Promise Keepers and the Rising Tide of Ecumenism
by Gil Rugh
Chapter 1 - What is Promise Keepers?
Chapter 2 - Promise Keepers and Ecumenism
Chapter 3 - Promise Keepers and Godliness
Chapter 4 - Promise Keepers and the Vineyard Movement
I recently delivered a sermon concerning the error of attempting to substitute man-made programs for God's glorious plan. Because of the interest expressed in that sermon and because of requests for copies of the text, I decided to publish the sermon and make it available to those who want to examine the message more closely. The sermon took the form of a biblical critique of the men's movement known as Promise Keepers. I stated then and state now that I am well aware that even the idea of examining the movement might produce negative reactions. After all, if the clear intent of Promise Keepers is to produce godly men, why examine the movement? What could be wrong with Christian men uniting to become more godly? Well, of course, there is everything right and nothing wrong with becoming more godly. There is a fundamental problem, however, with the Promise Keepers' approach to the Gospel and to the way godliness is achieved in the life of a believer. That is why I must examine the movement. Let me say at the outset that,
I do not presume to judge the integrity or the motives of those in Promise Keepers.
I do not question the salvation of these men.
I do not doubt that many involved with Promise Keepers are sincere, godly men who love the Lord Jesus Christ.
Let me stress that I am concerned with the doctrine of the movement and the ministry being promoted. Any group that claims to represent Jesus Christ must 1) preach a pure Gospel, and 2) address man's spiritual growth from an accurate interpretation of God's Word. As we will see, Promise Keepers fails on both counts. Examining an issue such as this is not enjoyable and there is a temptation to ignore such an issue for the sake of unity. But God has called the church to be "the pillar and support of the truth" (I Tim. 3:15), plus we are to "examine everything carefully" (I Thess. 5:21). Part of standing for the truth involves exposing doctrine that is not in line with Scripture. My hope in writing this is that the reader would be better informed on what Promise Keepers is and be able to evaluate it more clearly in light of Scripture.
What Is Promise Keepers?
Before addressing the doctrine of Promise Keepers, it is important to understand the origin and purpose of the movement. Promise Keepers is a Christian men's movement, founded in 1990 by former University of Colorado Football coach, Bill McCartney. Four thousand, two hundred men attended the first conference at Boulder, Colorado in 1991. Attendance at the 1993 and 1994 conferences exceeded 55,000. Promise Keepers has also sponsored conferences with similar attendance figures in various cities throughout the United States. Without question, Promise Keepers is a major force in Christianity.
Purpose of Promise Keepers
The following statements from a Promise Keepers' affiliated magazine, Men of Action, clearly show the purpose of Promise Keepers:
Promise Keepers is a Christ-centered ministry dedicated to uniting men through vital relationships to become godly men who influence their world.
We believe that we have a God-given mission to unite men who are separated by race, geography, culture, denomination, and economics.
The foundation of Promise Keepers is a set of seven descriptive statements that a prospective member of Promise Keepers must accept. These seven assertions are:
1. A Promise Keeper is committed to honor Jesus Christ through worship, prayer, and obedience to His Word.
2. A Promise Keeper is committed to practice spiritual, moral, ethical, and sexual purity.
3. A Promise Keeper is committed to build strong marriages and families through love, protection, and biblical values.
4. A Promise Keeper is committed to support the mission of his church by honoring and praying for his pastor and by actively giving his time and resources.
5. A Promise Keeper is committed to reach beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity.
6. A Promise Keeper is committed to influence his world, being obedient to the Great Commandment (Mark 12:30-31) and the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20).
7. A Promise Keeper is committed to pursue vital relationships with a few other men, understanding that he needs his brothers to help keep his promises.
In addition to accepting those seven promises, Promise Keepers place strong emphasis on "vital relationships" as indicated in the following statement.
We believe that vital relationships among men are the foundation for helping one another become promise keepers. We contend that this is best accomplished when a small group of men agree to pursue God - face to face, shoulder to shoulder, and back to back - and establish covenant relationships with one another . . to be accountable to each other.
In the context of covenant relationships, a man willingly grants other men the right to inquire about his relationship to God, his commitment to his family, his sexuality, and his financial dealings.
From their literature, one sees clearly that the purpose of Promise Keepers is to produce godliness in men. That godliness is accomplished by uniting men of various backgrounds, by keeping seven promises, and by being accountable to other men.
Promise Keepers and Ecumenism
Upon studying the doctrine of the Promise Keepers, I believe there are three fundamental problems with the movement:
1. Promise Keepers is part of an ecumenical trend that puts aside essential theological issues in order to promote a unity which is not biblical unity.
