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United Church of God elder
reports on recent general conference

 
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United Church of God elder
reports on recent general conference

by Dixon Cartwright
 

BIG SANDY, Texas--In May 2009 Ellis Stewart of Big Sandy, a longtime Church of God member and current member and elder of the United Church of God, attended the UCG's annual general conference of elders for the umpteenth time.

Mr. Stewart, 77, came away from the meetings in Cincinnati, Ohio, encouraged and confident that the church is doing a good job of accomplishing its purpose, which he sees, naturally enough, as fulfilling the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19 to make disciples.

Several interviews in this newspaper with Mr. Stewart, who lives here with his wife of 55 years, Pat, have touched on matters pertaining to the UCG.

The UCG elder has served as such since 1995, the year of the massive splits from the Worldwide Church of God (formerly known as the Radio Church of God and now known as Grace Communion International) that spawned many present-day Churches of God.

The Big Sandy resident's history with the churches goes back several decades to 1956, when Ellis and Pat were baptized at a Radio Church of God Passover service in Big Sandy, where they were visiting from their home in Liberal, Kan.

Later, beginning in 1960, Mr. Stewart worked in the printing department at church headquarters in Pasadena, Calif., then moved to Big Sandy in 1964 to start up the printing operations on the Texas campus of Ambassador College.

A few days ago Mr. Stewart talked with The Journal about this year's general conference of elders, which happened May 3-4 in a Holiday Inn in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Mr. Stewart here speaks about the conference in general, including the continuing discussion of whether the church's headquarters should move from Ohio to Texas, the new configuration of the council of elders, and this year's lively question-and-answer session.

Like a Feast

Question: How was the general conference of elders this year?

Answer: I always enjoy the conference. I get a chance to see people. It's almost like attending a Feast of Tabernacles.

Q: What were the main events this year? Maybe you could talk about the purpose or main themes of this year's conference.

A: The title of this year's conference was "Making Disciples: A Whole-Church Responsibility."

Q: What does that mean to you, Mr. Stewart?

A: Well, the church motto is "Preaching the Gospel, Preparing a People," and it's very similar to the motto. It's kind of hard to explain. Once God has called people, the church needs to teach them the biblical truths of Christianity, I guess you'd say.

And it's not only teaching. We as a church need to live that approach with those people and let it rub off on them, you might say.

You could also call it the work of God.

The whole purpose

Q: What is the work of God?

A: It's God calling people, teaching them His way of life. He ordains some of the people when they qualify for that responsibility or office, and then those people teach and train others that God has called.

You know our whole purpose is to grow and develop into God's character, to qualify. Qualify means showing love, fulfilling the Commandments, which is love toward God and love toward mankind. This then prepares us for the spiritual job that we'll have in God's Kingdom.

We're not sure

Q: What is that job in God's Kingdom?

A: Being kings and priests, and there's a lot of things we don't understand. But we will teach others at that time, the other physical beings who will live over in that kingdom.

We will teach them here on the earth the same things that we have been taught and the same things we have learned through the calling that God has given us.

You know, we're not sure what all goes on after the Millennium, but the Kingdom will never end. Then that way of life is going to be taught to the physical resurrection that takes place. I think we call it the second resurrection. There will never be an end to God's Kingdom.

We don't understand all this. We just see through a glass darkly what God has up His sleeve for us, for all mankind.

I've said a mouthful. I want to read this before you print it.

New council members

Q: What about some of the specific decisions that were decided on during the business meeting of the conference?

A: Okay. The main business meeting at the conference entailed our voting on the budget, the strategic plan and the new people who had been chosen for the members of the 12-man board, or council of elders, as we call it.

Mr. [William] Eddington was reelected. He lives in Australia.

A new person on the board was Scott Ashley, who I worked with for many years [in printing and publishing on the Big Sandy campus of Ambassador College].

Who else? Oh, yeah, Dick Thompson is back on the board, and Melvin Rhodes is also on the board.

Q: You knew Scott Ashley years ago?

A: Scott worked in printing when I did printing for the college. He also helped out at The Worldwide News, and then I worked with him when he worked for Annie's Attic [a Big Sandy company].

Q: Wasn't Mr. Ashley seriously injured while working for you in the print shop on the Big Sandy AC campus?

A: He did break this huge light table in the printing department. I don't know if he tripped over my foot or what happened, but he fell into the light table, breaking this huge piece of glass and cutting his arm.

