In 1998, George Barna published a book entitled The Second Coming of the Church. In its preface he wrote of the Church in the United States, “This is our time of testing. We must prove that we are what we claim to be, or we will certainly lose the platform to influence the world for Christ. That privileged position is already slipping from our grasp. Given the moral and spiritual demise of our culture, maintaining that position is not an insignificant challenge. And the sad truth is that the Christian Church, as we now know it, is not geared up to meet that challenge.”
Even when applied to the Churches of God circle, it would be hard to deny the appropriateness of those words. How can a church that is divided more than 200 ways to the middle be effective in the world? How can 200-plus groups, all emerging from the same general Sabbatarian tradition, and now in complete disarray, possibly portray to the world the “unity” of the faith? Consider this question in the light of the absurdity that many of these groups forbid fellowship with other groups that have emerged from, and still cling to, the same traditions!
I am not talking here about organizational unity. That is relatively unimportant. I’m taking about unity of message, unity of fellowship, and unity of spiritual lifestyle. Let’s create a silly scenario just to illustrate what I’m getting at.
The Gospel Times Three
Let’s suppose a man named Cyrus Crunchpit is exposed to the evangelistic messages of three churches: The Church of God Sabbatarian (CGS), the Hard-line Church of God (HCG), and the Church Formerly Known as Worldwide (CFKW). Unbeknownst to the others, Cyrus requests a visit with ministers representing each of these groups. He asks all of them the same questions: “Once I’m baptized, what do I have to believe and observe in order to please God and be a part of his true Church?”
The CGS minister says, “Well, you have to keep the seventh day Sabbath, but there’s no need to keep the annual holy days of Leviticus 23.” The HCG minister says, “You have to keep both the Sabbath and the annual holy days.” The CFKW minister explains that it not required that Christians observe either the seventh day Sabbath or the annual holy days, but in fact we have people who keep them and others who do not.”
Then Crunchpit asks about God. “What is God like?” he inquires. “He’s a Trinity,” explains the CFKW minister. “No, there’s only two parts to the Godhead, God the Father and Jesus Christ, but some day there’ll be millions, because God is a family,” answers the HCG. The CGS minister then gives his stock answer (whatever it is), and Crunchpit is further confused.
Then Cyrus asks about tithing. “Oh you must pay two tithes every year, and a third one in the 3rd and 6th years,” responds the minister from HCG. The CFKW minister explains that tithing of any kind is not required, but that it sure would help if people would do it. “Our employees are required to do it, but members aren’t,” he explains. Then the CGS minister says tells Crunchpit that the first tithe is compulsory, but the other two are not.
“Is the United States the tribe of Manasseh?” asks Crunchpit of the CGS minister. “We do not believe that it is, though there may be some people from that and other tribes scattered throughout the country.” “Yes, we are,” says the United minister. “No, we are not,” says the CFKW minister.
“Between the time of the original apostles and Herbert W. Armstrong, was the true Gospel ever preached?” asks Crunchpit.
“No,” responds the Hard-line minister. “Yes, respond both the CGS and CFKW ministers, “How else would there be a billion Christians in the world today?”
“Oh those are all false Christians – they don’t even keep the Sabbath,” explains the Hard-line minister. “Yes, they are true Christians,” says the CGS minister, “but they are just ignorant of the truth about the Sabbath.” “Of course they are real Christians,” explains the CFKW minister, “but they just aren’t all Evangelical like we are.”
“I’m thoroughly confused,” sighs Crunchpit. “I think I’ll just give up this quest for truth. It’s too hard to sort out all these issues. When you guys get your act together, let me know and maybe I’ll revisit this Christian business.”
Now I realize that I didn’t use the precise names of the various groups. I hope I didn’t accidentally use a real name of a real denomination. But you should be able to recognize in the minister’s answers the three basic positions represented in the Churches of God. I also realize that the answers above may not be precisely what ministers from those denominations might say in response to Crunchpit’s questions. But they are close enough to illustrate the point. The Churches of God Pod is a house doctrinally divided against itself. Worse, they are only a microcosm of the larger Church that encompasses thousands of doctrinal variations. How is the average new convert supposed to sift through all this and decide for himself – especially when he has no exegetical skills?