2. The Promise Keepers' plan for producing godliness is not in accord with God's plan as set forth in His Word.
3. Promise Keepers is founded and driven by men associated with the Vineyard movement, a movement characterized by unsound theology.
Foundation of Ecumenism
There is great emphasis in the church today on uniting professing Christians of all denominations and beliefs. That effort is commonly referred to as "ecumenism," which is defined as "the organized attempt to bring about the cooperation and unity of all believers in Christ." With ecumenism is an emphasis on setting aside theological differences between denominations while focusing on areas of agreement. The areas of agreement are predominantly social, moral, and political.
The foundation for this ecumenical trend has been laid and built upon over many years. The 1960s saw the beginning of institutional ecumenism with the rise of the World Council of Churches. Members of this council were mostly liberal mainline Protestant denominations who denied such essential doctrines as the inerrancy of Scripture and a literal, bodily resurrection of Christ. For years, Evangelicals distanced themselves from this institutional ecumenism because of the unsound theology of the groups involved. Today, however, that spirit of compromise has invaded Evangelicalism. The recent Catholic-Evangelical accord is an example of such compromise. In this accord, Evangelicals compromised essential doctrines such as justification by faith alone and the sufficiency of Scripture in order to unite with Roman Catholics on issues such as abortion and school prayer. Doctrines that divided Evangelicals and Catholics for centuries are now being put aside in order to experience unity.
Another ecumenical influence has been the Charismatic movement which has been effective in uniting those who supposedly have had a common experience in the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in tongues. Because of common experiences, doctrinal differences that once separated denominations have often been set aside. One can now be an Episcopalian, Methodist, Lutheran, or even Roman Catholic and still be united because of common experience.
The infiltration of psychology into the church has also strengthened this trend. Most Christian radio stations are saturated with Christian psychology programs, yet the vast majority of listeners to these programs know very little about the doctrine or church affiliation of the men they listen to. These men are accepted as authorities on Christian living simply because they say they are Christians and believe the Bible. These men unify Christians, not on the basis of Scripture but on their psychological influence which is trans-doctrinal.
So with the influence of institutional ecumenism, the Charismatic movement, and Christian psychology, there is wave after wave of pressure that says, "Let's not emphasize doctrine. Let's not emphasize the specifics of the Word." It is enough to say that we believe in Christ, therefore, we should not quarrel over areas of disagreement. Over time believers are worn down and are tempted to compromise. We are tempted to sacrifice truth for unity. After all, who wants to be known as divisive? Who wants to stand in the way of unity?
There is, however, great danger when the church compromises essential doctrines to unite on social, moral, and political issues. Those involved in ecumenism often quote Jesus' prayer in John 17:21, where He prayed, "that they (Christians) may all be one" to show that believers should be unified. Certainly, believers should earnestly desire the unity Jesus referred to. However, in that same prayer, Jesus prayed, "Sanctify them in the truth; Thy word is truth" (John 17:17). True unity must be based on the truth of Scripture or else it is a false unity. The Bible nowhere calls for unity at the expense of truth.
The Promise Keepers' movement is also part of this ecumenical trend of down-playing doctrine for unity. In one Promise Keeper publication this is clearly evident:
We believe that we have a God-given mission to unite men who are separated by race, geography, culture, denomination, and economics (italics mine).
A Promise Keeper is committed to reach beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity (italics mine).
Promise Keepers is committed to reaching across denominational barriers in an effort to unite men. And they have been successful in doing that. Promise Keepers supporters and sponsors include Evangelicals, Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, Charismatics, and others. These groups have been divided by major doctrinal differences for many years. But now these differences are being dropped for the sake of unity. One pastor, who attended a Promise Keepers' meeting said,
I . . . experienced the true oneness among brethren of different faiths, races, and colors, and I also experienced an appreciation of diversity (italics mine).
Notice that the "oneness" described had nothing to do with biblical truth but rather with feelings and emotions. True "oneness," however, must be based on biblical truth, or it is not true "oneness." There is a difference between experiential and spiritual oneness. We can watch a movie with other people and laugh and cry together because we share the same experience. We may have experiential oneness but that is not Holy Spirit produced unity. The ecumenical nature of Promise Keepers can also be seen in the following quotation:
We are dedicated, then, to addressing the division that has separated the body of Christ for too long. We are committed to call men to reconcile in Christ, to live as one.
