Friday, March 4, 2016

COGWA, LCG and the Laying On of Hands

Awww, COGWA, you're so thoughtful. Whipping up fresh biblical half-truths every morning and serving them to all of us in your Daily Bible Verse blog. And in a format that makes them so easy to share with others! What will you think of next???

Honestly, COGWA's Daily Bible Verse blog has been bothering me for some time. I've wanted to address several of them, but never quite find the time. Why are they unsettling? Because, like almost everything COGWA disseminates, they are sparse. Now, all well-written social media communications need to be short and sweet. But in COGWA's case, their brevity allows them to disseminate the image of a sunny, happy, grace-filled church without fleshing out the cognitive dissonance between that snapshot and their largely grace-less doctrines.  And to share this staged snapshot with unsuspecting friends at the click of a button.

But anyway, that's not exactly what I'll be discussing today. The COGWA Daily Bible Verse Blog entry I want to look at today was posted March 1 and comes from Acts 8:14-17: 

Now when the apostles who were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them, who, when they had come down, prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. For as yet He had fallen upon none of them. They had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. 

Historically, the COGs have used this passage to explain their teachings on how individuals may become members of the church of God. 
“In Acts 8:14-17, the apostles heard that people had repented and had been baptized, but had not yet received the Holy Spirit. This passage shows the method God used to impart His Holy Spirit, through the laying on of hands,” writes Mike Bennett, COGWA's editorial content manager.

I've always wondered why God chose to impart the Holy Spirit this way in Acts 8:14-17, but without the laying on of hands in Acts 10. Because clearly, what COGWA describes is one method - but not the only method -  that God gives the Holy Spirit:

(Acts 10:44-45) While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also.

No laying on of hands here. Instead, they Holy Spirit was given in the same manner as it was on Pentecost. Why the difference?

Take a look at Acts 8:14. Where were these disciples? In Samaria. What's the big deal? Well, who made up the early church, at least at first? Mostly Jews. Did Jews like Samaritans? Nope. They despised them. 

Presumably, the vast majority of those baptized in Acts 2 were ethnically Jewish Christians. Acts chapters 1 through 7 take place in Jerusalem. All but the apostles scattered to Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1) in the wake of Stephen's stoning and Paul's persecution. It was only once Philip started preaching Christ in Samaria (Acts 8:5) that the Samaritans heard the message. 

Now, do you think the ethnically-Jewish Christians, who regarded Samaritans as unclean, would believe Samaritans who claimed that God had given them the Holy Spirit, independent of laying on of hands, like He did with the apostles at Pentecost? Consider the drama about accepting Gentiles into the church in Acts chapters 10 through 15. Consider the astonishment that “those of the circumcision” expressed in Acts 11:18 when they heard Peter's report about what transpired in Acts 10:

When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.”

If the ethnic Jewish believers in Jerusalem still got their feathers ruffled in the early verses of Acts 11, chances are good that they would not have believed the Samaritans. This, most likely, is the reason the apostles sent such reliable sources as Peter and John down to Samaria. And why God chose to impart the Holy Spirit this time through the laying on of hands. 
“The Jerusalem Jews considered the Samaritans to be second-class residents of Palestine and kept them at arm's length religiously. And on their part, the Samaritans returned the compliment. It is not too difficult to imagine what would have happened had the apostles at Jerusalem first been the missioners to Samaria. Probably they would have been rebuffed, just as they were rebuffed earlier in their travels with Jesus when the Samaritans associated them with the city of Jerusalem,” according to The Expositor's Bible Commentary.
“But what if the Spirit had come upon them at their baptism when administrated by Philip? Undoubtedly what feelings there were against Philip and the Hellenists would have carried over to them, and they would have been doubly under suspicion. But God in his providence withheld the gift of the Holy Spirit till Peter and John laid their hands on the Samaritans—Peter and John, two leading apostles who were highly thought of in the mother church at Jerusalem and who would have been accepted at that time as brothers in Christ by the new converts in Samaria. In effect, therefore, in this first advance of the gospel outside the confines of Jerusalem, God worked in ways that were conducive not only to the reception of the Good News in Samaria but also to the acceptance of these new converts by believers at Jerusalem,” according to The Expositor's Bible Commentary.

