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Promise Keepers (PK), Pro and Con: PART 1

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Promise Keepers (PK) is an Evangelical Christian organization whose membership is restricted to men and made up almost entirely of conservative Christians. It was founded by Bill McCartney, (1940-), in 1990. He is a former football coach from the University of Colorado. It has obviously filled a great need among men in North America. PK had a small beginning in 1990 when 72 men gathering for prayer in Boulder, Colo. In 1991, 4,200 men attended its meetings. Annual attendance has grown to 1.1 million in 1996. As of 1997-SEP, a total of 2.6 million men (and at least one woman) have attended their mass rallies across the US and Canada. The group has since fallen on hard economic times.

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Who are the Promise Keepers?

They are a group of men asked "to live a life wholly set apart for Almighty God."

A survey in 1995 by the National Center for Fathering showed that:

bullet 33.1% of the membership are Baptist; the rest are associated with a variety of Christian denominations.
bullet Their median age is 38.
bullet 88% are married; 21% have been divorced.
bullet 57% have wives that work.
bullet 26% had been unemployed for more than 6 months.
bullet Half say their own fathers were "largely absent" during their childhood.
bullet 25% are satisfied with themselves as fathers.
bullet Most have at least a bachelor's degree.
bullet 91% give financially to their church.
bullet 87% attend church services at least once a week.
bullet The vast majority vote Republican; 15% are Democrats.

The mean family income is about $48,000; their members are mostly from suburbia, and overwhelmingly white. A crowd picture in Time magazine shows 4 men in the foreground (1 African-American and 3 White), against a background of perhaps 150 men, about 3 of whom appear to be African-Americans. The most serious sin, reported by 62% of its members, is "sexual sin." This would include everything from adultery to feelings of lust towards a woman who is not their wife.

Their headquarters are in Denver CO. Their annual revenues in 1997 totaled $87 million. They had about 350 staff members. McCartney does not draw a salary from Promise Keepers; he charges only for lecture fees and expenses. PK has created over 16,000 accountability groups, linked with 400,000 churches, and trained 120,000 "ambassadors" and "key men."

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Beliefs of Promise Keepers

The core beliefs of the movement are expressed in the 7 promises of a Promise Keeper:

  1. Honoring Jesus Christ through worship, prayer and obedience to God's word in the power of the Holy Spirit.
  2. Pursuing vital relationships with a few other men, understanding that he needs brothers to help him keep his promises.
  3. Practicing spiritual, moral, ethical and sexual purity
  4. Building strong marriages and families through love, protection and biblical values
  5. Supporting his church by honoring and praying for his pastor and by giving his time and resources.
  6. Reaching beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity
  7. Influencing his world, being obedient to the great commandment (see Mark 12:30-31), and the great commission (see Matthew 28:19-20).

Bill McCartney has described a main goal of Promise Keepers:

"You've seen the downward spiral of morality in this nation, It can all be traced to an absence of Almighty God. Men of integrity - promise keepers - are what's going to turn this thing around."

Promise Keepers also have a Statement of Faith 1 which follows the basic beliefs of Evangelical Christianity: belief in the Trinity, inerrancy of the Bible; virgin birth, resurrection and second coming of Christ; presence of the Holy Spirit; and salvation by faith in Jesus alone.

They are an ecumenical movement, working for the unity of Christianity. They welcome all men at their rallies, both Christians and non-Christians. However, in practice, the theological beliefs expressed at rallies and in their literature primarily appeals to men from the conservative wing of Christendom. Dr. Jack Hayford writes on "Redeeming Worship" in the book "Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper:

"Redeeming worship centers on the Lord's Table. Whether your tradition celebrates it as Communion, Eucharist, the Mass, or the Lord's Supper, we are all called to this centerpiece of Christian worship." 2

Founder, Bill McCartney writes in the same book:

"...Almighty God wants to bring Christian men together regardless of their ethnic origin, denominational background, or style of worship...Can we look one another in the eye -- black, white, red, brown, yellow, Baptist, Presbyterian, Assemblies of God, Catholic, and so on -- and get together on this common ground: 'We believe in salvation through Christ alone, and we have made Him the Lord of our lives'? Is that not the central, unifying reality of our existence? And if it is, can we not focus on that and call each other brothers instead of always emphasizing our differences?" 3

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Practices of Promise Keepers

From their founding in 1990 to 1997-SEP, they have held 61 rallies averaging about 43,000 men, for a total attendance of at least 2.6 million men.

