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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
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
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
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
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)