by Jim Butler
It is a paradox but true, the more mature one’s Christianity the more one realizes how little one knows about Christianity.
This article is an honest and accurate look at the church of God groups from a man who has been a member for 31 years. Our last issue included Starting a Local Congregation, which was a general biblical and historical study of what a congregation should be like. This article focuses specifically on the Church of God groups and what they need to do to change now.
Change is not instant. If the leadership of one of the Church of God groups were to suddenly announce to their members they are immediately implementing all the biblical principles covered in Starting a Local Congregation, most of the people might find it so different that they would not even study it, but simply leave to form another group that is like what they have now. The article suggests a reasonable “middle ground” that could be achieved within the existing organizations while moving them toward a more biblical method of functioning.
The article’s author, Jim Butler, had no knowledge of the other articles in this Servants’ News issue, but on his own concluded “the corporate churches of God are dying of old age”.
Jim Butler lives with his
wife, Beverly, in Rancho Cordova, Calif. (e-mail:
If truly converted we once believed that our minds are deceitful above all things. Many of us do not believe that about our own minds anymore. Most of us have been converted for many years. Surely our minds, our thoughts, are not deceitful. We all strive to be sincere, but sincerity is a slippery slope. If you only take one concept from this article I hope it is this: our thought process is often faulty, deceitful self-justifying. Perhaps two other points as well. We just don’t know all that much, and we come to conclusions much too quickly.
Most have now settled into one of many organizations/groups. Let’s look at what has happened and attempt to make some sense of it. If we are still teachable and willing to look at our collective experience from, perhaps, a fresh perspective we can move forward. Often we cannot move forward until we understand and have dealt with the past.
There are reasons why the Church of God is divided. We have each come to certain conclusions as to the reasons. This article will describe a healthy Church and give some reasons for the division.
Leadership is critical. The Bible speaks clearly of ministers, shepherds and of proper government/administration. The important questions are how does a Godly minister and Godly administration operate.
Each of us wants to be part of a healthy, growing, vibrant church that has a vision of how Godly families operate. Above all, a healthy church understands how weak, how sinful, how lacking all humans are. Again the paradox, a healthy church understands how unhealthy it is. Christ came for those who realize they are sick and need a doctor. Those that believe they are healthy are not quite ready yet. Those that once believed they were in need of a doctor but have come to believe they are healthy need the message to the Laodiceans, in large doses. Denial of one’s current state is a hallmark of the Laodicean mindset. Judgment is upon the Church of God (1Pet. 4:17) and God cares nothing for our opinion of our spiritual state.
The truth will set us free. It will also unite us. We have much truth about doctrine, but each of us is weak in its application. Just because a church or a person says something does not make it true—a “blinding flash of the obvious”, but still part of the thinking of all of us.
God used Mr. Armstrong mightily to restore truth that was greatly needed in the Church as a whole. This is especially true in understanding how the holy days reveal God’s plan, and in particular, this is not the only day of salvation. Have we forgotten what he said on a number of occasions? One of the proofs of the true Church is that it is willing to change when error is discovered. Some organizations are established on the basis that nothing will be changed. Mr. Armstrong was willing to change. Are we? Probably the hardest thing for humans to do is to admit wrong and change.
In volume 2 issue 6 of Church of God News in the article “Recapturing the Vision for Family Relations”, Brian Orchard makes the statement, “Government does not need to be an ongoing problem for us in the Church of God—if we see it as a family.” I agree completely.
This concept gets at the very core of the problems and division within the Church of God. However, when only a few in the family make virtually all the decisions, it makes for a very unhealthful family. We are all brothers and sisters. The only parent is God, the Father. Christ is our brother. Many in the family truly believe that a few brothers have “the rule over the rest of the family” using Heb. 13:17. The mistranslation and misunderstanding of this scripture must be rooted out of the Church of God.
The word “paradigm” is used several times, although I don’t really like the word. I suppose it is associated negatively with Worldwide and their use of it. The meaning of the word, however, is what’s important. One definition is our overall way of looking and thinking about something, our overall perspective on an issue, how we view something which is based on certain concepts and whatever “angle” we might be viewing the issue. When our paradigm is wrong or faulty, then our conclusions are as well. Often, when people disagree, the main reason they do is they are coming from different paradigms. All of us have some faulty paradigms. We all strongly resist paradigm changes because we look at our present paradigms as a core part of who we are. Usually a paradigm is mostly subconscious, or even part of our unconscious thinking. A lot of emotion is usually involved. When a paradigm change begins to occur it is like a light coming on.
Try to identify some of your paradigms in this article. Attempt to emotionally detach yourself from them and strive to look at them from a new, fresh perspective. Not all paradigm changes are for the better.
