United Church of God Regional pastor defends tithe-related suspension
By Dixon Cartwright
A United Church of God regional pastor on May 15 defended the church's April suspension of the ministerial duties of an Illinois elder because of a controversial Sabbath message he presented Jan. 9 before the Bloomington, Ill., congregation.
Larry Greider of Troy, Ill., the regional pastor, said the United Church of God, an International Association, must "preserve the truth," and the truth includes a teaching on tithing identical to the Worldwide Church of God's while WCG founder Herbert Armstrong was still alive.
Earlier Mr. Greider, along with Bloomington pastor Tom Damour of Mahomet, Ill., and United Church of God ministerial-services director Richard Pinelli of Cincinnati, Ohio, suspended the credentials of elder Garry Pifer of Bloomington.
Mr. Greider said the ball is in the court of United's 12-man council of elders, which will pursue the process of determining whether Mr. Pifer really did commit "blatant heresy," as Mr. Greider calls Mr. Pifer's conclusion that the Bible does not command Christians to tithe.
"It is certainly not easy to preserve the truth when you have all kinds of arguments contrary to what we've been given," Mr. Greider said during the question-and-answer session. "As a matter of fact, it is far easier to try to disprove something than it is to prove something, and it's much easier to get people to rally against something than it is to rally people for something."
(For a summary of the May 15 questions and answers, see the article beginning on page 10.)
Mr. Pifer told The Journal last month that he "crossed the line" when he gave the Bible study during the sermon time back in January. By crossing the line, he says, he means he did something he knew United's ministerial-services department would not be happy with.
But, he says, he broke no doctrinal rule of United, including United's official statement on tithing. The statement, in Section 2.1.18 of the constitution, reads as follows: "We believe in tithing as a way of honoring God with our substance and as a means of serving Him in the preaching of the gospel, the care of the Church, attending the festivals and helping the needy."
Mr. Pifer says he agrees with that statement. Other writings of United, which flesh out the WCG's traditional understanding, lack the force of official documents, he says, and they have not been approved by the general conference of elders.
"Larry [Greider] himself, in his comments to the congregation during the Q&A, indicated that, if there is anything that deviated from what Herbert Armstrong taught, the whole general conference would have to ballot on it," said Mr. Pifer. "So is the 1974 article [a study paper on tithing published 25 years ago for elders in the Worldwide Church of God], or is the Ending Your Financial Worries booklet, the official policy? Or just exactly what is the official doctrine that the United Church of God is going to go by?"
"I understand the argument," Mr. Greider told The Journal May 29, "but when United started it was for the preservation of the truth as we understood it. We're only five years old. To go back and restate everything that we understood is time-consuming at best. I think you realize that we basically said [at United's founding in 1995] that we would teach what we have traditionally understood."
United was founded on the principle of governance by law and rules and not someone's opinion or someone's tradition, so wouldn't it be more proper for United to abide by the exact wording of its official, ratified documents?
"Well, you may be right, but how do I answer that?" responded Mr. Greider. "That may be a very good point. But where does the spiritual dimension come in? There's been a certain consensus among all of us that the major doctrines that Mr. Armstrong restored include tithing. That was sacrosanct. And none of those 18 truths of Mr. Armstrong have been repealed.
"The fact that we haven't yet been able to write the book on all those doctrines is more a matter of procedure and maybe time. I think ministerial services under the education committee has been diligently trying to do just that."
The "18 truths" were compiled under the direction of Mr. Armstrong's first successor, Joseph Tkach Sr., and listed in The Worldwide News Aug. 25, 1986. They mention tithing, although not "first tithe." They are as follows:
(1) The government of God, restored by Mr. Armstrong, who came "in the spirit and power of Elijah"; (2) the gospel of the Kingdom, restored after 1,900 years; (3) the purpose of God, that humans will be born of God and become God; (4) the identity of God, that He is a family; (5) the mortality of man; (6) the unconscious spirit in man; (7) the church as the firstfruits, not the end of God's plan of salvation; (8) the church as the embryo of the Kingdom but not the Kingdom; (9) the calling by the Father to conversion; (10) the second resurrection; (11) the Millennium; (12) the Holy Spirit's begettal of Christians; (13) the understanding that Christians are not born again until they enter the Kingdom; (14) the identity of modern Israel; (15) the identity of Israel as the key to understanding prophecy; (16) the annual festivals; (17) the authority of the Jewish calendar; and (18) second and third tithes.
Definitive sermon tape
A sermon tape recorded recently by United elder Doug Johnson of Lexington, Ohio, gives the "definitive message on tithing," said Mr. Greider.
"I sent the tape to Tom Damour to play in the Bloomington church . . .
"I find there are some differences in what we have traditionally taught and what's in the study paper," Mr. Pifer said."
(The Journal will consider publishing an article based on the 1974 paper as part of its current series of essays on tithing. See this month's tithing essay beginning on page 11.)
Mr. Greider said that, even though he believes Mr. Pifer's views on tithing are heretical, he is sure he can receive a fair hearing before the doctrinal committee and the council of elders.
The Journal last month quoted Mr. Greider as saying the problem with Mr. Pifer's study wasn't doctrinal per se; the issue was that Mr. Pifer didn't follow the correct procedure in introducing new doctrine to the United Church of God.
But in his May 28 interview with The Journal Mr. Greider clarified his position: "It has always been a matter of heresy, in my mind," and it was the "whole reason Garry was suspended."
Mr. Greider stated during the Q&A that if United judges that Mr. Pifer's premise on tithing is correct his authorization to perform the duties of an elder will be reinstated; if he is viewed incorrect his credentials will be revoked.
