CHAPTER 6 - OBTAINING GOD'S HELP -- PRACTICING WHAT WE PREACH
In order for a church to have maximum success in preaching the gospel, it must have the right gospel and it should understand the need. It should be motivated by love towards God and man, understanding that preaching the true gospel and the Ezekiel warning glorifies God's name, helps Israel understand their future trial and come to repentance, and helps to forward God's plan for mankind. Also, since it is God that blesses and empowers the work of preaching the gospel and the Ezekiel warning, any church that preaches the gospel must have God's help and blessing to be successful.
It is God who opens doors and opportunities. It is God who gives us the wisdom and resources to go through those open doors. Even though we may have the desire to preach the gospel to the world, without God's help our efforts will not go very far (John 15:5). It is only with God's help that we will succeed, and any church that seeks God's help should strive to make sure their ways are pleasing to Him.
The same principle is true for an individual member of the Church that wants to support the preaching of the gospel. Such a person should know what the true gospel and Ezekiel warning are, and such a person should be motivated by love. But even with an individual, God's help and blessing are needed for that individual member to be able to make the right decisions to be effective in supporting the gospel. At this time when the whole Church of God is scattered into a number of organizations, members who wish to support the efforts of a Church of God fellowship in preaching the gospel must choose which organization to support in order to be effective. God commands tithes and offerings, but the Bible does not tell us the name of the church to write on the check or the post office box number and city to write on the envelope. This is a choice individual members have a responsibility of making. It is a judgment call that must be made based on the principles in God's Word and based on available information about the Churches of God. To make such a judgment accurately and effectively requires spiritual discernment and wisdom. But this kind of discernment and wisdom must be a gift from God (James 1:5, 1 Corinthians 2:11). Also, individual members can contribute and support the gospel in various ways including financial contributions, fervent prayers, and in some cases volunteer work such as distributing mail-in cards or magazines to various outlets. But even this requires God's help and blessing to be successful. It is God who blesses us with financial prosperity so we can make contributions. It is God who opens up opportunities. It is God who answers our prayers.
Without God's help, no individual or group can accomplish much in preaching the true gospel and the Ezekiel warning to Israel and the rest of the world. God says in Zechariah 4:6, "So he answered and said to me: 'This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,' says the Lord of hosts." In addition to the specific prophetic application this has to Zerubbabel, this also illustrates the principle that it is God that blesses and empowers His work. Jesus taught the same principle when He said "without Me you can do nothing" (John 15:5).
Does God bless and empower everyone that tries to preach the truth? Revelation 3:7-8 says, "And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write, 'These things says He who is holy, He who is true, "He who has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens": "I know your works. See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name." ' " See 1 Corinthians 16:8-9, 2 Corinthians 2:12, and Colossians 4:2-4 for the meaning of "open door". Christ does not make that same promise of an open door to Sardis or to Laodicea.
We can also look at recent Church history to see that God blessed and empowered the preaching of the gospel to the world much more during the Philadelphia era of the Church than so far during the Laodicea era.
If we want God's blessings and power so that we can more effectively preach the gospel, our works must be pleasing to Him.
Practicing What We Preach
It is part of God's way that those who teach should teach by example as well as word. Jesus not only taught by word, but by example, living a perfect life. Therefore, to make sure our ways are pleasing to God, we need to strive to practice what we teach others to do.
An application of this principle is that those who preach the gospel to the public should strive to practice what they preach. Whatever we ask our listening audience or magazine readership to do, we should be willing to strive to do the same things.
Anyone who reads through the gospel accounts can notice that Jesus' harshest criticism was directed towards the Pharisees because they did not do what they taught others to do. "Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying: 'The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers' " (Matthew 23:1-4).
This illustrates the principle that one must practice what he preaches. This principle is still valid today and applies to the Church and to individual members who want to support the preaching of the gospel. If our hearts are in doing the work of preaching the gospel to the world, we should also be striving to live godly lives and to live by every word of God. God can bless the work of the Church and answer the prayers of individual members for the preaching of the gospel when He sees that we are striving to be obedient to His word in every aspect of our lives, and when He sees we are doing the things we are teaching the members of public to do.
There are many obvious applications of this principle. We must be striving to overcome and to be obedient to the Ten Commandments. We must be striving to love God with all our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We must be striving to learn to trust God and believe His promises. But there is one aspect of this that I have not heard much about, yet it may be one of the most vital points in the principle of practicing what we preach. And, indirectly, it has something to do with the Elijah question.
Significance of the Elijah Question
I have noticed on the Internet that a number of Church of God groups are concerned about the Elijah question. The question itself is fairly simply to state. "Was Herbert W. Armstrong the Elijah to come?" A number of groups say emphatically, "Yes". Not only do they say that Mr. Armstrong was the Elijah to come, several of them emphasize the importance of knowing and believing that he was the Elijah. I believe I heard one minister on an audio recording say that knowing that Mr. Armstrong was the Elijah to come is the most important thing for a Philadelphian to know. That is a heavy statement. I have also heard a leader of another group harshly criticize those who do not take a position one way or another. He seemed to feel they were "fence sitters" or cowards for not taking a definite position on this question. What struck me was that he raised his voice in anger when he spoke about this in a way that he did not do in any other part of his sermon. I got the impression he was more emotionally "charged up" about the Elijah issue than any other issue he talked about (his sermon was not about Elijah or about Mr. Armstrong). I think one minister has said that rejecting Mr. Armstrong's Elijah role was the cause for division in the Church. He didn't explain why several groups that accept Mr. Armstrong as the Elijah to come are themselves divided between themselves.
Why is this important, and what does the Bible say about the Elijah to come? And what does this have to do with the subject of practicing what we preach?
I will cover certain key scriptures about the Elijah to come, but this is not intended to be an exhaustive study of the subject. The reader can do his own study if he wants further detail. But I want to give an overview, then cover a particular point that I think is relevant.
Malachi 4:5-6 states: "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse." These are the last two verses of the Old Testament, and they show that God will send someone He calls "Elijah" before the Day of the Lord.
The angel Gabriel told Zacharias that John the Baptist would fulfill an Elijah role. "But the angel said to him, 'Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, "to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children," and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord' " (Luke 1:13-17).
When John the Baptist was fulfilling his ministry, the priests and Levites asked him if he was Elijah. "Now this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, 'Who are you?' He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, 'I am not the Christ.' And they asked him, 'What then? Are you Elijah?' He said, 'I am not.' 'Are you the Prophet?' And he answered, 'No' " (John 1:19-21). Verse 24 adds that the priests and Levites who questioned John were sent by the Pharisees.
Later Jesus spoke to the crowds about John the Baptist. "Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come" (Matthew 11:11-14).
Also, after the transfiguration, Jesus' disciples asked Him about Elijah. "Now as they came down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, 'Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead.' And His disciples asked Him, saying, 'Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?' Jesus answered and said to them, 'Indeed, Elijah is coming first and will restore all things. But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wished. Likewise the Son of Man is also about to suffer at their hands.' Then the disciples understood that He spoke to them of John the Baptist" (Matthew 17:9-13). See also Mark 9:9-13.
Since Jesus said that Elijah is yet to restore all things, we know there was to be a future fulfillment of the Elijah role after John the Baptist. Many believe, because of all the truths that Mr. Armstrong restored, that he was the Elijah to come. I think Mr. Armstrong himself believed this and implied it in his speaking and writing, though I have not heard him directly state it.
Was Mr. Armstrong the Elijah to come and restore all things?
I think that he was. However, that is not the key question. I think the key question is, is it really vital that we know this one way or another? In other words, is it true, as one minister put it, that recognizing Mr. Armstrong as the Elijah is the most important thing for a Philadelphian to know?
Let's take another look at the verses that cover the Elijah to come with this question in mind.
Malachi 4 shows the importance of the Elijah to come. The work that Elijah does, the work God does in sending him, is vitally important, because unless Elijah turns the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, God would strike the earth with a curse. The Church has understood this curse to mean utter destruction. So what God does in sending Elijah, and the work that Elijah himself does, are both vitally important. But does this verse say that it is vitally important that God's people recognize that this man holds the title of the Elijah? Is there a special command here to follow the Elijah? Is there any emphasis on the importance of recognizing him as the Elijah? If there is, I don't see it. Where is the emphasis in the Old Testament? Compare these two verses with the other things emphasized in the Old Testament, such as fearing God, obeying every commandment of God, putting our trust in God, not following other gods, keeping the Sabbath, being faithful in tithes and offerings, blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience, etc.
Is there any emphasis in the New Testament on recognizing the Elijah to come? Is there any instruction or commandment from Christ or the apostles to the Church regarding this issue, either on the importance of recognizing and obeying the Elijah, or instructions in how to recognize him when he comes?
Let's look at the four occasions when the subject of Elijah came up in the gospel accounts:
1. The angel Gabriel told Zacharias that John would come in the spirit and power of Elijah. This specifically refers to John, not Mr. Armstrong. In any case, although this information was revealed to Zacharias and to us, it did not seem that recognition that John fulfilled that role was essential for John's ministry. The fact that the Jews asked John about it and John denied that he was the Elijah shows that the Jews and the people John preached to did not recognize him as Elijah, yet that did not prevent John the Baptist from being 100 percent successful in his mission. He got the job done whether anyone knew he was the Elijah or not. He succeeded in preparing the way for the Lord at His first coming. (Luke 1:5-20).
2. The priests and Levites sent by the Pharisees asked John if he was Elijah and John said he was not. I do not know if John himself did not recognize that he was fulfilling that role, because of his humility perhaps, or if John was thinking in terms of the yet future Elijah in our time to restore all things. He must have at least known that he was one that would come in the spirit and power of Elijah because his father Zacharias must have told him what Gabriel said. In any case, I want to point something else out. Who raised the subject? Who was concerned about it? It wasn't John. It wasn't the crowds. It wasn't even John's disciples and those who repented and were baptized at his teaching. It was the Pharisees or the priests and Levites. It was the ruling authorities, the religious leaders of the day, who were concerned about what title John held. (John 1:19-28).
3. In the account of the occasion when John sent his disciples to Jesus to ask if He was the Messiah to come, afterwards Jesus spoke to the crowds and said that John was the Elijah. But there is no mention here of a future Elijah to come in our time. (Luke 7:18-28, Matthew 11:2-15, especially verses 14-15).
4. After the transfiguration, when Jesus' disciples asked Him about Elijah to come, Jesus said that Elijah will come and will, future tense, restore all things. Then He affirmed again that John was a fulfillment of Elijah. So here we have a clear indication that there is yet another fulfillment of the Elijah prophecy after John the Baptist, before the Day of the Lord, in our time. Yet even here, who raised the subject? Did Jesus teach this to His disciples because of its importance? No. His disciples asked the question and Jesus answered their question. Why were the disciples curious? They heard the scribes say that Elijah must come first. Again, it was the religious authorities, the scribes and Pharisees, that seemed the most concerned about the issue. (Matthew 17:9-13, Mark 9:7-13).
Where is the emphasis in the New Testament on recognizing who the Elijah is and following him? The only time Jesus spoke about a future fulfillment of the Elijah role after John the Baptist was when His disciples asked him about the teachings of the scribes. Jesus didn't bring the subject up. He didn't talk about it in the sermon on the mount or the Olivet prophecy or any of his parables or teachings to His disciples, except to answer that one question. If this is so vital to the Church today, wouldn't God place more emphasis on it in the Bible? Mr. Armstrong himself said he thought the Bible was primarily written for the Philadelphia era of the Church. Until the printing press, the Bible was never widely available as it is in our day. During most of the first century, it was not even complete. The Bible is for us today, and if recognizing the identity of the Elijah in our time is of such vital importance for God's people, I would think that God would teach us the importance of doing so and give us instructions for recognizing who it is.
I don't find the Elijah to come mentioned by name in Acts, or any of the epistles, or in Revelation. Even in the messages to the seven churches, even in the messages to Philadelphia and Laodicea, Christ says nothing about the Elijah to come. How can recognizing who holds the title of "the Elijah" be the most important thing for a Philadelphian to know?
The impression is clear that the Elijah issue was more important to the priests, Levites, scribes, and Pharisees than it was to Jesus Christ or John the Baptist.
Let's look at this from a practical point of view. Did the work God did through Mr. Armstrong ever depend for its success on whether or not Mr. Armstrong's readers and listeners knew he fulfilled the role of Elijah as described in the last two verses of Malachi and as described by Jesus' answer to his disciples question? Obviously not. Mr. Armstrong's work of restoring truth to the Church of God and the raising up of the Philadelphia era of the Church was well under way and going strong long before even Mr. Armstrong thought of himself as a possible fulfillment of the Elijah prophecy.
Mr. Armstrong believed God's word and God opened his mind to understand the Bible, and as Mr. Armstrong learned new truths he powerfully preached those truths to the public over radio and in print. Those God was calling listened, checked up in the Bible, and believed God's word, and God added them to the Church. They became members of the Church of God during the Philadelphia era of the Church, and they in turn sacrificed to support the preaching of the truth to others who had not heard it yet. The Philadelphia era of the Church was growing and doing a powerful work BEFORE anyone thought of Mr. Armstrong as the Elijah. Mr. Armstrong himself was a true Philadelphian and a leader of the Philadelphian era of the Church for many years without knowing the identity of the Elijah to come. So how can this be the most important truth a Philadelphian can know?
Yet with some in the Church, it seems like an important issue today. Why? And what does this have to do with practicing what we preach when we preach the gospel to the world?
The idea that it is vitally important that we recognize that Mr. Armstrong was the Elijah to restore all things does not stand in isolation. It is part of much bigger issue. That issue is, can the Church of God lawfully change any of Mr. Armstrong's doctrines?
Those who emphasize that Herbert W. Armstrong was the Elijah to come usually use this doctrine to support their position that the Church of God and its ministers and evangelists should never change any doctrine or policy that Mr. Armstrong held and taught at the time of his death. Actually, not everyone who says we should not change Mr. Armstrong's doctrines actually practices this in every detail. Some who teach that we should not change Mr. Armstrong's doctrines sometimes make exceptions to this rule. They might say that their change is not really a change because they are only changing policy or a judgment or a prophetic interpretation based on new information about current events, or that it is okay to change minor points of doctrines but not major ones. But that is beside the point.
Those who teach that we should not change Mr. Armstrong's doctrines reason that since Mr. Armstrong was prophesied to restore all things, his doctrines were 100% accurate by the time of his death. Sometimes their position that we should not change doctrine is also supported by the view that only an apostle can change or add doctrine in the Church of God, and since Mr. Armstrong was an apostle but we have no living apostle today, there is no one who is authorized to change doctrine or introduce new doctrine.
I think there are a number of flaws in this reasoning.
Actually, this is one of the most vital issues facing the Church of God, its leadership, and individual members. It not only involves preaching the gospel, but faith itself. The real issue is, what do we believe? Not only what do we believe, but WHY do we believe what we believe? Ultimately, it also comes down to, WHO do we believe?
Mr. Armstrong said, after completing Mystery of the Ages, that he thought it may be the most important book written since the Bible. Many in the Church of God today consider it to be a vital book. I have even heard or read that some teach that members of the Church should be "grounded" in Mystery of the Ages.
There is no doubt in my mind that Mystery of the Ages is one of Mr. Armstrong's most important books. It is an excellent summary of the truth of God. I think it is the most important book in terms of being a summary of the body of teachings that God restored through Mr. Armstrong. But hearing others talk about its importance made me think about Mr. Armstrong's other books. How would I rate their relative importance compared with each other?
I have often thought that for a brand new person first coming into contact with the truth of God, the most important book for that person to read, especially if that person is living in an English speaking country, is The United States and British Commonwealth in Prophecy, the larger edition published around 1969 or later (about 200 pages). This book is not just about prophecy. It gives a person a foundation in the law of God including the Sabbath, and shows why God will soon put Israel through the tribulation. Anyone who reads this book, whether they come into the Church or not, has received the Ezekiel warning and a good portion of the gospel. But more than that, I think this book does a better job of proving the authenticity of the Bible than any other book published in Mr. Armstrong's lifetime.
How important is it that prospective members prove that the Bible is God's word? I think the question almost answers itself. In the Church of God, the Bible should be the foundation for everything we believe. We must know it is God's word. The prophecies about the lost tribes of Israel, especially the tribes of Joseph, when compared with history, enable one to objectively and logically prove that the Bible is indeed inspired by a creator God that is able to know the future in advance. Once a person knows that the Bible is God speaking, that person can then make the decision to believe what God says, to believe that God is telling the truth, to trust His word, and to obey what God commands in the Bible.
For a member already in the Church, Mystery of the Ages is certainly very valuable for a review of basic doctrines, but I think a book that is even more valuable, especially in the condition the Church of God is in now, is Mr. Armstrong's autobiography volume one and the first half of volume two (up to and not including the letters). Mr. Armstrong covers some important points of faith, trusting God, and Christian living in his autobiography that are not covered as well in any of his other books, including Mystery of the Ages. For example, there are lessons we can learn from his autobiography that can help us to understand whether or not Mr. Armstrong's doctrines can be changed. God was able to use Mr. Armstrong in a powerful way, but God was only able to use Mr. Armstrong because of what Mr. Armstrong was willing to do. It was a way of thinking and acting that made Mr. Armstrong a tool in God's hands that He could use to preach the gospel powerfully and to raise up and supervise the Philadelphia era of God's Church. No doubt God worked with Mr. Armstrong both before and after his conversion to prepare him for the work he was to do. In the autobiography are the lessons of the examples of Mr. Armstrong's thinking and behavior that enabled God to use him, and we can learn from them.
A Lesson from the Autobiography
After Mr. Armstrong was converted, he found himself looking for the one true Church Jesus Christ founded. He knew that it would be a Sabbath keeping Church that had the name "Church of God". At that time, he was considering a small Church called Church of God Seventh Day. Here are some excerpts from the autobiography. As you read the following, keep in mind the parallel between Mr. Armstrong searching for the true Church of God and a member searching for a Church of God that God is working through today:
"The only Church I had so far found which 'kept the commandments of God, and the testimony of Jesus Christ,' and at the same time bore the name of the original true Church, was this almost unknown little Church of God with its small publishing house in Stanberry, Missouri.
"But this left me quite confused. For this was a little Church, especially compared to the Roman Catholic, the Methodist, the Baptist, the Presbyterian, the Lutheran, or other large churches numbering millions of members. Then I saw where Jesus called His Church the 'little flock.'
"But still I was not completely satisfied. I was deeply concerned. I prayed a great deal over it. For here was a church, which, compared to the large-scale activities of the Catholic and big Protestant bodies, was ineffective. I could see that it was imperfect. It wielded no great power. Jesus had said: 'All power is given unto me, in heaven and earth' (Matt. 28:18). I read how Jesus Christ was to be IN His Church! He guides it! He directs it! He empowers it! He said His Church was to receive power (Acts 1:8).
"No person is even a member of the true Church unless he has received, and is filled and led by, the Holy Spirit -- and the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of power! This little church seemed to be powerless -- comparatively impotent! I failed to see where it was bearing much if any fruit! Could a fruitless church be the one and only true Church of God on earth?
"I was deeply perplexed. Here was a little church, with scattered members probably numbering less than 2,000 -- mostly in rural areas. Apparently, as nearly as I could learn, it had only a very limited number of local churches, none as large as 100 members. As I began to come in contact with some of its leaders, they seemed to be men of little education -- no college degrees -- its ministry could hardly be described as an educated ministry. Their preaching had a certain fire, yet seemed totally to lack the power that attracts sizable audiences, that moves people, stirs hearts, and changes lives. I could see no visible results.
"Could this be God's one and only true Church on earth? The very question seemed preposterous!
"....But, Where Else?
"Yes, and yet, small, powerless, resultless, impotent though it appeared to be, here was a church with the right name, 'keeping the commandments of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ,' and closer, in its doctrines and teachings, to what God had been opening my eyes to see plainly in His Word than any other church of which I knew! Small and impotent though it appeared, it had more Bible TRUTH than any church I could find!
"At this time, God was opening my understanding to some Biblical truths which this church did not accept; and also to some errors, even though minor, which it did embrace. Plainly, it was not perfect. It merely appeared to be more nearly so, and less imperfect, in its beliefs and practice, than any other.
