A Lamentation for the UCG-AIA
By Norman S. Edwards
The year of 1994 was very troubling for many in the Worldwide Church of God (WCG). Numerous members and ministers began to realize that the organization that they once considered "Godís True Church of Earth" was changing many of the doctrines that distinguished it from so many other church organizations. The WCG was accepting the Trinity doctrine, and abandoning the Sabbath, Holy Days, and clean foods. It appeared to be transforming itself into just another Protestant denomination.
The long-held belief in hierarchical governmentthat members were responsible for following the WCGleadersand that God would correct those leaders had failed! If the Trinity and other Protestant doctrines were correct, how could the WCG have always been "Godís one True Church" and reject such common teaching? But a great many WCG members did not believe these doctrines were correct, and began to realize that the Eternal might be testing them to see whether they would follow their Bible understanding or the teachings of men.
Some ministers and brethren thought, "Maybe the Eternalís top-down government works through a man and not an organizationand the Eternal leaves it up to us to find the right man!" So they looked around and found that the Philadelphia Church of God had formed in 1990, the Church of the Great God in 1992, and the Global Church of God in 1993. The more daring actually considered other groups which were nearly 20 years oldlike the Church of God, International or the Christian Biblical Church of God. But they also remembered the constant warnings they had heard from their WCG ministers: "These other groups were being led by men who were seeking power for themselves." Also, joining one of these other groups usually meant leaving a congregation of 100 or more people and a local pastor to meet with a few other families and watch or listen to a taped sermon. Nevertheless, some people investigated another group, some investigated a few, and some tried to investigate them all. Some liked what they saw and joined, others did not.
When the United Church of GodAn International Association (UCG-AIA)formed in 1995 at the Indianapolis conference, many people had great hope. Everyone hoped that they could continue preaching the doctrines that they had understood from the Bible for so many years. There was hope that many local congregations could continue somewhat intact. Ministers hoped that they could continue to have a job.
But once the bubble burst, there was hope for many other things. The "bubble" in this case was the idea that "God will correct whatever is wrong through leaders at the top." If the Eternal allowed the WCG to go astray on major doctrines, was it also possible that He had allowed them to go astray on less significant doctrines? Was it possible that God had not always "backed up" unfair or unbiblical decisions of headquarters or the local ministry? Was it possible that the Eternal really wanted to put an end to the WCG-style hierarchy and to let his people use the spiritual gifts spoken of in the New Testament?
There was hope that the new UCG-AIA would not only right the immediate wrongs in the WCG, but also correct many of the problems from the past. The founding body asked for a "home office" that would serve the local congregationsnot a "headquarters" that would control them.
During that year of 1995, over 400 "ordained ministers" and over 20,000 members left the WCG to be a part of the UCG. Some even left other WCG split-off groups to be a part of this organization that appeared to be taking a less hierarchical approach to government. Many individuals sprang to action, moved by the Holy Spirit and their own initiative. Local evangelism, youth studies, tape ministries, the Good News magazine, In Transition, and other worthwhile things were started by individuals or small groups who had the ability and wanted to make the effort. Money came pouring into the new UCG headquarters. Members gladly gave to an organization that appeared to be really "doing something."
Where is the Fruit?
But now, 2½ years later, what has the UCG-AIA done?
The UCG-AIA management went 3 million dollars over budget in 1996 and produced very little. The only major evangelistic effort has been several booklets, the Good News magazine and a few mass circulation ads promoting it. Many UCG members are unaware that the Good News is not produced by the Arcadia home office, but is still largely an effort of Scott Ashley and several other talented and dedicated brethren. The magazine could easily be continued without the home office.
However, the Arcadia home office has requested that numerous local evangelism programs ceasesometimes with the excuse that the home office could be sued if a local preacher said the wrong thing. (It is good that the Apostle Paul did not have a home office to shut him downhe was taken to court several times.) Other local evangelism has been shut down because the home office might not have enough money to buy the booklets required. (If local evangelism could make enough contacts to distribute all of the booklets that the home office could print, they would not need television or other more-expensive means of advertising booklets.)
