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Inside Look at the Promise Keepers
Don Matzat

The leaders of the Promise Keepers invited the heads of fifty-three denominations to attend a meeting in Denver on November 18, 1997. Dr. A.L. Barry, president of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS), asked me to represent him. I gladly accepted. What follows is my report to Dr. Barry on the content of the meeting. These are my observations and are not intended to be the official position of the LCMS toward the Promise Keepers.

The gathering was held in the executive meeting room at the Promise Keepers’ headquarters at 4045 Pecos Street in Denver. The meeting was chaired by the founder of the Promise Keepers, Mr. Bill McCartney and included, in addition to his morning presentation, a variety of reports from the full time staff members. Fifty-three leaders of Protestant denominations were invited. Fifteen, including a representative from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), responded. The theological make-up of the other thirteen participants clearly reflected the theological appeal of the Promise Keepers. I will comment more on this later.

As the meeting progressed, my worst fears were realized. It appeared I was the only person in the room who had questions regarding the roots, purpose, and theology of the Promise Keepers’ Movement. The ELCA representative, a pastor from the Denver area, did have some concerns, but he only remained for the morning session. The other heads of denominations regarded Promise Keepers as a great sovereign "move of God" raised up in these latter days to bring revival to the church. It was obvious that those other denominations that might share my concerns about the Promise Keepers chose not to attend the meeting.

The expressed purpose of the meeting was to share the vision of the Promise Keepers movement and to receive feedback. In the afternoon session, a second purpose clearly unfolded. Promise Keepers is clearly in financial straits. They have 352 employees and operate on a daily budget of $175,000. They have $1.5 million in the bank, which means they can exist for another eight days. Bill McCartney refuses to back off the vision. It is either go forward or shut down. They have a number of pastor’s meetings, stadium events, and arena events scheduled for 1998. They have decided to make these "free events." In addition, they have a global vision for the Promise Keepers’ rallies and also intend to somehow involve the more than 300,000 churches in the country in vibrant men’s ministry.

To say the least, it is a massive vision. According to McCartney, it would require an $80 million per year budget. In an apologetic fashion, McCartney expressed their need with the hope that those churches that have benefited from Promise Keepers would be willing to lend their financial support. It will be interesting to watch these developments. Either the Movement will shut down or will receive a renewed "shot in the arm." Some of the denominational heads expressed a willingness to support the movement. It would be somewhat tragic if Promise Keepers did shut down. Many of the 352 people who moved their families to Denver to work in the headquarters would be out of work. (As of this writing, Promise Keepers is still in business.)

Attending this meeting was a valuable experience. Some of my former concerns about Promise Keepers were proven to be invalid, while other more important concerns were strongly confirmed.

My report will consider the following six topics:
  • Bill McCartney
  • Promise Keepers Style and Language
  • Theological Concerns
  • Response from the Promise Keepers
  • What Can We Learn from the Promise Keepers
  • Conclusions
The following evaluations and comments are an assessment of the specific meeting that took place on Tuesday, November 18. The evaluations might not necessarily be applicable to the content of a specific "Stadium Event" or to any LCMS pastor’s personal application of the Promise Keepers’ agenda within his congregation. The fact is, if you want to find out what a movement is about, talk to the leadership. This is what I have done.

1. Bill McCartney

Bill McCartney, the former head coach of the University of Colorado national championship football team, is "Mr. Promise Keepers." He is the founder and the driving force behind the movement. While he occupies no official position of authority within the structure, it is obvious that "Mac is the boss."

McCartney is a wonderful man. I have never been so impressed by a man’s zeal, passion, and commitment to a vision. He is a simple, humble man with minimal theological insight. He is fiercely committed to the goal of "reaching men for Jesus." While his theology and doctrine are weak, it seems that his heart is in the right place.

