role models, pastors, or mentors.

    • Joe Schafer

      Thanks, Gerardo. What you noticed in the new students was entirely understandable. They were being assimilated into the community and changing to accommodate it. In my opinion, that’s okay, as long as the community is also willing to change to accommodate them.

  5. I am literally in tears after reading this. Not because what I have found in my evaluations of UBF have got articulated so well, but I love Joe-2005. I know I love him, I want to hug him and say “Brother, I love you”, but somehow I can’t.

    • Joe Schafer

      Thanks. I feel a close kinship with you as well.

  6. Thank you so much for this honest and insightful analysis, and the idea for this time travel experiment, Joe. Some already wrote they fear that it may hurt people. Yes, the truth can be hurtful. Challenging delusions is never an easy thing to do. But if we want to live the truth, if we want to live in the light of the day, we must allow that to happen (1Thes 5:5-6). Jesus and the prophets shattered many delusions; they did not just say “peace, peace” when the people were stuck in wrong beliefs and delusions. On the other hand, Jesus does not simply comdemn us if we have delusions, or shatters our ideas so completely that we become nihilits. We are allowed to learn every day, to repent every day, to stand corrected every day. I think that’s real spiritual growth, not rigid adherence to a story you once believed was true and explaining everything.

    Your observation about the power of stories in our minds is a very important explanation, and it seems has got too little attention. You’re the first one who pointed it out so clearly, and I’m glad you did so.

    Just yesterday I watched documentation about Jackie Kennedy that mentioned how Jackie built her life around the story of Camelot. She seemed to believe that her husband was like King Arthur, and explained everything she experienced on the background of that story. This story and the projection on her life probably gave her strength when she experienced many bitter and tragic things. But there are also far more dangerous delusions. Actually, the whole ideologies of the Nazis and Bolsheviks and North Korea are also built on powerful stories, in which the current situation of the people was put in perspective to history, and which gave them a bright and glorious outlook on the future, a “vision”. People love such stories, and will give their lives when they only have a story to believe in. And when they have leaders whom they can follow and comrades with whom they can fight with, and who both constantly reinforce their belief in the story.

    I think the main purpose of the large conferences was to reinforce belief in that UBF story, not in the story of Jesus. I remember how I was pressured hard to attend conferences overseas, when I could not understand why we needed to waste time and money for such journeys. But after attending these conferences, everybody’s belief in the story was strengthened tremendously, not only by the powerful messages of people like Joe-2005, but just by the fact that you met so many other people, including PhDs and professors who fervently believed that story, and who all prayed together based on that story. So many people and prayers couldn’t just be wrong, you believed. That’s why, whenever somebody asks difficult questions, the leaders tell them to postpone the discussion until after the next conference and concentrate on the conference preparation for now. They know that after attending the conference, the disbeliever would forget all doubts because the reinforced glorious UBF story overrides such qualms easily.

    Do I want to say that everything Joe-2005 and many UBFers believe is wrong and that all of their motives are questionable? Absolutely not. I believe there are elements in that story which are true and good, and that there are motives in their hearts which are true and good. But the myths and wrong beliefs must be clearly revealed and removed so that the truly Godly elements and untainted motives buried under them can appear and shine again.

    • Joe Schafer

      Chris, thank you. In the early days of UBF in the United States, there was a great sense of excitement. Back then, the story of UBF was being written in real time. There were problems in the ministry, of course. People were making lots of mistakes. Yet we sensed that God was doing something amazing, and we felt privileged to be part of it. But I think that somewhere along the way, that community story got frozen in a particular place and time. As more Americans like me entered the scene, the community story didn’t explain the facts of our lives. But the storytellers didn’t want their story to be changed or discredited. They didn’t pay close attention to our stories and imposed their story on us. They wanted us to have exactly the same experiences that they had, which was understandable but impossible. As a result, some of us Americans became confused about our identities. We were trying our best to live within someone else’s story, and over time it became more and more untenable.

    • Yes, Chris, I agree about the conferences. I think also that an idea is easier planted into the hearts and minds of young people, especially students. While at school they are dependant on their families and parents. But when in a university they are independant but still very young. And they can easily accept an idea, a vision or “spiritual parents”. And I agree with Joe that the idea of UBF got frozen. It is limited by age of those who can follow it, and by nationality and culture. I see that after more than 20 years of UBF in Russia there are now about 30+/- Russians and 50+/- Korean missionaries in Russia. And Russians leave or kicked out when they overgrow the idea of UBF. There is no future for this idea in Russia. And to continuously fish new sheep and “create a new history” in order to have SWS attendants numbers is not an easy task. And these 20 years have created not a very good history of UBF which is easily seen by students through Internet and so even newcomers (who haven’t overgrown the idea of UBF) leave UBF. And when I look at missionaries in Russia I feel compassion for they are slaves of the idea who can not get free. They are destined to labour for nothing though they are really sacrificial.