That statement sounds virtuous. After all, who does not want unity? Who does not want division put aside? But skipping over doctrinal issues is not the way to biblical unity. The Evangelical Church has traditionally taken a stand against the doctrines of the liberal Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church. Many liberal Protestant denominations deny the deity of Christ, the infallibility of Scripture, and the literal reality of the resurrection. One cannot be saved and hold to such errors. The Catholic Church denies salvation by faith alone and adds sacraments and obedience to the Church as necessary for salvation. So when Promise Keepers say they are "addressing the division that has separated the body of Christ," are they addressing key issues? Are false doctrines being addressed? Are the people in these churches challenged to flee their false religious systems? The answer is "No." Key foundational issues have been dropped, all for the sake of supposed unity. There is so much theological diversity among those involved with Promise Keepers that no in-depth discussion of Scripture or what it means to be a Christian could take place without tearing the movement apart. The ecumenical nature of Promise Keepers is a serious matter. If one followed the doctrines of some of the groups involved in this movement, one could not even be a Christian. And if one is not a Christian, nothing that person does will enable him or her to be godly.
Promise Keepers and Godliness
I once read an article in the local newspaper that stressed the importance of church, family, friends, and values. I found myself agreeing with much of the article. The only problem was that the program was sponsored by the Mormon church. Now, I do agree with Mormons that church, family, friends, and values are important, but is that enough for me to unite with them? Of course not. In spite of all these areas of agreement, there are essential doctrinal differences that will never allow me to unify with Mormons in spiritual matters. Their program is not in line with God's Word for salvation or godliness. The disagreements I have with the Mormons are what really matter, not the agreements. Likewise, with Promise Keepers, though I agree with much of what they are saying, there are doctrinal differences that will not allow me to support this movement.
Promise Keepers say they are interested in producing godly men. But is this honorable motive enough? Or does it matter how one goes about achieving godliness? I hold that true godliness can only be produced in the way God prescribed in His Word. With toys and with godliness, one must follow the instructions of the maker. Good intentions do not assemble a toy or produce godliness. Perhaps you have seen a popular sign that reads: "When all else fails, read the directions." With the assembling of toys and tools or with making some electronic device work, we may learn the hard way - more than once - that failure to follow instructions leads to failure and frustration. Obviously, with the achieving of godliness, it is far, far more critical that we follow the instructions of the Maker.
God has prescribed in His Word the way godliness is to be achieved. Promise Keepers attempt to promote godliness without following God's plan as set forth in His Word. It is possible to pursue an honorable objective in the wrong way. Paul said of his fellow Jews, "For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge" (Romans 10:2). I appreciate that Promise Keepers want to help men become godly but good intentions are not enough. I am afraid their zeal is not according to knowledge.
One error of Promise Keepers is its emphasis on extra-biblical or man-made rules. As indicated earlier, being a Promise Keeper includes committing to seven promises. But nowhere in the Bible does it tell us to be saved and then follow seven promises so that we can grow spiritually. The Bible is clear that godliness does not come from man-made rules, no matter how good those rules may seem:
If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, "Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!" . . in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men. . . These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement. . . but are of no value against fleshly indulgence (Col. 2:20,23).
The external standards that men establish may appear to be wise, but they are of no help in producing true godliness and are of no help in fighting the flesh. The promises a Promise Keeper agrees to are of no value because they are fleshly attempts to produce godliness. As we will see, godliness must be produced by the Spirit in accordance with the Word of God. Paul confronted a group who promoted extra-biblical rules for godliness. The Judaizers of Paul's day taught that faith in Christ was necessary for salvation, but they also taught that obedience to parts of the Mosaic Law, including circumcision, were also necessary. They also taught obedience to the Law was essential for living godly lives. In other words, the Judaizers held that being godly included adhering to an external set of rules. The Christians at Galatia had fallen into this false doctrine. Paul scolded them saying:
You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you. . . This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Gal. 3:2-3).
The principle is clear: Just as salvation is totally of the Holy Spirit and has nothing to do with our own efforts, so too, the living out of the Christian life must be according to the Holy Spirit and not according to fleshly efforts. The way one was saved is the same way one must grow spiritually. Paul would also tell the Galatians, "Walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh" (Galatians 5:16). The key to godly living is continual reliance upon and obedience to the Holy Spirit. Though the Galatians were genuinely saved they wrongly tried to live out their lives in the flesh by keeping the rules and regulations of the Judaizers. Today we see Promise Keepers repeating the Judaizer error all over again. They teach that men will become godly by binding themselves to an agreement of seven promises. But that sets down external criteria for godliness. Godliness can only be produced by the Holy Spirit.
