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New Horizons

A Look at Promise Keepers (By One Who Has Been There)

David J. O'Leary

I was present at the Washington, D.C., Promise Keepers rally in May 1995. Thirty thousand men were there. The power of what was said, the atmosphere of praise and delight in the Lord, and the integrity of the men around me, refreshed me and the thirty or so men from Covenant OPC in Reading, Pennsylvania. While criticism can and should be leveled at Promise Keepers (PK), one has seriously to question the claim of G. I. Williamson that "the PK will—in the end—do far more harm than good" (New Horizons, January 1996, p. 20).

Mr. Williamson's claim rests on a loss of perspective. Promise Keepers is functioning to revitalize and challenge men to a deeper commitment to seven basic promises that one would expect in an obedient and growing Christian man. Although these promises could be kept in an external manner by an unbeliever, it verges on presumption to think that the vast majority of men at RFK Stadium (or in any of the thirteen other 1995 rallies) were unbelievers. And if they are believers, and are being helped to turn back to integrity, purity, fidelity, family, and church, where is the "far more harm" that is predicted?

Worshiping with Idolaters?

Two specific criticisms were leveled against PK by Pastor Williamson. One assumes too much; the second, too little. Pastor Williamson objects to worshiping with Roman Catholics, claiming that our Confession calls them idolaters. This assumes too much. First, the Confession's statement is not in a chapter on the church, nor in a chapter on Roman Catholics or idolatry. It is in a chapter on marriage and refers to the inappropriateness of marrying an "infidel, papist, or other idolater" (WCF, 24:3). Notice, the word is "papist." When a significant majority of Roman Catholics in this country defy the pope's teaching on birth control, we would do well to question whether they are "papists."

More often than not, we have people who challenge the supremacy of the pope and who are coming to a deeper and more personal knowledge of the grace of God in the gospel of Christ. As he has done throughout church history, God may be using such backdoor approaches as PK to bring these men to the gospel or to greater consistency in their life and worship. It is certainly possible that PK will send some of those men back to their Roman Catholic churches as zealous laymen, but it is also evident that a number of Roman Catholics are leaving that church to follow a more biblical path. Let us thank the Lord for that.

Usurping the Church's Role?

The second criticism assumes too little. Pastor Williamson suggests that men who enter into "vital relationships with a few other men" are taking upon themselves a task that is not theirs. His conclusion is, "PK has no authorization from the Lord to promote this usurpation of one of the primary functions of the organized church." The word "organized" is central to the narrow perspective suggested here. By slipping in this word, Mr. Williamson substitutes structure for the church. The church is structure (organization) and body (organism). Mr. Williamson's failure is not in desiring that PK be within the pale of the church; his failure is in failing to see the church in the work of PK. PK is not a church, but its men are the church, and individually members thereof. In fact, not only were there thirty men from our church present, but the coordinating work with PK men in the Reading area grows out of our church. The tragedy of Pastor Williamson's characterization of PK is that he implies that most of these men are rebelling against legitimate church oversight. There is no evidence of this at all.

My Criticisms of PK

Are there any valid criticisms of PK? I think there are three:

  1. PK is young and feisty and therefore overstates its long-term significance. While Pastor Williamson appears inaccurate in his claim to "more harm," PK is inaccurate in its claim for an "historic" impact. But it is having a significant present impact.
  2. The "Seven Promises," while good in themselves, cannot be undertaken apart from the grace of God in Christ alone. We ought more properly to think of ourselves as "promise makers" and "promise breakers" who rest on the one true "Promise Keeper."
  3. Like all rapidly growing movements, PK gives off an air of being the "only flavor on the menu." This can easily lead to arrogance, much as it sometimes has in the OPC. We in the Reformed tradition know that no one group has ever been the sole arena of God's work, and, therefore, we ought to bear with such youthful blindness.

In conclusion, let me return to Mr. Williamson's concern for "far more harm than good." The OPC has an impact for good in this country, for which I give thanks. However, as good as it is, it is a very small good. God is moving in other ways, too. Some of those movements may be less pointed in their impact, but more widespread. PK is such a movement. OP churches should delight in the good that is being accomplished; moreover, we should seek to have an influence in that movement for the Lord's sake. To stay away from PK, or to predict much harm because not all is good in it, is to lose one's perspective.

Mr. O'Leary is the pastor of Covenant OPC in Reading, Pa. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 1996.

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