What churches should know about YWAM Part 1: A sketchy theological heritage.

A great resource on YWAM (Youth with a Mission) from Holly Pivec’s blog ‘Spirit Of Error’. Holly addresses the troubling theological errors found within the organisation, particularly their ‘flirtation’ with Moral Government Theology. We look forward to publishing Part 2 in the near future where Holly “will show the relationship between YWAM and the New Apostolic Reformation, a rapidly growing movement of church leaders who style themselves as authoritative apostles and prophets and claim their new revelations are key to bringing God’s physical kingdom to earth.”

Holly Pivec, with a master’s degree in Christian apologetics from Biola, is an evangelical researcher of cults, sects, and new religious groups, such as the ‘New Apostolic Reformation’ movement. She was the former managing editor of Biola University’s magazine, Biola Magazine, and a former contributing writer to the Christian Research Journal.


Holly Pivec writes:

This post is the first in a series on the influential Christian missions organization Youth With a Mission (YWAM), with a focus on its relationship to the controversial New Apostolic Reformationmovement. YWAM was founded in 1960 by Loren Cunningham as a way to deploy young people as missionaries throughout the world. It’s now one of the largest Christian missionary organizations, having more than 18,000 staff working in over 180 nations. Many churches financially support YWAM full-time missionaries and young adults who sign up to go on short-term mission trips with YWAM or to attend one of YWAM’s Discipleship Training Schools or other schools. Yet many of these churches would likely be surprised and concerned to learn about some of the unbiblical and spiritually harmful teachings promoted by this organization.

In this first post I’ll outline one significant part of YWAM’s theologically controversial history to set the stage for future posts about YWAM as it currently stands. 

A Sketchy Theological Heritage

 One misperception of YWAM is that its teachings are generally theologically sound – or at least they started off that way. But in this post, I show that, from its earliest days, YWAM has been plagued by aberrant, and sometimes outright heretical, theology.

To be fair, I should note that YWAM bases are semi-autonomous. So, there is some variability in terms of what teachings might be found at those bases. That being said, the aberrant teachings I address in this series have not been limited to isolated bases under local leadership. Rather, they’ve been widespread and have been promoted at the level of the larger organization.

An Early Controversy: Moral Government Theology

In the 1970s and 1980s (and even some into the 1990s), a heretical belief system known as “Moral Government” was pervasive in YWAM.  It was taught to tens of thousands of students at YWAM bases throughout the world. YWAM’s promotion of the Moral Government teaching was documented by respected theologians, including Alan W. Gomes, of Talbot School of Theology, in a book published in 1981, titled Lead Us Not into Deception: A Biblical Examination of Moral Government Theology. Gomes, in his book, introduced his critique of Moral Government theology this way:

The Moral Government teaching is a distinct system of theology concerned with the nature and attributes of God, the nature of man, and the process of salvation. The Moral Government teaching is a heretical form of doctrine. It is unbiblical in key areas of the faith, such as the atonement and the nature of God. Moral Government errs in more than peripheral areas of doctrine: The Moral Government teaching is basically flawed concerning the issues on which salvation hinges…. At issue here is whether or not Jesus literally paid for our sins on Calvary, if the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us when we believe, and if God possesses the attributes of immutability and omniscience. Clearly, these are not issues about which Christians can “agree to disagree.” These are issues which strike at the heart of the Christian faith.[1]

Another summary of the errors of Moral Government theology can be found in this article written by E. Calvin Beisner titled The False God and Gospel of Moral Government Theology.[2] Here’s an excerpt.

Moral government theology (MGT), rooted in the philosophical definition of freedom as the “power of contrary choice,” denies the fundamental Christian doctrines of God’s perfection in knowledge, goodness, and power; original sin; human moral inability; the substitutionary satisfaction of God’s justice in Christ’s atoning death; redemption; and justification by the crediting of Christ’s righteousness to believers by grace through faith apart from works. As documented in this article, these denials are unbiblical and are so serious as to warrant classifying MGT as non-Christian.

In short, the Moral Government teaching encompasses many serious errors, including the teaching that God does not know his future actions, that God changes his mind and his plans, that he doesn’t know beforehand what actions people will freely choose to take, that he doesn’t sovereignly control all earthly events, that we are not born with a sinful nature, and that our salvation was not purchased by Christ’s blood, rather we are saved by ceasing from sinning.

