Which Church of God group is for you?
The writer and his wife, Joyce, are hosts of the Living Church of God's video group in Arroyo Grande. Dr. Thiel has written many technical and theological papers. The latter are available at http://members.aol.com/cogwriter/home.htm.
By Robert J. Thiel
ARROYO GRANDE, Calif.--"Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell in unity!" (Psalm 133:1).
Although the old Worldwide Church of God had imperfections, by and large pleasant unity prevailed among the brethren.
But what about now? There are probably as many groups (small and large) that have their origins in the WCG as there are denominations of Protestantism. Why? What, if anything, can be done about the situation?
Many blame the ministry, which is consistent with the warnings in Ezekiel 34 of bad shepherds. But is this the only problem?
"I am the good shepherd," Jesus taught. "The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them . . . My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me" (John 10:11-27).
Thus, although Jesus blames the hireling, He teaches that the sheep are to know and follow Him.
The book of Acts supports the concept that the Church of God started out united: "These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication," and "they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine" (Acts 1:14; 2:42).
Later Paul suggests this was no longer the case: "Now I plead with you . . . that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you" (1 Corinthians 1:10).
The differences among believers were often significant: "Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them" (Acts 15:2).
Many called, few chosen
Although many blame the ministry, governance, the Tkach group within the WCG, the leadership of the Church of God groups and other external factors for disunity, God holds each of us responsible for doing the right thing whether the ministry does its job or not.
"For I know this," warned the apostle Paul, "that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch . . ." (Acts 20:29-31). Also, "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12).
Since the death of WCG founder Herbert W. Armstrong, most who appeared to have obeyed during his life have fallen away. Why? It was because apparently they failed to prove all things and hold fast to what is good, as Paul warned in 1 Thessalonians 5, along with Mr. Armstrong's admonition to "believe what is written in your own Bible!"
It seems clear that most who attended the old WCG did not prove whether the doctrines were in fact true.
Even though Jesus also taught that he who endures to the end shall be saved, most who were part of the WCG have renounced what the WCG taught. Most are not members of what I refer to as the "greater Church of God."
This should not surprise us; it was predicted (2 Thessalonians 2:3).
John wrote: "For if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us" (I John 2:19).
Why many groups?
Although about one quarter of those who professed to believe have not renounced their affiliation with the greater Church of God, many different groups now exist. Why?
Other than leadership issues, a major reason is apparently that many who remain do not agree with some of the fundamental doctrines that were in place at the time of Mr. Armstrong's death, even though Paul warned, "Do not be carried about with various and strange doctrines" (Hebrews 13:9).
Most groups have renounced what Mr. Armstrong claimed was God's form of governance. Many have declared (or indicated) that, since Mr. Armstrong preached the "gospel of the kingdom" to the world, this either does not need to be done or at least it is not the leading priority for their group.
Many, if not most, groups have changed the belief in church eras and a place of safety. Many groups have eliminated tithing (or parts of it). Several have adopted a different calendar system. Several have gotten involved with the sacred-names movement. Several others have adopted Jewish customs and rituals.
At least one group claims to have a prophet. Another claims to have a way to decode the Bible instead of reading it as written. Many former WCG members, frustrated by the problems in the various groups, consider themselves "independent" and refer to those in the larger groups as members of "corporate churches." I should mention here that many of the independents have wildly differing beliefs.
Most remaining do not seem to think they need "to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3).
How can we be together if we do not "all speak the same thing"? (1 Corinthians 1:10).
Those of us who still believe in church eras believe that there will be at least three different broad groups (not limited to any particular corporations) during the end time.
Efforts at unification
Since, as Paul wrote, if we are united in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be in the likeness of His resurrection (Romans 6:5), it would seem that we should be united now, if possible.
Some public efforts towards unification within the fellowships are happening. The Bible Sabbath Association has long tried to cooperate with many groups. Giving & Sharing has as well. Roderick Meredith of the Living Church of God has publicly said he thinks it is shameful that so many groups exist, and perhaps, if doctrinal matters (and priorities) are resolved, unity can be achieved.
Now that Garner Ted Armstrong is no longer part of the Church of God International (CGI), it appears there may be more cooperation between Churches of God Outreach Ministries (CGOM) and the CGI.
The discussions between the United Church of God (UCG) and the Church of God, a Christian Fellowship (CGCF), do not surprise me because I have long thought that the two groups may eventually merge.
However, the following comment in a publicly disclosed letter from the UCG's board to the CGCF's board (dated May 10, 2000) was a surprise:
"Many have asked the question in recent years, 'Why do people who believe the same doctrines assemble in different places and refuse to meet together?' We need to answer this question. At recent Feasts members and ministers of both of our churches have enjoyed fellowship, combined youth activities, talent shows, and visiting for services. It has been recognized by most of us that our common heritage remains strong, our teachings and understanding of God's word are the same, and what differences remain are primarily a matter of perceptions or past hurts."
