Church of God (Seventh Day) member believes 'primitive Christianity' in danger
By Dixon Cartwright
SAN ANTONIO, Texas--A longtime Church of God member and author of a new book on early Christianity is worried that many Sabbatarians, including some leaders of the Church of God (Seventh Day), are moving away from "primitive Christianity" and embracing a theology that ultimately leads to "lawlessness."
Alan Knight, a 58-year-old member of the Church of God (Seventh Day) who lives in Antioch, Calif., was here for the Feast of Tabernacles in September. He attended Feast services with the Christian Church of God, pastored by Jeff Booth of Amarillo, Texas, and Joe Kirkpatrick of Portales, N.M.
Mr. Knight, a former member of the Worldwide Church of God who enrolled in classes at Ambassador College for two years in the early 1960s, believes Whaid Rose, president of the General Conference of the Church of God (Seventh Day), Denver, Colo., has embarked upon a theological and philosophical course that, taken to its logical conclusion, rejects the law of God in favor of a Protestant evangelical approach to Christianity.
The evangelical approach, says Mr. Knight, leaves major decisions regarding obedience to God to the individual Christian, based upon "feelings" and "obeying God's Spirit working inside of you."
A Christian, maintains Mr. Knight, cannot always know when God's Spirit is working with him and when his own natural inclinations predominate. Relying solely on one's conscience, or even the "Holy Spirit," in matters of obedience to God is a deficient method at best, he believes.
Therefore, without God's law to ultimately define God's will, a Christian cannot always--and will not ultimately--know to do what God wants him to do.
Mr. Rose, who also visited the Christian Church of God's Feast site here, takes strong exception to Mr. Knight's characterization of him as advocating "lawlessness."
Mr. Rose told The Journal that he does not equate his "Christ-centered, Christ-focused" approach to Christianity with "lawlessness." (For an interview with Mr. Rose on this and related subjects, see "Church of God [Seventh Day] President Wants to See Church Move in 'New Direction,'" beginning at the bottom of this page.)
Mystery of lawlessness
Mr. Knight's book, Primitive Christianity in Crisis, is subtitled The "Mystery of Lawlessness" Prophecies: Nicolaitan Christianity for Our Time. In it he postulates that the theology of "lawlessness" is intrinsic in much of Christianity, whether it be called antinomianism, Hellenistic Christianity, evangelical Protestantism, gnosticism or Nicolaitanism.
In an interview Sept. 26 in the Sumner Suites Hotel here, Mr. Knight talked about the sparking of his interest in a study of "primitive Christianity," or the religion of the Bible in the days of Jesus and the apostles.
Present at the interview, besides this writer, was Ken Westby of Federal Way, Wash., who founded the Association for Christian Development and publishes New Millennium journal. Mr. Westby, who until 1974 was a WCG member, and Mr. Rose were on the speaking schedule at the 1999 San Antonio Feast.
"My study of primitive Christianity started back when I first joined the Worldwide Church of God," said Mr. Knight. "I had read a lot, but my knowledge had never passed the point of the Worldwide Church's understanding--Santa Claus was bad, Easter eggs and bunnies and so forth--and it wasn't until I entered the Columbia University academic world that I began to gain a deeper knowledge about the early church."
After his two years at AC, Pasadena, Calif., Mr. Knight attended the University of the Americas in Mexico for three years, majoring in archaeology and anthropology.
Then he worked as a reporter for two newspapers, including the Dayton, Ohio, Journal-Herald.
"Then I wanted to study more along the very lines that I have written about lately. So I picked up everything and stuck it in a truck and drove out east. I ended up in New York City, where I went to Columbia University for three years."
Mr. Knight left the Worldwide Church of God in the mid-'70s. When he moved to California in 1982, he looked around for a Sabbath-keeping church and located a congregation of the Church of God (Seventh Day).
"I found them to be a wonderful church," he said, "and am just very, very saddened and shocked about the recent trends."
In 1990 Mr. Knight married the former Rosita Sucag, originally from the Philippines. They have a daughter, Jessica, 7, and he has grown sons Jeff and Jason. They all live in the San Francisco area, where Mr. Knight works with computers and automatic-teller machines for a bank.
