Melbourne West splits; half form new congregation

The writer, who manages computer services for the bureau of tourism research in Canberra, the capital of Australia, has been a member of the Canberra congregation of the United Church of God since early 1996. He and his wife, Cindy, a Minnesota native, have been married nine years.

Mr. Steensby holds a bachelor's degree in town planning and a master's in science-and-technology studies, both from the University of New South Wales, Sydney. Mr. Steensby, 48, became a member of the Worldwide Church of God in 1986. Born in India of Norwegian and Australian parents, he receives

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By Walter Steensb y

MELBOURNE, Australia-After an acutely painful time for many, a new congregation, the Church of God at Williamstown (CGW), has come into existence after the recent decision by about half of the Melbourne West congregation of the United Church of God­Australia to disassociate itself from the United Church of God, an International Association, with its main office in Arcadia, Calif.

This is the first such trial that the UCG in Australia has endured. It has not been an easy time for any involved, and may have repercussions for a long time to come.

Although there is ready acknowledgment by each side that it has made mistakes and is not perfect, there are sharply differing perceptions between the parties of just what was the main issue and of how it should have been dealt with.

Origins of the proble m

The roots of the meeting to decide to disassociate can be traced back to 1989, when Orest Solyma, then a pastor with the Worldwide Church of God, was motivated, he says, to research more deeply into the "spirit in man." His research at that time included the nature of God, tithing, modern Israel and predestination.

Not all the current UCG-Australia ministry had known of Mr. Solyma's views on these matters, even though he had been developing them over a long period.

The recent problem began about 10 months ago when it became more obvious to the Melbourne West congregation that Mr. Solyma had been conducting research and had sent some of it to the UCG's council of elders and others in the United States. Although he did not actively teach any of his conclusions, he did offer to provide material and discuss the topics with anyone who was interested.

The legal profession well knows that two people can be witnesses to the same event and yet hold different views in their memories of what happened. It is the same in Orest Solyma's case.

Some people are convinced that Mr. Solyma was entirely open and honest; others are equally adamant that he "preached by stealth and was deceptive."

Some are convinced that it was common knowledge that he held what he calls "unitarian" views concerning the nature of God and Christ-in other words, that the Son was created by the Father-whereas the chairman of the UCG's national council in Australia, Bruce Dean, states that he and other council members had for some time tried to clarify with Mr. Solyma his beliefs and opinions, but with no success.

On July 19, 1996, the pastoral committee of Melbourne West met in Melbourne and discussed with Mr. Solyma the doctrinal differences he held as compared with the teachings of the United Church of God and its stated fundamental beliefs. It asked him to clarify publicly his beliefs to the Melbourne West congregation, which he did in a sermon Nov. 16.

It was agreed that the tape of this sermon would be provided to the pastoral committee for its members' assessment.

Mr. Solyma states that he was reluctant to deliver the sermon, fearing that making the matter so public would only aggravate the situation in the congregation and around the country.

The sermon not only failed to quell the rumors, it fed them. By late 1996 the volume of rumor and gossip regarding Mr. Solyma personally, what he believed and what he supposedly believed had grown large and distressing to many in the church areas of Brisbane, the Gold Coast, Sydney and Melbourne.

In early 1997, 30 members stopped attending Melbourne West and began to attend other United congregations. They were advised that, although they were welcome to attend in other areas and although they would be served and helped, their primary fellowship still lay in West.

Mr. Dean visited Melbourne West Jan. 17-20 to talk to all sides within the congregation in an open forum after services. This was followed by a meeting of full-time Australian elders in Sydney Jan. 31. A planned second meeting with the pastoral committee was changed to one with the national council in February 1997, but for lack of time the discussion was cut short.

Because of the gravity of the situation and since little progress was being made, the matter was referred to the national council for an extraordinary meeting to be convened and for some resolution to be achieved.

