There was an old Monty Python gag line, “And now for something completely different” that I might employ today. In recent days we’ve been covering a lot of things related to text criticism, but one of the bread and butter content elements of this blog has been book reviews. So, in WM 181 I am going to be offering a review of K. P. Johannan’s book Never Give Up: The Story of a Broken Man Impacting a Generation (Gospel for Asia, 2020).
I picked up and read K. P. Yohannan’s Revolution in World Missions decades ago. The book was first published in 1985 by Gospel for Asia, Yohannan’s parachurch mission organization. There are millions of copies in print. I have used anecdotes and illustrations from the book over the years.
Two things stood out about this book:
First, and most importantly, Yohannan critiqued the whole Western missionary enterprise and its sending of Western missionaries into the third world and suggested instead support for indigenous Christian workers.
Second, he critiqued the whole idea that doing “good works” (or social work) is equal to preaching. A typical statement: “Substituting a bowl of rice for the Holy Spirit and the Word of God will never save a soul and will rarely change the attitude of a man’s heart” (112, thirtieth printing, 2004). I knew Yohannan did not share my Calvinism but saw him, nevertheless, as an earnest evangelical and resonated (especially as a former missionary) with many of his critiques of Western missions and the substitution of the social gospel for the preaching of Christ crucified.
I had lost track of Yohannan until recent days when I saw this video of his conversation with Hank Hanegraaff and Francis Chan. It was obvious that some major changes had taken place in Yohannan’s life and ministry both by his personal appearance (long hair and beard, large cross around his neck) and his new title “Metropolitan” and even new name (Moran Mor Athanasius Yohan). Had he become Eastern Orthodox, as has Hanegraaff? I followed up by listening to Hanegraaff’s interview with Yohannan on his Unplugged podcast.
Mention was made in the podcast interview of Yohannan’s memoir Never Give Up: The Story of a Broken Man Impacting a Generation (GFA, 2020). I ordered a used copy and read it.
This is quite a different book than Revolution in World Missions. Yohannan begins by describing and responding to charges of financial corruption and mismanagement that had been lodged against Gospel for Asia.
Yohannan begins by describing his despair in dealing with this scandal and even confesses that he suffered suicidal thoughts during this time. He is, on one hand, seemingly open, but on the other, rather vague, not only about the whole financial scandal but also about the momentous spiritual changes that have taken place in his life.
The man who wrote Revolution in World Missions was a Protestant evangelical. It is clear that the man who wrote Never Give Up has gone through some profound changes in his convictions. Let’s consider two: (1) his transition from evangelical Protestantism to what might be called Evangelical “Orthodoxy” [“Orthodoxy” is in quotes because Yohannan’s church does not appear to be part of mainstream Eastern Orthodoxy—see below] ; and (2) his embrace of social ministry apart from gospel preaching.
The move to Evangelical “Orthodoxy”:
For more biographical information, I turned to Yohannan’s Wikipedia page. It notes that Yohannan (b. 1950 in Kerala, India) had worked with the parachurch ministry Operation Mobilization in India for eight years (from age 16) and came to the US in 1974 to study at (what was then) the Criswell Bible Institute in Dallas, TX, upon the personal invitation of W. A. Criswell. After a short stint as pastor of an ethnically Native American SBC church, he and his German-born wife started Gospel for Asia.
I also noted that according to the Wikipedia article states that Yohannan had grown up in the Mar Thoma Syrian church in Kerala India, an offshoot of the St. Thomas Christians. The Mar Thoma church is an apparent example of an Eastern (Oriental) Protestant church, which emerged in the nineteenth century. This church, under the influence of Anglicanism, attempts to meld Protestant theology with Orthodox liturgy.
This helped me understand his pilgrimage and how his itinerant church planting ministry, under Gospel for Asia, has now issued in the establishment of the Believers Eastern Church, over which Yohannan is now Metropolitan (leading bishop).
There are references to this transition in Never Give Up, but the details are sometimes vague. There is no “linear” narrative of how exactly he made this transition from American-style evangelical para-church Protestantism to this new episcopal, Eastern-influenced liturgical denomination came about.
Here are a few of the interesting statements made about Yoahannan’s new theological conviction in Never Give Up:
The headwaters analogy (136-137): KPY uses the analogy of needing to return to the “headwaters” of a stream to find water that is “still clear and clean and pure.” He adds, “We can’t simply go back 500 years to the Reformation and think we’re at the beginning. We need to return to the real beginning, the early centuries” (137).
