Help the brethren help the brethren

By Dixon Cartwright

CINCINNATI, Ohio--Members--elders and nonelders--of the Churches of God have a long history of kicking people out of congregations who should not be kicked out, said a United Church of God elder during the recent general conference of elders here.

United elder Melvin Rhodes, speaking to his fellow United elders and their wives in the Holiday Inn Eastgate on May 6, said that, rather than training loyal, faithful members of congregations to help their wayward brethren, the policy followed by the Worldwide Church of God and other COG groups has been to disfellowship first and ask questions later.

But, said Mr. Rhodes, if some were kicked out for sins, then all should have been kicked out, because everybody is a sinner.

Mr. Rhodes, a pastor from East Lansing, Mich., led up to his points about trigger-happy disfellowshippers by noting that the United Church of God's most-requested booklet is Why Does God Allow Suffering?

People request the booklet, he said, not because they're concerned about suffering in the world. Rather, they want to read it because they themselves are suffering.

"Their own lives are in a mess," he said. "Their lives are messed up because of sin, and they don't even know what sin is."

But people who request the booklet are not the only ones who suffer. Sometimes Church of God members suffer just as much, because of their failings, as do people out in the world.
Then and now

People attend Sabbath services of the United Church of God who would not have been allowed to attend Worldwide Church of God services 30 years ago, said Mr. Rhodes.
He made his remarks in a keynote address during the church's annual conference, which promoted the theme "Equipping the Saints for the Work of Ministry."

"You had to be perfect before you were allowed in church" in the old WCG, Mr. Rhodes said, "and you were soon asked to stop attending if you were found to have a problem. Emphasis was on punishment and control."

WCG attendees found themselves tossed out of church fellowship in the old days, he said, because of "smoking problems, irregular attendance, wrong attire, depression, manic depression, failure to attend a Feast, drinking problems. They were put out for breaking God's morality laws, adultery, fornication, living together."

Yet, in light of Matthew 9, was the WCG justified in ejecting such people?

"If Jesus Christ is calling sinners to repentance, why have we over the years turned so many away?" Mr. Rhodes rhetorically wondered after quoting Matthew 9:11: "Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?"

Mr. Rhodes reminded his ministerial listeners that the theme of this year's conference was Ephesians 4:12, which speaks of the preparing of the saints of God for the work of service in order to edify the Body of Christ.

A way to do that, he said, is for the brethren to help each other through their problems. The brethren, he said, should not condone sin, but they should do more to help others in the Church of God overcome their sin.

Yet, he said, many people, leaders and laity, in many Church of God congregations are not willing to do that.

"They're afraid, afraid of all kinds of things--afraid of being put out of the church, for example."

1 Corinthians 6:9, he said, shows that the members of the Corinthian congregation were conversant with each other's shortcomings.

But many modern members will not confide in the brethren and ask for their help.

"Many church members struggle with personal problems they're afraid to share with others, partly out of fear they'll be put out of the church. We've all known couples who seem happily married, then suddenly there's a crisis and the marriage rapidly falls apart."

Mr. Rhodes, who writes for United publications and was a columnist for THE JOURNAL from February 1997 until May 2000, said he recently wrote an article for a United publication about pornography.

As a result "I received a letter from a lady whose husband is addicted to pornography on the Internet. She wrote to me because she was afraid to talk to her pastor about the problem, thinking that if her pastor put her husband out of the church this would result in her family breaking up."

Sinful examples

Mr. Rhodes cited several other examples, all, he said, involving people who have attended Sabbath services in Church of God congregations.

o "A man called and confided about his manic depression . . . He had talked to a minister who told him not to seek psychiatric help . . ."

o "Two ladies with strong feelings for each other were afraid to talk with their pastor or anyone about their feelings . . ."

o "A man attracted to members of the same sex [said his] pastor could not understand how anybody with the Holy Spirit could possibly have such feelings . . ."

o "A female [was an] alcoholic ... What had caused her drinking problem? Rape ..."

o "A single mother was harshly judged by members. Again, rape was a factor in her background and consequent depression . . ."

o "Two young ladies were both guilty of fornication. One was pregnant. [The pregnant one] was put out of the church. The other who was not pregnant was allowed to remain in the church with her boyfriend. Perhaps the fact that she was the minister's daughter was also of some relevance here . . ."

Almost everyone God calls His own in this age comes from a background similar to the ones Mr. Rhodes cited, he said. A church congregation and its leadership should help people come out of sin rather than simply automatically ejecting them.

Incident in Ghana

Mr. Rhodes told a story about an incident he was involved in 12 years ago on a visit to Ghana.

At an airport in that African nation, someone came up behind him and touched his shoulder.

"I turned around and saw before me this man who was a leper. Much of his face was missing ... Bits of his fingers had also come off ... The man was hideous; he was grotesque to look at."

So Mr. Rhodes involuntarily flinched and jumped away from him.

"To this day it still bothers me . . . that I reacted that way to him."

Sometimes Church of God members can hurtfully lurch away from their brethren who have problems.

"Yet we have to remember that we represent Jesus Christ. When people come to us, if they see rejection on our faces, then it is as if Jesus Christ is rejecting them. People will interpret it that way. They will feel that their sin is so awful that it is worse than any other sin that anyone has ever committed."

Who would Jesus condemn?

Mr. Rhodes cited Matthew 9 again, about Jesus mixing it up with publicans and sinners.

He referred to John 8, where Jesus is depicted as listening to and talking with an adulteress after some Pharisees brought her before Him.

