Saturday, March 31, 2018

What the Days of Unleavened Bread Don't Tell You

Today, members of the Churches of God are meeting to celebrate the First Day of Unleavened Bread. Tomorrow, members of my church will be gathering to celebrate Easter.

We've been through this before, so why not get the preliminaries out of the way quickly?

The Armstrongist COGs tell you that Easter is named for the goddess Ishtar and originated in worship of the ancient Babylonian god Tammuz. The History Channel and a variety of other sources will tell you that, too. The problem is, most of those claims go back to a handful of sources from the 1800s that later archaeological discoveries, artifacts and cultural studies have since refuted. Unfortunately, those who continue to put forth these claims – such as cults trying to draw people away from traditional Christianity and anti-religion members of the media – have little incentive to check their homework.

The COGs point to New Testament discussions about false gospels and destructive heresies and insert things like Easter. If they read the scriptures in context, they'd see that the main two heretical movements were the Gnostics and the Judaizers. They are pretty good at finding the gnosticism, but have a poor track record at spotting the Judaizers. Probably because it's largely what they preach, minus a sacrifice here and a foreskin there.

I think it's safe to say that things haven't changed much since I left the COGs. I recently read the March-April edition of the United Church of God's “Beyond Today” magazine and, predictably, saw these regurgitated claims and more in Darris McNeely's article, “What Easter Doesn't Tell You.”

Here are the downright absurd things McNeely claims Easter fails to teach:

1. “Only God coming in the flesh could open the door of salvation for the human creation.”
2. “What's missing is understanding the way to eternal life through Jesus Christ, the Son of God!”
3. “Jesus Christ tasted death for every man so that God might give eternal life to those who call on His name.”
4. “You are missing out on the wonderful meaning of Passover and the death and reconciliation of Jesus Christ. Jesus suffered, died and was resurrected once for all time so that men might have the opportunity to enter into eternal life. Easter obscures the truth about that.”

If you have (as I had been) raised in the COGs and never been to an Easter service, you might actually believe these claims. I didn't know what to expect at my first Easter service. The main thing I remember was that I cried through the whole service. Not because I felt awkward and guilty, like my first Christmas Eve. It was because of the joy that Easter inspired in my heart, and because of the sadness I felt for the rest of my family, eating matzos and focusing on futile task of putting out their own sin. Anyway, the Easter service – and most weekly church services, actually – revolve around those four points.

In turn, I'd like to share some important spiritual points that the Days of Unleavened Bread don't tell you:

1. Jesus was resurrected.

I know that you guys realize this, but I also want you to realize that the Days of Unleavened Bread in no way address this point. Jesus' resurrection was kind of a big deal. It was, technically speaking, probably the most important event in human history. Not because – as the COGs say – Jesus showed others the way to salvation – leading a righteous life, following Hebraic customs, then hoping you are “good enough” to be resurrected into the God family later. No, it was a big deal because it proved that Jesus was who He said He was, and that the claims and promises He made were true – promises of forgiveness of sins, of salvation, of a New Covenant and faith in HIM as the way to salvation. If they weren't true, and if Jesus had been a madman or false Messiah, then that tomb would have remained occupied.

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people to be most pitied.
- 1 Corinthians 15:12-19

But God doesn't TELL us to observe the resurrection, you say. True. Must we formally celebrate Jesus' resurrection to be a Christian? Of course not. But the resurrection is, as I said, a big deal. It's the reason why we can have hope – the hope for which we are always to be ready to give an answer. It's supposed to be a topic near and dear to our hearts, an active part of our faith. I found it encouraging that McNeely's article made mention of the resurrection several times. It was, however, ironic that he insisted Easter misses the truth about the resurrection when his own church does nothing to mark the resurrection. Claim the mainstream Christian world has the timeline wrong, claim it wasn't an observation, ignore the symbolism of the wave sheaf offering, whatever. But stop foolishly insisting that a holiday specifically established to commemorate Christ's resurrection misses the truth about His resurrection oh, don't forget that according to Israel's track record, it's perfectly fine to create holidays to commemorate miracles. It's difficult to claim to be a Christian organization, yet ignore the very historical event that established Christianity, as people younger and cooler than me would say, “a legit thing.” The Days of Unleavened Bread obscure that, and it's exactly why I believe that its observation keeps us focused on the physical, to our spiritual detriment.

