Raise your hand if you've ever thought something along these lines: "If it weren't for the Sabbath and Holy Days, so-and-so would be better Christian than me!".
It's ok, you can admit it - I can't see you. If it makes you feel any better, I've thought it. I've even had the conversation. I remember a relative of mine saying it about a colleague of hers - one of those folks who organized charity drives at her office and overflowed with the fruit of the Spirit. The only problem was that she spent her Saturdays at the grocery store or ball park - at least the ones when she wasn't volunteering at the food bank.
In the COGs, we practically have a script addressing people like that. The World isn't all bad, we'd say. It was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, not just evil. Even if they don't have the Truth, that person reads the Bible and can understand parts of it. We'd conclude the person would be "really teachable" in the Kingdom. Of course, many of us would also gloat inwardly when that person slipped up and showed their "true colors". Because we knew they weren't a real Christian like us.
But every once in a while, you find that one person you just can't explain. For me, that person was Maria. (Yes, I have changed her name for privacy).
Mind you, I wasn't always impressed with Maria. The first time we met, her daughter swiped my daughter's pacifier, leaving me with a screaming infant. We had both recently joined a parenting support group, and her youngest child was just a few months older than my first. She knew the mommy ropes better than me, so I'd sometimes ask her my rookie questions during playgroup. I soon noticed she usually had better answers than the mothers - both young and old - in my COG congregation. And not just about teething and diaper rash.
If I looked back far enough in my email, I know I'd find several messages asking Maria for product recommendations, pediatrician reviews and such. And I bet most of those messages end with me thanking her for being so positive, encouraging and gracious. In those days of post partum depression, a tense church climate and the resulting loneliness, Maria's example stood in stark contrast to almost everything else around me.
The mother of an opinionated toddler, Maria was always interested in talking about discipline. Parenting books from Focus on the Family peeked out from between her couch cushions and Little Golden books. Maria's childhood in a conservative Hispanic family left her struggling to know when to crack the whip and when to extend grace. Consistency is important, she said, but still, God shows her so much mercy even when she is disobedient.
I left her house confused. Maria was a false Christian who believed the law was done away. What on earth did she think she needed to obey?
During other playgroups, we'd discuss our financial worries. Many of us had left full-time jobs and our families were down to one income. Every dollar counted. Maria weighed in about how hard it was to give 10 percent to her church during this phase of life. But God had been so faithful to her, how could she repay that with faithlessness? Did I hear her right? Maria believed in tithing? (Not all Protestants believe in tithing, and I am not endorsing it here. I'm just demonstrating my complete ignorance of beliefs outside my COG bubble).
As our kids got older, we'd share our concerns about public school. Academics were one thing, but we were more worried about social and moral standards. Still, this decay wasn't taking God by surprise, Maria said. The Bible predicted that society would spiral downward as the end approached.
What? She believed in the "end times" too? That meant she must believe that Jesus would return to earth again. She wasn't planning on hanging out in heaven for eternity? It was becoming increasingly
clear that I had no idea what Protestants believed. In fact, it was starting to feel like I had been intentionally misled. Yes, there are Protestants whose beliefs largely mirror the straw men set up and knocked down in COG literature. But apparently there are millions of others whose do not. How come I hadn't heard about them?
It was Maria's unexpected beliefs that first got my attention, but it was her conduct that really stuck with me. A former social worker, she should have been the most cynical one in our group. Instead, she gave people the benefit of the doubt, exuding grace and understanding when the rest of us were sharpening our claws. I recall only one occasion when she slipped. The group leaders met at year's end to tie up loose ends for the next leadership team. We got sidetracked complaining about one of the incoming ladies. Maria joined in - she, too, had felt the wrath of this woman's sharp tongue. She called me to apologize later that night, and I told her she had done nothing wrong - that woman was bad news. Today I cringe when I realize I was the equivalent of the cartoon devil on her shoulder, shouting over the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit.
Gradually, I stopped asking the women in my congregation for advice. It wasn't because I was too proud or thought I had all the answers. It was because I already knew what they would say, and I had seen how their answers played out in their own lives. More often than not, I'd ask Maria instead. Though I didn't realize it yet, I was already judging by the fruits. The answers I was getting from my COG brethren - women and ministers alike - often didn't mesh with what I was reading in the gospels. When they spoke, I didn't hear the Shepherd's voice.
I remember the last time I saw Maria. It was during the buildup to the last COG split my family would endure. I had an emergency project due, and my computer wasn't cooperating. She let me use her computer and held my crying son so I could finish, even though her critical mother-in-law would soon arrive at her messy house for dinner. I just couldn't make sense of it. I was surrounded by true believers who were slandering one another without a thought. Kindness and peace left my congregation long ago, lodging with this false Christian instead. Maybe it had been that way all along and I was just too blind to see.