We have shown that extra-biblical standards for godliness are not biblical. But now I would like to focus specifically on the issue of having "vital relationships" with other men. Promise 7 states:
A Promise Keeper is committed to pursue vital relationships with a few other men, understanding that he needs his brothers to help keep his promises. . . Each man willingly grants the others the right to inquire about his relationship to God, his commitment to his family, his sexuality, and his financial dealings.
According to this statement, men must give other men the right to inquire about family, sexual, and financial matters. Certainly as brothers in the Lord men are to encourage, rebuke, and admonish one another, but nowhere in the Bible are men told to give other men the right to inquire about those things. Obviously, if a man is involved in sin, he needs to be confronted (see Gal. 6:1). There is, however, nothing in the Bible that gives other men the right to inquire into private family and sexual matters.
God's Plan For Godliness
What is God's plan for producing godliness? We have highlighted that the Promise Keeper method is not in line with Scripture. Now we will look at God's plan as given in His Word. God's plan for godliness begins with the local church. Of the 114 references to "church" in the New Testament, over 90 refer to the local assembly of believers. We must not skip over the fact that God's plan for godliness is linked to the local church.
And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:11-13).
According to Paul, God has given the church gifted men who can instruct the body of Christ - through the Word of God - on the way to be godly. Through their teaching, pastors, teachers, and evangelists equip us, or make us ready, to do the work of the ministry. That is done, "to the building up of the body of Christ. . . to a mature man." As believers function in the context of their local church, they are built up and become mature. What is the final result of this process?
As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ. . . (Eph. 4:14-16).
When the church teaches people the Word, the people will grow spiritually and will no longer be "tossed" around by bad doctrine. As the Spirit of God enables men of God to teach the Word of God, the people of God will grow and mature. That is God's plan for godliness. We do not have the right to decide that we have a better plan. We cannot just say, "We want to be godly; therefore, we are going to get men together who will commit to seven promises so they can be real men." Men cannot function apart from the local body of believers and expect to be godly. There may be an appearance of godliness, but it is not biblical godliness.
Two Plans For Godliness?
Promise Keepers is exclusively a men's movement. But does God distinguish His plan for godliness based on gender? Is there one plan for men and another plan for women? The Bible is clear that this is not the case:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28, italics mine).
There are different roles and responsibilities indicated in the Bible for men and women, but as far as God's plan for growth in the church, there are no separate categories for men and women. The Bible never instructs men to get together to be godly. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with men meeting with other men or women meeting with other women but such meetings should be within the framework of the local church. Programs specifically for men find no precedent in Scripture.
One cannot mix sound biblical doctrine with false doctrine and expect it to produce godly men. Most of the promises a Promise Keeper makes are not inherently wrong, but godliness is not the result of a rule or promise system. It is true that godly men do not mistreat their wives and children, but godliness is not created by getting men to commit to promises not to do these things. Godly men are produced by believing the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ and submitting themselves to the Word in the context of the local church so that they may grow to maturity. When a man becomes truly converted and submits himself to the Word, he will treat his wife and children properly. He will be a man of integrity who will have a positive impact on society.
Promise Keepers and the Vineyard Movement
So far we have noted the ecumenical nature of Promise Keepers and its unbiblical plan for godliness. Another problem with the movement is the unsound theology of many of its leaders, especially with regards to the Charismatic movement. Historically, the Evangelical Church has consistently declared that the miraculous gifts of the Apostolic Era such as speaking in tongues, gifts of healings, and prophecies were limited to that era. God used such signs and wonders to confirm the authenticity of the Apostles and the message of the Gospel they were proclaiming (see Hebrews 2:4; II Corinthians 12:12). When the Apostolic Era ended, the miraculous gifts of that era ceased since the foundation of the church had been laid (see Ephesians 2:20), and the canon of Scripture was completed. This has been the testimony of Scripture and history for the first 1900 years of the church.
However, many in the Charismatic movement hold that the miraculous signs of the Apostolic Era are for today. One variation of the Charismatic movement is the Vineyard movement. They, too, believe that God is giving new revelation today and that the miraculous signs of the early church should be normative for today. These beliefs have led to much confusion and error.
The founder and main spokesman of Promise Keepers, Bill McCartney, is a former Catholic who converted to the Vineyard movement. Consistent with Vineyard doctrine, McCartney, when addressing Promise Keeper rallies, often gives what he claims are direct revelations from God. Thousands of men subject themselves to the teachings of a man claiming to speak on behalf of God, when Scripture is clear God is not giving new revelation in this age. But since the emphasis of Promise Keepers is on unity and not doctrine, McCartney is not held accountable for what he says.