Mr. Knight began his study of primitive Christianity in earnest a few years ago after witnessing what he calls "warning flags" in the Church of God (Seventh Day).
"Whaid Rose wrote about three years ago that he was urging all of the ministers of the church on some kind of anniversary of Martin Luther, maybe his birthday, to preach sermons in honor of him. I said, 'What the heck is that all about?' "
Then Mr. Knight noticed a pamphlet published by Church Renewal Ministries, which Mr. Knight describes as "an independent organization founded by Whaid Rose and endorsed by the CG7 as its evangelistic arm." The pamphlet, said Mr. Knight, "essentially argued for viewing ourselves as part of the Protestant world."
"In it the writer, Bill Hicks, said that those who do not teach obedience to God should nevertheless be viewed as saved, based upon grace-alone principles," said Mr. Knight.
So Mr. Knight wrote a letter to Mr. Rose, who sent him a letter in reply.
"It was a very nice letter," remembers Mr. Knight, "but it was essentially a brush-off. Whaid Rose's only point was to say that he had observed people in the world who have a spirituality that makes him think they are saved."
After writing a couple of papers and showing them to the local CG7 pastor, Mr. Knight wrote a 130-page treatise on the history of lawlessness in religion before and after the time of Jesus.
He sent all 130 pages to the entire CG7 ministry in the United States, about 110 elders.
"It was received well by some and very badly by others," he said, "based upon whether they were in the old camp or the new camp."
The paper, said Mr. Knight, was distributed with a cover letter written by Roy Marrs. Mr. Marrs is a CG7 elder who lives in Lodi, Calif.
"After that first week, there was just absolute silence," said Mr. Knight. "Later we did receive some feedback."
The gist of much of the feedback from those who were critical of Mr. Knight's perspective was that the history of religious lawlessness and gnostics has little meaning for modern Christians. Maybe the gnostics were bad guys, but their history has nothing to do with anything happening in the modern world.
Lack of law
Mr. Knight believes Mr. Rose and some of his friends who are leaders in the Church of God (Seventh Day) "would like the CG7 to be a Sabbath-keeping evangelical Protestant church."
The Journal asked Mr. Knight to explain precisely what he thinks is wrong with that approach.
"The problem," he replied, "is that in evangelical theology there is no law. You obey God's Spirit working inside of you."
Mr. Rose's approach to religion includes "a lot of fuzziness," declared Mr. Knight, "and it's hard to actually pin things down. If you ask him questions, you get vague answers.
"I have never heard him say there is no law. And, if you press him on that point, he will very, very strongly emphasize obedience. But as far as I can tell he is speaking about obedience to the spirit inside of you. He will say, 'Well, since Christ kept the law, His Spirit will lead you into obedient conduct.' "
People who have started down the path that rejects the law of Scripture--the law based on the Ten Commandments--will still give money to the poor and will not steal or commit murder, said Mr. Knight.
"But, if you then try to equate those actions with keeping God's law, they will say, 'Well, that's not quite the same thing.' "
Mr. Knight, whether he is right about Mr. Rose's perspective on biblical law or not, believes studying the history of gnostics and gnosticism is helpful in understanding the "dividing line," as he calls it, between what is lawless and what is lawful in true religion.
"In modern times," he said, "it is true that it is not fair to call modern Christianity gnostic, exactly. But it is certainly gnosticlike. Christ did not say that the gnostics would survive until now, but He did say that certain teachings that promote a philosophy similar to gnosticism would survive, and He actually specified the mystery of lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians. Just look around today. What is the lawlessness that has survived until now?"
Mr. Knight says Jesus was specifically talking about the attitude of gnosticism when He warned about "Nicolaitans" in Revelation 2.
First and last
When nothing much happened after Mr. Knight's initial distribution of his 130-page paper, he set about revising and expanding it and sending copies to friends in other Church of God groups, including Mr. Westby.
Mr. Westby said he was struck by Mr. Knight's paper because he had coincidentally embarked on a major study of gnosticism himself.
"I was calling it the first great apostasy and the last great apostasy," Mr. Westby said. "But I didn't have anywhere the understanding of the scope of the revolution of the gnostic thinking that Alan has.