It was a scary thing. He was fortunate that he didn't have permanent damage.

No running allowed

Q: Back to the general conference: Who was running for the council?

A: We don't use the word running.

Q: Why not?

A: It's not a political deal. You are not politicizing, trying to get votes, which is what "running" implies. What we do, we choose people we feel would be good candidates for the board, and we pray about those people, and each elder then votes for the people who have been selected or who are candidates for the job.

Q: But isn't that the definition of running for office? You make running sound like a bad word. Just what do you mean?

A: Running sounds like politicking, and we are not out like the world is trying to get votes. No, these people have chosen to serve on the board as a way of helping the organization out, and they're not politicking for us to vote for them.

Q: So you're saying there is no politicking that goes on behind the scenes in the run-up to the UCG elections?

A: As far as politicking, no, Dixon. I think, if I see somebody who's got a lot of ability, God has given them a lot of talent, foresight, wisdom. Then I'll choose that person to be a candidate.

I think hundreds of people could qualify, but they're not out there trying to--They're not out there kissing babies, letting their ego grow: "I want to be in charge." That's not what qualifies them for the job.

We choose people we feel would make good councilmen, then we all vote on it. It's not a matter of running for an office.

If someone is running, no one's going to get my vote for doing that.

Private thing

Q: So if you saw someone politicking you might recommend to a fellow elder that he not vote for that person because he was politicking?

A: No, I'm not going to tell someone not to vote for somebody or to vote for them. That's a private thing, and it is a serious thing. We were asked to fast and pray in trying to choose someone we felt would make a good councilman.

A paradox

Q: Surely on occasion elders recommend to other elders their preferences for who should serve on the council. Do you not think that happens, and wouldn't that be politicking?

A: Well, the safety is in a multitude of counsel. But you know there's also no safety in a multitude of counsel.

What do I mean by that? If you just go along with the crowd and they're all wrong, that's wrong, and you see so much of that politicking in the world that I think people think you can't vote without being involved in trying to get your buddy elected.

If someone has shown the fruits of God's Spirit in various areas, I will discuss that with others. I don't think there's anything wrong with saying that that guy's very sharp and I think he'd make a good candidate. But I'm not telling someone to vote for him.

Q: Isn't the very act of conducting an election and holding a vote a function of a political process?

A: In Acts 2 or 3 they chose a person to take Judas's place. They chose, and then in another place--and we need to look it up--they chose out some deacons for the church. They chose people who were qualified.

This was not somebody running for office. They picked these people out because of their character, their abilities, their wisdom to do the job, and these were the other apostles choosing one to fulfill the spot where Judas had been.

I don't know if they were all elders who chose the deacons or if it was just that the reputations of these men were such that they were chosen as deacons.

Now, is that politics? I'd like to look the word politics up. Politics, to me, is a worldly term.

Looking up

Q: I see here that the first definition in Merriam-Webster's 10th Collegiate is "the art or science of government."

A: We're talking about the government of the church, the United Church of God. Now, the spiritual body of that church is what God is developing in us, but we have to have a government in order to get the physical work done for the church.

So, if you want to call that political or politics, I guess you could call it that. But the world has abused the word so much so that to most people politics are the crookedness that goes on in the world, and we're not in the world. We're coming out of the world, and our politics is totally different from that in the world.

Q: In other words, we're talking semantics here. There can be a good understanding of the word politics and a bad understanding of the word politics.

A: And we're trying to follow the Bible definition of putting people, I guess you'd say, in the government part of the church.

Q: What else happened at the conference that I'm not thinking to ask you about?

Making progress

A: I thought all the foreign stuff was inspiring. Mr. [Ken] Giese does a great job of honoring the elders and their wives who had died during the past year. I did not get to attend the workshops. They were designed to train us as elders.

Q: So what are your latest views on the state of the United Church of God and the state of the churches as a whole? Are we making progress?

A: I think we're making progress. I feel that the spiritual growth in our leaders is deeper than I've ever seen in the church over these years.

Q: Why do you say that?

A: To me there's the spiritual growth in individuals. I'm not saying everybody's that way, but I see the expressions of that growth in many people. I see it in their speeches and in the way they live and talk and operate with others. I think we've got some really converted people.

Q: Can you be more specific?

A: Let me think about that and we can talk about it later.