PK rallies have been described as emotional, cathartic events. 4 Reporter Margaret Wente wrote:

"Men are chastised for their sins and weaknesses, break into tears, and recite vows to become better husbands and fathers. Imagine a cross between an old-fashioned revival meeting and a gigantic therapy session, and you've got the picture."

Women are excluded from all Promise Keeper events: mass rallies, prayer groups and other religious activities. The group feels that their presence would be a distraction. Wives of PK members have organized a number of support ministries. They pray for the success of the movement, and that wives and children are spiritually prepared for the return of their husbands who have been changed by their attendance.

PK members, called ambassadors, form PK accountability groups, consisting of five or six men who meet weekly. They hold each other accountable as Christians and support each other to keep the 7 promises

A main thrust of the movement in recent years has been to raise consciousness about segregation and racism within Christianity. They often stress that 11 AM on Sunday morning is the beginning of the most segregated hour of the week. This is the time when many Christians in the US attend churches whose congregations are almost entirely of one race. Promise Keepers got off to a bad start, as a white-led organization. They have consciously worked towards a racially integrated movement. Almost 40% of their staff are now from a racial minority.

In 1986, McCartney exhorted his followers:

"Many of you feel like you've been in a war for a long time, yet the fiercest fighting is still ahead. Let's proceed. It's wartime."

In recent years, they have toned down the militaristic language. No longer emphasized are the "squads of men" engaging in "spiritual warfare" as "God's army," fighting "a raging battle" with Jesus as their "commander-in-chief" and clergy as "commissioned officers."

"They still base much of their belief that a man should be the head of the family on Ephesians 5:23:"For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church..." (NIV). PK has recently been downplaying the matching verse 22 which states: "Wives submit to your husbands, as to the Lord" (NIV).

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Support for Promise Keepers

bullet At his weekly radio address on 1997-OCT-4 (the date of the Washington rally) President Clinton said:

"Their presence here is yet another example of the nation's understanding and attention to the need to strengthen our families. There is nothing more important...The need for men to take responsibility for themselves and their families is something that unites Americans of all faiths and backgrounds and beliefs."

Clinton also acknowledged that some people have "political differences" with the Promise Keepers.

bullet First Lady Hillary Clinton has expressed reservations about the PK leadership, but praised the movement in her book "It Takes a Village."

bullet On 1997-SEP-16, a group of leading conservative women from a number of Protestant, Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches denounced NOW for their criticism of PK and decried the negative impact of "radical feminism" on church and society. Lecturer on Catholic life, Mary Ellen Bork, said: "We believe that the feminist fixation on power has sadly missed the point of the present cultural situation. In our view, power is not the goal in life." Pat Funderburk Ware, an African-American expert in the prevention of teen pregnancies and STD transmission said: "So many white women...are so co-opted by the feminist movement because they haven't suffered enough. They really don't know what it is not to have their men there...We've suffered enough."

bullet Donna Minkowitz, a journalist from Ms magazine, smuggled herself into a Promise Keeper's rally in St. Petersburg FL in 1995. She disguised herself as a teen-aged boy. She recognizes that the group is opposed to equal rights for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender persons as well as being opposed to abortion access. But she says that this is not their main thrust. She says: "In some ways, I think they are changing men in a really good way that feminists would like. While some of their message is antifeminist and right-wing, I think ignoring the good side doesn't do us a service at all."

bullet Jeannette Batz, columnist for The Riverfront Times commented: "Pastors are seeing men throw away the crutches of pornography, adultery, workaholism and addiction. Wives are calling themselves Promise Reapers because they finally have husbands they can count on. Friends are watching these men open up, admit their failings, sob themselves clean." 5

bullet Nina May is the founder of Renaissance Women. Commenting on attacks on PK from feminist and other groups, she said: "I question the sincerity, the integrity and the honesty of any self-proclaimed spokeswoman who challenges a family's right and responsibility to reassess their commitment to one another."

