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Thursday, August 22, 2019

Rock Valley & Oak Stone Christian churches: Trendier, Gentler COGs




It's become popular in recent years for churches and ministries to incorporate numbers into their name or logo. Ken Ham's Answers in Genesis organization stamps a 1:1 shorthand trademark on its materials. A group of Michigan churches called 2|42 embraces the practices listed in Acts 2:42-47 as a means of making disciples. Hebrew Roots ministry 119 alludes to the Psalm 119 reference to David being a man after God's own heart.

Turns out that even Armstrongism isn't immune from this trend.

We at As Bereans Did recently learned about the existence of 14:12 churches. What are 14:12 churches? As of now, there appear to be two – Rock Valley Christian Church in Murrieta, California, and Oak Stone Christian Church in Dallas, Texas. While Rock Valley has been around for many years, Oak Stone is less than a year old, and was planted by Rock Valley's pastor, David Liesenfelt.  These churches rally around Revelation 14:12 because its members “keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus,” according to Liesenfelt.

Stereotypical Pinterest church sanctuary photo
But Rock Valley and Oak Stone don't just have a trendy tagline. They have the telltale matching pallet wood backdrops and string light accents to back it up. Drums and electric guitars accompany their contemporary Christian worship services. Their web sites are peppered with Christian-ese terms like “non-denominational” and “church plant.” To the unsuspecting passer-by, they look like any other community church.



Rock Valley sanctuary, courtesy of YouTube




And therein lies our problem.


COG-Lite

We have mixed feelings about criticizing these 14:12 churches. They appear more relaxed than any Church of God we've ever seen. We see jeans in the audience, and even hands lifted in worship. They've ditched British Israelism and a few other points of Armstrongist nonsense. To be honest, if our extended families continue to attend the COGs, this seems like the kind of place we hope they end up.

But here's the thing.  Rock Valley and Oak Stone are more into evangelism than their COG predecessors. They, unlike many COGs, appear to get visitors who have no connection to Armstrongism.  And also unlike other COGs, which scare people away with their hotel meeting spaces and three-piece suits, their atmosphere seems culturally congruent. Visitors have no reason to suspect they are witnessing anything other than a small, yet vibrant, Christian church plant.

As xHWA so aptly explained, we don't blame those who were drawn into the COGs early on. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time. It's hard to criticize those who wanted to please God and showed the courage to turn away from long-held mainstream traditions, regardless of the personal cost. And we sympathize with those raised in the tradition who feel pressure to stay, despite their questions. But in 2019, with decades of documentation, resources and good old Google available, it's hard to understand making the decision to join.

Unless you don't know what you're joining. Unless you're not getting the full story.


The Rest of the Story


This is our impression, as well as the impression of one Google reviewer, who really enjoyed the church, but eventually left because he was uncomfortable with the ambiguity of Rock Valley's Statement of Beliefs, as well as its anti-Trinitarian stance.

“Transparency from the church leadership, a clearly defined statement of beliefs and a truly Biblical theological position from a church group is a high importance to me.”

(We won't make a big deal about the Trinity today, although you're more than welcome to check out our musings on the topic.)

  The vagueness of Rock Valley's statement of beliefs is a red flag.  But it was an even bigger red flag when Liesenfelt wasn't transparent with ABD about his theological background. After reading about his churches, I emailed Liesenfelt with several questions, including asking from which seminary he received his certification.


“I never attended seminary,” he responded. “My authority comes from Jesus Christ.”

We believe Liesenfelt is telling the truth when he says he didn't attend seminary. However, Liesenfelt also runs abudantliving.org, a web site featuring his sermons, radio shows and  other material he produces. On abundantliving.org, Liesenfelt states that he graduated from college in 1990 with a degree in Theology. We later asked Liesenfelt why he did not disclose this fact when responding to our seminary question, since we were clearly seeking details about his theological training. As of the time this piece was posted, he has not responded to the question. It has been almost a month since we posed this question to him.

We are reasonably certain we know the source of some of Liesenfelt's theological training. According to The Worldwide News' June 5, 1989 edition, Liesenfelt received his Associate of Arts Degree from Ambassador College at Big Sandy, Texas - an unaccredited institution founded by Herbert W Armstrong. Armstrong founded and ran the Worldwide Church of God, which is discussed in Walter Martin's book, The Kingdom of the Cults, until his death in 1986. Since then, WCG has splintered into hundreds of smaller organizations that retain different permutations of Armstrong's teachings.

