Omaha Bible Church (OBC), in Omaha, Nebraska, is an independent Bible church with roots in religious fundamentalism and strong legalistic tendencies. It is generally within the pale of Protestant orthodoxy, but it has a problem with an angry spirit and abusive leaders. The following review is based on about eight years of personal experience (ending in 2015) and organized around the 9 Marks of a Healthy Church.
- Purpose & Principles
- I. Preaching
- II. Biblical Theology
- III. The Gospel
- IV. Conversion
- V. Evangelism
- VI. Membership
- VII. Discipline
- VIII. Discipleship
- IX. Leadership
Purpose & Principles
This review is published for the benefit of those considering coming to or going from OBC. (I hope in the conclusion to provide a little comfort to some who have already left feeling hurt and abused.) While I have considered those who are happily attending OBC and sought to avoid offense where possible, they are not my intended audience, much less the leaders, to whom I brought my concerns privately long ago according to Scripture.
Notwithstanding my own strong feelings, I have aimed at balance. I chose to organize my review around an accepted framework (the 9 Marks) to ensure treatment of only the most relevant subject matter, as free as possible from selection bias, with an agreed-upon assessment criterion outside myself. As a consequence of this choice, some otherwise significant subjects have received no treatment. For example, I said nothing concerning the quality of the ordinary people of OBC. The fact is, I think there are some wonderful, godly people there; but there’s no “mark” for that. Please don’t read between the lines or conflate my opinion of them with my opinion of the ministry.
I wrote this over the space of a year, with qualified counsel and peer review. I did my prayerful best to honestly consider the good and the bad of each subject and to treat it as directly and succinctly as possible. I restricted my material to what is already public knowledge, in fact or by right; and I tried to clearly distinguish between objective, verifiable fact and personal opinion. Some will disagree with my assessments. That’s fine; I’m no prophet. Some will be tempted to judge my motives. They shouldn’t; they’re no prophets. On the day this review ceases to be necessary I will take it down with gladness and bid adieu to the whole business. (God haste the day!) Until then…
Sermons at OBC tend to be of a good length, center on Scripture, and emphasize truth. Notwithstanding these things (which are good so far as they go), a number of characteristics of the preaching at OBC render it, in my judgment, something between unedifying and positively toxic. Two stand out:
Irreverence and inappropriate speech. It should go without saying that the pulpit ought to be characterized by purity of speech, and to imagine that one should have to warn one’s children not to imitate the behavior of one’s own pastor there is absurd; but it came to that for me at OBC. I have heard the senior pastor from the pulpit call Mormons and Roman Catholics “stupid”, refer to historical church figures with whom he disagrees as “sissies”, and quip that he is “a lesbian trapped in a man’s body”. These sayings are published in the public sermon archive where anyone on the Internet may listen to them under the banner of “the Word of the Lord”.
Distorted, hobby horse preaching. In my experience, the preaching at OBC consistently misrepresents the content, emphasis, and tone of Scripture. There are a handful of major themes (mostly “liberal correctives”) which seem to feature in every sermon whether they’re in the text or not, while the central biblical message receives little or no treatment. The tone of the preaching is more often sarcastic and condescending than anything else. (The pastors argue that scripture itself is sarcastic. And sometimes it is, of course–but not always, about everything, and to every audience, whereas OBC’s preaching more or less is.) In general, the preaching seems to be shaped more by the pastor’s personality than by the Word, and the God thus portrayed is something of a caricature as a result.
In summary, while the preaching at OBC has some admirable qualities and I have benefited from it at times, I believe its defects render it on the whole dishonoring to God and harmful to its hearers.
II. Biblical Theology
OBC has Calvinist leanings, but it’s not comprehensively Reformed. It is, in fact, somewhat doctrinally eclectic, and it suffers from a few over-developed theological innovations and misapplications. It does seem to be trending in a positive direction overall: In the time I attended, the church abandoned its “biblical” positions of elders totally abstaining from alcohol and women covering their heads during corporate prayer, distanced itself from Dispensationalism, embraced the doctrine of the Covenant of Works, and at least attempted to adopt a Christocentric mode of preaching. That said, it exhibits a surprising amount of doctrinal snobbery for a church that has changed its own commitments so often, and it can still be needlessly contentious about secondary matters. In general, I think the church has a higher opinion of itself in this area than warranted.
