Help the brethren help the brethren
and nonelders--of the Churches of God have a long history of kicking
people out of congregations who should not be kicked out, said a
United Church of God elder during the recent general conference
of elders here.
United elder Melvin
Rhodes, speaking to his fellow United elders and their wives in
the Holiday Inn Eastgate on May 6, said that, rather than training
loyal, faithful members of congregations to help their wayward brethren,
the policy followed by the Worldwide Church of God and other COG
groups has been to disfellowship first and ask questions later.
But, said Mr.
Rhodes, if some were kicked out for sins, then all should have been
kicked out, because everybody is a sinner.
Mr. Rhodes, a
pastor from East Lansing, Mich., led up to his points about trigger-happy
disfellowshippers by noting that the United Church of God's most-requested
booklet is Why Does God Allow Suffering?
the booklet, he said, not because they're concerned about suffering
in the world. Rather, they want to read it because they themselves
lives are in a mess," he said. "Their lives are messed
up because of sin, and they don't even know what sin is."
But people who
request the booklet are not the only ones who suffer. Sometimes
Church of God members suffer just as much, because of their failings,
as do people out in the world.
Sabbath services of the United Church of God who would not have
been allowed to attend Worldwide Church of God services 30 years
ago, said Mr. Rhodes.
to be perfect before you were allowed in church" in the old
WCG, Mr. Rhodes said, "and you were soon asked to stop attending
if you were found to have a problem. Emphasis was on punishment
found themselves tossed out of church fellowship in the old days,
he said, because of "smoking problems, irregular attendance,
wrong attire, depression, manic depression, failure to attend a
Feast, drinking problems. They were put out for breaking God's morality
laws, adultery, fornication, living together."
Yet, in light
of Matthew 9, was the WCG justified in ejecting such people?
Christ is calling sinners to repentance, why have we over the years
turned so many away?" Mr. Rhodes rhetorically wondered after
quoting Matthew 9:11: "Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors
Mr. Rhodes reminded
his ministerial listeners that the theme of this year's conference
was Ephesians 4:12, which speaks of the preparing of the saints
of God for the work of service in order to edify the Body of Christ.
A way to do that,
he said, is for the brethren to help each other through their problems.
The brethren, he said, should not condone sin, but they should do
more to help others in the Church of God overcome their sin.
Yet, he said,
many people, leaders and laity, in many Church of God congregations
are not willing to do that.
afraid, afraid of all kinds of things--afraid of being put out of
the church, for example."
6:9, he said, shows that the members of the Corinthian congregation
were conversant with each other's shortcomings.
But many modern
members will not confide in the brethren and ask for their help.
members struggle with personal problems they're afraid to share
with others, partly out of fear they'll be put out of the church.
We've all known couples who seem happily married, then suddenly
there's a crisis and the marriage rapidly falls apart."
Mr. Rhodes, who
writes for United publications and was a columnist for THE JOURNAL
from February 1997 until May 2000, said he recently wrote an article
for a United publication about pornography.
As a result "I
received a letter from a lady whose husband is addicted to pornography
on the Internet. She wrote to me because she was afraid to talk
to her pastor about the problem, thinking that if her pastor put
her husband out of the church this would result in her family breaking
Mr. Rhodes cited
several other examples, all, he said, involving people who have
attended Sabbath services in Church of God congregations.
o "A man
called and confided about his manic depression . . . He had talked
to a minister who told him not to seek psychiatric help . . ."
o "Two ladies
with strong feelings for each other were afraid to talk with their
pastor or anyone about their feelings . . ."
o "A man
attracted to members of the same sex [said his] pastor could not
understand how anybody with the Holy Spirit could possibly have
such feelings . . ."
o "A female
[was an] alcoholic ... What had caused her drinking problem? Rape
o "A single
mother was harshly judged by members. Again, rape was a factor in
her background and consequent depression . . ."
o "Two young
ladies were both guilty of fornication. One was pregnant. [The pregnant
one] was put out of the church. The other who was not pregnant was
allowed to remain in the church with her boyfriend. Perhaps the
fact that she was the minister's daughter was also of some relevance
here . . ."
God calls His own in this age comes from a background similar to
the ones Mr. Rhodes cited, he said. A church congregation and its
leadership should help people come out of sin rather than simply
automatically ejecting them.
Mr. Rhodes told
a story about an incident he was involved in 12 years ago on a visit
At an airport
in that African nation, someone came up behind him and touched his
around and saw before me this man who was a leper. Much of his face
was missing ... Bits of his fingers had also come off ... The man
was hideous; he was grotesque to look at."
So Mr. Rhodes
involuntarily flinched and jumped away from him.
day it still bothers me . . . that I reacted that way to him."
of God members can hurtfully lurch away from their brethren who
"Yet we have
to remember that we represent Jesus Christ. When people come to
us, if they see rejection on our faces, then it is as if Jesus Christ
is rejecting them. People will interpret it that way. They will
feel that their sin is so awful that it is worse than any other
sin that anyone has ever committed."
Who would Jesus
Mr. Rhodes cited
Matthew 9 again, about Jesus mixing it up with publicans and sinners.
