Thursday, February 12, 2015

Looking at Born Again, Again

There's an old cliche that tells us "a picture is worth a thousand words." If so, a good analogy must be worth at least 500.  Using literary device is a great way to boil down complex concepts into something even a child can understand.

But sometimes analogies and metaphors - even Biblical ones - are stretched farther than the author ever intended. When this happens, we can jump to conclusions that are illogical and unbiblical. For example, consider Malachi 4:2, which foretells the Sun of Righteousness rising to heal the world. This paints a beautiful word picture of Jesus returning to heal our sick planet. It makes sense - Jesus was called the Light of the World. He illuminates our path, just like the physical sun. He brings life, just as the sun supports plant and animal life.  So far, so good.

But the sun is not totally harmless. Scientists have a hard time studying it in depth because the heat would burn any equipment that got near it to a crisp. We can't look directly at the sun even during an total eclipse, let alone on a clear afternoon. Therefore, we can also conclude it's best to avoid studying Jesus' life and teachings too closely. Too much exposure can be deadly.

When we carry comparisons like this too far - or fill in gaps where Biblical writers left off - we can come to conclusions that clearly contradict scripture. Elevating conclusions like this to the level of doctrine puts us on dangerous footing.

Many people believed God was calling them into the Worldwide Church of God after hearing Herbert W Armstrong explain his "reproduction analogy" as a blueprint for Christian salvation back in the 1960s and 1970s. This teaching, which some Churches of God now call the "fetal analogy," placed high value on the human family. There's no doubt many found this inspiring since, like today, they lived in a society that marginalized traditional values and the nuclear family.

Last fall, I spent several weeks discussing Herbert Armstrong, his claims, his teachings and his legacy in the modern COGs. Perhaps HWA was an influential figure in your life. Or maybe you are too young to have had any real connection to the man, who died in 1986. If so, HWA still matters, because his teachings are the foundation for most of today's Churches of God. And a church's doctrines on salvation are, arguably, its most important doctrines. Because if we do not attain salvation, then we have missed the mark for eternity. If HWA really was God's apostle, and his teachings on salvation were divinely, directly revealed to him, as he claimed, then that works out great for you who remain in the COG splinters that still hold to his doctrines. But if they weren't divinely revealed to him, well, not so much.

I want to tell you up front that this series will include several posts examining different sections of Armstrong's booklet, Just What Do You Mean Born Again. Even though I might not address a specific argument in part 1, it'll probably come up later. And since I am addressing HWA's work, from which today's COGs get their teachings, it's possible I've missed a point or two put forth by one of today's splinters. If, in the end, you think I missed something vital, please send me a message at

I know you're likely to be suspicious of whatever this former COG-er who was lured into "so-called" Christianity has to say about "born again." That's why I will allow one of your own to narrate much of this series. Most of the objections to HWA's teachings on "Born Again" that I will include in this series come from John Ritenbaugh, founder and pastor of the Church of the Great God. Ritenbaugh was baptized into the Radio Church of God (which later became WCG) in 1959; he was ordained a deacon in 1965, an elder in 1966, a preaching elder in 1969 and a pastor in 1982. He resigned from the Worldwide Church of God in January 1992 because he disagreed with its doctrinal changes. Several WCG members who also disagreed with the church's direction asked him to pastor them, and so the Church of the Great God was born in North Carolina. As far as the COGs go, his credentials are impeccable. And yet he disagrees with HWA's teachings on "born again." But before I get too far ahead of myself, I probably should detail those teachings.

The Reproduction (Fetal) Analogy

Herbert W Armstrong taught that human reproduction was an exact type of divine reproduction (Herbert Armstrong, "A New Truth About Abortion," Plain Truth, Personal, September 1985). Just as humans reproduce to create other humans, God is using the process of salvation to reproduce Himself to populate a family of divine beings, HWA claimed.

In his analogy, after repentance, faith and baptism:
"God's Spirit entering and dwelling in one compares to the physical sperm impregnating the ovum - the imparting of eternal spirit life, later to produce - to bring forth - a spirit person! A fertilized ovum - an embryo - is not yet a born human person. Life from the father has been imparted to it - he has begotten it, but neither embryo nor fetus is YET a born person."
(Just What Do You Mean Born Again, p. 17)
Armstrong claimed that, just like a fetus in the womb, Spirit-begotten humans also go through a gestation period preparing them for a literal birth into the God family at the return of Jesus Christ (Just What Do You Mean, p. 18). During this time, God views them as His children in the same way physical parents speak of a conceived, yet unborn child who will soon be a part of their family.

God created this spiritual gestation period for training and overcoming sin, so that we can safely be trusted with vast divine power in the Kingdom of God, according to Armstrong (Just What Do You Mean, p 44). Those who attain an appropriate amount of spiritual developing and growing, or acquire "the spiritual character-image of God" will be transformed into a divine being (Just What Do You Mean Born Again, p. 22-23).

Keep in mind that in his treatise on the reason for life, The Incredible Human Potential, Herbert Armstrong explained the reason why God is making more Gods is because only God is sinless and only God can be trusted. Armstrong was clear that this is precisely the reason why the angels cannot inherit creation. We discuss this at length in our post Armstrong the Merciful. Focus on that for a moment. God is incapable of sin. So you and I are here to learn to overcome sin ... in order to become a being that cannot sin.

