Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron’s ministry The Way of the Master (WoM) basically exists to teach a method of evangelism that involves the use of clever tracts and tactics that get an evangelist into friendly dialogue with unbelievers quickly and naturally (well, as naturally as one can expect when doing “cold” witnessing!). The main thrust of the WoM method is to rely upon the Ten Commandments as the standard for goodness to show unbelievers that they fail. The unbeliever is taken through several of the commandments and asked, hypothetically, that if they were to be judged on these alone would they expect to get into Heaven. This leads into a discussion of the Gospel and the evangelist is off and running.
To begin with, this critique is of some particulars of WoM’s method – not its overall message. I think chapters 2-3 of Comfort and Cameron’s Revival’s Golden Key should be required reading for all who call themselves Christians today. The “happy life” gospel presentation made popular in the 1970’s and 80’s is simply unbiblical. God may or may not have a wonderful life planned for you, but the only promises we have as Christians in this life are bleak (Mt. 10:21-22; Acts 9:16; 2 Tim. 3:12; Heb. 11:35-38). And it might be good to ask Paul for his comments on John 10:10 to see if the promise of abundant life means happiness here on earth (see 2 Cor. 11:23-28)!
In addition, it should be noted that criticism takes up a lot more space than praise, so do not judge my criticism of the book simply by space devotion! There are many positive things to be said for the overall approach:
First, the WoM method is quite effective. It works. It works well. I have seen it in action numerous times and I can tell you that it is nothing short of amazing how fast and smoothly one can get into a friendly and in-depth conversation with a total stranger.
Second, it takes into consideration the proper steps in the process of evangelism. As has been said, the patient needs to know they’re sick before they’re offered the cure. Running up to someone and saying “You need to accept Jesus to be saved!” makes no sense if divorced from the context of why one needs to be saved and from what.
Third, it uses biblical examples for its strategy: both Jesus and Paul used the law as a means to show people that people are not perfect (there is more to the story, however, see below).
Fourth, it does not ask that believers “earn the right” to present the gospel as many relationship oriented methods teach. Scripture does not indicate that we must wait around to build a friendship before we are “allowed” to be witnesses. There is nothing wrong with relationship evangelism, but we should certainly not limit ourselves to it.
Fifth, it encourages boldness for the timid. The “scaredy cat Christian” (as one of WoM’s spokesmen likes to put it) can use the method with relative comfort, and the bold can keep from being brash.
Sixth, it undercuts many potential objections. Simply presenting the gospel opens one up to objections because it requires that the Bible is true and has been correctly understood by the evangelist. That’s a hard pill for an unbeliever to swallow! Further, the Bible’s trustworthiness is dependent on it being the word of God, thus God must exist (another area unbelievers may not buy into). In a relativistic culture where truth is demeaned to mere opinion, this hypothetical approach keeps the focus where it belongs and does not invite objections by making too many challengeable claims.
Seventh, it keeps the conversation relatively objective. Although it asks many personal questions, and suggests major ramifications to the answers given, the approach keeps a bit of distance so that the evangelist is not seen as an attacker. There is plenty given for the unbeliever to think about, but during the actual conversation the unbeliever has the ability to retain his common dignity in the face of his obvious failure.
Let me begin by stating without hesitation that I have a lot of respect for the overall strategy of The Way of the Master, as well as for those who participate in it either directly or indirectly. Hopefully this is obvious from the above statements, but I want to make it clear nonetheless. I also think that while the following criticisms are important, they do not nullify the good mentioned above. There are some shortcomings, though, whose effects may not be immediately obvious but can cause problems down the road. It is to these that I now turn – because with some adjustments I think the WoM method would be practically perfect.
Criticism: Three Issues
Issue One: Are People Today Judged by the Ten Commandments?
My main concern is from the method’s stated reliance on the Ten Commandments. Theological error is not justified by pragmatic success. The fact of the matter is that no one outside of pre-Christ Israel is answerable to the Ten Commandments which are part of God’s contract with Israel. Now, this does not mean we are free to lie, steal, murder, etc. These elements are part of the universal moral law that all people are under. The moral law is repeated and even amplified in the New Testament just in case anyone missed them the first time! I have an article on the Ten Commandments and the Christian elsewhere in case this is doubted, but some comments follow.
First, it is interesting that the WoM method itself seems to recognize that this is the case. In their own teaching they actually quote from the New Testament when they ask people whether or not they have lived up to the Ten Commandments. Further, they never challenge someone with the fourth commandment – that of failing to rest from one’s labor on the Sabbath.* Why not? Because no one, not even Christians, are expected to do this today. (*Note that remembering the Sabbath is not simply “setting a day apart” – the Sabbath was, is, and always will be Saturday).
