In April, 2005, I was one of about ninety men to attend a pricey three day New Life Ministries conference in Costa Mesa, California promoted as a biblically based means for men to overcome problems with lust and to develop sexual purity. After attending this workshop, we were asked to prepare an evaluation. The information that follows is essentially this initial evaluation. Shortly later, it was also sent directly to Stephen Arterburn, who is a well known author, speaker, founder of New Life Ministries, and a co-author of the popular book, Every Man’s Battle. Before it was sent, I spoke with Mr. Arterburn directly. He seemed surprised by my call and promised to respond to my concerns after he had studied them. He never did respond and his staff has also refused to discuss this further.
The workshop in question is called Every Man’s Battle Workshop and it was developed by New Life Ministries, which actively recruits men by means of radio broadcasts, internet ads and other media. The workshop is held frequently in different parts of the country. Men come because they desire to win the battle over lust and are told that the material is “biblically based.” For many, committing time and money to come represents an act of desperation, since problems with lust have threatened their marriage and other relationships. Many come because they have read the book Every Man’s Battle by Fred Stoeker and Stephen Arterburn and want to incorporate its powerful message.
Unfortunately, the workshop and the book, though they share the same name, are very different in what they offer.
The book is straightforward and firmly based on Biblical teaching. The Workshop, on the other hand, is based on the teachings of the recovery movement with biblical teaching patched on.
Basically, the difference lies in how each views the reality of lust. This difference reflects the fact that popular Christian teaching is also clearly of two minds on this issue.
The most common view mirrors the one held by society. It holds that we men are incapable of controlling our sexual thoughts. Lustful thoughts are simply a part of our lives, with our imaginations easy prey to all kinds of sexual temptation. As our society devolves from a passive disapproval of pornography to a wholesale embrace of soft and hard-core pornography, this has stunning implications. If we cannot effectively control our thoughts, all men, including Christians, face an unachievable goal in seeking sexual purity.
A powerful, divergent view is taking root, in part because of the popular EMB book, which argues that Christian men are called to and capable of achieving purity in their thought lives. This view takes the teaching of scripture literally and offers a blueprint for overcoming sexual temptation in our thoughts and imaginations. The result is a liberating way to live in a society that is saturated with sexual images and accepting of sexual activities of all kinds.
As someone who was fundamentally changed by the EMB book and its practical approach, I sought to learn more and signed up for the workshop. The three day conference includes ten sessions of teaching and seven sessions of small group meetings with highly qualified therapists. New Life Ministries, the sponsor, is headed by Steve Arterburn, one of the authors of the EMB book.
To my amazement and great consternation, it was only after I was well into the workshop that I recognized that it was taking a fundamentally different direction than the one set forth in the book. Other participants expressed similar concerns. They too had been drawn in by the book and were bewildered by the content of the workshop.
In my view, here are the very striking differences between the EMB book and workshop:
1. The EMB workshop did not emphasize the ugly sinfulness at the core of sexual impurity.
From beginning to end, the EMB book emphasizes the fact that allowing impure sexual activity to take hold in our thought lives is a grave sin. For this reason, men need to confess and repent from this sin and then to thoroughly remove lust from their lives. Fundamentally, Christians must despise lust and attain an achievable standard of purity.
The workshop, in contrast, stuck closely to our culture’s accepted wisdom. In fact, the leader, David Wever, introduced himself with the classic twelve step introduction, “I am a sex addict.” During an early session the sin issue and the need to confess and repent was clearly explained. However, this straightforward biblical teaching was not the central theme of the conference and was basically abandoned along the way.
Instead of focusing on the sin of lust and how to eliminate it from our lives, the workshop message wrapped itself in therapeutic language. Recovery, relapse, and regression were just some of the key concepts that dominated. The bulk of the teaching dealt with inner conflicts, childhood experiences and emotional triggers that supposedly lie at the root of the problem. Dealing with our moods, past wounds and resentment was touted as essential in order to get a grip on this struggle.
This wholesale surrender to muddled, secular theories about uncontrolled lust contrasts strikingly with the sparse, direct approach utilized by the EMB book. For example, a fundamental insight provided by the EMB book is the distinction between “excellence” and “purity.” Excellence closely mirrors the world’s approach of achieving a high standard of behavior in the sexual realm. Christians can choose excellence by limiting their behavior and keeping sexual sin under control in a way that appears acceptable or even commendable.
Purity, on the other hand, is the clear biblical standard that calls us to eliminate lust across the entire spectrum of sexual behavior including our thoughts. Violating this standard is a sin that must be overcome.
Such fundamental distinctions were not emphasized in the workshop. Taking an uncompromising attitude towards the sin of lust and recognizing the need for forgiveness and repentance whenever this sin appears, was replaced with the model of addiction. Under this model, lust is a “thorn in the flesh” and the pre-victorious plight of Paul as described in Romans 7 is the norm. “What I hate, I do.” Once we view ourselves as addicts, the best we can seem to hope for is to manage our sexual desires.
