Friday, August 17, 2018

Joyce the Discerner

An Exemplary Discerner of the Times

“But speak thou the things which become sound doctrine:
(Titus 2:1)

By Sarah H. Leslie

Joyce Priebnow has gone home now to be with the Lord. The story of what we now call the “Discernment Research Group” dates back to Joyce in the early 1980s. In fact, the story about Joyce is intertwined with discernment for at least the past 40 years in the evangelical church world.

The first time I met Joyce was on the sidewalk leading to the parking lot, outside the backdoor of Redeemer Church in Des Moines, Iowa, shortly after we began attending. Her husband Bill then sauntered over and introduced himself to my husband Lynn. It turned out that we two couples had both left a large urban megachurch in the late 1970s. In fact, I had served on staff at that church, which is how Joyce knew who I was.

Bill and Joyce immediately launched into questions. “Why did you leave FFC?” they asked. “What happened?” Few knew why I left, but for some reason I felt that I could tell Bill and Joyce the real story. I explained that in my role as a secretary to a pastor I had known what was going on in the backrooms. In their attempt to build a rockstar megachurch empire, the leaders had become totally sucked into the fabulous claims of the church growth movement gurus. Salesmen dressed in fancy black suits came from California pitching their “grow big, get rich and famous quick” scheme to the board. I knew firsthand how the church leadership had brazenly lied to parishioners, deceiving them regarding their financial plans to build a big new facility.

Lynn and had left and began attending another church but Bill and Joyce explained that they had stayed on for a few more years, hoping that they could change things from within. When this failed, Bill met with board members and expressed his concerns. When that didn’t produce any good results he wrote a letter to the leaders explaining why they were leaving. He said they had stayed long enough to see how the Gospel message was being compromised over and over again. Again, I knew more of the back story. I told them it had been my job to type for a woman on staff who was researching and writing the lead pastor’s sermons. He had told her that he was too busy to read his Bible and besides he already knew it. Sunday after Sunday he preached her carefully studied biblical sermons. For obvious reasons she never got credit.

Joyce the Discipler
Joyce was a godly woman my mother’s age. She quickly adopted me like a daughter, a relationship that was to last decades. Early on I was a young mother with a baby and a toddler, but I added on five more children. Joyce would phone me every morning at 9 AM to pray, read me verses of Scripture, exhort and admonish me. Given the busyness of my life I often felt like she was spoon feeding me the pure milk and meat of the Word. We would discuss God’s leading in our lives and pray over concerns.

When Joyce first came into my life I had a ministering counseling practice. I was also occasionally a substitute radio host on a local morning Christian radio station. I was a public Christian but in reality I was still very much a new convert and walking more shakily than I cared to admit. Joyce knew that discipleship was a discipline, and it became her ministry to guide me in measured steps into maturity in the faith. She had great wisdom about life and I listened to and heeded her advice closely. In fact, I recall with great appreciation the times she gently but firmly rebuked me when I was in danger of going too precariously off the narrow path. Firmness was her style. She was adamant about God’s Word and she made sure that it was the measure for everything.

Joyce was a woman of fierce loyalty to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. She was both a discerner and a discipler. In fact, it was her gift of discernment that motivated her to disciple. Discipleship is a lost art, having been replaced nowadays by the ubiquitous and nebulous term “mentor.” Being mentored implies “following” someone held in regard. But Joyce followed Scripture, not man. And she took seriously the admonition in Titus 2:4 for older women to literally disciple younger women in the Word of God. She always had a little flock of women that she was shepherding. I was just one of many who were blessed by her ministry. Her faithfulness to Christ changed my life, and this in turn has blessed your life if you are a regular reader of this blog. (Pass it on!)

Joyce and I would often discuss the new genre of discernment books that were being published in the 1980s. Earlier in our lives we had both been blessed by the life story and writings of Corrie ten Boom. Corrie’s simple, strong and genuine faith inspired us. When Constance Cumbey’s groundbreaking exposé of the New Age movement, The Hidden Dangers of the Rainbow came out we studied it together, pouring over every word. We did the same with Dave Hunt’s The Seduction of Christianity. Joyce was especially alert to the dangers of the new Word Faith, “name it and claim it,” and the increasingly popular false prosperity gospel doctrines. Although at that time we didn’t know the historical research that could prove the occult background of these teachings, Joyce was certain, from the whole counsel of Scripture, that these were errors and heresies. She warned many women about all of these dangers.