Second, unlike other commandments, no person or nation outside of Israel was ever judged for failing to uphold the ten commandments per se. The Sabbath is a good example. But if one commandment is not in force outside of Israel, then neither are the other nine. (Remember, of course, that this does not free someone to commit moral sins anymore than the fact that we do not follow British laws against theft means that we can steal in America! See Romans 2).
Third, the verses used to support this reliance simply do not do so. In a classic example of poisoning the well, WoM asks readers of The Forgotten Key to Biblical Evangelism to set aside their “traditions and prejudices and look at what God’s Word says on the subject” of evangelism. Flawed prooftexting follows in support of their contention that the Ten Commandments are to be used to convict Gentiles. However . . .
- Both Galatians 3:24 and Romans 7:7 regard Jewish conversion from the Law – not Gentile.
- 1 Timothy 1:8 is not referencing the Ten Commandments per se (as indicated by the lack of a definite article and the fact that many of the laws Paul cites as examples are not in the Ten Commandments). Rather it refers to the moral law of God which even Gentiles are under. This would make sense since Paul, the author of 1 Timothy, specifically indicated that the Gentiles were not under the Jewish Law, but were under God’s moral law (Rom. 2; 1 Cor. 9:20-22).
- In Acts 28:23 the reference to the “law of Moses” is not to the Ten Commandments, rather it is referring to the whole Pentateuch (what in the Ten Commandments could be used to prove Christ was the Messiah?).
- The “key of knowledge” in Luke 11:52 is not the failure to use the law to witness. Rather, it is the failure of the keepers of the law to rightly explain the law and uphold it before the people they were supposed to watch over.
It seems that in their zeal to promote what is admittedly a good method, WoM cites these references out of context for support. While this might not have been intentional, it is hardly acceptable.
Issue Two: Actions vs. Characteristics
In the WoM approach it is important to get the unbeliever to admit to not only having broken God’s law (even if only once) but that he is now label-worthy according to the sin. For example, the dialogue might go like this:
Have you ever told a lie?
~ Yes, I’ve told lies.
So what does that make you?
~ A liar.
Have you ever stolen anything – even something small?
Then what does that make you?
~ A thief.
The point of these questions is to (justifiably) keep the person from simply saying “Yeah, yeah – I’m a sinner just like everyone else,” and to force them to really see their sin as breaking God’s law. But, does doing something one or even several times qualify one to a label in this manner? I see a few problems with this.
First, if I say to someone “Ronald McDonald is a liar.” I don’t think anyone would assume that I only meant that he had at some point in his life told at least one lie. Labels like this usually refer to an ongoing practice that characterizes a person.
Second, if it is the case that doing something once makes one into that sort of thing, then couldn’t I say that since I have obeyed God’s law at least once that I am a law-abider? But then we have a contradiction because I would be both a law-abider and a law-breaker. Or do I flip flop between each label as I go along doing one or the other (and if I do, why would I need to be “saved” during the times I am a law-abider)? The principle is confusing at best if applied consistently.
Finally, I think this problem is indicated in the very verse that these kinds of admissions are meant to lead to (1 Cor. 6:11). If doing something even once justifies those kinds of labels =, then how could one ever be removed? How could Paul say, “such were some of you”? Jesus’ death did not change what they did – it took away their guilt for doing them. But WoM asks people to call themselves liars and adulterers and murderers for something they might have done only once. It seems to me that these labels are really only useful as indicators of present life characteristics, not simple acknowledgement that someone did something once.
Here I think two distinct things are being confused – violation of (and guilt over) breaking, a command (which only requires one act) and being characterized as that sort of thing (which I think requires regular, repeated actions). It is not necessary to be committing an act 100% of the time to be labeled of course, but it should be presently consistent. I think it would be better to simply say, “If you’ve told even one lie you’re guilty of breaking the law, right?” Then focus on the fact that even one violation makes one guilty of breaking God’s law (James 2:10-11). It might not have the same emotional impact, but I think it is more true to facts.
Issue Three: Is This Really The Way of the Master?
I am uncomfortable with the repeated claims that this method is “The way Jesus did it.” The ministry’s title implies this (“The” way of the Master, not simply “A way”). Even the logo “WDJD” refers to doing things the way Jesus did them (i.e. What Did Jesus Do?). Statements that could easily lead to that conclusion are all over the WoM web site and their books.
