Remember the doctrinal wars of the '70s?

Mr. Knowles makes his living as a writer. He is former managing editor of The Plain Truth magazine, published by the Worldwide Church of God.

By Brian Knowles

MONROVIA, Calif.-Over the years several friends-mostly former ministers from the Churches of God-have questioned my wisdom, sanity and intelligence in continuing to write for and speak to Church of God audiences.

"Why do you waste your time?" they ask. "You know nobody's paying attention. Nobody's going to change anything just because you wrote or said something, especially if you said it!"

Others ask, "Are you a masochist or something?"

On the second-to-last count, I'm sure they are correct. So the question becomes: If what I write or say has no effect on anyone, why do it? Why bother?

Good question.

A few weeks ago a former WCG minister pointed out to me the Ambassador Report Web site. On it I found parts of memos or papers I'd written more than 25 years ago, outlining my objections and others', to the tithing doctrine then taught by the old WCG.

I had not seen copies of those papers for many years. They were written c. 1974, or perhaps a year earlier. Though I have learned much about tithing since then, I can say that many of those early criticisms still seem valid.

Silent exodus of the '70s

In those years I may have been more vocal and visible in seeking doctrinal reform than were some, but I was certainly not alone in my seeking. The AR then reported that, "in the last three years, almost 100 ministers of the Worldwide Church of God declared that the WCG's tithing system is immoral and unscriptural. These men either resigned or were forced out of the WCG."

I'm not sure in what year those words appeared in the AR; the paper wasn't dated. But I suspect it was around 1974-75. It was close to this time that the Associated Churches of God was formed, representing the first major breakaway from the parent body.

The AR then reported that "the doctrinal committee has received over 40 papers on tithing from prominent and respected ministers, writers, and researchers."

I can verify that as a true statement since as secretary of the committee I had the job of processing these papers and distributing copies of them to committee members.

Some on the committee heatedly attempted to refute these critical papers, but the heat far exceeded the light. For the most part the offending writings were cavalierly dismissed and relegated to the circular file. Those who had submitted them were summarily demonized, discredited and labeled "dissidents." There was a lot of talk about "attitude."

I apparently wrote at that time: "Regarding the subject of tithing: I think the doctrinal committee has utterly lost its way. In fact, I don't think they ever found it."

How authoritarianism works-or doesn't

What I didn't fully understand then was the nature of authoritarianism. In any authoritarian system, epistemology is grounded in external authority, not in empirical or objective study. People "know" because the "inspired" boss says so, not because they can demonstrate objectively the truth and validity of a given position.

How politically naive I was! I held a romanticized view of the church. I had believed the leaders of the church would pursue truth simply because it was the truth.

At some point reality began to seep into my idealism, causing it to break up and dissipate.

I then wrote: "I see a sign hanging around the tithing principle that says, 'Do Not Disturb!' I'm convinced that at least two or possibly three other major doctrinal subjects will fall into the same category: (1) the commission ... (2) church government. (3) The covenants ... I have personally given up on the doctrinal committee . . ."

Later in the same memo I wrote, "We are likely to continue to lose people from the ministry and the laity unless we are suddenly taken with a massive dose of honesty and repentance."

That certainly turned out to be true, but not always for the reasons I had thought.

Reproduction of old tithing papers

Then followed in the AR the reproduction of one of my tithing papers, intended only for doctrinal-committee consumption. Reviewing it, I can see that some of the fundamental premises were correct. For example: "Matthew 23:23 . . . upholds Levitical tithing law, which would prohibit Christ or the apostles from taking tithes since they were not Levites . . ."

And: "Paul did not take tithes of the Ephesians. He was not a Levite. It would have been against the law for him to do so."

Both of these are true statements. It is clear that the early Jewish church in Jerusalem would have paid tithes to the priests and the Levites in service at the temple and elsewhere, and not to each other. This would have continued at least until A.D. 70, when the temple system came to an end.

Another statement I wrote at that time was also true: "We are beginning to parallel the Catholic Church, in which the Popes and the Cardinals lived in lavish splendor while many of the people were suffering deep poverty and want."

In those years the ministry-at least the higher "ranking" ministers-lived high off the hog while many church members struggled to make ends meet.

My proposal, which appeared several pages into the paper, was, for that time, outrageous: "If we dropped the man-devised monetary tithing system, we would be forced to draw closer to God, develop greater efficiency and true economy, [and] be less arrogant with the people. We might even see the signs God promised would accompany the preaching of the gospel. God would provide for our material needs."

The changes that finally occurred in the Worldwide Church of God in the '90s had nothing to do with anything I, or anyone else, wrote in the '70s. What we wrote and spoke in those times fell largely on deaf ears. It wasn't politically correct then to seek major doctrinal reform. The desire was right, the needs were valid, but the timing was wrong. We had struck when the iron was cold.

When the WCG finally dropped the doctrine of compulsory tithing, it made a major advance in the direction of biblical truth. But it paid a price. It has been in financial crisis ever since.

This is a strong disincentive for others to follow suit. Ultimately any denomination or ministry that rejects compulsory tithing will be forced to rely on faith for God's provision. Unless faith is present, God may not provide. Or, if God isn't pleased with the work of the group, He may not bless it (note Acts 5:38).

Other '70s doctrines in need of reform

I had also mentioned then the need for possible reform in doctrines concerning church government and the understanding of the New Covenant and the so-called great commission.

I had long felt that the old teaching on authoritarian church government was the mother of all false doctrines. It speaks to the issue of how doctrine is decided and imposed upon both the ministry and the laity of the church.

Having said that, I think it is interesting to see how the whole business of doctrinal reform played out. Within the process appeared some paradoxes.

