Some reflections on our shared experience in COBU

        I am Dave Montoya and I was saved in 1974 in the days of the
Forever Family. In 1982 I moved into the Fellowship and I left in 1984.
Having followed some of the correspondence flowing in and around my brother
Mike's Web site over the past few months, and at his prompting, I am adding
my perspective on some of the main issues being raised in several of the
pieces I have read. The easiest thing to do would be to start by
responding to the latest messages sent by Rob Machell, Neil Pendry and John
Schultz, since their statements raise some of the issues that I think are
of concern to us all, even if their answers may not be wholly adequate.

        From my own experience and from what I read and hear of others who
have left COBU and kept their faith in Jesus, the burning question that we
have faced (or still face) is: "what was that all about?" More
specifically, we all try to figure out what God was doing or not doing
during the time we were in COBU. We try to sort out the good from the bad.
For some this is a very difficult process. The story often seems to play
itself out like this: Leave the fellowship feeling guilty, convinced that
you are the one at fault; Get into sin for a period, because you are
convinced that anything short of coming back to fellowship would be a game
anyway; Realize that there is the possibility of following Jesus outside
COBU and so recommit to Him; and then the confusing part: try to figure out
why God would let us be there in the first place. That last question needs
to be expanded, because there are really several questions buried in it:
1. What, if anything, in COBU was of God and what was not?
2. How do I view Stewart? Is he to blame for what was wrong there? Did he
"lead us astray?" Is he a false prophet, a sincere brother who made some
mistakes, a brother at all?
3. What am I responsible for in all this?
4. Assuming that there were serious problems with COBU (otherwise we
wouldn't have left) Why would God have let it exist and why did I have to
go through it?

It seems that every exchange I read, every testimony and e-mail is buzzing
around these questions. At the one extreme are those who are bitter and
angry at Stewart for the role they believe he played in harming their lives
and faith. At the other extreme (just short of those who still live in the
fellowship) are those who see Stewart in a positive light, as God's
instrument for a season of their life. Some see their time in COBU as no
more than a destructive waste of their lives; others seem to want to
romanticize it as the "glory days with a few mistakes."

        The message from Rob, Neil and John serves as a good example. First
let me say that while I take issue with some of their more significant
conclusions I agree with their attempt to try to find a reconciliation of
the hard questions raised by our experience. Giving them the benefit of the
doubt, they seem to be trying to come up with answers that will show that
God indeed "works all things to the good of those who love him."
Furthermore, they are rightly concerned with the fact that many seem stuck
in bitterness and a "It's all Stewart's fault" mentality.  However, as they
try to sort out the good from the bad, I would say they have stuck a few
"bad" things in the "good" category. In particular, they equate Stewart's
role with the Old Covenant's role to make us aware of sin so that when
Grace comes (the New Covenant) we will receive it as the truly needy people
we are. They all three seem to believe that what happened historically (Old
Covenant/ New Covenant) happens in a Christian's life and that is what
happened to us. There are several problems with this explanation:

        First, this equation effectively justifies Stewart's actions and
leadership as "holy and just and good." John quotes this scripture to say
that through COBU God made him aware of sin, and that it was he, the
sinner, who chose to run and hide in shame. This is a false equation and a
false conclusion on several grounds. The shame we experienced had less to
do with what was said (the Law) in COBU than the way we were treated. The
fact that one very simple scripture was constantly violated led to much
needless shame, guilt and fear and that is the scripture in Matthew 18 that
says that if your brother sins, go to him privately, and then if he doesn't
listen, take another and finally bring them before the church. Stewart (and
others of us) routinely skipped over steps 1 and 2 since most of his
dealings with most of us were public. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to
figure out that heaping that kind of shame on someone is psychologically
and spiritually devastating. It is beside the point if I am actually guilty
of the sin in question; that was an improper and unbiblical way to deal
with it. My 5 year old son may indeed be guilty of not sharing with his
sister, but if I beat him with a stick and ground him for a year, you'd
probably say that my son's sin, as real as it is, is not the real issue
compared to the way I reacted! And if my son told you later that it made
him appreciate God's love more once he discovered it, you would still
consider me abusive and in the wrong. We all for years made the mistake of
thinking that if some shame was appropriate any amount was. That is
patently false. Even under the Law God isn't about destroying people with
guilt and shame.

