United Church of God Big Sandy meets for first time after split

By Dixon Cartwright

HAWKINS, Texas--The Big Sandy brethren--254 of them, anyway--met the Sabbath of May 16 for the first time after the spilt that became more or less official only the day before during a meeting two United Church of God -AIA officials had with pastor Dave Havir in his home in Big Sandy.

The congregation--which usually has attendance of 300 to 350--met as scheduled at 1 p.m. in the Hawkins High School auditorium. The brethren, as usual, heard a sermonette, announcements, special music and a sermon. At first glance, everything was normal. To a casual observer, the attendance didn't even appear to be down, although the official count showed about 60 people fewer than usual.

The observant observer might notice a shortage of elders in the congregation. Big Sandy--which had been the largest congregation in the world affiliated with the United Church of God -AIA--had about 15 elders, including the United Church of God -AIA's president and three other council-of-elders members.

The congregation on this day of rest included only two elders in attendance: the pastor, Dave Havir; and Reg Killingley.

The Holy City

John Warren, a deacon, delivered the sermonette. Jacob Sutherland sang "The Holy City," and Mr. Havir gave the sermon.

Mr. Warren's sermonette was about Lot's wife, who should not have looked back.

"I would like to encourage us all today to look forward," Mr. Warren said. "We have a lot to look forward to, including the Kingdom."

He noted that the previous week had been "very upsetting and discouraging," but "we shouldn't be filled with fear or doubt."

"Lot left everything he knew behind," Mr. Warren said. "And I'm sure that was very disconcerting to Lot's wife, because she couldn't keep that command. She couldn't stop herself from looking back and turning into a pillar of salt.

"We know that God has promised to see us through to the end, and I hope that we can look to God and look to the Holy Spirit, and whenever we do face these trials that we will remember Lot's wife and look to God."


During the announcement time, Mr. Havir noted the "many different emotions" of the brethren during the previous two weeks during the crisis in Big Sandy.

After the decision by the United Church of God -AIA and the United Church of God Big Sandy to part ways, "some people were ecstatic," Mr. Havir said. But "other people are traumatized and feel very badly. One person described the mood in their personal life like a funeral."

He said that, if he had believed he had been the "fly in the ointment" in the Big Sandy crisis, he would have left.

"I would go and sit in my home and observe the Sabbath in my home. But I don't believe that's the case. I believe the philosophical differences are significant enough that I'm not really a major factor in the mix. But, if you all convince me that my removal solves the problems, I'm gone. No problem."

The pastor announced, for the benefit of any listeners who were not aware of the congregational split, that the United Church of God -AIA would be conducting services 22 miles away in Gilmer at 2 o'clock. He invited any to leave who may have been under the impression this was a United Church of God -AIA-sponsored Sabbath service, although he also said everyone was welcome to stay.

"In one sense," said Mr. Havir, "the way the council [of the United Church of God -AIA] interpreted their constitution and bylaws, they had no choice" but to separate. "So I'm hoping that they can consider reexamining their constitution and bylaws, and maybe some adjustments could be made."

Mr. Havir announced that the concrete foundation for the new Big Sandy church building was 60 percent complete.

He also announced plans for the Feast of Tabernacles. The congregation sponsored a small Feast site last year and plans to sponsor a Feast again this year. Also, if enough interest is evident, the Big Sandy church could sponsor an additional site, Mr. Havir said.

He announced that the Big Sandy congregation did not intend to operate as an "exclusive" church.

"Christians are welcome to attend our service projects," he said. "If we have activities like the day camp, people from other congregations are welcome to attend. When we have a teen activity like the teen semiformal dinner-dance, Christians from other congregations are welcome to attend."

Mr. Havir had earlier invited everyone from any congregation to attend weekly Sabbath services.

He referred to a meeting of the local board the previous Wednesday night. Board members passed a resolution offering an indefinite amount of compensation to the pastor.

"That is on the table," he said, but details of any arrangement to hire a pastor are "premature," he said.

The purpose of the church

During his sermon, Mr. Havir spoke about the purpose of the Church of God. He talked about the two reasons for the church: to feed the flock and to preach the gospel.

"Why in the world did God call you?" he asked. "Why in the world did God bring you to repentance, to go under water, have the blood of Christ cleanse you? Why did you have the laying on of hands to receive the Spirit of God?"

Even if some church members are in a different location or "different corporation," he said, "I do not for a minute think they've left the church. I don't think for a minute they've dropped out of the Church of God. As long as they have the Spirit of God and the truth of God, they're in God's church."

"People wonder if God is scattering the flock," he said. "I remember us asking this question back in 1995. I remember one day we were down in the Holiday Inn in Longview. There were 200-some of us there on a Sabbath day. It was my opinion then that He was scattering the flock; it's my opinion now that He still is."

Of the scattering, he said a thought that comes often to his mind is that "this is so unnecessary. I keep saying that over in my mind."

