Silly scenario points to radical solution to pod's problems

Mr. Knowles, former managing editor of The Plain Truth, published by the Worldwide Church of God, makes his living as a writer.

By Brian Knowles

MONROVIA, Calif.--In 1998 George Barna published The Second Coming of the Church. In the preface of his book he wrote of the Christian 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 300 ways to the middle be effective in the world? How can 300-plus groups [see a list of many of them beginning on page 14 of this issue]--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 way of life.

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 Sabbath Church of God (SCG), the Hardline Church of God (HCG) and the Church Formerly Known as Worldwide (CFKW).

Unbeknownst to the others, Mr. Crunchpit 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 SCG 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 is 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."

Nature of God

Then Mr. 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 someday there'll be millions, because God is a family," answers the HCG.

The SCG minister then gives his stock answer (whatever it happens to be).

Mr. Crunchpit is further confused.

Tenthing tonight

Then Cyrus asks about tithing.

"Oh, you must pay two tithes every year and a third one in the third and sixth years," responds the minister from the 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 SCG minister tells Mr. Crunchpit that the first tithe is compulsory, but the other two are not.

The United States of Manasseh

"Is the United States the tribe of Manasseh?" asks our hero of the SCG 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 HCG minister.

"No, we are not," says the CFKW minister.

Famine of the Word

"Between the time of the original apostles and Herbert W. Armstrong, was the true gospel ever preached?" asks would-be-Christian Crunchpit.

"No," responds the Hardline minister.

"Yes," respond the SCG and CFKW ministers in unison. "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 Hardline minister.

"Yes, they are true Christians," says the SCG 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."

Divided microcosm

"I'm thoroughly confused," Cyrus sighs. "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."

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 ministers' 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 Crunchpitean queries. But they are close enough to illustrate the point.

The Churches of God pod is a house doctrinally divided against itself. Worse, its members are only a microcosm of the larger Christianity 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?

The Crunchpit dilemma

Cyrus Crunchpit is a typical non-Christian who has studied the Bible little and would have great difficulty sorting out 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.

Nowhere land

In light of this, how can we not think of the words of 1 Corinthians 14:8: "For if the trumpet [the shofar] makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare himself for battle?"

If Mr. 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 this was openly stated or not).

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 who don't hold them.

Laboring in the Word

As I compare the doctrines and truth claims of the various Churches of God, I find 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 such people do not begin to agree among themselves. They appear to be blind guides of the blind--at least from Mr. 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 such discussions could take place, much would be at stake.

The greatest fear among leaders is a loss of member support and the subsequent exodus of tithe dollars from denominational coffers. Try getting past that one!

I realize that almost everyone would deny having any such motive. With one voice they 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."

Furthermore, all believe they are 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 the situation devolves into an emotional discussion and much righteous posturing. Statements beginning "Well, as I see it . . ." are heard a lot. People take stands. They posture and pose. They lower voices and turn up the volume for emphasis.

Saddest of all, people who genuinely search 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 principal 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 turn out to be good or bad.

A radical four-pointed 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, intercongregational or denominational exchange would be 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 differences. Make a commitment to stick with regularly scheduled meetings until the differences are eliminated.
  • Immediately upon agreement, publish the results of the discussions in joint communiques.
  • 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 divided in the first place.

Fat chance

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. 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, 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.

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