    • And one more thing. The idea is planted through daily and weekly UBF activities, such as “daily bread” and testimony writing and many “prayer meetings”. Even “message preparation” is a process of implanting the idea. No one “is ready to deliver the message” until he have written it 4-5 times and has understood “the chemistry” of the passage. In Russian there is an absolute rule: every soldier must be kept busy from early morning till late at night every day. It is necessary so that no soldier would start thinking about his mum, his home, etc. UBF very systematically keeps UBF “soldiers” busy (serving Jesus and feeding sheep) so that often there is almost no time for personal prayer, meditating, thinking even about what you are doing. They say, “just keep doing, just obey, take up your cross of mission, inherit” the UBF idea.

  7. Thanks, Gerardo, Chris, Vitaly, AbNial, for the great comments and observations. Thanks, Joe, for the spark that initiated this.

    As mentioned, our missionaries have literally “given their lives” for Jesus and their UBF mission. Surely, God will commend and reward them. Yet, their inability to let go of their own story and allow for a new story and a new generation is both understandable and stifling. Like Nicodemus, it may be too hard to start over and be born again (Jn 3:4) after travelling 3 to 5 decades in the same story.

    As a result, UBF has become a predominantly nationalistic movement where the main proponents and beneficiaries are the missionaries, and the indigenous leaders who have embraced their story without question or objection. I love their passion, but not their inflexibility, which has been resulting in the law of diminishing returns.

    All those who want to find their own stories of God’s love and grace in Christ (in addition to the 50 year UBF story) have been the main people who comment here.

  8. Joe Schafer

    I do understand that when you mess with people’s narratives, they can get upset. When someone challenges my assumptions about myself, I get upset too. We can love our stories more than life itself. But followers of Jesus ought to be willing to let go of those narratives and allow God to defend, purify and reshape. I think that’s part of what Jesus meant when he said, “If anyone would come after me…”

  9. Joe Schafer

    I am reminded of Stephen’s speech in Acts 7. I never understood why the members of the Sanhedrin became so angry. Now I think it’s because Stephen, a Grecian Jew, directly challenged the story of the Hebraic Jews that the Jerusalem temple was the only place where God met people. The point of Stephen’s speech was that God doesn’t live in a temple built by human hands — never did, never will. Stephen recalled that all throughout the OT, God met with people whenever and wherever he chose: in Haran, Egypt, Midian, Sinai, etc. While Stephen acknowledged the chosenness of the Jerusalem Jews, he challenged their aggrandized view of themselves as the sole mediators of God’s work on earth. That was a hard pill for them to swallow, and understandably so.

    • Joe, first of all, I too am rather speechless for this heartful and soulful “time-travel” dialogue! I agree with all the thoughts so far here. Your letter to Joe-2005 is more than charitable. I think that Joe-2005 accepted your letter :)

      I too was confused as to why Stephen’s speech caused such anger (not just discomfort, but full-on wrath!). For many years I also could not understand why some things Jesus did causes SUCH anger. And I could not understand why God was so angry at certain events (such as Moses’ one small act that prevented him from entering the promised land).

      Mainly, it was because a big part of my life story (from UBF and from my life experience) was: no emotion. I hated anger and didn’t want to even understand anger. To be angry, to me, was to sin. But even God became angry and there is much to learn from such emotion.

      I have learned that the Jews lived in their “Abraham story” and their “law story”. Jesus brought the “redemptive love story” and the “grace story”, but those things deeply angered the Jews when the new stories had the power to give them full life. Jesus’ stories were like new wine.

  10. It surely does seem like messing with one’s own story feels like an invalidation of their entire Christian life. Yet, isn’t this God’s grace to us to help us to experience him newly and in a deeper way?

    Recently, I have been speaking freely and openly about true freedom in Christ (Jn 8:32; 2 Cor 3:17; Gal 5:1), about rest (Mt 11:28-30), and about authoritarianism Mt 20:25-27; Mk 10:42-44). Then an older missionary was almost in tears and commented how much he has sacrificed for the sake of UBF world campus mission. His tears were heart felt. He felt as though I was invalidating his entire life as a UBF missionary, even though I was just speaking in general terms about my own life journey.