2. Physical acts don't factor into your salvation.

Try as the modern COGs might, it's hard to get around the fact that the Days of Unleavened Bread focus on the physical. For days, weeks, and sometimes months, you focus on getting physical leaven out of your home. You pause to celebrate the Passover, and then the Night to be Much Observed – a lavish celebration not observed by Jesus' disciplines and AT LEAST as extra-biblical as Easter – then continue avoid leavening for the next seven days. Do you do it because you WANT to, because it's time to clean out the house, or because you want to try a low-carb diet? NO!!! You do it because you believe that not doing can keep you out of God's Kingdom. Yes, it was commanded – for Israel – and we have record of a few New Testament congregations like Corinth keeping it. It's likely that Christians like Peter and Paul observed it, although they certainly knew that doing so neither secured nor disqualified them. I get the distinct feeling that's not the impression members of UCG, COGWA, LCG or PCG get.

In contrast, Easter, and especially Good Friday, remind us that the filthy rags of our own efforts mean nothing when it comes to salvation. We are saved FOR good works, not BY good works. And even that's iffy, in the case of those who die shortly after conversion. Consider the thief on the cross – he had no opportunity to do anything for the Kingdom. He couldn't feed the needy. He couldn't care for orphans and widows. He couldn't be baptized. He couldn't even move. Yet Jesus told the thief that he had done all he needed to do. You can argue that the thief isn't in heaven, you can argue that he's “asleep” in the ground awaiting resurrection, but you can't argue that Jesus told him he'd done enough by expressing his faith. The message of the Days of Unleavened Bread gives the polar opposite of that message, which leads me to my next point.

3. You will never be good enough – and that isn't the point, anyway.

You must put leavening out of your house, your minister tells you, because it symbolizes sin. In fact, those that don't put out leaven are sinning. But don't go overboard, because it's not possible and your focus should be primarily spiritual anyway. Also, laugh it off when you find a sandwich crust wedged in the bowels of your recliner next week, because God knows how hard you tried and will give you a pass. That one wasn't really sin because, you didn't know it was there. Or you forgot. Or whatever.

Huh? NOW who doesn't understand the gravity of sin?

I personally believe this ritual was intended to teach us one thing – the ingrained, pervasive depth of our sin. This isn't, as Paul wrote, an excuse to live for the flesh, but instead to teach us to recognize our total dependence upon God – for our justification, for our sanctification and our salvation. Once we grasp that, we don't rehearse it year after year. We do something about it. We move out of the shadows and step into the light of Christ. we place our faith in Jesus for salvation instead of our own efforts. It's not 80/20. It's not 90/10. It's not even 99.9/0.01. When we realize we are fully dependent upon Him, we can move past our self-righteousness, drop our checklist and fully appreciate what He's done for us. We are justified, or made right with God, by faith in His promise, and Christ's righteousness is credited to us, as it was to Abraham. Our hearts are changed, and we begin the lifelong process of transformation - with God as the potter and us as the clay.

4. Examination isn't a once-a-year thing.

Now, if you listen to your minister, you might believe that those who leave the COGs live immoral, amoral existences. Some may, but that's not a given. Most who exit to some other form of Christianity did so because they studied their Bibles and found the COG explanations lacking. They still believe in obedience, they just believe in obedience to a different covenant, and for different reasons.

One thing that has struck me in my recent study is the idea of self-examination. The COGs apply scriptures regarding self-examination mainly to the Passover season. He who eats the bread and drinks the wine without self-examination drinks judgment to himself. The messages traditionally start about 6 weeks out, with catchy titles like, "Five Steps for Better Self-Examination," some discussing topics found in the Beautitudes, but many discussing faithful tithing practices (I'm looking at you, LCG) and making better use of the Sabbath day.

