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Over the years, Church of God International
moved away from authoritarianism

 
Encouraging Communication among the Churches of God
 

Over the years, Church of God International
moved away from authoritarianism

by Wes White
 
Mr. White and his wife, Nancy, live in Big Sandy, Texas, and attend with the Church of God International in Tyler.

TYLER, Texas--The Churches of God continue to demonstrate their ability to divide rather than unite.

So say two ministers of the Tyler-based Church of God International (CGI).

In March 2011 Charles Groce and Vance Stinson, in a conversation with this writer, expressed their concern with what they say is a dangerous trend among some of the "breakaway" Church of God groups toward "cultism" and "mind control."

The following is excerpts of an interview by this writer with Mr. Groce, CGI board chairman, and Mr. Stinson, CGI editorial director.

Founded in 1978

Wesley White: For those unfamiliar with the CGI, could you provide some background.

Charles Groce: The Church of God International emerged from the WCG [Worldwide Church of God] in 1978 and was established in Tyler, Texas. It was founded by four former members of the Worldwide Church of God.

Garner Ted Armstrong was the president of the church until he resigned and formed the ICG, the Intercontinental Church of God, in 1998. [See "Garner Ted Armstrong and CGI Parting," The Journal, issue No. 12, dated Jan. 30, 1998.]

Since that time, the CGI has gone through quite a learning curve, placing an emphasis on the message of the gospel rather than its messengers.

The CGI retains a strong fidelity to the teachings and doctrines the organization had when it began. We advance our beliefs though our television program titled Armor of God and our congregations in the United States, Canada, Jamaica, Australia the Philippines and our affiliates in Africa.

Who was the founder?

W.W.: You say former WCG members founded the CGI. Is it not correct to say it was founded by Garner Ted Armstrong?

Vance Stinson: Let me speak to that point. Yes, it would be correct. Most everyone in the Churches of God views him as the founder. However, others were involved: Shirley Armstrong, Benny Sharp and Guy Carnes. All were former members of the WCG.

W.W.: Did the WCG disfellowship GTA because of his involvement in the founding of the CGI?

Mr. Stinson: No, he was disfellowshipped before he founded the CGI.

W.W.: What are your title and primary responsibility in the CGI?

Mr. Stinson: I serve as a minister in the local Tyler congregation and provide editorial oversight for our publications. I also serve on the board of directors.

W.W.: Charles, there seems to be some confusion regarding your position in the CGI. Some see you as the president or top man. Are you the president, vice president, pastor general or what?

Mr. Groce: It is correct to say I am presently chairman of the board of directors, a position subject to reelection every three years. We certainly do not have a pastor general.

If asked how I should be introduced, minister and pastor works well.

W.W.: Can you please give us an update on where CGI is at this time?

Where the CGI is

Mr. Groce: It's hard to believe, but the CGI has been in existence for more than 30 years. Those of us around in the late '70s and '80s can remember there was a lot going on in the Church of God movement then. It's easy to forget, and maybe we should, how traumatic those days were.

There was a crisis in leadership. Those in charge resorted to a primacy-of-Peter type of authority, and this quickly turned into spiritual abuse. The outcome was devastating.

At the time, the CGI was pretty much an unknown. To some degree, the same is true today.

W.W.: Why is this true today?

Some like to marginalize

Mr. Groce: In the late '70s and early '80s there was a perception molded by the [WCG] ministry that any group other than the one true church was somehow illegitimate.

GTA had been marked, and this negative branding not only delegitimized him but it also carried over to the handful of people who joined the CGI in its earliest days.

Growth came very slowly. Our viability was marginalized. In retrospect, we didn't fully realize how we were perceived.

The negative publicity circulating about GTA in the middle '90s further contributed to the questions about our viability. For understandable reasons, we pretty much dropped off the radar.

It's safe to say that the CGI of 2011 is different than the one three decades ago. Organizations can learn from their past. We have.

Paul explained there would be differences of administrations or service and a diversity of operations or workings. We've experienced what he referred to as manifestation of the Spirit, having learned a good deal more about demonstrating Christian love.

We feel our efforts to reach out to all people, including other COG [Church of God] groups, is what Jesus expects us to do. To that end we have cosponsored festivals with other COG groups and invited their speakers to speak at our services. We look for opportunities to bring members of the body together rather than keep them apart.

