Chairman defends suspension, responds to grievance letter

By Dixon Cartwright

The chairman of the council of elders of the United Church of God on June 10 upheld the suspension of the duties of Garry Pifer of Bloomington, Ill.

Mr. Pifer had learned of his suspension from his pastor, Tom Damour of Mahomet, Ill., his regional pastor, Larry Greider of Troy, Ill., and Richard Pinelli of Cincinnati, Ohio, director of ministerial services of the United Church of God, an International Association (UCG-AIA).

The suspension came in April, three months after Mr. Pifer had led the Bloomington congregation in a Bible study Jan. 9 in which he concluded that the Scriptures do not require Christians to tithe. (For several related articles on the situation and an essay based on Mr. Pifer's study, see The Journal, May 31.)

Bob Dick of Everett, Wash., chairman of the council of elders of the UCG-AIA, responded June 10 to a letter Mr. Pifer had titled "Official Letter of Grievance" and addressed to the 12-man council. Mr. Pifer said the action by his pastor, regional pastor and director of ministerial services was a "clear violation" of the church's constitution and a breach of "clear biblical standards."

Mr. Pifer said that, because he believes the church's actions against him were illegal and unbiblical, he was asking the council of elders to "expeditiously" address the matter.

Above reproach

In his letter of grievance, Mr. Pifer said Mr. Damour's and Mr. Greider's initial reaction--his suspension--was illegal and unfounded because only the 12-man council holds the authority to suspend an elder's credentials.

Mr. Pifer quoted Section 4.3.1 of the UCG constitution, which says an elder may remain "a member and minister" of the UCG if "he is of good reputation and above reproach in his community, and continues to meet the scriptural qualifications of the ministry as outlined in 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1 and other scriptures." The determination of whether an elder continues to meet these requirements rests with the council, according to the wording of the constitution.

Mr. Pifer quoted Section 4.5, which states that membership in the general conference of elders may be suspended or terminated based on "biblical standards and principles."

He quoted Section, which states that the UCG is "legally bound to adhere to its governing documents."

"The actions taken by Tom Damour, Larry Greider and Richard Pinelli in deciding to revoke/suspend my UCGia [UCG-AIA] ministerial credentials are in blatant violation of UCGia's Constitution," Mr. Pifer wrote. "Their actions constitute insubordination as they usurped the duly appointed power of the Council of Elders."

Mr. Pifer quoted Matthew 18:15, about going to one's brother to show him his fault.

"In the case at hand, there was never any effort to follow these instructions [in Matthew 18] by any of the parties involved in the suspension of my ministerial credentials. I was not informed of the decision until after the fact. I was not informed of any concerns they had about anything I did or was doing. There was no effort to discuss the issues involved or to seek any sort of reconciliation. In fact, it appears this scripture is not understood. In a response to my letters, Tom Damour on April 23, 1999, stated, 'Let me say up front that perhaps I should have come to you personally and told you of the decision to suspend your credentials.' "

Mr. Pifer wrote that he hoped the council would address the situation immediately. Whatever the council decides regarding his elder's credentials, he said, he would abide by.

"If the legal requirements specified in the UCGia Constitution are adhered to, whatever decision made will be valid and acceptable to me."

Mr. Dick's answer

Chairman Dick, writing on UCG-AIA stationery on behalf of the council, answered Mr. Pifer in a letter dated June 10.

The chairman stated that it is the council's position that Mr. Greider, Mr. Damour and Mr. Pinelli properly represented the church's position in relieving Mr. Pifer of his ministerial duties. Their actions were "appropriate and done in good faith," he said.

He stated that the ministerial-services department has authority to relieve an elder of his duties in certain circumstances. Such authority is granted by a "council policy" under which pastors, regional pastors and ministerial services may "temporarily relieve an elder from all ministerial duties" if such action is deemed necessary "for the spiritual well-being, health, protection and unity of the local congregation."

A "greater issue," stated Mr. Dick, "is your clearly improper actions in giving a sermon that attacked the Church's doctrine on tithing, which precipitated this situation."

Mr. Pifer is well aware of the constitution and fundamental beliefs, said Mr. Dick, and his presentation "contradicted one of those beliefs."

No apparent contradiction

However, as reported in The Journal of May 31, Mr. Pifer's study (he says the Jan. 9 presentation was a Bible study, not a sermon) does not contradict the official teaching on tithing of the United Church of God if the official wording about the teaching is taken literally.

The only official statement in the UCG's founding documents appears in Section 2.1.18 of the constitution: "We believe in tithing as a way of honoring God with our substance and as a means of serving Him in the preaching of the gospel, the care of the Church, attending the festivals and helping the needy."