McCartney is a tremendous motivator of men. This is the key to the success of the Promise Keepers. It is not difficult to see why his Colorado football team won a national championship. Many of his examples come from football. His entire morning presentation compared the commitment necessary to win in football with being a Christian. He has seen young men give up everything, stretch themselves both physically and mentally, play in the midst of pain and even shed their blood in order to gain a victory and achieve a goal. In other words, if men are willing to do this to win a football championship, why can't they be so motivated to live for God?

After the presentation, questions and comments were invited. I raised questions about McCartney’s roots in the Word of God community, particularly the relationship between the Promise Keepers and controversial Discipleship movement of the 70’s. He assured me that there was no connection.

It also became clear that the fears of some concerning the Promise Keepers association with the Vineyard and the end-time visions of Vineyard pastor James Ryle (McCartney’s pastor and former member of the Promise Keepers board) were unfounded. Ryle had said some things that appeared to embarrass the movement. (Such as, denominations are of the devil, the Beatles had been anointed by God, and the men of the Promise Keepers represent "Joel’s Army," the end-time manifested sons of God who would gain the final victory over the devil.) Ryle is no longer on the Promise Keepers’ board.

While it may be true that there are private opinions held by some regarding the end-time significance of the Promise Keepers, this does not appear to be the agenda of the board or staff. The board is diverse and does not reflect the Vineyard movement.

2. Promise Keepers Style and Language

The style and language of the Promise Keepers is clearly Charismatic/Pentecostal. We do not speak the same language as the Promise Keepers. In his presentation Bill McCartney spoke about what "God laid on his heart." He spoke about "God coming into the room" where men seek his face in repentance. He said that "reaching men is on the heart of God" and that "God is ripping open the hearts of men."

There is a great deal of subjective God-talk among the Promise Keepers’ leadership. This caused the ELCA representative some concern. He suggested to McCartney that the men who attend the Promise Keepers’ events should be told that not all Christians express truth with the same style. The problem is the Promise Keepers’ language reflects their theology.

3. Theological Concerns

I believe there are three primary theological concerns:

a. Conversion

The Promise Keepers’ view of conversion is clearly Arminian. (The notion that man is capable of making a decision to accept Jesus.) "We have to move unbelieving men to make a decision for Jesus."

In the beginning of the meeting, Dr. Dan Erickson, Northwest Regional Director of Promise Keepers, made the statement that they wanted to reach all denominations, including Arminians and Calvinists. Yet, in one of the presentations it was said, "We want to challenge the unconverted by having more ‘altar calls’ in our events."

I raised the question: "You say you want to appeal to both Calvinists and Arminians, yet your approach to conversion is Arminian. Is Arminian theology the official theology of the Promise Keepers?"

I was somewhat surprised when one of the staff members responded with, "What do you mean?" I said that calling men to make a decision for Christ was Arminian theology and would disturb both Calvinists and Lutherans. I pointed out that the "altar call" was unknown in the church before 1840. It was one of Charles Finney’s "new measures." The discussion ended when one person (I cannot recall who it was) stated, "We simply go by the Bible." It was obvious that there was little understanding or sensitivity to this vital issue.

Later, in a private conversation, Dan Erickson suggested that they use both approaches. The men could either come forward or remain in their seats. He said that in dealing with men it is necessary that we challenge them to make a decision. While we were not able to continue the discussion, he seemed to be saying, "We have to help the Holy Spirit by calling men to a decision. Preaching the Gospel alone is not sufficient."

Among the Promise Keepers there is an incredible confusion of Law and Gospel. They would have no understanding what that means. The Law is not intended to show men their sin so that, turning away from themselves, they grasp Christ and be empowered to live the Christian life. The purpose of Promise Keepers is clearly to motivate men to keep the Law and do the things that God wants them to do.

b. Means of Grace

While it would not be possible for Promise Keepers to emphasize the Sacraments as vehicles whereby the Holy Spirit works, you might expect an emphasis upon the Word of God as the means of grace. Yet, in the course of the entire day, I cannot recall one occasion where the presence of God in a gathering or the working of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of men was joined to the preaching and teaching of the Word of God. In fact, in the opening "prayer and worship" there was no reading from Scripture. For the Promise Keepers, prayer is the means of grace. God works and the Spirit moves when men come together and fervently seek his face. The purpose of teaching the Word of God to men is to bring them "into maturity" as they understand more and more of what the will of God is for their lives.

