Keep Spiritual Order


My thesis is that spiritual “order” is equality as in the Trinity, not hierarchy. Where hierarchy prevails, it butchers the Trinity, and makes Christianity ugly.

Keep spiritual order. Over the last three decades in UBF, I have often heard and used the phrase, “Keep spiritual order.” I explained the order as “God, man and the world.” It correctly teaches that God, who is the Creator, is the Lord of creation. Thus, in Christ and through the gospel, man should keep this spiritual order by submitting to and obeying God from his heart.

Guilt tripping. However, my implicit practical meaning is that my Bible student should listen to what I (and other UBF leaders) tell them, because I am their shepherd and Bible teacher, who is “above” them. This implicit meaning and communication is what I believe has led to scores of misapplication, guilt tripping, control, manipulation, wounding, and misunderstanding.

Marriage by faith “horror stories.” In my somewhat self-centered assessment, I think I have the best marriage by faith story in UBF, primarily because my wife has loved me and put up with me with endless mercy and grace from Jesus for 31 years. That said, I have also heard not a few “horror stories” of how a shepherd used marriage by faith to control and manipulate those who are marrying by faith–all in the name of “marriage training” and/or “humbleness training.” This, I believe, is a gross misapplication of “keeping spiritual order,” where the marriage couple is expected to subject themselves to the words and direction (and often humiliation) of their shepherd. Many have already commented in detail on this, and I will not elaborate on them.

Wrong biblical understanding of the relationship between the Father and the Son. It is true that the Son obeyed and submitted Himself to the will of the Father. But the Son obeyed as an equal of the Father, and not as a subordinate of the Father. I believe that this relationship of equality between the Father and the Son is key and crucial to us fellow UBFers–regardless of who is the teacher/senior, and who is the student/junior–in our relationship with each other.

Why some people wish that UBFriends would be shut down. What I have heard about UBFriends include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • What’s wrong with Joe? What’s wrong with Ben?
  • Commenters have mainly become ex-UBFers who are unthankful.
  • Some say that Samuel Lee is not a Christian.
  • I make sweeping generalizations. (True. Sorry. Please help me.)

Why UBFriends is good for UBF. I think that UBFriends is one of the best things that has ever happened to UBF in the last 50 years. Why? Because now we have no choice but to be increasingly transparent and accountable to each other. We also have to look at ourselves and our practices publicly and openly, without avoiding it, spinning it, or sweeping it under the carpet. If you disagree that UBFriends is good for UBF, then please, please, say so.

UBFriends promotes equality like that of the Father and the Son. In the past, juniors and younger people were always “overpowered” by seniors and older people, because they had no choice but to “keep spiritual order” in terms of submission rather than equality. Now, I believe that the tide is gradually changing, so that a junior or a younger person can freely and boldly speak up without fear, and with love, respect, humility and prayer, which often was not possible in the past.

Do you “keep spiritual order” with equality and boldness? Or do you do so with timidity and fear of punishment and repercussions from your human leader/shepherd?


  1. Thanks for your article, Ben. I have a few questions that I’d like to pose to you and others:

    (1) How does one reconcile spiritual order as you define it and spiritual authority?

    (2) Have you read the book “Spiritual Authority” by Watchman Nee? If so, what are your thoughts?

    (3) How should leaders exercise spiritual authority in recognition of the relationship of equality between Christians? And how should believers submit to spiritual authority in recognition of the relationship of equality between Christians?

    (4) What differences may arise in the answers to the above questions if one’s emphasis is placed more heavily on Old Testament Scripture versus New Testament?

    I’m interested in hearing people’s thoughts. God bless!