    On another occasion, another younger missionary also reacted somewhat angrily because of my discourse of tree freedom, which distinguishes Christianity from all other religions.

    Isn’t it true that some missionaries, when they feel challenged, they respond, “If you don’t like it, you can leave UBF”? Don’t they say this even to leaders who have committed themselves to the ministry for years?

    As often stated already, for some leaders, isn’t UBF’s core idol/core identity been herself, her story, her mission?

    • Ben,

      “Isn’t it true that some missionaries, when they feel challenged, they respond, “If you don’t like it, you can leave UBF”?”

      Yes, this is true. All these “time travel” dialogues have reminded me of things that were said and done recently. To validate your question above: Before I left UBF, I heard a couple senior UBF leaders, on at least three different occasions during my visits to conferences, complain about Joe S. saying: “Joe S. thinks he knows all about Christian ministry, if so, that’s fine. He should just leave and go do ministry somewhere else.”

      Ben, I know similar things must have been said about you as well. I commend both of you for staying and keeping up the fight, for it is truly a fight to even have one honest dialogue with most directors in UBF. I heard similar things said about dozens of my friends who left the ministry over the past two decades. This is a big part of my resigning in protest last year. I couldn’t take it any more. I thought the old song says in America “seldom is heard a discouraging word”!? I heard so many disparaging comments at leaders’ meetings that I just couldn’t take it any more. If someone thinks we are “bashing” here, just attend a leaders’ meeting in UBF; you’ll hear real bashing.

      I think the missionaries who responded with “tears” should remember that not a single word on this blog or on my blog invalidates what has been done. I count all the sacrifice in UBF as part of God’s sovereignty. For example, I appreciate the discipline and study I had in the past. And another example, I will never support “marriage by faith” now that I’m being transformed, but my marriage is not invalid just because we accepted the “marriage by faith” process.

      My message is simply this: if you want the sacrifice of the past to be meaningful, you’re going to have to let the Spirit transform you in the present. The main reason past sacrifice would become invalid would be if you cling to it and start living in the past story, missing the new story God is writing right before your eyes!

  11. Ben, sadly some UBF people really seem to think like that. I find it not only sad, but also strange, because UBF people are actually people who once in their life already came to a point where they invalidated their entire former life. So in principle, it should be possible for them to make the same step again. They all shared their life testimonies, admitting that all they did before was null and void, and they even took pride in sneering at ther former life. In fact they once were happy to leave that old garbage behind. But now, why is it suddenly so difficult for them to let go of the old idolized self and rid themselves of all the bad practices and ideas and self-righteousness? Wouldn’t it be refreshing and liberating to get rid of all this garbage? Even if you followed wrong ideas for decades, would you really “invalidate your entire life”? What are these decades compared to eternity? What about the sinner who confessed next to Jesus on the cross? Also, isn’t spiritual growth all about recogizing the fact that you are nothing and God is everything, recognizing the amount of his grace? The more you feel unworthy, the larger is the grace. The more you feel righteous, the less you need God’s grace. I want to live in God’s grace, not in my self-righteousness.

  12. Joe Schafer

    Chris, you make some good points. Human life is a journey, and all parts of it are meaningful. Becoming a Christian does not invalidate or wipe out anyone’s pre-conversion life. We need to make sense of the former life, not sneer at it. As time goes on, we may have additional conversion experiences, but they do not invalidate what happened before. After giving three decades of my life serving in my church, I have concluded that in many ways the present course of UBF is unsustainable and has to change. But it doesn’t nullify or invalidate everything I did.

    I hope you were exaggerating when you said, “isn’t spiritual growth all about recogizing the fact that you are nothing and God is everything…” We are sinners, but we are not worthless. All people, no matter what they are doing, are loved by God. We always bear the image of God and have God-given value and dignity.

  13. Joe, it’s true, “we are nothing and God is everything” can easily be misunderstood as if our life and individuality has no meaning before God. It was not meant like that. I meant it in the same way as Luther when he once said “we are beggar’s, that’s true”. Our righteousness and our achievements are nothing in front of God. We look like beggars with them. But he loves us not because of these things. He loves us just because he loves us, because who we are, because he created us.