Does attending Ambassador College disqualify Liesenfelt from the role of pastor? Of course not. Does membership in a questionable religious institution disqualify him pastoring, teaching or other theological commentary? Again, I obviously don't think so, since everyone at ABD is in the same boat. But if you call yourself a pastor, and you're asked about your religious training, and have religious training from a specific institution, hiding it is concerning. Admit it. Affirm what you were taught, if you still believe it. If not, state where you have turned or departed. Especially if you are a Bible teacher, when the Bible exhorts us to tell the truth and avoid deceptive words and behavior. Liesenfelt's answer feels like more than an oversight to us. Further, it seems congruent with the reviewer's assessment of Rock Valley leadership.


Filling in the gaps


We're left to Liesenfelt's own answers and posted sermons to try to determine how much Ambassador College material is left in his teachings. He doesn't promote British Israelism - the theory that the United States and Western European peoples are direct physical descendants of the lost 10 tribes of Israel - which we applaud.

The Old Covenant law, including a seventh-day Sabbath and the Holy Days (as interpreted by those who founded Ambassador College), is still emphasized. The sites include many topics that are borderline Evangelical, we still see some key Ambassador College/COG buzzwords, like "Law of Liberty," "Faith Without Works," "Lean Not On Your Own Understanding," "He Who Endures To The End Shall Be Saved," and more.

You might ask, those are just Bible verses, what's the harm? Anyone who has spent any time in a COG knows these old, familiar verses. You've heard them over and over and over again. These ones aren't chosen at random - they know it and we know it.

In one sermon, titled "The Whole Gospel in one Bible Chapter," Liesenfelt asks his audience which one chapter of the Bible they would use to preach the gospel to an unbeliever. Audience members had many suggestions, including Romans 8, Hebrews 10 and John 3. Instead, Leisenfelt explained that Leviticus 23 was the best source for explaining God's "plan of salvation."

We agree, in a roundabout way, that Leviticus 23 does point to God's plan. And that plan was the coming of Jesus Christ, the One whom the holy days foreshadowed, and our salvation by grace through faith in Him. The holy days do not lay out a jigsaw puzzle we must piece together in order to attain salvation. They demonstrated the insufficiency of Israel, the law and anything else besides the Messiah to save, and pointed Israel to Him as their only hope. And as Paul explained in 2 Corinthians 3:12, Israel didn't see it.

And Liesenfelt doesn't seem to see it, either. His message on the Leviticus 23 "gospel" dwells on the fact that those in "the world" see the Holy Days through a veil, which is lifted when they turn to God. Those who read scripture in context will note that 2 Corinthians 3:13 specifically tells us this passage refers to Israel - specifically when Israel focuses on the Sinai Covenant. Sadly, the COGs unknowingly fall into the same trap.


Rock Valley's typical Christmas sermon sounds like a slightly better-marketed version of the moldly leftovers the COGs serve up each December. We note Pastor Liesenfelt quoted The Golden Bough, a tome that rejects the story of Jesus Christ as nothing more than a re-iteration of other ancient Mesopotamian religious myths. In short, if you put stock in The Golden Bough, you have no business professing faith in Christ. Incidentally, most of the other sources Liesenfelt cited were ones ABD has researched and addressed. In his message, Liesenfelt encouraged his audience to think critically about what they had been taught and why they do what they do. He also claimed that he had “never seen a source that disagreed” with his assessments. Well, now you have.

It's annoying to see a hip, trendy church try to spin WCG's 1967 anti-Christmas material, or really, Alexander Hislop's 1800's anti-Catholic propaganda, as cutting-edge truth. But it's just Christmas, not a matter of life and death. We bring this up simply as anecdotal evidence of how far Rock Valley Christian Church and Oak Stone have or haven't fallen from the Ambassador College/WCG Tree. We'll drop it and get back to actual matters of life and death.


Seek and ye shall find?


We find some of Rock Valley's doctrinal statements – and by extension Oak Stone's – to be vague.

To be fair, Rock Valley's statement of beliefs includes a handful of long statements that sound relatively convincing. But they preface it with the statement that “any listing of specific beliefs will fall utterly short in that we accept the teaching of the Bible as our primary source of belief.”

We honestly do appreciate churches that have the courage to say “we don't know,” because we recognize there are places where scripture is murky. But that's not seems to be going on here. Rock Valley's statement of beliefs seems intentionally vague to us in some key areas – specifically, the area of salvation. We initially asked Liesenfelt for clarification on his teachings in this area – specifically whether keeping the Sabbath and Holy Days are required for salvation. We got this answer:

“Jesus is the only true judge, so the question you are asking should only be answered by the One Who alone has the authority to give life (salvation) to whom He wills.”

