Thursday, July 2, 2015

Why Pleas for COG Unity Will Always Fail

This week, a letter titled “An Open Letter to Leaders in the Church of God” started traveling the Internet. The letter’s anonymous author originally posted it on the social media web site Tumblr, but it has made the rounds on other social media sites as well. 

It is an intelligent, well-written letter, and I agree with it, (obviously aside from its doctrinal stance). Generally, the letter laments that the splintered Churches of God share so many core beliefs; yet are divided into scores of competing, conflicting corporate organizations. That leaders from these fractious groups act like they are God’s only true church and disparage those with nearly identical beliefs in other COG groups, often from the pulpit. That such behavior is NOT relegated only to the few “extremist” groups in the community; and that it is unacceptable and displeasing to God. 

I sympathize whole-heartedly with the author and with others who support it. I’ve made pleas like this myself in the past. You see, most of our leaders and older brethren had all the things you guys seem to be seeking – big, active congregations with physical support and meaningful relationships – at the phase of life they needed it. They don’t like the splits, but they’re used to them, and they still have enough folks left that started this journey with them 30-plus years ago to make their church life somewhat meaningful for their remaining years. 

But you, you’re just starting out in life. Years of failed COG prophecy has taught you Jesus might not be coming as quickly as Rod Meredith tells you. You want the things your older brethren had back in WCG – larger, vibrant congregations; social opportunities for you and your children; and lifelong friendships with people upon whom you can rely.  Instead, you are forced to drive at least an hour to to church each week to watch a video sermon with 23 other people. While people you know and love are meeting 20 minutes away. But they're meeting with THAT group of Laodiceans. Or at least that’s how your pastor explains it. 

Don’t let anyone tell you that you are shallow or weak in the faith because you want those things. The folks minimizing your needs obviously thought they were important when THEY were in your shoes, because went to great efforts to create them. And don’t forget that The New Testament – especially Ephesians – makes it clear that the Christian life should be lived in a community so that believers can support, encourage and help one another. That 23-member congregation of people you see maybe three times a month qualifies as a community only in the strictest definition of the word. Remote, infrequent contact does little to create and cement the kind of relationships you will need to weather life’s toughest storms. 

So I get it. But I’m sorry to say, it’s not going to happen. And not just because of the egos and pride of your leaders, although the author is correct that it’s the major cause of the splintering. But even if Rod Meredith, Victor Kubik, Jim Franks, Gerald Flurry and the like set aside years of pride and infighting, repented in ashes and started working together next week, it wouldn't be enough. The problem is, the doctrinal foundation upon which the COGs are based can’t help but cause division

On the whole, the COGs teach that salvation is a gift from God, but that we must perform works of obedience in order to maintain our relationship with God.  Failure to obey can jeopardize our salvation, although no minister I know has ever been able to quantify what percentage of obedience I must maintain in order to enter the Kingdom of God. But that a minor point in this discussion. The bigger issue is that if our right standing before God is maintained through works of obedience, then we better make sure we have the correct list of works. 

The author of the Open Letter lists a number of core beliefs and signs of the “true church” – things like the name “Church of God,” keeps the Sabbath, keeps the Holy Days on the “proper days,” has a “correct” understanding of the nature of God and several others. The author then asserts that any church who stays true to these beliefs is a true Church of God. The author describes other beliefs over which some COG groups have separated “non core issues” that are nothing more than “political footballs” used to cover up their own agendas. 

I understand the sentiment. But even defining "core" and "non-core" issues is polarizing. And could be viewed as spiritually reckless by some within the very community the author is trying to unite. If the COG’s teachings on maintaining one’s justification through obedience are correct, then these “non core issues” matter. Then EVERY issue matters. Then all the “non core issues” that vary from church to church must matter, and members are right to take a stand for what they believe God requires of them.  James 2:10 tells us that if we’ve broken one portion, we’re guilty of breaking the whole thing. If we break just one “jot” or “tittle,” then we’re guilty. Slip-ups are one thing. But if every word spoken at Sinai is binding upon us (a considerably larger list than just the ones “God’s true apostle” Herbert W Armstrong cherry-picked) and we regularly ignore New Moons or many other points that most of today’s COGs consider minutia, then we are ignoring the word of God and risk of failing our Christian obligations. Man does not have the authority to parse the Sinai Covenant into manageable, modern bites.   

