Wednesday, February 24, 2016

On a Personal Note - Why We Do What We Do

We've noticed that a number of people have been checking out the “About ABD” section lately. It seems a few of you out there wondering who we are, what we're doing and why we're doing it. Fair questions.

As Bereans Did is a collaborative blog that examines the teachings of the Church of God movement, often called “Armstrongism” after its founder, Herbert W Armstrong. God called the writers out of the Churches of God and, as folks who have been on both sides of the fence, we feel uniquely qualified to address many doctrinal issues from a standpoint that many who've spent their entire lives in mainstream Christianity cannot. We try to offer a respectful, Christian perspective, in contrast with many other ex-COG blogs. Although we do enjoy us some sarcasm.

The following are NOT some of the reasons we run this blog:

We like to make fun of the COGs and its members. While some of the COGs doctrinal wranglings are amusing, for the most part, we try to attack ideas, not people. Sometimes it's hard to separate the two, and there are some people who, well, you know... many of them are probably the reason you found us in the first place. But we believe that all of us – you, me, Rod Meredith, Jim Franks, Victor Kubik and, yes, even Dave Pack – were made in God's image; that Jesus died for all of us, and that all are worthy of respect.

We think you believe you are earning your salvation. We know that most of you absolutely do NOT believe this. We know most of you feel  that your behavior absolutely does not merit you salvation. A carrot-and-stick salvation is the logical conclusion of the belief system you've been handed, but over the years, cognitive dissonance on these teachings have made things very, very muddy. We'd be lying if we said we weren't concerned about your eternal destiny. The Bible has strong words for those who add to the gospel. Is the responsibility with the teacher? Does God honor the faith of the listener? These are questions we are glad are above our pay grade.

We think you intentionally are following a man. We focus so much on Herbert Armstrong precisely because many of you believe you do not follow him. At this point in the COG movement, you're so far removed from HWA that you're learning from men who were taught by men who followed a man. You can't understand where you've arrived are unless you understand where you were, or more accurately, where past generations came from.

We are bitter people who hate HWA. Actually, some of us are young enough that we barely remember Herbert Armstrong. We're not thrilled what what his false teachings have wrought in our families, and we fear for his soul, but there's no deep-seated loathing on my part.

We think everyone in the COGs are dumb and/or bad people. Don't forget, we were with you. We WERE you. We have come to understand the New Covenant only by the calling and grace of God. We know you are genuine, sincere, thinking people who are trying your best to live in a way that pleases your Creator.

So then, why do we run this blog? In short, because of you.

We care about you. There's no doubt that relations are frequently strained between those who leave the COGs and those who remain. Many of us left without saying good-bye, because we wanted to avoid the inevitable arguments. We know what's said about us, to our faces or behind our backs - because we said those things about others. We know we are judged harshly for some of our choices - because we judged others harshly. We often keep our distance, and that's easy to do since we no longer share Sabbath or festival fellowship time. But you are our friends and family, and we care about you.

We want to “pay it forward.” Those who went before us – sometimes those whom we talked about and judged harshly – helped us negotiate our questions and confusion. We know you think we “took the easy way out,” but in reality, there's nothing easy about this road. Coming out of a controlling, restricted religious environment is difficult, and asking questions in such a place is often an invitation for abuse and harassment. It can feel like there's no one to talk to, nowhere to turn. Without these people, we would have felt stranded and alone. But someone was there for us, and we want to do the same for those who will come after us.

We know how it feels. This is a frustrating time to be a COG member. Splits and financial crises are coming more and more frequently. Almost as frequently as open letters from young COG members  pleading for unity among the divided groups. It's maddening to have your support system, your friends and your family torn apart each time the ministry decides they are no longer “pleased to dwell” and must separate for the sake of all that is Holy. If you're reading this blog, then either you or someone you know is discouraged with the state of the COGs. We are thankful that the drama no longer affects us, but we are still grieved to see it happen to you. True, Jesus did come to turn father against son, daughter against mother. We must “hate” our own family and our own lives by comparison to our dedication to God. But is what we see today really what Jesus meant?

We want you to have the joy, peace and rest of the New Covenant. Even at the height of the Worldwide Church of God's success, it was not a happy place. Feelings of impending doom as the end approaches. Strife that naturally accompanies legalism. Worry that you won't be good enough to “make it.” These are discouraging, demoralizing feelings that can paralyze you, rather than live the abundant life Jesus came and died for you to have.

Life as a Christian, mainstream or otherwise, is not all sunshine and lollipops. In fact, much of the New Testament is devoted to teaching Christians how to conduct themselves when life is less than ideal. But there is joy in knowing that my salvation and my righteousness are found in Him. This security does not give license to sin, but rather affords peace and rest in Christ rather than a lifetime of worry and doubt. His yoke is easy, and His burden is light.