        Second, this equation (of COBU and the Old Covenant) starts with
experience and then looks for Biblical justification, instead of starting
with the Bible and interpreting our experiencing though it. So there is a
pattern here: COBU produced shame, The Old Covenant produced shame; Leaving
COBU produces freedom, The New C produces freedom. This kind of gooey
Biblical interpretation is one of the legacy's of COBU itself. Those kinds
of loose associations are typical of Stewart's Bible studies but we are
going to have to do better or else we will be able to say most anything.
Now the Bible does hint in Galatians that this progression is somewhat like
the life of a child growing to a man. For those of us with children, we
realize that first we teach right and wrong (law) and as the child grows we
teach the "whys" and then we begin to increase their freedom until finally
we let them go, hoping that what we have instilled stays with them (Prov
22:6). But again, to use this to justify the kind of stuff going on in COBU
is a real stretch. What limit, may I ask, is there to the amount of shame
one may produce under the Old? The Law, written in stone, stood as a
testimony to the sinfulness of man. The Jews did not make it their practice
(nor is it mandated by the law) to go about shaming each other under it.
The one group that did (the Pharisees) was soundly denounced by Jesus for
just this thing.

        Third, this emphasis on the Old and New implies that God has
changed in how he deals with us but he is unchanging - it is the God of the
OT who declares to Moses: Exodus 34:6-7  "The LORD, the LORD, a God
merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and
faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity
and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty,
visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children's
children, to the third and the fourth generation." Yes he is a God of
justice, but he is also "gracious and merciful... abounding in steadfast
love..." He hasn't changed. He hates sin the same but he deals graciously
with sinners." My point here again is that there is no place for Christians
treating each other without grace, since God commands it and it is the way
he deals with us. Yes, he gave the law to reveal sin, but he did not
suspend his grace in the meantime! How was Abraham saved? Just like you and
me - he believed and God reckoned it to him as righteousness. That's grace.

        Fourth and most importantly, there is no Biblical justification for
this idea that it is normative for God to deal in a Christian's life like
he does in history - first putting him under law and then under grace. In
fact, that idea is soundly rejected by scripture. If Stewart was in any way
neglecting grace and keeping us under law then the best scriptural analogy
for him is the Judaizers, the Jewish believers who were going about trying
to get the Gentiles Christians to submit to the Law of Moses. In Galatians
Paul clearly condemns this. In Galatians 1:6  he says "I am astonished that
you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the GRACE of Christ and
turning to a different gospel--" These Gentiles began their Christian lives
with grace, then in 2:4-5 he goes on  "But because of false brethren
secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy out our FREEDOM which we have in
Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage-- to them we did not
yield submission even for a moment, that the truth of the gospel might be
preserved for you." If we shouldn't yield submission even for a moment,
then 1 to 6 or more years living without grace has got to be a problem.
Then he goes on to give the specific example of when Peter showed up and
Paul rebuked him because a group of believing Jews showed up who still held
to the Law and Peter (presumably motivated by shame at having violated the
Law as it pertained to eating with Gentiles) withdrew from the Gentile
brethren. In Paul's mind this is wrong and moving backwards: Galatians 5:1
"For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not
submit again to a yoke of slavery." There is no qualification that says
that you have to go through a "law phase" of your Christian life. Certainly
the Law and awareness of sin is necessary to bring one to Christ (why else
would a person repent if they had no awareness of what they were repenting
from); but once saved, we live under grace. What then, are we free to sin
as if there is no law? By no means! As Luther said, "The Law sends us to
Christ and Christ sends us back to the Law" Certainly we live our lives in
a cycle of the Holy Spirit making us aware of sin and then we turn to God
for forgiveness. But this is (or should be) an immediate process; for us to
dwell too long on our sin is to tell Jesus his death means nothing. "Mercy
has triumphed over judgment" and that should be the basis of our lives.
This leaves no room for an "Old Covenant" period in one's Christian life.
The Galatians were heading into such a period and Paul has some of the
harshest words in the New testament - "who has bewitched you?" He
pronounces a curse on the ones who are leading them astray and he says he
wishes they would mutilate themselves. I find it interesting that both Paul
and Jesus reserve their harshest condemnations for those "religious" people
who are ardent keepers of the law and who "bind heavy burdens hard to bear,
and lay them on men's' shoulders, but will not move them with their