"Could such a church -- imperfect, fruitless, feeble, lacking in any sizable accomplishment, be the true Church of God? Could this be Christ's instrument through whom He worked, in carrying on God's Work on earth? Jesus said, 'By their fruits ye shall know them.' Its fruits were not evil -- it simply did not seem to produce fruit!
"I was bewildered. I was unable to come to the answer then -- or until many years later. The real answer to this perplexing question will come out in this Autobiography later, at the account of the time when I myself found the true answer. I will state here, however, that I did learn later that it was merely the remnant of a church that had been more alive many years before." -- pages 356-358.
Mr. Armstrong later believed and taught that the Church of God Seventh Day was part of the Sardis era of the Church, which Christ describes in Revelation as having a name that they are alive, but in fact are dead.
Mr. Armstrong decided to TEST this Church to try to determine if it was indeed the one true Church that Jesus Christ built. I find this interesting, especially when I try to imagine the reaction of ministers if a member tries to do today what Mr. Armstrong did then.
Imagine that a lay member of the Church of God today wants to prove if a particular Church of God organization is really a church God is working in and if the leadership is really following God. This lay member wants to find a place to attend and send his tithes and offerings to. Or maybe the member already attends a church and wants to know if he should stay or look elsewhere. He wants to know, does this group really follow and obey God? He finds truth in the Bible that this group does not have. So he performs an experiment to TEST this church. He writes up a couple of doctrinal study papers that teach from the Bible doctrines different from the beliefs of this organization. One of them is a correction to their existing doctrine. Another is a "new truth" they don't have. The lay member reasons, if they accept the truth of my papers, this shows they are willing to obey God, but if they don't accept my conclusions and cannot show from Scripture that I am wrong, then they are not fully following God. What would be the reaction of the typical minister or evangelist to this lay member's thinking? Would he say that the member was being presumptuous for testing or judging the Church? Would he say that God always corrects from the top down? Would he say that the member was vain in thinking he knew more than the Church? Would he say that we need to recognize that Christ is the head of the Church and to believe the teachings of the Church in faith that Christ is leading the Church? Would he say that Christ would never put new doctrine into the Church by revealing it to a lay member because that would be destructive to God's own hierarchical government in the Church? I have heard ministers say these things or similar things in various words in reaction to members who submit suggestions, questions, feedback, or study papers to their pastor or to headquarters of their church.
Could or would God ever introduce new truth to the Church of God or correct errors in church doctrine through an ordinary lay member? Could Jesus Christ take an ordinary lay member, not an apostle, not a minister, not even a deacon, not even a long-time member but a recently baptized "babe-in-Christ", and then open that person's mind as he reads the Bible to understand brand new knowledge from the Bible that the Church doesn't have, even a major new doctrine or a correction to existing doctrine where the Church is wrong? And then, is it possible that Christ might use that lay member to correct or test the Church's leadership by letting him submit the doctrinal correction to the headquarters of that Church? And if headquarters rejects the new doctrine but not on biblical grounds, might Jesus Christ reject that church leadership from doing a powerful work and instead take the lay member and use that person and develop him to teach new doctrine to the Church and to eventually do a powerful work?
God has already done exactly that!
Let's continue the story in Mr. Armstrong's autobiography:
"Early in this three-and-a-half-year period, between 1927 and 1930, I decided to try a dual test to help settle the question of whether this was, in actual fact, the true Church of God.
"The Church is merely the sum total of its members. By the one Spirit of God we are each baptized, or put into, the true Church (I Corinthians 12:13). Jesus promised that when we receive the Holy Spirit, His Spirit shall guide us into all truth -- not merely part of it (John 16:13).
"But no person can receive all truth instantaneously. The human mind receives knowledge gradually. The child of God must grow in the knowledge of our Lord (II Peter 3:18). Also he must have the spirit of repentance, always ready and willing to acknowledge error and to turn from it. The Scriptures are profitable for reproof and correction, as well as instruction in knowledge new to us. And God corrects every son He loves (Heb. 12:6).
"Now it was a simple truism that if each individual member of the Church must be growing in the knowledge of God, constantly overcoming, being corrected, and eliminating error, then all the members together, which form the church, must also be constantly willing to confess error and eliminate it, and to accept that which is 'new light' from God's Word to the Church.
"I knew of no church or sect or denomination that had ever publicly confessed error or embraced new truth. Yet, plainly, this would be a test of the true Church.
"So, as the first step in this test, I wrote up an exposition of some 16 typewritten pages proving clearly, plainly, and beyond contradiction that a certain minor point of doctrine proclaimed by this church, based on an erroneous interpretation of a certain verse of Scripture, was in error. This was mailed to the Stanberry, Missouri, headquarters to see whether their leaders would confess error and change.
"The answer came back from their head man, editor of their paper and president of their 'General Conference.' He was forced to admit, in plain words, that their teaching on this point was false and in error. But, he explained, he feared that if any attempt was made to correct this false doctrine and publicly confess the truth, many of their members, especially those of older standing and heavy tithe payers, would be unable to accept it. He feared they would lose confidence in the Church if they found it had been in error on any point. He said he feared many would withdraw their financial support, and it might divide the Church. And therefore he felt the Church could do nothing but continue to teach and preach this doctrine which he admitted in writing to be false.
"Naturally, this shook my confidence considerably. This church leader, if not the church itself, was looking to people as the source of belief, instead of to God! Yet, here was the only Church holding to the one greatest basic truth of the Commandments of God and the faith of Jesus, kept in the name of God, and in spite of this and a few other erroneous teachings, nevertheless being closer to the whole truth than any church I had found.
"If this was not the true Church of God, then where was it?
"The Second Test
"A little later I tried the second test. After exhaustive study and research, I had found it proved that the so-called 'Lost Ten Tribes' of Israel had migrated to western Europe, the British Isles, and later the United States -- that the British were the descendants of Ephraim, younger son of Joseph, and the United States modern-day Manasseh, elder son of Joseph -- and that we possessed the national wealth and resources of the Birthright which God had promised to Abraham through Isaac, Jacob and Joseph.
"This truth was written in a lengthy manuscript of close to 300 typed pages, and mailed to this editor and leader of this church. I explained that although this new truth seemed to be proved beyond doubt, yet I was still comparatively new in Christ and Scriptural knowledge, and wished the judgment of one more mature and experienced in things Biblical.
"I think it was some six months before the reply came. It was written on a train late at night. This church leader stated in his letter (which I still have) that I was most certainly right -- that this was a wonderful new truth revealed by God, and that God surely had a special reason for revealing this new truth to me. However, he stated he did not know what use, if any, he could make of it at that time, but was sure I would hear more of it later.
"Did this Church accept and proclaim this vital new truth -- the key that unlocks the doors to all prophecy? Here was the key to understanding of one third of the whole Bible. But this Church refused then to accept it or preach it or publish it though their leader frankly confessed it was truth and a revelation from GOD!" -- pages 359-362.
These quotes are from the edition of Mr. Armstrong's autobiography that was published in a two-volume set after his death.
I have recently heard one minister in one of the major organizations in the Church say that maybe God doesn't want doctrinal changes now because what the members need now is stability. I am reminded of this when I read the paragraph in Mr. Armstrong's autobiography where he says that the president of the general conference of the Church of God Seventh Day did not want to admit error because he was afraid some members might lose confidence in the Church if they found it had been in error. The leadership of the Church looked to the effect on the members rather than to the Bible to decide whether or not to make a doctrinal change.
According to the sequence of events as Mr. Armstrong relates them in the autobiography, he was not an apostle when these events occurred. He was not even ordained as a minister yet. He was a lay member when he submitted doctrinal changes to the leadership of the Church of God Seventh Day.
Consider what has happened.
God used a member of the Church to bring the truth about the Sabbath day to Loma Armstrong. Mrs. Armstrong accepted this truth, even though it was different from her traditions. She believed the Bible over her traditions. In a way, this was a test for her. But she passed the test. God then tested Mr. Armstrong. Mrs. Armstrong brought this new truth to her husband. He did NOT want to accept it. Mr. Armstrong was challenged by his wife on the Sabbath question. He set out to prove she was wrong, but ended up proving the opposite, that she was right and he was wrong. But he had the honesty to admit it and to accept the truth, even truth contrary to what he wanted to believe, contrary to what he was taught, contrary to the teachings and traditions of most churches and their ministers. He was willing to put the Bible first as the source of his beliefs over everything else. I have no doubt that God tested him in this. If he had failed the test, if Mr. Armstrong refused to believe the Bible and instead went along with the traditions he grew up in, could God have used him? Of course not. In a way, it seems that this was a much tougher test for Herbert Armstrong than for Loma. But Mr. Armstrong passed the test. He believed God. He not only believed God, but acted on that belief and began to put this new knowledge into practice.
God then used Mr. Armstrong, while he was still only a lay member of the Church, not an apostle or ordained minister, to test the leadership of the Church of God Seventh Day. He opened Mr. Armstrong's mind to new truth from the Bible that the Church did not have. Mr. Armstrong submitted this new truth to the leadership. They did not accept it. They gave priority to their tradition over the truth of the Bible. Could God use this Church and its leadership to do the powerful work of preaching the gospel to the world as a witness before the end comes? No. God used Mr. Armstrong to raise up a new organization, which became separate from Church of God Seventh Day. The Church that rejected the new truth was rejected by God from doing a powerful work of preaching the gospel to the world. See also Hosea 4:6.
Maybe the answer seems obvious, but I think there is more to it than most people in the Church of God have thought about.
Why could God not use the Church of God Seventh Day to preach the gospel to the world in a powerful way after they rejected new doctrine from the Bible that Mr. Armstrong showed them in favor of their traditions?
Part of the reason is that God wanted the message to the public to contain the truths that needed to be restored. God wanted the gospel that the world would hear to include all the many truths that the Church of God Seventh Day did not have. Therefore they would have to accept those truths in order to teach them to the public. Since they would not accept those truths themselves, they could not be used to teach them to the world.
But there is still more to it than that. We are now, finally, getting to the whole point of this chapter.
Do you remember the earlier quote of Jesus Christ saying that the Pharisees laid heavy burdens on men's shoulders which they were not willing to lift with one finger? They did not practice what they preached. They were not willing to do what they told others they should do.
When the Church of God preaches the truth of God to the world, what are we really asking people to do? Are we not teaching people that they should give up everything they have believed if necessary in order to believe and live by every word of God?
In effect, we are telling people, "Give up the traditions you were raised in. They are all wrong. God is not a trinity. Man does not have an immortal soul. You are not going to go to heaven when you die. Sunday is not the day you should rest and attend church services.
"Give up Christmas and Easter. Stop attending church on Sunday. Start keeping the Sabbath even if you lose your job. Trust God to provide for you. Start tithing to God. Pay your first tithe. Save your second tithe, and every third year in a seven year cycle pay a third tithe for the poor in the Church. If it doesn't look like you have enough money, step out in faith and trust God that He will provide for you. Start keeping the holy days and the Feast of Tabernacles. Stop eating pork.
"Be willing to lose your job if necessary, to give up your family and friends if necessary, to give up everything to live by every word of God. Put God and the Bible first, over what your church teaches, over the traditional beliefs and practices you were raised in, over what your minister tells you, even over what you yourself want to believe. Put the Bible first and believe and obey God no matter what the cost, even if you lose your job, friends, husband, or wife."
And if a prospective member requests a visit from a minister, and when the minister comes to his house, the person says, "I know that the Bible says I should start tithing and keeping the Sabbath, but this isn't the right time for me right now. My boss will fire me if I don't work on Saturday, and the kids have been sick and the bills piling up, and I can't afford to tithe right now. What I need now is stability, but later I will do these things," what will the minister reply? Will he say, "I agree, what you need is stability, you don't need to make these changes right now, God understands"? Or will he say, "With the knowledge comes responsibility, and you are being judged now for what you do with what you know"?
Then what happens if a new truth or correction from the Bible is submitted to the minister and to the Church leadership, perhaps on a very tiny matter, but the minister or the leadership will not accept any doctrinal changes because "the members need stability" or "we cannot change Mr. Armstrong's doctrines"?
Does that not put the Church of God in the position of asking the public to do what we are no longer willing to do? Does that not make the Church of God like the Pharisees, who laid heavy burdens on men's shoulders, hard to bear, but were not willing to help lift them with one finger?
How can we teach members of the general public that they should make changes in their belief systems so great that it would seem to them that their whole lives are being turned upside down if we ourselves have become so comfortable and attached to our Church of God traditions that we are not willing to make the tiniest changes and corrections to our doctrines? Would that be practicing what we preach? Would God use a group like that to do a powerful work of preaching the gospel to the world when He has already rejected the leadership of the Church of God Seventh Day during Mr. Armstrong's early years from doing a powerful work because they would not accept new doctrine from the Bible?
The Source of Our Beliefs
Why do we believe what we believe? I am not asking WHAT we believe. I am asking WHY.
Is it possible to believe the right things for the wrong reasons? Can someone believe the truth, the real truth, yet for the wrong reasons?
Why do Catholics believe what they believe, Baptists believe what they believe, Jehovah Witnesses believe what they believe, Jews believe what they believe, Moslems believe what they believe? In most cases, they believe their traditions. They believe what they were taught as children, the doctrines and customs they were raised in. People also sometimes believe what they want to believe, either what is convenient to believe or what fits their own opinions. People who are religious also often tend to believe what their religious authorities have taught them or what a religious leader teaches them, because they trust him. Usually, they are comfortable in their beliefs and traditions and they do not want to change.
Are we in the Church of God today any different? Are we really different?
I am writing this June 2005. It has been 78 years since Mr. Armstrong's conversion, 71 years since the start of the Plain Truth Magazine, and 19 years since Mr. Armstrong's death. Many members of the Church of God were born and raised in the Church. They grew up attending Sabbath services and hearing the truth of God. Many others, while not having been raised in the Church, came into the Church when they were young, and now they are old. Have we become so comfortable in our beliefs and traditions that we, like many members of the Church of God Seventh Day, or even like many members of the Roman Catholic Church, are unwilling to learn new truth from the Bible if it conflicts with what we already believe?
When Mr. Tkach began making doctrinal changes in Worldwide, over a period of time, many members began to leave. They rejected the changes. The changes were wrong, and it was right to reject them, but why did members reject them? The reason may be important. We did not all reject those changes for the same reason.
Those who left Worldwide and fellowshipped with Church of God groups that hold to the basic body of doctrine taught by Mr. Armstrong did not all do so for the same reason. Members in any of the major Church of God organizations are not all there for the same reason.
Along with the doctrinal changes came a number of articles in the Worldwide News explaining those changes and trying to justify them by Scripture. The attempt failed. There were logical flaws and inconsistencies in their arguments. If one looked at the changes with an open mind, compared the changes and the original teachings with the Bible and looked up all the relevant scriptures on the subject, one could prove, from the Bible, that the changes were incorrect and that the original teachings of Mr. Armstrong are right. But how many really did that? I think that some accepted the changes because they believed church authority more than the Bible, and some people made an idol out of a church organization. But I also believe many rejected the changes simply because they were changes and they did not want to consider that the Church may have been in error and needed to be corrected. They didn't check up in the Bible. They just left.
I asked before if we are any different in why we believe what we believe than Catholics or Protestants who follow their traditions. Let me ask the question a different way.
In light of Mr. Armstrong's experiences with the Church of God Seventh Day, as related in his autobiography, were most members of that Church any different than Catholics and Protestants in WHY they believed what they believed? Didn't they believe what they were taught as children, the same as most Catholics and Protestants? Didn't they believe, accept, and practice the traditions they grew up with, just like most Catholics and Protestants? And didn't they reject the new truths Mr. Armstrong learned from the Bible because they conflicted with their traditions, just as most Catholics and Protestants reject those same doctrines?
Mr. Armstrong said in his book Mystery of the Ages that God had restored at least eighteen truths to the Church of God through him. Look at a list of eighteen major truths restored to the Philadelphia era of the Church. Show any of these doctrines to a typical Catholic or Protestant, and prove it from the Bible. What would be the typical reaction? The average Catholic or Protestant would reject it because it differs from what he already believes. Now show it to a member of the Church of God Seventh Day. What would be the typical reaction? EXACTLY THE SAME. The average Church of God Seventh Day member would reject that doctrine because it differs from what he already believes. Same reaction. Same reason.
In a sense, the failure of the Church of God Seventh Day leadership to accept new truth in Mr. Armstrong's early years was greater than the failure of most Catholics and Protestants to accept the truth of God from the Bible. That is because the test was easier for the Church of God leadership. They already had some truth. The change would not be as great for them as for those raised in traditional mainstream Christianity. Nevertheless, they still were not able and willing to be corrected and learn new truth from the Bible.
Now I will ask, how different are we in our attitudes towards the authority of the Bible and our church traditions and church authority than the Church of God Seventh Day seventy years ago? If someone came along, like Mr. Armstrong, with changes as great as the changes he proposed, but proved from the Bible, would the Church of God today be any more open minded and willing to be corrected by the Bible and learn new truth than the Church of God 70 or 80 years ago? And if the answer is that we might NOT be that different, would God not test us before empowering us to do a great work of preaching the gospel to all Israel, just as He used Mr. Armstrong to test the Church of God Seventh Day more than 70 years ago? And if we fail the test, if we reject Bible revelation in favor of tradition, would not God reject us from doing a powerful work? Would God judge us by a lesser standard than he judged the Church in Mr. Armstrong's early years?
I think WHY we believe what we believe is just as important as WHAT we believe. We need to believe the right things for the right reason. We need to believe the truth of God because it is what the Bible teaches and we must believe the Bible more than anything else.
I remember an occasion in Worldwide, sometime in 1995 I think, when the biggest changes in doctrine were being taught, when a speaker described in a sermonette how he was struggling to understand the changes, but at first he couldn't. He would read the epistles of Paul and try to understand what he read in the light of the new teachings, but it didn't make sense to him at first. Then he prayed and asked God to help him understand the changes. When he studied the Bible again, the changes began to make sense to him. He felt God answered his prayer. Now he understood and accepted the new teaching. After services, I talked with the man and asked him, "When you prayed for help to understand the doctrinal changes, did you ask God to help you know WHETHER the changes were true or not, or did you assume that the changes were true and asked God to help you understand HOW they were true, how they fit with the Bible?" He said, "I assumed that the changes were true, and I asked God to help me understand how they were true." This man was not looking to the Bible for answers about what is truth. He looked to the Church for that and only wanted God to help him to believe the Church.
On another occasion, one of the men in giving the opening or closing prayer asked God to help us accept and believe the new doctrines. But I could not say "amen" to that prayer. I wasn't trying to either believe or disbelieve the changes. I already made a commitment years ago to believe the Bible. I knew that God allows His ministers to make mistakes sometimes. I wanted to learn from God's Word whether or not these changes were true just as I tried to examine God's Word years ago to see if the things Mr. Armstrong was saying were true. I never assumed that the things Mr. Armstrong said were true, and I didn't want to assume that the things Mr. Tkach was saying were true. I could not pray for God's help to believe something that could be in error.
I have noticed that people can have a number of sources for their beliefs:
1) I think those who are converted in the Church who put the Bible first as a source of belief study the Bible to be corrected and look to the Bible as the final authority for any doctrine or issue. I think most of these people know that the Holy Spirit gives them understanding of the Bible, but they don't trust their own thoughts and opinions apart from the Bible if their opinions are contrary to the Bible, and they don't attribute those opinions to the Holy Spirit. They realize that the Holy Spirit will not guide them into knowledge that is contrary to the Bible. I am sure Mr. Armstrong was in this category, and this is how God wants us to set our beliefs.
2) Those who use a church as their authority believe the teachings of their church and use those teachings to interpret what the Bible means. They will fit Bible scriptures together the way their church teaches them to, and they believe that they are being properly submissive to God's government and authority the way God wants them to be. They put human church leadership first and the Bible second. I think most of those who stayed in Worldwide would fall into this category, as well as many people in the Catholic Church.
