Essay: To protect your crown, hold fast! But hold fast to what?
The writer is publisher of Servants' News and Shelter in the Word.
By Norman Edwards
PERRY, Mich.--Many Church of God brethren use a scripture in Revelation 3 as the basis for their current religious life. I did this myself for a number of years. Here is the scripture:
"And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write, 'These things says He who is holy, He who is true, "He who has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens": I know your works. See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name . . . Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth. Behold, I come quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown'" (Revelation 3:7-8, 10-11, NKJV).
To me, as well as to many others, the admonition to hold fast in Revelation 3:11 meant to stay in the Worldwide Church of God.
As new WCG leadership began to change many long-established teachings, many brethren stopped holding fast to the WCG corporation, but began holding fast to the former WCG doctrines--and prophetic understanding.
A lack of meaningful discussions
In December 1992 I quit my job with the Worldwide Church of God to help start the Global Church of God so that I--and others--could hold fast to the former WCG doctrines and continue to preach them to the world. When the Global Church of God began, both Roderick Meredith and I fully expected that most of the faithful WCG brethren would eventually join that organization. We were both wrong.
Brethren with many similar beliefs are now in many organizations--and the Global Church of God is defunct. Nearly all Church of God groups claim to be following the truth taught by the WCG, but each has made a few of what it would consider to be biblical corrections to things it considers minor errors in old WCG teaching.
Yet most groups will look at the corrections made by other groups and claim that the other groups are departing from the truth. They almost never enter into meaningful biblical discussions with each other on these subjects.
Rather than walk down the endless road of trying to decide exactly which WCG doctrines are true and which need correcting, let us consider what Revelation 3 says. Does it command us to hold fast to a certain corporation, leader, doctrinal teaching or prophetic understanding?
Revelation 3 on holding fast
The verses quoted at the beginning of this article say that Christ has the "key of David" and opens and shuts doors. It is He who has and does these things; He is not commanding the church to hold fast to them.
What does Christ say that the Philadelphians of Revelation 3 are doing? Christ says:
We will consider each of these phrases. The meaning of some is more clear than others. We will start with the least clear and work to the clearest.
On the other hand, sacred-name groups claim this phrase means using Yahweh, Yashuah or some other specific pronunciation of the Hebrew names of God.
Still others claim that "not denying His name" means doing good works directly in the name of Christ or God, rather than in the name of a college, foundation or some other business entity.
I do not believe it is necessary to reach a firm conclusion on the meaning of this phrase. It certainly does not mean adhering to a specific organization, leader or set of doctrines.
Peter makes clear that we should do good works that even gentiles (unbelievers) can see and understand:
"Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation" (1 Peter 2:11-12).
"And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith" (Galatians 6:9-10).
How do our groups look to others?
It is easy for us to look back at the great amount of evangelizing undertaken by the Worldwide Church of God and to view ourselves as the heirs of that big work. But think about this. If you went to a restaurant to be fed, would you be interested primarily in hearing about the great menu and service that establishment had 14 to 60 years ago when its founder was still running it?
Would you be interested to hear about how its facilities had collapsed because its customer base is divided among dozens of competing restaurants?
Or would you be primarily interested in the kind of meal and service you would get while you are at that restaurant?
The answer should be obvious. You came to be fed. What kind of meal will you get?
Similarly, when new believers come to today's Church of God groups, how are they spiritually fed? Are they fed well? Or do they hear mostly excuses for their small size and attacks on other groups?
If we hope to understand God's will for our lives, we must be willing to think about how others see us and, more important, how the Eternal sees us! Please consider these facts:
Now, when a congregation or other group of members is mistreated, the members usually leave their present organization for another organization: for an independent group or something completely different.
But then, usually for many varied reasons, the number of people leaving the group begins to exceed the number of people joining it.
This writer has not heard of any hard evidence that God is miraculously working to unite the Church of God groups behind one leader (but would be interested in hearing about any; please see the contact information at the end of the article).
Yet almost no one mentions that most groups are shrinking and that, unless some great miracle occurs, these groups will never do a work much bigger than what they are doing right now.
Yet the leaders of each group want to be their own boss. We hear of almost no cases where a group's leader disbands his group and joins another, taking a subservient position.
Also, diligent brethren invite new believers to their homes, where they meet brethren from other groups and see the above problems firsthand. The political fighting among groups often speaks louder than the truths being taught.