        So how do I answer the questions that I laid out earlier in light
of all that I have said so far?

1. What, if anything, in COBU was of God and what was not?
        It would probably be better to begin with the question, "what was
COBU?" Was it a cult? Without getting too bogged down in semantics, I would
call it a "fringe church". Or you could call it a Christian church with
cultic practices. The word "cult" has been beaten around so much that its
hard to know what it means anymore. If you call COBU a cult then it sounds
like you have just equated it with the Hare Krishna's or something - that
doesn't really tell you anything. "Fringe church" simply means that it is a
church but it is real unhealthy; it does have honest to goodness Christians
in it, but they are hurtin' sheep. It is a beginning point for
acknowledging that there was something good and of God, even if there was a
lot of bad stuff going on. I think all of us (who have left and still have
our faith) agree with the statement: It wasn't all bad and yet there was
something definitely wrong. What we disagree on is where we point the
finger and what we identify as the good and the bad in it. And it is
disconcerting to many of us that so much bad stuff could go on in a
"Christian fellowship," esp a fellowship with such committed Christians.
That should not freak us out so much. If God pulled back the curtain, every
church, everywhere would suddenly realize just how far off the money they
are. Our failures were of a certain type and I think it can be argued that
we had serious problems, but its pointless to compare sins. Which is worse,
to be raised by an abusive parent or a mushy parent who spoils you at every
chance? Abuse certainly seems worse, but whose to tell which is more
damaging to one's soul? Anyway, my point here is that if there is one thing
I learned in COBU it's that Christians are not immune from sin and its
deceits even if we have been forgiven it.

        Okay so we were an unhealthy church. What was the healthy part and
what the unhealthy? I don't want to make a big list; but broadly speaking,
the healthy part was our commitment and love for Jesus; our love for the
Bible, our zeal for evangelism, and the deep camaraderie (brotherly
affection) we had for each other. We were very much a family and I have
seldom seen that duplicated in the "healthy churches" I have been in since.

        What was unhealthy? In short, it was the elevation of not only
Stewart, but also the whole Body to the place of God. Stewart and the
collective whole had far too much control over our lives. In many of our
minds, whether we thought it consciously or not, what the Body thought was
what God thought of us and what Stewart thought was what God thought. That
was how we acted and therefore that was what we believed. (Even Stewart
pointed this out, but he is not thereby acquitted - more on that later).
The turning point came for me when after praying and KNOWING that I was
right with God, I went to a meeting and found out I wasn't (according to
Stewart and others), I realized that I was faced with a choice of belief:
do I go with the surety that I thought I was getting straight from God
Himself or do I place my faith in the Fellowship and Stewart as the ones
who REALLY know where I am at. To choose the later was to substitute my
relationship with God with a relationship with my leader and my fellowship.
That is idolatry. For us, to leave fellowship was tantamount to leaving
God; to defy Stewart was (in practice, though he denied it in theory) to
defy God. Don't get me wrong - none of us (including Stewart) believed for
a moment that Stewart was God; but we allowed him and the fellowship
privileges due only to God. And in the hands of humans, that is dangerous.
For example, our unspoken belief that Stewart could pretty much read our
hearts allowed for a huge amount of unhealthy control. Only God knows
hearts (Jer 17:9-10) to that extent. But once you accept that a human being
can read you that well, you are immediately beholden to him like you would
be to God. We all know that scared feeling we had around Stewart or before
the assembled body. That fear was a cheap and destructive counterfeit of
the Biblical fear of God. What is interesting is that this is a common
characteristic in cults and fringe churches - it just goes with the
territory. Yet many would like to defend Stewart and the fellowship as if
they are unique in this way.