Maria left our playgroup when school started the next month. I never got around to asking her where she went to church. Part of me didn't want to know. It felt like a step toward admitting I was wrong, and I wasn't ready for that. Yet. But over time, God would lead my spouse and I to the conclusion we had to leave.
When you're born into the COGs, trying out new churches is a daunting task. All we really had to go on was that a) our previous beliefs had serious problems and b) we knew very little about what Protestant churches teach. Everywhere we went, we'd hide ourselves as far back as possible. One place, we tucked ourselves away up high, directly across from the choir. My gaze kept coming back to one face. It was Maria. Suddenly, the lesson God had been trying to teach me all along sunk in. She was a better Christian than me, because all those years I didn't know what it meant to be a Christian.
While I accepted Jesus' sacrifice for my past sins, I did not place my faith for salvation in Him alone. Just like many, many others in the COGs, I placed my faith in the web of cherry-picked worship practices I'd been taught to observe. As well as trying to be a good person. That isn't Christianity, it's Armstrongism - a theology cobbled together from Judaism, Christianity, Mormonism and the Jehovah's Witnesses, with a few original doctrines thrown in for good measure. The one true religion, suppressed for almost 2,000 years, which God revealed to an apostle/prophet who wasn't even able to predict the correct outcome of World War II (Plain Truth, September-October 1941, p. 7, Herbert W. Armstrong.) If you're a second-generation COG member like I was, these details might surprise you. But this is what Herbert W. Armstrong claimed. More on that, and why it matters, another day. I promise.
Now, several months later, I am a member of Maria's church. We didn't choose it because she goes there, but because we can see how it fostered the spiritual fruit that got my attention. These days, I'm trying to focus less on my past and instead identify with my status as a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). I am starting to see flickers of the things I saw in Maria and so desperately wanted in my own life. And now I finally understand why.
Maria had peace because she knew God had forgiven her sins and justified her because she placed her faith in Jesus for salvation (Acts 13:38-39, Romans 3:20-26). Likewise, I am starting to understand that Christ's righteousness has been credited to my ledger (Philippians 3:9). No condemnation remains for me (Romans 8:1). I am at peace with God (Romans 5:1). I am no longer trying to maintain my salvation through spiritual growth and praying I am good enough to "make it" by the end of my life. In that scenario, which is what the COGs teach, my work is not counted as grace, but as debt (Romans 4:4). I rest from this work in the spiritual peace I receive from Jesus (Hebrews 4:9-10), a peace beyond understanding and explanation (Philippians 4:7).
Maria was joyful because she wasn't spending her life wondering whether she would be good enough to "make it" - she fully realized how short she fell and how blessed she was to be redeemed (Colossians 1:14). As a Christian, her identity is in Jesus, and so is mine (Galatians 2:20). Christ loved me enough to die for me while I was still a sinner (Romans 5:8), so it's hard to argue that God's love hinges on perfect obedience. My value does not fluctuate with my latest sin or spiritual victory. I am worth the same every day - the cost of our Savior's blood. In Protestant churches, His sacrifice is a focus every week instead of just during the spring Holy Day season - a practice that is simultaneously humbling and encouraging. Dwelling on Christ's suffering each week gives me greater perspective than simply putting Him back up on the shelf for another year after the Last Day of Unleavened Bread. It makes me much more aware of what my sin cost. There is nothing cheap about grace.
On the night before His crucifixion, Jesus commanded His disciples to love one another as He loved them (John 15:12). My old COG ministers paid this command lip-service, but then minimized its importance while bashing "so-called" Christianity. There is nothing weak or feel-good about practicing the kind of self-sacrificing love Jesus discusses in John 15:13. Following this command, which is what identifies us as Christians (John 15:14, 13:35), has far-reaching implications for how we regard ourselves and others. This agape love is the foundation for the other fruit of the spirit, which is why forbearance, gentleness or other several other traits listed in Galatians 5:22-23 seem to overlap. After all, these traits are fruit - a by-product - of the Holy Spirit living in us and guiding our lives. They are not simply a habit we can produce by gritting our teeth and trying really, really hard.
Love. Joy Peace. They aren't just nice ideas. They're part of the abundant life God wants for you. If you're a reader here, chances are good that you're frustrated with what you see in the COGs. You can tell something is wrong. Take a step back and judge by the fruit - whether it's a minister or a Maria. A healthy tree does not put forth rotten apples; likewise, hardy fruit doesn't grow on sickly branches (Matthew 7:16-18).
Don't let fear paralyze you. God will not not forsake you. Satan is not trying to draw you away from the truth. God is drawing you to Himself. If you don't hear the Shepherd's voice, choose another direction. Keep asking, seeking, knocking and He will open the door.
It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; ) Acts 17:11