It's not a traditional Passover passage, but when I think of self-examination, I think of James:

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perserveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
- James 2:22-25

While it's not true of all, the annual Days of Unleavened Bread ritual tends to turn us into that man James criticizes - one who looks into the mirror at his natural face - be it for an afternoon, a day, a week or a month - then forgets what he looks like the rest of the year. I literally had a COG member get in touch with me almost two years after she tore me down for my beliefs and kicked me out of her house. It was - you guessed it - right before Passover. Was she not "cleansed" by the previous Passover? Had she thought about her behavior at all during the previous 20 months? I'll never know, but by then, the damage was done. The relationship was strained, and we haven't talked since. This is why I, personally, believe the frequent Lord's Supper model is what the Bible intended. It encourages us to root out sin, mend relationships and consider our behavior frequently, not waiting a whole year to make changes and amends.

And while we're on the subject of James, let's look at the topics the book of James, and heck, 1 Corinthians 5, the COG-celebrated New Testament DUB passage, are concerned with regarding Christian behavior:

  • Quarreling
  • Following men/factions
  • Jealous and strife
  • Tolerating sexual immorality
  • Idolatry
  • Homosexuality
  • Doubting/faithlessness
  • Entertaining sinful desires
  • Filthy ideas and speech
  • Controlling your speech
  • Visiting widows and orphans
  • Showing partiality to the rich
  • Mercy
  • Helping brethren in need

I find two things striking about this list: 1 - very few of these concepts overlap with "the law," and 2 - none of these can be effectively changed in a period of days, weeks or months. even months. James is not talking about annual examination, he's talking about a day-by-day, committed, year-long (really, life-long) commitment. Anything less, and you're the man who's forgotten after looking into the mirror for a short time.


It's no secret that I believe keeping the Days of Unleavened Bread create serious problems for Christians. I believe the practice of mixing the wineskins can spiritually blind us with the veil Paul discusses in 2 Corinthians 3:13-15. Keeping it can puff us up with pride - the achieving the opposite of what the COGs each is intended. Remember, I did not leave "the church" as a rebellious teen after I moved out of my parent's house. I was not dragged to church with a well-meaning grandparent, nor I did not join half-heartedly when I got married. I was as committed as you. I had annual traditions with my family, Pinterest-worthy (ok, Pinterest-fail-worthy) unleavened treats and dutifully started my children on the same path; teaching them to dutifully clean out their toybox at age three. But I came to see that the DUB created more spiritual questions, confusion and emptiness that could only be answered in Jesus. I can fully relate with Paul when he wrote that "whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3:7-8a).

Go ahead and eat your matzo if you must. In fact, eat an extra one with peanut butter for me. Those were my favorite. Anyway, keeping the DUB didn't disqualify the brethren in Corinth; so it stands to reason that it won't disqualify you either, done with proper faith in Christ. But take a moment - not on Sunday, if that's too much for you - to read the accounts of Jesus' resurrection, to read how it's regarded in the New Testament, and to contemplate what it means for you.

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...

Hey "Martha", Child Survivor here. I remember my first Easter service after leaving the COG's back in 1980. I really didn't know what to expect because I had attended Easter masses as a very young boy prior to entering the WCG, I really didn't remember what they were like. That first Easter service at the nondenominational, evangelical church blew me away. I learned some new hymns like "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" and "Christ Arose", singing about the resurrection was nonexistence in the COG's. The scripture was John 20 and it was all about Jesus rising that first Easter morning. No sun-worship, no fertility rites, no mention of eggs or bunnies. Just Jesus. So it's safe to say the COG's are lying through their teeth when they make claims that Easter doesn't mention the resurrection. Where were they doing their research, the Unitarian church????

Still Learning said...

Martha, thank you for your article. My spouse and I were just discussing these very issues, particularly your points #1 and #4. It's very striking to see how different the reality is to what we've always been taught about mainstream Christianity.