  2. Thanks, Josh, for posing great questions!

    Perhaps others may also respond, but I was intrigued by Nee’s “Spiritual Authority.” As I had expected and suspected (after doing some research), Nee proposes similar ideas about “spiritual authority” as UBF, which I have found quite unhealthy, biblically unsound, if not wounding and damaging. It causes the following flawed theology/sentiment (in no particular order):

    * some UBF people fear their human shepherd/leader more than God.
    * they are made to believe that obeying their leader = obeying God.
    * thus, disobeying their shepherd = disobeying God.
    * they are afraid of speaking up if and when they disagree with their leader/shepherd.
    * they are not encouraged to think/decide independently.
    * there is an overemphasis on submission/obedience–usually to the human leader/shepherd–at the expense of freedom in Christ/freedom in the Spirit.
    * critical thinking is not developed/encouraged.
    * being bold, confident and taking risks is not encouraged if you are not the senior/top leader.
    * initiative (not coming from the top) is not encouraged.
    * whatever one wants to do, he/she needs to jump through hoops.

    I should probably stop. That said, I believe things are somewhat changing, albeit quite slowly, and likely not in all UBF chapters.

    • Hi Ben, thanks for your responses.

      What example(s) would you point to in Scripture that illustrate the healthy exercising of spiritual authority and spiritual order? I know that there are many excellent lessons to be learned from figures such as Moses, Saul, David, and other prophets, and also from Peter and Paul, but for the most part, I’m left scratching my head about how these lessons should be applied directly in my life and situation.

      Thanks. Others, please feel free to pipe in!!

    • Phil 2 Five

      Great article Ben!

      Here are my thoughts on your question Joshua! I believe we can look at the perfect example Jesus! Jesus is our Servant King. Jesus came to serve and not to be served(Mark 10:45 & Philippians 2:5-8). This is a character I ought to learn and all those who desire to lead.

      Here’s an article that would perhaps be of some help:

      I like his last few lines: “Spiritual leaders influence more than they direct, and they inspire more than they instruct. They intuitively recognize that they are serving something—and Someone—larger than themselves and their own objectives.”

      But ultimately, Jesus is the perfect example! UBF leaders (with a few exceptions) ought to stop with the intimidation, fear, humiliation tactics to get the sheep to follow! That doesn’t cause ‘sheep’ to follow but to ‘run away’.

    • I haven’t been a fan of MacArthur, and this sermon doesn’t help that attitude.

      For example, he writes: “The church then, and its leadership, is called to the honoring of God’s Word, to the exaltation, if you will, of God’s Word even to the equal place of His own name, as we pointed out in Psalm 138:2.”

      I think he is contributing to making an idol out of the bible and building walls around yourself to keep the world out. He seems, to me, to be promoting an inward-focused church that is exclusive.

      I think we need to be very cautious of creating “Judaism 2.0” instead of Christ-followership.

  3. Anthony Gittins wrote in his book, “Called to be sent” about spiritual authority like this. “Authority ultimately belongs to God, and down though history human authority has claimed to derive from God’s. As “legitimate authority” power is in principle consistent with the gospel; but”hegemony” as domination is not. True Christianity is opposed to authoritarianism. It must espouse true servant-leadership or power as service.” This problem is not limited to UBF, but to many churches in America I believe. There is also cultural problem involved in UBF.

  4. Thanks, James, for saying so. How might you articulate what the “cultural problem” is in UBF?

    • Ben, I hope James would respond… in the absence of a response though, here are my observation.

      There is indeed a culture problem in UBF– American culture. The “problem” is us lazy and sinful Americans who keep mucking up the waters. The solution? Look to other cultures.

      Korea UBF is investing now in Germany and Africa. Germans and Africans are obeying much better than Americans and Russians and Chinese, so the efforts are going to those places.

      America is simply the fuel source for the UBF system in other countries. For example, Germany UBF websites proudly display the ECFA membership. But only Chicago UBF USA is conforming to the ECFA guidelines. Germany UBF is outside that stamp of approval.

