WACO: Thirty Years On
Recognising His Voice
In 1990, I was serving as an intern pastor in the Manchester district of churches. One Friday, I received a call notifying me that a number of our young people were going to attend a Bible study that evening, and I decided to go along. I arrived at the home at 7 pm, where there were some twenty young people sitting with Bibles open and eyes aglow. I recognised everyone in the room except for one person, a laidback American who introduced himself as Steve (Schneider): he was the one who’d be leading the Bible study and politely welcomed me with a ‘good to see you, Pastor’.
Apart from the young people, there was someone else there whom I had not seen for at least a year. John had been a fellow Theology student at Newbold College, but I had lost contact with him when he dropped off the radar after leaving Newbold. I did not know Steve, but to my shame, my first reaction was rather childish and filled with jealousy. I remember thinking to myself, When I lead Bible study or prayer meetings, I never attract this many young people! What’s the deal with Steve?
As Steve led the Bible study, I was impressed with his memory and ability to recite numerous Bible texts without having to read them. Steve had charisma and spoke with confidence and authority. Those present were engaged and appeared to hang on his every word. As I listened, I prayed for discernment; my mind was working overtime as I tried to figure out the direction of Steve’s Bible study. After two and a half hours, I had had enough. My mind was tired and could not process any more, so I politely made my excuses and left. I later learnt that the Bible study had continued into the early hours of the Sabbath morning.
My spirit was troubled – something about the experience wasn’t quite right; and, while I could not put my finger on exactly what it was, or identify any glaringly obvious errors, I was nevertheless left with the sense that something wasn’t adding up.
In the days that followed, some of the young people challenged me: ‘Pastor, where’s the error in what Steve’s saying?’ To my embarrassment, I had no definitive answer. In the Bible study, Steve moved from text to text, book to book, Old Testament to New Testament, back and forth. He referred to prophecies from the book of Jeremiah; and, still maintaining my reservations, I remember being troubled enough to read the entire book of Jeremiah twice in two sittings. While Steve had a strange way of interpreting the prophecies, in those early days, I was not aware of how dangerous these interpretations would be.
On the Wednesday following the two-and-a-half-hour Bible study, I received a phone call from John. ‘Ian,’ he said, ‘I have been searching for the truth all my life, and now at last I’ve found it. You need to examine what Steve is teaching and come and join us.’ Now, I want to be very clear, because it’s important that what I am about to say must not be brushed off as dramatic effect; but that night John pleaded for my soul. I could hear the tears in his voice when I responded, ‘I’m not joining you; something isn’t right about all of this.’ That was the last conversation I had with John.
I will never forget the comments made by at least four of the older members in the Manchester district following a series of meetings and discussions on Steve’s Bible studies. Speaking in soft Jamaican patois, they said, ‘Pastor, that is not the voice of Jesus!’ I heard what they said, but at first I did not understand. They had not heard Steve’s Bible studies first-hand; neither had they proffered any sound hermeneutical principles for interpreting the classical prophecies of Jeremiah that could combat Steve’s teaching. As one who had studied theology on a technical level, I was unsatisfied with the simplicity of their conclusion and felt I needed more. At the time, I did not realise that God was using them to deliver an important teaching to me and all who heard them.
It was in the aftermath of the devastating fire of 19 April 1993, and a death toll that at the time was reported as potentially being as high as 85 people,1 that my thoughts were taken back to those elderly members and their statement: ‘Pastor, that is not the voice of Jesus!’ The Lord reminded me of a song that the youth choir in Leicester had rehearsed and sung: ‘My sheep know My voice’.
This was a song composed by Herbert Buffum (1879-1939). Buffum found inspiration for this hymn in the words of Jesus, some two thousand years before, who said: ‘ “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” ’ (John 10:27, NIV).
Only now do I understand the wise words of the older saints. When you have come close to Christ every day through prayer, Bible study and a heart open and receptive to Him, you will recognise the voice of Jesus!
Pastor Ian Sweeney | 24 March 2023
Pastor Ian Sweeney serves as a Field Secretary and Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Director
for the Trans-European Division.