Largely as a result of the need to justify breaking away from the parent organization, many began to reexamine the Armstrong teaching on church government. As new leaders and "Church of God" organizations emerged, new forms of church government manifested themselves.

The pendulum has swung between autocratic cults of personality and quasidemocratic forms. Surprisingly, no serious or major doctrinal reforms-other than church government itself-occurred within even the most democratic groups.

On the other hand, the most radical doctrinal changes were made within the original Worldwide Church of God, which retained a largely autocratic form of church government! In such a system, the top man has the authority to impose his changes upon the ministry and the church. Those who challenge him are characterized as questioning whether the apostolic mantle has fallen upon the shoulders of the leader du jour or not.

Don't rock the boat

Even within the more-democratic, board-run organizations, there is a fear of rocking the doctrinal boat. The idea seems to be that, if we change any of the major doctrines, we'll lose the support of the people who came with us because they perceived that we would preserve most faithfully the teachings of Herbert W. Armstrong. If we change any of those, the people will think we're going the way of Worldwide, and they'll bolt.

This is probably a realistic assessment.

So, doctrinally speaking, the Churches of God find themselves more or less frozen in place, in spite of some advances in church government. The parent church-Worldwide-has gone far beyond the reforms that needed to be made. It has replaced some heresies with other ones.

At the same time, it has made some valid changes, tithing being a case in point.

We hear, however, that employees of the WCG are still being required to tithe if they want to keep their jobs! If this is true-and I'm not sure that it is-it is both hypocritical and unjust.

Regarding the other doctrinal reexaminations I believed the church was in need of-covenants, commission and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit-we have not seen much activity. Worldwide has adopted a "New Covenant" theology, but in doing so it has apparently not considered the subject from a Hebraic perspective. Consequently I believe some of its conclusions are incorrect.

However, this is a difficult subject, and it seems the jury is still out on it.

Within Worldwide a few tentative steps have been taken to allow "contemporary" or "charismatic" worship. Clearly the leadership is still wary of this area of spiritual expression. Within the Churches of God Pod, a handful of individual congregations have become more demonstrative in their worship sessions. But, for the most part, this approach is still anathema.

Growing the Kingdom

As of this writing I am unaware of any "Church of God" reexamining the nature of the commission of the church or the content of the gospel. This will not occur until leaders who form doctrine become aware that the Kingdom of God does not need to include territory to be a kingdom and that in Jesus' teaching it is not exclusively future. It is also present and growing.

Once this realization arrives, it is possible that the "powers of the world to come" will again be manifest in connection with the preaching of the gospel.

On the other hand, the Churches of God will have to overcome their anticharismatic biases before this is likely to happen. This is not to say they should adopt the theology of Pentecostal and charismatic churches. It is to say that the Churches of God must stop viewing all manifestations of the Spirit of God as either mere emotionalism or rank demonism. There is a place between these extremes that is fully scriptural.

As for the "covenants" issue, as I mentioned above, it is surprisingly difficult, especially when approached from the Hebraic perspective. Scripture contains few passages relating to the issue of a "New Covenant." All of them are exegetically difficult, especially as they relate to each other.

In the mid-'70s I thought I understood this subject pretty well. Today I realize I did not. At present I believe both the traditional Churches of God and the Worldwide Church may be teaching erroneously on this doctrine. For a few others and me, the jury is still out on this one.

Where does the thigh begin?

In the mid-'70s the issues we are reviewing in this article were the ones that seemed most pressingly in need of reform-at least for some of us. Other folks were equally concerned about issues like divorce and remarriage, the US&BC doctrine, the use of makeup, birthdays, blood transfusions, allowable sexual practices between married people, dress styles and lengths, what kind of women's garments fit the definition of modest apparel, and other matters.

(At a ministerial conference presided over by Mr. Armstrong an evangelist asked the question in relation to skirt lengths: "Mr. Armstrong, where does the thigh begin?" Another evangelist piped up from the back of the room: "Where the body ends! Where the body ends!")

I still question whether it can be conclusively demonstrated that ancient Assyria emerged as modern Germany. In those years a staff member who had earned a degree in Assyriology assured me that there was no historical evidence that would stand up in court that today's Germans are yesterday's Assyrians.

This is not to say that the Germans are not a warlike people; they are. They attacked France five times within 100 years. They are again becoming dangerously powerful within the European community of nations.

A former British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, has repeatedly warned of what the Germans are capable of. But, if they do it again, that still won't prove they are Assyrians.

Some of the doctrinal wars of the '70s were over trivial issues: issues that in many cases warranted no apostolic pontification. Most of them simply needed the application of common sense.

The doctrinal wars have largely died down. As the dust of the '70s settles, the original church organization has split into two major camps: those who have "gone Protestant" and those who retain various expressions of Armstrongian doctrine.

Animosity between the Armstrongites and the Tkachians is often alarmingly strong. In some circles resentment runs deep.

Within these groups doctrinal discussions seem to be about tweaking the fine points, not about challenging major teachings.

The Churches of God are focusing mainly on stabilizing their organizations, maintaining the status quo and getting on a solid financial footing. Those of us who insist on campaigning for further doctrinal reform in the pages of The Journal are probably banging our heads against a brick wall.

Why do we do it? Perhaps it's because it feels so good when we stop. Am I a masochist? Probably. Just about any time I write about anything outside of the box, some red-faced worthy thrusts a lantern jaw of orthodoxy in my face and labels me a "heretic!"

Can you say amen?

Perhaps I and others like me are simply ecclesiastical Don Quixotes, idealistically tilting our exegetical lances at spinning windmills. Maybe someday, before we pass from the scene, we'll realize the futility of our efforts and withdraw from the fray.

Perhaps it would be best just to let the whole crazy parade, with all of its sound and fury, pass on by without comment.

(To which some are undoubtedly shouting a hearty "Amen!")

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