Here's the bottom line: we don't care if you never, ever eat a bite of pork. It seems to have worked out OK for Peter. We don't care if you prefer to worship on Saturday, although we wish you understood how the Sabbath was fulfilled in Christ. Many churches – even mainstream Christian ones – offer Saturday options. We find the Holy Days distasteful and wish you'd embrace the reality of their fulfillment in Christ rather than their shadows. But we know you find some of our practices distasteful, too, like Christmas and Easter. On that note, we wish you'd see their significance and examine their real, historical roots rather than the fabricated ones Herbert Armstrong and Alexander Hislop handed you. But in the end, that's not what we really want for you.

What we want for you is to quit living in fear and despair. Despair about your future – and your children's future - in this dying religious community. Fear that leaving will land you in the Lake of Fire. Fear that, even if you stick with it, you won't be good enough to “make it.” Spoiler alert: you won't.  That's kind of the whole point of salvation by faith through grace.

Bottom line, if the COGs are right about your eternal destiny and how to achieve it, then it's all worth it. But what if they're not? Would that change your answer?

We don't believe it has to be this way. We believe God wants more for you. Hear us out. That's all we ask.

That's why we do what we do.

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

Friday, February 19, 2016

Pinky Promises - or Faith and Parachutes, Part 4

Have you ever made a pinky promise?

Let me fill in the details for those readers who have neither been nor raised an elementary-school aged girl. In this solemn ceremony, two parties mutually signify that a promise has been made by intertwining their two pinkies. A pinky promise may seal a pledge to be BFFs (best friends forever), may signify one party's intention to return a cherished bracelet to the other party, or to cement an offer to procure an ice cream cone later in the day, among other things

While the extent to which a pinky promise can be enforced as binding is uncertain, one thing is clear – a pledge with only one pinky is no pledge at all.

Pinky promises may be a recent, silly phenomenon, but man has used ceremonies to indicate his commitments for millenia. Peace pipes. Blood oaths. Legal contracts. Dissecting animals.

No, really. Do you remember reading something about that in Genesis 15? It's one of those weird parts of the Bible that we tend to gloss over because we don't understand it and, frankly, it's a tad bit creepy. Let's take a look.

(Also, for the record, I realize that Abraham's name was still Abram before Genesis 17. I am not going to vascilate between the two names depending on which scripture I'm referencing. Unless it's a direct quote naming him as Abram, I'm going with Abraham.)

(Genesis 15:9-10) So He (God) said to him (Abram), “Bring Me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, down the middle, and placed each piece opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds in two.

Now, I'm not going to get into the parts about the vultures and stuff. That is about the Israelites in Egypt, and this is a discussion about Abraham. So what on earth was going on here?

Abraham wasn't just cutting animals apart for the fun of it. He was setting up a traditional covenant ceremony. The Believer's Bible Commentary sheds more light on this practice:

“According to the ancient Eastern manner of making a covenant, both the contracting parties passed through the divided pieces of the slain animals, thus symbolically attesting that they pledged their very lives to the fulfillment of the engagement they made.” (p. 53).

We see biblical support for this explanation in Jeremiah 34:18-20:

And I will give the men who have transgressed my covenant, who have not performed the words of the covenant which they made before me, when they cut the calf in two and passed between the parts of it – the princes of Judah, the eunuchs, the priests, and all the people of the land who passed between the parts of the calf – I will give them into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek their life. Their dead bodies shall be for meat for the birds of the haven and the beasts of the earth.

So to put it bluntly, the two parties making the agreement passed between the pieces of the animals together as a way of stating that they should face the same fate as the animals if they broke their agreement. Yikes. Pinky promises are starting to sound better and better.

But here's the thing. Abram never had the chance to walk between the animals.

(Genesis 15:12) Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, horror and great darkness fell upon him.

Again, I'm not going to discuss the “horror and darkness.” The verses that follow indicate that had to do with a prophecy about Israel's slavery in Egypt. I want to focus on the part about the deep sleep falling upon Abram. Was Abraham just really, really tired from stargazing with God the night before? Maybe cutting the animals in two took a lot out of him.

No. The biblical language indicates something external that descended, or came down upon Abram. God incapacitated Abram. Theologian John MacArthur expounds further in The MacArthur Bible Commentary:

“The sign of ancient covenants often involved the cutting in half of animals, so that the pledging parties could walk between them, affirming that the same should happen to them if they broke the covenant. God put him (Abraham) to sleep, because the covenant did not involve any promise on Abraham’s part; therefore, he would not walk through the pieces as a pledge.” (p. 35).

Abraham was “simply a spectator” of this exhibition, according to the Believer's Bible Commentary (p. 53). MacArthur explains it this way:

“These items (the smoking oven and burning torch in Genesis 15:17) symbolized the presence of God, who solemnly promised by divine oath to fulfill His promises to Abraham by alone passing through the animal pieces.” (p. 36).