3) Those who use their own traditions and customary beliefs and practices as their authority for what they believe are following the traditions they grew up with as a child or adopted by choice in their youth as a teenager or young adult. In some ways, beliefs we were raised in are harder to give up because they are all we have known, but in another way, the beliefs we adopted in our youth are harder to give up because they come as a result of our choice and we identify with them more. In other words, it may be harder to admit we have been wrong than to admit that our parents were wrong. In any case, those who hold to their traditions this way, whether they be traditions they were raised in by their parents or beliefs they adopted by choice in their youth that have become their traditions over time, will often fit Bible scriptures together and interpret their meaning in a way that is consistent with the framework of the traditions and the beliefs they have held for a long time. When an idea is suggested to them that is contrary to what they have believed and held for a long time, they often reject it without looking at it in the Bible with an open mind. They may think they are obeying God's instruction to turn away from those who bring a false gospel. But they will not first prove from the scriptures that it is false. I think some who left Worldwide as soon as the changes started without even examining them may fall into this category.
4) Those who believe their own ideas and opinions more than other sources will often think that the Holy Spirit is putting those thoughts into their mind and that they are exercising faith by believing that those ideas and doctrines are true. One person I spoke to said she believed what she believed because she had faith those things she believed were true, and she believed that the faith she had was a gift from God. In other words, she knew what she knew. She thought God miraculously put the belief in her mind and she trusted that God put it there and that it was true. And anything in the Bible that seemed to contradict it in plain language she would interpret to mean something that would be consistent with whatever she already believed. This matter of believing one's own opinions can sometimes be closely associated with believing the traditions one grew up with or held for a long time.
I find it interesting that among many Catholics, three of these sources of belief may work together. Most Catholics have been raised Catholic and they have held their Catholic teachings a long time, so they have the influence of tradition on their belief system. The Catholic Church claims authority to establish doctrine and to interpret the Bible, so church authority is also a source of belief. And some Catholics may feel strongly that God is leading their belief system and working in their minds to give them faith in the teachings of the Catholic Church, and they feel they are exercising faith by trusting in those beliefs.
In the Church of God, when we were all together under Mr. Armstrong's stewardship, for those of us who were in the Church a long time, the influences of tradition, church authority, and the Bible worked in the same doctrinal direction. Those who trusted in their own opinions tended to leave. But Mr. Armstrong trusted the Bible, he set the teachings of the Church to be the same as the Bible, and as we practiced and believed those teachings they became our traditions. So a person could remain in the Church at that time even if the Bible was not his primary authority any longer. His first authority could be the Church or his traditions he had become comfortable with, and he would still stay in the Church.
But when the doctrinal changes came, people in Worldwide Church of God were challenged, and a process of separation began. People whose primary authority for what they believe was the Church were separated from those whose primary authority was the Bible OR their traditions. Those whose primary authority was the Bible examined the new teachings, looked up the scriptures given along with other scriptures on the same subject, examined the matter with an open mind, and rejected the new teachings because they were contrary to the Bible. They left Worldwide and in most cases fellowshipped with and supported new groups that were being raised up and kept the things Mr. Armstrong taught. Those whose primary authority was tradition rejected the new teachings without serious examination. They also left Worldwide and joined with some other group. And in many cases those for whom their tradition had become their primary authority and those whose primary authority is the Bible are now in the same church groups! In other words, those who have left Worldwide to go with another group have not all done so for the same reasons and not all for the right reason!
So within any one of several Church of God groups today, you can have people who want to follow the Bible and are willing to change to learn new truth from the Bible and be corrected in their beliefs from the Bible, and also those who only want to remain the same, keep the traditions they are comfortable with, and not accept new knowledge from or have their beliefs corrected by the Bible.
And in such a case, the ministry of that Church, even if they are willing to accept new knowledge and make changes, are faced with the fact that among their members are many people who do not want to change. In fact, they might even be the majority. And if the leadership knows this, they might also know that many would leave if they made changes. So in order to keep their group intact and prevent the exodus of those members that do not want to change, they may be tempted to not make changes that would be required by the Bible.
They may think, "Christ is leading the Church to not make changes because the members need stability at this time. The benefits of keeping as many people as possible together is that we can do a more powerful work and help more people."
Such a view seems very practical, but I think it is practical in the same way that Jeroboam's decision to change the times and places of worship in Israel out of fear of the people deserting him to follow the king of Judah was practical. It was very logical from a human point of view but it left God out of the picture (1 Kings 12:26-33). This would be an example of a way that seems right to a man but is the way of death (Proverbs 14:12, 16:25).
God is the one who opens or closes doors to preaching the gospel. He can empower a small group as well as a large one. But we are required by God to believe Him and to live by every word of God (Luke 4:4, Galatians 3:6, Hebrews 3:12, Matthew 23:23). God also requires that we speak only the truth according to what we know (Luke 18:19, Colossians 3:9-11, Exodus 20:16, Revelation 21:8). If we see some new knowledge revealed in the Bible, or if it is pointed out to us, we are required by God to believe it, if it is truly what the Bible teaches. If we believe new knowledge, whether it is from the Bible or a combination of the Bible and history or science or whatever, if ministers teach what they know is not true, are they not bearing false witness? Is God going to bless that?
Also, we must make sure our ways are pleasing to God by practicing what we preach when we ask John Q. Public to change his beliefs to live by every word of God. We have to make sure we are willing to do that ourselves, even in the small things, if we want to have God's blessing and empowerment to preach the gospel to the world. That is more important than how big we are.
Concern for the stability of the Church and reasoning that stability is for the greatest benefit of the members may seem right, but such reasoning, even if motivated by love, must take second place to the principles of believing God and not bearing false witness. The world is full of people who have "love" for others but don't believe God, or have love for others that motivates them to tell "white lies" to not hurt another person's feelings or get them into trouble with the authorities. I suppose it never occurs to these leaders that if they allowed God to use them to teach new knowledge to the Church from the Bible that God would open their minds to understand new things from the Bible that the members need most at this time.
I mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. Mr. Armstrong pointed out that both Jesus Christ and the Bible are the Word of God. Jesus Christ is called the Word of God (John 1:1-14). Referring to Jesus Christ, Revelation 19:13 states: "He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God." Mr. Armstrong said that just as the apostle Paul was taught by Jesus Christ, the Word of God in person, so Mr. Armstrong was taught by the Word of God in print. He said that just as Jesus Christ is the Word of God in person, so the Bible is the Word of God in print, the same Word. Jesus Christ must be our foundation (1 Corinthians 3:11). If Jesus is the Word of God in person and the Bible the Word of God in print, the same Word, and if that Word must be our foundation, this seems to indicate that the Bible must be the foundation for everything we believe. Our faith in the Bible is really faith in Jesus Christ.
I am speculating that at some time, just as God allowed or caused the apostasy to separate out those who follow Church authority more than the Bible or tradition, God will in the future separate those who follow the Bible from those who follow tradition in the Church of God.
This whole subject is really about faith. Mr. Armstrong taught that faith is not just believing that God exists, but believing what God says. I remember him making the distinction between believing ON Jesus Christ and believing what Jesus Christ said. He taught us that false Christianity tries to exalt the person of the messenger, Jesus Christ, while rejecting the message.
In his booklet "What Is Faith?", Mr. Armstrong taught that faith is believing what God says and trusting God to do what He has promised.
Faith is not just a body of doctrine one happens to believe. True faith has to be based on a relationship with God.
Faith is a choice to believe God. It is closely tied with the Bible because the Bible is God speaking to us. It is the Word of God. Mr. Armstrong explained that Jesus Christ is the Word of God in person, and the Bible is the Word of God in print, but it is the same Word.
Faith means that we believe the Bible because we trust and believe the God who authored it.
Mr. Armstrong also said that he thought the Bible was primarily written for the Philadelphia era of the Church, and by that I think he meant it was written for the Church in our time.
When I hear some members and leaders try to say that we must recognize that Mr. Armstrong was the Elijah, and they exalt his person, and they say we should never change any of his doctrines, this has a familiar ring to it for me. To me, they are doing with Mr. Armstrong the same thing traditional mainstream Christianity has done with Jesus Christ. They exalt the person of Christ while rejecting and changing His teachings and message in the Bible.
Mr. Armstrong always taught us to be willing to be corrected by the Bible and to accept new knowledge from the Bible. He emphasized that we must always grow in grace and in knowledge. He rehearsed with us his experiences with the Church of God Seventh Day to remind us that we must not be like them. Today, it seems to me that if a Church of God organization makes a doctrinal change, typically they try to keep a low profile about it, as if they are ashamed of it or they don't want anyone to notice. They may say, "This is not a doctrinal change really" even though it is. But when Mr. Armstrong made a change or introduced new doctrine, he said so, loudly, even with things that were minor. If I remember correctly, in the sermon in which he taught for the first time that the Church of God was the Kingdom of God in embryo, he first reminded us about the Sardis Church's unwillingness to accept new truth, and then he said, "Here is NEW TRUTH, brethren". He wanted to keep us in an attitude of being willing to accept new doctrinal truth.
Mr. Armstrong taught us that faith is believing what God said. He practiced that faith, and was himself willing to learn from the Bible, to accept new truth from the Bible, to be corrected by the Bible in doctrine and policy, and to admit mistakes when he was wrong. I remember him saying over and over on radio and television, "Don't believe me, believe your Bible".
When I first heard Mr. Armstrong teach that faith is believing what God said, and that the Bible is God speaking to us, I began to think more about faith. I wondered, over the years, why faith is so important to God.
It is obvious that God places enormous importance on faith. Faith is a condition for salvation. It is a condition for answered prayer. Faith is actually one of the weightier matters of the law, along with justice and mercy (Matthew 23:23). And since sin is the transgression of the law, or "lawlessness" (1 John 3:4), and faith is one of the weightier matters of the law, disbelieving what God says is a transgression of the law, sin. But why? Why did God set it up like that? Why did God make faith so important? When Abraham believed what God said, God counted it as righteousness. Why was it so important to God that Abraham believe Him?
To illustrate the question, contrast faith with love. Why is it important to God that we love Him and love our neighbor? The answer to that is a little more obvious. God wants us to get along with each other and cooperate with each other and with Him. He wants us to have an outgoing concern for each other and to love God so we will help and serve one another and obey God and do His will for all eternity. Love is the way of "give" that produces peace and harmony. It is the opposite of the way of "get", of hostile competition and selfishness that leads to conflict and destruction. All we have to do is imagine eternity with love versus eternity without love to understand its importance.
But I still asked myself, how does faith fit in? As long as we have love, what difference does it make if we always believe what God says for all eternity? Suppose we didn't always believe that God was telling us the truth? As long as we love God and want to please Him, wouldn't we obey Him anyway even if we sometimes didn't believe what He said?
I am going to indulge in a little speculation here. I do not know anywhere in the Bible where God specifically talks about why He considers it so important that we believe and trust what He tells us. We do know from the Bible that angelic beings were created before man. The Bible also teaches us that Lucifer was perfect in all his ways until iniquity was found in him (Ezekiel 28:15).
Revelation 12:3-4 seems to indicate that Satan enticed a third of God's angels to join him in rebelling against God. These angels became demons. If Satan led them into sin, it may be that Lucifer was the very first angel to sin against God. Once Lucifer sinned and became Satan, he was able to tempt other angels to sin. But if Lucifer was the first to sin, there was no other being to tempt him into sinning that first time.
Why did he do it? I remember one time, a new member or prospective member in the Church asked me that question as we were riding together on a train to Sabbath services. Why did Lucifer sin? I didn't know the answer, but it started me thinking about it.
God said Lucifer was perfect in his ways before he sinned. He must have started on the right track. It seems logical that God must have thoroughly taught all His angels the right way of life so they would know how to live. And in love God must have taught them the consequences of sin, that if they went the wrong way it would lead to misery and unhappiness. Lucifer started on the right way of God's law. But something happened. What was the first thing that happened that led to Lucifer's sin?
Ezekiel 28:15 states that Lucifer was perfect in his ways till he sinned. Verse 16 says he was filled with violence from within by the abundance of his trading, and verse 17 says that his heart was lifted up because of his beauty and he corrupted his wisdom for the sake of his splendor. So violence and vanity are listed as two sins he committed. But these were not necessarily the very first sins, or errors, Lucifer committed.
If God taught the angels the consequences of sin, then Lucifer was warned. And if he was the first to sin, then there was no evil being to tempt or entice him or influence him in an evil direction. God would not tempt him, and if he was perfect in his ways then there wouldn't be any evil nature within him to tempt him. There was no temptation to resist. Yet Lucifer chose the path of sin. He chose the path of violence and vanity, even after God warned him that that path would lead to misery and frustration. Apparently, it was a deliberate, thought out choice, not an accidental slipping into sin because of weakness in the face of temptation. Every influence in the universe was only for good, and there was no evil tendency built inside Lucifer. Yet he chose sin. Why?
I don't believe Lucifer would deliberately choose an eternity of unhappiness. The only explanation that makes any sense to me is that Lucifer did not believe what God told him. He did not believe that God was telling him the truth when God told him that vanity and violence would lead to Lucifer's utter misery and unhappiness. He must thought that vanity might lead to greater happiness for himself, and he may have figured that the only way he could find out for sure was to try it. I think he took a calculated risk, the risk that God was telling the truth versus what he thought would be the pleasures of sin if God was lying to him or was wrong. He gambled and he lost. He should have believed God. But once he began to practice vanity, his mind began to become twisted, and there was no turning back. As it says in Ezekiel 28:17, his wisdom became corrupted. The more he sinned, the more perverted his thinking became and the more sinful his nature became. The more his mind and wisdom became corrupted and perverted, the more he sinned. And since sin causes suffering, Satan is miserable. And now he can never repent or go back. And it may all have started with a decision to doubt God's word and teachings.
I could be wrong about this. I said before this is my speculation. The Bible doesn't say exactly why Lucifer chose to practice vanity and violence, only that he did. But if he did it because he refused to believe God's word and chose rather to experiment for himself, that might help to explain why it is so important to God that His children learn the lesson now in this life to believe and trust God implicitly in everything God says. God may have many things to teach us in the eternity to come, and He doesn't want His family doubting or second-guessing his word like Lucifer may have done.
When I was first learning the truth, I had to make a choice whether to believe God or not. I remember the circumstances clearly. When I first came into contact with the Plain Truth Magazine, like many new readers I eagerly read each issue and wrote in for all of the booklets mentioned, then read each booklet as soon as it came. I read the booklet "Does God Exist?". With the help of that booklet and with the knowledge of science I had (as a hobby only, I am not a scientist), it took me maybe a few hours to prove for myself beyond any doubt that God the Creator must exist.
Then I set about to prove that the Bible was God's word. This took much longer, several years in fact. I studied all the prophecies in the Bible and I studied history to see if they came true. I worked in my spare time and took careful notes so each time I began working on it I could pick up where I left off. I used whatever books and booklets the Church published on the subject as well as outside sources. Eventually, I proved to my satisfaction that the Bible is definitely the word of God.
But at the end of this proof I realized that I had not really proved that the Bible was true. I had proved that the Bible is God speaking, because no human could predict future events thousands of years before they came to pass. But by itself that did not prove that God always told the truth. I knew God said in the Bible that He cannot lie (Titus 1:2, Hebrews 6:18), but that was not proof.
I turned it over in my mind for maybe an hour or two. I realized that no research I could carry out could prove for me whether or not God was infallibly honest and truthful at all times. I knew God claimed that about Himself, and I knew He required me to believe that if I were to be accepted by Him. But I didn't think there was any logical way to prove it the way I had proved God's existence or that the Bible is God's word. I knew it had to be a choice. I simply made the choice that I would believe God. I committed myself to believe that God cannot lie and always tells the truth in His Word, the Bible. I realized that because I am human doubts might come into my mind from time to time and that I would have to try to put those doubts out, but my choice as far as what I willed to believe was to believe God always from that point on, no matter what the cost, and to base all my future actions and decisions on that belief in God's word and in God's truthfulness. I made the decision to base all my future decisions and actions on trust in what God says in the Bible.
The faith that God requires of us is the kind of belief in God's word and trust in God that leads to obedient action. It is not an academic, intellectual belief that has nothing to do with how we live our lives. We obey God because we trust Him and believe what He tells us. That is why the author of Hebrews equates the disobedience of Israel in the wilderness with their unbelief (Hebrews 3:16-19) and why James says that faith without works is dead (James 2:20-24). If Lucifer had exercised the right kind of faith in God, trusted God, and believed what God taught him, that faith in God would have led to obedience, and he never would have sinned and disobeyed God and practiced vanity, violence, and rebellion.
In a sense, believing what God teaches us means that we submit our thoughts to His thoughts and we make His views our views. We learn to pattern our views and thinking after God's views. We believe whatever God tells us. And as we learn to think as God thinks, obedient action will follow. As we choose to believe what God says in the Bible, we learn to agree with God, and as we agree with God we learn to obey Him because we agree with Him. And in those cases where we may not understand why God tells us to do something, we obey God in trust, knowing that God has all wisdom, righteousness, and love, and that His will is always right. We trust God even though we do not know everything God knows. We trust that what God tells us is right even if we do not understand the reason for whatever it is He tells us. We trust what God tells us even more than we trust ourselves and our opinions (Proverbs 3:5-6). So as we believe and trust God, we submit our wills to Him. This is why godly faith leads to obedient action.
Faith has to be based on a personal relationship with God. Faith in God is not based on a relationship with a body of doctrine. It is not just an academic believing of a body of teachings, even if we are obedient to those teachings. It is based on trust in God, trust in His truthfulness, trust in His righteousness. We have to trust God that He will never lie to us. This basic relationship is emphasized in both the old and new testaments. The Old Testament talks mostly about trusting God. The New Testament emphasizes faith. They are actually very similar, and both are based on a relationship with God.
We have a relationship with whatever we have faith in. If our faith is in our traditions, then we have a relationship with our traditions, not God. If our faith is in a body of doctrine, then our relationship is with a body of doctrine, not God. If our faith is in the authority of the Church or of the ministry and leadership, then our relationship is with the Church and the leadership, not God. If our faith is in our own ideas and opinions apart from the Bible, then we are in love with our own ideas. If we want our relationship to be with God, then our faith better be in God's Word and we better believe the Bible over everything and everyone else.
So it comes down to not only WHAT we believe, or even just WHY we believe what we believe, but also WHO we believe.
Faith is also a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8, 1 Corinthians 12:4-11). But our free moral agency is still involved. We must still choose to believe God. There is an aspect of faith that is our free choice, and there is an aspect of faith that is a gift from God. Repentance is also a gift (Acts 11:18, Acts 5:30-31, 2 Timothy 2:25), yet we have our part to play by exercising our free moral agency to choose to repent. Likewise, we must choose to believe God. God does not force anyone to believe Him. It is our choice.
The Message to the Sardis Church
Mr. Armstrong identified Church of God Seventh Day in his early years as the Sardis Church. I believe this is accurate, but I think there is an aspect of the message to the Sardis Church that may apply more fully to some of the Church of God fellowships today that have come out of Worldwide than to the Church of God Seventh Day seventy or eighty years ago.
Revelation 3:1-6: "And to the angel of the church in Sardis write, These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars: 'I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God. Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you. You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.' "
Notice the first part of verse 3: "Remember therefore how you have received and heard...". Note that Jesus refers to HOW Sardis received and heard, not what they have believed, but HOW they came to believe what they have believed. He is admonishing them to remember how they came into the truth.
How did Church of God Seventh Day come into the truth? When Mr. Armstrong came among them, the Church was not growing very much, so most members were taught by their parents as they were growing up. If the message to Sardis only applies to the Church of God Seventh Day when Mr. Armstrong came among them, it is hard to see how this applies. Why would Christ be reminding them that they learned the truth by being raised in it as their family tradition? The Church of God Seventh Day did not have any problem with the truth that they were raised in. Their problem was that they did not want to accept new truth from the Bible Mr. Armstrong tried to teach them.
