Following are notes taken as I listened to a June 21, 2015, sermon by Pete Cocco delivered at Minier Christian Church in Minier, Illinois. I had originally posted these notes not long after he had delivered the sermon and while he was still the director of a local campus ministry. I then took the post down after a meeting with Pete in which he said that he had been wrong and that he would change. I thought it only proper to give him the benefit of the doubt and wait to see what happened (despite the fact that I didn’t really trust that he understood the issues). Since then I have seen no good reason to think Pete has changed his approach. In fact, he seems to have enthusiastically continued in the same ways. Also, since then Pete has begun the Legacy
campus ministry, a ministry which seeks strengthen campus ministries and help them to become “gospel movements” on their respective campuses. I have thus decided to post the notes again here. I have provided the audio to the “sermon” above, in which Pete provides a very clear example of what is wrong with so many campus ministries these days — and what is wrong with so many church ministries as well. I offer my notes here in order to help the blog’s readers to be more discerning when thinking about supporting or being involved with such ministries.
I have known Pete for a number of years, and I have grown increasingly concerned that his own lack of concern for the authority and sufficiency of Scripture in his understanding of and approach to ministry will have an extremely detrimental effect if left unchecked. This is why, after much prayer and heartache, I have again publicly offered my observations and admonitions in the following notes. The notes follow the structure of Pete’s message.
Pete said that he usually takes one Scripture as his text and tries to teach only one idea (which sounds like he’s been influenced by Andy Stanley
, a fact which the rest of the message makes even more likely, but see my warning here
), yet in this message he said he would go all over Scripture and teach four ideas. He said he had four “M’s” to share. He said that they represent lessons he has learned from his years of ministry that he wants to share with these people as they go through a time of transition in their local church (at the time they were transitioning to a new pastor).
Pete said, “Do not seek miracles; let the miracles find you.” This is advice for which a Scriptural case could probably have been made had Pete endeavored to do so. Instead, however, he communicated a story from his previous ministry experience about a miraculous provision from God. He didn’t offer a single Scripture to back up the point. In fact, at about six minutes into the actual message (at about the 10 minute mark in the audio above), he was ready to move on to the second “M,” and there hadn’t yet been a single Scripture reference or any clear allusion to any Scripture text. What, then, was the authority upon which the congregation was expected to receive Pete’s admonition? Well, despite Pete’s having said that he was going to give a message that would teach four ideas from Scripture, the fact is that, at least for the first idea, he expected his hearers to accept what he said based on His own authority and experience. This is not preaching the Word of God. Up to this point, what we have is really a kind of bait and switch, in which Pete said that he was going to teach from Scripture but instead gave these people nothing but his own opinions, apparently thinking they were as important as anything Scripture might have to say to them concerning our perspective on miracles.
Pete has thus far failed to heed the admonition of the Apostle Paul to “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15 ESV). Pete has failed to “Preach the word!” (2 Tim. 4:2 NKJ). Sadly, what follows will not show any real improvement.
Pete essentially made the point that we should be concerned about numbers only in that they represent people, but we shouldn’t be focused merely on numbers. This is a very good point, and, again, this is advice for which a Scriptural case could have been made had Pete endeavored to do so, but instead he gave more of his own opinions and said, “Don’t try to gather a crowd to disciple; disciple to gather a crowd.” There are many ways to gather a crowd, but we must be interested in a crowd that is the fruit of discipleship. However, he never explained what he meant by “discipleship.”
At about 12 minutes into the actual “sermon” (at about the 16-17 minute mark in the audio above), Pete finally made mention of a Scripture text he said was from “the end of Matthew 2” about Jesus not trusting a crowd because He knew what was in the heart of man. It was a passing reference of about 5 seconds or so, but it was the wrong one. The text he had to have been thinking about is actually from John 2 — verses 23-25 to be precise — and he was apparently so ill-prepared and had so little concern for teaching Scripture that he didn’t even bother to get it right. He then told another story using his previous ministry experience as an example and finished his second point with no other reference to Scripture at all. Apparently people should just listen to Pete and follow his example and just assume that he knows what is right for them. Pete has continued to make himself the authority thus far. He has continued in his failure to be “a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15 ESV).
