Most readers of Servants News live in a religious world that is anything but stable. Most have attended several church groups. Family relationships, doctrines, and religious practices that they once took for granted have been questioned and re-thought. A simple "good guys" versus "bad guys" explanation does not explain the problem for most people.
Nevertheless, most of the church groups try to paint it that way. They will say that the WCG was going along fine until the wrong people got control, and then when they changed ___________ (fill in blank for your group), it was time to leave; people who left before they did "jumped the gun", and those who left after they did were "slackers". This writer does not believe that the issue is nearly so simple.
It is not the purpose of this article to "set everyone straight" on what is right to do. This author does not know what is right for everyone. The purpose of this article is to offer a model for better understanding what has happened to us, where we should be going, and how do we process the mass of diverse information that is now coming to us.
We also want to say before we begin that we do not want to judge others decisions or make this a tool for judging others decisions. People often must make church decisions for reasons not apparent to others. For example, a person may decide to attend a certain congregation to keep their family together, to help long-time friends or to be helped by friends. This may be exactly what the Eternal wants them to do. Unfortunately, some have also used a church group for support against their spouse or former acquaintances. Some groups have essentially said, "If you join us, well let you get a divorce or allow you not to repay the guy whom you owe moneyafter all, those people are not in our group so they are Laodiceans at best." Dedicated believers on the other side of situations like this have had to decide whether to let their family break up or attend where they believe they can best grow. The outside observer may have no idea what any specific person is contending with. Let us not judge an individuals motives.
But let us do think deeply about what various religious teachers teach, and also think about what God wants us to learn. The model at right does not explain everything, but nearly everyone who has seen it has found it helpful. Let us start by explaining exactly what we mean by the four corners:
By this, we mean truth as God knows it. Obviously, humans cannot be perfectly sure when they have Gods Truth on all subjects, because humans are so often in disagreement on specific points. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of Gods truth that most educated people are in agreement on. Most of this is provable scientific as well as Biblical fact: The earth is round, people turn to dust when they die, they become sick when they worry too much, etc. Also, most societies agree that it is bad for people to steal from each other, and many will acknowledge that the Golden Rule is a good idea.
We deliberately avoided the term "Bible Truth" here, because there are errors, however minor, in Bibles. For example, for centuries, people believed that God was "three in one" because they read John 5:7: "For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one." Modern Bibles leave this out because it was obviously not in the original manuscripts. However, the early King James Bibles had no notes and Greek-text Bible helps simply were not published. For people in the 1600s through the 1800s, a "three in one" God was Bible truth, but it was not Gods truth. Yet some during that time rejected the "three in one God"partly from other scriptures, and partly from direct inspiration from God.
So how do we obtain Gods truth? Please notice a few fairly common beliefs that are not in the Bible:
1. People who know the most truth will be first to be in Gods Kingdom. Christ told the chief priests and elders of Israel, who knew a lot of His truth, that "tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you" (Matt 21:31).
2. Those who study their Bible the most will have the most truth. The commonly quoted scripture, "Study to shew thyself approved unto God," is somewhat of a mis-translation. The Greek word does not imply "book study", but means "be diligent" (NKJV) or "do your best" (NIV). When the Bible was being written, almost nobody had personal access to a Bible. Personal ownership of Bibles for the last few centuries has resulted in much truth being learned by many, but there is no promise that we will learn it all. The command to "live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord" (Deut 8:3, Matt 4:4) does not refer to only the Bible, but also refers to anything He might say to us today.
3. Gods true church will have all or nearly all of Gods Truth. The first century apostles did not all have the exact same truths given to them: Peter acknowledged that Paul had more in some areas: "and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvationas also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures" (2Pet 3:15-16). Revelation chapters 2 and 3 show that several major errors had crept into some of the church congregations. Finally, church history shows us no single group existing for hundreds of years with the same "truth".
4. God wants his people to share every truth they learn with everybody. When a ministry was founded on making the truth plain, it might seem that the above statement would have to be true. But the Bible shows otherwise. The most important truths that each person needs to know to change their life and obtain eternal life are clear from any Bible. But some of the deeper truths about Gods purpose are not "made plain" for all to understandand God would not direct His servants to write down an understanding that He does not want to declare to the world. For example, John heard what the "seven thunders" said, but they are not written down for us. Paul talks about a man who "was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter" 2Cor 12:4. Also, the book of Daniel says "Many shall be purified, made white, and refined, but the wicked shall do wickedly; and none of the wicked shall understand, but the wise shall understand" (Dan 12:10). If God gave the understanding of Daniel to someone who made it plain in a booklet, then both the wicked and wise who read the book would understand.
How do we come to know Gods truth?
1) Live by whatever we do know. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; A good understanding have all those who do His commandments. His praise endures forever (Psalm 111:10).