Mr. Pifer has publicly stated that he agrees with the wording in this the only official UCG statement on tithing.

"I agree that tithing is a way to honor God and a way to finance preaching the gospel, feed the flock, pay for the festivals and assist the needy," he told The Journal.

So what is Mr. Dick talking about? How can he say Mr. Pifer's "sermon" was in contradiction of a belief as worded in the statement of beliefs, which is a part of the constitution?

Mr. Dick, in his letter, does not state how Mr. Pifer contradicted United's officials beliefs, only that he did contradict them.

"Where fundamental beliefs of the Church are involved," continued Mr. Dick, "they are not open to public challenge or debate by an elder of this Church and can only be changed through a Constitutional amendment."

Again, what is Mr. Dick talking about, since Mr. Pifer did not contradict and has not repudiated the statement of beliefs or the UCG constitution?

Traditions of the church

Mr. Pifer recognizes that Mr. Dick is talking about the traditions on tithing taught by and adhered to by the Worldwide Church of God before the death of WCG founder Herbert W. Armstrong in 1986.

The United Church of God formed in 1995 as the largest split from the WCG because of massive doctrinal changes, especially concerning the nature of God, law and grace, and the Sabbath.

A booklet published by the UCG a few months ago does spell out in detail the traditional WCG beliefs on tithing as if they are the official teachings of the United Church of God.

Yet, says Mr. Pifer, "the only thing that's ever been balloted on by the general conference of elders is the statement itself, which is in the constitution.

"The fleshing out in the booklet, none of that's official."

1974 study paper

During a question-and-answer session May 15 before the Bloomington congregation, Mr. Greider said United's official teaching on tithing is reflected in a 1974 study paper produced for elders of the Worldwide Church of God. He also said that if any United teaching varies from anything Mr. Armstrong taught it must first be voted on by United elders.

"Mr. Armstrong based his New Testament tithing teaching on Hebrews 7," said Mr. Pifer, "but the 1974 study paper says Hebrews does not concern the law on tithing. [Council member] Leon Walker [in "Tithing Is a Fundamental Doctrine of the Church of God," The Journal, May 31] says Hebrews 7 wasn't about tithing; it's about the priesthood. Well, if Herbert Armstrong's writing is official, is Leon Walker preaching heresy?"

Mr. Greider told The Journal May 29 that "none of those 18 truths of Mr. Armstrong have been repealed," therefore the old WCG teaching on tithing is binding on United members.

Yet Section 2.1.18 of the constitution--which allows for membership of people who understand tithing as a command but also allows for members who see tithing not as a command but a way to voluntarily finance the work of the church--could be seen as a repeal of Mr. Armstrong's teaching on tithing.

As it stands, United's official teaching in Section 2.1.18 does not state that tithing is a biblical command, only that it is a biblical principle and a way to finance the work of the church.

Furthermore, Mr. Armstrong's 18 truths, compiled under the direction of his successor, Joseph Tkach Sr., in 1986, do not even mention "first tithe," although they do list "second tithe" and "third tithe." (For a list of the 18 truths, see The Journal, May 31, page 10.)

75 percent approval

In his letter, Mr. Dick continued his defense of the fundamentals of belief and constitution, even though, in Mr. Pifer's opinion, they do not state that tithing is commanded in the Bible.

"About 97 percent of us approved constitutional guarantees and procedures that are designed to prevent any one man or any group of men from changing doctrines and imposing those changes on the Church or to allow one minister to preach contrary to the beliefs of the Church as a whole," Mr. Dick wrote.

He noted that doctrines may change only after a vote of at least 75 percent approval of the general conference of elders.

This is not precisely true. The United Church of God recently amended its constitution to read that 75 percent of elders who vote in a given election may amend the constitution (see "Elders Pass Measure to Redefine Voter Base," The Journal, May 31). That figure could be considerably less than 75 percent of the total eldership.

Mr. Dick concluded by listing three things the council expects Mr. Pifer to do:

  • He must apologize to his peers among United's elders and to the Bloomington church for using the pulpit to teach doctrine contrary to United's fundamentals of belief.
  • He must agree to refrain from any further oral or written statements that publicly or privately attack, criticize or attempt to undermine any existing doctrine of United.
  • He must withdraw from further circulation or publication any such statements or articles.

No man, concluded Mr. Dick, if he wants to remain an elder in the United Church of God, "may unilaterally teach against our common belief system or attempt to undermine the faith of believers in this fellowship."

If Mr. Pifer cannot work within the proper structure, said Chairman Dick, he should not continue as an elder in the United Church of God.

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