Two examples. Many in the Church have a negative paradigm regarding the concept of psychology. Psychology is simply the study of the mind, emotions, and behavior. Is there a lot of ungodliness and misunderstanding involved in how man uses psychology? Of course! What doesn’t man botch-up? But the study of the mind, emotions, and behavior is in large part what Christianity is all about, only true Christians understand the need for God’s spirit, and the sacrifice of Christ and all that entails. But God expects us to continue learning how our minds and emotions work, and the causes of our behavior.
A most damaging paradigm is the idea that a church organization is “God’s government on earth.” While this concept seemed to make some sense earlier in our history, in our present context, it simply indicates how arrogant we all can be at times.
Individually we must not get too busy for the Church. Our relationship with the Father, with Christ, and with each other should always have priority.
Dealing with the “nitty-gritty” of everyday life from God’s viewpoint motivates us to grow and change. Services should serve as a starting point from which we can build relationships—encouraging each other to be real, to think, to ask questions, to express emotions and needs in an atmosphere of safety and acceptance, not judgment.
In a truly healthy church, services are, in a sense, incidental. People in a healthy church are interacting, sharing their lives with several during the week. We should be friendly and respectful to all; close with a few. This simply is reality and all we have time and effort for.
The local church is very important. Because the Church is such a motley group and often the only thing in common is the truth; true, close friendships are in some ways more difficult. The smaller groups make this even more true. One of the biggest problems in our modern world is a lack of meaningful connectedness with people. In our communication especially, if not a generality, we must come to understand that much of what we say is simply our opinion and just so much speculation.
Let’s not be afraid of opinion and speculation; often that is all we have. Generalities have their place but specifics are needed for people to change and grow. Let us get rid of the idea that any man speaks for God. Humans can be inspired by God and are, but let’s strive to be humble enough to admit our many limitations. The more we know the more we should realize how little we know. Let’s not be afraid of questions. Questions help us to learn. Our church culture, historically, has been afraid of questions. The paradigm that only a minister has the answer to spiritual issues is inaccurate.
1 Corinthians 14:26–40 has quite a bit of instruction on how services should be handled. Much of this instruction has been ignored by the Church of God in our lifetime. Please read these scriptures.
Some suggestions that would make our services more useful and biblical:
1. Every three or four months have a “town-hall” church meeting where ideas, feelings, plans can be discussed.
2. Interactive services or Bible studies held once or twice a month. The topic, with an outline, could be announced and handed out well in advance. (many could obtain their outline over the Internet) This will allow for more useful discussion. The interaction should allow all to hear the contributions of the others. Wireless microphones can be utilized. Written questions or comments should also be solicited from those who do not wish to speak. While interaction should be orderly, it should not be overly controlled. The most useful interaction occurs when the entire group participates and the moderator serves as a skilled facilitator asking the right questions and keeping the discussion focused. The problems with interaction can be minimized or eliminated through proper instruction and mature discussion of any problems.
3. When services include a sermon, 15 minutes or more could be allowed for questions or comments. This segment should be moderated by someone other than the speaker and should be interactive. The speaker should not feel a need to answer any questions unless the question or comment is directed specifically to a comment he made during the sermon. If anyone feels threatened by this, their paradigm regarding a “church family” is wrong.
4. Music should be a more inspiring part of services, both with the congregational singing and special music. Special music could be weekly using inspirational tapes and CDs in addition to local or regional talent. Imagine listening to the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah for example. Too often congregational songs are not sung with feeling. Many of the songs are part of the problem.
5. A leadership club should be a mainstay of every church. We are training to be leaders, are we not? Everyone interested in growing should attend. This club should focus on how to make messages more fully meet the needs of the congregation. Content, not delivery should be the emphasis. Each meeting should have a subject and be a workshop where all have been given a specific outline of the areas of discussion and the subject should be discussed in depth. There is no reason these clubs should not be co-ed. Women face the same circumstances in their daily lives as the men.
6. Seminars should be frequent. Topics could include relationships, communication, Godly psychology, leadership skills, family relationships, child rearing, thinking skills, how to give an answer for your faith, etc. These seminars could be organized and led by various people in the congregation, both men and women. Those involved should be well prepared and solicit input from many, remembering that all of us have only a few aspects of any one gift. There should be interaction during and/or at the end of a seminar and this will also bring out the different gifts and areas of understanding.
Outside speakers could also be invited for some topics. There are many excellent books that deal in detail with Biblically based subjects. We have much to learn about Christian living. Even the clear Biblical instruction that the older women should teach the younger has been mostly ignored by the Church, unfortunately, due to the ministers’ desire to want members to look to them for the “answers.” This is easily implemented and does not need a minister involved.
7. Small group Bible studies could be encouraged. Groups interested in studying and discussing specifics, such as doctrine, history, prophecy, Christian living, etc. could exist concurrently.