The evidence for the presence of the Spirit or, as Bill McCartney put it, "God coming into the room," is the emotional response and repentance of the men. In my estimate, "God coming into the room" does not cause this response. It is the result of the motivational presentations that stir the emotions. Such motivational presentations within a Muslim context would also cause Muslim men to be broken and repentant before Allah. Would this be evidence of "Allah coming into the room?" Evidence for the Holy Spirit is the contrition and faith that is stirred within the hearts of men causing them to understand and grasp what God has done for them in Christ Jesus. This is the result of the preaching and teaching of the Law and Gospel.

c. Sanctification

While we have many contentions with the theology of the Promise Keepers, the most glaring issue is sanctification.

The theological make-up of the denominational heads and leaders who chose to attend this meeting clearly reflected the view of sanctification espoused by the Promise Keepers. As I said earlier, fifty-three invitations had been sent to leaders of denominational churches and fifteen attended. The ELCA representative, the Southern Baptist representative, and I were the only representatives of "mainline" denominations. The others were from Pentecostal, Holiness or pietistic groups. The three major "perfect sanctification" or "perfectionism" denominations (Free Methodist, Nazarene, and Pentecostal Holiness) were represented. The General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God Thomas Trask and the head of the Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.) were present. Both these leaders endorsed the controversial Brownsville Revival in Pensacola, Florida. The leader of the Church of the Open Bible, an offshoot of the Assemblies of God, and a representative of the Church of God in Christ, the major African-American Pentecostal denomination, attended. Pietistic groups such as the Evangelical Free and the Evangelical Covenant denominations were there. Most of these denominations trace their roots to a variety of Holiness Revivals such as the Second Great Awakening, or the Azusa Street Pentecostal Revival in 1900, or earlier Pietistic revivals. Even the decision theology of the Southern Baptists emerged out of the Second Great Awakening.

Any denomination formed out of "revival" will gravitate to the Promise Keepers. They see it as a new revival. The head of the Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.), a denomination that traces its roots to a holiness revival in the mountains of northwest Georgia and eastern Tennessee in the late 1800s, said, "We have to pastor this great revival."

What I have said in the past concerning the Promise Keepers was soundly confirmed. The Promise Keepers Movement is a present-day Holiness Revival using the same "new measures" of Charles Finney that distorted the theological foundation of Protestant Christianity in the nineteenth century. I do not believe the Promise Keepers leadership has intentionally moved in this direction. I doubt whether Bill McCartney would have even the foggiest idea of what the Second Great Awakening and Finney’s "new measures" were all about.

The same perfectionism taught by Finney is evident in the Promise Keepers. In his morning presentation, Bill McCartney quoted the words of Jesus, "Happy are the pure in heart." He spoke of his commitment to have a pure heart before God. While that verse inspired McCartney to strive after purity of heart, it would condemn me since I know that I will never have a pure heart before God. Therefore, rejecting my hope of personal righteousness, I must trust Jesus Christ who did have a perfectly pure heart before his Father in heaven. While McCartney is seeking happiness in his own pure heart, I find my happiness in the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

As I was leaving in the afternoon, Bishop Philip Porter, an African-American pastor from Denver who is the Chairman of the Board of Promise Keepers, chased me down to say good-bye. We had a rather lengthy conversation. I expressed my concerns about their view of sanctification. I said that we were not "promise keepers" but that we were "promise breakers" and that only Jesus was the "man of integrity" who kept his promises. I told him that, in my opinion, the Promise Keepers were a whole new breed of Pharisees in the church. He listened intently.

Bill McCartney asked the denominational leaders to encourage their pastors to attend the future "Pastors’ Events." My response was: "There is no way that Dr. Barry, the president of our Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod could encourage our 5000 pastors to attend these events."

