The other day I was having lunch with a former WCG minister. The conversation drifted around to whether or not he still felt that he was a minister of God or not. He did not. To explain, he told me of a conversation he’d had earlier with a former minister of another denomination. The other fellow had explained to him that once one leaves the type of ministry of which we had been a part, one is empty. What did he mean by “empty”?
Those of us who once took part in the ministry of the old WCG were there for one reason only – to support the ministry and teachings of Herbert W. Armstrong. We may not have seen it that way, but he did. At Ambassador College, we learned HWA’s doctrines. We were taught his style of speaking, his approach to writing. When we served in “the Work,” we served at his good pleasure. The highest value in that system was loyalty to the person and doctrines of HWA. Those who were deemed most loyal enjoyed the gifts of power, perks and privileges. Those most doctrinally orthodox were placed in positions of influence to ensure that those doctrines would be reinforced and passed along. Those who dissented were marginalized or removed.
Within the old Armstrongian system, one’s status in the ministerial pecking order had a direct connection to one’s usefulness to HWA. All of a minister’s personal identity, the size of his home, his furnishings, his trappings, his security, his status within the system, and his speaking privileges, etc. etc. etc., were ultimately derived from HWA’s approval system. The Biblical list of ministerial tasks was turned into a militaristic system of “ranks” in order to serve the needs of an ecclesiastical dictatorship.
We served in an authoritarian ministerial system. We were told that it was “God’s way.” God “believes in government from the top down,” we were told. If HWA was “God’s apostle,” then all others in the ministry were of lesser status. For some subjective reason, we believed that inspiration was tied to authority – the higher one was in the pecking order, the more “inspired” one’s utterances and pronouncements. One “high ranking” minister even began referring to evangelists as “deputy apostles.”
When one leaves such a system for whatever reason, one becomes hollow. One is emptied of status, leverage, authority, and, allegedly, inspiration – even of personal identity. In many cases, one is left without income. This is what the aforementioned ex-minister explained to the ex-WCG minister.
The rule is this: In any authoritarian ecclesiastical system, who you are as a person is determined by those in authority. If they decide you are nobody, you become nobody. In such systems, one’s identity is based on one’s relationship to people who hold power in a hierarchy, not on one’s relationship to God. To exit the hierarchy is to be “hollowed out” as a person. It is to become a ministerial non-person – at least in the eyes of denominational leadership. It is to lose all status in the eyes of the people one once served. It is to lose one’s “voice.”
A Biblical Approach
Ideally, a minister’s personal identity should not be based on his affiliation with a denomination – especially an authoritarian one. It should be based on his relationship with God and with the people he serves.
God’s New Covenant ministry is not instructed to be authoritarian in nature. Quite the opposite: “…You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28 NIV). This teaching, more than any other, ought to set the tone for any modern Christian ministry. The very word “minister” means “servant.”
A minister is a servant of the Church, not a dictator over it. This is not to say that the Lord did not give us authority – he did, but over what? “He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits, and to heal every disease and sickness” (Matthew 10:1). If we desire to wield authority, this is where we should be wielding it. God’s true ministers should be serving the Church by getting people delivered from demons and healing them of their diseases. Of course we were not taught how to do this at Ambassador College. (By the way, I am fully aware of the fact that this is the point at which some will reel out Hebrews 13:7, KJV. Many commentators believe that “them that have the rule over you” would better be translated “leaders.” Furthermore, they believe that it refers to the leaders who had already died – those to whom the Lord first revealed himself, and who passed on his teachings. The thrust of the Greek here is to “keep on remembering” them, their example, and their teachings. This passage does not support the idea of tyrannical ministerial rule as some suppose.)
A true minister is not a man of men, but a man of God. That’s how Paul referred to Timothy, a young minister under his charge (I Timothy 6:11). In his second letter to Timothy, Paul refers to the minister as “God’s servant” (II Timothy 2:24). In II Timothy 3:17, Paul explains that the “man of God” derives his understanding from Scripture itself. This is his primary source for knowing what it means to perform the good works to which we are all called. Jesus instructed his servants: “As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons” (Matthew 10:7-8).
Paul also admonished his converts to, “…hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter” (II Thessalonians 2:15).
Both Elijah and Elisha were men of God (I Kings 1:10, II Kings 4:25). As such, they were accountable to God for how they conducted their ministries. True Christian ministers are also supposed to be men of God. Their authority over sickness and the demonic is not derived from men, but from God himself. If one has only the authority of men to deal with disease and demons, then one is utterly impotent.
In I Corinthians 9:19, the apostle Paul characterizes himself as being “free from all men.” He respected and honored those who had been with the Lord, and who had been apostles before him. But he felt no obligation to obey them if he felt otherwise led (Galatians 2:11).