8. Tapes and books are extremely valuable. When an excellent tape or book is discovered it should be circulated and/or announced to the Church. There are many books written by those outside the Church of God that are extremely helpful. Getting away from our “booklet/article mentality” would help greatly in our understanding that often life does not have simple answers. Personally, I have found a number of books written by several men in New Life Ministries to be excellent. I list several because they are so good. These books can be found in many Christian book stores or be obtained by calling 1-800-NEW LIFE (1-800-639-5433)
Changes That Heal by Henry Cloud
Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend
Don’t Let Jerks Get the Best of You by Paul Meier
Every Man’s Battle by Steven Arterburn and Fred Stoeker
Boundaries in Marriage by Henry Cloud and John Townsend
These books provide great outlines for use in a seminar, leadership club, Bible study, etc.
9. The use of websites is in its infancy and their potential is just beginning to be explored. It would be good to see one or two websites that are well thought out and organized that contain the “best” of any aspect of Christianity, with the most thorough and complete articles and “books”. A list of excellent books pertaining to the subject would also be very helpful. A few websites with an abundance of good information would go a long way in making messages and discussions extremely effective, if people would use them wisely. [Try www.biblestudy.org — NSE]
10. The Feast of Tabernacles is a spiritual high point. Frankly, too often the sermons do not add much to this “high”. Well-developed messages about the meaning of the Feast should be included every year. Topics, such as Training to be a leader, Understanding of how to apply God’s law as a ruler of a city, Specifics on marital and family principles, as well as relational and communication skills, should be given. Speculative and imaginative messages on details of our daily lives during the millennium could be wonderfully motivating.
Truly, government is at the core of Christian living, and the only “government of God” on earth today is God’s written word, the Bible.
This statement about “government” at the beginning of our discussion of relationships points to the core of all relationships—our concept of authority and control. Our traditional understanding in the Church is fundamentally flawed. Too many do not understand how “government”, serving, and the proper use of authority interrelate. This goes to the core of our problems. The result of our improper understanding is division among our congregations. No one likes to think about its fruits. They are hideous. Here is a list of just a few:
1. Division within families, immediate as well as extended families. Church services and activities have become a dividing factor to some families, rather than a unifying one. There is more marital and family discord: parents and children, brothers and sisters don’t speak.
2. Division among long time friends. In many cases extremely close friends.
3. Division affects the Church’s ability to provide a healthy environment for the young people.
4. Young/unmarried people have had their decision about marriage made much more complex.
5. The “Work” of preaching the gospel has suffered enormously.
God created us with the desire to be in control of our lives. He also created us to be free. He told us the truth would set us free. We must actively participate in the resolution of whatever relational problems we have, even if it is not our fault. Our relationships should be deeply rooted in freedom.
There has been much discussion in recent years about servant-leadership. This concept does get at the core of what true conversion is. Godliness seeks to esteem others better than self, to exalt others. A true servant treats others with great respect, deferring to others’ needs and desires. Our Church tradition has been very much like the world. Many kiss-up to the ministry or treat ministers with more respect than others. This worldly “respecting of persons” is sinful according to James. Recently I saw a greeting crew assignment list. At the end of the list it had the pastors’ signature next to “approved by”. Appalling! This illustrates the underlying problem; the over controlling nature or habits of the ministry. Even God does not want to control us, He gives us freedom. Leadership is not domination. Healthy relationships are based in equality with everyone fulfilling their different roles.
These principles apply to our Church experience in several different areas. Many have gone “independent” when they finally concluded that the ministry would not treat them as equal siblings. Many ministers started their own group when they concluded the group they were in was compromising or wrong about certain things. Our “boundaries” had been violated. Keep in mind boundaries are about controlling ourselves not others. Boundaries are spoken of in the Bible as self-control.
So, at a certain level, this division in the Church is evidence of some healthiness developing. Many have started to recognize their boundaries. We have come to stand up for who we are and what we believe, and will not have anyone abusing us or treating us as inferior. That’s good!
But, we have taken the easy way out. We set our boundaries, but we refused to confront and work out our differences. Boundaries are only established in the context of relationships. In reality, when we divide, our relationships are severed.
Many believe working out the differences is impossible. This might be true in some cases. There are groups and individuals that will not budge. They have no desire to yield to others or work out some Godly compromises.
I’m not advocating violating one’s conscience or compromising with truth. We all compromise in certain areas of life, for the good of all. It is so hard to yield to others, esteem others better than ourselves.
Each group should own their responsibility for the division, for no group is blameless. We must be zealous in the process of removing the log out of our own eye. We all have logs in our vision, and if we don’t believe that, the log is so large it has blinded us.
The following points offer some options that would help resolve our unhealthy paradigms in this area.
We have been humanly short on clear, precise, mature, deep thinking. This is part of the human condition. This hampers our judgments, decisions, and opinions. If only we could truly understand this one point.
Some believe the problem stems from wrong attitudes. Of course, poor attitudes toward each other do exist. The dynamics between attitude and thinking may be beyond human comprehension but, in most cases, the attitude is not the problem, it is a symptom. What is judged to be a wrong attitude or ill will toward someone is a result of poor thinking. We develop an opinion—even judge an issue or person—on very limited information. When that opinion is formed it becomes a part of us—not easily re-examined.