2. The EMB workshop emphasized sexual sobriety rather than sexual purity as the goal.
Since there was an underlying assumption that our thought lives are always vulnerable to lust, the seminar introduced a new standard called “sexual sobriety.”
Keeping sexual sobriety means eliminating observable behavior such as viewing pornography, masturbation and illicit affairs. Such managing of our sexual desires and behaviors became the dominant theme. In fact, the workshop continually differentiated between externally visible and internal sins. At the last session the goal was summed up with the charge to “maintain sexual sobriety and strive for sexual purity.”
The “battle plan” needed to maintain sexual sobriety is an enduring program to prevent inner lust from “acting out” as external behavior. This program is grueling, time consuming and complicated. At a minimum it includes a regimen of weekly sessions with each of the following: a professional therapist, an accountability partner, a support group, and a pastor, in addition to daily personal prayer and study. Attendees are warned that choosing a less rigorous plan would undoubtedly result in failure.
If this looks like a plan modeled on the “recovery” programs common to drug and alcohol addiction groups, it is because this is exactly the approach prescribed. The underlying premise is that men who are caught up in sexual sin are broken and the required treatment must include an intense regimen of recovery sessions and therapy.
Sexual sobriety looks a lot like what Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing- cleaning the outside of the cup instead of the inside. Unfortunately for this approach, He was singularly unimpressed with surface purity. Instead, He taught that internal and external sins were equally repugnant to God and demanded purity of the heart so that there would be purity of action. This central truth is essential for any Christian response to compulsively powerful sins. When there is sin in the heart, it will eventually display itself outwardly. In fact, sexual sobriety without purity in the heart is an impossible charge.
Instead of drawing the line at outward behavior, the battle as the EMB book describes it is waged almost entirely internally. According to the book, Christians must overcome the sin of lust in their hearts. It does not mention “sexual sobriety,” a concept that has no basis in biblical teaching. Scripture also knows nothing about sexual addiction and it certainly does not provide carefully crafted strategies for managing our sexual desires. Instead of an unwieldy battle plan as demanded by the workshop, the EMB book sets forth, in a very systematic and compelling way, how every Christian man can obey God’s call for purity in their hearts.
Unfortunately, the goal of maintaining sexual sobriety as called for by the workshop is inadequate to the challenge of our day. Men who give in to sexual temptation at the inner level are no longer protected by the cultural restraints that historically have kept pornography and immorality at bay. In fact, the advent of the internet and other media provide a cesspool that is only a few clicks away.
It is inconceivable that the preferred way to overcoming what amounts to an epidemic problem is to commit to a lifestyle chock full of recovery activities. However, if that is the chosen solution, it is dramatically different than anything found in the EMB book.
3. The workshop does not offer the possibility of victory over lust and sexual sin.
Overcoming sexual sin is a battle. Temptation is abundant, since our culture openly promotes and glorifies lust. If the Christian does not respond by eliminating lust, the result is defeat, plain and simple.
The EMB book lays out a practical and brutally honest battle plan for winning the battle. It shows that by means of carefully disciplined behavior, literal acceptance of biblical teaching and a gracious dependence on our all-sufficient Savior, there is no reason that lust should reign in the hearts of a believer.
In a follow-up book to EMB called Everyman’s Challenge, there is a chapter called “The death of temptation.” It describes a condition where sexual temptation is no longer a persistent problem. By overcoming lust on a daily basis, the temptation towards this sin loses its power. When one enters this or any battle with sin, one should do so with the expectation of victory.
Unfortunately, the EMB workshop holds out no prospect of victory. Nothing close to this concept is promoted or illustrated. In stark contrast to the victorious message of the EMB book, the EMB workshop describes a never-ending struggle. Because it buys in to the addiction model, the best it can offer is a twelve step treadmill that can never be escaped. Can an addict ever win? Of course not. He is doomed to furtively flee every temptation and to desperately manage his passions. In a culture that is losing all self control, this is a battle that can’t be won. In fact, attendees are told that relapses (breaking sobriety) are not failures, but mere slips into old habits that are bound to happen.
Buy the book and skip the workshop.
Every Christian man faces sexual temptation. It is his duty as a servant of God to overcome sin, including the lust in his heart. He is called to be radically different than those who do not have the power of God in their lives.
If you are seeking this result, I urge you to pick up the EMB book, understand the biblical principals it develops and then to apply the practical tools it recommends. This has worked for me and for many others.
Stay away from the EMB workshops unless you are seeking a conventional therapeutic approach. The book and the workshop are fundamentally different and this should be clear to everyone, especially to those who are shelling out big bucks to attend.
Several times during the workshop, the EMB book was dismissed as a primer in comparison to the more robust approach being presented. This is a tragic mistake. The teaching provided at the EMB workshops, in my view, is clearly inferior to that of the book and undermines its clear, relevant message. It is unfortunate and confusing that both the book and the seminar share the same name since their approaches are so completely at odds.