  14. James Kim

    This video of Anthony Gittins is very powerful witness and relevant to Joe’s article. His message is about discipleship and evangelization. Even though it is a little bit long, I really liked his message.

  15. James Kim

    Brian, you put me on the spot. I like Joe’s article very much. I agree with him most of time. One thing I want to mention is that God called Sarah Barry and Samuel Lee and many others and used them for his good purpose. Because God called them and used them, God gets all the credit, not men. God called each one of us whether we are in or out of UBF. Because God called us and is still using us in many different ways, God gets all the credit, not us. All the glory to Him!

    • Because God loves me, I am happy and will love other people. I don’t want to be used by God. I am tired of being used by people. I am done with calling others to be used. I don’t trust someone who claims to be called by God.

    • James, i appreciate your comments.

      Since Brian already did put you “on the spot” :) i would be very much interested to hear what specifically you liked about Joe’s article and where you disagree and why.

  16. Brian, isn’t your statement “I don’t want to be used by God” a little bit extreme?

    I agree with you that being used by people is terrible and dehumanizing and (at least according to my limited knowledge) biblically unjustifiable. However, one could make a biblical case for God using people (and the people whom God uses, either “engage” in it willfully are even against their will).

    God, is on an infinitely higher dimension/level compared to myself. If he wants to use me i personally want to be in it willfully. Isn’t the beauty and the wonder of this that “being used by God” and having a loving, personal, satisfying relationship with God are not mutually exclusive at all? In the contrary, don’t they go hand in hand if i willfully surrender to Him using me?

    • Henoch, if you search Scripture, you will only find one reference to God “using” a person specifically, Hosea 12:13. (And I only find this word “used” in the NIV translation). So the meaning in Hosea is not to teach that God uses people, especially if you turn the page and read chapter 13. God does not enjoy using people to lead His people. God does not want kings ruling over His people (Hosea 13:10-11).

      I’ve not found any other reference to God “using” a person (though there are dozens and dozens of references to “things” being used.) If you find a reference, would you share it here? Is there any Scripture that specifically says God used some person?

      I believe that the idea of “being used by God” is another part of the delusion we are encountering in the end times. It is our own human idea that God will use people. 2 Thessalonians 2:8-17 mentions a “powerful delusion”. I am considering an article on my blog soon where I enumerate the aspects of this delusion that I see has fallen on a lot of Christendom in the past few centuries.

      There are concepts taught by Scripture that are close to the idea of “being used by God”, such as in 2 Timothy 2:21, “an instrument for noble purposes” and “useful to the Master”. But I believe these are entirely different from God using people. I no longer can bear to hear a prayer like “use me God”. The prayer in line with Scripture would be “love me God” or “purify me so that I may do your will”.

      I contend that people are not to be considered resources to be used, but as human beings who together are being built into a spiritual house (as in 1 Peter 2:1-6. My point here is that we really need to be careful to distinguish between inanimate resources that are used to make something, and living human beings who may become useful instruments in God’s hands. For too long I lived in the story of being just another resource in a religious machine.

      So no, I will never again say that I want to be used by God to make something.

    • Brian, i agree with a lot of what you say. But at times, i have to admit that the choice of your words makes me feel perplexed…

      I personally find the argument “I couldn’t find the word ‘used’ in the bible in reference to ‘God using people’ and therefore it is not biblical” not convincing at all. The counter-argument has been used many times and it seems to me it still stands true: i don’t need to find the EXACT word in the bible to be convinced that a concept is biblical. Trinity is no where mentioned in the bible but we both believe in a God in three persons, don’t we.

      Furthermore, you yourself mentioned the reference in 2 Timothy 2:21. This verse even mentions that we are called to do good works, which is in direct connection with ‘being useful to God’. Do we have to argue here about terminology, saying that a person who is ‘useful to God’ is not being used by God?
      When humans are referred to as vessels/instruments in the bible (Acts 9:15, Romans 9:21) doesn’t it logically imply that we are being used by God? And what about God using people who are not even interested in obeying him (Herod, Pilate and the like)? Didn’t God use the Assyrians and the Babylonians to judge unfaithful Israel?

      Yes, i find it offensive if humans are used by other humans. But what is offensive about a benevolent, just, glorious and loving God who chooses to use humans to accomplish his infinitely good will?

      You are indeed right in saying that God treats us with love, respect and dignity. But isn’t this the miracle of His grace rather than anything we can expect or even demand from a perfectly holy God?