Poor thinking affects doctrinal opinions as well as other issues. Many have opinions etched in granite, where facts and truth bounce off quite nicely. We all have a strong proclivity to believe what we want to believe.
We all say or believe things, at times, that we really don’t know much about. It sounds good, it makes us feel important in some way, and so we say or believe it. God wants us to learn to think things through. How often we don’t! Let’s always remember there are related points we have probably not considered, and so we must always keep an open mind, realizing how limited we are. True humility is rare!
Thousands of relationships are strained or severed because we fail to pinpoint our differences and even when we do, we fail to face them and communicate them unemotionally to each other. Often, what appears to be a disagreement is simply one or both sides not clearly communicating what they’re trying to say. Clear communication takes a lot of thought and effort.
All too often ministers have not promoted adherence to Matthew 18:15–17. Many have very narrow parameters for when Matthew 18 should be applied. We must require ourselves and each other to take the first and second steps of Matthew 18. Far too often the first two steps are bypassed and “take it to the church” (read it as “take it to the minister”) is done. This is a clear violation of Scripture. Also, the implementation and application of the second step is not understood well by many in the Church.
Apparently a minister has stated, paraphrasing, “the Bible does not say you can’t go to a minister first.” Not true. Also, for a minister to think that Matthew 18 does not apply to him personally, because he is a minister, shows an attitude of incredible arrogance. Violation of the process the Bible outlines is rebellion against the government of God.
Matthew 5:23–24 is often treated as if it is not in the Bible:
“Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
Obviously there should be balance and a proper understanding in implementing this principle. Because we disagree with someone, for example, does not necessarily mean we need to go to him. If we have offended him, we do need to go.
Another vital issue in relationships is forgiveness. With true forgiveness there is significant effort to reconcile. It takes a great deal of humility and courage. All cases of hurt must be carefully handled if there is to be reconciliation. One suggestion would be the writing of a letter, a phone call and possibly a follow up with a face-to-face meeting. At least a letter and all parties should make every effort to recognize their part in the problem. Many get forgiveness and reconciliation confused. Forgiveness is possible even if the other party does not repent. For reconciliation to occur it takes “both sides” working at a resolution.
We have not understood the critical importance of this principle: “Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” I have heard a Church of God minister say, from the pulpit, that this essentially refers to confessing to a minister. Really?! Let us strive to be authentic with each other. We all sin, more often than we care to admit, even to ourselves. Let us learn to confess to each other, using proper discretion, and solicit each other’s prayers. This will bring us together and unite us. As we practice confession we will come out of denial.
At this point, we have difficulty even acknowledging that many members have problems with sex addiction, alcoholism, homosexuality, etc. The few programs attempted through the years to address these problems have died due to our collective denial.
There is division between members and ministers. Deny it all you want, it is clearly there. A core tendency with humans is our proclivity toward being “respecters of persons”. This division is, curiously, encouraged by members and ministers. Most members like the idea of saying, “I was just doing, believing what I was told,” and humans love to have “idols”, heroes, whatever you want to call them. Division is encouraged by ministers because they like being looked up to, being special, being number one. Christ and God are the only heroes. The rest of us are mud!
We all need to treat each other as equals. There are no “offices” among siblings. There are jobs to do and all should be free to do the jobs for which we are fitted. Ministers encouraging, and in most cases, subtly requesting that members call them “Mister” is, often, a violation of the principle Christ spoke of about men loving to be called “rabbi, rabbi”. If someone feels comfortable calling another by his first name it should be encouraged.
When most refer to government, they are speaking of administration or structure. Some say we must learn to work within the form of government that Christ will establish at his second coming. If we learn to practice God’s way of life, a way of service, we will learn to work within God’s government. Practicing humility and esteeming others better than self are traits we must develop as future leaders. Violating scripture and its principles is rebellion against Gods’ government. All have sufficient challenge here.
The core of Godly administration is based on the gifts and abilities of those God places in his Church.
Clearly, the first century Church understood this concept much better than we do. Stephen, a “deacon”, was preaching the gospel to the world, boldly. There were prophets, prophetesses and people speaking in tongues. These things would not be allowed in most Church of God organizations. Why? An unbiblical paradigm.
One lesson seems abundantly clear in our short church history. A single strong leader with a clear vision makes the vision of the Church more focused. The challenge for a healthy church is to have a clear vision even when many are contributing and sharing in the decision making process. That way, again, is to understand that Godly administration should be based on the gifts and abilities of those God places in his Church. For example, the decisions concerning how the gospel should be preached worldwide should be in the hands of just a small group, those gifted in the needed areas.
God has given valuable gifts and abilities to all members. We will be judged on how well we each use them (Luke 12:48).