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Criticisms of Promise Keepers

Political Agenda: Some critics maintain that "PK" is not a purely religious organization, but is a component of the Religious Right, intending to further its political aims. Social analyst Chip Berlet as described the Religious Right as "an authoritarian society where Christian men interpret God's will as law. Women are helpmates, and children are the property of their parents.... People are basically sinful, and must be restrained."

Well-known groups within the Religious Right support PK. James Dobson of Focus on the Family donated 10,000 critically needed dollars to PK in 1992. Dobson has given them publicity on his radio show, has addressed their rally in Denver CO, and has written a chapter in the PK guidebook. Focus has published PK books and materials. Other Fundamentalist radio and TV programs have publicized PK.

According to one source: 5

bullet The founder, Bill McCartney has spoken for Operation Rescue, an extremist anti-choice group.
bullet PK speakers Joseph Garlington and Wellington Boone have been closely involved with the Coalition on Revival (COR), a Christian Reconstructionist group that wants to enforce Old Testament law in the US, extending the death penalty to include blasphemy, homosexuality and abortion.
bullet Mark DeMoss, former spokesperson for Moral Majority leader the Rev. Jerry Falwell and former advisor to Patrick Buchanan, now handles publicity for PK.
bullet Rev. Amos Brown, pastor of the Third Baptist Church in San Francisco CA, called PK a "Trojan horse for the political and religious right." He criticized the exclusion of women from its rallies. He said: "Whatever is going to be done to improve the family is going to take a holistic and collective effort involving husband and wife."
bullet Spokespersons from the Center for Democracy Studies state: "Promise Keepers emerged as the cutting edge of the religious right and is representative of the "third wave" of the religious right's political development since World War II. The first was Jerry Falwell's fundamentalist-led Moral Majority. The second was Pat Robertson's charismatic-led Christian Coalition with its grassroots structures. What distinguishes Promise Keepers from prior waves of religious revivals in this country is its organizational prowess, theological extremism, and the extent to which it wants comprehensively to restructure this country's social order. With backing from Focus on the Family's James Dobson and The Family Research Council's Gary Bauer, who have criticized Ralph Reed for selling out their principles, the so-called third wave is positioning itself to the political right of the Christian Coalition." 6
Past Behavior of a Group Led by McCartney: Bill McCartney was the head football coach at the University of Colorado, prior to his founding of Promise Keepers. From 1982 until 1994, he transformed the football team from a losing organization into a major achiever in college sports. They won the national title in 1990. They were a Top 20 team from 1989 until 1994. But according to Phil Mushnick, sports reporter for the New York Post, these achievements might have been at the expense of the player's moral stature. 7 Mushnick wrote:

"You name it, brothers and sisters, McCartney's recruits were accused of it. Theft, rape, serial rape, assault, extortion, drugs, terroristic threats, weapons, DWIs, criminal trespassing, criminal flight, breaking and entering, and, of course, academic fraud...From 1986 to 1989 alone...24 of McCartney's players were arrested." In 1989, Tim DeLaria of the Campus Police told Sports Illustrated that "At the first home football game of every seasons, a couple of detectives [would] drop by the stadium and pick up a few programs.8 Saves you time. Instead of having a victim go through the mug book, you just take out your program and say, 'Is he in here?'"