But where is UCG-AIA television? After setting a goal to produce a television program by the end of 1996, and after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on it (including salaries of full-time media employees), there has not been one radio or television program aired. This is a great contrast to many other smaller Church of God split-off groups that were airing radio programs within three months of their formation. Some of these other groups went on to hire a couple of television employees, and within six months, were airing programs.
UCG-AIA elders have been quite frustrated by the apparent self-serving of the headquarters staff:
1. Even though it is the responsibility of UCG elders to vote in the governing council members of the organization, there is no organized way for them to determine what a council candidate stands forcandidates are given no significant time to speak or to write about what they hope to do as a council member. Some have excused this by saying that the elders should not "use human reason" in their voting, but merely pray for God to inspire their decision. But does the home office operate that way? When they need to hire someone or negotiate a purchase, do they only pray for the Eternalís decision and then just pick whichever one seems good to them? Furthermore, if the purpose of the elders voting is not for them to use their own understanding based on the Bible, but simply to determine the Eternalís will, why do they not simply cast lots for the council? That would be a much more reliable way to seek the Eternalís opinion than trusting men not to "vote for their friends."
2. Within the last few months, UCG-AIA elders have been told that they can be disciplined for saying anything negative about any of the corporate officers in email communications. Most of the instruction for selecting overseers in 1Tim 3 and Titus 1 are the avoidance of negative characteristics. How can they properly select men if they they are not allowed to share Biblical requirements about them? Have they forgotten that the UCG-AIA came into existence largely by WCG ministers communicating the obvious WCG problems via e-mail?
3. While the home office has gone substantially over budget, the paid elders have taken several different cuts in pay and benefits.
4. Full-time pastors have been required to move numerous times during their careerstaking their entire family away from friends and schools. The UCG-AIA elders agreed to move their home office out of Southern California at their original Indianapolis meeting and specifically voted to move to Cincinnati during their 1997 conference. The Arcadia management tried to invalidate that vote and then gave various excuses why many years might be required to accomplish the move. To some, they still seem to be "dragging their feet." (See the box at right.)
Obviously, some good things have been accomplished by the UCG-AIA over these last 2½ years. But many are disappointed and, as our companion article shows, local congregations are breaking up or becoming independent. What has gone wrong? Is there anything brethren can do?
Some members and elders believe that the present UCG-AIA management is largely at fault and needs to be replaced. We certainly cannot deny this. We are continually amazed at how so many of the UCG-AIA publications read like trick advertisements. On the surface the language seems friendly and positive, but when examined carefully, it either says almost nothing or something quite different than what the casual reader might assume. We should not be shocked at this, however. Many of the current UCG-AIA management helped to cleverly implement the WCGís "new doctrines" during the early 1990ís.
But before we blame everything on a few individuals, it is more important that we ask, why is the Eternal letting this happen to individuals who are sincerely seeking Him? It was hard for many people to depart from the WCGwhy didnít He give them good leaders in their next organization? Why did He let "the spirit of Indianapolis die? What does the Eternal want the UCG-AIA brethren to do? Does the Bible tell us?
Why Did People Join UCG-AIA?
Before we try to answer these questions, we believe it is important to try to analyze the main reasons why people went to the UCG-AIA. From the many letters we receive and the many friends that we have in the organization, there seem to be four main reasons why people are attending:
1. Some want to attend "the one church where God is primarily working." They believe the Worldwide Church of God was that organization, but that the mantle has now shifted to the UCG-AIA. They would like to see the other elders and brethren stop arguing and follow the existing leaders. Some in this group even believe that their salvation depends on being a member of this organization and following its leader(s).
2. Some believe that the Eternal may be working through multiple groups now, but also believe that the UCG-AIA is the best place for them to fellowship with brethren, help "feed the flock," and help preach the Gospel to the world. They largely believe that the UCG-AIA should continue using the Gospel-preaching methods traditionally used by the Worldwide Church of God. However, many people in this category believe that new management will be needed before they can become an effective organization.