However, if God is allowing the scattering, "ordaining it, is it really that unnecessary? Or does the great God consider it a part of what has to happen?"

Mr. Havir quoted John 21:15-17 (about feeding Jesus' sheep) and said that he thinks more emphasis is rightly placed on feeding the flock than on preaching the gospel, but "that does not mean that I think the gospel should not be preached. It's just that I'm saying that my belief is that the feeding of the flock should be more emphasized now.

"Feeding the sheep is, to me, a main purpose for the church. It's a reason why we come together."

Attending church is a symbolic act that is a part of one's religion. "When we come to church it's to be fed, and we need to make sure what we're doing at church is feeding the sheep. We have to really dig into the Scripture."

Mr. Havir referred to the phenomenon of the currently splitting Big Sandy brethren as a "wakeup call for me."

He talked in general of plans for Big Sandy, including certain projects that might have been difficult to tackle while affiliated with a larger organization.

He spoke of women's seminars and Bible studies and Sabbath school and alternative Sabbath-service formats and an expansion of the congregation's tape ministry and even radio broadcasting.

He reminded the brethren who to call on in times of trouble.

"When the going gets tough, you can't depend on Dave Havir," he said. "You can call me, I can encourage you, and I don't mind providing help to you. But I'm talking about when you're fighting the greatest depths of depression. Then you can't depend on anybody. I'm talking about when you're sorely tempted to do something you should not do. You can't depend on any human being. You've got to depend on God to get you through those moments."

He said that the brethren's "allegiance must be toward God, and your repentance must be toward God. You must know what repentance is, and you must ask God to help you repent."

He talked about the sacrifices a young minister--himself--who had just graduated from Ambassador College 24 years ago had to make. But he minimized the significance of that sacrifice.

"I came out of Ambassador College 24 years ago very, very young and was given a good foundation financially. I worked up and got a free car, and I was out there visiting with people, talking with people. I have not had to live as the apostle Paul lived, of having scars on my back. I had some challenges three years ago and some challenges recently, but I didn't have stones thrown at me so I could barely walk and where people thought I was dead. I've not had any of that."

Mr. Havir said that the requirements of an elder in the Bible "are not what we have been expected to do." The sacrifices of a modern elder, he said, don't compare with the sacrifices described of men of God in the Bible.

An elder, he said, is "a minister of Jesus Christ. Every minister should answer to Jesus Christ. And then what am I to testify? The gospel of the grace of God."

No need for paranoia

Being an elder is not "just having a title," said Mr. Havir. "I learned in the last decades that titles don't mean squat. What matters is fruit. What matters is action. What matters is results. The messenge is always more important than the messenger. The words of truth are more important than the vessel giving the words of truth. God talked to a donkey in the Old Testament account, maybe as a cruel joke for all the ministers in the New Testament."

Mr. Havir said he serves as an overseer of the congregation, "but I'm only an overseer if you allow that to happen. In other words, any day that you stop attending this congregation, I'm not your overseer. It's not like I have this military rank over you; it's not like I have this aura over you. It's not a system where I get to control you, that you have to follow my every whim, my every freakish idea. It's a matter of following me as I follow Christ, which means you have to be alert. You don't even have to be paranoid; you just have to be alert."

Compare everything back to the Bible, he said.

He spoke about his immediate future in the congregation.

"What's my future in this congregation? Who knows? Will I be hired full time, paid by the local congregation? Who knows? Will I be hired part time to help this congregation? I don't know. Will I get another job like the apostle Paul and help you with any free time I have? Who knows? I don't know those answers."

Mr. Havir said he wished that, as a minister, he could be in a position to give financially to the people of God instead of taking from them financially.

"In other words, I wish we could somehow be in a financial position that we're not always depending on the people, but we could actually be supplying the support for the people. Maybe there was something to it in the system in the New Testament when elders were chosen, not from a college, but they were chosen from the congregation."

When an elder is dependent on an organization for his salary and security, "it can influence what he says," he said. "It's hard for an elder to break out of that. It's hard for an elder to buck that."

The ministry is "not about titles and rank," he said. "It's about service. Jesus Christ said so. Jesus Christ said those who think otherwise didn't know what they were talking about. It doesn't matter how many people think it's different; this is not an opinion poll; it's not a popularity contest; Jesus Christ told us was it was."

He talked some more of plans for the congregation: "I can't wait for our building to be done. I talked to some parents last night about our Sabbath-school program. We need to get that going. We need to have a more-focused approach to helping our youth. We've hurt them. We need to help them now.

"I'm going to be looking at and talking to many of you about the format of Sabbath services over the next weeks and months. I've been resistant to go against our tradition, but I think we need to look at things to see the best ways we can reach out to our youth, so please be thinking about those things.