On theosis: KPY affirms the Eastern Orthodox concept of theosis (deification) over against the Protestant concept of sanctification/glorification (142-143).
On the acceptance of the Nicene Creed and its recital in Sunday liturgy in the Believers Eastern Church (160-167): He writes, “It is our plumb line of faith” (160).
On ecclesiology: He writes, “The true church is not just individuals worshipping God on their own” (161).
On problems of “individual interpretation” of the Bible: After affirming that the Bible “is God’s primary way of speaking to us” he adds, “At the same time, we must keep in mind that the Scripture is not meant for individual interpretation, for each of us to just read it and do what is right in our own eyes” (163). He continues with an argument common with Roman Catholic and Orthodox apologists, arguing that when Christians began to interpret the Scriptures individually the result was “42,000 denominations” each claiming “to be the one true church” (164). He closes, “Almost all cults started as Bible study gatherings…” (164).
On Western Protestant intellectualizing of the faith: “Years ago, in my journey, I found my heart and my head were in two completely different worlds” (165).
On the centrality of the Eucharist: “If you are seeking for the truth, I think you will eventually arrive at the reality that Holy Communion (the Eucharist) is an important, unexplainable mystery” (169).
The embracing of social ministry apart from gospel preaching:
KPY confesses, “There was a time when I was a radical, calling only for preaching the Gospel and forgetting about any kind of social work. I’ve since had to repent and change my ways from saying social work cannot be mission work” (173).
He does nuance this by saying that the Great Commission cannot be fulfilled through social ministry alone but now lauds this type of ministry (174).
He later shares that he even added a new chapter to the latest editions of Revolution in World Missions to reflect his repentance in this area (202).
How it Ends:
Never Give Up ends with a Biblical quote from the NLT of 1 Corinthians 4:4-5 that seems more than a little ambiguous: “My conscience is clear, but that doesn’t prove I’m right. It is the Lord himself who will examine me and decide” (224). Does he have a clear conscience even if not proven right (guiltless) with respect to charges of financial mismanagement?
Let me return to the two big transitions in Yohannan’s life and thought:
First, what do we make of his transition to Evangelical “Orthodoxy”? On one hand, we might say at KPY has simply come full circle in returning to his childhood roots after a long detour through American Protestant evangelicalism. So, his story could be seen as a personal journey.
It can also be examined for its wider implications. Yes, there are many glaring weaknesses in evangelicalism: ecclesiologically, theologically, and liturgically. Yes, the Western, Enlightenment influenced approach to the faith too often addresses the head and not the heart. These things finally caught up with KPY. Along these kinds of lines, one might compare my previous review of Thomas Howard’s Evangelical Is Not Enough.
Yes, broad and vacuous evangelicalism too often results in spiritual anemia in those hungry for substance, which sends them to Rome or Constantinople or Canterbury looking for substantial nourishment. Former Christianity Today editor Mark Galli’s conversion to Roman Catholicism in September 2020 is but the latest high profile example of this (see this article).
In KPY’s case, however, it seems he has not gone over to Orthodoxy but to something like an “Orthodoxy” by way of Canterbury. By founding a new church could he not be charged with just adding to the supposed 42,000 plus denominations?
It is also interesting that despite his critique of the failures of evangelicalism, Never Give Up has a forward written by George Verwer, founder of Operation Mobilization and the back cover has an endorsement blurb from Calvary Chapel pastor Skip Heitzig (as well as Hannegraaff, now Orthodox).
As a confessional Reformed Protestant, I also take exception to his statement, “We can’t simply go back 500 years to the Reformation and think we’re at the beginning. We need to return to the real beginning, the early centuries.” By going back to the classical Reformed confessions, however, are we not attempting to go back to the apostles and also back to the classic creedal statements of the early church related to the doctrine of God and Christ (as affirmed in the WCF and her daughter confessions)?
Rather than move to Rome, or Constantinople, or Canterbury, can one find perhaps a more serious and meaningful expression of the faith by going to Geneva (or London)?
Second, what are we to make of his embrace of “social ministry”? Though Christ certainly taught that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves and Paul taught in Galatians 6:10 that we are to do good to all men, but especially to those who are of the household of faith, I still think that the “old” Yohannan was right strongly to challenge the idea of social ministry apart from the preaching of the gospel.