But God did not “withhold the gift of the Holy Spirit”  from those in Cornelius' house until Peter laid hands on them. Peter didn't even get a chance to finish preaching. 

(Acts 10:44-45) While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God.

Why would God deliver the Holy Spirit in such a dramatic way? In a way that did not include the laying on of hands?
“The six Jewish believers who were there with Peter were astonished at what they saw and heard. For in accepting these Gentiles and bestowing his Holy Spirit on them, God had providentially attested his action by the same sign of tongues as at Pentecost,” according to The Expositor's Bible Commentary.
“Undoubtedly the sign of tongues was given primarily for the sake of the Jewish believers right there in Cornelius's house. But it was also given for Jerusalem believers, who would later hear of what happened, so that all would see the conversion of these Gentiles as being entirely of God and none would revert to their old prejudices and relegate these new converts to the role of second-class Christians.” 

Messianic Jewish scholar David H. Stern concurs:
“As with Kefa (Jewish name for Peter), it took a supernatural act of God to dislodge their resistance to bringing Gentiles into the Body of the Messiah, accomplished and symbolized by immersion.” (Jewish New Testament Commentary, p. 260).

But wait. Isn't the laying on of hands one of the foundational Church doctrines listed in the book of Hebrews 6? This is what COGWA states in its web entry, “Laying On of Hands.”

(Hebrews 6:1-2) Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. 
“Once these stepping-stones of understanding are laid, we are expected to grow toward “perfection” (which can mean completeness or maturity). God wants us to maintain that foundation and then build on it in our converted lives,” according to COGWA's entry.

But most Bible students understand that the doctrines listed here are not necessarily "stepping stones" of the Christian walk, but most likely Jewish practices which the persecuted Hebrew recipients of the letter to the Hebrews should have settled by now. The word “baptisms” in verse 2 does not refer to the Christian practice of baptism, but Jewish ritual washings. The plural use of the word adds to the insight that we are not talking about Christian baptism.
“There were such purification ceremonies, or lustrations, in the Jewish religion as in most other religions of the day. Sometimes there was confusion over ritual washings. It would thus be one of the elementary items of instruction that converts be taught the right approach to the various "baptisms" they would encounter,” according to The Expositor's Bible Commentary.

In a similar vein, the “laying on of hands” listed in Hebrews 6:2 likely does not mean exactly what COGWA asserts that it does. Laying on of hands was a common practice in antiquity, was sometimes associated with the giving of the Holy Spirit, but at other times linked with commissioning into Christian service or ministry. We see examples of this in the commissioning of Stephen (Acts 6:6), Saul and Barnabas (Acts 10:3) and Timothy (1 Timothy 4:14). 

This is in keeping with the conclusions of both Theologian John MacArthur and Messianic Jewish scholar Stern, whom I quoted earlier.
S'mikhah, the laying on of hands, refers here to the ordination of an individual for a particular task of ministry by the elders of the congregation, as with Sha'ul (Saul) and Timothy at 1 Timothy 4:14; also see Matthew21:31N.” (Jewish New Testament Commentary, p. 677)

Obviously a proper perspective on Jewish ritual washings versus baptism, on ordinations, on faith and works, on repentance, on resurrection and on judgment would be critical for these Hebrew believers to have, especially given Jewish tradition on each of these topics. But the mere fact that these terms are discussed doesn't mean they indicated the same thing to Hebrew believers as they do in Western society in 2016. And the proximity of “baptisms” and “laying on of hands” in Hebrews 6:2 certainly does not link the two as the first "stepping stones" along the walk of the Church of God lifestyle. 

Further, we see mentions of people in the New Testament who were baptized but never had hands laid upon them. In the case of the Ethiopian eunuch, Philip was whisked away as soon as they came out of the water (Acts 8:39). Lydia and her household were baptized in Acts 16:14-15, but there is no mention of hands being laid upon her. Later in the chapter, the jailer and his household were baptized and rejoiced (Acts 16:34-35) without any direct discussion of laying on of hands. 