W.W.: When you say Church of God movement, I assume you mean the Sabbath-keeping Churches of God that can trace their roots back to the WCG. I assume that for some reason you are not including the Church of God (Seventh Day) in this?

Mr. Stinson: That's right. The Church of God (Seventh Day) was viable long before the WCG. And, since you mentioned the Church of God (Seventh Day), I think it would be remiss of me not to mention the courtesy of their leadership toward the CGI.

For many years many of us in the COG movement were told they were Sardis [a reference to a congregation on a mail route mentioned in Revelation 3], or spiritually dead.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. They--imagine this!--find it within themselves to speak honorably of different Sabbath-keeping ministries. We should do the same toward them.

W.W.: Just what do you mean manifestation of the Spirit? Can you give an example?

Using gifts

Mr. Groce: The use of "manifestation of Spirit" is meant to be understood as Paul presents it to those at Corinth. He's acknowledging their individual gifts, which reflect the Holy Spirit at work in them. He exhorts them to use their gifts.

He was not advancing glossolalia, or outbursts of unrestrained chatter or behavior, at church. If someone has a recognizable gift--let's say in preaching or being compassionate--allow them expression within the church.

Old-WCG doctrines?

W.W.: Are the doctrines of the CGI still pretty much the doctrines of the old WCG?

Mr. Stinson: Our basic doctrines remain the same. We have debated items such as the third resurrection and the two goats of the Atonement ritual, but we've made no formal changes.

Unfortunately, the CGI is sometimes accused of changing doctrines, or at least holding doctrines it does not hold.

For instance, according to a PowerPoint presentation apparently used in one of the larger COGs as part of its pastoral-training program, one of the doctrinal differences between that organization and the CGI is that the CGI teaches that tithing is personal and not a law.

I don't know where that idea came from, but it certainly didn't come from the CGI's official statement of belief and practice, which states plainly that the church teaches the giving of tithes because it is the law of God and that the withholding of one's tithes, which violates that law, is a sin.

I wrote to that organization about this and other misinformation in their PowerPoint presentation, but I haven't received a response yet.

No magisterium

W.W.: So how do CGI doctrines differ from those of other Sabbath-keeping Churches of God?

Mr. Stinson: We do not have a version of holy tradition or a magisterial office as a source of truth alongside the Bible.

HWA [Herbert W. Armstrong, who founded the Radio Church of God in 1927 or 1934] was a man of vision and did a great work, but he was not the prophesied Elijah.

Those who claim he was have created their own version of holy tradition which is similar to the Catholic and Orthodox view. Their understanding of Scripture is guided by HWA's teaching or the current apostle's, quote unquote, interpretation of holy tradition.

The guys who hold the HWA-was-Elijah view are trying to knock each other off the apostolic throne. This seems to be the primary teaching authority of the so-called Philadelphia church. [Philadelphia was another Revelation 3 congregation].

By contrast, the CGI and a number of the other Churches of God are much closer to the earlier years of HWA's ministry, when he opposed the primacy of Peter and the use of titles such as "apostle."

Those who believe as an article of faith that an infallible magisterial office was established in the ministry of HWA are being consistent when they insist that doctrines such as church eras and the place of safety are dogmas of the true faith.

But any group that believes that the Bible alone--sola scriptura--is our authority for establishing truth, as HWA did for at least the greater part of his ministry, has absolutely no business dogmatizing such ideas as those.

Philadelphia church

W.W.: When you say Philadelphia church, what are you referring to? Gerald Flurry's group? The sixth church as mentioned in Revelation?

Mr. Stinson: First, I have in mind the belief that the seven churches of Revelation represent seven successive eras of the true church and that the Philadelphia era exists today.

Second, I am thinking of those who believe their group is the Philadelphia church. Readers of The Journal will know which groups I have in mind.

Third, I'm referring to a mind-set that has grown out of the old WCG's Philadelphia-church-we're-special sentiment.

Generally, those who claim a special divinely appointed apostolic or prophetic office think of their followers as the faithful remnant and other COG groups as defective if not outright apostate--or simply as Laodicean. Read the ads in The Journal and you'll find examples.