He quoted Matthew 18:21-22, which admonishes Jesus' followers to forgive others at least 490 times.

He noted John 11:35, which depicts Jesus weeping for people rather than disfellowshipping them for their sins and lack of faith.

He cited John 3:16 and 1 John 3:16, about Jesus laying down His life for sinners.

He spoke of Matthew 10, where Jesus teaches His followers not to reject one of God's little ones.

Pregnancy is not a sin

Once, in a congregation Mr. Rhodes pastored, he spoke with the members after a teenager in the group became pregnant.

"I said, 'Look, let's remember the sin is fornication; the sin is not the pregnancy. If everybody in the congregation was put out of the church who had committed fornication, how many people would be left? In this day and age, not many.'"

Too many Church of God people, said Mr. Rhodes, are eager to cast the first stone.
"It is a great and terrible thing to fall into the hands of the loving brethren," he said.

All God's children

Mr. Rhodes cited these examples, he said, to make the point that Church of God leaders need to educate the people in their congregations to understand that they are themselves responsible for "a work of service," that the brethren "have a ministry."

The brethren have a ministry?

"We [the elders] have a ministry; they have a ministry. We are all to serve. Jesus Christ is calling sinners to repentance, and we can all be a part of that ministry. We all have a role to play in it."

When church people commit sin, "it's going to require a great deal of patience and time to work with them to help them deal with their sin and overcome their sin."

And who better to help them deal with and overcome their sins than their fellow church members sitting in the same folding chairs in the same congregation?

Destruction of the flesh

Mr. Rhodes quoted from 1 Corinthians 5, which he characterized as a scripture Church of God officials have often quoted to justify putting sinners out of the church:

"Deliver such a one [one who had committed adultery with his stepmother] to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (verse 5).

"We can see [from this verse] that there is a time to put somebody out of the church," Mr. Rhodes said. "I've done that; you've done that. If someone is causing division, clearly they have to be put out of the church."

But what about personal sin as contrasted with dividing the brethren?

Mr. Rhodes said the apostle Paul spoke the way he spoke to the Corinthian members because they were tacitly and maybe even explicitly condoning the man's licentiousness.

"This was a very liberal church, and the church members themselves were approving of the particular relationship this man had with his stepmother. So this is a particularly awful sin and one that was bringing reproach on the church."

Sometimes ejection from fellowship is appropriate, "but I think we would all agree that in the past we were too quick to do that.

"And, in the context of Matthew 9, where Jesus Christ is calling sinners to repentance, [and in other passages] . . . it is clear that we should be able in most cases to work with people and their imperfections to help them come out of their sinful situation, whatever it might be."

A tale of two earrings

A few years ago, during an annual family weekend in the Cincinnati area, a local United congregation had a "town meeting" for teenagers, said Mr. Rhodes.

During the meeting a young man asked, "Why can't all the ministers be on the same page?"
Mr. Rhodes asked him to explain what he was talking about.

"He was concerned about his earrings," said Mr. Rhodes. "Now, I don't wear earrings . . . Our generation did not wear earrings . . . This young boy said he could go to some congregations and he could walk in and sit down and be there for the church service and nobody would make an issue of his earrings.

"But there were other congregations where he was not even allowed in through the door. Now, to him that was important."

A tale of two prisoners

Mr. Rhodes told another story, one about the reactions of people in different cultures to similar situations.

During World War II, goes the tale, two men were accused of murder. The authorities knew one was a murderer and one was innocent, but they did not know which was which.

If the incident had happened in Britain, said Mr. Rhodes, the authorities would have said, "We don't know which one is guilty, and we can't hang the wrong man, so we must let them both go."

If the situation had taken place in France, the authorities, careful to make a show of who was in charge, would have arbitrarily hanged one and let the other go.

If the circumstance had taken place in Germany, the authorities, taking pains to make sure to punish the guilty party, would have hanged both of them.

Just as justice was administered unevenly and capriciously in this story about two men accused of murder in the 1940s, so at times has justice fallen by the wayside in Church of God congregations, said Mr. Rhodes.

"What kind of a trail, what kind of a legacy, are we going to leave behind us? How will we have equipped the saints God has given into our care?

"Will we teach them to be brutal, heartless and unforgiving, to be concerned about personal glory and who's in control?

"Or will we have taught them to be merciful and just?"

Jesus, Mr. Rhodes said, was merciful. "We should also be merciful."

Situations do arise, the United elder acknowledged, when harsh measures are called for. But, "if in doubt, choose mercy."

It is true that, if a church gets a reputation for being merciful, some sinners will take unfair advantage of it. "They will perceive it as weakness, as softness, on our part."

But the fact remains that "most of the people" who were booted from the Worldwide Church of God, and were then supposed to repent and come back to church after having been bound over to Satan, "never came back," he said.

Understanding failure

Mr. Rhodes quoted the words of a man who had been disfellowshipped from a Church of God congregation because of "human failure": "The church that I go to now [on Sundays] is much more understanding of human failure," the man recently told Mr. Rhodes.

"We have to set the example," Mr. Rhodes concluded. "We also have to educate the people that God has given into our care to understand how they can help, how they can serve in this particular ministry, how they can help when Jesus Christ calls sinners to repentance."

The Journal: News of the Churches of God is available from P.O. Box 1020, Big Sandy, Texas 75755, U.S.A., and For more information write . To comment on this article or any other article or feature in The Journal or Connections, write . The preceding article or feature is from The Journal, April 15, 2002.

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