Beyond Promises: A Biblical Challenge to Promise Keepers

By David Hapogian and Douglas Wilson
Moscow, Idaho : Canon (1996). 268 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. James Rosscup
7.2 (Fall 1996) : 270-273

This book is very clear in most places, readable, well-researched, and creatively fascinating in its writing style. It compliments the Promise Keepers (PK) men's movement where it can, but pleads for corrections the authors feel are urgent.

Hagopian is a business litigator in the California office of an international law firm, and lives in Southern California. He has a B.A. in history from the University of California, Irvine, and a J.D. from the University of Southern California. Wilson earned an M. A. in philosophy at the University of Idaho, pastors Community Evangelical Fellowship, Moscow, Idaho, and has written two books on marriage and child-rearing—Reforming Marriage (Canon, 1995) and Standing on the Promises (Canon, forthcoming in 1996)—and a Latin Grammar (Canon) and other works.

The book appeals for corrections in the largest men's movement in the United States today with a brotherly Christian spirit that seeks not to score cheap points but rather to evaluate PK ideals by the biblical "Bureau of Standards," God's Word. One quickly gains the impression that the movement has grown so rapidly that it has not with proper discernment assessed ideas being taught in its publications. Many PK speakers and writers promulgate opinions that are misleading and not reflective of what God's Word teaches. One big corrective would be to replace speakers and writers who spin questionable or non-Christian theories off their heads with those who have depth and fidelity to Scripture.

The writers commend PK aims to help men gain wholeness in a Christian sense and count for the right in every area of life. They also commend PK help in getting men converted to Christ, combating racism, and showing a proper biblical leadership in the home.

Yet most of the book defines areas of correction. The authors want to help, not just criticize. They call for a sounder biblical basis for PK ideas (23, 34). In a manner that attempts not to offend Christian brothers, the authors constructively suggest the following problems that need to be set right: Too often the PK gospel is a brand of moralism, the authors reason. It slights God's grace gift and creates impressions that to be saved, men need to do something, i.e., "live to please Him" (38). Or to live the Christian life men need to commit to seven promises, leaving the impression that transforming power lies in making promises. The problem is that rules such as the ten commandments prove human inability to obey perfectly and should drive people to Christ, the only true promise keeper. God alone transforms; in conversion one begins and then he continues by the Spirit (Gal 3:1-3). Christ offers His perfection in man's place, as his righteousness, holiness, and redemption (1 Cor 1:30).

Another correction needed is in PK's concept of biblical masculinity. The authors fault PK use of Robert Hicks' The Masculine Journey and its Study Guide which stops at nothing (they say) to shock the conscience. It even promotes fetishism, and encourages men to share with each other intimate private sexual matters such as their first wedding night. It advocates celebrating the male phallus and having church elders congratulate young people who have sinned for being human, before moving on to confession and restoration (102). Hicks endorses the error that six Hebrew Old Testament words for man (Adam, etc.) teach six normative stages of development for men, seasons of life, and twists the idea of manhood in Scripture. Men are to worship God as phallic kinds of guys, rather than the biblical emphasis of men and women worshiping God in spirit and truth (John 4:24).

The writers acknowledge that PK leaders have finally (after about two years) withdrawn use of Hicks' book, but observe they have not issued a public statement acknowledging the lack of discretion in using it as an official PK tool in earlier stages of the movement (105, 106).

Other problems exist in PK teaching, the writers say. One is in reconciling pop psychology to Christianity, as in pushing self-esteem (affirming one another) rather than recognizing human sinfulness and overcoming it through God's forgiveness and enablement. Christ died for those whose acts were as filthy rags, who were children of wrath, and dead in trespasses and sins. Only God is good. To exalt self-esteem as PK writers do is to reduce Christ's cross to a meaningless gesture by claiming man's basic goodness (82).

Signs of careful analysis mark this book, so sensitive PK attention and response could profit the movement and get it on sounder footing. Yet the book has some faults, not doctrinal ones, but in its failure to give explicit positive remedies after criticizing PK for giving the impression men are to accomplish good through their own promises and determination. What are the biblical commands believers are to heed—the many imperatives—and how do they correlate with depending on God's power to fulfill them? At the end of chapter 8, for example, where is any positive counsel on how to obey the Lord? Another weakness is the book's disjointedness in early chapters, bringing up criticisms briefly, then leaving them without a thorough discussion, and picking them up in later chapters that take up the PK's seven promises one by one.

Despite occasional lapses in clarity, the book is usually an incisive, articulate, good-spirited appeal for PK to deal with problems and become accurate and more effective. Otherwise the PK movement will, with whatever good it does, foster considerable error in the guise of biblical and Christian truth. Otherwise, it will be part of the problem, not a solution that men need to it.