"I've not wanted Sabbath school during church; I've just been against that. Some of that's probably been for good reasons; some of it's probably for emotional reasons. But I want to discuss lots of things. I want to let iron sharpen iron with the goal of really trying to help the kids."

He said that people with gifts of various kinds are needed in the congregation. "Some of you who have the gift of teaching, we'll need you. Some of you who have the gift of exhorting, you know how to exhort others. We need you. Some of you have the gift of giving. We're glad you're there to do so. Some of you have the gift of ruling. Again, that's organizing. That's serving. You can do it diligently. Some of you have the gift of showing mercy, and you know to show mercy with cheerfulness. We need that very badly right now."

He referred to 1 Corinthians 12. "The body of Christ is a spiritual organism. I don't mean to be offensive, but I have to speak the truth. Anyone who says it differently is preaching heresy. Anyone who says that their physical place is the only place, I'm sorry but that's heresy. Anyone who even says that their place is the best place--you're not going to hear me say that this is the only place where God is working. You're not even going to hear me say that this is the best place where God is working. All we want is God to be working here. We're not trying to be the best; we're trying to do the best job we can."

God is "getting rid of idolatry among His people," he said. "We have to speak it as it is."

Mr. Havir said that he expected the Big Sandy church, as an "independent but interdependent" congregation, to work closely with other independent congregations.

"We're going to find individuals who can help us, and we will find individuals whom we can help. There might even be times where certain of you may have the opportunity to travel to congregations and share talks with them, share time with them, share encouragement with them. Some might come to us. Someone's even been begging me to do a radio show, like Ron Dart does. People who hear the tapes that come from Big Sandy have said can you please do radio shows for us?"

Mr. Havir then said he doesn't come across on radio as well as he does in person: "To me, my greatest strength is live speaking. On radio I'm only so-so."

Preaching the gospel

He called for the brethren to be partners in feeding the flock, then he got to his second main point: preaching the gospel.

Preaching the gospel, he said, quoting from Ezekiel 3, is not limited to formal spreading of the word. It includes "our everyday contacts in life."

"In preaching the gospel, there are times to warn, but it must be from a shepherd's heart; it must be from a loving heart. Because if we do not warn with a shepherd's heart are we really doing the will of God?"

Mr. Havir said that Luke 4:18-19 is the most important scripture concerning the gospel:

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, so set at liberty them that are bruised."

"That's the gospel I want to be a part of," Mr. Havir said. "We have to reach out to the brokenhearted; we have to help the bruised. If it can be done with a congregation of five million, good. If it can be done with a congregation of 600, good. If a congregation of 200, 150 or 75, good.

"But we're not really wanting to worry about numbers. We want to focus in on are you preaching this gospel? Are you living this gospel? That's much more important than trying to talk people into coming somewhere, pressuring people into coming somewhere, making people feel guilty into coming somewhere."

Mr. Havir said that, in his opinion, "too many Churches of God are so busy building fences that they're not going out to try to find the lost sheep. I'm going to continue with the approach that I've had with you for the years I've been your pastor. We will not build fences. We will try to protect the sheep through feeding you well. We'll try to protect you, the sheep, by giving you the best information so that you're mature, so that you can spot heresy in a minute, that you can deal with those things and when you spot it that you're close to God and it will not take you away from His Spirit and His truth."

Mr. Havir said that, in a recent conversation with a member of another independent congregation, the man said: "You know a nice thing about an independent group? You can spot a person with an agenda a mile off."

"As a minister, I will try to help protect you," said Mr. Havir, "but the best way you're going to be protected is if you can spot someone with an agenda from a mile away."

He recommended listening to a variety of speakers and consulting a variety of sources as supplements to personal Bible study.

"I don't want to be your only source," he said. "I recommend to some people that they listen to Ron Weinland tapes. Get our tapes. If you like Fred Coulter's tapes, get Fred Coulter's tapes. If you like Ron Dart's tapes, get those. Find out what helps you. Supplement your Bible study. Take responsibility for your spiritual life and be fed. Studying your Bible is more important than listening to any tape, by the way."

He asked the brethren to "pray for all saints."

"There are saints all over the place, in the strangest places. Paul said pray for me, that utterance may be given unto me, that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel . . . Pray for anyone who preaches the gospel, whether it be someone who appears to be an evangelist or whether it is someone who is a little widow who's preaching the gospel in her everyday life by her example and her contact with people."

Mr. Havir closed his sermon with a poem:

"I asked for strength that I might achieve;

"I was given weakness that I might humbly obey.

"I asked for health that I might do greater things;

"I was given infirmity that I might do better things.

"I asked for riches that I might be happy;

"I was given poverty that I might be wise.

"I asked for power that I might have the praise of men;

"I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.

"I asked for all things that I might enjoy life;

"I was given life that I might enjoy all things.

"I got nothing I asked for but everything I hoped for.

"Almost despite myself my unspoken prayers were answered.

"I am among all men most richly blessed."

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