"Dr. [Charles] Dorothy [a Church of God elder and Mr. Westby's brother-in-law, who died in 1995] and I talked a lot about Hellenism and how the two churches were growing side by side--Jewish Christianity and gentile Greek Hellenistic Christianity--and how eventually the latter swallowed up Jewish Christianity to the loss forever of good, solid theology."
But it wasn't "Jewishness," said Mr. Westby, "that made early Christianity good; it was the beliefs that the Jews had that were a continuation of the Torah."
Mr. Westby said Mr. Knight's message is important for Christians who are interested in "getting back to the early faith."
"Christ didn't come to start Christianity," said Mr. Westby. "He came in the faith of His Father, Yahweh. Christianity was never intended to be a new religion, rather a continuation, with an expansion out to all mankind and a greater depth of personal, dynamic and living example, but with the same God, the same faith and going in the same direction."
Hellenism, on the other hand, "put a whole new spin on this Christianity, which in fact makes it very different and very hostile and alien to the Old Testament, which was of course the Scriptures of the early church. This is where the lawless element comes in."
Mr. Knight believes that 600 to 700 years before Jesus' birth a major reformation took place among pagan religions. This pre-Christian occurrence inspired a milieu that would prove to be partially compatible with Christianity--at least to the casual observer--and its precepts at least sounded spiritual.
"But here," said Mr. Westby, "began subversion of the truth of God."
Gnosticism wasn't fully developed during the time of the writers of the New Testament, he said. Even so, John wrote his letters against "protognosticism."
"So it was a major problem already in the church. I think what struck me the most in reading Alan's paper was going over some of the scriptures in Revelation about the seven churches and then reading what Jesus Himself said of the Nicolaitans: that He hated their doctrine."
Revelation 2, said Mr. Westby, depicts a "post-resurrection Christ giving commentary on living Churches of God and their doctrine and the direction they're going, and He says He hates it. Well, we'd better find out what Christ hates, and, if it's anything like what we find in our Christian world today, we had better hate it too."
Mr. Knight believes people in the Churches of God and in other churches confuse what he calls "natural spirituality" with the working of the Holy Spirit. Many people, he explains, intuitively know that certain deeds and attitudes are right or wrong, apart from any kind of revelation from God. Christians and even non-Christians such as Buddhists can embrace many worthwhile principles of living.
But such principles, says Mr. Knight, don't mean those people are led by the Holy Spirit or are true God-followers.
Since the Sabbath is part of the law of God and since antinomianism, or lawlessness, in Mr. Knight's opinion is not of God, does he mean to say that non-Sabbatarians can never be genuine Christians?
"What I'm saying is that lawless Christianity is not from God," Mr. Knight replied. "There's no hard and fast rule, but my own feeling is that I don't see why God would work through a lawless church, as I define things here.
"On the other hand, does that mean that if a person who has God's Spirit walks in the front door of a lawless church God cuts him off? Could a person inside of that church have God's Spirit?
"Certainly. But I don't think God works through a church like that to make new Christians."
The question of who is a Christian in various Churches of God or Sabbatarian or non-Sabbatarian groups is "unknowable," said Mr. Westby, "because only God can judge people and know whether or not He's given them the Spirit. We do judge actions and attitudes, but our prime focus isn't even that.
"I know that a lot of the people within the Church of God traditions have ventured out of the box in their thinking. They realize borders have been broken, and they have reshuffled the deck. They want to find out who are the Christian cards, and this is a challenge to them.
"But there is no mechanistic formula, and there is no cut-and-dried litmus test to do that on an individual basis.
"Where our concern should be, as Alan said, is to become the kind of Christians, followers of God, that God wants us to be. There we don't really have a lot of arguments."
But one argument does arise--involving the biblical doctrines of law and grace--that can properly summon Christians to battle, says Mr. Westby.
"Christ gave the church information they could act on, and His obvious advice in Revelation 2 was to get rid of that damnable teaching and get rid of these people you are tolerating because it's contaminating you and the church that He died for. These people were given actions they needed to take. A proper argument for Christians to go to war on is the argument about what is lawful Christianity."