Pete said that as he looks through Scripture he has discovered that most conservative churches have become focused on Jesus’ message. “That is a good thing to be focused on,” he said, “but don’t seek deep, seek practical. That’s just gonna be my, my practical advice for you today.” He says that we need to make Jesus the focal point rather than making the Bible the focal point. However, he doesn’t bother telling us how Jesus can be the focal point without
making the Bible the focal point. After all, the Bible is Jesus’ own word about Himself (see, e.g., 1 Pet. 1:10-11; Col. 3:16). Can we make Him
the focal point without at the same time making His Word
our focal point? If we love Him
, won’t we love to hear what He has to say to us in His Word
? If we want to have a deeper knowledge of Him
, won’t we also want to have a deeper knowledge of His Word
? To be sure, we can know the Bible without knowing our Lord Jesus, but we cannot know our Lord Jesus without knowing the Bible. Yet Pete says we become obsessed with “Bible worship” when we make the Bible the focal point. “We become addicted to ‘deep,’ whatever that means.” Here he sounded eerily similar to Perry Noble
, especially when he went on to say that, “We already know far more that we’ll ever do. That’s what I believe.”
Frankly, the focus of the point thus far has really set up a kind of false dichotomy between either getting “deep” into Scripture or being “practical.” In reality we should do both. But Pete seems to be wanting to justify his own lack of depth, a lack of depth that is evident in this very message. Perhaps he should spend some time meditating on a passage such as Psalm 119, in which the Psalmist repeatedly demonstrates that we cannot love God without loving His Word as well. For example:
NKJ Psalm 119:9-16 BETH. How can a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed according to Your word. 10 With my whole heart I have sought You; Oh, let me not wander from Your commandments! 11 Your word I have hidden in my heart, That I might not sin against You! 12 Blessed are You, O LORD! Teach me Your statutes! 13 With my lips I have declared All the judgments of Your mouth. 14 I have rejoiced in the way of Your testimonies, As much as in all riches. 15 I will meditate on Your precepts, And contemplate Your ways. 16 I will delight myself in Your statutes; I will not forget Your word. (Italics Mine)
The Psalmist then goes on to repeatedly declare His love for the Word of God (see, e.g., vss. 47-48, 97, 113, 119, 127, 159, 163, 165, 167). Does this make the Psalmist a “Bible worshiper”? No, for the Psalmist makes it clear that he loves God’s Word because He loves God Himself, and he teaches us that we cannot love God Himself without a deep love for His Word. Indeed, one of the ways we demonstrate our love for God is through a love for His Word. Of course, as the references above also indicate, the Psalmist repeatedly stresses that a love for God means keeping His Word as well, but he is obviously not operating with the kind of false dichotomy with which Pete seems to be operating. He has no place for a false choice between either God or His Word as one’s focal point, for he clearly sees them as equally central, since we can only know God as we ought through his Word.
In the context of stressing his “don’t seek deep, seek practical” approach and his warnings to avoid “Bible worship,” Pete went on to say that, “Jesus didn’t carry a Bible with Him. Jesus walked around, and He talked about plants. He talked about life, and He pointed at things, and He used the life that was going on around Him to teach on money and giving and all those kinds of things.” First, how does Pete know whether or not Jesus ever carried Scripture around with Him? Second, has Pete forgotten that Jesus was exceptional in His knowledge of Scripture and had memorized it. Has Pete forgotten how much of Jesus’ teaching was saturated with Scripture? Has he forgotten how Jesus constantly cited or alluded to Scripture? Third, has Pete forgotten that Jesus insured that we would have the Scriptures that we now have for a reason? Good grief! It takes a fair amount of ignorance of the Gospels — or just plain ignoring of the text of the Gospels — to say what Pete has said, implying that Jesus gives us an example of not needing to carry the Scriptures with us or not needing to rely on Scripture as we do ministry or not needing to seek a “deeper” knowledge of Scripture. But, then, Pete is not so concerned about being faithful to the Bible anyway, at least not in this message. Apparently that would make him too much of a “Bible worshiper.” At any rate, in his apparent attempt to find in Jesus an example of his own “don’t seek deep, seek practical” approach to ministry, Pete has egregiously distorted the ministry of Jesus. This is very sad indeed!
Anyway, Pete thus finishes his third point, with no clear citation of Scripture or allusion to Scripture. He has continued in his failure to “Preach the word!” (2 Tim. 4:2 NKJ), and my heart continues to break.
As Pete moves to the fourth point, he says, “It’s easy to see miracles. It’s easy to see masses. It’s easy to see the message [Really? Then why has he apparently missed it?]. But for some reason we have all avoided — so many of us have avoided — seeking Jesus’ example of a method.” There is, of course, a very troubling inconsistency here, since the way we discover Jesus’ “method” is through a deep knowledge of the Scriptures, not only of the Gospel accounts but of the rest of the New Testament as well, not to mention what we may learn from the Old Testament. Yet, since Pete doesn’t want us going too “deep” in our study of Scripture — which seems to mean we should not really get into the Scripture at all, if this message is any indication — it won’t surprise me if his understanding of Jesus’ method is shallow and lacks any clear Scriptural basis. We’ll see.