2) Ask Him to show us by His spirit. "However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth," (John 16:13).
This is the opposite of knowing and doing Gods truth. We could say "sin", but it would be too hard for many of us to identify with. Most things that defeat and distract believers do not really look "all that bad". They are "important" things like jobs, homes, cars, entertainment, etc.we just serve them too much rather than serving the Eternal. Or, we have verbalmaybe even unspoken"fights" with our family and friends. But doesnt everybody? And are not others worse than we? Nevertheless, "for whatever is not from faith is sin" (Rom 14:23).
The trend toward or away from worldliness often has little to do with the group one is in. Let us illustrate this with a few realistic, but fictional examples. Andrew used to pray and study his Bible an hour every day, and would never view a "dirty movie" because his former "strict" minister told him that is what he would have to do if he ever wanted to "get anywhere" in his church. His life was made better by these things. In his current group, no such standards are "enforced", and all of these habits have collapsed. On the other hand, Bob used to be in that same "strict" congregation, but prayed and studied very little because nobody ever seemed to care what he knew or thought. Now that he has more responsibility in his smaller congregation, he wholeheartedly prays and studies much more than before.
Catherine married a handsome athletic hero from her high school, but within a few years became disappointed with him because he was not able to earn as much as other men. She has grown continually more distant from her husband and only child, and now spends nearly all of her time with her own job, and historic jewelry collectors club. She has not seriously considered any counsel or advice from the old strict minister or from those in her new groupshe believes none of them know enough to help her. Catherines pathway toward worldliness has continued in spite of church changes.
Debbie was a drug user in the strict church, but never told the ministry for fear of being kicked out. Nevertheless, she found one friend who agreed to pray with her and encourage her whenever she was having trouble fighting it. Debbie, with her friends help made progress, and when it was time to change churches, the two agreed to change together so it would be easy to keep helping Debbie. Debbie is now almost completely recovered from the drug difficulties, and will probably never mention it to the congregation. Her path away from worldliness has continued in spite of church changes.
The point of these stories is: personal righteousnessdoing the Truth of God that He shows youcan often be independent of the church group one is in, and is often independent of the next two items to be discussed.
Initially, it may seem like there is no difference between "Doctrine" and "Gods Truth". But by "Doctrine", we mean "all doctrine", not just true doctrine". There is "true doctrine" and there is "false doctrine". A doctrine is simply a religious teaching based on the Bible, language studies, history, and human reason. Nearly every teacher claims that their doctrine is true doctrine. But a quick survey of the doctrines taught by various groups (including Sabbatarian groups) shows that the average doctrine taught must be falsebecause so many doctrines are in conflict with each other.
This does not mean that true doctrine does not exist. Nor does it mean that we cannot know the important doctrines. The most important doctrine, nearly everyone agrees on:
Jesus said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets" (Matt 22:37-40).
The need for Jesus as Savior, the ten commandments, principles of love, righteousness and justice are also clear in the scripture. These are the things that we will be judged by. Ourselves and others can see the fruit of doing these things in our lives. But if you look at the way a person lives, can you tell whether he believes that Jesus was the "God" of the Old Testament, or that Jesus was one of two eternal beings, or that Jesus was a created being? No! These beliefs make no observable difference in how a person lives!
Yet it seems the more obscure the doctrine, the more dogmatic people become in proclaiming it. Thousands of people died in historic wars because some believed the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and others believed it proceeds from the Son.
Church of God groups have been split up over whether one should tithe on "net" or "gross" incomean issue that is not clearly spelled out in the Bible. Other groups have been split over the endless doctrines related to prophecy: Who is the "Beast"? What is the "Mark of the Beast"? Who are the "Philadelphians"? Where is the place of safety and who will go to it? Indeed, many groups have doctrines that their members will go to the place of safety and those in other groups will not.
The potential for doctrine is unlimited. A person or group can claim to have the specific correct understanding of every word of the Bible. Some even claim to understand multiple true meanings of the same verse. The Bible teaches us to "hold fast that which is good", but it does not teach us to find the group that appears to have the most true doctrine, then do whatever they say. It is wonderful to be able to read the Bible, to learn it, and to use it in our lives. But if we think we need to figure it all out, or find the group that has it all figured out, before we begin to do it, we are mistaken.
To be brief, there is only the one word "Inspiration" on our chart. The intended meaning is "supernatural insight". Like doctrine, there can be true and false inspirationinspiration from God and inspiration from demons. Truth can certainly be used by inspirationthe Bible is full of stories where God inspired or said certain words to people who served Him. On the other hand, the Bible mentions many false prophetsthose who claim to be inspired of God, but are not. Historically, the WCG taught that inspiration was largely reserved for the top leadership. Yet the Bible records direct intervention for a great many people. An unnamed servant of Abraham was divinely shown whom he should ask to marry Isaac (Gen 24). A shepherd in Tekoah (Amos 1:1) was given a prophecy for his nation. Simeonnot a leader, but a "devout man"understood by inspiration that he would see Christ before he died (Luke 2:25-26).