But if you apply this verse to some of the Church of God groups today, it fits much better. It makes perfect sense that Christ would remind us HOW many of us came into the truth. Many of us learned of the truth by being willing to accept and prove new truth with an open mind. We needed to be willing to give up our old beliefs and be corrected by the Bible, changing our beliefs as necessary, and adding new knowledge to what we already knew. And even most of those who grew up in the Church of God have parents who went through this process, and their parents probably related stories of how they first heard Mr. Armstrong on the radio. It was also through Mr. Armstrong's willingness to change his belief system that God was able to use him to teach us. That is exactly HOW we have received and heard, and Christ tells us to remember. We are to remember that we only know the truth because of the willingness of Mr. Armstrong, our parents, and/or ourselves to accept new knowledge and correction, and to believe the Bible more than the traditions of the churches we formerly belonged to.
There is also a point to be made that in remembering HOW we have received and heard, we will also remember that it was through the sacrifices of others to preach the gospel to the public that enabled us to receive and hear the truth of God, and we should consider that we need to do likewise.
Can we apply this message to the Church today considering that this is the Laodicean era, not the Sardis era? Christ says, "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches." As Mr. Armstrong taught, what Christ says to each church can apply to any one of us. Each individual needs to examine himself in light of all seven of the messages to the seven churches. Though the Laodicean condition predominates at this time, that does not mean there are not individuals, or even individual groups in the Church of God, that are in different conditions. Also, there may not be a lot of difference between the Laodicean condition and the Sardis condition anyway. The characteristic of Laodicea, "you say, 'I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing' " (Revelation 3:17) also seems to fit those who are self-satisfied with the knowledge they have and are no longer willing to learn anything new or be corrected.
The Inconsistencies of Saying We Can't Change Herbert W. Armstrong's Doctrine
Those that teach that Mr. Armstrong's doctrines can never be changed have a serious problem. There is a built-in inconsistency in their position, based on Mr. Armstrong's own teachings.
Mr. Armstrong NEVER taught that his teachings could never be changed. In fact, he taught just the opposite. He was willing to change his own teachings when he realized he was in error. Changing the observance of Pentecost from a Monday to a Sunday is just one example.
There are those who claim a spiritual connection with Mr. Armstrong, and they say that he is their spiritual father. The Jews who wanted to kill Jesus claimed Abraham as their father, but Jesus pointed out that if Abraham were their father they would do the works that Abraham did (John 8:39-40). Jesus was saying that Abraham was not their spiritual father because they were not following the practices of Abraham. Likewise, many of those today who claim allegiance to the teachings of Mr. Armstrong and exalt his person do not do the deeds that Mr. Armstrong did. They are not willing to admit error and change doctrine as Mr. Armstrong did. They are not willing to put the Bible first over church tradition or over the teachings of men, even the teachings of Mr. Armstrong himself, as Mr. Armstrong did. They are not willing to let the Bible interpret the Bible as Mr. Armstrong did, but instead they put their own meaning into verses without scriptural proof from the rest of the Bible that those verses mean what they say they mean. Someone today can exalt the person of Mr. Armstrong and claim that God is revealing new truth to them as He did to Mr. Armstrong, and yet be twisting scriptures to suit their own purposes. Mr. Armstrong did not do that.
Anyone who teaches that Mr. Armstrong's doctrines cannot be changed has already changed the most important doctrine he taught the Church of God. It is the one doctrine that differentiates God's true Church from all other churches. It is the doctrine that we must believe God's word, the Bible, over everything else, including tradition, the authority of men, and our own opinions and desires. This also includes the truth that we must be willing to be corrected by the Bible, to confess and correct error, and to learn new truths from the Bible, and to live by every word of God. Mr. Armstrong often said, "Don't believe me, believe your Bible." He taught us by word and by example to not just accept what we are told but to prove doctrine from the Bible.
Mr. Armstrong in the last months of his life reached a point when he knew he might die soon. He had time to make provision for the Church of God after his death. I remember hearing him give what may have been his last sermon. It was obvious that he knew he may die soon. He spoke of God providing a new pastor general to succeed him. This close to his death, it would have been a perfect opportunity for Mr. Armstrong to tell the Church, "Don't let anyone change any of the doctrines I have taught you." But he never said that. In fact, he implied just the opposite. He said, "Your faith must not be in me, it must be in Jesus Christ. He's the head of the Church, I'm not. And if I were not here, there would be another who would become the pastor general. And if that should ever happen, if you want into get into God's Kingdom you will follow that pastor general. And you will remain united and you will remain one. And your eternity depends on that, every one of you, don't you forget it." This was in the 1985 Day of Trumpets sermon. Now, I am sure Mr. Armstrong never expected Mr. Tkach to make all the doctrinal changes that he did. Mr. Tkach ended up completely reversing just about everything Mr. Armstrong taught that was different from traditional mainstream Christianity. Much error was introduced into the Church. I do not say that Mr. Tkach deliberately and knowingly taught error. He may have thought he was doing the right thing. Only God can judge his heart. God allowed all this for a purpose. I think one of the purposes God had in allowing this was to test the membership and ministry, to see who would follow the Bible more than the Church. Nevertheless, look at where Mr. Armstrong placed emphasis in the last weeks or months of his life. Not on becoming fixed on a body of doctrine as it existed at the end of his life. Not on the fact that Mr. Armstrong was an apostle or that he was the Elijah to restore all things. But he emphasized willingness to be led and taught.
Here is a suggestion, and a question, for someone who is looking for a Church of God that is following Mr. Armstrong's doctrines 100 percent without change. When you find a Church of God that claims we should never change Mr. Armstrong's doctrines and that they follow his doctrines 100 percent, get their official statement of beliefs and compare it with the official statement of beliefs for the Church that Mr. Armstrong published that was current at the time of his death, and see how they compare. That way, any important difference would be apparent, right? Which Church of God do you think most closely matches Mr. Armstrong when comparing the two statements of beliefs?
It is a trick question. Someone can correct me if I am wrong, but to the best of my knowledge, Mr. Armstrong did not publish a statement of beliefs during the latter part of the history of the Worldwide Church of God. I believe he may have published one in the early years, when the Church was called, "Radio Church of God", but later he did not. The REASON is important. One reason may be that a statement of beliefs is a poor way to introduce the public to our teachings because it does not explain why we believe what we believe. But I think there was another reason also. I did not know Mr. Armstrong personally, but from what I heard, and this is consistent with everything else I know about Mr. Armstrong from his sermons, broadcasts, and writings, one of the reasons Mr. Armstrong did not publish an official statement of beliefs is that he did not want the Church to get tied into a set of doctrines in a way that would make it hard to change doctrine and learn new doctrine from the Bible. He saw the way the Church of God Seventh Day was and how they had a culture that resisted doctrinal change from the Bible, and he did not want the Worldwide Church of God to develop that same culture. Having an official statement of beliefs for the Church would tend to "lock in" those doctrines and would send a wrong message to the members. He wanted our loyalty to be to the Bible, not a list of beliefs.
Some say that Mr. Armstrong's teachings cannot be changed because he was the Elijah to come who would restore all things. But this is a misuse of the Elijah doctrine. Although Mr. Armstrong implied without stating directly that he was fulfilling the role of the Elijah to come by restoring all things to the Church, anyone familiar with his teachings should know that he never intended this to mean that he was somehow infallible or that the Church should never be corrected by or learn new truth from the Bible after his death.
If indeed Mr. Armstrong did fulfill the role of the Elijah who was to restore all things, which I believe he did, this does not mean that the truth the Church of God had at the time of his death was complete and perfect without error. Mr. Armstrong primarily restored truth by first pointing us to the Bible as our authority for doctrine. Mr. Armstrong himself was always willing to learn new truth from the Bible and be corrected by the Bible, and he set the example for us. It was because of his willingness to put the Bible first that Mr. Armstrong was able to learn the eighteen truths he restored to the Church. Any new truths the Church learns today or any corrections to doctrine the Church makes, if honestly based on the Bible, are a continuation of the work Mr. Armstrong started in restoring truth to the Church. In that sense, any new truths or corrections we learn from the Bible today, even if they are changes or additions to the things Mr. Armstrong taught, are a continuation of Mr. Armstrong's Elijah role in restoring lost truth by being willing to believe the Bible first. Even if more truth is restored today, it is Mr. Armstrong who has done it by restoring and teaching the process of believing the Bible first. He was the one God used to set all these things in motion. He was the one Christ used to establish a culture in the Philadelphia era of the Church that is willing to learn new things from the Bible. We are merely the continuation of the faith and the process and way of life God taught us through Mr. Armstrong. By establishing faith in the Bible as God's word, Mr. Armstrong has restored all truth that comes from the Bible whether or not he is the particular individual that learns a particular point of doctrine.
There is an example in the Bible, from the life of Elijah himself, that may illustrate this point. After Elijah fled from Jezebel, he was on the mountain with God. "So it was, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. Suddenly a voice came to him, and said, 'What are you doing here, Elijah?' And he said, 'I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts; because the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life.' Then the Lord said to him: 'Go, return on your way to the Wilderness of Damascus; and when you arrive, anoint Hazael as king over Syria. Also you shall anoint Jehu the son of Nimshi as king over Israel. And Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel Meholah you shall anoint as prophet in your place. It shall be that whoever escapes the sword of Hazael, Jehu will kill; and whoever escapes the sword of Jehu, Elisha will kill. Yet I have reserved seven thousand in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him' " (I Kings 19:13-18). Notice that Elijah was to anoint three individuals: Hazael, Jehu, and Elisha.
But Elijah did not anoint Jehu. This was done by one of the sons of the prophets at Elisha's, not Elijah's, instruction. Elijah was already taken away at this time. It was Elisha, not Elijah, who had Jehu anointed king of Israel, and even Elisha did not do it directly, but a son of one of the prophets did it at Elisha's command: "And Elisha the prophet called one of the sons of the prophets, and said to him, 'Get yourself ready, take this flask of oil in your hand, and go to Ramoth Gilead. Now when you arrive at that place, look there for Jehu the son of Jehoshaphat, the son of Nimshi, and go in and make him rise up from among his associates, and take him to an inner room. Then take the flask of oil, and pour it on his head, and say, 'Thus says the Lord: "I have anointed you king over Israel." ' Then open the door and flee, and do not delay.' So the young man, the servant of the prophet, went to Ramoth Gilead. And when he arrived, there were the captains of the army sitting; and he said, 'I have a message for you, Commander.' Jehu said, 'For which one of us?' And he said, 'For you, Commander.' Then he arose and went into the house. And he poured the oil on his head, and said to him, 'Thus says the Lord God of Israel: "I have anointed you king over the people of the Lord, over Israel. You shall strike down the house of Ahab your master, that I may avenge the blood of My servants the prophets, and the blood of all the servants of the Lord, at the hand of Jezebel. For the whole house of Ahab shall perish; and I will cut off from Ahab all the males in Israel, both bond and free. So I will make the house of Ahab like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha the son of Ahijah. The dogs shall eat Jezebel on the plot of ground at Jezreel, and there shall be none to bury her." ' And he opened the door and fled. Then Jehu came out to the servants of his master, and one said to him, 'Is all well? Why did this madman come to you?' And he said to them, 'You know the man and his babble.' And they said, 'A lie! Tell us now.' So he said, 'Thus and thus he spoke to me, saying, "Thus says the Lord: 'I have anointed you king over Israel' " ' " (2 Kings 9:1-12).
God said that Elijah would anoint Jehu, but it was Elisha who commanded one of the sons of the prophets to do it. The only explanation that I know of for this is that Elijah instructed Elisha, who carried on Elijah's work in his absence. In other words, Elisha's work was a continuation of Elijah's work, but from God's point of view, it was all done by Elijah. In the same way, if the Church of God continues to learn and restore new truth from the Bible, even corrections to past doctrines that may be wrong, as a continuation of the work Mr. Armstrong did in learning new truth and accepting doctrinal correction from the Bible, from God's point of view it is still truth restored by Mr. Armstrong because we are following the pattern he taught us, the pattern of putting the Bible first.
So even if Mr. Armstrong is the fulfillment of the end-time Elijah, that does not mean it is wrong to change his doctrines if the Bible shows us errors that need to be corrected. This is what Mr. Armstrong would want us to do because that is what he would do, and has done. Mr. Armstrong accomplished the work of restoring truth to the Church, not only by his individual efforts, but by training a Church to carry on his work after his death even today.
Some say only an apostle can make doctrinal changes in the Church, and that we cannot make doctrinal changes because we have no living apostle. But this is wrong on two counts. For one thing, we have the example of Mr. Armstrong in his autobiography of proposing doctrinal changes and teaching those doctrines before Mr. Armstrong or anyone else in the Church thought he was an apostle. In fact, in time sequence as related in the autobiography, he embraced and proposed doctrinal changes before he was ordained as a minister. He taught and proposed the doctrinal changes to the headquarters leadership while only a lay member, before he was ordained. Secondly, it is wrong to say we do not have a living apostle. Hebrews 3:1 calls Jesus Christ an apostle. He is alive today and guides the Church. If Mr. Armstrong as an apostle had the authority to put doctrine into the Church, Jesus Christ likewise has that same authority today. This is not just a play on words. Jesus Christ is able to make doctrinal changes in the Church and He does not need any human apostle to help Him do it.
Some say we should be faithful to the faith once delivered, quoting Jude 3: "Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints", and saying that this faith refers to the body of doctrine taught to us by Mr. Armstrong. Now while I agree that in this context, Jude may be using the term "faith" to refer to a body of doctrine, this cannot refer to the body of doctrine delivered by Mr. Armstrong to the Church in our time. The only body of doctrine this can refer to is body of doctrine delivered by Christ to the Church of God in the first century, which He delivered to the Church through the original twelve apostles as well as Paul and those that preached to the gentiles. Jude cannot be looking to a future fulfillment of this in our day, because then it would be the faith twice delivered, once by the first century apostles to the first century Church, then a second time by the twentieth century apostle to the twentieth century Church. The fact that Jude says "once delivered" shows that the context of his statement is referring to the doctrines of the first century Church of God as recorded in the Bible. The "faith once delivered" does not include anything delivered to Mr. Armstrong that had not already been delivered to the first century apostles, otherwise, Jude could not have told his readers in his time to contend earnestly for what they never received. I think anyone who talks about "the faith once delivered through Mr. Armstrong" either thinks Mr. Armstrong delivered a faith to us that the original twelve apostles and Paul never had, or they have trouble understanding the meaning of the word "once".
Mr. Armstrong often said, "Don't believe me, believe your Bible." You can't throw that away and claim you are following Mr. Armstrong.
In some cases, the Bible may not seem clear to someone on a point of doctrine that Mr. Armstrong taught. I am not talking about those situations. I am not saying we should be quick to make changes where the Bible is not clear. Mr. Armstrong's teachings carry weight. We should err on the side of caution and not make any significant change unless the Bible is clear that the change needs to be made. The more important the doctrine is, the more important it is to require a high standard of proof before changing it. So there has to be a balance. But we should not go to the other extreme and refuse to examine proposed changes on principle, the principle that we should never change what the apostle taught, or the principle that for the sake of unity and stability we should not make changes. We have to have a willingness of mind to make corrections or additions for legitimate reasons according to the Bible just as Mr. Armstrong himself would do and has done. The principle he taught us, of being corrected by the Bible in matters of doctrine, is a weightier matter of the law than the particular doctrines he taught us because all the other doctrines Mr. Armstrong taught came as a result of his willingness to be corrected by the Bible.
If the Bible isn't clear on a proposed change, then probably a change should not be made until it is clear, or else an official doctrinal position should not be taken on the issue until the matter is clear. (The Church of God does not have to take a position on every small question and issue. It is not wrong and we should not lose the respect of others if we sometimes say, "We don't know.") But if the Bible is clear that a current doctrine is in error and we don't make the correction, how can we claim that we strive to live by every word of God?
Some may place an over-emphasis on the cause of unity in the Church even at the expense of doctrinal accuracy. In other words, if they sense that some brethren will leave the Church if a doctrinal change is made, even if the doctrinal change is true according to the Bible, they would rather not make the change for the sake of unity. God wants unity in the Church, but not at the expense of truth. Jesus said he did not come to bring peace. "Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to 'set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law' " (Matthew 10:34-35). I think Jesus is primarily referring to the conflict that occurs between members of His Church and our family members and people in the world, but to the extent that the influence of the world can also be in the Church, and to the extent that church members can still make mistakes, still have human nature, and still have the free moral agency to choose wrong, this can apply to the Church as well. And it shows that unity between those that follow God and those that do not follow God is not God's priority.
Sometimes it seems that there are ministers and members in the Church of God that want to think like many Catholics. Mr. Armstrong's doctrines have become their traditions, and they want to live in their traditions just like many Catholics do. And many of these ministers and members look at Mr. Armstrong the way Catholics look at the pope. But they are not using the Bible as their ultimate authority as Mr. Armstrong did and as he taught the Church of God to do. Papal infallibility is a doctrine of the Catholic Church, not the Church of God. God allows ministers and evangelists to make mistakes. God allowed Mr. Armstrong to make mistakes.
Does the Bible Teach Us to Follow Tradition?
Some might point out what Paul said in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 to say that we should follow our traditions. Paul wrote, "Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle." Also, 1 Corinthians 11:2: "Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you." And finally, 2 Thessalonians 3:6: "But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us."
Does this mean we should not change Mr. Armstrong's doctrines because we should hold fast to the traditions we learned from him?
First I want to ask, is this referring to the traditions Paul gave to his congregations or the traditions given to us by Mr. Armstrong? Or both? First, and obviously, it refers to the traditions Paul gave the congregations he established because it is those he is most directly addressing. And we know that these traditions that Paul and the other apostles gave to the Church of God are correct because they received them from Christ directly. But does it also apply to the traditions and doctrines Mr. Armstrong gave the Church in our time?
Yes, it does apply to the traditions and doctrines given to the Church by Mr. Armstrong, but only to the extent that those traditions and doctrines are the same as the traditions and doctrines received from Christ and given to the early Church by Paul and the other apostles. God does not have two sets of inconsistent traditions that we are required to hold, one given in the first century and one given in the twentieth century.
How do we know if any tradition or doctrine is consistent with the traditions Paul is talking about? By the Bible. If there is any tradition or doctrine given to us by Mr. Armstrong that is inconsistent with the Bible, then it is also inconsistent with Paul's traditions, because Paul would not give traditions that were at odds with the Bible. Therefore, if we find in the Bible that a tradition or doctrine of Mr. Armstrong is wrong, that tradition cannot be a tradition Paul is referring to in 2 Thessalonians 2:15.
Some might say that Paul is teaching us a general principle that we should follow the traditions given to us in any age. But we already know that is wrong. Should a Catholic or Protestant or a Church of God Seventh Day member read this verse and conclude that they should keep their doctrinal traditions rather than check up in the Bible to see if the things Mr. Armstrong taught are true? Is that the lesson and the principle God wants us to learn?
Perhaps some have done exactly that! Perhaps many heard Mr. Armstrong say on the radio, "Don't believe me, believe your Bible", and then their ministers pointed out 2 Thessalonians 2:15 and said, "See, the Bible says, follow your tradition." But this is a mis-application of the correct principle. We should follow our traditions ONLY when they are correct according to the Bible. The Bible must ALWAYS take precedence over tradition. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for following their traditions when they contradicted God's commands in Scripture (Matthew 15:1-9, Mark 7:1-13). The Bible always comes first.
I was talking about doctrinal change with one minister, and he asked me, how much doctrinal change did Jesus Christ introduce? I think his implication was, Jesus Christ did not introduce much doctrinal change, so we should not either. But actually, Jesus introduced a great deal of doctrinal change, so much so that after He spoke about someone eating His flesh and drinking His blood, many of disciples left him (John 6:35-66, especially verse 66). At one point, John the Baptist sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus, "Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?" (see Matthew 11:2-3). Yet earlier, John had testified that Jesus was the Son of God (John 1:29-34) and called Jesus the "Lamb of God" (John 1:35-36). Consider this: if the things that Jesus taught did not seem like a lot of doctrinal change, why is it that after all the miracles He performed, only 120 believed what He said (Acts 1:15)?
Here are some of the "doctrinal changes" that Jesus introduced. Not all of these are actually new doctrines, but at the least they must have SEEMED to be new to the people who were taught by Him, who previously had been taught by the scribes and Pharisees and priests. Some of these are recorded in the gospel accounts and some are known from the teachings of the apostles as recorded in Acts and the epistles:
- Whoever eats the flesh and drinks the blood of Jesus Christ has eternal life (John 6:54).