YWAM promoted the Moral Government teaching through books sold at the YWAM bookstore, a training manual, and YWAM lecturers who traveled base to base teaching on a variety of topics, including Moral Government theology. YWAM’s leadership denies that Moral Government theology is still taught today. That may be true at most bases. Yet a series of teachings promoting Moral Government theology was delivered as recently as 2017 at a YWAM Discipleship Training School in the Philippines and is available online.[3]

Jesse Morrell teaches on Moral Government theology at YWAM Philippines (2017)

A Lingering Theological Controversy: Open Theism

The heretical Moral Government teaching is largely in YWAM’s past. Yet Moral Government teaching morphed into another heterodox doctrine promoted within YWAM today, known as “open theism.” What is open theism? It entails the belief that God does not exhaustively know all of the future. Specifically, he doesn’t know what decisions human beings will choose to make acting out of their free wills. In other words, God’s knowledge is limited by humankind’s free moral choice. He cannot 100 percent predict what any free moral agent will do ahead of time. Here’s a brief summary.

Because God experiences time like we do and because the future does not yet exist, God doesn’t know what the future holds. Although He is aware of the various possibilities of what could happen, the free-will decisions of God’s moral creatures are unknown to Him until those decisions are made. In other words, the events of tomorrow remain hidden from the mind of God until tomorrow actually arrives.

As a result, God is left to decide and to act in this world according to what He thinks is most likely to occur. Because He is sometimes mistaken about what He thought would happen, however, God occasionally finds Himself regretting a decision and resorting to Plan B. In this way, God learns from historical events as they occur and actually changes His mind and His plans in response to them.[4]

For a biblical response to open theism, see an article by Alan Gomes titled “God in Man’s Image: Freedom, Foreknowledge, and the ‘Openness’ of God.”[5] Read more about some of the controversy surrounding this teaching in this Gospel Coalition article.

Yet one reason people are drawn to open theism is they like the explanation it offers for how a good God can let bad things happen in the world (i.e., he didn’t know what was going to happen). Proponents of open theism also believe their view makes human contributions more meaningful. In other words, they believe that if God knows everything human beings will do in advance, then the future is fixed and nothing people do can change or impact anything.

Given the close connections between Moral Government theology and open theism, perhaps it’s little surprise that open theism has also found acceptance within YWAM. For instance, YWAM-Mercy – one of YWAM’s major institutional arms, which operates in 100 countries – currently features on its website a favorable review of the book God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict by Gregory A. Boyd.[6] The review describes this book – which argues for open theism and is written by one of the foremost proponents of open theism – as a must-read for Christian missionaries, relief and development workers, and those working in health care, government and business. It also includes a link to a bookstore, where people can purchase the book. Boyd has presented teaching promoting open theism to YWAM groups, including a group at Yale. And the YWAM Sydney Newtown base in Australia currently recommends Boyd’s podcast teachings on its website. Boyd notes that, among YWAM’s early founders, open theism was “a standard teaching.”[7]

Open theism does not promote all the same errors of Moral Government theology. Yet open theism’s denial of God’s exhaustive foreknowledge – which it shares with Moral Government theology – is an attack on the classic Christian view of God and has many troubling implications for the Christian faith. Both Moral Government teaching and open theism have harmed the faith of many Christians, to the extent that some of those individuals have considered abandoning their faith. Testimonies of such harm are documented in Gomes’ book and Beisner’s article, cited above. They’re also found elsewhere. For example, a professor at Highland Theological College, Nick Needham, writes that he first encountered open theism when he worked with YWAM in the 1980s. Needham explains how the denial of God’s complete foreknowledge harmed his own faith, and the faith of one of his friends, by making God feel more distant and less divine.[8]

A Common Thread?

So why would YWAM be drawn toward these similar theological systems of Moral Government theology and open theism? Is it possible that it’s because they appear to make the contributions of YWAM missionaries more significant and to lend greater urgency to their missionary enterprise? Let me explain. Consider the following comparison between the two views.

Excerpted from Beisner’s article cited above, Gordon C. Olson – a primary architect of Moral Government theology – states: “Man as an endowed moral being has been given the ability to limit the omnipotence of God in his sphere of life” (emphasis is Beisner’s).

Similarly, Richard Rice – a key proponent of open theism cited in the Gospel Coalition article referenced above – states:

God interacts with his creatures. Not only does he influence them, but they also exert an influence on him. As a result, the course of history is not the product of divine action alone. God’s will is not the ultimate explanation for everything that happens; human decisions and actions make an important contribution too. Thus history is the combined result of what God and his creatures decide to do.