It is a serious mistake to give such importance to an idea that is, at best, speculative. Christ Himself tells us what the seven lamp stands of John's vision in Revelation 1 represent. They represent the seven churches of Asia, and we're told precisely where the seven churches are located.

If we say the seven churches may represent seven successive eras, we must admit that the Revelator Himself does not say so. Therefore we must conclude that, at best, the eras view is a theory. It is not something we can prove and certainly not something we should hang our eschatological hat on.

Now, it is possible that someone will claim God directly revealed to him that the seven churches are seven church eras.

Okay, fine. But, if I accepted that person's claim as a dogma of faith, then I would be relying on a source of information outside the Bible. When I say we cannot prove the church-eras theory, I have in mind people who take the Bible as the only source of divine revelation.

Administration matters

W.W.: How is the CGI different in administrative matters?

Mr. Groce: We get this question a lot. People want to know how the CGI differs from United, Philadelphia, Living, etc.

It is easy to point out doctrinal differences where they exist. But those differences don't fully explain the corporate and associated member resistance to not only the CGI, but any group outside their own.

Some COG groups tend to avoid each other because they worry about losing their members.

We've experienced this when CGI congregations have extended the hand of fellowship to all COG groups within a certain area through a picnic, sharing speakers, etc.

Almost without exception, the larger corporate organizations resist or ignore the invitation, while some splinter groups are more inclined to participate.

We realize God's people are not a corporate possession. CGI members know brethren worship in organizations outside our own and can choose to associate and worship with them without recrimination.

Some members in other organizations who would like to do more with the CGI and other groups but feel they can't will often say, perhaps out of futility, they have to accept that it's going to be that way until Christ comes back and then He'll get us all together.

Well, it doesn't have to be that way. Let's not give up what God's Spirit moves people to do; let's give way to it.

It makes more sense if you really want to live Matthew 5, 6 and 7 to have cooperation now so we will be serving together then: when He returns.

Learning to serve

W.W.: You often say the CGI is learning a servant-leadership type of ministry. What does that mean?

Mr. Groce: Many people who discover the CGI tend to come from a hierarchical church structure.

By the time they come to one of our services, they have heard a lot about government from the top down. They have a perception that the minister is in a position of divine authority over them. It's as if they have been policed rather than nurtured.

Those in fellowship with the CGI find an emphasis on helping each other's joy. CGI members are encouraged to respond to their natural impulse for serving however they can.

The CGI is becoming increasingly familiar with servant leadership. We are learning to openly trust the authority of Scripture rather than blindly trusting those who claim they have authority over us.

Some people don't like the experience. Others do. From what we've observed, those who struggle with servant leadership don't understand how it works, or they haven't actually given it a good try.

We feel there is administrative guidance to Jesus' instruction in Luke 12:41-48. He taught the disciples that the faithful and wise steward was, and is, in fact the servant mentioned in verse 43. We are to be servants one to another, respecting each other's gifts.

We are discovering that primus inter pares, or first among equals, is a biblical principle rooted in humility. It is not competitive or jealous; it is complementary and supportive.

Walking alongside each other is different than having to walk behind all the time. Learning to trust each other is an eye-opener.

Approaching prophecy

W.W.: Many Sabbath-keeping Churches of God seem to have a totally different approach to preaching the gospel and teaching prophecy from what the WCG did years ago. Has the CGI changed in this regard?

Mr. Groce: I'll talk about preaching of the gospel. Vance, maybe you'd like to talk about prophecy.

Mr. Stinson: Sure. You first.

Mr. Groce: Like so many COG groups, we too are attached to the mission of preaching and publishing the gospel. We have booklets, Bible-study lessons, CDs, an Infuse program for young adults and a weekly television program, Armor of God.

Presently the telecast is viewed on two primary networks. In Canada we're on the Vision Network, and in the U.S. we're on Word.

We have a variety of speakers hosting the program, each with their own appeal and approach.

CGI supporters are drawn to Jesus' personal imperative to seek and save the lost. Our collective efforts are analogous to a community that's working together to find those who are lost.

Although each of us will go looking on our own, there is something to be said for looking together. There's no doubt that individual, personal effort is important, but look at what could be accomplished collectively.

It seems such a waste of resources to have so many organizations peppering the weekend television slots with their brand of the truth.