Thus, not only is WoM claiming to be based on a biblical method – it is put forth as being the only biblical method. For example, Kirk Cameron writes in the introduction to The Forgotten Key to Biblical Evangelism that “to be properly instructed in how to effectively reach the lost with the gospel, you must begin with the biblical foundation for evangelism” [emphasis in original]. In other words, without referencing the Law you do not have the biblical foundation for Gospel sharing. Yet, as will be shown, not only did Jesus “do it” many other ways as well, He did not even “do it” this way with the rich young ruler (WoM’s standard proof text).
Sometimes Jesus simply healed someone. Sometimes He shared a meal with sinners. Sometimes He cast out demons. Sometimes He told parables. Sometimes He performed miracles. Sometimes He challenged the Law itself. These all took place in just the first half of Mark’s gospel, yet only a single example is cited by WoM as “the way” Jesus did it.
Moreover, while it is true that in Mark 10:17-37 Jesus did cite the Law during His witnessing to the rich young ruler, a closer look at the passage reveals some major departures from the WoM method:
Now as Jesus was starting out on his way, someone ran up to him, fell on his knees, and said, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” The man said to him, “Teacher, I have wholeheartedly obeyed all these laws since my youth.” As Jesus looked at him, he felt love for him and said, “You lack one thing. Go, sell whatever you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” But at this statement, the man looked sad and went away sorrowful, for he was very rich.
Note several things here: (1) Jesus did not challenge the man’s claim that he had never disobeyed the commandments. (2) Jesus did not, as he had on previous occasions, amplify individual laws making it even more difficult to claim success. Instead, (3) Jesus simply added another requirement – one not contained in the law. Now, in WoM none of these tactics are used, yet this is THE example WoM uses to show “how Jesus did it.” Even if this were not the case, this would still only count as an acceptable example – not a command. In fact the WoM method is not commanded in any passage of Scripture.
Now, it is true that the Law acts as a mirror (see James 2:9-10 and Rom. 7) and a schoolmaster (Gal. 3:24 cf. Rom. 3:19-20; 7:7; 1 Tim. 1:8-11). Thus, showing someone that they have failed to uphold God’s law is a powerful way of making the point. This is why Jesus went through the Ten Commandments and specifically noted that God’s universal standard was actually much higher than the Jews understood it to be. In other words – if someone thinks that by obeying a conservative reading of only ten (out of 613) laws makes her good enough to meet a perfect standard she’s in trouble!
God’s Law is holy and we will be judged according to its perfect standard. This is not at issue. Rather, the issue is whether or not it is right to claim that referencing a particular set of laws never meant for non-Israelites is the only acceptable means for witnessing to people today based on a single example in the life of Christ that does not even match the proposed method. Oddly, without Jesus’ New Testament amplification of the Ten Commandments it would actually not be terribly difficult to pass the “good person test.” Unless, as WoM teaches, the popular sentiment “to put anything before God is idolatry” is true. However, this does not match the Old Testament description of idolatry – bowing down to worship something as an actual god. It is true that one “cannot serve both God and money” (Mt. 6:24), but this is a reference to overcoming anxiety over life’s provisions – not worship.
Are These Things Really That Big of a Deal?
Not necessarily – but very possibly.
I have known people who “got saved” through theologically flawed means (legalism, charismaticism, prosperity preaching, etc.) and although they got the gospel across it messed these people up for years afterward. Some even fell away because of problems related to their flawed view of Christianity that they were taught initially. I for one don’t want to have to go back and correct faulty teachings after someone gets saved. Further, if someone discovers that they based their decision on false statements then what might be their response be to the true parts?
If the Ten Commandments are not for us, and if we do not deserve labels because of a few actions, then we should not take advantage of the rhetorical power this method gives us. “Getting saved” is only the first part of discipleship (our actual mandate), so allowing teachings that are potentially destructive to discipleship to flourish just because they sometimes help people take the first step is dangerous. I am sure that Comfort and Cameron would agree in principle if not in specifics (just like I agree with WoM in principle if not in specifics!).
Moreover, I think that the WoM method can be used every bit as effectively without these problematic features. I humbly suggest the following changes:
(1) Do not imply that no other way of evangelizing is “Jesus-like” or acceptable.
(2) Rather than claiming to use the Ten Commandments as stated in the Old Testament, call it like it is and admit to using perfect moral law as stated in the New Testament.
(3) Help people to see that perfection is God’s standard without focusing on labels that may not be accurate descriptions of a person’s lifestyle.