The point is a minister’s primary accountability is not to men but to God. It is before God that he will stand in the Judgment (James 3:1; Romans 14:12 etc.). As God’s servants, we must live in good conscience before Him. If we are forced to choose, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). If we are placed in a position where we are required to violate our consciences, we must refuse.
There are many things that are taught by United, neo-Worldwide and the Church of God Seventh Day that I could not in good conscience teach. Compulsory tithing is a case in point. If I taught that, I would be in violation of my conscience. I would also compromise myself if I taught the unscriptural doctrine of the Trinity. Nor could I teach with a clear conscience that the New Testament requires non-Jewish Christians to observe the holy days.
At the same time, I could not support the doctrine of Sunday-as-Sabbath. The only Biblical Sabbath is the seventh day.
I could not support the teaching that the Bible disallows the use of alcoholic beverages. It forbids only drunkenness, while actually encouraging the use of alcohol on various occasions.
At the same time, I could not teach as Scriptural that it is wrong for church members to prophesy or speak in tongues. The Bible teaches quite the opposite: “Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues” (I Corinthians 14:19). The issue here is knowing what truly represents those phenomena.
I could not conscientiously teach that the Bible requires ministers to preside over weddings and funerals. It does not – not that it’s wrong to create a tradition of so doing. But it’s only a tradition, not a law or requirement of God. The issue here is how does God “bind” together a couple in marriage?
Furthermore, I could not teach, because I cannot prove, that the law of clean & unclean meats applies to non-Israelite Christians. Having said that, don’t offer me any pork or shellfish next time you invite me for dinner. I keep those laws, not because I have to but because I choose to.
That’s only the tip of the iceberg, but it’s enough to show why I could not be a minister representing denominations that teach the above doctrines. But that does not mean that I cannot function as a minister at all. Paul wrote that, “God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable” (Romans 12:29). If one is called to the ministry, then one must continue in it unless or until God removes one from it. I believe that the many ministers who are now retired, fired or otherwise expelled from the various churches of God are still ministers of Jesus Christ. They are still accountable to him for that ministry. But they must serve in good conscience. Ideally, they must cut the denominational ties that constrain them from expressing what they understand to be the truth. No true minister of God should fear man. The apostle Paul made it clear what should be our posture in Galatians 1:10:
“Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
There’s nothing ambiguous about that statement. A servant of Christ is never a man pleaser. He performs his ministry at the direction of Christ, under the power of the Holy Spirit, and in accordance with his best understanding of the Word of God. He is not part of a cult of personality (I Corinthians 3:5ff.), unless that Personality is divine. He cannot be intimidated into compromising himself because of the loss of a paycheck. His security is in Christ, not in the approval of a human hierarchy.
Living as a true servant of Christ can be a lonely journey. Even the mighty prophet Elijah moaned, “I alone am left…” Yet God knew them that were his in Elijah’s time. He knows it today. The Lord will never abandon those who are willing to follow him wherever he leads. I encourage those ministers who have “lost” their denominational ministries to take up new ones under the direct leadership of Jesus Christ. We are not “hollow men” because we can no longer serve denominational interests. We are men – perhaps women – of God who serve at his good pleasure.
People’s needs don’t go away when a minister leaves a denominational ministry. The needs of Christians are far greater than any human ministry will ever be able to meet. Just about anyone you meet these days could become a life’s work! The need for intercessory prayer is overwhelming beyond all imagination. We live in troublous times. If nothing else, we need to minister to the walking wounded of churches. There’s a veritable army of them “out there.” They need to be healed, restored and taught sound doctrine. Who will do it? They too have been expelled by denominations – or they have left them on their own steam.
In ministering to the broken and needy people of this world, there’s no money, no glory, and no ecclesiastical social status. To use Paul’s language, those who do it will be treated as the “offscouring” of the earth (I Corinthians 4:13). There’s plenty of room for ministry outside of denominational boundaries for those who have the heart to selflessly perform it.
The best ministry is centered not on human leaders but on Jesus Christ, on doing good works, and on not letting the right hand know what the left hand is doing. If we are filled with the Spirit of God, we are anything but hollow. An excellent definition of this kind of ministry is provided by Walter Wiersby: “Ministry takes place when divine resources meet human needs through loving channels to the glory of God.”[i] Anyone who has the heart for it can participate in that kind of ministry.
If we are filled with the Spirit of God for service to the people of God, we need never again feel “hollow.” What a rewarding way to “finish our course” – absorbed in loving service to the people of God.
[i] On Being a Servant of God by Walter Wiersby, p. 3