True. But a pastor's role is to help shepherd and guide the flock on eternal, spiritual matters. There is no greater spiritual matter than your salvation. We are all to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. But a pastor's key job is to lead and feed the sheep.  If your pastor – regardless of the denomination – can't or won't tell you what he believes you need to do to avoid damnation, we suggest that you walk away.

We also initially asked Liesenfelt whether he taught that salvation is a one-time event or an ongoing process that can be. He replied that is both, and gave the following explanation:

“The Bible declares that a person is saved when they believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, the person who continues to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling, and the person who endures to the end, and does not reject the salvation offered, shall be saved.”

This sounds like the common Armstrongist teaching of ongoing justification, and so we asked for more clarification whether this was what he taught. We also asked what he believed we must to do maintain our state of justification before God – since Liesenfelt stated that we are saved upon professing faith – and what exactly we must persist in until the end. To date – nearly a month after our inquiry - he has not responded.

We understand that asking what one needs to do to lose his salvation is not a great question. It's not an indicator of an obedient, Christian heart that's eager to please God, as Liesenfelt stated on one of his radio programs about Law and Grace. Christians should be focused on obeying God and following the prompting of the Holy Spirit, not trying to tow the line. Searching for the line is not exactly in keeping with the focus and intent of Christianity.

But here's the problem. If you teach any form of ongoing justification, you need to know where that line is. If you are saved by grace (as taught at Rock Valley) but have the power to stray or reject the offer of salvation (as Liesenfelt seemed to indicate), you better know where that line is. In short, if salvation is a pass-fail proposition, then you better make sure you pass. And you can't pass if you don't have a clearly defined set of rules.

In his Law and Grace radio programs, Liesenfelt explains that Christians are saved by grace, but that the Bible indicates Christians have an obligation to obey "the law" after they are saved.  While he focuses significantly on the Ten Commandments, Liesenfelt repeatedly brings up obedience to the Law.

But which part of the law? Just the 10 Commandments? Presumably not, because Rock Valley appears to observe the Leviticus 23 Holy Days. Do members of Oak Stone Christian church believe they are obligated to keep the whole law? The parts about mixed fabrics? Seclusion and purification days after childbirth? Unless my eyes deceive me, the pictures on Rock Valley's web site indicate neither pastor is following the whole law - specifically, the portions pertaining to beards for men.

Conundrums like this are why we believe Jesus warned us not to mix wineskins. Christians are not party to the to the Sinai Covenant. That covenant ended with the death of its Jesus Christ, its testator (Hebrews 9:16). The covenant is obsolete and vanished (Hebrews 8:13). Had it not, God would not have been free to enter the New Covenant.

Under the New Covenant, Christians have responsibilities for moral living and Christian growth into the image and stature of Christ under the New Covenant. Many Christians will debate, until they're blue in the face, whether Christians are once-saved-always-saved, or whether it's possible to throw away one's salvation. You can find passages in the Bible that support both. What you can't find, though, are passages that reinforce what many COGs teach: that you waver back and forth between saved and unsaved, for lack of a better phrase, whenever you break the select tenets of Law your splinter group chooses.

Is that was Oak Stone and Rock Valley teach? We don't know, because Liesenfelt won't answer. We suspect, however, that he, like others with an Armstrongist background, are
confusing the covenants. Was he trying to be evasive, or is the problem with the doctrine? Ongoing justification sounds good on the surface, but doesn't make sense when you actually tease it out. We're guessing the problem is a matter of cognitive dissonance based in faulty doctrine, but Liesenfelt's not-so-straightforward answers to other questions don't exactly give us confidence.

The bottom line

So why are we taking the time to post this? Is it because we want to smear Rock Valley Christian Church, Oak Stone Christian Church, and their pastor?

Definitely not. We admire these “14:12” churches for stepping away from teachings like British Israelism, knowing the potential cost. We liked a lot of we heard in Liesenfelt's messages on the critical doctrine of imputed righteousness . As we stated earlier, if our loved ones remain in the COGs, we hope they'll end up somewhere like this. Dare we recommend that established COG members dissatisfied with their current fellowship check them out?

At the same time, if you Google these churches, you won't find a lot of information. We think that potential members with no COG background need to have the facts before joining them. We're not confident that's happening. We think potential members should know they are visiting a non-Trinitarian sect, that embraces soul sleep, an alternative interpretation on salvation, and has its roots in Herbert Armstrong's Worldwide Church of God. If no one else is going to let them know, we will.



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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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