- Passover symbols were changed from eating a lamb to bread and wine (Matthew 26:26-20).
- Foot washing was introduced to Passover service (John 13:1-15).
- Jesus kept the Passover meal on the correct evening, contrary apparently to the traditions of the priests and many of the Jews at that time, who ate the Passover meal one evening later (Matthew 26:20-32, John 18:28).
- Jesus taught obedience to the spirit of the law as well as the letter (Matthew 5:21-30).
- Jesus taught against divorce (Matthew 5:31-32).
- Jesus taught not to swear (Matthew 5:33-37).
- Jesus taught to call no man "rabbi" or "father" as a religious title (Matthew 23:6-9).
- We are to forgive others and love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48, 6:14, 18:21-35).
- Jesus rejected the traditions of the elders that the religious authorities added to God's commandments (Matthew 15:1-12).
- Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and His name is the only name by which men can be saved (Matthew 26:62-68, Acts 4:8-12).
- Salvation is open to the Gentiles (Acts 10:1-11:18).
- Physical circumcision, along with animal sacrifices, is no longer required, and there is a change in the law and a change in the priesthood (Galatians 5:1-6, Hebrews 7:11-14, Galatians 3:23-25).
- New prophecies were given to the Church by Jesus Christ, either while He was on earth in the flesh (Matthew 24:4-46) or after He ascended to heaven (book of Revelation).
- Jesus Christ and the Father are both God (John 1:1-14).
I could go on and try to keep making the list longer, but I think what I have listed above makes the point. Many of the things Jesus taught were very different from what the Jews were used to hearing. His doctrines were very different from many of the traditional doctrines of the Jews (Matthew 16:6-12). He made many doctrinal changes, both additions and corrections, to what the Jews of that time had been taught.
Think: If the doctrinal changes taught by Jesus Christ were not that great, why was there so much persecution by the Jews against the Church? Why did Saul, who became Paul, so zealously persecute the Church (Acts 8:1-3, 9:1-30, 13:9, Galatians 1:13, 5:12)?
Think of how HARD it must have been for people who thought they had the "truth" to learn and accept these changes. Jesus Himself said that believing and living the truth would be hard (Matthew 7:14).
It is not loyalty to a list of beliefs handed down to us by tradition that God is looking for. It is loyalty to God and to Christ to respond to what they teach us, to "jump" when they say "jump". We have to learn to follow the Lamb WHEREVER HE LEADS (Revelation 14:1-5). How does Christ lead us? He leads us the same way He led Mr. Armstrong, by opening our minds to understand God's Word, the Bible, even to understand new things from God's Word. Christ led Mr. Armstrong to see new truth in the Bible, and He led us to believe the things Mr. Armstrong taught us by opening our minds to understand the Bible as we PROVED the things Mr. Armstrong taught us. We need to imitate the attitude of the writer of Psalm 119 who prayed in verse 18, "Open my eyes, that I may see Wondrous things from Your law." We also should desire that God will reveal new truth to us from the Bible, not only to us individually, but to the Church as a whole.
Christ tells the Philadelphians in Revelation 3:11, "Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown." What is it Christ wants the faithful members of His Church to hold fast to? A list of doctrinal beliefs, which the Philadelphian leader, Herbert W. Armstrong, did not compile into a "statement of beliefs" because he didn't want the Church to get locked into believing a list more than the Bible? Or are we to hold fast to the principle of putting the Bible first above tradition and being willing to be corrected by the Bible and learn new knowledge from the Bible, which is the way of life Mr. Armstrong actually practiced? I suppose each person will have to choose for himself or herself which is more important. For my part, I believe Jesus Christ is referring to the principle of putting the Bible first in our beliefs and being willing to be corrected by it, because that is a weightier matter of the truth. Believing the Bible is a weightier principle than a list of beliefs because we would never have the list of beliefs we have if Mr. Armstrong and the Church did not practice the principle of putting the Bible first.
God Speaks Through the Bible
I have touched on this before, but I want to re-emphasis something. Mr. Armstrong has said that he believes the Bible was primarily written for the Philadelphia era of the Church, by which he meant our modern time. I agree with this. In the early Church, the New Testament was not complete during most of the first century because it was still being written. Even when it was complete, it was not widespread. Because the books of the Bible were copied by hand, they were more expensive and more rare.
Before modern times and the invention of the printing press, both during the first century and in the times of the Old Testament, God's primary communication with His people was through the prophets and apostles. God spoke through individual servants, then often backed up what the servant said with signs and miracles. The sign or miracle was a mark of authenticity so the listener could know that the words being spoken by the servant were really from God. It was the proof of God speaking. This was why Paul was able to say to the Thessalonians that they received the words which they heard from Paul as the word of God, which it was (I Thessalonians 2:13). They did not have complete Bibles, but God gave Paul the power to perform miracles and signs, and they knew from this that Paul was speaking the truth from God.
We do not see servants like Mr. Armstrong and others performing great public signs and miracles in modern times. God certainly does perform miracles for the Church, but they are of the quiet variety, not designed to arouse public attention, or even very great attention within the Church.
But instead we have the word of God in a different form, not as words coming from the mouth of a miracle-working prophet or apostle, but in the form of the Bible. There are three things different about the Bible in modern times compared with the first century and earlier:
1) The Bible is complete. This was not true till near the end of the first century.
2) The Bible is widespread. Anyone can easily obtain a Bible in just about any language. This was not true before the invention of the printing press.
3) We have objective proof that the Bible is God speaking. Prophecy has been fulfilled in modern history, such as the prophecies concerning the lost tribes of Israel, and this fulfillment of prophecy provides the proof that the Bible is God's word. This replaces the kind of public miracles that were performed by the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament first-century apostles. It is the mark of authenticity that shows that God is the real author of the Bible, just as God in the past used miracles to show that he was speaking through Moses or Peter or Paul. This proof was not available before these prophecies were fulfilled in history, especially the prophecies concerning the lost tribes of Israel that have been fulfilled since around 1800 AD.
So in a sense, there has been somewhat of a change in the primary way God communicates His word to us. The emphasis today is on the Bible, and God uses his servants, such as Mr. Armstrong, to point us to where we can find the answers in the Bible.
I know that some hope and believe that before the end of the work of the Church of preaching the gospel to the world as a witness, and before the two witnesses, ministers and/or members of the Church will be empowered by God to perform public miracles, and this will grab attention and draw people towards the teaching of the Church and enable us to do a great work of preaching the gospel. They point to Mark 16:17-18 as evidence that miraculous signs will be with true Christians. But while God certainly does at times empower His servants with the power to perform miracles, it is evident in church history over the last century that dramatic, public, miraculous signs are not always present with true Christians in a way that draws great public attention.
It may be that God will empower ministers and members of the Church to perform public miracles before it is time to flee as a way of empowering the work of the Church of God of preaching the gospel to the world. Miracles would attract attention to the Church and its message and would provide evidence that our message is from God. But He might not empower us that way, for the following reason. God may choose to test people entirely on whether or not they will believe His Word, the Bible, without public miracles and signs. God wants people to believe His Word, the Bible, not just individuals who can work signs and wonders. So, the Church may have to do a great work of preaching the gospel without the benefit of many public miracles. God may continue to test Israel the same way He has been testing them, with the Bible. God did not back up Mr. Armstrong with great public miracles to draw attention and prove to the public that he spoke the truth. Instead, God used Mr. Armstrong to challenge Israel to blow the dust off their Bibles and believe what God says in His Word. That has always been the test that Israel has had to face in modern times. God might not change the terms of the test. God may not make it easier for Israel to accept the truth by giving the Church power to perform many public signs and wonders. It may be that God will require the same thing he required when Mr. Armstrong was alive, "Blow the dust off your Bible and believe what God says." The test may be the same for everybody. Will people be willing to take the time away from TV, music, movies, video games, sports, etc. to actually read the Bible and believe what it says? That has been the test for this time so far, not "Will you believe someone who works miracles?" That is the test every person may have to face and pass if he is to escape the tribulation. This will change when the two witnesses are given power, but by that time the tribulation has started.
I truly believe that Mr. Armstrong held the office of apostle, and that he was no less an apostle in terms of rank and importance than the twelve apostles and Paul. But there are some differences between the way Christ used Mr. Armstrong in that office and the way Christ used the twelve apostles and Paul in that office. Jesus Christ taught the twelve and Paul directly, in person. They could ask Jesus questions. Jesus taught them face-to-face (Galatians 1:11-17, 1 Corinthians 9:1). Mr. Armstrong was taught by Christ, not in person, but through the Bible. This is why he taught us that as the apostle Paul learned from the Word of God in person (Jesus Christ), he (Mr. Armstrong) learned from the Word of God in print (the Bible), the same Word. Another difference is that the twelve and Paul worked public miracles that served as signs that they were apostles and that their message was from God (Mark 3:13-15, Matthew 10:5-8, 2 Corinthians 12:12). This was a proof to others. Mr. Armstrong was not used in that way. Miracles did occur, but they were not the type that attracted great public attention. Rather than pointing people to himself, Mr. Armstrong pointed people to the Bible. Paul had to point to himself in a stronger way as a source of the word of God because complete Bibles were not available (1 Thessalonians 2:13). Paul could not say, as Mr. Armstrong did, "Don't believe me, believe your Bible."
Between the time of Paul's writings and our time now, the Bible was completed, the printing press made the Bible widely available, and prophecy was fulfilled in history, especially since 1800, enabling any objective person to prove that the Bible is God speaking. The final change to occur was that God sent an apostle to point us to the Bible as no apostle ever did before. He build a culture in the Church of proving doctrine by the Bible, as was done in countless sermons by ministers during Sabbath services.
God speaks to the Church today through the Bible. Yet, as we get closer to the end, there may come a time when God speaks to the Church of God through prophets. This will be the case with the two witnesses, and whether or not God will use prophets to teach the Church before the time when the two witnesses are given power, I do not know. But God will not send a prophet who contradicts the Bible, and any prophet, if he is a true prophet, will teach doctrine consistent with the Bible and will show good fruits, and this should include the good fruits of supporting the preaching of the gospel to the public.I think one of the major things Christ used Mr. Armstrong for, and possibly Mr. Armstrong's greatest role and function, was to turn the Church of God to the Bible. That may be the major teaching and accomplishment of his apostleship.
Should Each Member Promote His Own Opinion?
Some members go to an opposite extreme. They are willing to learn new things, but they are so willing that they find what they think is new truth in the Bible, and then begin to advocate and promote this new truth among the members of their local congregation even when it contradicts the official teachings of the Church from headquarters. This causes division and confusion and violates God's instruction through Paul that we should strive to all speak the same thing. Notice 1 Corinthians 1:10: "Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment." God is not the author of confusion and all things need to be done properly and in order.
I think the answer is that when a member discovers something in the Bible that seems like a new truth that the Church does not have or seems to contradict a doctrine the Church already believes, that in itself is not wrong. We all have different backgrounds, experiences, strengths, and weaknesses, and it is not unusual for different people to read the same scriptures and come up with different conclusions. Not only do our backgrounds and abilities vary, but some people may spend more time studying and researching a particular doctrine than even most ministers. None of us knows everything perfectly (1 Corinthians 12:4-11, 13:9-12). In such a case, if the member thinks it is something that should be shared with the Church, he should go through proper channels and follow lawful procedures. He should not discuss any opinions he holds that contradict church doctrine with other members, but should submit it to his local pastor or to headquarters for evaluation and feedback. He should have a humble attitude and realize that he could be mistaken, and be willing to seriously consider the point of view of the Church if he is corrected in this. At the same time, the leadership of the Church has an obligation to examine the matter with an open mind using the Bible as final authority and to make the change for the whole Church if that change is indeed taught by the Bible, and if not, if the member is wrong, to show the member his error by going over it point-by-point with the Bible. If the member's position is rejected, the reasons would be explained to the member in detail so he could understand.
If after honest discussion the member still disagrees with the position of the Church, then in matters of conversation with and teaching of other members he should defer to the authority of those Christ has placed in a position of leadership and not promote his opinions where they contradict the Church. The member should not lie and pretend agreement, but simply decline to discuss the matter with other members. The member can "put it on the shelf" so to speak, and wait for Christ to either help the member to understand his error or eventually help the church leadership to see that the change should be made. If neither one of these things occur, then when Christ returns He can answer all questions and we will know all doctrines more perfectly.
Should a member automatically believe whatever the Church teaches, even if it seems to contradict the Bible? I don't see how that can be the right course of action. Whenever anyone sees something in the Bible that seems to contradict the doctrines of the Church, in his mind that person has to make a choice. The Bible is God's word. Does that member believe and trust God more than the Church, or not? This is a test of faith, and we are required to believe God first. But we should all be humble and realize we can make errors and strive to have an open mind that is willing to be corrected if it is wrong.
When I first came into the Worldwide Church of God, the pastor of our congregation had explained the procedure of submitting doctrinal disagreements or suggestions for change to church authority for evaluation and decision. He did not say or imply that for a member to have a different view than the Church was wrong, but that things had to be done in an orderly way.
I once heard a minister say that he knew that God would never reveal new truth to him to give to the Church because he was only a local minister, and revealing new truth through him would be destructive of hierarchical government. I think he was trying to be tactful by referring to himself, but I think what he really meant was, "God will not reveal new knowledge to any of you members to give to the Church, because that would be destructive of hierarchical government." He seemed to be saying that God would never permit a lower ranking member to understand something before a higher ranking evangelist understands it, but I do not remember him giving any scriptural support to prove this. This makes no sense to me. It is not destructive of government if a member suggests changes to the ministry without promoting doctrine himself among the members. Correction and suggestions can be offered to those above one in authority, provided it is done privately in a respectful way, not in openly in front of others in a rebellious way designed to belittle the office or the man holding the office in the eyes of the people. An example from the Bible shows the attitude of one who rightly corrects someone over him.
2 Kings 5:1-8 tells how Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, came to Elisha to be healed of leprosy. The story continues starting with verse 9: "Then Naaman went with his horses and chariot, and he stood at the door of Elisha’s house. And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, 'Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored to you, and you shall be clean.' But Naaman became furious, and went away and said, 'Indeed, I said to myself, "He will surely come out to me, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place, and heal the leprosy." Are not the Abanah and the Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?' So he turned and went away in a rage. And his servants came near and spoke to him, and said, 'My father, if the prophet had told you to do something great, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, "Wash, and be clean"?' So he went down and dipped seven times in the Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean" (2 Kings 5:9-14). Here is an example where a commander's servants corrected him, but respectfully out of concern for him, and he heeded their correction and was healed. Even in our day in corporations, which are hierarchical, employees are encouraged to submit suggestions. Companies encourage employees to make suggestions because they know that some valuable ideas and knowledge can come from the rank and file. When Mr. Armstrong submitted his ideas to the leadership of the Church of God Seventh Day, he had not yet been ordained a minister. Nevertheless, God was already revealing new truth to him through the Bible, which the Church of God Seventh Day leadership rejected. And the way Mr. Armstrong learned the truth about the Sabbath is also an example of one under authority offering correction or information to the one in authority. Mr. Armstrong first was challenged on the Sabbath by one under his authority, that is, his wife. God used Loma Armstrong to reveal new truth to Mr. Armstrong, which led to his conversion.
So it is not true that new knowledge or correction only comes from the top down.
Mr. Armstrong wrote this in an article entitled "Should We Listen to Others" I believe in the May 1960 issue of the Good News magazine: "In God's Church, we ministers do not tell you what to believe, and command you to believe us, without even looking into your Bible. That is what the Roman Catholic Church does -- but not God's Church." Later in the same article he wrote: "But suppose, when you study your own Bible, you come across something you feel is contrary to the teaching of the Church? Must you hide your eyes from what you see in your Bible? CERTAINLY NOT! Well then, can you go to other members with it, to set them straight? CERTAINLY NOT -- that would only tend to CAUSE DIVISION. The Bible teaches that we must all SPEAK THE SAME THING. Well, what shall you do, then? LISTEN! UNDERSTAND THIS! You MUST NOT go to any other member with what you feel you have found is contrary to the Church's teaching. Instead, YOU MUST BRING IT TO THE MINISTERS! If you are a member of a local congregation, take it to your pastor. Go into it WITH HIM -- but with NO ONE ELSE, lest you foment division, and be cast out of the Church! If there is no local pastor, bring it to one of God's ministers, or write it to HEADQUARTERS. God's ministers will go into it with you. If you are right -- if you have found any place in the Bible where we are in error, then WE WANT TO KNOW IT. We hate error, and love truth, even though the truth correct and reprove us! Bring it to us. If YOU are wrong, we will patiently show you, and explain it more perfectly to you. If we are wrong, we will correct it BEFORE THE WHOLE CHURCH, so that ALL the Church may, with one mind, believe the TRUTH, and speak the SAME THING!"
That explanation made sense to me. It still makes sense to me. It allows every person to believe the Bible first over human tradition or church authority. It allows the Church to be corrected by the Bible and grow in knowledge. And it prevents division and confusion because members do not promote their pet ideas among other members. We all speak the same thing because we all speak within the boundaries of doctrines set by headquarters. But there is a mechanism in place for doctrinal disagreements to be resolved, even in the case where the Church is wrong, and for errors to be corrected.
This process preserves unity, peace, and order in the Church without violating the principle of absolute faith in God and His Word on the part of every member as well as the Church as a whole, without violating the principle of submission to God's government in the Church, and without violating the ninth commandment.
Did Mr. Armstrong Point to Himself as the Authority for Belief?
Some may point out statements Mr. Armstrong made to the Church pointing to himself as the authority for doctrine. I know that Mr. Armstrong made such statements. I have heard Mr. Armstrong say, "God puts all doctrine into the Church through the apostle." In the context of the times, I think he was referring to putting doctrine into the official teachings of the Church so that the Church is consistent in what it is teaching. This is in support of the principle that a member who disagrees with a doctrine should not promote his opinions among the members, but rather submit proposed doctrinal changes to the ministry or headquarters for evaluation and decision. This does not override the principle that the Bible must come first in our beliefs.
Mr. Armstrong said, in reference to his book, Mystery of the Ages, "...I worked very hard on it...and out of it has come the most important book by far that God has ever written through me, and I think God wrote it through me." This may have been in the 1984 Feast of Tabernacles opening night message or first day message. When he said that God wrote it through him, did he mean it carried the same authority as the Bible? I don't think so, because I remember he has also said, on another occasion, perhaps in an address to Ambassador College students, that Mystery of the Ages is not Scripture.
On one occasion I think I heard him say that we all need to speak the same thing, and he said that this means we have to believe the same thing. I do not remember which sermon this is from but I think it was from a sermon late in his life, around 1984 or 1985. He wrote something similar in Mystery of the Ages, in the chapter on the Mystery of the Church, where he says that there must be no division in what is believed.
I have heard him say, I believe in the 1985 first day of unleavened bread sermon: "And there are many of you women sitting right here that are keeping paint off your faces just because I said you have to, and your heart isn't in it. And you better get your hearts right with God. You call me God's apostle. You better listen to what I say."
In these statements, did Mr. Armstrong intend to point to himself and his authority as an apostle as the source of what church members should believe in regards to doctrine? Was he saying we should let him interpret the Bible for us, and that in matters of doctrine we should believe what he tells us the scriptures mean, based on his authority from God as God's apostle?
I did not know Mr. Armstrong personally. I only know about what he taught by what he said in articles, books, broadcasts, and sermons. In these sermon messages to the Church in the later years of his life, was he saying or implying that if we see something in the Bible different from what he taught us, we should believe him more than the Bible? Was he saying we should let him interpret the Bible for us rather than let the Bible interpret itself? Was he saying that God was speaking directly through him and that he was therefore infallible in his teachings? Was he saying our faith should be in his words and doctrines because he was God's apostle? I never knew him personally or even met him, and I never had the opportunity to ask him, but if this was his intended meaning it would not be consistent with what I have heard him say in earlier articles, books, and broadcasts, and it would not be consistent with his own teaching and example in his autobiography. That is not how he himself lived. He NEVER would have believed a man, any man, more than the Bible.