Extraordinary general meetin g

A notice was sent to members of the three Melbourne congregations. It was on the letterhead of "United Church of God­Australia, National Council." It called for a "Special or Extraordinary Meeting" in Melbourne for "22-23 March 1997."

It was titled "Defining the Issue for Review" and "Division in the Melbourne West Congregation."

The letter stated:

"The Melbourne West congregation has, for some time, been in a situation of stress and turmoil, so much so that about 30 members and families have left to attend the Melbourne East or Ballarat congregations.

"In addition, a number of members have written letters, telephoned, or sent e-mails to the Chairman of the Pastoral Committee explaining their anxiety and distress about the situation in the Melbourne West congregation. A few have also communicated with the National Office and members of the National Council.

"Major Contributing Causes for the Division:

"1) A major contributing cause for this division is understood to emanate from perceived doctrinal differences held, and taught by, our Melbourne West pastor, Orest Solyma-doctrinal positions different to that of the Fundamental Beliefs of the United Church of God, an International Association.

"A core doctrinal position behind some of the apparent doctrinal variations is Orest's personal belief regarding the nature of Jesus Christ-that Christ is the created messenger of God. This teaching is not in harmony with the United Church of God Fundamental Beliefs (Article 2.1.1).

"2) There is a perceived lack of support for tithing as stated in the United Church of God Fundamental Beliefs (Article 2.1.18).

"3) It is perceived that Orest has spoken with some members of the Melbourne West congregation about some of his doctrinal differences and this has contributed to the division.

"4) There is a perceived position held by Orest, and some in the Melbourne West congregation, that it is not necessary to be part of any organisation which has a 'man-made statement of beliefs, or constitution' and, as a result, this has created doubt regarding support for the United Church of God."

The letter then summarized:

"The primary issue for review by the National Council is the perceived doctrinal differences held, and taught, by our pastor, Orest Solyma, and any others in the Melbourne West congregation, when compared to the United Church of God Fundamental Beliefs as stated in the Constitution.

"A secondary, and related, issue is the perceived lack of adherence to the Ministerial Code of Ethics, specifically the statement where ministers of the United Church of God affirm a commitment to uphold the Church's Fundamental Beliefs."

No debate allowe d

One of the rules of conduct of the meeting was that it was not to be a debate on doctrine, because the doctrines of the United Church of God are defined in its statement of fundamental beliefs.

The meeting started Saturday night at 7:30 and concluded five hours later. It reconvened Sunday morning at 9 and finished hearing submissions from members at 1 p.m. The rest of the afternoon until 7:30 was spent going over the entire matter with Mr. Solyma.

About two thirds of the personal submissions were made by pro-Solyma members of West. The disaffected members felt that enough of their position had been made known by their submissions to Mr. Dean, primarily by telephone.

However, by Saturday afternoon they decided that it would be best to appear before the meeting even though they had not been scheduled to appear. Thirteen people turned up and were heard that night as a group.

Again, there is a sharp division in perceptions of motives between the two camps. The unhappy members feel that it would have been wrong for them not have made a submission to the inquiry. The other camp feels that this submission should not have been heard because it had never been scheduled.

The outcom e

A notice was sent to the Melbourne West congregation. A similar but longer letter has been sent to the rest of the Australian membership. The notice was headed "United Church of God­Australia; ACN 071 927 243; GPO Box 535, Brisbane, Qld. 4001; Telephone: 07 5520 2111; Facsimile: 07 5520 2122."

The notice was dated March 25, 1997.

Here is the text:

"Dear Brethren of the Melbourne West Congregation,

"As members of the National Council of the United Church of God­Australia, we would like to thank all those who met with us during the meeting of March 22 and 23, 1997. We are most grateful for the letters and presentations made to us. The time, effort and sincerity of the members was very much appreciated, and the views and concerns expressed were most helpful.