Unless at least two of the people once on the CGCF's board have changed their positions on certain doctrines, the differences are more than "primarily a matter of perceptions of past hurts" because they hold to different doctrines in certain important areas.
Essentially, the UCG has done away with third tithe, has not officially taught that God is a family, has not officially taught that those now called will be God, changed governance (but so has the CGCF), deemphasized church eras and changed the priority of proclaiming the gospel (but so, essentially, has the CGCF).
(For partial documentation, see "In Their Words: How Are United and Global Different?" in The Journal, Jan. 31, 1998, which includes older quotes from the leadership and some of the membership of the two organizations. [See also a related article at the Web address cited in the editor's note at the beginning of this article.])
Lest I give the wrong impression, I am pleased that groups once affiliated with the WCG are talking and may possibly merge or cooperate. My only objection is that unity based on doctrinal compromise (which may happen if some of the groups merge) is not a good thing.
If, however, the doctrinal issues are properly resolved (and in agreement with the Bible and traditional WCG teaching). then unity is "good and pleasant." This is an excellent time for the UCG to officially declare that it will specifically hold to the teachings at the time of Mr. Armstrong's death on the aforementioned matters.
This is supposed to be United's official position, according to its founding documents; changes are to be made only by a three-quarters majority.
However, other than governance issues, none of the changes I have alluded to here were so approved.
Why are you there?
Irrespective of what happens in and among the groups, when was the last time you asked yourself why you affiliate with whom you do? Since the Bible is the proper source of doctrine (2 Timothy 3:16), it is from the Bible that information to help decide where one should fellowship can be found.
Perhaps the most fundamental scripture is in 2 Corinthians 6: "Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness?" (verse 14).
Jesus similarly taught: "Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name . . .?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'" (Matthew 7:22-23).
Thus one should not be part of a group that practices or teaches lawlessness.
The Bible shows that one should not make his religious decisions on the basis of what family members decide (Luke 14:26). Jesus taught: "And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple" (Luke 14:27). Thus one probably should not choose one fellowship over another because one seems easier to bear.
The Bible indicates that financial reasons are also unacceptable (Matthew 13:22). That one likes the preaching style of one minister (or group) more than another also does not seem to be biblically sanctioned (1 Corinthians 1:12-13), nor does that one does not like aspects of the leading minister (2 Corinthians 10:10).
Where should one be?
Other than avoiding churches that practice lawlessness, other biblical guidelines give information on where one should be. Does the group contend earnestly for the faith delivered to the saints? (Jude 3). If so, great. But is this the only criterion?
"You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain" (John 15:16).
Thus individual members are to bear fruit.
Also, "beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing . . . You will [also] know them by their fruits" (Matthew 7:15-20).
Thus groups should be judged by their fruits.
"Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven" (verse 21).
What is the will of the Father regarding fruit? That we bear much of it! Thus whatever group you are affiliated with should be trying to bear fruit.
Jesus clearly indicates that this is not talking only about an individual improving one's own life: "For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel's will save it" (Mark 8:35); and "he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty" (Matthew 13:23).
Therefore it appears clear that one should be affiliated with a group that places a high priority of developing fruit through proclaiming the gospel. Even though I have heard some say that this is the job of the two witnesses (Revelation 11:3, 7) or the "third angel" (Revelation 14:6), here is what Jesus says to those who want to wait for someone else:
"Do you not say, 'There are still four months and then comes the harvest'? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest!" (John 4:35).
Although I think that the LCG has done the best job of publicly proclaiming the gospel of any of the groups remaining faithful to doctrine, this does not mean the efforts of those such as the UCG's Scott Ashley, the CGI's Ian Boyne, and Brian Orchard of the Church of God, an International Community, have gone unnoticed.
These men seem to have been faithful in their efforts to support what they believed the Church of God stood for, under what could be considered extreme conditions. Perhaps, if doctrinal differences can be resolved, we could combine together.
Unity in the Churches of God is still elusive. The desire for unity is not new. Paul beseeched his readers to "walk worthy of the calling with which you were called" and "to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Ephesians 4:1, 3).
Paul admonished unity and one faith. He would not have had to write about this had complete unity existed.
"Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers" (2 Corinthians 6:14). Although I strongly believe that most of those in the greater Church of God are believers, there are areas where many no longer believe what WCG used to teach.
The Bible also warns, "Can two walk together, unless they are agreed?" (Amos 3:3).
It is my fervent hope that those in the Churches of God will examine the teachings and practices of each group and will make their decisions based on biblical guidelines. This should be done irrespective of any discussions between the COG groups.
It is also my hope that the groups can examine each other's differences, agree to officially resolve them, resolve them to teach "the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" and unite if possible.
To help the matter, all members of the Church of God family should individually do the same. This latter hope, if realized, would result in true unity of the faith and maybe even organizational unity.
© The Journal: News of the Churches of God