Cyrus Crunchpit is a typical non-Christian person who has studied the Bible little, and would have great difficulty sorting out all of the conflicting truth claims just within the circle of the Churches of God – let alone the larger world of Christian churches. He has no exegetical skills. He has in place no methodology through the use of which he could sort out the conflicting doctrines of three different, but related, Church groups – let alone the thousands that are in the world.
In light of this, how can we not think of the words of I Corinthians 14:8: “For if the trumpet [i.e. the shofar] makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare himself for battle?”
If Crunchpit had said to the three ministers, “Well why don’t your leaders and theologians sit down together and sort out these conflicting ideas, and come to some sort of agreement on what is the truth about them?” what would they have answered? “Oh, that would never work. In earlier years they tried that, and they got nowhere. Now they’re all dug in.” Ultimately the issue would come down to politics, the flow of tithes, and organizational power (whether or not this was openly stated).
Where does that leave hapless Cyrus Crunchpit? It leaves him nowhere.
Sometimes we have to step out of our entrenched positions to see how they look to others that don’t hold them.
Laboring in the Word
As I compare the doctrines and truth claims of the various churches of God, I find that I can sift through them and determine what is true and what is not – at least for myself. That’s only because I have had 40 years to develop the spiritual and exegetical skills to do so. What of a novice? What of a greenhorn would-be Christian who has no Bible study skills? He relies on the “experts” – the learned theologians and ministers who are supposed to understand the Bible better than he does. Yet clearly such people do not agree among themselves. They appear to be “blind guides of the blind” – at least from Crunchpit’s perception. How do we resolve this?
Resolving it as we know from the track record is anything but easy. Just getting any two official representatives from these churches to sit down with the Bible and discuss doctrines upon which they are at variance is Nightmare No. 1. If and when such discussions take place, much is at stake. The greatest fear of all among leaders is a loss of member support, and the subsequent exodus of tithe dollars from denominational coffers. Try getting past that one!
Of course I realize that almost everyone would deny having any such motive. With one voice, all would say, “All we want is the truth! We don’t care how many members we lose so long as we’re preaching the truth.” At the same time, all believe that they are now preaching the truth, so why change? Yet how can that be the case if they disagree on major points of doctrine? At least two out of three must be teaching error on any given issue if all disagree – perhaps all three!
Sooner or later, it all devolves into an emotional discussion and a lot of righteous posturing. The statement “Well I believe…” is heard a lot. People take stands. People posture and pose. People lower and make louder their voices for emphasis. Saddest of all, people who are genuinely searching for truth end up walking away from the whole schemozzle. They can’t deal with the box canyons, stalemates, political posturing, partisanship, cults of personality, greed, obstinacy, and powerism of the principle players.
If leaders won’t commit to dialogue with each other to resolve their differences, then earnest seekers of truth can only be expected to strike out on their own. They will take their chances “out there” in the salvation supermarket. They’ll end up picking whatever seems to suit them at the moment. That could be good or bad, depending upon what they select.
A Radical Four-Point Proposal
So here’s a radical proposal that might help release some of the partisan political constipation that exists within entrenched denominational hierarchies:
Agree that it is church policy to allow any member to freely fellowship with members of other denominations in any setting of their choice. No punitive action would be taken against anyone attending anyone else’s services or festivals. No one would keep track. In fact, inter-congregational or denominational exchange would encouraged rather than penalized.
Agree that those most responsible for “setting” doctrine within the denominations would seek dialogue with their counterparts in other denominations with a view to resolving doctrinal differences. Make a commitment to stick with regularly scheduled meetings until the differences were eliminated.
Immediately upon agreement, publish the results of these discussions in joint communiqués.
Establish within the Churches of God a true ecumenical movement. Each group could appoint representatives to work on finding ways of bringing the Churches of God together without recreating the reasons they became divided in the first place.
I’m dreaming of course. It isn’t likely to happen – but if it did it would go a long way toward healing the breaches that exist within the Pod. And people like Cyrus Crunchpit wouldn’t end up quite as confused when they try to sort out the truth claims of the various Churches of God.
Furthermore, the Churches of God – which in reality are only parts of a single Body – would present a more united front to the watching world, and they would have less difficulty projecting into it a coherent message.
One final word of caution: I am not suggesting here a forced unity in error, but rather a moving up to higher ground and deeper doctrinal truth. Unity for its own sake is meaningless. Unity in error is what Hitler created in Germany. Unity in truth is the ideal, the goal toward which we should all strive.