But it touches many other topics. For example, especially for those members who had to go through the wrenching process of securing an exemption from military service on the basis of conscientious-objector status, this scripture easily reaches to the deepest aspects of their Christian identity.
The entire verse states: "Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God."
The accepted explanation is that, since ambassadors are really citizens of another country (the Kingdom of Heaven), they must do or not do certain things.
This explanation begs for someone in authority to rule on what is allowed and what is prohibited. Just like when Baptists or Amish try to define what games, beverages or vehicles are "worldly," such rulings are often arbitrary and contradictory.
We can find several flaws with this reading of 2 Corinthians 5:20. Most of them start with violations of the Church of God's own well-known rules for Bible study.
Bible-study rule No. 5 is find out what the Bible really says. Rule No. 6 is examine the context.
Who are we?
In implementing both rules I add: To whom is the passage addressed? Who are "we"? To whom are "we" speaking?
To answer these questions based on the context, the reader must go back to 2 Corinthians 1:1. There Paul said he is writing, along with Timothy. Therefore it would be just as honest to the meaning of 2 Corinthians 5:20 to write it: "Now then Paul and Timothy are ambassadors for Christ . . ."
Returning to the full verse, let me draw your attention to "as though." In the Greek-English Interlinear New Testament (J.D. Douglas, Tyndale House), based on the Novum Testamentum Graece, 26th edition, the Greek words here are literally translated word for word in English as "as [if]." Their full, literal, word-for-word translation of verse 20 is as follows:
"On behalf of Christ therefore we are ambassadors, as [if] God [were] entreating through us, we ask on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God" (brackets in the original).
Anyone advocating that all Christians who ever lived are "ambassadors for Christ" forces those hundreds of thousands of brethren into the very small group (the "we") that is beseeching the Church at Corinth and all of Achaia, to which this letter was addressed.
But verse 1 of chapter 1 defines "we" only as the authors Paul and Timothy.
The sense of this verse is: "We, Paul and Timothy, in our senior role, beseech you, the entire Corinthian church, to be reconciled to God."
Why beseech the church? That is answered in verse 21: so they, the church at Corinth, might become the righteousness of God in Christ.
If anything, the Church of God's explanation of verse 20 turns it upside down. If members of the church are all "ambassadors," it is nonsense to say "we" are just two people while insisting this makes the entire church "ambassadors," which would include the very people Paul and Timothy were entreating!
Fun with analogies
This is not to say that Paul wasn't stating an inspired analogy to say that every Christian, by his righteous example, is a type of ambassador for Christ.
However, in our rigor and honesty we must always remember: Analogies are properly used to denote similarity or essential resemblance. While doing so, they do not control, alter or--worse--replace the original idea.
For example, when Christ said He is the shepherd and we are His sheep, we must not think this means that Christians must eat hay. Christ's analogy does not make us sheep, let alone command us to live like sheep really do live.
As absurd as that may be, it is exactly what can come from making the analogy literal and then elaborating on it--or, worse, going further to make doctrinal decisions based on the literal sense.
Likewise, when Paul and Timothy plead with a church as if its members are ambassadors for Christ, that pleading does not make every Christian the same as literal ambassadors as defined in the early 21st century.
Just what do you mean ambassador?
In further harmony with Bible-study rule No. 5, we must ask: What is the meaning of "ambassador"?
Paul did not write the English word ambassador. He wrote the Greek word presbeuo (Strong's Exhaustive Concordance No. 4243). According to Strong's, that word means "an ambassador." But it also means "an elder."
When Paul penned presbeuo in the first century, did he mean "ambassador" as we define it today?
Because he could not possibly have known that meaning, it would be absurd to think so, yet that is exactly the position the Church of God has taken.
Webster's Unabridged Dictionary of 1913 defines ambassador as:
- "A minister of the highest rank sent to a foreign court to represent there his sovereign or country ..."
- "An official messenger and representative."
Tellingly, this edition of the dictionary is old enough to also have a definition of the word hell that allows us to glimpse the 1611 usage of the word cited by Mr. Armstrong. The following is from the same dictionary:
- Hell is "a place where outcast persons or things are gathered; as: (a) A dungeon or prison; also, in certain running games, a place to which those who are caught are carried for detention. (b) A gambling house. 'A convenient little gambling hell for those who had grown reckless.' W. Black. (c) A place into which a tailor throws his shreds, or a printer his broken type."
The concept of ambassador includes having some special extraterritorial protection. Special diplomatic immunity and status are a recent development in foreign relations.
The Wikipedia online encyclopedia, in its article on diplomatic immunity, states: "The British Parliament first guaranteed diplomatic immunity to foreign ambassadors in 1709, after Count Andrey Matveyev, a Russian resident in London, had been subjected by British bailiffs to verbal and physical abuse."
Previously, diplomatic immunity was inconsistent and often limited to guaranteed safe conduct when entering or leaving a country. This can be seen in the fact that the count was described as just a "resident" before the passage of the law.
It is safe to say that Paul could not claim diplomatic immunity under British law. Paul never mentioned the concept of extraterritoriality, which is the legal foundation for the today's special status of an ambassador.