In all of these cases, which are we to believe? 

a) None of these people received the Holy Spirit.
b) That hands were laid upon them, the Bible just doesn't record it.
c) God sometimes imparts the Holy Spirit to a believer without a minister laying hands upon him.

Clearly, in some instances, God imparted the Holy Spirit to Gentile believers through the laying on of hands following baptism. And clearly, in other instances, He did not. So why would the COGs choose to adopt and highlight only method highlighted in Acts 8? 

To be fair, COGWA is not the only COG that teaches this. The Living Church of God takes this view in its Fundamental Beliefs. The United Church of God puts it forth in its article, "Water Baptism and Laying on of Hands." Really, most of the Worldwide Church of God splinters hold over this false teaching established by WCG founder Herbert W Armstrong. Who, ironically, was baptized by a Baptist preacher and has no record of having hands laid upon him to impart the Holy Spirit. So much for a Sabbatarian strand with authority stretching backwards across time to the apostles.  

But anyway, this teaching could result from an honest desire to create a standard practice for baptism in the COGs. Or it could be COGWA's best explanation as to how they think God usually works. Perhaps it's a simple oversight of Acts 10. But, conveniently, it also gives them an element of control over their membership. 

How so? Let's return to COGWA's writings on “Laying on of Hands.”
"The laying on of hands does not of itself provide the Holy Spirit. Much like baptism, the laying on of hands is a physical action with a spiritual component. When a minister lays hands on a person after baptism, it is God (not the minister) who gives the Holy Spirit.”

COGWA rightly admits that the minister does not physically transmit the Holy Spirit to the person on whom his hands are laid. It is God who administers the Holy Spirit. However...
“Only authorized representatives of God—most scriptural examples are of ordained ministers—should lay hands on the newly baptized person.” 

So, if I understand the logical implications of COGWA's statement correctly, God chooses to bestow the Holy Spirit upon individuals whom a COGWA minister has baptized and upon whom a COGWA minister lays his hands. The minister's hands are not magical; this is just how God works. Still, only ministers authorized by God - presumably through COGWA - should lay hands upon a newly baptized person.

“Once a person repents, believes and is baptized, it is through the laying on of hands that he or she receives God’s Spirit. The Spirit of God would then be in that person as the promised “Helper” (John 14:16), which is necessary for a person to be a follower of Jesus Christ and for our ultimate salvation."

Let me get this straight.  I will not receive the Holy Spirit unless a COGWA minister baptizes me and lays hands upon me. And I cannot inherit salvation without the Holy Spirit. Wow! Sounds like COGWA has a corner on the salvation market. I should have gotten in on the ground floor when I had the chance! 

COGWA's misguided teaching on this topic is dangerous because they allows men to come between you and God. It allows ministers to essentially act as the gatekeepers of salvation. And I'm not picking on COGWA alone - the same is true of LCG, UCG, COG-AIC, PCG and all who adopt this teaching. We've all heard the stories of WCG ministers forcing individuals to leave a second marriage or abandon a “questionable” job (questionable to the minister, anyway) before they agreed to baptize the individual. 

But that's all in the past, Martha! No one in today's COGs abuses their power to the detriment of the membership.

Sure. Tell that to the woman whose PCG parents abandoned her as a teen when she told them she no longer wished to attend the PCG. Tell it to the family of Janet (Gennaro) Privratsky, a young PCG member who committed suicide in response to PCG's no-contact policy. 

Tell it to the man from the Living Church of God who was forced to leave his nursing home job, then disfellowshipped when he gave two weeks notice rather than quitting on the spot at the advice of his minister. 

Tell it to Patrick and Elizabeth Scarborough, who are suing the Living Church of God, Rod Meredith and Rod McNair for the “Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress” and “Defamation of Character” after being disfellowshipped and marked for no given reason, despite months of pleading phone calls, letters and apologies

But hey, that's PCG and LCG, not COGWA. No worries here, Martha!  