2. How do I view Stewart? Is he to blame for what was wrong there? Did he
"lead us astray?" Is he a false prophet, a sincere brother who made some
mistakes, a brother at all?
And..3. What am I responsible for in all this?
        Here's where all the blaming stuff comes in. One side says, "It's
all Stewart's fault." The other side says, "God used Stewart," or "Get over
it, and take responsibility." I'll never forget that July 4 Big Meeting
when those Christians came in to "warn us" and we grilled them by demanding
that they answer the question "Is Stewart a False Prophet?" They wouldn't
answer the question and then a woman came in (a former member) and said
"yes, Stewart is a False Prophet," To which Stewart replied that she was
bitter and now blaming him for her own unfaithfulness. Well she did seem
bitter and she didn't do a very good job of getting out of the dilemma of
how you can accuse someone of leading you astray without it looking like
you don't accept responsibility for your own actions.
        Well, Did Stewart lead us astray? A very clear and definite Yes.
        Are we responsible for being led astray? Another clear and definite
        There is no either/or here. Both are true. The fact that Stewart
misled us does in no way release us from our part in the matter and we need
to come to terms with that. When Jesus says, "Take heed that no one leads
you astray." Who is he holding accountable? The ones who could be
potentially led astray! If they do get led astray, he will say to them, "I
told you to TAKE HEED that no one leads you astray.... You obviously didn't
take heed!" We weren't brainwashed. Our freedom was not taken from us - we
handed it over. Paul is angry at the ones leading the Galatians astray, but
he writes his letter to the Galatians themselves and gets on their case.
Admittedly, once you have had a enough drinks you can probably say that you
couldn't help running over that pedestrian, but does that mean it was the
alcohol's fault? No. You are to blame for handing over your inhibitions at
the beginning.But what if we replace alcohol with another moral agent,
another person. What if you elect a Hitler to power and he goes about
killing Jews (and you do nothing to stop him) Who is to blame? Both of you.
He will stand before God for his sins and you for yours (in enabling him to
sin). Now scripture does say that Teachers will be judged with greater
strictness and Jesus has strong warnings for those who would lead his
little ones astray, so Stewart will have some answering to do. I don't want
to get into judging his salvation and what his motives are and all that -
we can judge the actions well enough and that is what is important in
determining whether he should be followed or not. And his actions are way
out of line. He has confessed the bottom line substance of it himself -
that he had been oblivious to grace for all those years (and from the sound
of it still is). No person who is oblivious to grace is fit to lead or
teach the people of God; And admitting it doesn't suddenly make one
qualified as a teacher - such an admission should have been followed by
immediately stepping down. His refusal to do so puts him on a par with
Jimmy Swaggert who refused to step down after admitting to ongoing sexual
immorality. Its silly, its proud and its wrong. That we handed over so much
control to Stewart (control properly given only to God our true Lord and
Master) was shameful for us, but that he accepted it and went on to
cultivate an atmosphere that encouraged it, is far worse.
        Stewart is a brilliant man and unfortunately very manipulative. He
would do things that on the surface seemed not what a cult leader would do,
"If he were just into getting people to follow him, he wouldn't be so
harsh..." we'd think, and ironically that would make us want to follow him
more! People ask me if I think he is deliberately out to deceive people. I
think it is far more complicated than that. For those of us who were once
members, if there was ever a time when we were "Doing well" in those days,
we had a taste of what it was like to be Stewart. I remember those times,
when I would "point out sin" in others, I would make sisters cry "who were
obviously just maneuvering women," and I would do it with such confidence.
In fact the more I did it, the more the confidence grew, and I became more
convinced that I was "seeking their good," and "standing up for Jesus." So
was I deliberately out to hurt my brothers and sisters? No, but am I
thereby acquitted? No. For what I thought was confidence was really pride
blooming into a blinding arrogance. I don't know how intentional Stewart's
wrong actions were; but even giving him the benefit of the doubt, judging
by his actions, he was at the very least self-deceived, blinded by his own
pride and thereby allowing himself to come to believe that what he was
doing was right.
        I say all that about Stewart simply because I think it needs to be
said. But I am with those who think it unhealthy to point at Stewart as the
big culprit. "But for the grace of God, there go I." I tried to be a little
Stewart when I had the chance. And then the chance inevitably was taken
away when Stewart or Jimmy knocked me from my pedestal. But is that to my
credit? How far would I have taken it if no one knocked me down. How many
of us (esp brothers) would have loved to have had Jimmy Greiner's spot
(when he was kind of a "second in command"). Are we angry at him for how he
treated us then? Each and every one us would have done the very same thing
if Stewart gave us the chance. I understand that many feel hurt by Stewart,
but you will have to move past that and the best way is to look back at
yourself and realize that it isn't just pious talk to say that you are
capable of the same and that you played your part in creating what was
unhealthy there. It doesn't exonerate Stewart in the least, but it may
allow you to let go of your bitterness and actually have compassion for
even Stewart and pray that he really turn away from years of living out a
dillusion of grandeur.