These statements were made at a time when we had recently gone through rebellions against authority, and Mr. Armstrong and the ministry had long experience dealing with individuals who stirred up division, confusion, and rebellion by unlawfully promoting their own pet doctrines among the brethren. Mr. Armstrong's statements pointing to his authority as an apostle should be seen in that context. Many of the problems that he and other ministers had to deal with in matters of division over doctrine would never have occurred if those who had different opinions submitted their suggestions lawfully to Mr. Armstrong and the ministry and did not discuss or promote them among the members.
However, if his views had indeed changed, if he came to view himself as an authority for doctrine that we must believe, even to the extent of having the members let him decide what verses in the Bible mean rather than letting the Bible interpret the Bible and putting the Bible first in our belief, and if this was what he was teaching the Church, then look at the fruits of this teaching. Compare the fruits of the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s when most members and co-workers were hearing Mr. Armstrong on the radio placing emphasis on the Bible, with the fruits of the 1980s and 1990s after Mr. Armstrong emphasized to the members in taped sermons that God put all doctrine into the Church through the apostle. You can also look at the fruit of those groups today that teach that Mr. Armstrong's teachings cannot be changed. Do they exhibit brotherly love towards their members and towards each other? Do these groups even get along with each other?
When I look at Mr. Armstrong's entire life and teaching since his conversion, what I see is that the predominant doctrine he taught and practiced is that God speaks directly through the Bible, that the Bible is the Word of God in print just as Jesus Christ is the Word of God in person, that the Bible, not any man, is infallible, that we have to let the Bible interpret itself, and that we must believe what God says, the Bible, first.
That is how he himself tried to live, and that is the example he set for us.
I would summarize Mr. Armstrong's whole life and teachings in three words: Believe the Bible.
Were Mr. Armstrong's Teachings Infallibly Correct at his Death?
There are some who believe that because Mr. Armstrong was the Elijah to restore all things and that he was God's apostle, that his teachings therefore must have been infallibly correct at the time of his death and cannot be changed. Some of those who believe this may acknowledge that Mr. Armstrong made mistakes during his life, even mistakes in doctrinal matters, but say that those mistakes were corrected before he died. They will then point to Mystery of the Ages as their source of doctrine and authority for what they believe, and they often seem to speak of it as if it is equal in authority to the Bible, or almost equal, depending on who you talk to and how they express it.
Mr. Armstrong completed Mystery of the Ages shortly before his death. AFTER writing Mystery of the Ages, Mr. Armstrong made this statement in a sermon message to the Church. He said, "Your faith must not be in me, it must be in Jesus Christ. He's the head of the Church, I'm not. And if I were not here, there would be another who would become the pastor general. And if that should ever happen, if you want into get into God's Kingdom you will follow that pastor general. And you will remain united and you will remain one. And your eternity depends on that, every one of you, don't you forget it." This was in the 1985 Day of Trumpets sermon. I know this was AFTER Mystery of the Ages was completed because it was a few days later at the Feast of Tabernacles when the copies of the book were distributed to the membership.
Here is my question for those who claim that Mystery of the Ages cannot contain any error because Mr. Armstrong's teachings were infallibly correct by the time he wrote it: Was his statement about another man to become pastor general after Mr. Armstrong's death infallibly correct and free from error? Mr. Armstrong is on record as saying that each one of us needed to follow the pastor general that would succeed Mr. Armstrong if we want to make it into God's Kingdom. That pastor general was Joseph Tkach. Is it true that we needed to follow Joseph Tkach if we wanted to be in God's Kingdom? Is that a true statement? Is it free from error, infallibly correct, something we must believe because it came from God's apostle, the Elijah to restore all things?
Mr. Tkach, the pastor general that Mr. Armstrong said we must follow in order to make it into God's Kingdom, reversed virtually everything or almost everything that Mr. Armstrong taught!
Now, was Mr. Armstrong infallible at the time of his death? Were all his teachings correct and free from error? This statement he made, about following the pastor general that would succeed him, is just as much a part of Mr. Armstrong's teachings as the book Mystery of the Ages. This statement was part of a sermon Mr. Armstrong gave to the Church. It was his TEACHING, just as much as anything he wrote. It was one of the last things he taught the Church, shortly after finishing Mystery of the Ages.
And it was wrong.
And in the resurrection, after Mr. Armstrong learns what happened in the Church after his death, I am sure he will be the first to admit that his statement about following Mr. Tkach was wrong, that it was a mistake.
Those who say we can never change Mr. Armstrong's teachings should state whether they think it is okay to change his teaching that we should follow Mr. Tkach if we want to be in God's Kingdom.
I do not intend this as a reflection against Mr. Armstrong. It was God's decision to allow this in order to test the Church and to teach us lessons. But it does prove a point, and it may be that one of the reasons God allowed Mr. Armstrong to make this statement was to teach us the lesson that our faith must be in the Bible, not any leader in the Church of God, even if that leader is an apostle or the Elijah to come. We should always respect the office, but the Bible must come first in our beliefs and obedience.
Neither Mr. Armstrong nor his writings nor his sermons were infallible and free from error at the end of his life. Only the Bible is infallibly true, and we need to be grounded in the Bible, not Mystery of the Ages. The best way we can follow the way of life God showed us through Mr. Armstrong is to follow Mr. Armstrong's example of always striving to put the Bible first in our beliefs and obedience, to learn new knowledge from the Bible, and to let the Bible correct and rebuke us in our doctrines and behavior.
The Eighteen Truths
I have previously made reference to the eighteen truths Mr. Armstrong restored to the Church of God. Probably most Church of God members are familiar with this, but I want to give some background information, and then I want to make a few comments about the role of the list of eighteen truths in our faith and our beliefs.
In a sermon Mr. Armstrong gave to the Church, I believe on December 17, 1983, Mr. Armstrong listed a number of truths God restored to the Church through him. These included the major doctrines of the Church that Mr. Armstrong introduced, truths that the Church of God Seventh Day did not have, such as the modern identity of Israel, the holy days and the plan of God, God's purpose in reproducing Himself in man, etc. In some sermons after this, Mr. Armstrong mentioned that seventeen or eighteen truths had been restored. Later, in Mystery of the Ages, Mr. Armstrong wrote that at least eighteen major truths were restored to the true Church of God since 1933. I have explained most of these doctrines in chapters one through three.
These doctrines became known as the eighteen truths.
A number of lists of the eighteen truths have been published after Mr. Armstrong died, but they can vary among themselves, primarily because Mr. Armstrong did not number the truths and did not even give the total number as "eighteen" when he listed them in the original sermon. The number "eighteen" comes from later sermons and from Mystery of the Ages, but Mystery of the Ages does not list or itemize these doctrines by number. Any list of eighteen truths is built by putting together the number "eighteen" from Mystery of the Ages and the actual doctrines mentioned in the sermon given by Mr. Armstrong, or in other places. But because Mr. Armstrong did not number the doctrines in the sermon or anywhere else, there can be differences of opinion about where one doctrine leaves off and another begins. That is why lists of these doctrines compiled after Mr. Armstrong's death can vary.
Since the scattering of the Church, many have used these eighteen truths as a kind of "litmus test" of faithfulness to the things Mr. Armstrong taught. In effect, this list has been used as a substitute for a statement of beliefs that some have used to measure faithfulness to true doctrine in the Church. Some believe that to be in the Philadelphia condition we need to "hold fast" to the eighteen truths, as Jesus admonished the Philadelphia Church to hold fast to what they have (Revelation 3:11). Thus, some use allegiance to the eighteen truths as a test to judge if a Church is in the Philadelphia condition.
Is this a proper use of the eighteen truths? Is this what Mr. Armstrong intended? More importantly, is a list of doctrines what Christ had in mind when he told Philadelphia to "hold fast"?
Is holding fast to the eighteen truths a sign of the Philadelphia Church?
I think it is important to note that Mr. Armstrong never published a formal list of eighteen restored truths while he was alive. All such lists were published after he died using what Mr. Armstrong said in that sermon and the number "eighteen" from Mystery of the Ages and other sermons. This suggests to me that Mr. Armstrong did not intend a list of eighteen truths to be a kind of "statement of beliefs" or an "apostle's creed" that everyone was to hold fast to. The title and subject of Mr. Armstrong's sermon was, "the mission of the Philadelphia Era of the Church", and I believe the context shows that Mr. Armstrong's purpose in listing the truths to be restored is to show how we have been given something special and we have a special work and mission to perform. These restored truths are a blessing from God, and we should appreciate them, but we should also have a sense of responsibility to do the work that God has called us to do, and to share these truths with others. This is along the lines of the principle that "to whom much is given, much is required" (Luke 12:48). I think this was one of the main reasons why Mr. Armstrong reviewed the restored truths in that sermon.
My point is that at no time did Mr. Armstrong publish a formal list of eighteen restored doctrines, command the Church of God to remain faithful and hold fast to those doctrines, and make belief in the list a litmus test of being in the Philadelphia condition. He could have done that. But he didn't.
What is the role of the eighteen truths? Should we hold fast to them?
Yes, provided we do so for the right reason.
I agree with the eighteen truths, and I think they can serve as an excellent summary of the truth of God, but I think we should believe them for the right reason. We should believe them because we can prove them from the Bible, not because they are our tradition or because Mr. Armstrong taught them. And I do not think holding fast to the eighteen truths is the definitive test of whether or not a church member is in the Philadelphia condition. One can believe all eighteen truths and still be a Laodicean. And these doctrines were revealed DURING the Philadelphia era, which means members have been true Philadelphians even before all of these truths had been restored. So allegiance to the eighteen truths is not necessarily a defining characteristic of a Philadelphian Christian. But I think allegiance to the Bible, the Word of God, is. And it is the Bible that is the source of the eighteen truths.
What is Jesus Christ referring to when He tells Philadelphia to hold fast? What are they to hold fast to? If you read the message in Revelation 3:7-13, you will notice that before Christ tells Philadelphia to hold fast, He commends them for four things: 1) you have a little strength, 2) you have kept My word, 3) you have not denied My name, 4) you have kept My command to persevere. These are all things that Philadelphia has. Then Christ says, "hold fast to what you have."
What are we to hold fast to? Other than "what you have", Christ doesn't specify. Is He referring to the things He has already mentioned, such as keeping His word, not denying His name, and keeping His command to persevere, or is He referring to a list of doctrines restored during the time of the Philadelphia era? To know this, Philadelphians have to use the spiritual discernment God gives to them based on principles taught in the Bible.
The message to Philadelphia is a message for the entire Philadelphian era. That includes those members during the late 1930s, the 1940s, the 1950s, etc. I don't think the eighteen truths were complete then. Mr. Armstrong was learning them from the Bible one point at a time during those early years and afterwards. So how could Philadelphians in those early years hold fast to doctrines they had not received yet because they were in the process of being restored?
But what they could hold fast to was what Mr. Armstrong and those who learned from him had from the beginning, a willingness to be believe the Bible, to be corrected from the Bible, and to learn new knowledge from the Bible ("you...have kept My word"), and a zeal for taking what is learned from the Bible and preaching it to the world. I think this is one of the primary things Christ wants us to hold fast to.
Each Philadelphian Christian must use the wisdom and discernment that God gives to Philadelphia to understand what Christ is telling Philadelphia to hold fast to. I personally believe He is telling us to hold fast to the Bible, the Word of God, rather than an itemized list of doctrines, because allegiance to the Bible is a weightier matter than any itemized list of doctrines. Which is greater, a list of true doctrines, or the Bible from which those doctrines come? I say the Bible is greater. Another thing Philadelphia has and should hold fast to is zeal for preaching the gospel to the world. And if God's name represents His authority, and I believe it does, then Christ is also telling us to hold fast to government ("you... have not denied My name"). Holding fast to government can include the understanding that Christ leads the Church from the top-down and can include respect for government in the Church.
I believe that holding fast to the eighteen truths can be included in what we are to hold fast to, IF we hold fast to the eighteen truths because we can prove them from the Bible and we are holding fast to the Bible.
How do we implement this? How do we put holding fast to the Bible into action? It may be that there will be no major new doctrines revealed between now and the return of Christ. It may be that God will not use major doctrinal change to test the Church to see if we are willing to change our beliefs to follow the Bible, as God tested Mr. Armstrong with the Sunday vs. Sabbath issue or the way God tested Church of God Seventh Day on the identity of the lost tribes of Israel. But God can know our hearts and read our attitudes and test us in other ways, such as whether we approach the Bible in an attitude of belief and if we prove the things we believe from the Bible. All of us should prove what we believe from the Bible. Everyone should believe doctrine because it is what the Bible teaches, not because of tradition or Church teaching. Ministers who preach should use the Bible to support and prove their teachings, not tradition or Church authority. Ministers and headquarters should examine doctrinal questions or proposed changes from members with an open mind and make changes if necessary to follow the Bible as accurately as possible, no matter how it might upset some members who want to hold to their traditions. If conclusions of Bible research done at headquarters are announced to the Church, then sufficient Bible evidence to prove the conclusions should be offered to those who request it, in the form of a booklet, article, or study paper, so that the members can check this out with the Bible and look up the proof themselves, and so their faith can be in the Word of God, not in Church leaders.
Mr. Armstrong placed heavy emphasis on believing the Bible.
In a sermon given, I believe on the Last Day of Unleavened Bread in 1985, about 52 minutes into the recording, he said, "I only know what God says. When I tell you these things, I'm only telling you what God reveals and you can check up on it. It's all in the Bible, and you can see it the same as I can. I'm not giving you things that I made up in my mind. I didn't originate the truths that I teach. But I learned them the same way the apostle Paul did, directly from Jesus Christ. But you see, Jesus Christ in person was on earth and taught Paul, and the Bible is Jesus Christ in writing. It's the same Word exactly. And Jesus Christ in person was the Word of God, and the Bible in print is the Word of God, and they're both the same. I just learned it from the printed Word and he learned it from the verbal Word and from Jesus in person who spoke to him. But the Word is the same, precisely the same."
In the first two minutes of the sermon in which Mr. Armstrong spoke of the truths restored to the Church, the same sermon dated December 17, 1983 on the mission of the Philadelphia era of the Church I have talked about above, he said: "It's been seeming more and more to me, as the years go by, that the Bible was written primarily for the Philadelphia era of the Church. It has not been understood previously to now. The Bible was not all written yet during the beginning of the Church during the Ephesian era, the first era of the Church, until close to the end of the first century. The Bible was not complete. There was no printing. Every copy had to be written carefully, slowly, one copy at a time by hand, and by copyists. There were not very many of them. The average person never saw one."
In a sermon recording I found on the Internet dated 1984 on the label (I do not know the exact date), Mr. Armstrong said this: "The Church lost so much of its truth. Now there were three elements, basic elements of truth, that the Church still had when I first came among them. That was, the name of the Church, the Church of...[interruption in the recording when the tape was turned over]...in the Bible, it's modified the location of the Church, as to where they're located, and so on. Well we do that today. Today it's not in any one place or city or district, it's worldwide, so we call it Worldwide Church of God, which is true, truly according to the Bible, the correct Bible name of the Church. They had the tithing system, with tithes holy to God, and something else that is holy to God, His Sabbath day. And they had the truth of the law of God, and they knew that sin was the transgression of the law. There were seventeen other major points of doctrine that they had lost, and God has restored all of those to the Church through His apostle. Now all twenty are here, and if more are to be restored we shall accept them as fast as God reveals them." Notice that Mr. Armstrong says that if more points of doctrine are to be restored, "WE" (not "I") shall accept them as fast as God reveals them.
Is what Mr. Armstrong has said in the quotes above consistent with what I said, that Christ wants Philadelphia to hold fast to the Bible? Is it consistent with what I have said, that we need to be willing to learn new truth from the Bible? And could the Bible be what Christ is referring to when He praises Philadelphia because they "have kept My word"? I think the answers to all these questions are yes.
Mr. Armstrong emphasized that we should believe the Bible, be willing to be corrected by the Bible, learn new truth from the Bible, and grow in grace and in knowledge. Add to that an emphasis on preaching the gospel and on government. Those three things. Not holding to a list of doctrines.
One more quote from Mr. Armstrong, from his 1985 First Day of Unleavened Bread sermon, speaking of his early years with the Church of God Seventh Day when Mr. Armstrong first learned the truth about the holy days: "And for seven years we kept these days alone. I explained these days to the Church that we regard now as the Sardis era of the Church, but it was the Church of God down in the Willamette valley of Oregon. They laughed me to scorn. They would have nothing to do with the annual Sabbaths. They kept the weekly Sabbath, but they would go no further. In other words they would do what they had been doing all their lives. They had been taught by their parents I guess. But they would go no further. They would not grow in grace or in knowledge."
It is the willingness to learn new knowledge from the Bible that is the major thing that set the Philadelphia era of the Church apart from the Sardis era.
I think willingness to believe and obey what God says in the Bible is one of the major things Philadelphia Christians have that they should hold fast to.
A Possible Problem in the Church
A problem that can exist today in certain groups is the policy of church leadership of viewing suggestions for changes to doctrine from members as a sign of arrogance and rebellion. There can be a prejudice against new ideas and against anyone who would suggest a new idea. Members who offer suggestions for change may be accused of being presumptuous. And along with that, the leadership may promote the idea that ministers and members should accept decisions from headquarters as being right because we have faith that Christ is leading the Church, thus implying that God would not allow the ministry to make mistakes. The idea is suggested that we should exercise faith in Christ by believing that the doctrines and decisions from headquarters are correct, and to question or doubt those decisions shows a lack of faith in Christ's leadership.
This reminds me of the Catholic teaching on church government, which I came out of. They teach that the Pope is Christ's representative on earth, and when he speaks officially on matters of church doctrine, he is infallible. The Bible means what the church interprets it to mean and lay members are not to have their own private interpretation. Only the church can interpret the Bible correctly because the pope is led by and inspired by Christ. To doubt the pope means to doubt Christ.
Some ministers in the Church of God, in justifying decisions of the leadership, will say, "Christ leads the Church", but when they say this they seem to me to be implying, "Ministers in the Church follow Christ perfectly", which is not necessarily correct.
When I was in Worldwide in the days of Mr. Armstrong, I was taught something different. No one said the Church was infallible or that Mr. Armstrong did not make mistakes, but we were told that if there is a problem in the Church we should trust Christ to correct the problem in due time. In other words, trusting Christ to lead the Church did not mean believing that every decision or doctrine of the Church was right, but that if a decision or doctrine was wrong, Christ would fix it eventually. The emphasis was on waiting for Christ to correct an error and not taking matters into our own hands by quitting the Church or creating division. The teaching was not that Mr. Armstrong and the ministers never made mistakes, but that Christ would eventually correct their mistakes in one way or another.
The problem with believing that church decisions must be correct because Christ leads the Church is that Christ does not remove free moral agency and force any leader to do what is right. This means Christ can only lead someone to the extent they are willing to follow Him by following the Bible. And even when a leader is willing to follow Christ, Christ does not always protect the leader from making mistakes. Even Mr. Armstrong made mistakes, and he was very willing to believe and follow the Bible. How much more are other leaders able to make mistakes?
Members sometimes make suggestions to the ministry or government in the Church out of an attitude of wanting to help and serve. These suggestions can even take the form of suggestions for doctrinal change based on Scripture. A member may even be concerned about Christ's rebuke of those who, out of fear, want to bury their talent in the sand (Matthew 25:24-29). Not wanting to fall into that category, a member who feels he has been given some insight or understanding in something that the church leadership might not have may want to share it with the ministry. Yet often, such suggestions are ridiculed and rejected as being presumptuous and rebellious. Even so, a member might not be told why his suggestion is wrong or given any meaningful feedback. The member might simply be told, "We have studied this before and here is our conclusion", without showing the member his error, as if the ministry could not have made a mistake or overlooked a point of scripture or logic in studying the matter in the past. Also, wrong motives are often imputed to the member who offers such suggestions. Yet the ministry may advise members, in a sermon or article on how brethren should get along with each other, to avoid imputing motives to the actions of others and not make assumptions or jump to conclusions about the motivations of another person.