Inspiration can be as world-affecting as the writing of the Bible or Gods words spoken to the heads of nations. On the other hand, it can be as minor as a strong urging to call a friendwho turned out to be having a bad day and in need of cheering. It can also affect our personal decisions: whom to marry, where to live, what job to take, etc.
Inspiration can come in many forms: the hearing of a voice, a dream, a vision (essentially a dream during the day), or the words of a person that gives the answer to a question that a believer prayed about. Probably the most common form of inspiration is simply a secure, peaceful, close-to-God feeling that a person believes is coming from outside him or herself.
All of these methods can produce true inspiration, false inspiration, or "non-inspiration". A dream can be from God, from demons, or just normal human ocurrence. Similarly, a secure feeling can come from God, demons, or simply human emotion. Mistaking "non-inspiration" for true inspiration can be dangerous if one takes it as proof that a related service, teacher or doctrine is of God. It is vital that each believer develop discernment and learn to distinguish true from false inspiration. The Bible is our source to judge inspiration:
And when they say to you, "Seek those who are mediums and wizards, who whisper and mutter," should not a people seek their God? Should they seek the dead on behalf of the living? To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them (Isaiah 8:19).
Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge (1Cor 14:29).
Unfortunately, there are many who call themselves Christians, but place too much emphasis on inspiration. This is a typical problem in Charismatic congegations. It is wonderful to want to receive spiritual gifts from the Eternal. But when people fall over backwards and experience other bizarre manifestations not in the Bible, they are not getting closer to Gods Truth.
On the other hand, the concept that truth only comes from the Bible and not from seeking Gods direct inspiration is not true. The WCG and its off-shoots tend to emphasize doctrine far more than personal inspiration. Consider the following quote:
Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, "I will never leave you nor forsake you." So we may boldly say: "The Lord is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?" (Heb 13:5-6)
Does this verse mean that believers would never be left without a Bible and their churchs doctrinal statement? No, this means that God personally promises deliverance to each person.
There is no conflict between true doctrine and true inspiration. The Eternal will not inspire something contrary to the true meaning of the original Bible. But the Bible does not reveal everything about the Eternal. It does not tell us what the Eternals will is for us today, or tomorrow. Reading through the New Testament, we see decisions made and actions taken based on a balance of their understanding of the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus (doctrine), and direct guidance through the Holy Spirit (inspiration).
There is much of a tendency of people who are seeking the Eternal to seek Him either mostly through doctrine or mostly through inspiration. Many regard one method as superior to the other. The Bible teaches both. Without understanding true doctrine, people often receive things that they think are inspired, but are easily proven wrong from the scripture. On the other hand, others study months or years trying to understand some complex doctrine from the scripture, when they could simply ask the Eternal to show them what to do.
Similarly there is a tendency of church groups to either emphasize inspiration or doctrine, but not both. Some groups read the Bible extensively and give long complex sermons. Inspiration or Godly emotions do not enter into their services much at all. This often prevents them from asking for and recieving many of the New Testament promises.
Other groups have services consisting of mostly music and emotional messages trying to stir up the inspiration of God. They do not have enough Bible reading and doctrinal teaching for the people to be able to know if their inspiration is of God or not.
These concepts of Gods Truth versus Worldliness, and Inspiration versus Doctrine, are illustrated on the diagram. Obviously, the goal is to get closer to Gods Truth (Matt 5:48), which is a balance right in the middle of Inspiration and Doctrine. In their efforts to achieve this, most believers tend to favor either Inspiration or Doctrine. Few achieve a balance in between. At the bottom of the Chart is worldlinesswhere people are so disinterested in God that they have no interest in inspiration or doctrine.
It is hard to objectively measure where anyone is between Gods Truth and Worldliness. Any assessment we might make is based on our understanding of what Gods Truth really is. However, if there are many unanswered questions about why things happen in our lives, in our Bible, or in the world at large, we can be fairly sure that we have some distance to go to reach "Gods Truth".
The issue of Doctrine versus Inspiration is much easier to see. Does our religious experience consist mostly of Bible study? Or does it consist mostly of prayer and seeking Gods will and understanding directly? If we have a question about what to do in our lives, do we search the scriptures, or to we pray and ask God to send people and events that will show us the answer? Do we do both?
This writer placed numbered circles on the chart where he thought the common approach of various church groups would fall. Placing these dots is extremely subjective on our partwe had to make very broad assumptions as to what we consider important This is not an effort to judge the people in these groupsany one individuals approach can vary greatly from that of the group he attends. The purpose of this chart is to use some commonly known groups teachings as examples in order to help you think about where you might fit on the chart and how you want to learn in the future. If you disagree with where we placed any group, feel free to grab a pen and alter the chart.