Pete continues to talk about what Jesus would or wouldn’t do without any reference to any text of Scripture. For example, he says that Jesus didn’t go in and “try to fix” the structure of the Pharisees [So why, exactly, did He confront them so frequently?] but He just “came in with a different method altogether.” He says that the different method was “pull people close. That’s how Jesus did life. He sought out twelve guys, and He pulled them close.” He then talks about the time Jesus spent with the disciples, but, not surprisingly, he fails to mention how deep Jesus’ teaching of them frequently was! Even a cursory reading of the Gospels demonstrates this point, but Pete is not interested in getting these poor people into the actual text of the Gospels anyway. Pete strongly emphasizes how Jesus just continued to spend time with the disciples and how He invested in them, but he doesn’t make the slightest reference to the fact that Jesus was constantly teaching them (see,e.g., Mark 4:23; 5:2; 7:29; 9:35 etc.) and that this teaching was often very deep, so deep that they couldn’t understand much of it at the time (see, e.g., Luke 18:34; John 6:60; 12:16). He also fails to mention the fact that Jesus had more than twelve disciples, thus also missing the fact that His relationship with the Twelve was quite unique in some respects. And this means, of course, that His “method” of discipling them might itself be unique in some ways.
Pete summarizes all of this by saying that “Jesus’ method was discipleship.” Yet what he has described has been a very truncated and distorted view of Jesus’ overall ministry. Pete then tries to clarify the meaning of the word discipleship because he thinks it is so often misunderstood. He says that “discipleship really is loving people.” We must “love people, encourage them, encourage them to read the Word,” but, of course, he has already made it clear that he doesn’t want them to get too deeply into the Word because that is a real problem, and his own example in this very “sermon” indicates that reliance upon the Word really isn’t so important anyway. So, even when Pete speaks about the need to “read the Word,” his whole message has already undermined the true importance of the Word in the lives of his hearers.
Pete also said that he is “going to challenge people to get into the Word” with him, but, again, this can’t include a challenge to go very deep into the Word, as he has already made very clear earlier in the message. In fact, if his use of Scripture — or rather non-use of Scripture and distortion of Scripture — in this message is any indication, Pete will barely even scratch the surface of the Word with those he seeks to “disciple.” In my view, this is very far from Jesus’ own understanding of discipleship!
Pete goes on to say that we occasionally need to ask hard questions. He then gives as an example the need to ask questions about the sexual problems of the young people to whom he ministers. He speaks of them as “making mistakes sexually, Christians making mistakes sexually,” which doesn’t sound like a Scriptural way of describing the evil of sexual sin, does it? But, since he has said that we need “to challenge people to get into the Word” leading up to this statement, might we conclude that the Word is being portrayed as a a sort of “practical” guide for those who “make mistakes”? It is sort of the impression with which one is left.
Yet Pete does finally actually quote Jesus as saying that “a good tree bears good fruit” and that “a bad tree bears bad fruit” and that “a good tree can’t bear bad fruit” and “a bad tree can’t bear good fruit.” However, he doesn’t bother to give a reference — i.e. Matt. 7:15-20 — or ask people to turn to the text in their Bibles. I am not surprised, then, that he misses or ignores the fact that Jesus uttered these words as a warning about false prophets, i.e. false teachers who claim to have a word from God, and that Jesus then goes on to stress how important it is to heed His own teaching — teaching that, again, was often very deep and was thoroughly saturated with Scripture. And, of course, Jesus’ teaching is itself found in Scripture, to which Pete has not once invited these people to turn. Now, it is possible that Pete has Luke 6:43 in mind, but that passage doesn’t state the teaching the way Pete has stated it, whereas Matthew 7 does. At any rate, when Pete does actually cite the words of Scripture, he does so in a way that violates the context in which they were given in order to make it suit his point.
Pete then finishes with another story from his own experience, but first he says that in Ezekiel 34 God “gets really mad at the people who are not taking care of His people and not shepherding well,” and he says that “We need to be shepherds of each other, shepherds of the flock.” But Ezekiel 34 is about bad leaders in Israel. What exactly has this got to do with Christians making disciples? Why does he apply the text as he does? Who knows? He certainly doesn’t even try to justify using the passage in this manner. He doesn’t even quote any of it or make any specific allusion to any part of it. He certainly sticks to his principle of not going “deep” in Scripture! In fact, he doesn’t go there at all! I would also add that I can’t think of a single Scripture passage that says that “We need to be shepherds of each other, shepherds of the flock.” It certainly isn’t found in Ezekiel 34, so where does Pete get the idea? He doesn’t say, so why should we listen to him?
