This article was originally two e-mails written by Arlean Kelley, the former Servants’ News Small Group and Evangelism Editor (she is gradually recovering from her illness). They were written in May and July of 2000 as she was getting to know and respect some Church of God brethren in her area. I think this “outsider’s” look at the CoG groups can provide helpful correction.
Our regular features about small groups and evangelism will continue in the next issue. — NSE
by Arlean Kelley
I now have friends who are former WCG members. These wonderful people are amazed that some who used to be so devout in their church now “seem just so happy to be able to eat a ham sandwich!” On the other hand I, who never attended any church that regarded “clean meats” laws, would not touch a ham sandwich.
What’s the difference? I think the difference is whom we have been encouraged to follow. If you’ve been encouraged to follow man, then when men change, so do you. If you are anchored in the Almighty, and you’ve learned to get your direction from Him, then things around you may change, but your anchor holds!
Once one turns from following God and starts following man—no matter how great a teacher—he has put that man in the place that God wants to hold in his life. When it comes to Bible knowledge, people just don’t “get it” all at once. God teaches people and changes them according to His wisdom, which probably works out a lot differently than our limited wisdom.
My god (or God, depending) is whatever controls my life. If I line up with a belief system of a church or a leader—that I can’t really see for myself—in order to be accepted into fellowship by that person, I would be making that leader my god because that is who I would be seeking to please—not the Almighty. I now have been taught to follow man as a substitute for God. That did happen to me to some degree—for years.
But as I continued my goal of aligning my life with His will for about 40 years, I have changed so much. What I did not believe at one time, I now believe, and some things I did believe at the start, I no longer believe. It is a process of growth. If the Eternal just opened our heads and poured in all knowledge and understanding at once, it would be nice. But it seems that He does it more line upon line, line upon line, precept upon precept, precept upon precept, here a little, there a little.
For example, I was taught from childhood to set aside Sunday (not Sabbath). I memorized verses to support that position. People who were, themselves, convinced had taught the historic change from Sabbath to Sunday. Of course it was in error, but I didn’t have a clue. Yet my relationship with God was real and close and I was growing in my knowledge of Him and my relationship to Him all along. He accepted me, loved me, answered my prayers, and showed me truth from scripture.
And then one day He started to encourage me to question the Sabbath. When did it change, and why? In fact, it was during that research that I came across Norman Edwards and Servants’ News on the internet several years ago.
But that was only a coincidence of my research. I was fully convinced only after I did a complete study of every Bible verse I could find and write down regarding Sabbath. I then outlined those verses, and I had my answer. But that happened only after I had given up all inclination to follow man. If I had still been following man, I would never have come into this truth because I would still have been trying to keep the approval of men that I respected. I think we have to give up following men if we ever want to experience true intimacy with the Almighty.
The church I attended did not concern itself with the Sabbath. I had no acquaintances that did. My recognition of the true Sabbath was spontaneous. Why it took so many years for God to get around to that, I don’t know, but because He showed me, the setting aside of Sabbath is not something I do because an organization demands it before I can be included. It flows from my heart with love toward Him and it is a joy, not a burden.
So now my focus is to encourage people to learn to follow the Eternal in their daily lives, search the Scripture, show courtesy to men, but when it comes to spiritual things, learn to follow God. I do think it is learned.
The Bible says that man looks on the outside but God looks on the heart. That seems to indicate to me that, while I may not agree on some issues, the Eternal is more concerned with the state of a person’s heart toward Him.
I understand why the WCG was against the shallow practice of asking people to simply “give their heart to the Lord” without enough knowledge to know what a godly life was like. Young converts need a way to be nourished. The WCG’s paid ministry and written literature certainly helped, but it is so sad to me that so many precious brethren have never grasped the fact that the Father has called and wants to anoint all of us to ministry—including evangelism! A “minister” is not necessarily a CEO or one who makes speeches. A minister is one who “ministers”—who serves the sheep—as the Spirit leads. A “pastor” (minister?) cares for the sheep, binds them up when they are injured, seeks them when they are lost, loves them, “feeds” them, comforts them in times of distress. A pastor cares for the sheep. He or she does not necessarily make speeches.
The Word says we are priests! All of us (1Pet 2:5,9). I could elaborate ad nauseum!
How foolish, in my opinion, to teach people there is one “minister” when in fact God has called all. How different it would be if the whole Body were equipped, scattered throughout the community acting as ministers to their world in His name and by His power. What results we would see! Our job—the job of leaders—is to “equip the saints” for this work. In my opinion, someone has not been doing the job. I do not target WCG here. The priestly hierarchy is well in place in most organizations and the lowly “layperson” sits in the pew and listens—or naps.
Wanda is a dear, precious woman who has suffered many injuries during her WCG years, yet she remains faithful. I admire her. [The person is real, but “Wanda” is a fictitious name used for this article.]
I decided to ask her about a number of things in an attempt to better understand the WCG concepts of evangelism and related subjects. I don’t know if Wanda is typical, but she sees no clear concept of conversion—the “new birth”. She said she literally doesn’t even have a word for anything like that. We had to agree on a term to assure that both of us understand what we are talking about.
She seems to believe in salvation by works. She would not say that, but that’s what it sounds like to me. You just start “obeying the commandments” one of which is baptism—going under the water and coming up a new creature. She says she was never taught much about this so has no solid answers.
I agree on the symbolism of baptism. But that is not guaranteed to be a new birth since one can go under a dry sinner and come up a wet sinner. Yet I believe the new birth can take place at baptism if that is the point at which that person repents and turns to God with all his or her heart. But without repentance and turning, baptism just gets you wet! And obeying the commandments won’t do it either because it is clear we cannot earn our way.