"As stated in the documents giving notice of the Extraordinary General Meeting, the issue for review by the National Council was the perceived doctrinal differences held and taught by Mr. Solyma as compared to the Fundamental Beliefs of the United Church of God and, as a result of this, the perceived lack of adherence to the Ministerial Code of Ethics, specifically the statement requiring a commitment to uphold the Fundamental Beliefs of the Church.

"The Fundamental Beliefs of the United Church of God, an International Association, are biblically based doctrines adopted by the General Conference of Elders. They act as a doctrinal safeguard for the Church in preventing any alteration of the Church's doctrines without the support of the overwhelming majority of the elders and members of the Church. In addition, the Doctrinal Committee was formed to provide a process for doctrinal change and review in the Church, and the United Church of God in Australia is subject to, and supportive of, all these procedures for doctrinal review.

"On the afternoon of Sunday, March 23, Mr. Solyma informed the National Council that it would be a violation of his conscience if he were to affirm his commitment to uphold the Fundamental Beliefs of the United Church of God, an International Association, without qualifications. He also explained that he has a philosophical difference as to the way pastors and members can introduce doctrinal change into the congregations.

"The members of the Council thanked Mr. Solyma for his directness and honesty and assured him of their genuine respect for his commitment to his beliefs, and his desire to serve God according to his conscience.

"It was then pointed out to Mr. Solyma that, if the Council members were to allow a pastor to continue serving a congregation under these circumstances, they would also be in violation of their consciences, the Constitution of the United Church of God, an International Association, the Ministerial Code of Ethics, and their responsibilities before God in overseeing the United Church of God in Australia.

"After heartfelt conversation and deliberations by the National Council, it was determined that Mr. Solyma be given a six week leave of absence from pastoral duties on full remuneration. Mr. Solyma was given no guarantee of further employment by the United Church of God after May 4, 1997, but he was invited to keep in touch with the Council and the Chairman after, or during, this time.

"The Council also decided that Bruce Dean, the Chairman of the National Council, and Don Goodger, the Treasurer for the United Church of God in Australia, will speak in Melbourne West on the Sabbath of March 29, 1997.

"In addition to this letter sent to the brethren in the Melbourne West congregation, the National Council also decided to send a member letter to all congregations of the United Church of God­Australia informing the brethren of the outcome of the deliberations. The Extraordinary General Meeting was then sadly, but cordially, adjourned.

"We would like to affirm to you, as members of the National Council, that we have a responsibility before God to uphold the biblical doctrines and precepts upon which the United Church of God, an International Association, was founded. We know that there will be some distress among some of the members of the Melbourne West congregation, but we hope that, with time, healing and reconciliation will take place and that we can preserve our friendships."

The letter was signed: "In God's Service, The National Council."

Still sent fund s

In the end it was agreed that, to use Mr. Solyma's own words, he had "philosophical differences with the UCG" and that he "could not in good conscience uphold the statement of beliefs as demanded by the national council."

Clear, objective decisions have been made on both sides. The West congregation discharged its responsibilities to the UCG right to the end. As an example, shortly before the extraordinary general meeting, suspecting the direction events would take, it still voted to remit congregational funds to the UCG's head-office account.

It was proposed to maintain the three congregations in Melbourne. West, although diminished, will not be disbanded or amalgamated. At West's congregational meeting held after the general meeting, six adults voted to remain with the UCG and 28 to disassociate; 38 abstained. On the Sabbath after that, 47 people attended the CGW (Church of God at Williamstown), with 56 the Sabbath after that. UCG's West congregation presently has about 40 members.

One of the worst time s

Everyone involved in the extraordinary general meeting stated that this is one of the hardest things he has ever gone through.

One man said he felt ill during his return flight but was able to control himself until he got home before being physically sick.

Another was so keyed up that he found himself unable to concentrate for the rest of the week.

Yet another said it was the most difficult time he had gone through since the death of his mother.

Mr. Dean stopped the meeting on four occasions to ask for divine help and guidance. The Acts 15 conference can't have been much more of a wearing and difficult a time for its participants than this one in Melbourne.