Male Supremacy.
bullet Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) has said: "I see the Promise Keepers and I am afraid. I am very afraid. And I am angry." She describes their goal as a "feel-good form of male supremacy." She opposes PK as a "stealth male-supremacist group." She believes that they are "quietly building a mass movement in the US." NOW is selling some amusing buttons with such slogans as: "God, please save me from your followers," and "Sorry, I've missed church. I've been practicing witchcraft and becoming a lesbian." She commented on another occasion: "Two adults standing as equals and peers taking responsibility for their family is a much different image than the man being the head and master, and women being back in an old role that historically was very detrimental."

bullet Feminists and other critics point out that Promise #4 includes a corollary commitment for men to reclaim their leadership roles in the family - against opposition from their wives if necessarily. They propose an authoritarian family structure. PK is opposed to families in which both spouses share power equally.

bullet Tony Evans, a senior pastor of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas TX wrote a section titled "Reclaiming your Manhood" in a PK book titled "Seven Promises":

"Sit down with your wife and say something like this: 'Honey, I've made a terrible mistake. I've given you my role. I gave up leading this family, and I forced you to take my place. Now, I must reclaim that role'...I'm not suggesting you ask for your role back, I'm urging you to take it back...there can be no compromise here. If you're going to lead, you must lead."

bullet Rev. Barry Lynn, of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State said: They don't just want to be responsible. They want men to be the leaders, not just of the church but of their families, of their government, of the whole culture."

bullet Rape and Violence End Now (RAVEN) is a nonviolence education program for men in St. Louis MO. Mark Moloney, their executive director commented: "I don't think all they stand for is odious. But I think we should be concerned with the things they are not saying. They are not talking about how you raise a child nonviolently or how you enter a relationship in a way that is not controlling." 5

bullet Harry Walls, pastor of Christian Fellowship Baptist Church in Wellston, conceded that: "The message of male leadership has been oppressive...And if I sit 10 men down and say, `You are the leader of the house and here's what that means,' some will leave with only one message: `I'm the leader'."

bullet More than 60 religious leaders formed an anti-Promise Keepers coalition called Equal Partners in Faith. They sent a letter in 1997-MAY which stated that when Promise Keepers excluded women and female clergy from their events, they were sending a message "that women belong behind men, not in equal partnerships, and that this is God's will for men and women."

bullet Karen Grasse from the University of Pennsylvania commented:

"I know many men who have taken 'Christian' teachings and used them as their God-given authority to 'keep a woman in her place' and maintain their male-leadership role. They refuse to let their wives get a job, to go to college, have her own friends, dress the way she wants to, etc. They want to control a person in order to be the 'leader.' And guess what a lot of Christian men do when their wives won't do what they tell them to -- a little verbal hollering, a few slaps, a little hitting, to show them who's in charge because God said so in the Bible."

"The Promise Keeper philosophy sounds harmless on the front end but indicates oppression of another person is okay in order to practice the teachings. As Lucie Johnson has pointed out, the teachings indicate 'reclaim your leadership EVEN if the other person is opposed.'"

PK has been severely criticized for trying to bring all conservative Christian men together. One Fundamentalist source describes this as "radical ecumenism," and criticizes PK's association with groups lacking "doctrinal purity" and which are modernistic and worldly. 12 "Those who get involved with Promise Keepers will also be trained in a blasphemous mixture of humanistic psychology and corrupt Christianity." 13,14 Another source wrote that Promise Keepers "...founder and several of its leaders are part of the charismatic movement which is a major catalyst in the effort to bring about fellowship and eventual union with the Roman Catholic Church; whereas, in truth, the Roman Catholic Church is a false church, preaches a false gospel and is not a part of the body of Christ." 15


Gay-Lesbian Rights: PK is opposed to equal rights for gays and lesbians, including the right of same-sex couples to marry. They describe homosexuality as a sin that "violates God's creative design for a husband and wife." The founder, Bill McCartney served on the board of Colorado for Family Values, which sponsored the anti-gay Amendment 2 in Colorado. That amendment barred local laws in the state of Colorado that guaranteed equal rights for gays and lesbians. (It was later declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court.) A PK spokesperson, Jim Jewell said at the time of the Washington DC rally that "The Bible and Promise Keepers are preaching that any sex outside a marriage between a man and a woman violates God's standards. If the charge against Promise Keepers is that we are taking the Bible too seriously or literally, we plead guilty to that."