Those who want to build a structure of implication upon his use of presbeuo must deal with the several cases when Paul's presumed diplomatic status was brazenly violated, such as he recorded in Ephesians 6:20: "For which I am an ambassador in bonds: that therein I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak."
It is a breach of status to put an ambassador in chains.
It should be noted that, in the few times Paul insisted on his legal rights, he did so only as a citizen of Rome, not as a diplomat claiming special status.
Defenders of the traditional Church of God explanation say he had "dual citizenship," a dangerously undefined concept.
This is a way of sidestepping the inconsistency of advocating we are "ambassadors" that must arbitrarily avoid certain aspects of modern life but cannot claim any of the modern benefits, protections or immunities of that office.
Curiously, these defenders dare not say that members are immune from arrest or that our homes cannot be the subject of normal search warrants.
We need your credentials
But let us just assume that Paul's status as an ambassador was just abused. Was he really an ambassador in the 21st-century meaning of that word? Not at all. Why? Because for a person to be accepted as an ambassador his credentials must be accepted by his host country.
Have any of us had our Christian credentials (if we can produce them) accepted by the governments of this world? Certainly not.
Of the organized religions on earth, only the Catholic Church exchanges fully accredited ambassadors with other governments because only that church controls its own sovereign territory, officially known as the State of Vatican City. The world's governments accept that church's credentials, but not ours.
Governments also consult with that church's ambassadors on topics of mutual importance, but they don't consult with us. The properties of the Vatican City state, such as Castel Gandolfo, enjoy extraterritorial status similar to that of foreign embassies. No similar diplomatic status has been granted to any Church of God properties.
We understand the concept of spiritual citizenship. Paul, in Philippians 3:20, says that our spiritual citizenship is in heaven. Unconverted people have their spiritual citizenship in the god of this world, Satan.
The very concept that Christians are literal ambassadors invites confusion and inconsistency because of how easy it is to be blind to the dividing line between political (civil) citizenship and spiritual citizenship.
Not a literal ambassador
Mr. Armstrong described himself as an ambassador without portfolio for world peace. It was rumored he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. World leaders praised him. Many dinners were given in his honor.
Yet an ambassador must be authorized by a country, must have his credentials accepted by his host country and is granted powers and immunities. Until those conditions are fulfilled, he is not an ambassador.
In Mr. Armstrong's case, by saying "without portfolio" he was stating that no political (civil) government had authorized him to represent it. He did not pass the test required of a real, literal ambassador.
Out of this world
Church of God members have not had their credentials formally accepted either. We say we are not of this world and that our citizenship is in heaven. Yet thousands of church members have affirmed under penalty of perjury the status of their citizenship when they applied for a passport.
The "Application for a U.S. Passport," form DS-11, states an oath that begins with: "I declare under penalty of perjury that I am a United States citizen ..." The oath must be administered in person.
Every church member, even every advocate of "We are ambassadors" and "Our citizenship is in heaven"--who has applied for a U.S. passport--has signed this oath stating he is a citizen of the United States. Even Mr. Armstrong signed this oath.
Has everyone perjured himself? I know of no Church of God that teaches that members cannot affirm that they declare this oath to be true. Neither do they prohibit members from being employed by very governments to which they are "ambassadors," a disqualifying conflict of interest.
Touching other topics
By now some readers might think I am preparing to advocate that Christians should go to war while running for president. This only serves to prove that this issue, like an ever-burning hell, touches other, seemingly unrelated, topics. If a church needs to substantiate a teaching, let it be done without the use of 2 Corinthians 5:20.
For example, there are stronger reasons to decline military service than being an ambassador. (See the articles in The Journal "Voting, Military Arguments Not the Same," Sept. 30, 2001, and "Was Old WCG Right About War for the Wrong Reasons?," Oct. 31, 2001.)
My plea here is for our obligation to intellectual honesty. If being intellectually honest causes conflicts with a topic or doctrine, that is the prime signal that there is an error somewhere.
A COG's recent ruling
One of the Churches of God recently ruled that members were no longer prohibited from voting. By using the example of a British ambassador, their position paper on this decision repeats the traditional explanation for 2 Corinthians 5:20.
The article you are now reading is about 2 Corinthians 5:20. It's not about voting or serving in the military or performing jury duty, and it's not a critique of any specific Church of God.
However, a good portion of that church's position paper on voting refers to members' ability to obtain conscientious-objector status, implying that if we cannot show we are ambassadors that exemption is endangered. This reasoning reveals the organizational bias aimed at protecting the traditional explanation of 2 Corinthians 5:20.
Voting has nothing to do with presbeuo. If voting is not a sin, then church members or leaders who find it something a Christian "should avoid" must honestly recognize that it is their personal or organizational preference.
We cannot correct an error unless we know the reasons the error occurred in the first place. In the case of presbeuo, a lot of private and collective undercurrents are at work, from self-identity to military service to voting. These hidden connections form our own "commandments of men," our traditions that we must recognize and deal with honesty.
Until now, our desired outcome for these other topics has outweighed our ability to acknowledge the 21st-century meaning of an English word, a word ripped out of its context and translated from a totally different Greek word penned in the first century, a word that is just as distant from us linguistically as it is politically, legally and diplomatically.