  5. Thanks, Joshua, for sharing MacArthur’s sermon. I like his exposition of Tit 2:15 – “Encourage and rebuke with all authority.” As the preaching pastor, I want to do this each and every Sun. MacArthur says:

    “…we preach that you might hear, understand…believe and…ultimately obey…we do that with all authority. We make no apology for preaching with authority. Now the only authority the preacher has is the Bible. We have no authority outside the Scripture whatsoever. I have no authority personally, not by my office as a pastor, as an elder in the church…no authority to act on my own…apart from the application of the Word of God. There is no such thing as a sort of an ecclesiastical authority that some earthly organization bears by virtue of its tradition and its ceremonies. The only authority we have is the Word of God and when we speak the Word of God, we speak with authority.”

    Where some UBF leaders have erred for 50 years is when they act and believe that their seniority as the older/ teacher/ shepherd/ leader gives them their authority over those under them. This is NOT the spiritual order of the Bible which is equality. (I edited/added a first line of my article.)

    Also, instead of displaying/focusing authority in the Word, some leaders place authority in obeying/submitting to them in their top down directives, such as “Marry by faith” (according to the leader’s agenda). Or they say things in the sermon that are “attacking/criticizing” certain people, rather than highlighting the Word.

    MacArthur says, ” I have no authority personally, not by my office as a pastor, as an elder in the church… The only authority we have is the Word of God…”

    I believe that UBF basically believes this. But in translation the authority of God/God’s Word functionally goes to the senior human authority figure.

  6. I preached from Titus 2:11-15 in June ( where I wrote that Grace Gives Authority:

    Grace does not make us wimps. Instead, grace gives us authority and confidence. “These, then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you” (Tit 2:15). There are 2 kinds of authority:
    1) Authority that comes from your rank or position.
    2) Authority that comes from grace.
    Positional authority compels obedience out of fear. Authority that comes from grace promotes obedience that comes from love and gratitude.

    Why do you obey God? Do you obey because you are afraid of your shepherd? Or do you obey because you realize that “the grace of God has appeared” (Tit 2:11) to you personally?

    Being a Christian and living the Christian life is not primarily about obedience. Obedience is always secondary (or penultimate) in the Bible. The problem may be that Christians tend to teach that obedience is primary by glossing over grace. Grace is the primary mover in the Bible, both OT and NT. Our God is an awesome and terrifying God. But he does not come to us to terrify us until we obey him. Rather God always comes to us in grace so that we want to obey him out of love and gratitude.

    • Well said, Ben! I love that word “penultimate”…”next to last”. I’ll have to start using it. I just want to point out one reason people tend to place teaching obedience as “ultimate” instead of “penultimate” is because their approach to the bible is skewed.

      So they read Romans 1:5 and immediately conclude “We must teach everyone to obey!” But they are not seeing Scripture through the lens of grace, applying Scripture through the lens of love and interpreting Scripture in light of truth. So they fail to see that Romans is the “book of grace” where the word “charis” is mentioned more times than any other book in the bible.

      Such quick conclusions without grace, love and truth are indications that the person has probably made the bible into an idol and probably worships an idolized version of Jesus.

  7. James, thanks a lot for commenting here. Do you personally agree with Anthony Gittins? When he says that “True Christianity is opposed to authoritarianism” and UBF is clearly based on authoritarianism, then you must conclude that UBF practices is not true Christianity. Would you agree with that? In that case, wouldn’t it be of utmost importance that UBF comes back to practice true Christianity? Shouldn’t UBF go “back to the Bible” then, as Samuel Lee proclaimed?

    Second, you still point out the cultural element. I have often asked, and never got an answer: If cultural issues are the primary cause of problems, why do you think the 3 UBF reform attemtps in 1976, 1984 and 2001 originated from Koreans, 1976 and 2001 even from Koreans in Korea, i.e. people rooted in the same culture? Interestingly, the reformers were even senior shepherds and missionaries, not the younger generation who grew up in a more modern culture. For me, pointing to cultural issues always sounds like a pretty old and lame excuse, used like a red herring.