3. Some attend the UCG-AIA, but believe major changes need to be made in governance. They agree with the elders having some control in running their home office, but do not understand why brethren have essentially no control over their local congregations. Desired changes also often include a more Biblically-based form of worship services and more local evangelism. Some are working hard to try to implement these changes either in their local congregation or in UCG-AIA as a whole. These are cooperating with category 2 members to work for new leadership. Some in this group believe that their local congregation must become independent in order to implement the needed changes.
4. Some attend the UCG-AIA primarily because they want to keep the Sabbath and fellowship with long-time friends and family. They would be happy to cooperate with home office governance or local governance, TV evangelism or local evangelism, or almost any other reasonable policies if the congregation could stay together. Some people have friends of 40 or more years; some have children that have married other membersí children. Their "community" suffered when they left the Worldwide Church of Godthey do not want to see it broken up further. Some in this group are probably big-minded individuals thinking of the long-term future of their congregations; others are probably "socialites" who care little about church operation, but want to be with their family and friends. It is not our place to judge the motives of the individuals, but the effect of both is the same: their primary goal is to see the congregation stay together.
Exactly what percentage of the UCG-AIA membership in each category is uncertain. It probably changes a little every week. All of these points of view are understandable as there are scriptures to support each. Some scriptures warn us not to associate with those who teach false doctrine or are of a rebellious spiritwhen people follow a single human leader, there is no rebellion and they can feel like they have little or no false doctrine because they all believe the same doctrinal statement that the leader approved. On the other hand, there are scriptures that tell us not to align ourselves with a single teacher and to practice only those doctrines that we personally understand. There are scriptures that tell us to tolerate those who are weak in the faith. In some ways, the issue seems to be a matter of "which scriptures do you emphasize the most?"
Each group can say "If everyone else were to see it my way, we would not have all of this division." That, however, is the fundamental problem of all human government. It would work so much better if everyone agreed. Now some will say that the answer to the problem is a strong hierarchy that will keep everyone together.
But the effectiveness of a strong central government depends greatly on the effectiveness of its leader. Herbert Armstrong was an obvious zealot. He worked hard for many years before he had a large organization, and was a very effective and prolific writer. Most of his followers believed that he had fruits to show that he was directly chosen by the Eternal. No large percentage of his followers questioned his right to lead his organization.
By contrast UCG-AIA leaders are clearly chosen by menand seem to be chosen largely by "name recognition," not by spiritual fruit. Almost none of them have a strong reputation as diligent students or committed evangelists. UCG-AIAís documents show that it is managed like a bureaucratic corporation. There are numerous opinions about who would make better leaders. Unpopular governments are always eventually replaced, abandoned, or overthrown. The less popular a government, the more quickly its demise.
There are no easy answers to these issues of governance. This is why we call this a lamentation for the UCG-AIA. Many people are trying to help make UCG-AIA a success, each in the way that they see best. But there seems to be no plan of government or specific leader that a majority are excited to support. Many are asking the Eternal to provide. Praise him if He provides! Listen to Him if he does not!
Doctrine, Weíve Only Just Begun
In addition to the controversy over governance, there are also many opinions on doctrine among the elders and members. Please see the related articles in this issue (pages 1, 3 and 18) on the subject of UCG doctrine. While the UCG-AIA does have many doctrinal principles stated in its constitution, and while it does have a doctrinal committee, brethren are by no means satisfied with doctrinal progress thus far. We have received many proposals from UCG-AIA brethren about how they would like to change the approach to determining doctrine. We summarize below:
1. Adopt the doctrines of the Worldwide Church of God as of December 1994. This plan was put forth at the original Indianapolis conference. It is a "comfortable" approach to take, however, because it neatly absolved the UCG-AIA pastors of any accusations that they did not leave the WCG soon enough over the issue of false doctrine. However, we believe that this approach is acceptable to only a few UCG members because they do not believe in the Trinity and other doctrines that the WCG was teaching at that time.
2. Adopt the doctrines of the Worldwide Church of God as of some other previous year. There are numerous groups that believe they have pinpointed the time when Herbert Armstrong "departed from the truth," and they accept his doctrine as of that point in time. The UCG could easily pick out a year when HWA or the WCG departed from the truth and use it for their foundation of doctrine. However, we know of no consensus of which year UCG brethren would like to pick. Furthermore, Craig Whiteís and many otherís writings show that of those who do set a specific year where they accept WCG doctrine, still have a tendency to pick and choose a few doctrines from other years. This is particularly necessary in the area of prophetic doctrine, where former HWA prophecies simply have not come to pass.