At any rate, Pete bases his points in the end on his own experience and practical suggestions, which he has found a way to try to justify by speaking in a general way about Jesus’ ministry. Yet he distorts Jesus’ ministry in the process and never bothers even to try to base his teaching on any text of Scripture. Could it be because he can’t? I certainly don’t think he can. I don’t think he can show us his “don’t seek deep, seek practical” approach in Scripture, and I certainly don’t think he can point us to a single passage of Scripture that would serve as a warning against making the Bible too central to our lives, which, given the overall tenor of this message, is what his warnings against “Bible worship” seem to amount to.
Final Thoughts About the Sermon:
It is very disturbing that Pete denigrates the authority of Scripture in the things that he says and in the way that he treats Scripture in this message. In fact, Pete actually speaks as though what he has to say is every bit as important as anything Scripture says and as though he himself is the real authority for his listeners. Frankly, this is the way false teachers usually go about their teaching. It is the way that they lead people away from the truth of Scripture while appearing to teach it, but I doubt Pete is even aware that he is doing this.
It is also troubling that Pete resorts to the low tactics that he employs in trying to justify his position. For example, he sets up a false choice between either going “deep” into God’s Word or being “practical,” and then subtly implies that anyone who disagrees with him is an idolatrous “Bible worshiper.” He seems oblivious to the fact that we must both go deep in our study of God’s Word and be practical in applying it. To be sure, a person can be focused on in-depth study of the Bible without really loving the God who inspired it, but it is not true that someone can really love God and yet not love in-depth study of His Word. In his failure to grasp such basic concepts, and in his fallacious reasoning, Pete again demonstrates the kind of tactics false teachers typically employ and that believers lacking in discernment all too easily fall for, but, again, I doubt he is even aware of this. Such nonsense coming from a man who ought to know better is both heart-breaking and infuriating.
One last point needs to be made in response to this “sermon,” namely that we need to be very careful when appealing to Jesus’ example as a pattern for ministry, even if we accurately portray His ministry, something which Pete has definitely not done. Would Pete argue, for instance, based on Jesus’ example, that we should go into wayward churches and drive people out of them with a whip? That we should travel around with a small group of disciples for three to three and a half years in order to help them learn ministry? That we should be sure to choose at least one person that we are certain will betray us to be among our closest disciples? Or, to take an example from Pete’s talk, assuming for the sake of argument that Jesus never actually carried any written Scriptures with Him as Pete supposes, should we see this as an example we are intended to follow? Given that Jesus is the divine Son of God, the Word of God incarnate, fully God and fully man in one person, and the one who ultimately gave us the Scriptures for our good, should we assume either that we have the same knowledge as He had or that He never intended for us to carry the Scriptures with us and to rely upon the Scriptures for all of our teaching? Absolutely not! We simply cannot ignore the tremendous distance between our Lord Jesus and ourselves in this regard. Thus, even if Pete were right in his assumption that Jesus never carried the Scriptures with Him, he is wrong to imply that we need not necessarily do so. In fact, the very Scriptures that Jesus Himself ensured that we would possess appear to insist otherwise. After all, if “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17), then I cannot imagine why Pete would want give the impression that we ought not have Scripture with us as we minister and make disciples. But, of course, there is an inconsistency here for, on the one hand Pete implies that Jesus is an example of our not needing to carry a Bible, but on the other hand he speaks briefly a couple of times about getting people into the Bible. What, then, is Jesus’ supposed lack of concern for carrying a Bible really intended to portray? It is all a bit muddled. What is clear, however, is that the Bible has not played a very large role in this message, for Pete has not bothered to show how any of the points he wants his listeners to take away have actually been derived from Scripture.
We also need to remember that Jesus’ ministry was special in some ways and that His discipleship of the Apostles was also special in some ways, so we cannot automatically assume that we ought to do all the things He did in the same ways that He did them. We must first demonstrate from the context of each of Jesus’ teachings and actions — as well as the overall context of the New Testament — whether or not He intended them to serve as patterns for us. But, of course, this would require a deeper knowledge of Scripture than Pete has displayed or than he apparently thinks is necessary.