The Bible teaches us to "contend earnestly for the faith once delivered" (Jude 1:3). Although we should respect government and not become upset over minor disagreements, there is clearly a point when the foundation for our faith is challenged, when a member or minister may be motivated to take a stand. For me, the issue is the authority of the Bible. When someone tells me or implies to me that I should believe ministerial authority or church tradition more than what I read in my own Bible, they are challenging the very foundation of my faith. They are teaching me a wrong faith when they justify their doctrinal positions, not by proving them point-by-point from the Bible, but by referring to our traditions or church government for proof of a doctrine. This is what they do when they ridicule a different position by making the "accusation" that this is different from the long-time position of the Church, or from what Mr. Armstrong has taught, or what the ministers in the Church have already studied and decided. I spent too many hours over too many years proving that the Bible is God's word to think that this is a minor issue.
Some ministers may point out that if everyone forms their own opinion about what Scripture means, we will have a situation of confusion and division comparable to Israel's condition in the book of Judges where every man did what was right in his own eyes. But I have already explained that government in the Church exists to establish official positions of what will be taught in the Church, and members should not discuss their differences with the Church among other members, but rather should offer them to the government in the Church, not promoting them among the brethren in opposition to the government. This process preserves unity. Promoting opinions to the brethren is not the issue. The issue is that the ministry does not have dominion over our faith (2 Corinthians 1:24). The head of every man is Christ (1 Corinthians 11:3). Mr. Armstrong often equated Jesus Christ with the Bible, saying that the Bible is the Word of God in print and Jesus Christ is the Word of God in person, the same Word. This is also backed up by the Bible, which uses the term "word of God" to apply both to Scripture and to Jesus Christ (John 1:1-2, Revelation 19:11-16, John 10:34-35, Mark 7:10-13). To follow Christ means to follow the Bible.
It is not a matter of what members say to other members, but what they believe. I can respect government by not discussing where I think a Church may be wrong in doctrine with members of the Church I am a member of or attend with, but I better believe the Bible more than the ministry or I am in trouble with God.
Also, the ministry itself has an obligation to be honest with the scriptures and be willing to look at possible errors or new knowledge with an open mind. That is expected. When I come to services to hear a sermon, I expect the minister to teach from the Bible and to prove his major points from the Bible, and I expect headquarters to make every effort to make sure that the Church's teachings are from the Bible and are as accurate as possible. This is the foundation of everything Mr. Armstrong taught us. I have to be able to have some trust that this is being done in the Church if I am to have any trust in the teachings of the Church. I don't think I am the only member who believes this. When church government does not follow this policy but rather teaches according to its own authority as the government of God ("Christ is the head of the Church and He leads the ministry") or according to our tradition, and uses this to justify doctrine instead of the Bible while ridiculing those who have "different ideas", that comes across to me as a betrayal of trust. I came into the Church trusting the ministers to teach me because I trusted that Mr. Armstrong and the Church get all their teachings from the Bible and are willing to learn new knowledge from the Bible, and even be corrected from the Bible when they are in error. If that is no longer true, then trust is damaged.
I sometimes get the impression in listening to sermons that some ministers do not deal honestly with the scriptures as Mr. Armstrong did. I cannot trust ministers once I find they use scripture dishonestly, unfaithfully, twisting it and putting whatever meaning into it they already have in their minds. When they do that they are getting between me and God, misrepresenting what God is saying, and I cannot allow myself to be influenced by that. There is too much at stake. When this happens in the Church, I feel that I am hearing the voice of a stranger, not of Christ (John 10:27, 5). Many of us heard the voice of strangers in our former association, but sometimes we may still hear the voice of a stranger even in churches that claim allegiance to Mr. Armstrong's doctrines.
I am not advocating that every member interpret the Bible for himself, believing his own ideas and making the scriptures fit what he wants to believe. But neither should the ministry be doing this. Mr. Armstrong taught us that we should never interpret the Bible because the Bible interprets itself. What did he mean by this? I think he was making the point that we should not put our ideas into the Bible, but we should be honest with the scriptures accepting what the Bible really says without prejudice. We should put scriptures together, consider the context of each scripture, and let clear scriptures interpret unclear scriptures. But we should not let our traditions interpret the Scripture, or let government in the Church interpret the Scripture. The Catholic Church uses their traditions and their authority to interpret the Bible, but we must be different.
Following the Bible -- Pattern of Government
Anyone who teaches the public that they should strive to follow the Bible in their beliefs and practices should strive to do the same. Oftentimes we can be sincere in believing we are following the Bible, yet be in error because we may assume things without being diligent to research and prove them, or we may allow our preconceived opinions and preferences to influence our conclusions without realizing it. We all tend to make these kinds of errors, and we must continuously strive to be in an attitude of being willing to research what we believe in the Bible with an open mind and to root out any errors in our doctrines and practices. This takes time and effort, but I believe God is pleased with those who make this effort and have an attitude that is willing to admit mistakes and change. This also sets a right example for anyone we may teach. I believe God will bless the efforts of those who preach the gospel with this attitude.
One of the controversial subjects in the scattered Church of God is the issue of government in the Church. Mr. Armstrong taught that God's government in the Church is hierarchical from the top down, but some members today do not agree with this. Many of them may believe that recent experience shows the dangers of "one man rule", and that the Church is better served by a system of checks and balances that will prevent a leader from becoming powerful enough to change major doctrines against the will of the majority of the ministers and members. Ministers and members who are concerned about this may prefer a form of governance in which ministers vote for a board of directors and/or a president and board chairman who then govern the Church.
I believe this view is in error and that the Bible does indeed teach that God's government in the Church is hierarchical.
Mr. Armstrong taught us that God's government is always hierarchical, government from the top down. Although Mr. Armstrong had men who could advise him, and the Bible teaches that in the multitude of counselors there is safety (Proverbs 24:6, 15:22, and 11:14), Mr. Armstrong made final decisions without being subject to the voting or balloting of a body of men. He reported directly to Jesus Christ in the administration of the Church and the work of God.
Hierarchical government has been an issue in the Church of God since the scattering of the Church after the doctrinal changes in Worldwide. Although a number of major Church of God organizations practice hierarchical government, at least one large group does not. Rather, the ministry of that Church gathers periodically to vote to elect members of a board of about twelve men. I believe the board then votes to elect a chairman and a president, and these men lead the Church. They call their voting "balloting". Nevertheless, it is government by democracy, not hierarchical government.
The Bible teaches us about God's government, and every example shown is hierarchical government from the top down. There are certainly cases where the leadership relied on advice and counsel of those under them, such as when the apostles relied on the advice of the membership in appointing deacons, but always the authority came from the top down. Only the apostles had the authority to actually ordain men as deacons, not the membership of the Church. The way these leaders used the advice of those under them before making a decision is not much different than a pastor "polling" his members to see if they prefer morning or afternoon Sabbath services. It in no way diminishes the top-down authority of the leader.
Some make a point of saying that the Bible does not explicitly state that it is wrong to vote or that government must always be from the top down. But the Bible does not have to state something that it shows by example after example. The Bible SHOWS us God's government in action. We can SEE from every example that it is hierarchical. God does not need to state what He clearly shows us.
You can find example after example in both old and new testaments of those who hold office being appointed by someone over them, but there is not one example in the Bible of God appointing a leader of Israel or in the Church of God through a system of voting.
It think it should also be obvious, although I suppose it might not be for some, that in the Kingdom of God we will not be establishing who will hold a certain position of authority in the family of God by those under the authority of the position electing by vote or ballot the person who will be over them, and doing this for all eternity. We are being taught and prepared for our eternity in the Kingdom of God, and we are not learning the lessons we need to learn by practicing democracy in the Church of God.
I think that those who take the view that voting men into positions of authority in the Church is sanctioned by the Bible may be basing this on a misunderstanding of Acts chapter one. Some say that Acts 1:15-26 suggests or implies that the 120 voted for two candidates to replace Judas. But this passage does not indicate this at all. It only says that Peter stated that someone had to replace Judas and that "they" (whoever "they" were), proposed two. It does not even seem clear to me if the "they" referred to the eleven apostles or to the 120 disciples. But in any case, where does it say that the proposing was done by voting? And if it was done by voting, why select two, and then cast lots for the two? Why not select three, or four and cast lots to decide between them? Or why not go all the way and just "elect" one?
The entire 120 would probably have included both men and women in every type of circumstance, including some that were elderly. They also would have included people who became disciples of Jesus at various times during His ministry including some that may have come relatively recently. The qualification to replace Judas included being with Jesus during His entire ministry from the baptism of John until He ascended into heaven, and it would be obvious that the women and the elderly who could not stand the rigors of the work ahead would not be qualified. Some may have eliminated themselves from consideration for one reason or another. This could easily have eliminated all but two. Consider that many who became disciples of Jesus came with Him at various times during His three-and-a-half year ministry. There was even a time when many of His disciples left him, and the implication is strong that most of His disciples left him except for the twelve and a few others (John 6:66-67). But the one to replace Judas had to be continuously among Jesus' disciples in order to be a witness with the other eleven. Eliminate the women, eliminate the elderly and those who remove themselves from consideration for one reason or another, and eliminate those who were not continuously among Jesus Christ's disciples through His whole ministry, and it is quite understandable that there would be only two.
The "proposing" could easily have simply been a discussion and sorting out to determine which men who were fit out of the 120 were among the disciples from the beginning and remained with Jesus continuously to the end. There could have been complete agreement as to who these were, and there were only two. Then lots were cast to determine God's will in the matter.
If there were 10 or 20 qualified men, why would they vote to elect two, then let God pick one of the two? Was God only a tie-breaker in this "election"? Why wouldn't they let God choose among all the qualified candidates by casting lots for all 10 or 20? Or if voting was proper, why not vote between the two and save God the trouble of choosing between the two?
There is no indication here of an election by the democratic process of voting or "balloting" that I can see.
There may also be cases today, even in a Church that acknowledges top-down government, where a church leader is so tied to the advice and approval of the ministers who support him, that even though he has authority, he is afraid to use it without the agreement of the other ministers. In other words, he would not make a doctrinal change, even if he sees in the Bible that a change is needed in order for the Church to live by every word of God, unless he can win the support of the top ministry for the change. If all of his "multitude of counselors" advise against the change, the leader will not make it. I think this is a wrong application of the principle of getting advice before making a decision. The purpose of the advisors is to point out to the leader aspects of the decision that the leader may not have considered, or to provide information the leader may not have. But the decision is the leader's, and sometimes he may have to go contrary to the wishes of all his advisors. The leader must submit to Christ, not a board of directors or counsel of elders. It may be that God would test such a man by giving him the discernment to know God's will in a matter, but not giving that discernment to his advisors. Would the man be faithful to God and fulfill God's will according to the Bible, or will he do the will of his advisors to maintain their support? This can be a test.
There are examples in the Bible where a leader had to make a decision contrary to advice given him. Look at the life of David. When he was fleeing from Saul, and the Philistines attacked, his men did not want to fight the Philistines, but David relied on God and did God's will, not the will of his men (I Samuel 23:1-5). On other occasions, those with David advised him to kill Saul when he had the opportunity, but David refused to follow that advice because God had given David spiritual discernment about God's will that God had not given to David's men and advisors (I Samuel 24:4-7, I Samuel 26:8-12). The same can be true in the Church of God today. The leader of a Church organization under Jesus Christ may see the need to make a doctrinal change because the Bible teaches the change, and God may give that leader the discernment to understand the Bible, but the other ministers and close advisors may advise against it. If the leader is teaching the public to live by every word of the Bible, and if he wants to make sure that he is doing what he teaches others to do, then I would think he must make the change that the Bible indicates, even if it is against the will of his advisors and even if he risks losing their support, the support of his ministers, and the support of the membership by doing it.
The leader has to be willing to practice
what he teaches even if it is hard. Otherwise, he can hurt his credibility, his
effectiveness, and lose blessings and support he needs from God to finish the
work of preaching the gospel to the world and the Ezekiel warning to Israel.
Proving the Truth
This is not the main point of this chapter, but I have mentioned how Mr. Armstrong proved things, and towards the end of the chapter I will explain in more detail how Mr. Armstrong proved the truth, and I think there is a point to be made about proving the things we believe that would be useful for members of one or more particular churches, and this is a good place to talk about it.
Among the various Churches of God that trace their roots to Herbert W. Armstrong, there are one or more Church of God organizations that may seem to place great importance on Mr. Armstrong and his teachings, and they also say that it is very important to know who God is working through today. I have also heard that one or more of these organizations strictly instruct and command their members to not read any literature from any other church including other Churches of God that claim to be continuing in the teachings of Mr. Armstrong. I have heard this about at least one Church of God that came out of Worldwide relatively early, before most other Churches of God did so.
I also notice that one or more Churches of God may place a very heavy emphasis on the principle of God working through a man. It seems to me that those who say this are in effect saying that we should follow that man alone, even to the point of letting that man interpret the Bible for the membership and believing that man's interpretation, even without real proof from the Bible that his interpretations of Scripture are correct. In this view, we follow God by following the man.
Is this all consistent? Didn't Mr. Armstrong teach by word and example that we prove what is true by looking at both sides of an issue?
The Bible teaches us, and Mr. Armstrong taught us, that we are to "prove all things" (1 Thessalonians 5:21). If knowing who God is working through today is important, then this should be one of those things we should prove and not carelessly assume that we know without proof.
How do we prove something? Mr. Armstrong taught us by his example in his autobiography that to prove something we have to look at both sides of an issue. The Bible also teaches this, in Proverbs 18:17: "The first one to plead his cause seems right, until his neighbor comes and examines him." You can't prove anything by looking at only one side or one set of arguments. The first side will always look right if that is the only side you look at. You have to look at both sides with an open mind. Mr. Armstrong set the example. When he set out to prove whether or not evolution was true, he looked at both sides. He read everything he could against evolution, but he also read everything he could in favor of evolution. When he set out to learn the truth about which day is the Christian Sabbath, he looked at both sides. He read everything in favor of Sunday keeping as well as everything against it and in favor of the seventh-day Sabbath. He taught us to GET THE FACTS. There is even a speech in the Spokesman Club manual called "Get the Facts".
In regards to the question of "Where is God working today?" or, as it could be phrased, "Who is God working through today?", how does one get the facts? You have to look at all sides. If it is a matter of determining which Church of God or which leader God is working through, then one must examine the teachings and positions of more than just the one side of whoever left Worldwide first. In other words, when the first leader to break away from Worldwide and raise up a Church of God started, several others that were to do the same thing had not done so yet. The FACTS of the circumstances of these men and why they did not leave Worldwide earlier, and why they did not join with those who left before them, and what they are trying to accomplish now, were not known when the first Church of God was raised up because the relevant events had not yet occurred. Yet if one is going to prove the truth, he has to get all the available facts and consider all sides. It should not be carelessly assumed, without proof, that whoever left Worldwide first is Philadelphian, and whoever left Worldwide afterwards is Laodicean because they waited too long, without considering what these other men and other Churches of God have to say about it.
Should a member of a Church of God obey his minister if his minister commands him not to read the literature of any other Church?
If a member must prove where God is working, and in order to prove the truth on that question the same way Mr. Armstrong taught us to prove things, if that member must read the literature of more than one Church of God in order to get all the facts on both sides of an issue, then this is a case where the member must obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29). In that case, even though the member should respect the office held by the ordained minister, the member should give higher priority to God's command to "prove all things" than to the minister's command to "not read another church's literature". So the member should read whatever literature he needs to read and to get whatever facts he needs to prove the truth on any important question the member needs to answer, such as where or through whom God is working.
This does not mean we read whatever garbage we find just for our personal entertainment. I am talking about particular circumstances where there is a valid reason to read certain literature to get facts needed to prove something in a balanced, objective way on an issue God has given us the responsibility for deciding.
Can We Make an Idol out of a Man or Church?
I have tried to stress the need for every individual as well as the ministry to put the Bible first as a guide to our beliefs and practices, not church authority, a particular minister, tradition, or any other source, or even our own opinions and preferences. I think that there is a danger for church members in that we can make an idol out of these other things if we put them first in place of the Bible. We don't usually think of this when we think of idolatry. We usually think of idolatry as using pictures and images in worship, as some churches do, or of putting the world and worldly pleasures before God, as human nature tempts all of us to do. But many of those in certain churches who use pictures and statues of Christ in their worship do not just violate the second commandment. Many of these also violate the first commandment by putting their traditions and the teachings of their present and past leaders ahead of God's Word, the Bible. We in the Church of God must avoid doing the same thing.
If we put the teachings of a person, whether Herbert W. Armstrong, Ellen G. White (a supposed prophetess accepted by the Seventh Day Adventists), or any current leader in the Church of God ahead of the Bible, could we not be judged by God as being guilty of idolatry?
As much as we may respect, honor, cooperate with, submit to, and obey a human servant of God, our FAITH must be in God alone, and that means the Bible. We should submit to other human persons only when and how the Bible teaches us to submit to them. The Bible must come first because the Bible is God speaking directly.
I have heard, though I have not confirmed this, that cases may have occurred where a Church of God fellowship makes it a requirement for members to attend with them or for prospective members to be baptized to first affirm belief that Mr. Armstrong was the Elijah to come. Also, there may be requirements for membership and attendance that members believe that the existing leader of a Church of God holds a particular prophesied office. If this is true, I believe adding such requirements for membership in the Church of God is a very serious error.
Mr. Armstrong understood the dangers of adding requirements for baptism beyond what the Bible requires when he was working with the Church of God Seventh Day brethren. Mr. Armstrong resisted pressure from the Church of God Seventh Day authorities to only baptize new converts AFTER teaching them about unclean meats. Mr. Armstrong stood firm in saying that knowledge of clean and unclean meats was not a requirement for baptism and he would not add what the Bible did not require. Mr. Armstrong certainly taught newly baptized members not to eat unclean meats, but he did not require pre-existing knowledge and agreement with this doctrine before baptism. See his autobiography, volume 1, pages 518-524.
Ministers today often want prospective members to understand and agree with many of the doctrines of the Church of God before being baptized because this can be a way of determining if a person has really repented and is willing to exercise faith in God and in Jesus Christ by believing what God says in the Bible. This is a way a minister can evaluate if a person is ready for baptism. It is also a way of helping a person to count the cost. I do not disagree with this. I think this approach is the result of lessons the Church has learned through experience. I only caution that the Church must be careful to not add conditions for baptism and attendance that God does not require.
God requires repentance and faith as conditions for baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit, and it is the receiving of the Spirit of God that makes one a Christian and a member of God's Church (Acts 2:38-39, Hebrews 11:6, Romans 10:6-11, Acts 8:36-30, Galatians 2:15-16, John 11:25-26, Romans 8:9-11). This is consistent with what Mr. Armstrong and the Church of God have always taught. I do not know of any verse in the Bible that authorizes the Church of God or any of its leaders to add additional conditions for membership in the Church of God, such as believing that a current or past leader of the Church fulfills a particular prophesied office. One of the reasons I say that adding non-biblical requirements for baptism or attendance is a very serious error is the strong reaction of the apostle Paul against those who wanted to add circumcision as a requirement for salvation. Physical circumcision may seem like a small matter, and saying that it is required for salvation may not have seemed like a big deal to some in the first century Church of God, particularly since they could find Old Testament scriptures to show that circumcision was commanded by God. But to Paul, it was a VERY big deal. Notice what he says in Galatians 5:2, "Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing." And Galatians 1:6-7, "I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ." Also see Galatians 5:11-12 where it seems that Paul may be suggesting that he could wish that those who teach circumcision as a requirement would mutilate themselves!
Why was Paul so upset with those who would add physical circumcision as a requirement for salvation and becoming a member of the Church? I think it is because he understood that adding something as a requirement that God does not add is just the tip of an iceberg. There is a whole way of thinking that is involved. In the case of circumcision, it was not the physical circumcision that concerned Paul. Paul himself circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:1-3). What concerned Paul was the way of thinking that was represented by making physical circumcision a requirement. You can read all of Galatians and look up "circumcision" in Acts and all the epistles of Paul in a concordance to get the full story, and you will find that those who taught circumcision as a requirement were really teaching that justification came through the physical rituals of the law rather than by faith. Physical circumcision as a requirement came to represent giving something, in this case a physical ritual, a higher priority than faith in and our relationship with God and Christ. This was why Paul felt so strongly about the matter.