The ministers suffered from the consequences of people leaking documents. "Leaks" are a well-known ploy and nuisance in politics, and in this church matter leaks proved hurtful and injurious to participants.

According to Tony Ward, the chairman of West's committee, it is entirely possible for a congregation to discuss doctrine and not end up in disorder. In the CGW the format of Sabbath services now includes a general discussion after the sermon of its content, meaning and practical application.

All members are able to participate and contribute, and increasing numbers do.

Because of this it was becoming obvious to members of the CGW that the Churches of God have accepted too much for too long, believing and accepting certain things simply because their origin is church literature or church custom rather than the Bible.

Outside observers say that the attitude of the CGW is different from that of UCG congregations.

What you se e

Mr. Solyma is adamant that he never "pushes" material onto anyone. His method is to announce to the congregation that he is looking into a certain issue. Those who desire to know more ask to be told.

Some people were offended that Mr. Solyma presented "different" material at all and became noticeably angry; others allowed the issues to creep up on them, picked up bits and pieces and jumped to conclusions.

"Orest's style is open; what you see is what you get," says Tony Ward.

Mr. Solyma's method is to issue challenges and provoke thought, but some people see this style as a threat. This is entirely understandable: Apart from the fact that not all people enjoy being challenged, it was apparently just too much for some after surviving the collapse of the WCG to be faced with yet more doctrinal reconsiderations in the regenerated church.

Not so, say those who for week after week found themselves with no choice, obliged to sit in services in Melbourne West and hear their fundamental beliefs undermined by often-incomprehensible argument. They discovered an attitude growing in other members of the congregation that, unless all believed the same thing, those who were not in accord lacked the spirit of truth.

The corollary was worrisome. It became too much for some. Most simply left quietly to attend East instead. They are adamant that Mr. Solyma behaved mischievously and abusively, that in effect his behavior was as though he were a minister of another church altogether. They were dismayed at finding that what they thought they had dealt with and put behind them with the collapse of WCG had returned to haunt them.

Why did he not resign six months previously when it was privately suggested by four members of the national council? Mr. Solyma's response is that he remained because he had hoped to address key issues with the doctrinal-review committee, having taken committee members at face value on their claim to be open and receptive.

Mr. Solyma notes that he is the only UCG-Australia minister sacked from the WCG; the rest all resigned. To have resigned would have given the various committees an easy way out. When one resigns, the employer need explain nothing.

"What does this matter?" ask others of the Australian ministry. "Hanging on until sacked was not an honorable course of action; we resigned on and as a matter of principle. Any other course of action would have been petty and unworthy."

As to the suggestion that he accepted a salary under false pretenses, Mr. Solyma replies that about half of the congregation wished him to continue as their pastor. Even during the turmoil in late WCG days, few people wanted him to leave the WCG and, by extension, leave them.

Not so, counter members of the UCG. They feel that Mr. Solyma wanted to continue as a pastor of the UCG to maximize his opportunities for influencing as many people as possible. His story was typical of many other pastors during the WCG debacle: For weeks he told his congregation to stay put and be faithful, but like so many others he disappeared from the WCG with little or no warning.

Determined not to incorporat e

The CGW is not paying Mr. Solyma a salary and does not intend to do so, because that would require incorporation. Some people have helped him anonymously, but otherwise he is facing now the need to earn his living by making tents, so to speak.

His explanation for the differences in dealing with his WCG and UCG congregations rests on the fact, he says, that the WCG had no provision for doctrinal discussion and analysis. The leaders' minds were made up, and no reviews were permitted.

Initially the UCG was open in this regard, but it appears to some to be calcifying rapidly. Mr. Solyma observes that the last general conference, with most elders meeting in Louisville, Ky., in the United States in March, was in part a telephone hook-up. How will it be organized next time? Will it be even less comprehensive and interactive?

