Many of us on the outside of Churches of God Pod politics believe that all of the denominations that have been spawned by the breakup of the original WCG, including the parent organization itself, are in need of significant doctrinal reform. It isn’t going to happen any time soon. I think I understand why. It has to do with the way each group approaches the Bible.
James D.G. Dunn, one of the preeminent New Testament scholars of our time, writes, “Apart from anything else, the understanding we bring to the task of exegesis has been shaped by our upbringing and education, by our inherited culture and traditions – including our own theological tradition in its particular distinctiveness.”[i]
Dunn believes that presuppositionless exegesis is impossible. He continues, “…what we see in a text is limited by the horizon of our own understanding; when we read the text we see only what lies within the horizon that bounds our understanding” (ibid. p. 4).
Expressing it a little differently, Dunn writes, “…our perception will be limited by our presuppositions, our vision limited by our horizons” (ibid. p. 5). In other words, our presuppositions determine the possible range of our conclusions.
The New Testament plays both a historical role and a prescriptive role in the formation of Christian theology. We draw on it to determine what the original Christians believed and practiced. From those findings, we extrapolate to our modern age and form doctrine and dogma.
How we view Scripture will be determined not only by the presuppositions and horizons to which we cling, but also by prevailing denominational politics.
The role of church politics
A clique of people who hold power within the organization leads every denomination, no matter how or why the group was originally formed. So long as it wields power, this group will determine doctrine and dogma for the larger body. For the most part, they determine on the basis of their own interests. “Interests” may be interpreted as money, power and prestige. If a doctrinal change is likely to cause supportive members to bolt the organization, it is less likely to be made, no matter how exegetically correct it might be to do so. A significant exodus of members could cause the denomination’s financial base to collapse. This in turn would erode the power base. This is especially true with groups that teach that Scripture requires tithing.
On the other hand, if a group perceives that its leadership is “departing from the Truth” it will find a way to reject that leadership, either by changing it, or by leaving it.
If a leadership group is constituted to preserve a certain perception of truth – that is some set-in-concrete doctrinal “package” — then it will preserve it in the face of all evidence that it is incorrect. It is not in its interests to do otherwise.
Each ecclesiastical mini-culture tends to reinforce and shore up its own status quos. Each leadership group views Scripture through a set of distorting lenses. This ensures that the conclusions drawn will always fall within a set of pre-defined parameters. If you know the assumptions and presuppositions, then you know going in what the conclusions are likely to be.
Catholics approach the New Testament through the Church’s Magisterium – the ruling hierarchy that tells its followers the allowable range of interpretation and application. The Roman Church reserves to itself to the right to direct its membership in the permissible and authorized use of Scripture. For centuries, the Bible was actually on Rome’s banned books list.
Evangelical Christians approach the New Testament with the presupposition that the text as we have it is inerrant. They typically see Biblical history as unfolding in a series of dispensations, seven in all. They view the Book of Revelation futuristically, while the Catholics view it idealistically – that is, as timeless symbolism having no necessary consummation in the historical process.
The Churches of God, for the most part, view Scripture through the eyes of Herbert W. Armstrong, who was believed to have been “God’s apostle for our times.” His interpretations of Scripture were believed to have been inspired, and therefore correct. Those who hold this view see others who seek to modify or change his doctrines as heretics. Consequently, they study the translations of Scripture through “Armstrongian” lenses. Their conclusions inevitably reinforce the status quo.
A Catholic exegete, an Evangelical exegete, and a Church of God exegete, could all see any given passage of Scripture quite differently depending upon the presuppositions each brings to the table. They could sit down and discuss those passages ad nauseum and never arrive at a consensus. Each would be protecting his, or his denominations’, interests, traditions and turf. Objective exegesis would, therefore, never take place. Each would strive to reinforce a status quo.
This is a microcosm of the world of Christian scholarship. Each group screens out each other group’s scholars because their findings do not serve the interests of its leadership hierarchy. Scholars who seek to study the text with rigorous discipline and objectivity may find themselves losing denominational sponsorship if they are not careful to pay lip service to the Sacred Status Quo. Many top scholars have lost their denomination’s support once their findings threatened accepted dogma.
Organizations and their leadership groups change only when the pain of remaining the same exceeds the pain of changing. They shift paradigms only when there is a “felt need” to do so. So long as followership is compliant, leadership will maintain the stabilizing status quo. Denominations change when their leaderships discover that it is in the best interests to do so, and not until. If leaders don’t do something different, their tomorrows will be clones of their todays. Until the quest for objective truth becomes the preeminent value among Churches of God leaderships, doctrinal reform will not occur.
[i] New Testament Theology in Dialogue, by James D.G. Dunn & James P. Mackey, p. 4.