On the move

Q: Was anything brought up this year about the possible move of the church's home office from Ohio to Texas?

A: Since last year's vote rescinded the first vote--last year's vote decided not to move to Texas--we have had to ask where do we go from here.

There is a committee that is supposed to give a report, I believe in August or maybe earlier than that, on where we go from here.

Q: What about other churches, the Churches of God as a whole? How are you feeling about the whole movement these days?

A: As far as I know, other churches were not brought up at the conference.

Q: That's not exactly what I'm getting at. I'm asking a general question about your current views on the state of the Churches of God, not just the United Church of God.

A: I've often wondered how does Christ look at all of these scattered brethren. I feel like there are very talented individuals in these other groups.

I belong to United, so I would hope that we are the leader for the other groups to follow our example. I've seen that the educational systems that some of them have worked up are terrific, but I think we have one of the best camping programs in the groups.

I don't attend with other groups, so I don't know exactly why they are the way they are. I think some groups have leaders who are very stern. I don't want to name names. But, you know, brotherly love is something we should have in all the groups, and I don't see that sometimes.

I see disunity, even within groups. I'd like to see us grow in love for our brothers.

Unity talk

Q: Is it a good, worthy goal for the groups to seek to become united in the sense that they should work toward all getting back together again?

A: I don't know how to answer that, Dixon. You talk about unity a lot.

Q: I wasn't aware of that. But there's more than one kind of unity. I do not personally recommend that groups make it a primary goal to physically reunite.

A: In the Kingdom we're going to have unity. At least that's my feeling. Christ and the Father are one, and I think we in the Kingdom are going to be one.

I say one. You know, we'll all be on the same page. I think we're letting petty little things keep us apart. But God is allowing that, and that may be a benefit for His church. I don't know.

I need to go back and reread why was the church scattered. I think God allowed Satan to scatter it, but why? Maybe it's because it's harder to destroy a church when it's scattered than when it's one.

How does Christ look at it? He's the head of the church, and He's the one who judges us.

Q: So how does He look at it?

A: I don't know. People have been hurt, and it seems like it's very difficult for them to get over the hurt. They're hurt from what men did in Worldwide, or I should say in our previous association, and it's hard for them to trust people. I think we should trust God with our leaders and not do so much attributing wrong motives to our brothers. That's where the politics stuff comes in.

Q: You mean politics in a bad sense?

A: Yeah. If I say something bad about someone, others won't vote for him. That kind of thing can be politicking.

This year's Q&A

Q: What did you think about this year's Q&A?

A: It was interesting. [For more about this year's question-and-answer session see "Q&A Lets Elders Sound Off, Ask the Hard Ones," beginning on page 1 of this issue.]

Q: Specifically, what did you think about Herchial Fisher, the elder from Jamaica, who asked a good question. He asked whether God had changed His mind about the UCG's move from Ohio to Texas.

The first vote went for the move. The second vote went against it. Yet the elders on both occasions had asked for and apparently believed God would inspire the decision.

Since there were two contradictory decisions, Mr. Fisher wanted to know if God had changed His mind or what.

A: God doesn't change His mind. I should say that God can change His mind. In the Old Testament, God changed his mind, but He does say "I change not." His principles don't change. But He did change with Moses.

But in the New Testament under Christ, and I think it's the same God but you don't have to say that, He is trying to get us to change our mind to spiritual thinking. You see, in the Old Testament He wasn't trying to do that with the Israelites.

We still haven't come to a consensus. We're not getting enough information on both sides of the question for or against to make a proper decision.

We're talking about a physical operation, moving a whole operation to Texas, and half the people don't think it's a good decision, and others want to move whether they think it's a good decision to move or not so that we can train people.

The whole thing has to do with how are we going to train people to become disciples, and what method are we going to use to train people. That's what the conference was all about.

Recreating Ambassador?

Q: Speaking of training elders and other church leaders, doesn't the church already have the Ambassador Bible Center at the office in Ohio?

A: ABC is not sufficient for what some feel the training program needs to be. There is not enough space to do all the various training we need to do.

Q: Is the church trying to recreate Ambassador College?

A: I think some of us are.

Q: So you're saying God does not change His mind. Yet you elders had asked, both times, for God to show you His will through the vote whether to move or not. So, since two votes went two ways, why doesn't that mean God has changed His mind?