The Journal asked Mr. Knight what he hoped would be the result of his book, which is to be published in early March by his own company, ARK Research. (Mr. Knight said Journal readers may order copies for the special price of $12 postpaid. Write ARK Research, 1917 Mount Hamilton Dr., Antioch, Calif. 94509, U.S.A.)
"Of course, I would like to see it spread far and wide," he said. "What I'm hoping is that it will help inoculate the lawful Christian world against the deception of lawless Christianity."
Mr. Knight believes Christians are in for rough times, which are nothing new to those who would follow God.
"The main thrust will be to get the lawful world to go back to the unlawful world," he believes. "After trying to talk us into coming back, I believe they will come with force, which Christ predicts for the end time."
Mr. Knight, who laments what he sees as creeping antinomianism in the Church of God (Seventh Day), says he is thankful CG7 members are freer to buck the trend than have been their counterparts in the Worldwide Church of God.
After WCG founder Herbert Armstrong's death, in 1986, his successors, the late Joseph Tkach Sr. and then Joseph Tkach Jr., have instituted what many Church of God members characterize as an antinomian stance on the biblical doctrines of law and grace.
"Folks can fight back in the Church of God (Seventh Day), unlike in Worldwide," Mr. Knight said, "and I think there are going to be some big battles."
The Journal asked Mr. Knight if he believes the Sabbath is required for salvation.
"I would like to answer that in a roundabout way," he replied. "That has gotten to be such a political argument. If I say yes, I'm a legalist, I'm backward, hard-nosed, etc., etc. But if I don't say yes then I'm saying it's okay not to keep the Sabbath."
The point of godly religion, he said, is that God wants people to obey Him, "which means to be lawful."
"And lawful doesn't just mean picking and choosing. James said you must seek to observe the whole law, which includes everything, which includes the Sabbath. I admit that it is theoretically possible for a person not to understand the Sabbath and for God to still work with him. But, if you have an unlawful attitude towards God that openly says I can pick and choose or I don't need law, then you're in big trouble with God.
"So the point is that it is vital to be lawful, and the Sabbath is a part of being lawful."
The whole question is "such a tricky, loaded thing. The unlawful world has so many trick phrases. We need to learn how to fight back against their deceptive arguments."
Pulpit of persuasion
Mr. Westby added a comment from "a ministerial point of view," as he put it.
"We should always teach the ideal and the whole wisdom of God, and that includes the Sabbath," he said. "But when it comes to administering the law we don't have that responsibility today. In ancient Israel they did. Our pulpit is one strictly of persuasion and holding the highest ideal.
"A lot of people, because of ignorance or because of incompetent ministers, don't know the full counsel of God. But, if they've lived sincerely and energetically with what they do know, God will judge them on a fair basis and can use them as well."
Mr. Westby is less tolerant of leaders who preach that Christians do not have to obey God's law.
"When we separated from the Worldwide, we resolved that the role of the ministry is to preach the highest ideal--not to force individual compliance of the members but to leave that between them and God.
"But, if you've got ministers and leaders and teachers who are teaching heresies, which would seem to be the case there in the church in Revelation 2, that is a different matter. There you have to take action and silence the perpetrators of heresy, and you can do that by removing them from the church or defrocking them or something of that sort."
Jesus and grace
Does Mr. Knight minimize the role of Jesus and grace in matters of salvation?
"I certainly hope not," he said. "The point is that the book that I wrote is about a specific issue, which is the lawlessness of the gnostics and how that has carried through into modern times. In many, many places in the book I explain how obedience to God harmonizes with grace."
The Journal asked Mr. Knight what he sees as the other side of the coin. Does he believe some law-abiding Christians minimize Jesus in their worship and are legalistic in their beliefs and practices?
"Well, that's the topic of my next book," he said. "The answer to your question is, in fact, yes, some Christians are legalistic and minimize the sacrifice of Christ. God's Word warns against these things, and with good reason."
The Journal plans to begin a series of articles by Mr. Knight based on his new book in the February issue.
For Mr. Rose's comments on law, grace and the importance of a Christ-centered approach to Christianity, see the interview with him beginning on page 1.
© The Journal: News of the Churches of God