I pointed out that we are doctrinal purists not willing to compromise one jot or title of our theology. I phrased it in their speech by saying, "God has laid this zeal for doctrinal truth on our hearts." I pointed out that we have totally different views on sanctification and how the Holy Spirit works. I suggested that many today claim to believe in Jesus, but do not have any idea what the central truth of justification is all about.

I mentioned my radio program and pointed out that men today are also interested in doctrine and theology. In discussing this later with Dan Erickson, I asked, "What good is it if you get a bunch of men to say that they love Jesus if they do not know who he is and what he has done? They are not loving the real Jesus but merely a figment of their imaginations."

4. Promise Keepers’ Response

As the only person in the room raising objections to the Promise Keepers’ agenda, theology, and methodology, I did not know what to expect. In the past, I have been criticized by some of our LCMS pastors and people for publicly questioning the Promise Keepers. I wondered what would happen if I questioned the theology of the national leadership of the Promise Keepers. Would I be accused of standing against a mighty move of God?

I was impressed by the appreciation expressed by these men for my willingness to raise objections. They were far more open to receive criticism than our own LCMS promise-keeping pastors. For example, at one of the breaks, Steve Chavis, the National Spokesman and Manager of Public Relations for Promise Keepers, came up to me, introduced himself, shook my hand and said, "Pastor Matzat, please continue to talk. We need to hear what you are saying."

At lunch, Bill McCartney sat next to me. We talked about football. The subject of my radio program was also brought up. I told him that we would be going on a local Christian station in Denver. Later in the afternoon as I was leaving, I went up to greet him. He shook my hand and said, "Let me give you a big hug." And he did. He told me how much he appreciated my zeal for truth. He said, "I want to listen to you on the radio. Would you let me know when your program will be on here locally." I told him that I would and asked if I should send the information to the Promise Keepers’ offices. "No," he said, "Let me give you my card." He excused himself from the person he had been speaking with and we went into his office. He gave me his card with his address and phone number.

Perhaps McCartney was merely being polite, but I believe that he recognizes that truth is an important "thing of God." He is a passionate man who appreciates those who have a passion for the "things of God," including God’s truth. If I, as an LCMS pastor, asked Bill McCartney whether or not I should compromise my doctrinal truth in order to be a part of Promise Keepers, I am convinced he would say "NO." From what I could sense, McCartney despises luke-warmness among Christians who not only compromise their commitment to God, but also their commitment to God’s truth.

5. What we can learn from the Promise Keepers

There are some things that we can and probably have learned from the Promise Keepers.

a. Supporting the Local Pastor

The fifth promise of a Promise Keeper is to support "the mission of the church by honoring and praying for his pastor, and by actively giving his time and resources." In his morning presentation, Bill McCartney spoke of encouraging men to submit to their pastors as to their spiritual shepherds.

In our synod, we have many hurting pastors who are often treated by their members as hirelings rather than called shepherds. Men who attend a Promise Keepers’ rally return home and honor their pastors. They pray for them and submit to them. They have a renewed commitment to both give and serve within the congregation. As a result, an LCMS pastor might say, "I wish all my men were Promise Keepers!" This is very understandable.

I believe our pastors who support Promise Keepers have to examine their hearts. Are they supporting the movement because, as a result, they get "stroked?" Is this a good reason for setting aside theological distinctions?

But, the real question is - how can we more effectively motivate our members to love, respect, honor, and pray for their pastors?

b. Avoiding Sectarian Snobbery

One of tasks of the Promise Keepers is to "tear down the walls that divide us." They speak of racial and denominational walls. In the past, I objected to the Promise Keepers putting racial and denominational reconciliation in the same category. It seemed they were mixing apples and oranges. In the afternoon session, Dr. Raleigh Washington, an African-American who is a Promise Keepers’ VP, presented this vision for reconciliation.

After his presentation was over, I asked the question: "Our differences are genetic. My differences with Randy Singer (the Southern Baptist representative sitting next to me) are doctrinal. How can you lump these two differences together?"