Wait, this isn't the same COGWA that just met with LCG officials in January 2016? That agreed with LCG to work together, treat one another as brothers and build trust between the organizations going forward? The same COGWA that agreed to these in the midst of the Scarborough lawsuit? 

It can't be the same COGWA whose officials, while still under the UCG banner, leaked confidential personnel documents over the Internet to foment a church split!

It's certainly not the same COGWA that employs a long-time COG minister alleged to have agitated for the church split on a popular social media outlet using a fake profile! And used said outlet and fake profile to calculate when his group of dissenting ministers had a large enough tithe base to support themselves! 

Right, I see your point. I was totally wrong. There's nothing concerning at all about these guys basically claiming to be the gatekeepers through whom God chooses to bestow the Holy Spirit.

It's certainly biblical to be under the authority of a pastor. The Bible makes it clear that we should assemble regularly with other believers, and that we should submit to the leaders of that assembly. But the Bible also reminds us time and time again to watch the example our leaders set, to consider the outcomes of their behavior and their lives, and to judge them by their fruit.

It's also biblical to be baptized (although it's not required for salvation), and baptism is traditionally performed by a pastor. I was baptized by my pastor. But baptism is an outward symbol of the change that has already happened in a person's life - repentance, death to sin, and new life in Christ by the regeneration of the Holy Spirit. It is not what causes the change. As with Lydia in Acts 16:14, God opens our heart, He imparts the Holy Spirit as Jesus explained in John 3:8, and, as a result, we see the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. No minister is the gatekeeper of that process, neither in the beginning, nor in the middle, nor the end.

(John 6:37, NIV) "All those the Father gives Me will come to Me, and whoever comes to Me I will never drive away."

No man can come between you and God. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Especially not these guys.

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


Anonymous said...

Interestingly written. I personally have come to feel that laying on of hands dates back to the ear!her times in OT history when the fathers or patriarchs would lay hands on their children to bless them. The blessings became binding and sealed, as in the case of Jacob and Esau, and once given could not be retrieved. 1 Cor 11 shows a line of authority flows from The Father to Christ to the head of the family. Church under the definition of structured entity has historically intruded into areas where it was never intended to be. Church defined as ekklesia, or all Believers connected by the Holy Spirit does not interfere into one's relationship with God. When deacons were chosen by one group of believers ALL were involved in the choosing and ALL laid hands on them, a way of each person verifying their approval. The COG's are very Catholic in nature, taking power away from the family unit and relying on tradition to support their teachings and authority.

Martha said...

Thanks for reading!

Throughout the Bible we see laying on of hands for many situations. Patriarchs, as you mention. Conveying authority. Healing the sick. Hands were even laid on the goats on the day of Atonement. But yes, as far as patriarchs, it does appear to be binding, or else Jacob couldn't have gotten away with his deception.

I agree with your explanation of the laying of hands for ordination - that the person was chosen by the group and hands were laid on as a form of support or approval - that the person was found approved; was worthy, so to speak, of the ordination.

Of course in terms of receiving the Holy Spirit, none of us are worthy. It's a good thing THAT isn't a prerequisite.

Ekklesia said...

"It's certainly biblical to be under the authority of a pastor. The Bible makes it clear that we should assemble regularly with other believers, and that we should submit to the leaders of that assembly."

Not sure what this means. How am I under the authority of a pastor if I am free to meet with any group? It is great to have a good teacher, a good mentor, a good friend, a good accountability guide, etc. But, if ever one said I was under his authority I would look to meet elsewhere. Maybe you have a different definition than I do of the word "authority"?

Ekklesia said...

"It's certainly biblical to be under the authority of a pastor. The Bible makes it clear that we should assemble regularly with other believers, and that we should submit to the leaders of that assembly."

What does it mean to be "under the authority of a pastor"? Perhaps you define "under authority" differently than I do. It seems if I can leave a group and attend with another that the pastor doesn't have authority over me. I appreciate a teacher, mentor, friend, and/or accountability partner that will get in my face if need be, but if a pastor said he "had authority over me" I would leave that group.