He referred to
John 8, where Jesus is depicted as listening to and talking with
an adulteress after some Pharisees brought her before Him.
He quoted Matthew
18:21-22, which admonishes Jesus' followers to forgive others at
least 490 times.
He noted John
11:35, which depicts Jesus weeping for people rather than disfellowshipping
them for their sins and lack of faith.
He cited John
3:16 and 1 John 3:16, about Jesus laying down His life for sinners.
He spoke of Matthew
10, where Jesus teaches His followers not to reject one of God's
not a sin
Once, in a congregation
Mr. Rhodes pastored, he spoke with the members after a teenager
in the group became pregnant.
'Look, let's remember the sin is fornication; the sin is not the
pregnancy. If everybody in the congregation was put out of the church
who had committed fornication, how many people would be left? In
this day and age, not many.'"
Too many Church
of God people, said Mr. Rhodes, are eager to cast the first stone.
All God's children
Mr. Rhodes cited
these examples, he said, to make the point that Church of God leaders
need to educate the people in their congregations to understand
that they are themselves responsible for "a work of service,"
that the brethren "have a ministry."
have a ministry?
elders] have a ministry; they have a ministry. We are all to serve.
Jesus Christ is calling sinners to repentance, and we can all be
a part of that ministry. We all have a role to play in it."
When church people
commit sin, "it's going to require a great deal of patience
and time to work with them to help them deal with their sin and
overcome their sin."
And who better
to help them deal with and overcome their sins than their fellow
church members sitting in the same folding chairs in the same congregation?
of the flesh
Mr. Rhodes quoted
from 1 Corinthians 5, which he characterized as a scripture Church
of God officials have often quoted to justify putting sinners out
of the church:
such a one [one who had committed adultery with his stepmother]
to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be
saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (verse 5).
"We can see
[from this verse] that there is a time to put somebody out of the
church," Mr. Rhodes said. "I've done that; you've done
that. If someone is causing division, clearly they have to be put
out of the church."
But what about
personal sin as contrasted with dividing the brethren?
Mr. Rhodes said
the apostle Paul spoke the way he spoke to the Corinthian members
because they were tacitly and maybe even explicitly condoning the
a very liberal church, and the church members themselves were approving
of the particular relationship this man had with his stepmother.
So this is a particularly awful sin and one that was bringing reproach
on the church."
from fellowship is appropriate, "but I think we would all agree
that in the past we were too quick to do that.
the context of Matthew 9, where Jesus Christ is calling sinners
to repentance, [and in other passages] . . . it is clear that we
should be able in most cases to work with people and their imperfections
to help them come out of their sinful situation, whatever it might
A tale of two
A few years ago,
during an annual family weekend in the Cincinnati area, a local
United congregation had a "town meeting" for teenagers,
said Mr. Rhodes.
During the meeting
a young man asked, "Why can't all the ministers be on the same
"He was concerned
about his earrings," said Mr. Rhodes. "Now, I don't wear
earrings . . . Our generation did not wear earrings . . . This young
boy said he could go to some congregations and he could walk in
and sit down and be there for the church service and nobody would
make an issue of his earrings.
were other congregations where he was not even allowed in through
the door. Now, to him that was important."
A tale of two
Mr. Rhodes told
another story, one about the reactions of people in different cultures
to similar situations.
During World War
II, goes the tale, two men were accused of murder. The authorities
knew one was a murderer and one was innocent, but they did not know
which was which.
If the incident
had happened in Britain, said Mr. Rhodes, the authorities would
have said, "We don't know which one is guilty, and we can't
hang the wrong man, so we must let them both go."
If the situation
had taken place in France, the authorities, careful to make a show
of who was in charge, would have arbitrarily hanged one and let
the other go.
If the circumstance
had taken place in Germany, the authorities, taking pains to make
sure to punish the guilty party, would have hanged both of them.
Just as justice
was administered unevenly and capriciously in this story about two
men accused of murder in the 1940s, so at times has justice fallen
by the wayside in Church of God congregations, said Mr. Rhodes.
of a trail, what kind of a legacy, are we going to leave behind
us? How will we have equipped the saints God has given into our
teach them to be brutal, heartless and unforgiving, to be concerned
about personal glory and who's in control?
we have taught them to be merciful and just?"
Jesus, Mr. Rhodes
said, was merciful. "We should also be merciful."
arise, the United elder acknowledged, when harsh measures are called
for. But, "if in doubt, choose mercy."
It is true that,
if a church gets a reputation for being merciful, some sinners will
take unfair advantage of it. "They will perceive it as weakness,
as softness, on our part."
But the fact remains
that "most of the people" who were booted from the Worldwide
Church of God, and were then supposed to repent and come back to
church after having been bound over to Satan, "never came back,"
Mr. Rhodes quoted
the words of a man who had been disfellowshipped from a Church of
God congregation because of "human failure": "The
church that I go to now [on Sundays] is much more understanding
of human failure," the man recently told Mr. Rhodes.
to set the example," Mr. Rhodes concluded. "We also have
to educate the people that God has given into our care to understand
how they can help, how they can serve in this particular ministry,
how they can help when Jesus Christ calls sinners to repentance."
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