A: It shows me that we have some work to do in understanding what God wants us to do because you've got half the people thinking one way and half another. Did He change His mind? No, His will is still being done, but He wants us to grow in seeing what is the best way to train people, to make disciples.

Q: Fine. But, still, why doesn't an opposite vote mean either that God has changed His mind or that the whole voting process is not what it was understood to be before that first vote?

A: It's not God's fault. I would say the reason we're voting the way we are is we're doing something wrong that we need to decide or find out.

What are we doing wrong? I think God is showing us that. Dixon, we're in the New Testament, not the Old Testament. In the Old Testament His prophets would have gotten God's will and taken it to the people. But He's trying to get us to learn His will in our own lives, and He wants us to grow in that. I just think we need to grow more in God's will.

Force may be with you

Q: So you're saying that there was something wrong with the voters or the voting? You're saying that either one or both of those votes were defective, and if they were not defective they would have both reflected God's unchanging will?

A: How does God get us to change, Dixon? How does He get us to change? He puts a roadblock in our lives to force His will to be done in our lives.

You're going to say that I'm saying that because both votes were so close God is putting a roadblock in our way.

Q: Since you're praying for God's inspiration, why would God give you a roadblock? Since the two votes were opposites, was only one of them a roadblock? Was one God's will and the other not?

A: Reporters keep wanting answers, and a lot of times they want the person to tell them, you know, what they want to hear.

Q: I have no strong opinion on which way the vote should go. I'm just trying to sort out your and United's philosophy concerning the political process.

A: I don't want to give my opinion.

What happened in the first vote? The people didn't have enough facts. But the people who gave the facts feel like they gave plenty of facts. Based on the facts we were aware of, we voted to move.

Later, when we had more facts, we voted not to move.

Q: So, since you had more information by the time of the second vote, it's a better choice to stay in Cincinnati?

A: Right. That's what they decided. So what did that tell us about God's will? I'm trying to figure out how I should answer that.

Is God the author of confusion?

Q: You asked a good question: What does that tell us about God's will?

One answer could be: It tells us that God lets you guys, you elders, come up with what you believe is the best course of action.

Another possibility: It's an indication that God has thrown you into confusion because you're participating in a worldly democratic process.

Still another possibility: God has changed His mind from one vote to the next.

Maybe the real question is: Does God micromanage you fellows or not? No matter what you guys decide, whether Milford, Ohio, or Denton, Texas, can't God make your decision work? Can't He bless a decision that He lets you make rather than micromanaging you?

A: Yes.

Q: And wouldn't that be a healthier way to think of how democracy should work in a church administration than imploring God to decide the outcome of specific votes?

A: He could make it work.

Q: Make what work?

A: Either way. Cincinnati or Denton. He could make it work. But I think He wants us to do more research. I think that's why the votes were so close.

I don't know if we've already talked about this, but there was a big deal involving Judas back when God was starting His church. Judas needed to be replaced, and they chose two people. Either of the two choices would probably have worked.

They cast the lot. Did God cause the lot to fall on one side or the other? Did He guide that throwing of that die, or would either choice have been okay?

I think either choice would have worked as Judas's replacement.

It's just like last year, Dixon.

Praying for facts

Q: What do you mean?

A: We set the government up for a consensus.

In a democratic system like we've set up to get the consensus of the elders, we as elders are not in a sense casting a lot, asking God to give us His will.

What we are doing, we're praying to God to give us the facts to make a decision. You've got to get the facts before you can make a decision. Is it better to move to Texas or better to stay in Ohio?

I feel like the facts have not been given to us to make an overwhelming decision one way or the other.

Whatever the majority wants the majority gets.

Q: Why does a decision have to be overwhelming? You need just one vote more than 50 percent.

A: When you're talking about $10 million just to get started, that's a big undertaking.

Q: Your need to get the facts before you vote still implies that you think there is only one decision that could work concerning the proposed move to Texas.

But couldn't God bless either decision you guys make, whether you decide to stay in Ohio or move?

A: The facts would tell you that.

Q: The facts might tell you that. They would not necessarily have to tell you that, because both locations might be entirely workable. Many decisions in life are a judgment call, a tossup.

A: Why would you want to move if it's a tossup?

Q: Good question. But the answer is you would want to move because the majority wants to move.

A: I think we're going around in circles.

Q: Okay, maybe we can try this again next year. Next year in Ohio, or maybe next year in Texas.



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