It was Joyce who painstakingly, and with much patience and grace, taught me how to biblically discern truth from error, especially in matters that seemed so spiritual but weren’t based on the Cross of Jesus Christ and His atonement for our sins. She would insist on standing on the Word of God only, moment by moment, day by day, in very real situations. She taught me that everything, every thought, every prayer, every spiritual feeling, every quiet leading, had to be confirmed with the plain Word of God. Period. Anything that didn’t conform to God’s Word had to be dismissed. She believed that women were especially vulnerable to being “led” by emotions, spiritual voices, peer pressure, subjective inner thoughts, and even our own imagination. She would often quote 2 Timothy 3:6: “For of this sort are they which creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts.”

Lint Theology
In the 1970s Eastern mysticism and humanistic psychology were rapidly rising thought systems that taught alternative spiritualities and paths to wholeness. I had been deeply involved in eastern mysticism (New Age) during the early 1970s when I was a hippie, so I was still purging myself of my old rough lifestyle and esoteric beliefs. I had also been trained in humanistic psychology beliefs and methods, I thought I had rejected all of it. I even wrote a thesis to take this stand. Nevertheless, Joyce frequently would warn me about “lint” she perceived from my past.

Joyce’s “lint theory” was a bit like the biblical “leaven.” Lint is stuff that clings to us closely and adheres to us with its gluey fibers. Lint is tenacious. Leaven will grow and corrupt if we don’t get rid of it each time we spot it. Joyce was a stickler about this lint leaven. I sometimes felt like she was literally picking lint off my clothes as she would point out things to me from my old life! Joyce had come out of Catholicism and she said she had learned to question everything she had been taught. She would pick off the “lint” of old wrong teachings whenever she spotted them in her own life.

One morning Joyce called me and said that while in prayer it seemed the Lord wanted her to tell me that I had a piece of lint that needed to be removed. I asked her what it was. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “I know this is a strange thing to call you and tell you, but I think you need to go to the Lord in prayer and ask Him to show you.” I retired to the only place in the house where I could get away from my children – the bathroom “prayer closet.” I prayed hurriedly and fervently, “Lord show me.” Just a few seconds later the Lord opened my eyes. I could see in a particular life situation that I was being “nondirective” when the Lord wanted me to be quite direct. As soon as the term “nondirective” came into my mind I knew this was the lint I needed to repent of and remove. Nondirective was a form of humanistic counseling that I had been particularly trained to do – in the theory of Carl Rogers it means that a client can reach their own conclusions without any overt right or wrong judgment from me, the counselor. The immediate verse that next came to my mind was 1 Thessalonians 5:14, to “warn the unruly.” In the situation the Lord brought to my mind I directly needed to do warn someone.

Leaving More Churches
Informally the “discernment research group” began as a Bible study fellowship in 1985 when Joyce and her husband Bill, along with Lynn and me and several other families, found it necessary to separate from Redeemer where we had been attending. Why? The leaders had adopted several serious errors that were derived from the occult, including engaging in the practice of guided imagery for “worship.” The leaders also began teaching both Catholic and Eastern mysticism. We all began to study the Scriptures together, to watch the signs of the times, and to take note to avoid the errant teachings that were coming into the church.

This event marked the beginning, when we first noticed how the occult and New Age were coming in and taking root, sometimes literally overnight, within the church. Redeemer was a study in falling away as we lived through the darkening days as this good church began to be seduced by feelings, imaginations, spiritual pride, and to follow messages that could not be confirmed by the whole counsel of the Word. Redeemer wasn’t alone. Throughout the evangelical church world occult teachings began to be re-written into Christian-sounding language. With sadness we watched friends being lured into these New Age practices and doctrines. The evangelical publishing and media world went whole-hog into these money-making, ear-tickling messages. With this influx of heresy came a flood of immorality as many of our former associates succumbed to their old sinful habits. People got off track when they were allured by a newly emerging sensual spirituality. Marriages failed, divorces ensued, and our friends’ children suffered. Our heartfelt burden was to warn others of the dangers.