  8. Great questions, Joshua. I don’t have many answers, but here are my initial thoughts to your questions:

    (1) How does one reconcile spiritual order as you define it and spiritual authority?

    > Ben defines spiritual order above as “equality, not hierarchy. Where hierarchy exists, it butchers the Trinity, and makes Christianity ugly.” And further explains that spiritual order correctly teaches that “God, who is the Creator, is the Lord of creation.” I don’t fully understand that definition, but taken “as-is”, I agree with both statements. One big problem here is that Jesus was both about “hierarchy” and “equality”. That’s why we struggle with this, I believe.

    > What then is “spiritual authority”? If I understand correctly, Joshua, you are referring to the authority that people have as Christians or as church leaders? I would say we need to separate this into two concepts. Are we talking about the authority structure of the institutional church? Or are we talking about the authority that comes from the Holy Spirit’s transformational work inside a person? I don’t have much to say about either, but I really like the kind of “church” Robb Ryerse setup when he left fundamentalism. His title is “narrator”, not “pastor”.

    (2) Have you read the book “Spiritual Authority” by Watchman Nee? If so, what are your thoughts?

    > I have not read this book. Interestingly though, Nee comes up quite regularly when I search for cult-related or abuse-related topics. There are quite a few who point out the extreme nature of Nee’s writings. For sure, I would take much time to consider and double-check that book.

    (3) How should leaders exercise spiritual authority in recognition of the relationship of equality between Christians? And how should believers submit to spiritual authority in recognition of the relationship of equality between Christians?

    > A friend of mine told me a good answer to this on the phone yesterday: be friends. The topic of women comes up at this point usually. I am an “egalitarian”, that is, I am in favor of women holding any role or leadership position in the church that men do.

    (4) What differences may arise in the answers to the above questions if one’s emphasis is placed more heavily on Old Testament Scripture versus New Testament?

    > I don’t see an “ethier or” dichotomy here. As Christians, I say we need to account for both testaments. The key is to see both testaments through the lens of grace, and obey out of the lens of love. The entire OT has much to say about leadership, but is only valid for a Christian in light of grace and love. In all, I say we must respect truth– the facts of our reality. In that way Scripture is not an idol taken verbatim, but a guide taken in concert with the Spirit’s direction in our generation, and in our particular context where we are.

  9. Thanks, Chris, for restating again that the two mass exodus of UBF people in 1976 and 2001 was initiated by older Korean UBF leaders, and not by natives.

  10. Here is a really good example of good spiritual authority.

    Recently someone asked our pastor when was the last time he misused his spiritual authority and how did he react to it. Our pastor said, “6 hours ago.”

    We all laughed but he was serious. He then proceeded to explain how easy it is for a pastor to enforce their own will. He said he has to be constantly vigilant and self-aware because when he speaks, the reality is the conversation ends with his preference.

    He also explained how he went back to the person with whom he had the disagreement with and shared further discussion and apologized for being too strong. He took care of the issue right away.

    Not only that, our pastor shared his life story as an example for us as we take several weeks to write our own life story (in ubf-speak this is “writing your life testimony”). The process we’re going through now of writing our life narrative is so healthy and much more robust and helpful to me and to our group.

  11. Sharon Schafer

    Thanks for this discussion, everyone, and thank you Joshua for bringing up Watchmen Nee. I decided I’d better read him rather than just listening to what others say about him. It has been very interesting. Nee is quite clear about the limits of authority in the church. He warns that no one should ever desire this authority and, if one does, it is a clear indication that the person has not been called to any authority at all. Authority is too fearful a responsibility. He repeatedly says that the kind of authority God gives has little to do with directing others. Here is what he says about delegated authority, which is the authority that God gives members of the church:

    “The more we know authority and the more open doors, revelation, and ministry we have, the more we will give others the liberty to take their own way. If we have authority we will never speak one word to vindicate our own authority; rather, we should give others the full liberty. Others should come to us in as spontaneous a way as possible. If they do not want us to be their authority, or if they shy away from us, we do not have to force them to accept us. If there is authority in us, whoever desires the Lord will gladly come to us. It is a most ugly thing for anyone to speak for his authority in order to establish authority for himself.”