In short, a possible thread between these two misguided theologies may be that God needs humankind to accomplish his plans on the earth. Since God doesn’t have complete control, he relies on people to cooperate with him to bring his plans to fulfillment, through various means including prayer, spiritual warfare, and missionary programs.

Let me pause here to make an important clarification. It’s certainly true that God graciously lets us participate in the working out of his plan. In that sense, we do have important roles to play in the fulfillment of his plan. But He does not need us to accomplish his will, absolutely speaking (Acts 17:25), as if his hands are ultimately tied without the help of willing men and women ready to get behind his cause. Any such notion – which renders God powerless or lacking in some way – must be soundly rejected as unbiblical. But the idea that God needs human beings to accomplish His will may explain why some missions organizations, including YWAM, are drawn to Moral Government theology or open theism.

Interestingly, the notion that God is dependent on YWAM students to change the world comes through in a book written by Rob Hensser, a member of the executive leadership team of YWAM in Melbourne, Australia, and a lecturer at YWAM bases throughout the world. The book is titled Be the Wave: Daring to Believe God and Embrace Your Destiny (Standard Publishing, 2005) and is endorsed by YWAM founder Loren Cunningham. In the introduction to his book, Hensser describes God as a salivating dog who appears to be dependent on YWAM students.  Here are his words.

You are the hope of the future, the next wave! I believe one thing: I believe that you and your generation have the potential to impact the world and disciple nations like none other. I bet my life on it. You, not I, are the hope of the future, the hope of the kingdom –and you know what? The future has never been in better hands. God is salivating, licking his chops with huge expectation, waiting for you to explode into the world. Only one thing stands between you and the huge, crazy, epic destiny God has been dreaming of – you. The only limitation is whether you will dare to believe in God’s desire and ability to use you, embrace your destiny and take you place as the next wave of history-shapers.

Take note that Hensser’s teaching elevates YWAM students as having great power to accomplish what God seems unable to do on his own. I don’t know if Hensser supports open theism. But his words, shown above, do seem to align with the open theistic worldview.

Yet whatever the reason for YWAM’s promotion of these errant theological systems, there is cause for deep concern.

In Part 2 of this series about YWAM, I will show the relationship between YWAM and the New Apostolic Reformation, a rapidly growing movement of church leaders who style themselves as authoritative apostles and prophets and claim their new revelations are key to bringing God’s physical kingdom to earth.


[1] Alan W. Gomes, Lead Us Not into Deception: A Biblical Examination of Moral Government Theology, 4th ed. (Alan Gomes, 1986), 1-2; accessed May 14, 2019, http://www.alangomes.com/Publications/YWAM.pdf.

[2] E. Calvin Beisner, “The False God and Gospel of Moral Government Theology,” Christian Research Institute Journal 20 (Fall 1994); accessed May 14, 2019, http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/cri/cri-jrnl/web/crj0184a.html.

[3] “The Moral Government of God.” Youtube video, 3:08:29. Posted by “OpenAirOutreach.” August 16, 2017. Accessed August 27, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5vBwmOLgqsE&t=0s&index=2&list=PLos_9Ta3Avwe9QxSuhcsUDFlT7iVLkvf3.

[4] “Open Theism,” Grace Fellowship Church; accessed March 19, 2019, https://www.gfcto.com/articles/theological-issues/open-theism.

[5] Alan W. Gomes, “God in Man’s Image: Foreknowledge, Freedom, and the `Openness’ of God,” Christian Research Journal 10 (Summer 1987):18-24; accessed May 14, 2019, http://www.SpiritOfError.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Gomes-God-in-Mans-Image-CRJ.pdf.

[6] G. Stephen Goode, review of God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict, by Gregory A. Boyd, YWAM-Mercy. N.d.; accessed August 27, 2018, https://www.ywam-mercy.org/book-reviews/god-at-war/.

[7] Gregory A. Boyd. “A Very Brief History of Open Theism,” ReKnew. N.d.; accessed August 27, 2018, http://reknew.org/2015/08/a-very-brief-history-of-open-theism/.

[8] Nick Needham, “Open Theism,” Evangelical Times. November 2002; accessed August 27, 2018, https://www.evangelical-times.org/27146/open-theism/.

Source: Holly Pivec, ‘Spirit Of Error’ blog, http://www.spiritoferror.org/2019/05/what-churches-should-know-about-ywam-part-1-a-sketchy-theological-heritage/8273, Published May 14, 2019. (Accessed May 15, 2019.)

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