Thoughtful discussion of the gifts and abilities within each congregation and in the Church worldwide is vital toward this end. Each should think about his or her own gifts and talents and those of others. Our thoughts can be written down over a period months. A church and/or board meeting can discuss the findings and implementation over several sessions and input from other churches could be solicited, as some churches are more effective in such complex programs.
When considering gifts and abilities, it is important to understand that within each gift or talent there are many parts. Take the gift of teaching for instance. (I use teaching here in its broadest sense, not simply in the context of lecture.) There are some who are gifted in teaching doctrine, some in teaching principles, and some teachers are gifted in motivating people. Some are gifted in teaching wisdom or understanding or love. Some teachers are extremely effective in teaching the how of something, some in teaching concepts, some can teach how to raise kids, some in having a great marriage. Some teachers are very thorough, some very organized. Some are good at making their points through stories. Some teachers are excellent on teaching people how to think, ad infinitum.
For every gift or ability there are often hundreds or more aspects to that gift. Generally speaking, one person only has a few aspects of any one gift. Our traditional perspective has tremendously hampered the equipping of the saints. There is much to be understood, and applied, if we will grow toward the stature of Christ. This will take true humility and an understanding of what true Godly service means. This demands a huge paradigm shift for members and ministers alike. Implementation is very complex and takes much work.
I know of a couple of men that I consider gifted to be pastors. Neither is gifted in speaking and they are humble enough to realize that and arrange the speaking schedule accordingly. Not that they are not “apt to teach”; they are—simply not gifted in speaking.
Following is a list of gifts and abilities. Some of these are gifts of craftsmanship, spoken of in the Old Covenant:
The pastor should be an overseer, a facilitator. No one or two men in any congregation, or church worldwide for that matter, should have the prevailing influence, even if these men are extremely effective ministers. An effective pastor is always thinking of how he can help fulfill the needs of people. They consider how others can have the opportunity to develop and train to be leaders. It is amazing, the Church of God understands we are to be training to be kings and priests, and yet gives their members fewer opportunities for this training than most churches.
Ministers should spend significant time studying God’s word and Christian living. Instead of busying themselves with administrative issues, paper work, planning socials, etc., a minister should be an important part of training members to be leaders, teaching all how to be Christians. Their understanding of causes of why people are sinning and how we can overcome should grow. They should teach in depth how Christians should live, think, and mature. There is great room for growth in this area.
People should be encouraged and taught how to think for themselves. Putting on the mind of Christ means much more than agreeing with all the right doctrines. It means learning to think as Christ does, training ourselves to process thoughts the way he does, coming to conclusions as he would. It means being mature in our thoughts and then, because our thought process is more mature, our actions are more Christ-like for the right reasons.
In making decisions it is important to think through what the goal is and then base decisions on what will accomplish that goal. Before you fill a job, a thorough and detailed job description should be decided upon and then the appropriate people should go about the business of finding the right person for the job. Often, the cart comes before the horse. Often, we don’t understand the Biblical purpose of a job, allowing the ideas of men to interfere.
When God says he appoints men to be ministers, etc. it does not necessarily mean He agrees with decisions made by man. It is our job to recognize what God has done and base our decisions on the criteria God outlines for making such decisions. As in any area of life our judgments are not always wise or godly.
A fundamental flaw in our history is how ministers were chosen. Young men of college age were ordained. Obviously, this does not adhere to Biblical instruction.
If an ordination is to take place, who is most knowledgeable about the people in a local congregation? Obviously the people in the congregation. Not to say a vote should be taken, but the people should be consulted in an intelligent way. People tend to be “respecters of persons” and this often gets in the way of wise and godly decisions.
It is amusing that some think taking a vote/opinion from a number of people is wrong; but taking a vote/opinion from one person is biblical. There are problems with voting as with any procedure for decision making. To vote, when many don’t really care or know much about the issues is obviously not intelligent. A vote is a good idea when a local congregation is deciding on social activities for the year. The family is deciding. Same is true when deciding on the time for services, to take two examples. Before taking a vote, relevant points and options should be thoroughly discussed so everyone has an opportunity to vote intelligently.
With more critical and complex decisions, smaller groups of people with the needed gifts should be deciding. Any healthy church will have a local board where these decisions can be made and along with the board members others can be brought into a discussion as needed and appropriate.
Doctrine is very important. It seems, however, that we have a hard time seeing doctrine in its proper perspective. The approach of many is simply an overreaction to the apostasy. In everything, we must strive for balance. We use scriptures such as “…that we all speak the same thing… can two walk together except they are agreed…” etc. as if we have to agree on all doctrine. This is not what the Bible teaches at all. There are many scriptures that have not been made clear by God.