    We are studying 2 Corinthians now, and this is exactly the kind of authority that I have been seeing in Paul: not the ugly kind, but the genuine kind.

    Nee says:

    “All of us have to learn to be restricted. Our mouths have to be disciplined to stop speaking. Our minds have to be disciplined to stop reasoning. Our hears have to be disciplined to stop proposing. If we do this, a way of glory will be before us, and God will manifest His authority on earth.”

    About the equality of all believers in Christ, he writes:

    “We ought not refuse the function of any member (of the body of Christ). If the foot should reject the hand, it is the same as rejecting the Head. If we accept the authority of a member it is the same as accepting the authority of the Head….By way of fellowship all other members can be my authority….It is impossible to make each member a whole body; we must learn to stand in the position of being a member and of accepting the workings of other members…only by accepting the functions of others – accepting their authority (the authority of Christ in all his children) does one receive the wealth of the whole body.”

    To me, this sounds like radical equality, the kind of unity Jesus establishes in His body. Did you know that Nee was actually against denominationalism? He called for believers to love each other radically. His desire for the church to manifest the authority of God on earth was tied to this kind of unity. But I guess that’s another topic altogether…

  12. Thanks, Sharon. Great quotes from Nee! I want to blog another article based on your excellent comments, especially about the “limits of authority,” since we Christians often extend/exceed those limits by imposing our human positional authority and equating it with God’s authority.

    Also, thanks, Sharon for correcting my casual misreading of Nee’s view of authority, which I thought was similar to how some use their authority in UBF:

  13. Dr. Toh,
    Didnt God form the University to maintain a particular spiritual order? Look at the order of the angels. Peter Kreeft has written about our society’s odd desire for equality instead of a celebration of greatness. Your analogy of the Trinity is a little hard for me to understand because clearly we are below the Trinity. And even within, the trinity, there is equality but also a form of higherarchy with Jesus being the Son of the Father. I dont think equality is counter to a difference in order.

    Am I misunderstanding what you mean by spiritual order?

    • Gerardo, you mention some of the nuances I had in mind here. Jesus was both hierarchical and equality driven. I think there is merit in pursuing this line of thought.

      However, in the UBF context, there needs to be an entirely different discussion. Ben probably has the UBF context in mind. Point 6 of the 12 point UBF heritage is “Keep spiritual order”. I used to think that just meant believe and act in line with God (Creator) and man (created being). But that is not what the heritage point means at all.

      I’m not sure anyone really knows what this slogan means: Keep spiritual order. It is simply enacted when someone seems out of line with the UBF system.

      I’m not so sure promotes equality as Ben claims. But it surely throws a wrench in the UBF machinery. At this point, perhaps that is all we can accomplish here on this blog– just slow down the UBF system long enough for a few more people to start thinking for themselves and do a little self examination.

      I think we need to disconnect UBFriends from UBF if we ever hope to have the kind of healthy discussion points you raise Gerardo. I for one long for such discussion, discussion that is unbound and untwisted from UBF.

  14. Sharon Schafer

    Gerardo, I think Ben is referring to a renewal in trinitarian theology which highlights the relationality between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is classically defined as perichoresis. In his book, The Missional Church in Perspective, Van Gelder discusses the implications of missing or deemphasizing this relationality which has been seen in the authoritarian and heirarchical practices of the church for several centuries. A revival of this thinking leads to “a dynamic community of mutuality, openness, difference and love”. It seems to be a matter of emphasis…equality and order in balance.

    • Thank you Sharon. Could you say more about what exactly are the implications of missing this relationality?