It’s true that power and pride are at the root of most COG splits. But there are ministers who honestly believe they are condemning their brethren to Gehenna fire when they endorse eating in a restaurant on the Sabbath or celebrating Passover on the “wrong” day. Whatever is not of faith is sin, right? How can they sleep at night if they are leading their brethren astray? They are supposed to be protecting their flock. And this is how the division will persist. If salvation is at stake, there is no room for each to be convinced in his own mind (Romans 14:5). There is no such thing as foolish disputes about geneology or striving about the law (Titus 3:9). It all matters.

So the Living Church of God and others will claim that proper church government is a matter of salvation, the United Church of God will disagree, and neither will accept each other as Christians. Those in UCG will eye ministers from the Church of God, a Worldwide Association as the “spiritual wolves” UCG leadership described them, and never trust them enough to be under their authority. COGWA members will both continue to disparage their former UCG pastors and try desperately to contact their children in the Philadelphia Church of God. Who will keep pretending that they and the rest of you don’t exist.  Pride, fear and grace-less legalism will continue to feed the splintering machine. And those scattered in the COG community, increasingly disgusted with what they see, will stay scattered.

Deep down, you know what I'm saying is true.  Or else you wouldn’t be trying to fight it. You can see your future in the COGs, and it isn’t pretty. I understand. I'm not writing these things to mock anyone or to cast stones - I'm reaching out because many of you are my friends and my family. I suffered through these same feelings. My suffering is done now, but yours isn't. Still, it wasn’t so many years ago that I was locked in my own bathroom, praying, so that no one else in my family would see my tears. So that no one would see me doubting and questioning what we had been taught about God since childhood. My prayer was simple: God, lead me where you want me to go, and show me what you want me to see. Over the coming months, He helped me see that there were only three choices when it came to salvation: 

A). God requires you to find which COG group has the correct list of doctrines and then “keep” them to maintain your relationship with Him.

B). God will examine you and find you have met the “good enough,” threshold, wink at any remaining sin or doctrinal misunderstanding in your life, and usher you into His Kingdom.

C). God promises salvation to those who place their faith for salvation in Jesus Christ, not in their own efforts or record of obedience. 

I know it's hard to believe, but C really is what the Bible teaches about how we receive eternal life. It was hard for me to believe, too. In spite of what your COG leaders have taught you, believing C doesn’t mean I am anomian or antinomian. It doesn’t mean that I believe I can live my life any old way I want. It means that I no longer try to live with a foot in each covenant and that I thank God that my salvation depends upon the work and strength of the one who offers it, not the work and the strength of the person who needs it.

Until your leaders accept that they are saved by grace through faith in Jesus and nothing else, nothing additional, they will fight and divide over what needs to be done to attain salvation. Until they properly understand the doctrine of regeneration, they will keep struggling and striving to make sure they are in the Kingdom. And you, your friends, family and brethren can't help but suffer the fallout. 

God knew exactly what He was doing when He established salvation by grace through faith in the shed blood of Jesus Christ. It was His perfect solution, and it short-circuits the lamentable, destructive religious environment in which the COGs now find themselves.  The only remaining question is, do your leaders know what they're doing? 

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


Martha said...

I recognize that the Protestant Christian world is also divided into many denominations. This also is not the biblical ideal, and can cause strife, but it rarely rises today to the level of animosity we see in the COGs. It is my understanding that Protestant denominations usually believe in salvation by grace through faith. As a result, their differences are typically viewed as matters of application, not conditions for salvation. Therefore, while there is disagreement they do not question one another's sincerity and salvation.

Anonymous said...

To Martha, most Protestant denominations do acknowledge each other as Christians. Those that don't are usually very small in comparison. In my experience, most churches that take an attitude similar to the cog's are usually small and independent. And while they acknowledge Christians in other churches, they are usually very critical and have a very self righteous, superior attitude toward "other Christians who just understand like we do"...or Christians "espousing pagan or worldly beliefs" know, like modern translations of the Bible or contemporary worship music.

Child Survivor

Anonymous said...

I wonder if this applies to all the INDEPENDENT COG's as well. Do they all believe that they are God's chosen few? When I was in the cog offshoot in the late 70's after several families left the wcg, many of the members did take that attitude. There were NO other Christians ANYWHERE as far as a few of those folks believed. Our cog leader acknowleged the COG 7th day as "acceptable". He wanted our group to hook up with them, but it was voted down. But man, did those people raise eyebrows and even freak out when our family started eating whatever we wanted and celebrating Christmas while still IN the cog. but they were so small, they felt there was nothing they could do about it. so HA, to them.