"Such perfect spiritual and holy character cannot be created by fiat. It must be developed, and that requires time and experience." (The Incredible Human Potential, p. 70).

The COGs typically deny teaching that God expects us to achieve sinless moral and spiritual perfection in this life. But the analogy that almost all of them embrace - except for rogues like Ritenbaugh - says it all. If to be literally born again to the Kingdom into God's "spiritual-character image," one must assume we must fully grow into that image during our human lifetime. Is God's "spiritual-character image" imperfect? Hardly. So it's not a stretch to assume that spiritual and moral "birth defects" will not be welcome. And, despite years of asking, I can't find a single COG elder who can tell me what my righteousness quotient must be in order to "make it."

Besides, Herbert Armstrong all but confirms this assumption when he writes that those people who do not continue to grow will become like an abortion (Just What Do You Mean Born Again, p. 45). Ah, what a beautiful picture of salvation HWA's reproduction analogy paints! We are all spiritual fetuses, growing and advancing toward our births. You can almost see the pastel paint on the spiritual nursery walls; the fresh scent of baby powder wafting through the room. Until WHAM! God decides you haven't grown enough, matured enough, in short - you aren't good enough. And then He aborts you.

Sadly, many former WCG members, inside and outside the COGs retain this basic view of God. They are unable to believe that God could love them unconditionally. They cower, just waiting to be ripped from the womb because they still sin. This is hardly the abundant life, the picture of love, joy and peace that the New Testament discusses. Many even recognize the COGs' doctrinal errors but remain just the same, because they believe they will end in miscarriage if they leave "The Church" - "the Mother of Us All."

The Mother of Us All 
Like HWA, several of today's Churches of God still teach that Galatians 4:26 proves "the Church" is "the mother of us all." Like a human mother, the Church feeds and protects the unborn Christian, Armstrong said (Just What Do You Mean Born Again, p. 19). This aspect of the "reproduction analogy" tries to connect the church with the Jerusalem above, often by way of 1 Corinthians 2:13, which discusses Christians being baptized into one body.

Some splinters reject this teaching in one booklet while affirming it in unrelated Bible study guides. I understand - it was easier to sell this doctrine in the 1970s, when WCG had a corner on the COG market. Today, most would be hard pressed to describe the splintered COGs as "one body."

Or maybe the problem is that HWA's teaching just doesn't make sense, says John Ritenbaugh, our COG narrator. Ritenbaugh discusses the problems with HWA's teachings on "born again" in his series, "Born Again or Begotten?" (Part 2, and Part 4 here). The context of Galatians 4:26 indicates the mother in question has already given birth to many children - the members of the church - Ritenbaugh points out. Additionally, none of the apostles ever equate the church with the Jerusalem above. Instead, Paul describes Jerusalem figuratively as a homeland from which Christians spring - the place where their Father is, the place from which they are governed, from which their blessings come, and from where their rights and interests are promoted.
"There is no scriptural way that this verse can be made to say that the church is our mother and we are fetuses in its womb. Besides being unscriptural, it is illogical," Ritenbaugh writes in Part 3 of his series. "Are not the members of the church also simultaneously the children of God? How then, can the children be the mother? Can a child be carried in its own womb and then deliver itself?"
Creation's Labor Pains
Armstrong turns to Romans 8:19-23, especially to support his theory of a future literal spiritual birth. He especially focused on verse 22, which describes creation as groaning with labor pains.
 "Although this is not referring directly to our being born again, it is a direct comparison to the birth of a child being delivered from its mother's womb (Just What Do You Mean, p 21). 
While verse 22 obviously discusses labor pains, Armstrong errs in reading his analogy into the rest of the passage. He asserts that the word "delivered" in verse 21 refers to a birth (ibid, p. 20). In reality, the Greek word Paul uses is eleutheroo, which means "to set free. (Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words,  p. 157). This passage conveys that creation will be set free from bondage, not free from a womb. Eleutheroo is also rendered "set free" in other passages, like John 8:23 ("the truth shall make you free") and 8:36 ("if the Son makes you free"), Romans 6:18 ("and having been set free from sin") and Galatians 5:1("in the liberty by which Christ has made us free). With all time HWA spent studying Greek resources to allegedly learn the true meaning of gennao, you'd think he would have noticed neither it, nor titko, the word used to discuss Mary's delivery of Jesus, was used in the passage. Other passages using titko include Matthew 1:21-25 (another account of Jesus' birth), John 16:21 ("a woman, when she is in labor"), Galatians 4:27 ("Break forth and shout, you who are not in labor:), Hebrews 6:7 (and bears herbs useful for those by whom it is cultivated), Hebrews 11:11 ("and she bore a child when she was past the age") and James 1:15 ("when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin"). The two words don't even share a common Greek root.

It also seems illogical for HWA to allude to Romans 8:23 to support his reproduction analogy. The context indicates these sons anticipate a future redemption of their bodies (Vine's, p. 14). Wait, no one told you that many of us "so-called Christians" believe in a literal resurrection, too? Woops! What a convenient oversight! Anyway, it's more likely that Paul meant that Christians internally groan with frustrations of this human life and look forward to future glorification, not that they are also experience "labor pains." Applied in this case, Armstrong's theory would result in fetuses - the embryonic Christians - delivering themselves from their own wombs.

In my next post on this topic, Ritenbaugh and I will explore HWA's teachings on "born again" with regards to the Kingdom of God.

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

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