3. Use the doctrinal committee to evaluate all of the old HWA and WCG doctrines in light of the Bible. This method is favored by many but could take a very long time, due to the many different doctrinal ideas that are now held by UCG-AIA members. In order to satisfy those with varying opinions, the doctrinal committee would have to document why they believe their view is right, and also why various other views are wrong. Not everyone will be happy.
4. Use the doctrinal committee to start a new study of Bible teaching from the beginning. While this seems to be the most scripturally sound, it would be hard for most brethren that are interested in continuing to practice the doctrines that they have believed for many years. This approach is likely to cause even more difficulty than the previous one. Doctrines inter-relate; often, it is not possible to clearly state one doctrinal opinion without referring to other doctrines. The process will take years and in the meantime, members and ministers will not know what they are supposed to believe.
5. Allow the UCG-AIA president to set the doctrines. This approach would work much faster than a committee approach, but there are probably only a few brethren who would support it. Most UCG-AIA brethren have very clear memories of being in an organization where one or two men changed doctrines that they were commanded to believe almost monthly. The current UCG-AIA management is known more for its technical administration than its teaching. No-one is regarded as a great teacher of doctrine in the way that Herbert Armstrong was. Also, since UCG-AIA presidents are elected every few years, this approach would guarantee a doctrinal roller-coaster.
6. Continue to try to avoid the subject of doctrine. If one of the previous methods were made official UCG-AIA policy, a certain group of brethren would probably leave because of it. Avoiding any policy change would probably prevent a large group from leaving, but it will not stop the continual attrition caused by people leaving in frustration over the lack of a definite course. Craig Whiteís article outlines the difficulties well: It is difficult for pastors to give in-depth "meaty" sermons if they continually run the risk of offending others regarding doctrine when beliefs are not clearly defined.
7. Decide on a minimal set of UCG-AIA "essential practices" with which nearly all members and elders can agree, then ask speakers to teach to the best of their ability from the scriptures, but ask that they not be dogmatic. A description of one possible set of essential practices is given in the article on page 25, but those who are in the UCG-AIA should be responsible for defining what they will do. Members who have long believed that they were in the "right Church" because it had nearly all the "right doctrines," will not like this approachmany will leave the UCG-AIA for more authoritarian doctrinal teaching. But this method will encourage brethren who are zealously studying their Bibles and desiring of teaching others to remain in the UCG-AIA. People, who really believe that the Holy Spirit works in our lives and teaches us, may begin attending the UCG-AIA simply to participate in this environment. Some people have already adopted this approach personallythey know that they are not in complete agreement with the UCG-AIA doctrinal statement or other membersí beliefs, but they continue to fellowship there as long as no one asks them to leave.
Who Will Leave?
No matter which doctrinal approach is adopted by UCG-AIA, some members will leave. This conclusion may seem overly pessimistic, especially to sincere brethren who are praying for unity. However, we must be honest and say that the Eternal has not answered previous prayers for unity. It is simply not possible to keep a church organization together when its members sincerely hold so many different opinions. We have no way of estimating how many UCG-AIA elders and members favor each of the above doctrinal approaches. Even a survey sent to all members might not yield meaningful results as many brethren have fairly fresh memories of being put out of the WCGfor voicing honest disagreement.
We can learn a lesson from history. In the early 1970ís, numerous pastors and members left the WCG for a variety of reasons over several years. Most hoped and tried to stay together. A group called the Associated Churches of God formed. However, some found the leadership in that group a little overbearing, so they decided to form the United Church of God (yes, the same name). But in the words of the president of that former-UCG, Dick Wiedenheft, "many of the ex-WCG groups broke up because the only thing that they all had in common is that they all wanted to leave the Worldwide Church of God." Some left because of bitterness; some left to gain more power to themselves; some left to teach distinctive doctrines so they could have a following for themselves. Others left over "church government" or so they could be free to study the Bibleeven if it conflicted with headquarters doctrine. Still others left so they could use what they believed to be their spiritual gifts to help others and preach the Gospel. Some left because of WCG corruption or unfairnesseither real or imagined.