4. Assuming that there were serious problems with COBU (otherwise we
wouldn't have left) Why would God have let it exist and why did I have to
go through it?

        This kind of brings it back full circle. And again, I want to say
that I understand and appreciate John, Neil and Rob's attempt to "make
sense of it all." It is important that we all come to a resting point where
we see our experience in COBU not as a cause for doubting God's
faithfulness but rather a reason to trust him even more. That is what these
3 brothers are trying to do. If they were to say, it was all a pointless
waste of time, then God sure looks absent from our lives. However, they
don't need to resort to quite so strained an interpretation of scripture in
order to see that God truly does work all things for good for those who
love him. With all due respect, I think they have made the mistake that
many make, in that they, perhaps unknowingly, try to make that verse mean
that "God MAKES  all things good for those who love him." That is, the only
way they can see the COBU experience as a part of God's Good plan is if
they can see the COBU experience itself as Good. They are seeking to
justify the experience and thereby defend the glory and goodness of God who
let us go through it. But that is not necessary and God's goodness and
glory are best served through Truth and the truth is that much of our
experience was bad and sinful and not glorifying to God. And yet it is
God's way that "where sin abounds his grace abounds ALL THE MORE." Many bad
and evil things happen in this world. God doesn't turn those evil things
into good things, rather he has a way of bringing goodness out DESPITE the
presence of evil. When I sin and then God teaches me a lesson through it,
the sin remains a sin, it is not now made good. (Shall we sin that grace
may abound? May it never be!). Like all suffering, the negative experiences
of COBU have the potential for building deep character in our lives and
giving us wisdom to help others who face similar issues. I can say without
any sense of contradiction both that the COBU experience was unhealthy and
spiritually damaging AND that I wouldn't trade that experience in for the
world! God is sovereign and he let us all go through that for all kinds of
good purposes. In fact, in this vein I can agree with Neil, Rob and John -
one of the many blessings I have received is my appreciation of God's grace
after having seen the harshness of living without it. Their mistake is that
they want to universalize their (our) experience and practically make a
doctrine out of it - that this is the way God normally works in a
Christian's life (It would be like Richard Wurmbrand claiming that God's
plan is that all Christians suffer physically for Jesus - he would have two
good arguments: 1. look at how much character it produces and 2. he went
through it and he's a Christian so God must want this for all Christians!).
No, what is normal is that Christians have trials. But trials come in all
shapes and sizes and they are often just plain bad. Our trial was the many
negative aspects of COBU. But along with the bad came many wonderful
blessings. It can be tricky sorting out the blessings from the curses but
it can be done. Let's all keep talking and "sorting" together.

Dave Montoya