New believers, searching for the truth, want Bible answers to their questions, not claims of church authority (groups ranging from the Roman Catholic Church down to one-man churches make that claim).
When a new believer asks a Church of God minister why his members do not treat these other similar groups like brethren and work with them, he or she almost never gets a clear biblical answer. This causes some new people, who were attracted by a corporate church's evangelistic outreach, to end up attending an independent congregation or home fellowship. Some give up on the Church of God movement completely after seeing the politics within it.
In another 10 to 20 years, 80 percent of the existing Church of God ministry will be well beyond retirement age. No consistent source of new ministers exists. To anyone considering these facts it should be clear: Unless Christ returns in the next 15 years, the Church of God groups as we know them will be all but gone.
What can be done?
I admit this is not a simple problem. If every corporate-church leader resigned, or if every member quit his corporate church, things would not suddenly be better. It takes time to learn and change. But, for us to overcome, we must recognize the problem, then implement a plan to change.
Can you find a scripture that clearly shows it is more important to cling to a specific church group, church leader or doctrinal statement than it is to help someone in need? Look at the conclusion of the letter to the Philadelphia church:
"He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more. And I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God, the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God. And I will write on him My new name. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Revelation 3:12-13).
Notice that the final reward is not promised to those who are in a certain group but to the individuals who overcome. Indeed, singular words are used seven times in these two verses. If we are to participate in overcoming the Church of God problems mentioned above, we will have to change, even if we feel too old and tired to change. Christ will provide us the strength to do His will.
Everyone involved can work toward a love-your-brother environment and away from a mine-is-the-main-church environment. Church leaders and ministers could begin teaching this to their congregations. Yes, it may mean losing their job. But do they not have more faith than the ancient Israelites? Do they not trust the Eternal to take care of them for doing the right thing?
Brethren can continue to fellowship and worship with others, regardless of group membership. Each person can say: "I will not reject, avoid or refuse to work with others whom I believe to be a part of the Body of Christ, even if that means being disciplined by or rejected from my present organization."
Although it may be difficult for people to stand up in this way, the results of everyone taking this approach would be outstanding: The organizations that would change and be willing to accept and work with other groups would retain most of their members and probably add others. (Some intolerant people would probably leave them.) These groups could develop an atmosphere of brotherly cooperation that would be a light to new believers.
The organizations that would refuse to work with other groups would soon have only intolerant members remaining. I hope they would learn from their decreased membership and the example of the other, cooperative groups.
But will all or any of this work?
Is not brotherly love something that the Protestants emphasize? Isn't having the truth and holding fast to it so much more important?
Actually, you will search the Scriptures in vain to find a place where it says anything similar to this: "The people who die having the most truth will be in the first resurrection."
Do you want to be in the first resurrection?
I hope so. I do. Many scriptures show the importance of our actions as individuals. What did Jesus say could happen to believers based on their actions? Did He say they would be raised either in the first or the third resurrection?
In reality, Christ gave four categories of what could happen to believers!
Christ's four categories
Yes, the above teaching differs from the old Worldwide Church of God teaching. But, then, the Worldwide Church of God teaching largely ignored this part of the Bible.
"Eternal judgment" is one of the six basic doctrines mentioned in Hebrews 6:1-2. But how much do we know about this doctrine? Are we sure we are in Category 1?
"We shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ" (Romans 14:10; 2 Corinthians 5:10).
What to do
When I finally left the corporate church organizations, I began to ask a question: What does Christ expect us to do? Independent and home fellowships are often accused of doing little or nothing to reach others--and that is too often true. So what should they do? What should I do?
Please realize that I am not advocating salvation by works. Christ forgives our past and present sins and gives us the power to do His will.
But does Christ want us to hold fast to a group and to doctrines, or does He actually want to do living works in us today? What should we expect Him to do in us? How will we be judged in the future? What can we do to affect that judgment now?
The Bible contains many scriptures on this subject. I have compiled many of them into a paper titled "What Does the Bible Say about Eternal Judgment?" It is available free of charge with or without a free subscription to the semimonthly newsletter Servants' News.
For a copy please write P.O. Box 107, Perry, Mich. 48872, U.S.A.; phone (517) 625-7480; fax (517) 625-7481; or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
May the Eternal help you to joyfully do His works, whatever they may be.
SIDEBAR NO. 1: Can right government eliminate politics and corruption?