Before concluding, perhaps it would be helpful to ask ourselves how the Apostles understood the Great Commission, with its command to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:18-20). How did they think they should fulfill this task? In answer to this question, we have an especially good example in the ministry of the Apostle Paul, whom our Lord Jesus directly commissioned as an Apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15-16; Gal. 1:1) and whom He personally taught the Gospel (Gal. 1:11-12). Remember, for example, how Paul spent at least two years and three months in Ephesus (Acts 19:8-10) and was later able to describe to the Ephesian elders how he had taught them the “whole counsel of God” during that time (Acts 20:20-27). No wonder he could write the Epistle to the Ephesians and expect that they already understood such doctrines as election, predestination, adoption, the nature of Christ’s relationship to the Church, the relationship of Jews and Gentiles in the Body of Christ, the relationship of grace to good works, etc. Also, given that Paul taught essentially the same way everywhere he went, we are also not surprised that in his Epistle to the Galatians he would expect them to already have been very familiar with the doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone.
I am reminded in this regard of how, over the years, I have spoken to many Christians who seem to think that doctrines like election and predestination, or the mystery of the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, are in the category of deeper doctrines that really aren’t essential things for Christians to know. They are the kinds of things many Christians will assume that they don’t need to know if they are told that they do not need to go “deep” but instead remain “practical.” Such doctrines are thought to be the kind of things that theologians write about or debate but that most Christians don’t really need to be concerned about. They seem to think it is sort of graduate level Christianity, as it were. But I don’t agree with this all-too-common assumption. In fact, I think that the Apostle Paul would emphatically disagree with it as well. I think that he would regard such doctrines as a part of what we might call Christianity 101. Consider, for example, what he said to the Roman Christians when he wrote his epistle to them, in which he famously discussed these very issues in great depth:
NKJ Romans 1:9-15 For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of His Son, that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers, 10 making request if, by some means, now at last I may find a way in the will of God to come to you. 11 For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift, so that you may be established — 12 that is, that I may be encouraged together with you by the mutual faith both of you and me. 13 Now I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that I often planned to come to you (but was hindered until now), that I might have some fruit among you also, just as among the other Gentiles. 14 I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to wise and to unwise. 15 So, as much as is in me, I am ready to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome also.
After this Paul immediately launches into the primary purpose for which he was writing the Epistle to the Romans, namely to explain the Gospel for them as he had done for so many others, the Gospel he longed to preach to them as he had preached it to others. He says, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (Romans 1:16), and then he gives us the most sustained presentation of the Gospel that we have in the New Testament. He gives us, in other words, what might easily be described as Christianity 101, the basic elements of the Gospel and of Christian soteriology that all Christians need to know and that he was therefore determined that the Roman Christians should know. So, I would suggest that, for Paul, such doctrines as election and predestination, or the mystery of the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, doctrines that are a central part of the Epistle to the Romans, are in the category of basic Christianity. As I see it, the sooner Christians today learn this the better it will be for the Church. Just something to consider. After all, if the Apostle Paul were to spend spend 2-3 years with students at a university campus, should we possibly think that he would he have failed to teach them such things? Absolutely not! They are the kinds of things, however, that the young man Pete used as an example in his point about “the message” would have read as he delved into the theology text he struggled to understand. But Pete’s apparent response wouldn’t be to help the young man understand the theology better in the light of Scripture; rather he would apparently simply avoid it and move on to something that he deems to be more “practical” (as if a look at the theology he considers to be in the realm of “the deep” cannot itself be “practical” in its implications, but I digress). This simply highlights the vast gulf between what the Apostle Paul would consider adequate discipleship versus what Pete Cocco would apparently consider it to be, at least given the outline of his ministry presented in this message. Pete’s admonition, “don’t seek deep, seek practical,” certainly doesn’t sound like anything Paul would say. In fact, Pete’s message at Minier leads me to think that he has a very poor understanding of what Biblical discipleship is really all about. This also highlights the problem with the way he cherry-picks certain things about Jesus’ discipleship ministry while ignoring the rest of what the Gospels teach us about it, not to mention how the Apostles themselves understood the task He had given them. But he is not alone; he is an example of what is wrong with far too many campus ministries, not to mention the many churches who follow a similarly flawed approach that caters to our culture rather than submits to Scripture as the all-sufficient authority for our ministry practices.
I would like to end by reminding the blog’s readers that it is primarily out of love and concern for the campus ministers who might be influenced by Pete, and for the many students who are a part of the campus ministries they lead, that I have taken time to write this post. I am deeply concerned for their spiritual welfare. I am also concerned that the multitude of Christians sitting under similarly bad teaching should be warned to beware.