There is truth in the saying, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials tolerance, and in all charity.” In order for unity to happen we must determine what the essential doctrines of Christianity are. I suppose many look at the “18 Truths” or the fundamental doctrines of an organization as such. The “18 Truths” were never intended as a list of the essential doctrines, although a few are, and the fundamental doctrines of most groups come close with several doctrines in most lists that are clearly not essential to believe for salvation.
The idea that one must agree with all the doctrines of one’s own organization is not Biblical or realistic. Agree with the essentials, yes. One is not compromising his beliefs if they belong to an organization where some of the secondary doctrines are considered “watered-down” or wrong by the individual. One can simply disagree. Consider the possibility that both organization and individual could be wrong. The idea of having doctrinal purity is a wonderful aim, but will never be accomplished by humans. Uniformity of doctrine in an organization, outside of essentials, is in truth an attempt at preventing people from doing their own thinking, “group-think”, if you will. To understand that there are disagreements about certain doctrines and learning how to disagree in a godly way does wonders in overcoming human arrogance. The ability to handle differences and disagreements is a sign of maturity.
If handled in a godly fashion, discussing differences of opinion is part of what makes life interesting and exciting.
Essential doctrine must be abundantly clear in Scripture, to a converted mind, and must be essential to believe for salvation. The definition is a bit slippery, but it’s the best I could do. The point being, our approach to doctrine has been extremely divisive.
God has placed those in His Church who have a gift of doctrinal study and these people should be used in establishing doctrine. All should consider their studies with an open mind. Most are not gifted in this area.
With our present structure and perspective, regarding doctrine, many ministers are fearful of studying a doctrine from a fresh perspective for fear of coming to a conclusion contrary to corporate belief. The present process that United has on changing fundamental doctrine points to an interesting possibility. As I understand it, they need 75% of the General Conference of Elders to vote for a change. It would be possible for 74% of the elders to believe a doctrine should be changed but no change would occur. [A UCG member told me he thought that about 25% of the General Conference members do not believe in voting on doctrine, so it is totally unlikely that any change can occur.] At the same time, the elders in that organization must state they are in agreement with the fundamental doctrines. What if 2% disagree with the corporate doctrine? Clearly, there is a problem with the process. I’m not picking on United. Most groups are not even open about their process.
There is, in a real sense, little need for discussion of essential doctrines, at the core level, once they are established. A critical question in determining an essential doctrine is to ask, and answer, “Why is this essential to believe?”
Secondary doctrines are important and should be studied and taught. If you think agreement on doctrines such as the place of safety, the destiny of man, church eras, jury duty, etc. is needed and disagreement is a valid reason for division please give it some thought. Incidentally, aren’t lawyers very much involved in the process of judging legal matters? What’s the difference? Lawyers make a lot of money so that’s okay? Being a lawyer or participating in jury duty is an individual’s choice.
Error in secondary doctrines or aspects of essential doctrines can be dangerous. The point being, we need to strive to have the proper and balanced perspective and approach to doctrine. Some sectors in the first century church believed the resurrection had already passed (2Tim 2:8). This obviously is a major heresy. That it was a reality, even for a time, shows the church was much more open to differences than we are. Rev. 2 and 3 and the cryptic descriptions of the seven churches illustrate the same point. The first century church clearly tolerated some being slave owners. Perhaps the church then erred on the side of being too tolerant. Today, we clearly err on the side of being extremely intolerant and far too judgmental in an ungodly way.
Some will take the admission that error on secondary doctrines can be dangerous as proof we should divide over differences. Notice I said can be dangerous, not is dangerous. Please give this some long thought. The critical concept is this: One must be thorough and complete in establishing the essentials. For example, the Church must teach clearly that there are many conditions to be met for salvation. A gift yes, but conditions. If all the essential doctrines are established completely and thoroughly then any error in doctrine is of secondary importance and will not disqualify one from salvation. Please give this some long, hard thought.
Compromising one’s own personal beliefs on any doctrine is another issue. Let’s try to be honest. There is much in the Bible that is unclear to a converted mind. To use them to divide or feel spiritually superior shows a lack of humility or poor thinking. What if there is really not disagreement? What if one firmly believes the doctrine and the other believes it but is not fully convinced and believes he could be wrong? Or what if there is agreement on a doctrine but a slight disagreement on an aspect of the same doctrine? I get picky here to illustrate how petty we can get over doctrine. Doctrines and concepts can be very slippery. Humility and honesty about our limitations go a long way toward true Godly unity.
If the right approach to doctrine and unity is holding fast to what Mr. Armstrong taught then why are there more than a dozen separate groups doing this, yet not working together? I’m convinced Mr. Armstrong believed the approach he took toward doctrine was needed to keep the Church together. It did keep most of us together. Although, clearly I don’t agree with every aspect of his approach, he did see the small-mindedness of men better than most.
Is it more important to believe all the right doctrines or be more concerned about overcoming and developing godly characteristics? Put another way, could one believe all the right doctrines, yet not be a first fruit due to looking at a fellow Christian as inferior because he might be “off” on a few doctrines?