By Norman Edwards
Some leaders often claim that top-down government eliminates politics: The top leader is chosen by Christ, he chooses the other leaders under himself, and no bickering or politicking is to be found.
Other leaders claim that some form of board, council or representative government is needed in order to have accountability for everyone and to prevent corruption.
Which of these claims, if either, is true?
I believe the answer is neither. People can play politics in any kind of government. The practice of playing politics is largely the deception of people with power to advance personal goals.
In a top-down government people try to curry favor from or cleverly deceive the top man and other high-ranking leaders to get what they want. In a democracy politickers try to curry the favor and deceive the voters as well as the leaders.
In any system of government a politicker often does these things: hides his own personal sins and shortcomings; learns as much as possible about the sins of others, either to help depose them or to prevent them from exposing his sins; and tries to make himself appear indispensable so others think he cannot be fired or voted out. No form of government can stop people from being self-seeking or deceptive. Change must be brought about by the individual and the power of God.
Similarly, corruption can occur in any form of government. All that is necessary is a person who is willing to do corrupt things who is either clever enough to avoid detection by subordinates, coworkers and superiors or to convince enough to climb aboard to support him.
Top leaders, boards, workers and even grass-roots leaders can become corrupt in any form of government.
In a system that concentrates the power in one man, if that man becomes corrupt then noncorrupt people have three choices: Put up with the corruption, leave the system (if possible), or attempt to expose the corruption in the hope that many will see it and the leader will be replaced.
In democratic and representative systems, procedures are often in place to identify and remove corrupt leaders. But, when numerous leaders are corrupt or when the people accept corruption as a way of life, this form of government is as difficult to change as one-man rule.
The fundamental scripture on government is Proverbs 29:2 ("When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when a wicked man rules, the people groan").
It applies to the way the Eternal rules the universe as well as to the way a child deals with a younger sibling.
For more information on government, from the Bible, request the free paper "How Does the Eternal Govern Through Humans?" (See contact information at the end of the main article, beginning on this page.)
SIDEBAR NO. 2: The story is true; only the names have been changed to protect the innocent
By Norman Edwards
The following incident happened in October. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent. (The innocent, in this case, are people still struggling with how the Eternal expects us to follow Him.)
Leona and her husband, Scott, attend an independent fellowship.
Don attends also, but his wife, Jenny, attends a Church of God organization that places great emphasis on government and human leadership. Even though they live half an hour apart, Don and Scott are good friends, and their similarly aged children like to play together.
In visiting each other's homes, Leona and Jenny found they had similar interests and got along quite well for many months.
But, after hearing many sermons warning about the dangers of "Laodiceanism," Jenny called Leona and told her she couldn't be her friend or consider her a sister in Christ and that she would no longer drive the children back and forth when they stayed at each other's house.
Leona did not try to argue the point but prayed that Jenny would eventually see what her church organization is doing to her and her family.
A few days later other business brought Leona within a few miles of Jenny's home, though she did not mention this to Jenny or her family. Leona decided to shop at the chain-affiliated food store there rather than at the one near her home (30 minutes away).
When she got to the checkout counter with $70 worth of food, she found that this particular store did not accept credit cards (even though others in the chain do), and she did not have any other way to pay.
Two aisles over, Leona was happy to see Jenny just finishing up her shopping! Leona asked the cashier to wait a moment while she asked her friend if she could help her.
Jenny gladly paid the bill for Leona and heard a rather impressed cashier say, "A friend in need is a friend indeed." (Leona repaid Jenny at the next available opportunity.)
Was the Eternal at work causing these two women to be exactly in the same place at the same time? Can we see that the Spirit of God places friendship and kindness in people, even though leaders may try to destroy those qualities to keep people in their own group?
It would have been easy for Jenny to have walked away or said "I can't do that." But her instinct was to be a friend when someone needed it--in spite of her church organization's warnings.
Yet it is almost impossible to convince people to depart from a leader who claims to be God's representative on earth--because they believe that departing from him would be departing from God. They believe that evaluating the leader's actions, no matter how apparently corrupt, would be evaluating God, which, of course, we should not do.
All we can do is befriend them, accept any friendship that is returned, be ready to talk about important issues when they are ready and pray that the Eternal will show them in His time. After all, it took a long time for some of us to realize we are responsible to God and His Word, not simply to a man who claims to represent Him.
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