1. The first century church. This church had very good teaching directly from Christs apostles, but did not have a written New Testament. We placed them left of center because they seemed to rely upon ongoing inspiration more than technical study. Because of this, false teachers with false inspiration were a big problem.
2. The Roman Catholic Church (of today). This group has a detailed doctrine about nearly everything. Unfortunately, sacraments and the authority of the clergy have largely replaced truth in this church. Inspiration is accepted only at the highest levels.
3. Liberal Protestant churches. Many of the leaders of these groups do not even believe that the Bible is true in a significant way. We placed them left of center because they try to impart a good feeling more than teaching doctrine.
4. Evangelical Protestant. Some of these groups have a far greater emphasis on members living their lives based on their Bible study and direct guidance from Christ. Protestant churches can be found that exist anywhere between 3 and 4.
5. Radical Charismatic. To these groups, experience of the spirit is everythingeven if it appears to conflict with the Bible. Some groups certainly have more truth than others, but false inspiration seems to prevent real learning in most of them.
6. Worldwide Church of God, 1980s. The amount of truth taught was better than evangelicals (WCG had the Sabbath, Holy Days, etc. but many evangelicals understood church government, giving and individual responsibility better). The WCGs greatest claim was true doctrine, though, to a lesser extent, it also taught that members would personally receive answers to prayer, healings, blessings for tithing, etc. Some of the WCG split-off groups belong here also, as they have changed very little.
7. Worldwide Church of God, today. It still retains some of the truth and doctrinal orientation of the past, but would actually fit quite well in the middle of the Protestant groups.
8. "Liberal" WCG split-off groups. Some of the WCG split-off groups have softened on doctrine, dropping those that are hard to defend from the Bible. Some no longer claim to have the truth about everything, and tell believers to follow their "understanding from God" on certain issues. This is an improvement from trying to enforce a church doctrine that obviously does not fit all cases. The CGI, UCG, and other groups probably fit into this category.
9. "Conservative" WCG split-off groups. A few large, and many dozens of smaller groups have attempted to define doctrine to much greater degree than the Worldwide Church of God. Indeed, the sole reason for existence of some groups is their claim to understand one (or more) doctrines better than the WCG. It is our opinion that a few of these groups have made improvements in their overall doctrinal stance, but many have made their doctrines worse. Hence, the chart has a large oval rather than a ball. All of these groups appear to be further away from teaching their members to rely on the Holy Spirit to teach and guide them.
Where do local, independent groups fit on the chart? To be brief, "all over the place!" Some are heavily dependent on doctrine, others are nearly Charismatic in their approach. Some are full of people really seeking God, others are no much more than a weekly party where the Bible is occasionally mentioned.
In most corporate church organizations, the approach to doctrine and inspiration is set by the headquarters. Members are usually free to seek understanding and inspiration apart from their organizationas long as they do not try to influence their congregation too much based upon it. But in independent congregations, there may be great differences of opinion on how to learn truth and what to do about it. Since the members determine how most independent congregations operate, this can cause conflict. Brethren need to understand that seeking Gods truth through doctrine, or seeking it through inspiration are not necessarily incompatible. You cannot label one "good", and the other "bad". Some questions are better solved by one method than the other, some people are more skilled with one method than the other. If brethren realize this, they can probably work together much better. If they realize that their approaches are too different, they, like Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:39), can agree to go their separate ways, but still remain friends.
Many "Church of God" groups place nearly all of their emphasis on defining doctrinethinking that they have Bible truth. Several times, I have seen the following happen: A person wrote a paper and convinced many other members of a nicely functioning group that only he had "the truth" on a particular doctrine: the calendar, Sabbath, Holy Days, Sacred Names, etc. People left the group being very sorry to part from friends, but also believing that in order to "be right with God", they have to "go where the truth is". Then, within a few years, the same leader greatly revised his doctrine.
Let us assume for a moment that the new version of this doctrine is Gods Truth on the subject. That means that people left their functioning group years ago to trade one false doctrine for another. Furthermore, the new group often only has doctrine, it may have little of the brotherly love, encouragement, basic teaching, and other things that were in the first group. Also, could we conclude that the "true church" did not exist until this leader discovered that doctrine?
Too often, people go from group to group over the issue of single doctrines. A church congregation should be a place where iron can come to sharpen ironwhere people can share their experience, inspiration and doctrine and learnnot a place where the "leaders" try to force their doctrines on the "followers". Some congregations have such a body of built-up doctrines that new believers could not be accepted there without years of study. (One of the best resons for changing church groups is to move to a group where members are not persecuted for living by personal conviction of inspiration and doctrine.)
We will have more articles about inspiration in the future. We hope this article will help you to think about how you and your group seek the Eternal. Where are you on the field?
Norman S. Edwards