Circa 1939 Mr. Armstrong wrote an article entitled “Doctrine Divides” which describes his perspective on doctrine. I will conclude this section on administration with an excerpt from In Transition. I believe the point of the following story relates to doctrine as well as governance, and is significant, if we are intellectually honest.
John Robinson, “History of Government in the WCG”, In Transition, December 16, 1996:
The Worldwide Church of God did not always embrace the stringent pyramid form of church government it practices today. I know from firsthand experience.
I was only 5 when I attended my first service with the Radio Church of God, as it was known until 1968.
Off and on for decades I’ve been an amateur WCG historian. I have a considerable church-literature library, and I have been fortunate enough to talk to dozens of former Ambassador College students of the 1950s about the early days.
I have also been able to process that information against the backdrop of 45 years of WCG attendance, including 16 years of full-time WCG employment.
What is the ideal form of church government? The debate has raged for millennia. For those who still defend the WCG format on the strength of Mr. Armstrong’s later writings, I offer you a final story in closing. The story will mean different things to different people, but I think it’s an interesting piece of history. I tell it without commentary.
In the Jan. 22, 1996, issue of this newspaper, in an essay titled ‘Let’s Stop the Rancor Over Ministerial Rank,’ the author, Larry Walker, a part-time UCG elder who lives in Bend, Ore., wrote: ‘Mr. Armstrong confessed to a younger minister in 1975 that, in retrospect, he felt that the concept of church government he wrote about in 1939 would have worked, but he had been afraid he would lose control. That’s quite an admission. Perhaps he would have lost control; we’ll never know.’
Mr. Walker did not name the minister, but I subsequently contacted him and he told me the man he quoted was Marc Courtenay, formerly Marc Segall.
Mr. Courtenay, who now lives in Santa Barbara, Calif., graduated from Ambassador College in 1973. He was ordained in October 1975 and served as a full-time WCG elder for 20 years.
I contacted him and asked him if Mr. Walker’s characterization of the conversation with Mr. Armstrong was accurate. He said it was.
He said he was seated next to Mr. Armstrong during a meal when the conversation took place. Mr. Courtenay said he had at the time recently read Mr. Armstrong’s 1939 article on government.
‘I asked Mr. Armstrong about the article,’ Mr. Courtenay recounted. ‘At first he gave me the standard explanation that he hadn’t fully understood government at the time.’ Mr. Courtenay said he then gently pressed Mr. Armstrong on the issue and asked him again about the article.
He said Mr. Armstrong became reflective and then gave him a more thoughtful, candid response.
He said the New Testament reflected a collegial approach to church government and that what he wrote in 1939 was the ideal. Mr. Courtenay said Mr. Armstrong added that if he had had more faith he would have continued that practice, but he ‘was afraid of losing control.’
I asked Mr. Courtenay if anyone else heard the conversation. He said his wife, Lisa, had. I talked with her at length on the phone Jan. 28. She said the conversation was as her husband remembered.
‘It was on the day Marc was ordained,’ she recalled. ‘In fact, Mr. Armstrong ordained Marc. After the ordination we were at a restaurant eating with Mr. Armstrong and some other ministers.’
She said she remembers the conversation clearly. She said there were times when Mr. Armstrong would speak candidly, and that was one of them.
As we know, the Father must call a person before their mind is open to the truth. God’s word is clear however, He does solicit our involvement in the calling, and how hard and effectively we do our part does make a difference.
A healthy church is preaching the gospel strongly and effectively, and clearly pointing out the errors of “mainstream Christianity”. Publicly, we should state clearly, and often, this is not the only day of salvation and Christ is coming back to take over the governments of this world. Some sectors of the Church have clearly backed-off from preaching the gospel with clarity, apparently in fear of offending.
The true gospel is different from the mainstream “Christian” message. Really different! Church of God broadcasts ought to sound and look significantly different from other “Christian” broadcasts.
We must remember virtually all the apostles were martyred. John the Baptist had his head cut off, Christ was crucified. Paul, who was “all things to all men” was stoned once, whipped and imprisoned several times. Similar things could be said of the prophets. John 15:18–20 reminds us we will be persecuted if we follow Christ. Isaiah 58:1 is not a formula for popularity. All scriptures about preaching the gospel should be weighed, not just the principles that appeal to our own personality. The gospel is a message of reason, but also a strong warning.
Could this be a big part of why the Church today is not seeing a lot of miracles and the gifts of apostolic times? Are we just too sophisticated to preach the gospel the way they did? Do we think those in the first century were unwise in the way they preached the gospel? Do we have the courage to obey God rather than men? Are we afraid of disobeying a man-made law that prevents us from obeying God? By the way, this entire article points to what I believe are additional reasons why we are not seeing these miracles and gifts.