III. The Gospel
In terms of its objective content, OBC gets the gospel essentially right according to the historic Protestant understanding of it. I can’t say it always gets the implications right, and it certainly gets the tone wrong sometimes, but you can’t accuse it of being heterodox on this most essential point. And of course, where Christ is proclaimed we can rejoice.
OBC teaches an essentially biblical view of conversion in terms of God’s work in regeneration and people’s responsibility to repent and believe. It recognizes the danger of false conversion but overemphasizes it to an extent that tends to breed morbid introspection among tender souls and encourage judgmental attitudes in proud ones. Union with Christ enjoys comparatively little emphasis. The church has admittedly come a long way since my early days there, when nothing seemed more common than the hushed conversations in the halls about whether or not so-and-so was “really saved”; but that is not exactly to say it has achieved a healthy attitude about conversion.
OBC approaches evangelism in various ways, including organized efforts such as service projects and door-to-door evangelism, and training intended to equip individuals for casual evangelism. As I was never involved in these programs I cannot comment on them except to say that I applaud the priority. When I have witnessed gospel presentations at weddings or fellowship gatherings I have not always been satisfied with the clarity, and when it comes to motivating individual evangelism I have definitely seen some legalism at play. But there’s probably more good than bad in this area. Thank God he uses earthen vessels.
I cannot comment on membership at OBC since, I’m told, it has completely changed its practice since I left.
The best thing I can say of OBC relative to church discipline is that it attempts to practice it at all–which, in an age of individualism that chafes at any hint of accountability, is saying something. Nevertheless, it perverts the practice so entirely that I’m afraid it might have been the lesser evil to have omitted it altogether. From disciplining where the leaders acknowledge there has been no sin, to disciplining preemptively or retributively, to skipping whole steps of the Matthew 18 process, to refusing eventual reconciliation, to exempting pastors from accountability to the same process, and more, it has not failed in very many particulars to mock the biblical practice. The leaders have declined to discuss these matters when confronted. Suffice it to say that it is a point of unrepentant corporate sin.
OBC rightly emphasizes the need for Christian growth, but it takes a top-down, program-oriented approach that can feel formulaic. Its emphasis on instruction is good for imparting basic doctrinal knowledge, but I for one found it somewhat barren of real spiritual edification and upbuilding fellowship. Casual “one anothering” was undervalued in favor of structured ministry busyness, and my family found it extremely difficult to build relationships outside official church activities. On the whole, fairly little of the spiritual growth we experienced in our time at OBC was actually connected with the church.
OBC’s leaders give every appearance of caring deeply about their church, and they clearly work hard in their roles. They seem, however, to misunderstand the nature of their authority, which they tend to lord over tender souls in their care. They are friendly people in general, but when it comes to shepherding, they tend to be impatient, controlling, and intolerant of dissent. I would go so far as to say that some of the pastors can be abusive. Worst of all, they altogether lack biblical accountability. They are self-protective to the extent that I have known them to collectively flout Matthew 18 when applied to one of themselves. They seem to me not so much to be above reproach as above the law. More than any other reason, my family left OBC from the conviction that the pastors in particular, by their ideas and personal examples, were leading us away from Christ and from the purity of the gospel.
In my opinion, Omaha Bible Church is a legitimate church but not a healthy one. I personally advise against it, among other reasons, on the grounds of Proverbs 22:24-25: “Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare.” (Many former members, myself included, point to an angry spirit growing in themselves as the first sign that something was wrong.)
For my friends suffering the painful effects of spiritual abuse, David Murray has a helpful roundup of resources on the subject. For those who feel their faith withered from legalism, I highly recommend The Heart of Christ by Thomas Goodwin. Get a free ebook (original text) from Monergism or purchase the Puritan Paperback edition (modernized) from Banner of Truth.
May God sanctify his church (beginning with me) and care for his suffering children (Revelation 7:17). Amen.