But would United consider a third option: that the teaching on tithing be judged incorrect but Mr. Pifer still be allowed to serve as an elder, perhaps with the stipulation that he not teach anything on tithing?
"That would be up to ministerial services," Mr. Greider said. "It wouldn't be up to me. But he has challenged one of the fundamentals of belief."
A matter of attitude
Someone in the audience during the Q&A session asked: "If I study the Bible and I find that what [Mr. Pifer] said is right, do I have to leave? Am I disfellowshipped?"
Mr. Greider replied to the questioner: "Well, I feel that, if you are convicted of something that we do not teach, why would you feel comfortable here?"
Since Mr. Greider did not directly answer the question, The Journal asked him if he could care to expand on his answer.
"I have no comment on that," he replied. "There's so many other parts to that, you know. You can't just single out one aspect like that. It has to do with attitude, whether or not they're willing to be taught. I think the No. 1 criterion for all of us is to be teachable, like little children. If we're contentious and unwilling to be taught, what's the point, then, of even giving sermons?"
Mr. Greider added that he has a "problem" with The Journal covering events such as the tithing controversy in Bloomington.
"By the time you get done with it," he said, "you seem to me to be hurting the process. The more play that Garry gets--and with all of this getting in The Journal--the more difficult it would be for Garry to recant if he comes to believe that he's in error. Then he's got egg on his face. It's a matter of his pride and his scholarship."
Mr. Pifer said the congregation's questions during the Q&A were "well in line with what needed to be asked," even though "some of the questions were perhaps a little pointed" and "both Larry and Tom were a little bit testy in they way they responded."
Overall, he said, little was accomplished by the Q&A.
The Journal asked Mr. Pifer why he gave the January study.
"I think it's one of those things that's like an octopus; it has a lot of tentacles in it," he said. "Perhaps in the overall scope of things I had almost considered myself separated from the United Church of God anyway, even though not technically. I've been kind of out of the loop. My basic reason for hanging on was the local congregation.
"The congregation has not been happy with the local pastor. As a matter of fact, they did send a letter to the council basically stating that they didn't feel the situation regarding me was handled right. Secondarily, they were expressing a little bit of their displeasure with the pastor. It was not a harsh letter, but at least they put it on record."
Teaching and preaching
Mr. Pifer believes Christians should preach to the world, then teach the converts whom God calls.
"Even Christ went forth preaching and teaching. He was preaching to the world. Then He began to teach those who responded to His preaching."
This concept, Mr. Pifer said, influences his approach to working with the congregation. The tithing message was presented as a study, a part of the teaching process, not as the preaching of official church doctrine.
"I felt my obligation was to do what I could to open the Bible up and get people working in the Bible to see what the Bible says and not relying, as we have for so long, on what somebody's written in a booklet or article or study paper.
"I guess in the back of my mind I knew that sooner or later it would probably get somebody's attention who wouldn't appreciate it. But the people in the congregation knew where I was coming from. It wasn't a problem with them. I didn't expect them to accept it at face value."
An inmate of a prison in Pontiac, Ill., Jang Han Bae, received a tape of the sermon and wrote a letter to complain about it, reported Mr. Damour.
In the discussion on tithing prompted by Mr. Pifer's study and the article based on his study that appeared in The Journal of April 30, some people have maintained that the same arguments Mr. Pifer uses to invalidate the tithe for Christians can be used to invalidate the Sabbath. But Mr. Pifer disagrees with that reasoning.
"One major difference is that the Sabbath is mentioned in the Ten Commandments and tithing is not," said Mr. Pifer.
"The Sabbath is very definitely tied to creation. I view that entirely differently, although I know that in a lot of ways tithing has been equated as almost one of the Ten Commandments.
"If tithing had been a law from creation, then maybe we would have the Eleven Commandments."
Mr. Pifer said he has come under criticism because tapes of his January study have circulated far and wide.
"All the tapes were personally requested," said Mr. Pifer, "and I sent a little notice with each one of them asking for feedback. At this point in time I've gotten absolutely no feedback except people saying they agreed with them. Larry Greider gave me what he thought was the reason for that when he told me, 'Well, your presentation was extremely well done, and maybe people feel intimidated responding to it.' "
A member's view
Merv Borkholder, who lives and attends church in Bloomington with the local congregation, thinks United has fumbled the situation, although he thinks Mr. Pifer could also have handled things better on his end.
"The question-and-answer session, I felt, was an attempt by United to do damage control, and it didn't accomplish too much of that," he said.
Mr. Borkholder would not speculate on whether a church split is in Bloomington's near future.
"I'm hoping that there will not be a split in Bloomington," he said. "I'm hoping that everyone will stay together whether we fellowship as a United church or whether as an independent congregation."
He said he fears that something the brethren may lose sight of in the current discussion is the Bible's authority on doctrine.
"I am more interested in truth and what the Bible says, whether a doctrine is right or wrong, than whether it is a belief of United or not," he said. "That is immaterial to me."
Does that mean Mr. Borkholder is convinced by Mr. Pifer's arguments regarding tithing?
"Garry's sermon did not change my mind about tithing," he said, "although there were some points in it I appreciated. I will say that as a result of his sermon I'm looking into a few things. I do believe in tithing, but the concept of where or who we tithe to and how we tithe is an issue that I appreciate somebody looking at."
Mr. Borkholder believes Mr. Pifer should have gone through the procedures he must have known United expected an elder to follow when bringing up a controversial topic for study.
In the wide-ranging debate in the wake of Mr. Pifer's study, the congregation, commented Mr. Borkholder, is faced with making some decisions sooner rather than later.
"There is a war going on right now in the Churches of God, in the independents and the big boys," he said, "and the war is for the control of God's people. Things will never be the same as they were years ago. The genie's out of the bottle, and it's not going back in."