What does this mean? It means that this covenant was unilateral, and that God swore by Himself to fulfill His promises to Abraham. More simply, He made a pinky promise to Abraham but intertwined His own two pinkies, figuratively speaking.

I never understood this section of scripture when I was in the COGs. I'm not sure I ever even read it. After looking back, I was surprised to find that the Churches of God virtually ignore this passage. I found no mention on the web sites of the Living Church of God or the Church of God, a Worldwide Association (COGWA). The United Church of God touched on it in a single article, simply outlining the ceremony and stating that “the covenant ultimately includes a promise of the land of Canaan.” (Gary Petty, How Should Christians Celebrate the Passover, Feb. 1, 2003)

So why would the bulwarks of true Christianity; the only ones who truly understand the Bible; the ones who are constantly discussing Abraham (for purposes of British Israelism or salvation) – totally ignore this passage? My guess is because it threatens their teachings on salvation – you know – the ones that keep you in their churches.

God swore by himself that He would make these promises come true – the promises for the descendants and for the land. Abraham absolutely played a part in the ceremony, as demonstrated in his preparation for the ceremony. He obeyed the command to procure the animals. He split them. He obeyed God's command to circumcise himself and his household. And he clearly participated in Isaac's, um, conception, since Isaac was an heir who came from his “own body.”

About that circumcision... why all the covenant talk in Genesis 17 if this covenant was a done deal in Genesis 15? Well, some theologians posit that Genesis 17 is talking about different aspect of the covenant with Abram – they parse the promise into descendants and land as two separate promises. I disagree with this explanation. It seems like a chicken-or-egg proposition – without descendants, there would be no one to possess the land, without land, there would be nowhere for descendants to live. And anyway, both are mentioned in Genesis 15. Interestingly, the Expositor's Bible Commentary renders Genesis 17:2 as “I will confirm my covenant between you and me” rather than “make.” In other words, God is saying that He will bring these things to bear; make them certain or effectual. Theologian John MacArthur seems to agree with this interpretation:

“This is another reaffirmation of God's unilateral covenant with Abram, which did not mean that there would be no responsibilities falling upon its recipients.” (The MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 37.)

I believe that, in Genesis 17, God is calling Abraham to turn back to Him after trying to work things out for himself. Consider that Abraham's blunder with Hagar occurred in Chapter 16 – after the covenant ceremony but before the circumcision command. Perhaps God commanded Abraham to circumcise himself as a tangible, costly act that was the first step in his turn back to God.

The wording in Genesis 17:1 does not indicate God is commanding Abraham to be blameless, according to the Expositor's Bible Commentary. Rather, the language indicates that being blameless is a consequence of walking with God faithfully. Abraham clearly has not faithfully walked the path God intended for him in Genesis 16.

Really, are things any different for us? Romans 4 gives Abraham as the example for salvation by faith – the template for Christian salvation – for good reason.

We are justified by grace through faith in the shed blood of Jesus, our sin is imputed to Jesus and His righteousness is imputed to us:

(Romans 4:20-25) He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully convinced that what He had promised He was able to perform. And therefore “it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now it was not written for his sake alone that it was imputed to him, but also for us. It shall be imputed to us who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification.”

Our work is to place our faith and trust in the shed blood of Jesus and not in our own actions, as Abraham trusted God:

(John 6:28-29) Then they said to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said unto them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.”

Since we have been bought with a price and our lives are not our own, we are responsible to obey the commands of Jesus and His apostles: love God with all your heart, your soul and your strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. Do not worry. Turn the other cheek. Do not get drunk. Do not commit sexual immorality. Carry one another's burdens. Do not show favoritism. Just to name a few.

(Romans 6:1-2) What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?

The indwelling Holy Spirit regenerates our hearts, guides us into truth (John 16:13), sanctifies us to become like Jesus (2 Thessalonians 2:13) and enables us to obey (Romans 8:12-13). We are responsible for obeying and cooperating with the Holy Spirit. Like Abraham, we have responsibilities along the path of sanctification. Abraham set up the covenant ceremony. Abraham circumcised himself. Abraham attempted to sacrifice Isaac. But God directed Him to do each of these things; and He similarly leads the process of our sanctification.

However, we will not always run with endurance. Because we are human, we will still screw up and deviate from God's path, as Abraham did when he took matters into his own hands and fathered Ishmael. But our sin does not void the covenant we have entered:

(Romans 7:24-8:1) O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God – through Christ Jesus our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.

We repent and re-dedicate ourselves to walking the path God has chosen for us:

(Ephesians 2:10) For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.

Yes. We do have work to do. Scripture tells us that faith without works is dead. We do have work to do. But God prepared them for us, and us for them. He knows what He's doing.

(Hebrews 12:1-2a) Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith... 

God initiates salvation. God leads the process of sanctification. And God will finish it. He pinky promises.

(Philippians 1:4-6) In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." 

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