      As with many things, i see the concept of ‘being used by God’ as one facet and one aspect of the complexity that is God’s relationship to us. But i certainly do not agree with your assessment at all, that the concept of ‘being used by God’ is an end-time delusion.

    • Henoch,

      It’s fine to disagree; it won’t affect your salvation :)

      Just to clariy: my logic is not quite as you describe. I am asking the question: Where do we find the teaching that God uses people?

      If I ask the question, where do we find the teaching that God is 3 Persons in one (trinity), we can answer. But I find it difficult and nearly impossible to find the teaching “God uses people”.

      When I say “uses people”, I am referring to the idea that people are chess pieces that God simply moves around trying to “win the victory”. I don’t find that teaching in the Bible.

      I do find the “instrument” teaching, as you point out (correctly in my mind). I don’t think we are pieces in a chess game nor are we puppets with God inside just moving our hands and feet. (By the way these teachings are what I hear in James’ comments above and from other Christians these days).

      What I see in the Bible is a picture of God living inside people and working with them in a relationship to transform their lives and to express God’s love to other people.

    • Henoch,

      You asked “Didn’t God use the Assyrians and the Babylonians to judge unfaithful Israel?”

      Great question! Does God use individuals and/or communities of people? (Note this is not rhetorical and I really would like to hear thoughts on this either way.) I certainly can see that God “does” something with both individuals and communities, but the word “use” just irks me. Isn’t there a better, more Scriptural word?

  17. Thanks, Brian, Henoch, for this discussion on being “used by God.” I do agree with both your comments and explanations.

    For sure, we are instruments, through whom God accomplishes his purposes, regardless of whether we are Paul or Pharaoh. As his servants, when God “uses” us for his eternal purposes, it is with our whole-hearted willingness, involvement, and consent (Phil 2:12-13).

    I see that there are at least 3 ways some UBF people communicate that they are being “used by God.”

    1) It communicates a subtle air of superiority or elitism or nationalism or imperialism, as though those “used by God” have some extra human clout.

    2) It becomes an excuse not to address or own up to mistakes and errors that were made or said or done. It is a wonderful way to escape being accountable because “God used us anyway!”

    3) “Used by God” becomes a purely external measure of fruitfulness: compliance to UBF traditions and expectations, and the number of “sheep,” 1:1 Bible studies, SWS attendants, disciples raised, missionaries sent out, house churches established, etc.

    Thus, I think I understand why Brian is just “sick” of the term “used by God.” Do correct me if I am wrong, Brian.

    Likely, those who like to say or think that they are “used by God” have no idea that they are communicating the 3 subtle “offensive” ideas above. If they do, they should own up to it and say so. But then again, since “God used them” they have the “backing of God” and do not have to say anything to explain themselves to the less enlightened.

    These are simply my subjective observations, for which I wish to stand to be corrected.

    • Brian and Ben, thanks for your interesting comments.

      Brian, if Ben’s observations are true for you (and since all of us share a similar experiences due to our church background i suspect it resounds with you), i understand where you aversion against the concept “God using people” comes from. However, with this being said, i am not willing yet to give up my ground here. :)

      Can you name me a bible passage that explicitly teaches that God is one and yet three persons at the same time? I am not aware of such a passage. Rather, doesn’t it only become clear if you look at the sum of biblical teaching? Isn’t the doctrine of the Trinity one of the earliest and most crucial accomplishments of systematic theology (if you will)?

      It is evident in Scripture that God calls people; he shapes, changes (and trains) people either directly or indirectly; at times he gives them instructions to the minutest detail; at times God expects his servants to do things, which by almost every human standard could be considered undignified; and even if people do NOT obey God, at the end of the day, they end up fulfilling the purposes of God;
      You asked, whether we can use another term? How about this: God makes both, individuals as well as communities, serve His infinitely good will, whether they like it and obey God or not. But isn’t that just another way of saying “God uses people”?

      I think there are two points i want to make here:

      First, i believe that an over-emphasis on a God who ‘only loves us, treats us with dignity, relates to us as Father’ at the cost of rejecting the concept of a God who uses us as his instruments, is in fact belittling the sovereignty of God. Again, i am arguing for a balanced view when it comes to our relationship to God. Also, it is precisely for the very reason that God’s sovereignty, holiness and greatness are beyond anything I can imagine, that make his love to me shine brighter and his grace and his gospel sweeter.