Joyce’s husband Bill wrote a lengthy letter to Redeemer’s leadership outlining his concerns. Bill was a staunch defender of biblical truth and he was quite bold and outspoken. He encouraged Lynn to meet with the pastor to express our concerns, too. Lynn came away from that meeting amazed. The pastor had told him that he didn’t need to listen to any parishioners, that he was now hearing directly from God, and “God” said it was okay for him to adopt these new doctrines and practices.

Bill and Joyce went on to join another church. Lynn and I spent a few years helping to launch an innercity mission church. We then joined back up with the Priebnow’s at their new church. But all was not rosy. One Sunday a traveling missionary preached an extremely convicting sermon about Achan and the hidden sin within the camp (read Joshua 7). He presented a clear altar call for repentance but no leaders from the church came forward. A few months later it was revealed that the music minister was downtown at the gay bars, but not for the purpose of ministry. A short year later the church made the front page of the local newspaper because of flagrant adultery on its ministerial staff. Once again we literally fled a church together!

“Having Done All, To Stand”
It was Joyce who first discussed the rise of Dominionism with me. I had a frontrow seat in watching it take over the evangelical world via political activism. The gateway to enlisting evangelicals became abortion. Joyce helped me navigate the murky theological waters as I was propelled rapidly to state right to life leadership. At this precise time period in the mid 1980s Iowa rose to national prominence with its first-in-the-nation caucuses. The evangelicals had suddenly awakened to the reality of abortion and began getting politically active. I suddenly found myself a spokesperson to not only state and local media, but also in the national spotlight.

Joyce was my mother’s age, but she was different. She had a biblical mindset. Many women of her generation had been seriously influenced by Margaret Sanger’s ideology that babies were a burden and a curse, a detriment to sexual liberation, and not to be nurtured in a loving mother’s arms or, especially, breastfed. Sanger’s birth control methods included the brutal violence of abortion. When we were young mothers, my born-again friends and I discovered human development in the womb and we were awakened to the realities of the violence of abortion. By the early 1980s via the miracle of new technologies, especially ultrasound, we could view our babies growing in our wombs.

Up to this point the secular media in America had lied about babies in the womb. Women were told that babies were just “blobs of tissue.” The press had a vested interest in perpetuating the abortion industry, especially since they had promoted the “population bomb,” a looming catastrophe that would eat up resources on the planet. Evangelical leaders in the late 1970s also bought into this liberal mindset (which we’ve documented on this blog) and their dark compromises would adversely affect the ability of grassroots church people to stand as light against the darkness. So we young mothers, with genuineness of intent in our hearts, thought that if we simply told the truth about abortion and educated the church and the public, that people would see the light and truly repent of their sins. We even hoped that if enough people woke up to the brutal realities it might change the law of the land (Roe v. Wade, etc.).

We young mothers also had a heart to minister to other young women in tangible ways. This was a burden of Joyce’s heart, too. Joyce was never on the front lines. She was the woman in the background that discipled many of us. We all were influenced by Joyce’s strong stance in the Word. She believed that we had a biblical responsibility to tell others the truth – both the physical truth about abortion and also the biblical truth that Jesus could save us from our sins – especially the sins that led up to an unwanted pregnancy such as fornication and adultery. Joyce took literally Habbakuk 2:1, “I will stand upon my watch.” We were to stand, watch and pray. She put an emphasis on the word “stand” in Ephesian 6:11-18: “Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God: Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints.”

One woman of prayer, Jan Ebert, got a heart to go stand quite literally outside the local Planned Parenthood. With Joyce’s encouragement Jan bravely set up prayer vigils on the sidewalk. She even called the police and explained that this was nonviolent, it was not a protest nor a picket, but just people quietly praying. With Joyce’s shepherding, encouragement and support Jan would eventually go on to launch a crisis pregnancy center a few blocks away.

“Holding Faith, and a Good Conscience”
Joyce taught me the necessity of going to the Lord daily in prayer for confession of sins. She also taught me to stay continually in the Word of God for sustenance. The spiritual battles surrounding my calling as a right to life leader were often very fierce, and Joyce’s role in helping me stand and withstand the pressures was incalculably precious. There were battles within and battles without. I was heavily pressured to compromise. I was often under attack. I sometimes got threats, including once a death threat. Joyce’s favorite verse to quote me during these times was Isaiah 54:17: “No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper.”