It is clear that personality has a huge impact on the effectiveness of drawing people. Some respond to a dogmatic personality, others are drawn to a more educational style of presentation. Still others respond to more emotional speakers. Personality is a factor. We need not limit ourselves to one type of speaker.
In addition to the traditional program, the use of documentaries is good. A low budget movie about the gospel, or aspects of prophecy could be a reality, if we could work together. It could be so much more interesting then the recent movie, Left Behind. Well thought out interviews with carefully selected individuals could also be effective.
There are many ideas for getting the gospel out on a local basis. These ideas should be encouraged if the local congregation considers them wise and it does not significantly divert needed funds to the more effective method, in this day and age, of using the media.
The reason for 50% (probably higher now) of the members coming into the Church through personal contact, as opposed to a media effort is simply due to the Church having many “second, third, fourth generation Christians.” I am simply stating a fact, nothing more. Neither am I minimizing “personal evangelism”. Promoting understanding of what personal evangelism means and how it can be used effectively should be a part of any healthy church.
Local communities always need volunteer help and a church should make this involvement a little easier for those who desire to help. Occasional church projects in the community would also help in being a light. In proper balance, this is also part of preaching the gospel.
Most ministers are fed up with all the criticism of the ministry in “independent” publications. However, the ministers handling of the apostasy in Worldwide showed there is a real need for a publication like The Journal and Servants’ News. The lack of openness in many subsequent church splits further illustrates this need. A healthy family is open. It encourages communication, questions, allows for differences, promotes accountability of all members, does not have any class distinctions.
Perhaps the best question for the ministry in the Church of God is, “Are you teachable?” The question is a good one for all of us. Many people in God’s Church know there is really nothing special about any of you. You do not have any unusual insight into doctrine, prophecy, people, or anything else. You are normal people that God has called, not a special class. You have been trained to pastor a church in a certain way. Can you admit it may not be the most effective way to training people to grow and become leaders? If you are not mature enough to resolve problems among yourselves, how can you teach others to do so?
Many pastors are handling from two to six churches, getting around to some churches maybe six to eight times a year. One can’t be an effective pastor spread this thin.
The corporate churches of God are dying of old age. Are you teachable enough to make the needed changes? One definition of insanity is continuing to do something the same way and expecting a different result. It is time for the Church of God to make needed changes. Because we have always done things a certain way does not make it God’s way or the best way.
These splits are not from God. They come from your carnality. Division within God’s Church is from Satan. If you believe that most of the members in your organization are “the ones holding fast”, “the Philadelphians”, etc. you have not thought it through. If you only consider the timing of when most came to your group it should tell you a lot. What first hand knowledge do you have of the bulk of members in another group?
The Church is still shocked that you will not humbly come together and prayerfully and humbly work out your differences as the Bible instructs. We have heard your reasons and excuses. “They have wrong doctrines”, “they don’t teach the full counsel of God”, “they do not preach the gospel properly”, “they have the wrong form of government”, etc. This is nonsense! There are many differences in thinking within each organization among ministers as well as members.
Some of you have influenced many of your members to become extremely self-righteous, thinking the majority of Philadelphians are in their group and treating members in other groups poorly.
The decisions made by a number of ministers to start separate organizations has affected the lives of thousands. This division has caused and does cause much heartache. It might be nice for you, in a number of ways, but for most of God’s people it is clearly not. Some ministers have actually counseled in favor of division among mates, as mentioned earlier, all in the name of “obeying God rather than man.” In the context of this organizational division, this is contemptible, especially in the light of the value God places on marriage.
We Have Unity
We can have unity now with every other believer who is willing to put organizations aside and work with anyone else who considers themselves a believer and strives to live by the Bible.
When all believers do that, we will have complete unity under God. Hoping for or trusting in an organization to create man-made unity is a mistake that almost always causes division.
When you put loyalty to the organization over loyalty to God, this is a violation of the first and second commandments. You are serving something before the true God. Many ministers still don’t understand why they have lost credibility. When a critical test came, most showed a lack of courage to obey God rather than man. I’m sure most ministers don’t see it that way. A few demonstrated great courage. At least one that “bought into” the heresies, including it was fine to work on the Sabbath, has recently been hired by one of the organizations. I would think there has been proper repentance, but one has to question the judgment involved here. It is good you stood for truth. Did most show leadership in this trial? Nope!
Because people are followers, God is watching the leaders in his Church very carefully. If some of you want to take the needed steps to unite the Church be sure to include a cross section of the family in the process. With a little thought, this can be done effectively. In the mean time, most of us will not hold our breath.
True humility would unite us. People have come to different conclusions regarding the division. Our opinions are mostly etched in stone. Only God can change the heart and mind of a person, and even He will not without our cooperation. I hope this article encouraged some to think about the purpose of the Church and how a healthy family operates.
Many believe unity is impossible. Perhaps a forthcoming article will outline how it could occur. It would not be easy, but it is easier than perhaps we think and would greatly benefit all of us.