Recently, a friend shared a post titled “After 20 Years … there remains but a poor case for a divided Church of God.” It’s arguing that there’s no good excuse for the church of God to exist in different organizations. It broke apart because of doctrinal differences, but now people believing the same things are divided up into innumerable different groups. Why haven’t they got back together yet?
It’s a lamentation I’ve heard pretty much my entire life. My parents met attending the Worldwide Church of God and I was only 6 years old when the major split happened. I’ve grown up in off-shoots of that church group including United Church of God and various independent groups such as Christian Biblical Church of God and the now-nonexistant Bellville Church of God.
- Quick note for my regular readers: this post is addressed to people in church groups that split off from the Worldwide Church of God (most in 1995) due to major doctrinal differences. If you read something here that seems “odd” it’s probably because of not sharing my target audience’s background. Please bear with me going off on this specific topic for one post 🙂
I don’t really remember Worldwide. But I’ve heard about the huge church groups with hundreds of attendees each week and the Feasts of Tabernacles where multiple thousands gathered to celebrate God’s holy days. I’ve heard (and still hear) Herbert Armstrong quoted in multiple sermons every year. I’ve seen groups trying to re-create the “good old days” when the church had a central government, word-wide cultural influence, and its own university. And I read articles like the one my friend shared that wonder why we don’t have that any more and urging a return to unity.
I’m writing my post today because I feel this type of argument is glossing over the true issues. Perhaps we’re so nostalgic for what was that we’re missing a greater what could be.
First, we have to decide what we mean by disunity and division. This writer said he observed division when a church group of 800-1,000 people was split into four different congregations due to an administrative decision. He also describe the many different groups that grew out of a Worldwide background as currently disunified. It seems he means that division exists when all God’s people in a given location aren’t meeting together and when there are different church groups in existence instead of a single over-arching organization.
But is that an accurate description? Should we expect God’s church to all fall under one human label or to all meet in the same location? Or do some people just think that’s a good idea because that’s what they thought was going on in Worldwide? This gets to a key question: How does the Bible define “the church of God”? We can’t even try to be the ideal version of something until we know what that ideal version looks like.
Just What Is “The Church”?
The term “church” in the New Testament comes from the Greek word ekklesia (G1577). It’s derived from root words (which don’t appear in the Bible) that mean “to call out.” In every-day use, ekklesia “was a common term for a congregation of the ekkletoi (n.f.), the called people, or those called out or assembled in the public affairs of a free state” (Zodhiates). Basically, the church is whoever has been called by God. It’s the people. It’s got nothing to do with an organization or a location.
When we look at the early church in Acts, there really isn’t any sort of organization like we see in Worldwide or her offshoots. There was simply the church in Jerusalem, the church in Corinth, the church in Ephesus, Galatia, and on and on. Paul’s epistles and the letters in Revelation 2 and 3 are addressed to “the church in” a specific location, and that just means the called-out ones who lived in that area. When major questions arose in the church, we have an example of the apostles and elders convening in Jerusalem to decide on an answer (Acts 15), but that’s about it for what we think of as “church government.”
It looks like the early churches were “governed” locally by the ministers, elders, bishops, deacons, etc. When the apostles (a role that doesn’t seem to exist any longer, except for Jesus Christ) set up new churches, they also set up men in those areas to care for the flock. People could freely travel between groups in different cities and they weren’t shunned because they were in the “wrong church group.” The only real central government was Jesus Christ as the Head of the church. Because each group acknowledged Him as the head, there wasn’t any call for a human organization to try and rule over them.
Humans Complicate Things
The picture I painted above probably sounds overly simplistic and even naive in today’s society. But I think that’s what real unity looks like — all the different churches of God acknowledging Jesus Christ as the Head and getting along with each other. Real unity doesn’t have anything to do with putting everyone in the same church group/organization. Worldwide wasn’t the church of God. United, Living, Philadelphia, and all those other groups are not the church of God. They’re man-made organizations where people attend who are part of the God-made church.
As I said before, I have few memories of Worldwide. Herbert Armstrong died 3 years before I was born. But I’ve seen the fruits that came out of the church he started and I’ve lived with people dealing with the fallout from Worldwide’s collapse. I’ve been told his teachings were sound and I know many people owe him their first exposure to the truth, but most of what I’ve witnessed first-hand has been the negative fruits. Even the group we look back on as “the good old days” wasn’t all that good.
I don’t think God is looking for all of us to get into one big human-lead organization. I think He wants us to stop bickering about putting a church organization “back together” and start simply being the church. We don’t need to get the church “back together;” we need to get ego out of the way. The focus on church organizations does not create unity. It creates division.
Sloughing Off Negative Traditions
My whole life, I’ve been surrounded by people who no longer trust the ministry because of what they witnessed in Worldwide. I know people who resist connecting with their local brethren because they can’t trust that the fellowship won’t be broken apart again. I see speakers who won’t preach a strong message about Jesus Christ because Mr. Armstrong thought talking about Him was “too Protestant.” I’ve seen churches pulled apart by disagreements caused by visions for what the church “should be” that are based on Armstrong’s model instead of the scriptures.
More insidious are the lingering ideas that have been passed on like a genetic disorder. The idea “we’re the only true church” that leads people to reject anyone (including Messianics and independent Sabbath-keeping groups) without a church of God background as not really part of God’s church. The idea of ministerial infallibility that means a local group I know of is hemorrhaging members into their sister churches because no one knows how to address the problem of a control-freak pastor. The tendency to do things according to church tradition instead of scripture, which leads to things like rejecting lively music and instruments other than the piano. The emphasis on defining ourselves by how we’re different than other Christians (we keep the Sabbath and holy days, don’t believe in the Trinity, etc.) rather than by the agape which Jesus said would characterize His true followers.
It’s not time for the church to go backwards seeking what it had in Worldwide. It’s time for us to go forward and chase true unity by pursuing fellowship with Jesus Christ and God the Father. It’s time to focus on what unites us as believers instead of what divides us into organizations. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to move comfortably between groups and fellowship with all our brethren. And we don’t need to merge the groups we have now in order to do that. We just need to shift our perspective from what we think the church should look like to being the kind of church God wants — one that creates unity by loving God, loving the brethren, and focusing on the Head of all things to the church.