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A member of The Family (formerly the Children of God) commented that he found it difficult to understand how we could consider them heretics and our best friends at the same time. Heretic is not a word that we would choose, because it has so much emotional judgment attached to it. But it is true that we have differences, at the same time that we have much in common; and we too have laboured to understand this paradox. The next five articles compare our similarities and difference on a number of teachings.

Family teaching is that if people say a little prayer and ask Jesus into their hearts, they are saved or "born again", regardless of what they do with their lives from that point onwards.

The practice of saying a little prayer to "ask Jesus into your heart" was made popular by Billy Graham, and has proven to be extremely effective in recruiting converts to Protestant Churches of all denominations throughout the Twentieth Century. The Family have (at least in their earlier days) done on a massive one-to-one basis what Billy Graham has done in a crusade/rally setting. It would be hard to say which has had the greatest success.

We have often ridiculed this approach. However, we have recently given serious consideration to the possibility that we have not fairly considered its positive aspects. In a survey amongst our own members we found that a high percentage had said a little prayer asking Jesus into our hearts at some time in their spiritual development, and that most of them found the experience helpful.

Praying a prayer to accept Jesus as your Saviour, or to ask him to "come into" (or better still, "to take over") your life gives a new Christian a way to turn good intentions into an objective action, which can serve as a starting point to a whole new life. . Simplifying salvation into such a formula makes it easier to train others to "lead" people in making such a decision or commitment as well.

Other Christians are more inclined to be patient with someone whom they regard as a new Christian (because the person has gone through this act of commitment). Such patience from others is important in the spiritual development of new Christians.

Here is where The Family shines in a way that truly humbles us. Despite having received heavy persecution from established churches around the world, they continue to bend over backwards to get along with people within these churches... based on their assumption that the churches are full of fellow Christians, toward whom they need only show enough love and patience and it will bring about the unity that Jesus prayed for in his church. This is truly amazing grace!

Despite our admiration for such patience with the churches, however, we still see it as largely futile apart from the character that it builds in those who exercise such patience. We believe the vast majority of those who claim to be "Christian" are Christian in name only, and thus not Christian at all... whether or not they ever said a "sinner's prayer". But is our approach the right one?

John 1:12 says a person has the power to become a child of God simply by believing on the name of Jesus. If that was all we had to go by, then we could accept the Family approach. Just get everyone to say the magic name (whether or not they understand what it stands for) and you save the world!

Was Constantine right? Can we build the kingdom of God by making Christianity the official religion, by outlawing all other religions, and by pressuring everyone to say the sinner's prayer? Somehow we feel Jesus was pushing for something more spiritual and which requires deeper commitment than this.

Jesus said (Luke 6:46, 49) that just calling him "Lord" without obeying him would result in the collapse of our "house". We have tried to understand John 1:12 in the context of all that Jesus taught, and our conclusion (based on all the teachings of Jesus) is that he does not have a category for disciples (i.e. Christians) who are not willing to be disciplined by him.

We take a different approach to John 1:12. It says that those who received Jesus were given the power to become children of God, including those who believed on His name. Putting a seed in the ground gives it a chance to sprout and become a plant. But in itself, it does not guarantee anything. There is so little in the life and teachings of Jesus or that of the apostles to suggest that we need only say a prayer and we will be eternally saved, that it is wise to at least consider the possibility that saying a prayer means nothing unless backed up by some deeper commitment or faith.

The danger of our approach (if it is wrong) is that we will fail to welcome people who do not take the teachings of Jesus as seriously as we do. To counteract that a little, we try to treat professing Christians as spiritual brothers and sisters until they show signs of clear rebellion against the teachings of Jesus. But we cannot reconcile faith in the "name" of Jesus with rebellion against what he taught. And we feel that this is consistent with what Jesus himself felt about such professions of faith.

The danger in the more liberal approach (if it is wrong) is that people may sidestep any unpleasant demands made on them by Jesus, simply by saying, " I said the sinner's prayer; that's all it takes." Jesus's story of God's judgment at the end of the world (Matthew 25:31-46) tells of people assuming they were saved when they were not. They were Christian in name (though not in action) and consequently, "these shall go away into everlasting punishment; but the righteous into life eternal." (verse 46)

See our next article in this series entitled Eternal Salvation.

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