  15. Sharon Schafer

    Also, to me the mysterious thing about greatness is that it is found in the most unlikely places. Don’t we love Tolkien because his heroes are Hobbits? I think that we should be looking for and expecting greatness in everyone, especially in fellow Christians and we should expect it to surprise us.

  16. Sharon Schafer

    Hi Gerardo, I will try though I am certainly no expert. I don’t know exactly what the implications are. But I’ll take a stab at explaining what I am learning through the missional church literature. (Newbigin, Bonhoeffer, Gittens, and VanGelder).

    Historically in the West there has been a focus on the abstract attributes of God and the individual attributes of each member of the Trinity. For example, God is omniscient, omnipresent, etc. Jesus is obedient, humble, etc. According to several scholars, the result is a view of God and the church and mission that is incomplete. God is felt to be remote, uninvolved, and unaffected by creation. He has set in motion, unidirectionally the mission of the Church (the world mission command). He has sent Jesus as our mediator and our example of obedience and the Church fulfills its purpose by obeying and imitating Jesus. This is all good but it isn’t the whole picture. Because of the emphasis on our obedience, our imitation, and our performance, God’s participation and agency in everything gets deemphasized. The particular boundaries of our own community of faith are overemphasized. There is little sense of God’s dynamic immediacy and personal presence.

    In contrast, if we highlight and emphasize the relationality of God (the Eastern view of the Trinity) and the mutual indwelling of the members of the Trinity, a different view of the God and the Church emerges. His broken heart and even vulnerability, His love, His ongoing interaction with the whole world inside and outside the Church, changes our view of ourselves and our activity as a church. Spiritual discernment of the living God becomes as or more important than making truth claims and boundary making(if you believe this, or if you do this, you will be right with God). Rather than those who are God’s instrument and agent to carry out his commands, we are invited to participate in the life of the Trinity.

    Participation is very different from imitation. It’s riskier and more transformative. It requires vulnerability and openness and a willingness to be changed radically and fundamentally by our interaction with each other, with the world and with God. As an imitator and agent, my job is to get people into the church. I will do so by convincing them and moving them to make a decision to accept the teachings of my church, boundaries which are in fact a complex mix of human and divine agency which need to be constantly reexamined. If people accept my invitation and my boundaries, good. If not I will move on to the next candidate. As one who participates in the life of God, I have to go much deeper. I have to be willing to allow the Spirit of God, and the living Christ to break or challenge and refine all such boundaries. As Newbigin, Gittens and so many others are saying, I have to let my own Christianity be challenged by my interaction with others because it is often through others who are very different from me that God brings me closer to Himself.

    In this way the community of faith becomes a “dynamic community of mutuality, openness, difference and love.”

  17. Sorry for being “nit-picky,” but I think you meant “deference” rather than “difference” in your last sentence.

    Thanks for such an exquisite exposé on the difference between Western and Eastern views of the Christian God, and the difference between “imitation” and “participation.”

    Your eloquent explanation has articulated for me in words the journey that I myself have been going through, which is my journey toward “participation,” rather than simply “imitation” and “just obey.”

    Your comment should be a main featured article. Thanks, Sharon.

  18. Sharon Schafer

    Thank you, Ben. I think the quote is actually difference, as in a community that includes different perspectives.

    • Hi Sharon,
      Thank you. I never thought about how this subtle difference in how one views the trinity could lead to such a difference in perspective. I have felt a similar thing in terms of how we view the concept of Christ’s Body (i.e., the Church). Major difference in Christian thought if you believe it is some abstract mystical descriptive umbrella that is separate from our daily affairs and walk with Jesus. Or if you believe it is a mystical but very organic system that permeates all known forms of physical and spiritual realities on earth as well as heaven and connects you and me on earth with each other as well as with our brethren in heaven. So much naturally flows from the perspective you take towards what is “the Body of Christ” and the relation of within the Trinity. These major and fundamental concepts really set the stage for so much.