It took a holy boldness to stand up and face a hostile press, or stand in front of contentious political conventions – this was not a courage that came naturally to me. Not only was the Lord helping me to stand, but I often felt that Joyce was literally propping me up with her continual encouragement to simply “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). After one heated political convention, where I had simply stood and described the unborn baby growing in my womb, a woman approached me. She looked around to see if anyone was noticing and then what blasted out of her mouth was a terrible curse against me and my unborn baby. A man taking sound equipment off the stage saw it happen and rushed over to me. He knew this woman and told me, “She’s a witch.” Thinking he misspoke, I said, “You mean the ‘b-’ word?” “Nope,” he replied. “I mean the ‘w-’ word.” The next day in church Bill and Joyce propelled me up to the altar to be laid hands on for special prayer for me and my baby. Praise God for the shed blood of Jesus Christ! I later had an opportunity to go to lunch with this lady and I forgave her. This was also at the instigation of Joyce, who believed quite literally the words of Jesus to “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you” (Matthew 5:44).

This biblical stance set me apart from other evangelicals entering the political world during the 1980s. Others were entering the arena out of a desire to turn America into a “Christian nation.” Pat Robertson and other TV preachers were promoting this day and night on the newly emerging evangelical television and radio media empires. In fact, Pat Robertson even ran for president in 1988 and was frequently in the state of Iowa. Most evangelicals were viewing pro-abortion people as “the enemy” and developed an “us versus them” mentality. To this day I am ashamed at how badly some people were treated. But because of Joyce’s teaching and encouragement, I spoke the truth in love out to whoever would meet with me, and that often included people who were on the opposite side of the political argument. One day at a political luncheon I discovered I was sitting at a table with a group of Planned Parenthood board members from another state. Imagine their shock when they discovered who I was! Because I did not treat them as “the enemy” we were able to have a peaceable discussion about the many concerns we shared in common. They told me this was the first time that someone hadn’t yelled and called them names. For my part, God gave me great grace that I might be an “ambassador” for Christ. I spoke kindly to them but “boldly, as I ought to speak” (Eph. 6:20).

In fact, Joyce’s lint theology influenced my ability to speak out. She believed that our job as Christians was to stand, and if God gave us voice and boldness, to speak the truth, even to warn. In this sense she felt that all believers were “prophets” – we are not to be silent when we can present the Gospel. “Ye are the light of the world…. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16). She would sometimes describe our warning to fellow believers as noticing lint on their garments – we were to gently help them pick it off. This is what she did for those to whom she ministered, and we were all blessed. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Prov. 27:6).

Pass It On
Later in Joyce’s life Bill became very ill. They eventually moved into a full-service Christian retirement community that provided comprehensive health care. Shortly after she moved there I received a letter from Joyce which I recently found in my files. She enclosed a copy of a letter she had written to the woman in charge of redecorating the large great room in the facility. She expressed her appreciation for this woman’s service, but also pointed out that the new décor in the great room was not glorifying to God – in fact, it was a bit hedonistic. She quoted Philippians 4:8 and said it would be better if the room design glorified God, not man: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” This perfectly exemplified Joyce. She was such a good example of delivering a peaceful and loving admonition, but yet pointing to Scripture as the standard to go by in all of life.

My last conversation with Joyce on the phone took place a few years ago. I was preparing to fly out to California where Caryl Matrisciana was going to interview me for her film series Wide Is The Gate. Caryl had been gleaning valuable information from my expertise on Dominionism to use in her films. Joyce was so happy to pray with me, especially on this topic. I was able to thank her for her immense influence on my life.

The more my life goes on, the more I recognize the miracle of Joyce’s discipleship in my life. When I get to heaven I will be excited to thank her and point to the continuing fruits the Lord produced in my life from her faithful ministry to me all of those years ago. May other women follow her example – stick to the Word alone, stand and having done all to stand, and speak the truth in love.

“But speak thou the things which become sound doctrine: That the aged men be sober, grave, temperate, sound in faith, in charity, in patience. The aged women likewise, that they be in behaviour as becometh holiness, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things; That they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, To be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed.”
(Titus 2:1-5)