Washington responded, "I am so glad you asked." He went on to explain that the Promise Keepers have no intention of working to overcome doctrinal distinctions any more than they would be able to overcome racial distinctions. The purpose is to simply encourage men of other races and other denominations to relate to each other so they might better understand each other.

I have given much thought to what Dr. Washington said, especially after being at that gathering and spending the day sitting between a Southern Baptist and a perfect-holiness Pentecostal. By chance, on my flight home, I had the seat next to the same Southern Baptist man, Randy Singer. We had a great time chatting about our churches, ministries, doctrines, etc. Yet, there was no unionism or compromise.

When some of my conservative LCMS listeners heard I was going to Denver to meet with the Promise Keepers, they expressed concern. They felt that we should have nothing to do with people from other denominations. In my mind, this is sectarian snobbery.

Perhaps our pastors need to be encouraged to take a cue from the Promise Keepers and form relationships with pastors in their communities who are with other denominations. The purpose would not be ecumenicity. As we form relationships, we might discover that they want to hear what we have to say. If we claim to have the pure Gospel, shouldn’t we be telling other Christians about it? What are we afraid of? Let us not be sectarian snobs. Everyone in the meeting that day knows that we in The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod are committed to doctrinal purity, and I believe they may admire us for it.

c. Teaching and Equipping Men

I believe we have already taken a cue from the Promise Keepers as to the importance of teaching and equipping men. We already realize that much of our teaching efforts have been directed at women. Perhaps we need an even more concerted effort to develop vibrant men’s ministries. But what direction should that take?

The basic methodology of the Promise Keepers is the combination of the large, emotional stadium event in which a man makes a commitment to live for God coupled with local accountability groups where the man is held to that commitment by his fellow Promise Keepers. The question is: What will happen to the "promise keeping man" when there are no longer any motivational stadium events and his accountability group disbands? Will he remain a "man of integrity" when he is he all by himself? Will he have sufficient grounding in biblical truth in order to stand? I doubt it.

The Promise Keepers seem to appeal to the feminine qualities in a man – feelings, emotions, etc. Promise Keepers is a very touchy-feely-huggy movement. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that per se. The male macho image is a thing of the past.

But, in doing Issues, Etc. every day, I have discovered that biblical theology and Christian doctrine are "masculine things." The great majority of my callers during the week and also on my Sunday night national program are men. If we ever determined to reach the men in our congregations with good courses on doctrine and theology, we might be pleasantly surprised by the response. If our men were taught how to deliver over to death their old sinful nature, turn away from "self" and embrace the Gospel, they would be empowered by Jesus Christ, the "promise keeping man of integrity," not by an emotional stadium event. If they were taught to appreciate the dynamic of Confession and Absolution whereby they stand accountable to God under the Law and forgiven and free in the Gospel, they would not need an accountability group composed of fellow sinners.

d. Zeal for God

The Promise Keepers are very zealous and passionate about equipping men to live for God. It is not hard to figure out why our men who go to Promise Keepers’ events become very disturbed when we are critical of the movement. They come home from these stadium events with a zeal for God. They ask, "How can our LCMS leaders be critical of this movement? For the first time in my life I am excited about God and I want to live for him. How can this be bad?"

We sometimes think that the zeal and passion of the speaker or preacher should not motivate the hearers. The Gospel should motivate them. While this is true, it is no excuse for proclaiming the Word of God in a boring, lifeless, matter-of-fact fashion. This hinders the work of the Holy Spirit. We must acknowledge that great preachers of the Gospel who moved people, like Dr. Walter A. Maier, were emotional. They had a passion and zeal that came through the proclamation. God most certainly demonstrated a passion and zeal for lost sinners. Dare we proclaim the Gospel describing how God accomplished that great salvation in a boring and lifeless fashion?

6. Conclusion

In a somewhat amazing fashion, even though he is referring to Israel, the Apostle Paul describes the Promise Keepers Movement in Romans 10: 2-4. He writes:

For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.

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