Orest Solyma states that he could uphold the statement of beliefs had the national council been willing to give him some latitude.

"How can you say that you wholeheartedly uphold a doctrine when it is subject to change?" he asks. "This kind of attitude is not biblical."

By contrast, the national council states that it has been trying to develop a graceful way around the problem since July 1996, but Mr. Solyma had never given a clear answer of where he stood. He wrote no doctrinal papers to the UCG in Australia. It was not until the sermon of Nov. 16 that most pastors heard a clear exposition of his beliefs.

For some, truth came with their conversion; the two are inseparable partners. Others state that the simple fact is that God's Word is truth and that one must pay heed to what one hears.

A common tactic used by Satan is to throw doubt and uncertainty over the truth by question and innuendo. Titus 3:9 warns the brethren to take care not to end up enmeshed in "stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels over the law, for they are unprofitable and futile."

Mr. Solyma observes that after the collapse of the WCG the process of affirming where he and others stood led to the discovery that not all one believed was correct.

From whence discussio n

of doctrine?

Do we stand because we are propped up or because we have proven that our beliefs are in the Bible?

A fundamental question that needs to be addressed is that of where doctrinal discussion originates. The accepted origin of discussion in recent times seems to have shrunk to the defined channels of the UCG, with the term church seemingly interpreted in recent times as being the national council.

One Australian UCG minister has vaguely Trinitarian beliefs, but because he does not actively promote them he causes little trouble apart from the unease set up in the minds of some people who remember events in the WCG.

The national council instead emphasizes that governance of the church in Australia is carried out by it and through it, that it has (as some body or other is thought to have to have) the duly constituted authority to govern and set rules.

Where is the problem in this? Does it have authority or not?

One rule of the council is simply that pastors uphold the statement of beliefs. There must be some unity within the church, otherwise it will end up in the situation Paul discovered in Athens: "May we know what this new teaching is which you present?" (Acts 17:19)

Rather than becoming distracted by an endless series of novel ideas and new questions, we should set our priorities on the major areas of belief: justice, mercy and faith.

Committee oversig ht

During the formation of the UCG, at the April 1995 conference in Indianapolis, Ind., it was decided to make use of most of the 1947 doctrines of the Radio Church of God. These were not discussed at the December 1995 conference in Cincinnati, Ohio, but a "Statement of 20 Doctrinal Points" (for which no sources were cited) was presented to delegates.

Peter Nathan, a member of the UCG's Arcadia-based council of elders now living in England, told Mr. Solyma that the UCG statement on the nature of God had been obtained from the 1948 Radio Church beliefs. However, Mr. Solyma possesses a photocopy of the 1948 document, and in his opinion there is little similarity between the two statements of belief.

The conference in Cincinnati spelled out a process through which the general membership and the ministry could submit papers and questions on doctrinal matters to one of the doctrinal subcommittees for further research and arbitration. Mr. Solyma, among the 97 percent who voted for this structure, says he did so because of the existence of this input-and-review mechanism.

In August 1995 he made a submission that received no reply. At the time this did not trouble him because the committees had not been formed and everyone was overwhelmed by work.

In August 1996 Mr. Solyma was invited to join the Nature of God Subcommittee, an invitation he accepted at once. The modus operandi of the subcommittees is for members to submit papers that are circulated to the other members for analysis and comment.

He says he has submitted papers, including one called "Co-Equality in the Godhead" and another on Philippians 2:16 and John 1:18. He has received no cogent replies, he says, to the questions he posed, and no counterarguments have been offered.

He asked twice if there were any papers to be sent to him and was advised that there were none. The only evidence he has seen of submissions is Gary Fakhoury's paper that appeared as a three-part series some time ago in the Indiana-based Church of God newspaper In Transition (which ceased regular publication with its January issue).