Freedom of Choice: PK is opposed to women's access to abortion and to everyone's access to euthanasia. Their official periodical stated: "The legal undermining of the sanctity of human life, from the pre-born to the old and infirm, represents a rejection of America's two-century tenet that mankind is made in God's image and is a repudiation of morality as a factor in court decisions." 9



Excessively Tolerant and Fuzzy: Some Christian Fundamentalists have criticized PK for being too ecumenical, too New Age and too "sissified." 4 PK has been criticized for its "unionism, "anti-denominationalism" and "watering down of doctrine." 5 Dr. Raymond Hartwig, president of the South Dakota district of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, commented: "They use the Bible in a very simplistic form, as a springboard to jump into the law. That's scary and it's quite sad." John H. Armstrong wrote: "In the end, Promise Keepers is simply what evangelicalism has become, a movement without a doctrinally defined focus, that can draw multitudes to exciting events but without a theology of the church that will build Christ's church in a New Testament sense." 10 Some Fundamentalists have used guilt by association to criticize PK. For example, the group was blasted because John Maxwell frequently speaks at rallies. 11 And, Maxwell attended a "Successful Church Leadership" conference in 1995-MAR, where he actually joined hands with well known minister Robert Schuller. (Schuller is judged to be scripturally unsound). And to make matters worse, at the 1997 meeting of the same conference, there were some gay and lesbian pastors present.



Religious Intolerance: There are religious tolerance and religious liberty concerns about the founder of Promise Keepers and about at least one rally speaker.



While head coach at the University of Colorado, the American Civil Liberties Union criticized him for instituting a mandatory pre-game prayer. Others criticized him for favoring Christian players. He has said: "The only way [that] God can be worshiped is through Jesus Christ."


bullet Tom Claus, a Native American of the Mohawk tribe and a Christian angered some Native leader in 1996 when he spoke at a PK rally in a traditional headdress. His speech was interpreted by some as exonerating Europeans for the invasion of North America and destruction of Native culture and religion. His reasoning was that the end result of the conflict was the conversion of many Natives to Christianity. A video of his comments was widely circulated among the American Indian community. Vernon Foster, a director of the American Indian Movement commented: "He isn't speaking for the Indian when he stands up and does his ministering. He's telling the United States it's okay to oppress Indian people, it's okay to push Christianity on them."

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Continue with Part 2 of this essay.

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  1. The Promise Keepers' Statement of Faith is at:
  2. J. Hayford, "Redeeming Worship," Chapter 1 of "Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper", Page 19
  3. W. McCartney, "Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper", Pages 160-161.
  4. Margaret Wente, "Onward Promise Keepers?," Globe and Mail, Toronto ON, 1997-OCT-4, P. D7
  5. Jeannette Batz "The Promise Keepers are Either the Hope of this Nation or the Fascists who will Destroy it, Depending who you Talk to -- and what you Already Believe," The Riverfront Times (July 23-29, 1997), St. Louis, MO, 1997-JUL-23-29, Pages 25-29
  6. Alfred Ross and Lee Cokorinos, "Promise Keepers: A Real Challenge from the Right," The Center for Democracy Studies, New York, NY. Essay is available at:
  7. Phil Mushnick, "Top Promise Keeper Led College Den of Iniquity", New York Post, 1997-OCT-10, Pages 3 and 102.
  8. Sports Illustrated, 1989-FEB
  9. Promise Keeper News, 1997-JUL
  10. John H. Armstrong, "Foreword, Beyond Promises," p. 10. Quoted in: Lynn & Sarah Leslie, "The Pruning of Promise Keepers", at:
  11. D.W. Cloud, "Promise Keepers Speaker Accepts Non-Trinitarians and Says he Draws No Lines" at:
  12. D.W. Cloud, "Promise Keepers Preaches Unity," at:
  13. D.W. Cloud?, "Beware of Promise Keepers," at:
  14. References 11 to 13 are from the "Promise Keepers Movement" section of the "End Time Apostasy On-Line Data Base" at: Dozens of other similar attacks on Promise Keepers are indexed at that site.
  15. M. H. Reynolds, "The Promise Keepers Movement is Dangerous -- Watch Out For It!" Foundation magazine, Foundation, Vol. XVI, Issue 1, at:

Copyright © 1998 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2012-APR-02
Author: B.A. Robinson

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