Child Survivor

Martha said...

Thanks for reading! That is my impression of Protestant denominations as well, although I am relatively new at this Protestantism thing. They may disagree on points of application (and truthfully do sometimes criticize these points of application ) but do not believe that disqualifies others as Christians.

For example, we belong to one denomination, are involved in some activities on another denomination's property due toto community activities in which our family members participate, and engage in city-wide service activities where churches of 5 or 6 denominations work together. No one bats an eyelash. Whoever is not against us, do not stop them from casting out demons, so to speak (Mark 9:38-41). If I were still an Armstrongist I would have to object to attendance at the family activities or avert my eyes in the sanctuary at the very least. And make sure the beneficiaries of the joint service activity were tithing and had taken the Passover.

Martha said...

I don't know if all those in the independent COGs believe they are God's only chosen people. Most independent groups are even more restrictive, conservative and self-righteous than the larger groups, although there are a few that embrace more liberal stances than the traditional COG ones. So I suspect not, although they have all the more reason to believe that, since they are smaller flocks that have broken off larger ones for righteousness' sake. Maybe they hold out hope that there are other scattered brethren out there who hold the same set of beliefs as them, and they together comprise the true church?

Wow. I can never imagine anyone "tolerating" those things in the groups I attended! You must have been in a special place! I also don't remember anyone holding up COG7 as acceptable where I was at. Kinda tarnished the "one true church" idea.

Anonymous said...

From The Wanderer

Ok...something has puzzled me lately. Each COG from my experience always talk about the congregation being your "spiritual" family.'s the dig. If the end of our story...all have the opportunity to become a child of God....aren't we ALL family. Or...just those who belong COGGYMOUSE club.

Martha said...

Try expressing a difference of opinion and see if you are still treated like a brother or sister. Better yet, try leaving and see if you are regarded as family. You won't be "disowned" in each and every case, but those relationships will be the exception, not the rule.

Anonymous said...

When my family left the Worldwide Church of God they had been in there faithfully for almost six years. they knew everybody and had entertained everybody there at their sabbath drinking/dinner parties, at least twice. Some they were very close to. When we quietly left in 1977, you know how many faithful wcg members even made an attempt to contact us, let alone keep in touch??? ZERO, ZIP, NOBODY. Yet MOST of our Roman Catholic relatives and neighbors who my parents made an attempt to maintain contact during our wcg years NEVER shunned us. They remained incredibly faithful to the family even when my parents acted self righteous and a bit distant. These people were there for us when we left the wcg and needed their love and support to transition back into normal society. When we left the Catholic church in 1971 to join the wcg, were any of them happy about it? No. Did they disown us? Most didn't. I'm thankful for our "worldly" neighbors and relatives who never stopped loving us even when we weren't so lovable.

Child survivor

Anonymous said...

I have another observation as to why COG's will not and CANNOT unite. Even if all of them were to merge together tomorrow and agreeably and amicably appoint pastors, elders, and a new "apostle", it will never fly, at least not anywhere near to what Herbert achieved. Why is that, you ask? Even if all the key doctrines are in place and they have a new college, or consolidate the colleges they have, they will not , succeed, not the way Herbert did. Because they all lack one of 2 key ingredients to the old bastard's success. They either lack Herbert's Hitler-like control, you know his ability to exert control like the dictator he was, and yet the masses loved him....OR they lack Herbert's total charisma. He absolutely mesmerized the masses with his claims. And to this day I can't understand HOW he did it. He wasn't attractive, he didn't have a pleasant voice to listen to, he wasn't that witty. But he made people blindly follow him. And as far as control is concerned. Even Garner Ted couldn't replicate his dad's success, and he could literally charm the pants off anyone. But he lacked the total control and iron fist his dad had.

Another thing the movement has going against it is that there is something today that didn't exist when Herbert was alive, the Internet!!! when I left the WWCG in 1977 at age 13, there were 3 anti-wcg resources, 2 books and the "Ambassador Report". All of which you had to send away for. Now there is countless information on decades of Herbert's stunts available with the mere click of a mouse. Like it or not, where religious groups are concerned, especially fringe groups, people are much more skeptical on small groups claiming exclusivity. When my parents joined the wcg in 1971, there wasn't anywhere to go really to investigate a group. Thank God, Herbert is gone and so is Garner Ted, and it is very unlikely anyone like either one of them will ever rise to power, try as some may.

Child survivor