Some will say it's better that way. I don't think so. It's a proven fact that too many choices cause people to not choose at all.

Has anyone counted the number of God's true churches today? The lost see organizations clamoring to be the one and only true church. I don't believe that is what Jesus had in mind for a witness to the world.

Program for young adults

W.W.: A few minutes ago you mentioned something called Infuse. What is that?

Mr. Groce: Infuse is a program designed for young adults. It isn't just for CGI. It's open to young people in other churches.

The program is led by qualified volunteers who turn to the ministry for oversight. Their mission is to teach biblical principles and help young adults establish and maintain their relationship with God the Father and Jesus Christ.

The age-group that Infuse caters to is 18-30, but it does involve older adults who help support the program. Infuse members produce a quarterly magazine [called Infuse]. They maintain their own Web site, and they work together to serve their local churches and communities.

Collective impossibility

W.W.: You seem to think the Churches of God, including independents, should do more together. Is such thinking realistic?

Mr. Groce: Apparently, at least for the present, it appears it is not possible for the various Church of God organizations to work collectively together.

I've heard it said that church leaders are the problem. I can't dispute that reasoning. Too many leaders see themselves as being special.

Look at all the claims to being the end-time Elijah or one of the two witnesses or God's apostle. Where did all that come from?

Why do we have to be someone special? To my knowledge, no one today has proven themselves to be publicly gifted in prophecy or healing. Those who claim to have those gifts have, at best, a very spotty record.

If you want to find the special ones, look at the people we serve. They are the ones who have survived the gristmill of ministerial abuse, self-proclaimed importance, farcical predictions, cultic manipulation and hypocrisy.

The fact that a body of believers even exists is a miracle. Serving them is a privilege that has to be earned.

I wish there were some way for God's people to really work closely together. The collective voice would be substantially greater than the lesser voices that speak apart.

Going forward

W.W.: Looking ahead, what is the CGI doing for its future leadership?

Mr. Groce: The ministerial council of the CGI--the administrative body which responds to ecclesiastical needs--has adopted a program for leadership development.

This program, based upon personal mentoring and trust, is known as the Ministerial Apprentice Program, or MAP.

Those involved are encouraged to identify their particular gifts, whether as those who, as the apostle Peter put it, speak as the oracles of God or those who minister while using the abilities which God gives.

In broad terms, those are serving descriptions which speak to the competence of elders and deacons.

We have focused on discovering how these appointments are represented in Scripture.

Understanding the role of church leaders as well as that of church members has not been easy. We realized our perspectives were skewed because of decades-long exposure to controlling church authority.

Unfortunately, in a hierarchical structure the ability of deacons and elders to complement each other as they serve the church demands one be above the other. Our leadership is learning there is no elevated status to serving. We are to work together as firsts among equals. You learn to trust each other's gifts.

Do programs control?

W.W.: You talk about the problem of control practiced by other church organizations. Some might argue that the CGI's administrative body is doing the same thing with a so-called leadership program. Aren't leadership programs an attempt to control?

Mr. Groce: Some are, some aren't. Ours isn't. We provide a venue for men and women to come together to learn about serving God and each other. They volunteer to participate. They are encouraged to identify their personal gifts, those natural and spiritual abilities they have to serve the church.

Headline theology

W.W.: Vance, how about the question of prophecy?

Mr. Stinson: I think we have a more balanced approach to prophecy than in past years.

We don't do the Time magazine in one hand and the Bible in the other hand when we study or preach prophecy. We call that headline theology.

There is nothing wrong with connecting current trends with prophesied events, but we need to recognize that doing that almost always involves some amount of speculation, and we must be careful to avoid dogmatizing our speculative ideas.

When I look back through that big pile of Plain Truth magazines [published by the Radio/Worldwide Church of God] from the '60s and '70s, I see all those articles on things going on at the time. Just because some current event seems--and let me emphasize that word seems--prophetically significant doesn't mean it is.

Christians of past generations who experienced horrible plagues that killed tens of thousands, devastating earthquakes, wars, famines and what appeared to be signs in the heavens thought the end of the age was upon them.

Some set dates for the Second Coming. Others thought they could determine the general time of Christ's return. But they were all wrong. When it seemed that the end was in sight, conditions improved and time went on.