What happened to the people who left the WCG in the early 1970ís? Some completely disappeared from all Sabbath keeping groups. Some joined other previously existing Sabbath-keeping groups. The Associated Churches of God, now with no full-time employees, continues to this day. These continuing groups have been responsible for the teaching and baptizing of hundreds of individuals over the last 25 years. Not all of them are "dead"! What was the single most important factor that made the difference between groups that continued to be effective and those that dissolved? Was it careful adherence to WCG-style governance and doctrine? No! It was personal conviction of individuals to continue to live by the Bible and to teach it to others.
We believe that if the UCG-AIA sets out on a quest to rebuild a WCG-like organization with "just the right collection of HWA doctrines," that it will fail. There will never be a firm consensus on this subject. Furthermore, we do not believe that a massive TV or publishing effort will unify the organization either. Even with millions of dollars, the UCG has been very slow to produce anything substantial. Without doctrinal agreement, how can they produce detailed literature in areas where doctrine is in debate?
However, we believe that if the UCG-AIA would emphasize doctrine less and focus more on members personally studying, growing and teaching at the local level, that the Eternal would prosper their work. Whether or not the existing UCG-AIA ministry is willing or capable of this massive change is another question. Most of the pastors and elders really believe that they want to do what is best for their congregations. Unfortunately, it appears that most long for the WCG-organization of years ago. That is all most of them knowthey have spent most of their lives doing it.
But if we look at reality, many of these old "tried and true" methods no longer work. The idea that internal problems "can simply be ignored and no one will know" is still alive in the UCG-AIA, but independent publications and the Internet have turned "hushed problems" into common knowledge. The idea that "the ministry is nearly always right" in both judgment and doctrine is still alive, but it rarely works anymore. Years ago, many people stayed in the WCG in spite of major problems because they knew of no other alternative. Today, there are many alternatives.
It is not our place to judge which elders are knowingly self-serving and which ones are simply trying to make a faulty system work. But nearly every UCG-AIA elder will be affected by the difficulties described in this article. Unfortunately, the current home office management seems more interested in maintaining central control than in virtually anything else. They appear little prepared to help pastors adjust to the changing conditions. Some UCG-AIA pastors have realized this and have or are implementing necessary local changes apart from the home office. Some implement changes as a UCG-AIA congregation, others have realized that they must separate completely from the UCG-AIA organization (see article on page 3).
What Does the Eternal Want?
The real question is where is the Eternal? What does He want the UCG-AIA to do? The four different governance plans and the seven different doctrinal approaches cannot all be His desire. Before we try to say what the Eternal wants for UCG members, we need to acknowledge that it could be a lot different than we might expect.
For those people who were members of the Worldwide Church of God fifteen years ago, how many of you would have believed someone who came to you and prophesied the future as it actually was to happen? Would you have believed that Herbert Armstrong would die and be replaced by men that would slowly and cleverly reverse many of the WCGís doctrinal positions? Would you have believed that most of the members would leave, and that there would be no single clear "successor organization"? I would have had a hard time believing it. Yet that is exactly what the Eternal allowed to happen.
While we are not claiming to predict the future, we must ask this question: If the Eternal allowed the WCG to completely change course and fade into a shadow of its former self, will he allow the same thing to happen to organizations which largely seek to imitate the WCG? This is a question that should not be ignored.
Many believe that a big organization is necessary in order to do a "big work." But the New Testament clearly shows that the Gospel was originally preached without a centralized human organization. Arguments about "who was the headquarters apostle?" are silly as the Bible never says that there was a "headquarters," "leading" or "Jerusalem" apostle. No New Testament writer ever refers to a handbook of church procedures or established Gospel-preaching methods. We find only one special Jerusalem conferencenot an annual or even every-four-year event. We do not find them collecting money centrally to produce standard scrolls or books about Jesus; we do not find them hiring professional bands, horsemen, or heralds to attract attention. All of these things were done by the Roman government and were well within the technology of the time. We agree that much more centralization is possible today than in the first century, but we also see that New Testament gospel preaching was decentralized by choiceit was not near as centralized as possible at that time.