McCartney's pastor, James Ryle, is on the Board of Directors of Promise Keepers and has close connections with the self-proclaimed prophet, and co-founder of the Vineyard movement, John Wimber. Ryle, like Wimber, also claims to be a modern-day prophet, receiving revelations from God. In November of 1990 at a Vineyard Harvest Conference in Denver, Ryle made the following statement:
The Lord has appointed me as a lookout and shown me some things that I want to show you. . . The Lord spoke to me and said, "What you saw in the Beatles - the gifting and the sound that they had - was from me. . . It was my purpose to bring forth through music a worldwide revival that would usher in the move of my Spirit in bringing men and women to Christ. . ." 
Ryle, at another time, also claimed he had a vision of a Beatles concert where the people were "screaming the Name - Jesus."
Here is a leader of Promise Keepers who claims God told him the Beatles were originally God's instrument for bringing "worldwide revival." Now, I grew up in the era of the Beatles, but never did I connect their beatin' it out on Ed Sullivan with God's plan for worldwide revival. Christians need to be concerned about a man of considerable influence in the Christian community who claims to receive direct revelation from God concerning the Beatles.
Along with McCartney and Ryle, there are many other Charismatic speakers who regularly speak at the conferences. One well-known pastor in the Vineyard movement explained at a Promise Keepers' rally what he believed to be the three reasons for circumcision based on Genesis 17. He said:
(1) God wants to touch your very identity as a man; (2) God wants to reach out and touch your secret and private parts; (3) God wants to touch man's creative parts. Therefore, since God touched men's creative parts, men as God's people need to be creative in witnessing to others.
But if one studies Genesis 17, he will see that circumcision was a sign of the covenant God made with the nation, Israel. It had nothing to do with being creative in witnessing. Yet thousands of men gathered together to hear such foolishness and this speaker was not accountable for misrepresenting the Word of God.
There was a time when the Evangelical Church would have stood against the unbiblical teaching of the Promise Keepers. But with the current de-emphasis on sound doctrine, that is no longer the case. As long as a man claims to be a Christian he can say whatever he wants and not worry that his teaching will be examined.
The issue of promoting godliness is a serious matter. Though the leaders in Promise Keepers have good intentions, that is irrelevant. Paul did not say he appreciated the Judaizers because they had good intentions. He went right after their erroneous teaching. When anyone tampers with the Gospel and the way godliness is produced, believers need to take a stand. One of my best friends who lived in Philadelphia once got involved with the Jehovah's Witnesses. Through his interest in the Jehovah's Witnesses, I had the opportunity to discuss the Bible and Christ with him, and he eventually became a Christian. But I have never recommended that a person try out the Jehovah's Witnesses so that he or she could become a Christian. God sometimes works good in spite of men's efforts and not because of them. Though good may come from Promise Keepers I cannot recommend that men subject themselves to unsound doctrine.
The church is to be "the pillar and support of the truth." Pastors are called to shepherd the flock and watch over their souls (see Acts 20:28). That means warning them of false doctrine that may harm them. As a pastor of a church, I cannot with good conscience tell my congregation that it is all right for them to expose themselves to the doctrine of the Promise Keepers. Likewise, for the reasons given, I do not believe men should participate in the Promise Keepers' movement. I praise God for anyone who gets saved at Promise Keepers and for any ministry of the Word that may take place. But the Promise Keepers' way is not God's way for producing godliness. It is my prayer that Christians not substitute man-made programs for God's glorious plan.
1 Ken Canfield, "What is Promise Keepers?" Men of Action, Fall 1993, p.4.
2 "What Is Promise Keepers?" Men of Action, Fall 1993, p. 4.
3 "12,148 Committed Promise Keepers and Counting," Men of Action, Fall, 1993, p. 15.
4 "What Is Promise Keepers?" Men of Action, Fall, 1993, p. 5.
6 Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p. 340.
7 "What Is Promise Keepers?" Men of Action, Fall, 1993, p.4.
8 "12,148 Committed Promise Keepers and Counting," Men of Action, Fall 1993, p. 15.
9 Pastor Oscar J. Anthony, "You Had To Be There," Men of Action, Fall 1993, p. 3.
10 "What Is Promise Keepers?" Men of Action, Fall 1993, p. 5.
11 "12,148 Committed Promise Keepers and Counting," Men of Action, Fall 1993, p. 15.
12 "Promise Keepers," Biblical Discernment Ministries, Vol. 3 #2, March/April 1994.
14 This was taken from Jack Hayford's message at the Anaheim, California Promise Keeper rally in 1994.
NOTE - Gil Rugh is the senior pastor of Indian Hills Community Church in Lincoln, NE. He has been preaching there for 25 years.