We sometimes think things couldn't get much worse. But actually they could get a lot worse.

But, by the same token, things could get a lot better. How do we know that conditions will worsen in the next few years? We don't.

An important message of the Olivet prophecy is to be prepared at all times regardless of the conditions we see around us.

Watch out

W.W.: So do you keep up with world events?

Mr. Stinson: I certainly do watch world events. I watch TV news and read magazine and newspaper articles on things going on in the world. I think people ought to be informed on what's going on.

But let's be clear on this. When Jesus said watch ye therefore, He most definitely did not mean to watch world events.

I remember being particularly annoyed by a statement one self-proclaimed watchman made. He said, "When I see all that's going on in the world, I couldn't take a steady diet of love, faith and hope."

In other words, he couldn't understand how anyone could focus on things like love, faith and hope when there were so many news reports that can be easily tied to various prophetic texts. The same watchman made fun of the CGI, claiming that we were no longer watching.

Given the long history of failed predictions, and the COG has had its share, wisdom demands that we stay away from dogmatism, and especially date-setting, when it comes to linking current events to cherished prophetic scenarios, some of which may turn out to be in need of revision.

How God calls

Mr. Groce: And let me add a point about the preaching of the gospel. We at CGI absolutely do emphasize preaching the gospel.

In our tradition we hear a lot about God calling people to the truth. It is critical to understand how God calls. He calls through the preaching of the gospel.

He may use other things: events in a person's life, etc. But we must not fail to see that God's calling certainly involves the preaching of the gospel.

The Holy Spirit acts synergistically with the preaching of the gospel. When Paul said in Acts 17 that God is commanding all men everywhere to repent, he meant that God's command to repent is going to all men through the preaching of the gospel.

When Jesus, in John 16, spoke of the Holy Spirit convicting the world, He didn't mean this action of the Spirit would take place apart from the preaching of the gospel.

The preaching of the gospel is the calling--or part of it, at least--and the preaching of the gospel is not merely an announcement about a soon-coming kingdom, a strong hand from someplace or the difference between the give and get ways of life.

It is an invitation to repent and believe. It is an effort to help bring people to conversion.

Make no mistake. God does the calling, as we've heard countless times, but He calls through His use of willing human agents.

No prescreening

W.W.: Many a COG group out there requires passing certain tests before you can be considered part of that group. Is the CGI that way?

Mr. Groce: Our fellowship is not exclusive. It is inclusive. It includes anyone in whom God is working, including imperfect people, and this certainly extends to all COG members. There is no screening or qualifying of new people.

It helps if we don't erect middle walls of partition as mentioned in Paul's writings. These are already broken down by Christ. Christ promoted acceptance. Maybe all of God's people, including church leaders, should try and do the same.

Not too long ago I came across an interesting question. The writer asked what does loving one another in the church look like.

Jesus provided the answer and a description: "By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one to another."

The writer who asked the question went on to say, "If the world can know we are Christians by our love for one another, the world can also fail to recognize us as Christians if we don't love one another."

Gandhi said, "I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."

Maybe it's time for all of us to try to look for ways to advance the unity expected in Christ rather than continuing to work only apart.

Discipleship is the result of a relationship. It's centered on Christ and each other. Friendship among Christians--yes, even those outside your own organization--may not be everything, but it is a place to start.

More like a family

W.W.: The CGI is a legally incorporated entity like most of the other groups, isn't it?

Mr. Groce: Although the Church of God International is a corporate entity, it is more so a family. It's been that way since 1978.

Our fellowship is a diverse group of men and women with a remarkable faith in Jesus Christ. Their examples of service are inspirational.

Christianity and discipleship are really about relationships. It's what people do to people, converted or not.

The CGI thrives where people are genuinely concerned for each other, not because they have to be but because they want to be. Time has a way of smoothing out the sharp edges of painful transitions. At least for the present, moving forward is a little easier than it used to be.

Contact info

W.W.: How can people find you?

Mr. Groce: Our home office is located at 3900 Timms St., in Tyler, Texas. Our weekly Sabbath service is held at 11 a.m. and is broadcast live over our Web site, www.cgi.org. Our office number is (903) 939-2929.

 
 

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