I asked her, “if one of the people at work asked you how they could be right with God and have eternal life, what would you tell them?” She cast about for an answer. It is obvious she had “not been here before”. Wanda is an intelligent woman with a responsible job—but answering this was not part of her experience as a believer.
I told Wanda about my own conversion. I was working as a secretary/assistant administrator at a church-sponsored children’s home. A contributor sent in a box of children’s clothes. In that box was a beautiful (used) Bible in red leather. I put it on my desk. My job was not very demanding at times. During those times I started to read it. Then I started taking it home in the evenings to read. I think I read the entire New Testament.
I had been a church member (Baptist) for years although not attending for a long time. Yet I saw from that reading that I had never repented and turned the control center of my life over to Him. I was lost to God. I was in eternal danger and in need of salvation! The knowledge haunted me as I weighed the situation.
So, driving to work one day, stopped at a traffic light in front of Sunniland Shopping Center (Kendall, Florida) I prayed. I told God I was sorry that I had lived my life to please myself, asked him to forgive me and cleanse me from my sins as His Word said He would, and that from now on my life was His. I added, “I won’t change anything in my life because someone else says so, but if you tell me to change, I will.” (I still live by that, although I do respect other believers and would not deliberately offend. Example: I would not eat meat offered to idols if it caused my brother to offend.)
My life changed at that moment. I had not attended church for several years. Church seemed irrelevant. But the Father gave me a new heart and a new life at that moment. It was a spiritual birth dependent on nothing but Him. I was about 23 at the time.
It was soon tested. Just days later the administrator at my work came in and said, “If Gary calls, tell him I’m not here.” As usual, I said, “Okay.” Then it hit me. That would be a lie. And thence came the struggle and it was intense. I loved my job, but I now couldn’t lie. Struggle, struggle, struggle! What was I going to do? Fear! What if the phone rang before I got this issue settled? What would I do?
Finally I went in and said, with fainting heart, “Could you do something for me? If you want me to tell him you’re not here… could you please (long pause) leave?”
The administrator looked at me for a long moment, picked up her purse and left. First test—passed! And so it went. But I didn’t obey because of some outer rules, but because of an inward transformation, a spiritual birth that had taken place at that traffic light when I invited Jesus to take over my life. It was not me, controlled by rules, it was His life freely flowing from a new heart.
I did not give Wanda this exact example, but I gave her others (there were others). I am not bragging on myself. This was my experience but is to His glory and not mine. My belief is that when a real birth takes place, obedience will flow out of a heart of love. If it is something merely imposed from outside, then I cannot tell you what it is. My experience is that if we truly love God, we will not want anything to harm that relationship. This is my belief and my experience. He says He will give us a heart of flesh in place of our stony heart. I think this is symbolic of what happens in the new birth. It is a supernatural work performed by the Father.
These particular WCG people are astonished how quickly others have responded to the relaxation of rules, happy for the freedom to eat ham sandwiches, for example. This would make me question some things. True obedience flows out of a changed heart, and no man is going to change us if that is the case. Why were they obeying in the first place? Because of a changed heart? Or from the desire to be accepted in an organization? The first produces eternal life. The second does not.
I hasten to add that I believe we can “backslide” and (horrors, to some) be lost. I don’t see “eternal security” in the Word. I do see a wonderful, personal walk with God that will keep us if we continue the process that got us there in the first place—stay yielded to Him. And if we do get off track, go back and repent, ask forgiveness, get back on where we got off. He promises to forgive if we do that.
Wanda says she never heard anything like this, has never had any experience like that. She says it certainly wasn’t taught in the church she attended before WCG, and not in WCG.
I believe in obedience to all of God’s standards—but I believe genuine obedience flows out of a heart that wants to obey God, that loves to obey Him. Without that, I doubt if a person has spiritual life, although I would not assume to judge an individual.
I have given my view, my conviction. I see how it can be difficult to communicate this concept of evangelism to the dear people from the WCG. It is a challenge, but nothing that God cannot do.
In personal evangelism, my goal would be to first encourage a person to make that surrender, then stay with them as a friend to share on a friendly basis the basics of living for God, seek to introduce them to Him through the Word in such a way that their dependence for “training” would eventually be transferred to Him as they learn how to seek Him in prayer, read and obey the Word consistently—for themselves. Additionally, I think this second part is the purpose of the ekklesia, the home church—to care for each other and lovingly provoke one another to righteousness.
I don’t know many who have this concept, but it seems to me that this is the plan Jesus taught His disciples, and that they perpetuated the plan. A true spiritual “parent” does not seek to make the offspring forever dependent on him or her, but seeks to teach them how to be dependent on the Father. Some may never come to that point, but that should be our goal—the complete opposite of seeking perpetual control and establishing dynasties.
Wanda is in “ministry” and has no idea that is what she is doing. For example, she weekly visits one who is currently in jail. In this discussion I said, “Wanda, you are a ‘minister’.” She was incredulous. She said, “I never thought of myself that way.” I said, “You are seeking the straying ones, comforting and binding up the wounded. What would you call that? God has called you to ministry and you have responded to His call on your life.” I am not talking about someone with a plaque on the wall, but someone who serves.
Finally, the former WCG brethren seem to be splitting into smaller groups over names, calendars, Holy Days, and so on. We can each study the Bible and do what we understand. But I believe that the moment a person turns to Jesus with his or her whole heart and becomes obedient within the context that he or she understands, that person becomes my brother or sister in Christ. I don’t really see in the Scriptures any other criterion for fellowship.