Acts 8:1,4 indicates that the early believers were scattered due to a persecution and went "everywhere preaching the word." Has the Eternal scattered us so that we will teach what we know to others? Does He want us to spend less time debating the fine points of doctrine and to concentrate on practicing and teaching what we already know?
Ask and You Shall Receive
How can each individual member know what the will of the Eternal is for him or her? Will He clearly show them, or must they rely on their headquarters or local ministry to tell them?
Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him (1Jn 5:14-15).
We can be confident that the Eternal will answer us if we ask "according to His will." If we ask him to bless organizations or people that He does not want to bless, He will not do it. If we ask the Eternal to "make things like they used to be" when He does not want them that way, He will not do it. We really need to look at ourselves and our lives and ask: are we asking for what is pleasing to us or what is pleasing to Him?
...Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures (Jms 4:2-3).
Most brethren have had experience asking the Eternal for forgiveness, better attitudes, blessings, healings, and that kind of thing. Most have received answers. But how does one ask the Eternal "what is best for my church organization?" or "where do you want me to attend?" We personally know of many people who believe the Eternal gave them answers to such complex questionsin a variety of ways. Some have personally set aside a time to fast and pray, after which they were confident that they knew what they should do. Others have asked the Eternal to send someone to show them what to doand He did. Others have asked, "If I am supposed to do this, please perform this specific miracle"and He has. A few others have received a startling dream or vision which they were able to understand. There are scriptural examples of all of the above. The whole issue is: are we seeking His will or our will? This is an issue between you and your Savior. If He clearly answers you, be prepared to obeydo not proclaim your answer to others unless He tells you to.
Where Do We Go From Here?
The same people who believe they have received answers to complex questions from the Eternal also report that there are times when He does not immediately answer their heart-felt requests. It is possible that our Savior may not show every UCG-AIA member a clear course of action over the next several months. Is is very likely that the UCG-AIA will not demonstrate a clear course of action over the next several months.
Our Savior taught that others would identify His followers by their love for each other (John 13:34-35). He also told us to "live by every word of God," but he never said we would be identified by our doctrinal perfection. No matter what happens in the coming months, we will be blessed and we will be a blessing to others if we can maintain an attitude of love toward all of our brethren. There is no way that an individual, even a pastor, can guarantee that his congregation will stay together. No matter what happens, these things will help:
1. Establish a strong relationship with the Eternal. Study the Bible and pray regularly. This should be the basis of your spiritual life, not your congregational attendance.
2. Do not cut off fellowship with others, even if you no longer regularly attend with each other. Make a special point to greet those from other groups when they visit your group. Try to visit other groups occasionally. Continue to invite those who attend other groups to potlucks, socials, outings, weddings, baby showers, etc.
3. Do not try to convince people to accept your views of doctrine, church government, etc. If they ask, be able to explain. If they want written literature, offer to get it for them (people are often afraid to request literature themselves from other groups). But if they are not interested in hearing your view, the more you talk, the more you alienate them.
4. If your friends become upset by your views or your choice of groups, do not give up on them. The feeling of "betrayal" wears off after a while, and temporarily estranged friends can become friends again.
5. Find ways to serve others. If you do not know how to do this, ask for some of the spiritual gifts in the New Testament (Rom 12:6-8; 1Cor 12:7-11,28-31; Eph 4:11-15; 1Pet 4:8-11).
We believe the difficulties in UCGAIA are not solely due to some evil scheme plotted by ministers, members or outsiders. A different management more dedicated to service than control would certainly be a big improvement. Even with new management, difficulties due to diversity of doctrine and governance would still be monumental. We are convinced that most UCG-AIA brethren want to serve the Eternal. But, many are also far too dependent on their organization and human leadersand not dependent enough on the Eternal. Unfortunately, most probably do not understand that yet. Hence, we lament the hard work and hope for the UCG-AIA that may never bear its intended fruit.
Norman S. Edwards
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