      Second, just because there are people who abuse or misunderstand the term “God uses people”, does it mean that we have to discard a whole biblical concept? Shouldn’t it give us all the more reason to use it in the right way and to clarify what we mean by that and what not? Rejecting this term (or even worse the associated, biblical notion attached to it) would mean that a great part of orthodox Christian, who believe in this concept, got it entirely wrong.

    • Ben, you are absolutely right:

      If we understand correctly what it means that God uses people, it is most foolish to make “well, God used me anyway” an excuse for not repenting of our mistakes and sins. God used the evil deeds of Joseph’s brothers to bring Jacob and all his descendants to Egypt. But this doesn’t mean that Joseph’s brothers didn’t have to repent of their sins.

    • @Ben: I was thinking of your point #2. But your other points are well-said.

      @Henoch: Your words sound ok to me, and I probably should just agree. But I am finding that I really just don’t care anymore whether God “uses” me or anyone else. The reasons are the same as the reasons you mention about people using other people. I feel the same way about God using people.

      I see Scriptural teaching about the Trinity but don’t see the same Scriptural support for God using people (or perhaps I do see it and just don’t care anymore). The psychological problem with the inanimate metaphors (like the instruments, potter/clay, salt/light) is that if we dwell on them too much we naturally take on an identity of an inanimate object over time (and worse, see other people as inanimate objects or machines). That wasn’t Jesus’ intention, I know, but that is something I think should be discussed and avoided.

  18. Henoch, you asked “just because there are people who abuse or misunderstand the term ‘God uses people’, does it mean that we have to discard a whole biblical concept?” Yes, it does for me. I simply don’t have the capacity mentally, emotionally or spiritually anymore to consider the concept of “God using me” or “God wants to use you.”

  19. A sin of all Christians and churches, including UBF, is an inclination toward anthropocentricity. After all, we are human.

    Being “used by God” is nothing but a totally undeserved mercy and grace of God. But we sinners turn such a beautiful doctrine into a badge of honor, as though those used by God have some extra mustard.

    I’ve already told some of our missionaries what they absolutely do not like to hear: “I love you guys, but your subtle implicit sense of superiority over natives is a highly annoying and infuriating recurrence.” (As always this does not apply to all our missionaries.)

    Even though they may acknowledge that this is true, they really can’t “just change,” apart from the grace of Jesus. It is always easier to demand that others (“sheep”) change, than we (“shepherds”) ourselves truly and deeply change.

  20. Joe Schafer

    I appreciate Brian’s thoughtful remarks about not wanting to be used by God. God does have things he wants to accomplish in the world, and those purposes are often accomplished through people. But I don’t think that God “uses” people in the sense of treating them as a means to an end, as objects to be manipulated to get something done. God treats us as subjects, not as objects. He respects our personhood and has granted individuals and communities a great deal of freedom and autonomy.

    One could say that God is infinitely greater than us, so he could go ahead and use people if he wanted to, and we creatures have no right to object. But I don’t think it honors God to say that, if it paints an inaccurate portrait of who God is and what he does.

  21. James Kim

    “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
    Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
    where there is injury,pardon;
    where there is doubt, faith;
    where there is despair, hope;
    where there is darkness, light;
    and where there is sadness, joy.” (St. Francis)

    I like St. Francis’ prayer. He prayed to be used by an instrument of God’s peace. Instrument is basically for “use”. In this case for God to use. May God use us as instrument of peace, love, forgiveness, faith, hope, light and joy.

    • James, St. Francis’ prayer is indeed beautiful. We should seek to sow love, pardon, etc.

      I am increasingly concerned however with the binding, as you display here. To say that “make me an instrument” is “basically for use” means that you have bound the Biblical teaching of “instrument” with the word “use”.

      One key problem here is English. It is highly unfortunate that the word “use” can mean “use a tube of toothpaste” or a surgeon using a tool for healing.

      My point above was to try to generate some thought on the differences between “make me an instrument” and “use me as a tube of toothpaste”.

      Some key questions to me are: What happens when the toothpaste is gone? Or when you can’t be useful in the way UBF wants?

  22. Being “used by God” is a privilege and a grace that no human being deserves. If that is our innermost sentiment, the one who is used by God is humble, like Paul (1 Cor 15:9; Eph 3:8; 1 Tim 1:15).

    A truly humble person who is used by God will respond personally and in detail to specific charges and accusations, just as Paul did in many of his epistles.

    The one who “feels” that being used by God is something else will simply ignore, avoid, or dismiss what he or she does not like to listen to.