Congregation splits; UCG-AIA defends Pifer decision

BLOOMINGTON, Ill.--"Yes, there has been a split here," said a member of a congregation that until recently was part of the United Church of God, an International Association. "Even though we've had our share of disagreements, pain and frustrations, we are still family and friends," said Jim Stewart of Springfield, Ill.

Although the Sabbath of July 31 officially marked the first of separate Sabbath services, the congregation reunited after services that day for a congregational council meeting to finalize the split.

After the meeting the brethren "did the typical Sabbath thing, talking and fellowshipping for a half hour or so and then going out to eat together," added Mr. Stewart, who said he hopes the congregations will meet for church at different times each Sabbath to accommodate people who want to attend both.

Since the beginning of the Bloomington congregation in 1995 and its association with the UCG-AIA that same year, its relationship with the church's home office in Arcadia, Calif., and later Cincinnati, Ohio, has at times been uneasy.

The members--about 50 of them--have as a group considered themselves independent although associated with the larger international organization that is the UCG-AIA. The local group has been served by a council comprised of members selected by the congregation and the automatic membership of ordained elders including the pastor, employed by the UCG-AIA.

Controversial study

Events leading up to the recent crisis include a controversial presentation on tithing Jan. 9 by Garry D. Pifer, a Bloomington elder not on the UCG-AIA's payroll. As a result of his presentation, UCG-AIA officials took action by suspending him from his ministerial duties. Mr. Pifer's Bible study, given during the allotted sermon time, concluded that the Bible does not require a Christian to tithe.

Subsequent events involving Mr. Pifer, pastor Tom Damour of Mahomet, Ill., regional pastor Larry Greider of Troy, Ill., the UCG-AIA ministerial-services department and Cincinnati-based council of elders have been reported extensively in The Journal, in the April 30, May 31 and June 30 issues, including a printed version of Mr. Pifer's controversial study April 30.

Then, on the Sabbath of July 17, Mr. Pifer received a call from Richard Pinelli of Cincinnati, director of ministerial services, informing him he was suspended from attending any more services.

In spite of the directive, Mr. Pifer decided to go to church that day because, he said, he wished to attend a congregational meeting scheduled for after services.

A discussion ensued during the meeting that Mr. Pifer said was "very civil but sometimes animated." The congregation took a vote--or perhaps a poll, depending on whom you talk to--whether to stay with the UCG-AIA or sever its ties with the international organization.

Although the vote or poll went 19-17 in favor of independence, some who voted with the minority decided to remain with the international group. The local board, as a direct result of the congregational poll or vote, decided to remain with the original congregation; that is, to sever its ties with the UCG-AIA.

Inclusive understanding

To conclude its current coverage of the situation in Bloomington, The Journal decided to ask Bob Dick, chairman of the UCG-AIA council of elders, who lives in Everett, Wash., a question alluded to in an article about Bloomington in the June 30 issue. That article was headlined "Chairman Defends Suspension, Responds to Grievance Letter."

Shortly before this issue went to press, Journal publisher Dixon Cartwright of Big Sandy, Texas, wrote Mr. Dick an E-mail message and copied it to 11 members of the council as well as Mr. Greider and Mr. Pinelli and other officials of the ministerial-services department.

The question was as follows: Since Section 2.1.18 of the UCG-AIA constitution--that is, point No. 18 of the fundamentals of belief--seems to allow for an inclusive understanding of tithing and does not say or even imply that tithing is mandatory, why is there a problem with Garry Pifer's presentation of last January?

Mr. Cartwright quoted in full the section of the constitution pertaining to tithing: "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."

"This paragraph, as I understand it," said Mr. Cartwright, "is the sum total of United's official belief on tithing. Any articles or booklets are not official--and do not necessarily reflect United's official teachings--because they are not part of the constitution or bylaws and haven't been approved by the general conference."

Mr. Cartwright said it was his opinion that United's teaching on tithing officially changed in December 1995 at the general conference of elders in Cincinnati. Earlier that same year, in April and May at the Indianapolis founding conference, the church had temporarily adopted the teachings of the old Worldwide Church of God as its doctrines.

However, in December 1995 that changed, according to Mr. Cartwright, when the general conference adopted the constitution and bylaws. The new constitution included the 20-point statement of beliefs.

Only mention

The only mention of tithing in official church documents is in Section 2.1.18, quoted earlier in this article. Since the wording of that short paragraph "seems to deliberately allow for many perspectives on the subject of tithing," he said, its adoption by the conference constitutes a change in official doctrine.

"I am not stating here that I agree or disagree with Garry Pifer or the traditional WCG approach of mandatory tithing that includes three tithes," said Mr. Cartwright.

"I am making a statement here only about the rule of law: in this case United's adherence to its own governing documents. If the general conference wants to amend United's constitution to reinstitute the traditional WCG teaching on tithing, it has the right to do that.

"But until that happens it seems clear to a dispassionate reader of the constitution that Garry Pifer did not violate the United Church of God's official doctrine on tithing."

The UCG-AIA's other printed materials on tithing, such as a booklet that enumerates various traditional WCG beliefs, have not been adopted by the general conference of elders, said Mr. Cartwright.

"The short paragraph that says tithing is a way to finance the work of the church but does not imply that tithing is mandatory is the sum total of United's official doctrine on tithing."

The council's statement

Shortly after Mr. Cartwright sent his query to Mr. Dick and other UCG-AIA officials, Mr. Dick provided The Journal with a written statement in reply on behalf of the council of elders in which he defended the church's position on the situation involving Mr. Pifer.

For Mr. Dick's statement in full, see "Our Tithing Booklet Makes It Quite Clear We Feel Tithing Is a Law for Us Today," in the box at the top of this page.

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