This is the 2nd essay in a series
I first attended the Church of God in Springvale, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, circa 1969. Between 800 and 1000 attended there. Sabbath services were like feast days. There were Wednesday night bible studies and Spokesman Clubs. Come Sunday morning we played soccer. Church was a place of learning, serving and a social home. The annual dance was a major event. The church was big. Kids loved coming to church; that’s where their friends were.
Point: When the church is big, there is something, some group, or someone … for everyone.
I left Melbourne and went to college, first in England and then Pasadena, California. With students, employees, and everyone else, numbers in Pasadena alone exceeded 3000. Significant size congregations met throughout the land and overseas. For 8 days in autumn, 120,000 celebrated the holy days in many places throughout planet Earth.
My first encounter with “division” occurred upon returning to Melbourne for a visit. The church had been split into four; North, South, West, and East. It was an “administrative” division. Ministers could “better serve the congregation” if groups were smaller. There may have been other factors; I don’t know. It saddened me more than a little for I imagined myself still there, looking forward each week to friends and hanging out together. Was it really worth dividing the church?
My next encounter with “division” was the great split of 1995, ten years after the death of the church’s modern day founder, Mr. Herbert Armstrong. New leadership introduced new ideas contrary to the fundamental principles and doctrines of the church. They persuaded many, disillusioned many more, and fought with those opposed to the changes. Separation was the only recourse. No one really disputes this.
Did it have to happen the way it did? In retrospect, it should have come as no surprise. Paul warned of similar in his time. He knew after his death “grievous wolves” as he called them would enter from outside as well as from within, speaking “perverse things” for purposes of gaining power of others (Acts 20:30). Hindsight is 20/20. Had Mr. Armstrong decentralized the autocratic power of his office throughout the church prior to his death, such power could not have been passed on and become the subject of abuse. None of us knew that what Paul warned of was a pattern to be repeated.
Point: The desire to exercise power, to rule over your fellow man, is a common temptation and one some find hard to resist. It remains a constant threat.
After “the great split”, thousands adopted traditional Protestant type beliefs and were absorbed into mainstream Christianity. Thousands more ceased to fellowship with others, or lost faith altogether. Many thousands continued in the same teachings prior to the split. They organized into multiple fellowships, a few being more dominant than others. These were and now are separate organizations, each calling themselves the “Church of God” with a unique adjective added to the name for further identity. My closest friends, my family and I continued in the traditional beliefs for reasons I explained in my first essay “What’s so great about the Church of God“.
It was natural to expect the scattering of members into diverse COG groups after the split. No central power existed to keep them together and in uncertain times, why trust others? Let the dust settle. Perhaps in the course of time and in ways we cannot anticipate, the will of God will be made manifest? But over 20 years have now passed. An entire generation has grown up in a divided church.
Question: Are we to believe that permanent division is now the normal, default position for God’s church?
We worship one God, have one Holy Spirit, one faith, share the same fundamental beliefs and share the same primary mission which is to preach the gospel and serve each other in the body of Christ. The spiritual body of Christ is unified in Christ. Does Christ wish its organizational counterpart to be divided? The answer must surely be no. Otherwise, how could we sing “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133:1)?
This verse says something important. It offers a concept of unity that is broader than “one Spirit”; it extends God’s vision of unity to the physical (“dwelling together”). So God’s desire for unity applies to both the spiritual and physical. God’s people may be scattered throughout the earth and still be unified in spirit, but it is better if they were also unified physically, “dwelling together”. It is “good” that this be so; beneficial and morally correct. It is also “pleasant”; tending to make one happy.
Problem: Men who considered themselves leaders did well to leave a church because it had forsaken the truth of God. But do they now resist the will of God; His desire that “brethren dwell together in unity”?
I am well aware there are many leaders who desire unity of the COG’s and have done much in their power to break down barriers. The barriers remain. I do not question the motives of those who maintain them, but do try to understand their rationale, such as it may be.
So, given God’s desire for unity, how does one rationalize disunity?
One way is to redefine “unity”; apply unity to a part, rather than the whole.
Example: A large church may break up into smaller churches; each small church is unified unto itself, but not with respect to the others. One can continue to divide a large group into multiple smaller units, until each church leader can happily proclaim “unity” and sing Psalm 133. However, the large group being divided is really the spiritual body of Christ which is not subject to such division in the eyes of God.
A second way to rationalize disunity is to assert but not prove disagreement over fundamental doctrines. In a more recent split, fears were spread (falsely) by some of plans to compromise the Sabbath and embrace the Trinity teaching. These fears were in part used to justify division. The fears were groundless and proven to be so in the years that followed.
A third way is to elevate lesser differences, such as those of “administration and customs” to the same level of importance as fundamental doctrines. This done, a leader seeking division can justify his act by simply claiming he is following the pattern set in the “the great split” of 1995. The problem with this approach is that it ignores another fundamental doctrine concerning the very purpose of God’s church.
We all believe God calls everyone to the body of Christ and it is manifestly clear He calls a wide variety of people. God therefore is responsible for our differences including our varied viewpoints in solving problems. He did not build a uniform church. Why not? The reason is certainly not to provide an excuse for division. God’s calling does not guarantee unity in the church. Our differences exist in part so that members learn to strive for unity, rather than assume it is normal.
When members accept the challenge and fellowship widely in their congregation, they grow in humility and grace. Usually they are pleasantly surprised when they cross social barriers. Recall the promise: “how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity”. Such fellowship is an act of giving.
Point: A fundamental purpose of coming together in a church is to transcend our differences and help one another to grow.
Leaders face the same task as members. The power given to them must be controlled and not exerted simply because it exists. Anyone possessing power has a wonderful opportunity to grow in humility. Power should not be misused to enable separation from those with whom they disagree, whom God also has placed in the body. The ultimate misuse of power is for a leader to assert that doctrine itself gives him his right to lead and anyone who disagrees with him is disobeying God. Problems will arise when two such people assert the same claim. Logically, either one is right and the other is wrong, or both are wrong. Both cannot be right. Both probably are wrong, for such claims cannot be proven from scripture, the source for all doctrine.
Paul once said “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase” (1 Cor. 3:6). This verse tells us that before God does His part, we must do ours. If Paul did NOT plant and Apollos did NOT water, God would not have given the increase. Elsewhere Paul said we should resolve “not to put a stumbling block or cause to fall in our brother’s way” (Rom. 14:13)
The spiritual Church of God has been divided for over 20 years despite broad agreement over the same fundamental doctrines over the nature, will, and purpose of God. God is clear that unity is both good and conducive to happiness. It follows that lack of unity must “not be good” and very likely conducive to sorrow.
God allows and desires that Christians help one another to grow spiritually. He also allows us to cause others to stumble. We each have power to do both. So a fair question to ask is “Has anyone suffered on account of the Churches of God being divided for over 20 years? If so, who has suffered the most, and what can be done to stop it?