Mr. Solyma says he has despaired of the doctrinal-review committee. He says he suspects that it has decided simply to ignore all submissions on the topic of the nature of God. How can one be on a doctrinal-review committee without research into doctrine, submitting papers and testing ideas?

He believes that this issue has exposed flaws in the UCG's doctrinal-analysis methodology.

What about Matthew 1 8?

There are conflicting views on the relevance of the procedures of Matthew 18. Ephesians 6:12 reveals that there exist powerful spiritual forces at work in the universe. Satan, of course, insists that our struggle is not against spiritual forces at all and in church affairs in particular seeks to set humans against one another.

A perception among some is that those who became upset tended to work "secretly." A typical pattern was that at Sabbath services one week someone would appear outwardly composed and happy but the next week was gone: no discussion, no communication.

Mr. Ward, of Melbourne West, is certain that Matthew 18 should have been invoked to deal with the personal basis of much of the anger that some felt. Mr. Solyma twice asked the pastor of Melbourne East if a combined meeting of the congregations could be conducted to clarify the matter, but both requests were refused.

Once again, for the distressed, such statements strike them as quite unfair. All of these members had tried for months to talk matters over with Mr. Solyma, but with no success. Failure was not always because of personality differences: Some of the participants feel that Mr. Solyma was the closest, most approachable, pleasant and generally amiable pastor they have ever had.

Yet, for all this, more than a few found that West by and large had become inflexible and almost obsessive.

The fruits thus far have been much hurt and unhappiness. Now that a separation has been effected, it may become possible to see more-agreeable fruits develop. It has not yet been possible to see clearly who is responsible for what. If this division is of God, then it will stand.

A combined meeting with other congregations would have been pointless since the problem affected only the West congregation. Matthew 18 is not entirely relevant since the issue was not a personal matter at all; it was on quite a different subject: doctrinal division. People had joined the UCG under a certain banner, and with the developments in West the banner was no longer the same.

Attitude of national counc il

The practice of the national council is not to start from the premise of "What if a doctrine is wrong and how do we fix it?" Rather, the feeling is that we know that Christ is the head of the church and it is He who will guide us by the Holy Spirit into all truth.

We can also expect the Spirit to lead us to some kind of uniformity. We have all seen in the past people enter our fellowship who feel driven by the Spirit to announce a message of one kind or another. The Bible instructs us to test the spirits.

Even in WCG days people had the right to a certain expectation of their pastor's beliefs and behavior, especially that a pastor should be supportive of what it is he represents.

We need a churchwide basis for and approach to understanding the unity of the Word of God. It is unwise to fall into a congregational approach in which doctrines are decided by popular vote. Nor do we desire an organization with great looseness in or a multiplicity of doctrines and positions.

We experienced the WCG in its final phases becoming loose and vague in its doctrinal positions, making it hard to know where to take a stand.

Finally, we do not desire a church run by an oligarchy. It was so astounding to see during the WCG apostasy that two thirds of the total ministry did not agree with the leadership and yet, because the government ran the presses, so to speak, false messages still flooded the congregations.

Because of our experiences in the WCG, the ministry feels great empathy with anyone whose personal study and conviction leads to a strong personal belief that may be at variance with the accepted position. In one's personal life God is indeed directly involved, but when it comes to doctrinal discussion we must remember that in the multitude of counselors there is deliverance (Proverbs 11:4).

We must have a strong regard for collective wisdom whenever we take counsel and engage in discussion.

"You could view the core beliefs of a church as a circle wherein most of us would be in agreement," says Mr. Dean. "However, almost all elders and members would have some things outside of the circle at some times where they did not agree with the church. But as an elder of any organization one would not preach on those issues either publicly or privately.

"The question is an ethical one. If we have too much outside of the circle-as we found a couple of years ago-then we have to decide where we can minister in an ethical way."

We all have differences in viewpoint, and we are well aware of the common dilemma in which different people read the same verses and see different meanings in them. The council seems to have done its best to act not in haste but only after much thought and due consideration.

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