Likewise, making the belief that Mr. Armstrong was the Elijah to come or the belief that an existing church leader holds a particular prophesied office a requirement for church membership can be a VERY serious error because of a wrong way of thinking that it can represent and encourage. This wrong way of thinking substitutes faith in church leaders for faith in God and the Bible. It puts Jesus Christ and the Bible in second place by implying that the Bible means what the leader says it means. It teaches members to let the Church and its leaders interpret the Bible for us rather than let the Bible interpret itself. For some members, this way of thinking can become a form of idolatry.
Just as carnal human nature can cause some people to crave to use a physical image, such as a statue or picture of Christ, in worshiping God because it is something they can see, so that same human nature can cause some to crave to look to a physical human being they can believe and follow more than the Bible, because a physical person is someone they can see, hear, talk to, and ask questions of. A modern day human leader and his writings and speaking can seem to some to be a "shortcut" or easy substitute for personal Bible study and faith in God. Certainly the role of the ministry is to teach and help members learn where to find answers in the Bible, to help members learn from examples how to apply God's law to daily life, and to remind members in due season of the truths the members and the Church have proved from the Bible. Although I believed the Bible more than I believed Mr. Armstrong and I was careful to prove Mr. Armstrong's teachings from the Bible, I would never have learned the truths of the Bible without the writings of Mr. Armstrong to help me find where they are in the Bible. And ministers have authority to restrict open criticism of official doctrines of the Church they supervise in order to prevent confusion and division within their congregations, and members should respect and cooperate with that. But just as a limited physical image cannot represent the infinite God, so a fallible human being and his teachings cannot represent the infallible God and his Word.
I think we have all seen an example in the recent apostasy where some church members made an idol out of a church organization and its leaders and allowed themselves to be led into heresy because they didn't put the Bible first. Idolatry may have been a cause for the scattering of the Church even as it was a contributing cause in the scattering of ancient Israel. This idolatry may have been occurring in the minds and hearts of many church members even while Mr. Armstrong was alive. Many people may have been neglecting the study of their Bibles. They had their priorities wrong. The Bible should come first, the Church second.
What comes first, the Church or the Bible? Do we attend church services because the Bible teaches us to attend services, or do we read the Bible because the Church teaches us to read the Bible? Which comes first in authority?
Mr. Armstrong often spoke of two walking together and said that two could not walk together unless they be agreed. He also said that two cannot walk together unless one is the boss. I think this is a valid principle when applied to the Bible and the Church. One or the other must take priority. One must be the "boss". Either the Bible must come first or the Church must come first as a guide to what we will believe. If the Bible comes first, we will look to the Bible for our beliefs and will follow biblical instructions on how we should conduct ourselves in God's Church, but if the Church comes first, we will let the Church tell us what the Bible means. Both the Bible and the Church are important, but one or the other must come first in authority. I believe the Bible must always come first, and the Church, both ministers and members alike, must submit to the Bible.
We should never trust any human person with the trust that should belong to God alone. Trusting in the word of a man more than the Bible can be a pitfall (Psalm 146:4, Jeremiah 17:5-8).
If there is any book we need to be "grounded" in, it is the Bible, not Mystery of the Ages or any other book written by a man that is not part of the canon of the Bible.
We should certainly respect the authority of those God has placed in positions of leadership in His Church. We should seek ways to obey such authority when it is not in violation of a command of God or God's way of life. We should not spread confusion and division by promoting our own ideas about what the Bible says among members contrary to the official teachings of the Church we attend. If we see the Church is wrong on some important point of doctrine or policy according to the Bible, we can communicate this to the ministry and go through proper channels. The ball is then in the court of the ministry, and they have a responsibility before God to believe and be corrected by the Bible when they are wrong. God is judging the ministry as He judges all members of His Church. But our faith must be towards God directly and must be demonstrated by our individual willingness to believe and obey the Bible first above everything else.
Our relationship with God the Father is through Jesus Christ. Jesus authorized us to go to the Father directly in Jesus' name (John 14:13-14, 15:16, 16:23-28). Our relationship with God does not go through the ministry. God has given us the ministry to help us to learn and grow and to help us do the work of preaching the gospel in an organized way, but they are not priests that stand between us and God. Jesus Christ fulfills that function alone (1 Timothy 2:5). Ministers fulfill the priestly function of teaching, and in that sense Old Testament prophecies that refer to priests in our day may symbolically apply to the ministry, but they do not fulfill the priestly function of intermediaries between us and God as Christ does. 1 Corinthians 11:3 says, "But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God." It does not say, the head of the man is the minister, and the head of the ministry is Christ. In an organization chart, there would be a solid line from each individual member to Christ and from Christ to the Father. A minister would appear as an older brother of the member, on about the same level but to the side of the membership, and his teaching, counseling, and administrative roles in serving and guiding the members would appear as a dotted line relationship to the members, and the minister also is under Christ as the members are. Our direct relationship with God always comes first. God speaks to us through the Bible and we speak to God through prayer.
On the issue of refusing permission for a baptized member of the Church of God to attend with a particular group because he or she does not profess agreement that certain leaders fulfill certain prophesied roles, I think such a group should consider what Christ says to the Laodiceans. I think that during this Laodicean era of the Church, any pastor should be cautious about refusing a baptized member of the Church of God who wants to attend Sabbath services, or Passover, or the Feast of Tabernacles, unless there are scriptural grounds for doing so. In Christ's message to the Church of the Laodiceans, He says that He stands at the door and knocks (Revelation 3:20). This may refer to many things, and there may be many ways that a Laodicean can exclude Christ from his or her life so that Christ is pictured as being on the outside, knocking. But in Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus said that those who did good deeds to the least of His brethren were really doing them to Christ and those who did not do good deeds to their fellow Christians were not doing them to Christ. Could this have application to those converted members who come to a pastor and say, "please, may I attend Passover", or "please, may I attend the Feast of Tabernacles with you"? Could this be something that Christ is referring to when He say that He stands at the door and knocks? Could those Church of God congregations that refuse to allow one of Christ's brethren to attend with them, but not on scriptural grounds, be refusing Christ? I think that in the scattered condition of the Laodicean era, this might be the case.
The following is a summary or recap of some of the things I have covered. It is somewhat repetitious, but brings out what I have been saying in a little bit different way. Most of it is a segment I wrote separately from the preceding material, and it can serve as a summary.
A Summary -- the Nineteenth Truth
Mr. Armstrong is said to have restored eighteen major truths to the Church, truths which the Church of God Seventh Day did not accept. But there is a nineteenth truth he taught that is included in the eighteen but not listed among the eighteen. It is actually a greater truth than all of the eighteen truths put together because all of the eighteen truths listed flow from it. Without this nineteenth truth, the other eighteen would not have been discovered and taught. It is included among the eighteen by implication, but is not explicitly listed. Like the other eighteen truths, the Church of God Seventh Day did not accept it. Yet it is vital for doing God's Work.
Before Mr. Armstrong was converted and became a member of God's Church, his beliefs on two issues were challenged: evolution vs. creation, and the Sabbath vs. Sunday question. On both issues he had firmly held beliefs. On both issues someone had challenged his beliefs. So he set out to study those issues and to prove what the truth was. Actually, he probably expected to prove that he was right and he wanted to prove to those who challenged him that they were wrong.
Most people in a situation like this only look for arguments to support their point of view, and reject, explain away, or minimize anything that tends to prove they are wrong. They only want to prove they are right and the other person is wrong. But Mr. Armstrong was honest in his investigation. He wanted and expected to prove that he was right, but he was honest enough with himself to accept the truth whatever it was, even if it meant the painful realization that he was wrong. His background and training in journalism probably helped him here because he had learned from experience to get all the facts and not base any conclusions on careless assumptions.
So Mr. Armstrong studied both sides of these issues and gathered all the facts he could. He believed evolution was wrong, but he honestly gathered all the facts and considered all the arguments on both sides of the issue. He believed that the Bible endorsed Sunday observance rather than Sabbath keeping, but he studied all the scriptures and all the arguments on both sides of the issue.
In the end he proved that he was right about evolution. But he also proved he was wrong about Sunday. It was painful for him to admit that his wife was right and he was wrong, not only to admit it to her but to admit it to himself. Most people in this situation would find ways to justify their position and to twist or ignore facts to the contrary. Their vanity does not permit them to change their beliefs. It hurts to change. Mr. Armstrong also had vanity, and this admission that he was wrong was painful for him also, but he was willing to do it for the sake of truth.
God was preparing and testing Mr. Armstrong for the work God had for him to do. Mr. Armstrong had to pass this test in order for God to be able to use him. If he had refused to admit he was wrong, God would have had to use someone else to do the work God wanted done. Mr. Armstrong could never even have been converted if he did not accept the Sabbath. But there is more to it than just Mr. Armstrong's conversion.
Most of society in this country was reared in and accepted traditional mainstream Christianity, or no religion at all. Even those who were not religious, Mr. Armstrong being an example, still had their views of the Bible colored and shaped by what the mainstream churches taught for centuries. Though Mr. Armstrong was not religious, he was sure the Bible said "thou shalt keep Sunday" or something to that effect. God was preparing a man to lead a work of restoring truths that were lost, building up the Church, and preaching the true gospel to the general public. But virtually all of society had accepted beliefs and ideas contrary to that message. So in order for anyone to accept that message, they would have to be willing to unlearn their established beliefs and accept new knowledge, even correction, no matter how painful that might be. And it was necessary for the man God would use to publish that message to first be tested to see if he was willing to go through that process himself.
In other words, God purposed to use a man who had proved he was willing to go through the painful process of admitting he was wrong to preach to the public that they had to admit they were wrong. The man God used had to be tested to make sure that he practiced what he was going to preach.
Mr. Armstrong passed that test. He had previously been prepared with experience in advertising, business, writing, and speaking. Now God had a leader He could use to lead the work.
Now, the work of preaching the gospel is not the work of one man. A church is required to support and back the leader, with tithes, offerings, prayers, and participation and labor, and a church is also required to support and nurture those who respond to the message and to provide an environment in which they can be fed spiritually, counseled, helped, and given the opportunity and circumstances for service and personal growth. So God had to provide a church to back the work that would be led by Mr. Armstrong.
Mr. Armstrong searched for the one true Church. He came into contact with the Church of God Seventh Day brethren and began to fellowship with them. Although he was concerned with their apparent lack of power, they seemed to have more of the truth than any other church Mr. Armstrong knew of, and had the right name, "Church of God". But Mr. Armstrong was still concerned about the question of whether this was God's Church or not.
He decided to do a test. He had read the admonition in the Bible that we should grow in grace and in knowledge. He reasoned that the Church is a collection of individuals, and if all the individuals are growing then the Church as a whole would be growing. He further reasoned that if the Church was willing to grow in knowledge, it would be willing to accept new knowledge and to acknowledge and correct error.
So he wrote a couple of articles or manuscripts and sent them to the headquarters of Church of God Seventh Day. One was a correction to a minor point of doctrine. The other was an exposition of the new truth about the identity of the lost ten tribes of Israel.
Mr. Armstrong was doing this to TEST the Church of God Seventh Day. In his autobiography, he calls it a "test". But in my opinion, it was not just Mr. Armstrong that was testing that Church. I think God was also testing that Church, using Mr. Armstrong as a tool, to see if they would put new knowledge from the Bible first over their traditions. God used Mr. Armstrong as tool to test the Church of God Seventh Day just as He used Loma Armstrong to test Herbert Armstrong on the Sabbath question. Mr. Armstrong passed the test and believed the Bible over his traditions. Would the Church of God Seventh Day leadership also pass a similar test?
The Church of God Seventh Day leader replied to Mr. Armstrong. As related in Mr. Armstrong's autobiography, he did not refute his correction, but he said that if they admitted to the membership that they had been in error, the members might lose confidence in the Church. On the identity of Israel, he said it was interesting but did not know what use they could make of it. In both cases, he did not refute the new knowledge or show Mr. Armstrong from the Bible that he was mistaken, but he did not accept and teach the new knowledge.
As time went on and God began to reveal more truth to Mr. Armstrong and to use him more and more in a powerful way, the leadership of the Church of God Seventh Day and the vast majority of its members never accepted the new truths God was revealing to Mr. Armstrong. The result? God could not use the Church of God Seventh Day to back the work He was doing through Mr. Armstrong. I think there are two reasons for this. The most obvious is that those brethren who were not willing to accept new truth would not be willing to support a man who was teaching the new truth. But I think there is another reason.
It is God who decides who to use in His work. He didn't begin to use Mr. Armstrong until Mr. Armstrong was tested and proved he was willing to admit he was wrong and to accept and act upon new truth revealed in the Bible. Then God was able to use that man to preach to the public that they need to give up their traditional beliefs and practices and be corrected by the Bible.
God practices what he preaches. God doesn't say "do as I say, not as I do." Jesus Christ lived a perfect life as a human being and told us to follow His example. He did not command us to keep commands that He was not willing to keep Himself. Jesus condemned the Pharisees because they bound heavy burdens on men which they were not willing to help lift with their finger. In God's plan, that is how leadership works. Those that lead must practice what they preach and lead by example as well as by word.
How could God choose a church to back a message of repentance and change, and ask the public to give up their traditions, their doctrines, and their beliefs, if the leadership and most of the members of that church were not willing to accept correction and change and accept new truth even in the relatively smaller matters?
So God started small, with Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong only plus a very few members of the Church of God Seventh Day, and from that mustard seed built a new era of the Church. The Church that Christ used Mr. Armstrong to build was primarily made up of members who, like Mr. Armstrong, had to prove their willingness to change, to be corrected by the Bible, to accept new knowledge and give up their traditional beliefs and practices, no matter how painful. More than that, many of these people had to give up their jobs or careers, their friends, and their closest family members. Christ says we have to be willing to give up everything to follow Him. But these people could then be used by God to pass the message on to others as it had been passed to them. They were practicing what they "preached". Most people who came into the Church as a result of Mr. Armstrong's teachings had to pass the same kind of test he passed, in varying degrees.
We had to be willing to unlearn our false beliefs and be corrected by the Bible, and accept new knowledge from the Bible before we could be used by God to ask the public to do the same thing.
Because Mr. Armstrong was willing to grow in grace and knowledge as the Bible commands, and because it was God's purpose to restore knowledge to this era of the Church, God began to reveal more and more new truth to Mr. Armstrong through the Bible, and Mr. Armstrong taught it to the Church, proving it and backing it up from the Bible. Mr. Armstrong taught by word and example that the Bible is our authority and we need to be willing to be corrected by it, both individually and as a Church.
This was how the eighteen truths began to be restored.
What is the nineteenth truth that was taught by Mr. Armstrong? It is implied in the eighteen, but not listed with them. Like the eighteen, most of the Church of God Seventh Day did not accept it. It is greater than the other eighteen truths because without it the other eighteen truths could not be restored. Without it, the work of God could not be done.
It is the truth that we must always be willing to give up our beliefs and traditional doctrines in order to be corrected by the Bible and to accept and put into practice new knowledge found in the Bible. That is the foundation for everything else that follows.
Some churches today say they do not want to change anything Mr. Armstrong taught. That is itself a change from what Mr. Armstrong taught. Mr. Armstrong changed his own teaching more than once. Mr. Armstrong taught us by word and example that we must always be willing to unlearn error and learn new truth. I think he would be very upset to find that some are using his name to promote the opposite practice.
How can God use a leadership and a church membership to do a powerful work of preaching the gospel to the world if that church and its leadership have become so set in their traditions and doctrines that they will not make the slightest change for fear of upsetting people or because they do not want to "leave their comfort zone"? How can God use such a group to go to the public and say: "Give up the beliefs you grew up with since a child. Give up Sunday church attendance with your family and friends and stop working on God's Sabbath. Lose your job if necessary. Give up Christmas and Easter. Stop eating bacon and ham. Pay God ten percent of your gross income plus second and third tithe and offerings. Lose your friends if necessary. Lose your wife and children and the ones you love most if necessary.
"Change your entire concept of God. God is not a trinity. You must not use holy pictures and repetitive prayers as you have done your whole life. God is reproducing himself. You do not have an immortal soul. You will not go to heaven when you die.
"But don't send us any doctrinal studies and expect any serious consideration or reply. We have the truth now and we don't want to change anything. Even if we are wrong on some small matter, we don't want to change. We changed when we were young, but now that we are old, we are comfortable with what we have believed and practiced for decades. Besides, it might upset our members. They need stability right now. They don't want to leave their comfort zone and neither do we. Also, if you introduce one change you open the door for other changes. We don't have the time to examine every issue that is presented to us. Doing the Work is more important.
"But never mind if you think you need stability right now. Never mind if you the TV viewer don't want to leave your comfort zone. Never mind if the truth of the Bible would upset your whole family. Never mind if you have work to do and do not have time to examine these issues in detail. You have to learn to put God and His truth first. Your eternal life depends on it."
How can a church do this and not be doing the same kinds of things Christ rebuked the Pharisees and lawyers for? These Pharisees and lawyers not only put heavy burdens on men's backs that they were not willing to lift with their finger, but they placed their traditions above God's law, above God's Word, and above the new knowledge God was revealing through the teaching of Jesus. Jesus said to do what they say because they sit in Moses' seat, but not what they do, because they say but do not (Luke 11:46, Matthew 23:1-4, Mark 7:6-13).
Mr. Armstrong taught the Church of God and the general public to whom he preached to be willing to be corrected by the Bible and to be willing to learn new doctrinal knowledge from the Bible, and he practiced what he preached. Mr. Armstrong put into practice the things he learned from the Bible, and even in his old age I don't think he ever stopped learning, ever became unwilling to be corrected and accept new truth, ever settled into a comfort zone of not wanting to change anymore.
Some have used the analogy of focusing on the trunk of the tree only and not being concerned with the twigs. But if the trunk is healthy, there will be new twigs every year. A tree is more than just a trunk. The twigs are important too. A healthy tree will grow every year. That is why you can measure the age of a tree by counting its rings. If the tree isn't growing, if new twigs are not sprouting, that may be a sign that the tree is dead.
I do not remember hearing Mr. Armstrong ever say that we should only focus on the trunk of the tree and avoid the twigs and branches. Rather, I remember that he said that he decided that he would focus on the main trunk of the tree in his preaching and would leave the smaller branches and twigs to the other ministers to cover. He said that they would fill in the details. But I don't think he ever said that the twigs and the details of doctrines are not important. Both the trunk and the twigs are important, and the trunk is more important than the twigs.
In the "trunk of the tree" analogy, if the tree represents doctrine, then the trunk of the tree must represent the main, basic doctrines, the weightier matters of the law, and the branches and twigs must represent the smaller doctrines and details of doctrines. Does the Bible support the idea that we only need to worry about the big doctrines and not the details of what God teaches us? Matthew 5:17-19 says, "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven." Here Jesus says that even the least of the commandments are important. We are to live by every word of God (Matthew 4:4, Deuteronomy 8:3). Jesus said that the Pharisees should do the weightier matters of the law, but also not leave the smaller matters undone (Matthew 23:23). God often admonishes His people in the Old Testament to be careful to observe EVERYTHING God commands (Deuteronomy 11:32, Deuteronomy 17:19-20). Luke 16:10 says, "He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much." God killed Uzza when he touched the ark of God when it was being transported on a cart contrary to God's instructions to have it carried by Levites on poles (1 Chronicles 13:7-10, 1 Chronicles 15:11-13). He also killed the sons of Aaron when they offered profane fire (Leviticus 10:1-2). I think God is concerned about details. I think even more than the details, God is concerned about our attitudes towards the details, because our attitudes towards the details of what God tells us reflect our attitude towards the God who gives us those details.
Our attitude towards details can demonstrate our real attitude towards the weightier matters of the law. In the matters I have been talking about, the attitude of an unwillingness to examine and change even small doctrines in order to follow the Bible more perfectly may indicate an attitude of not being willing to put the Bible first over our traditions and the opinions and reactions of men. This can become an issue of faith, of willingness to believe God first, and faith is a weightier matter of the law (Matthew 23:23). The matters Mr. Armstrong discussed in the doctrinal papers he first submitted to the Church of God Seventh Day were not weightier matters of the law and were not the truck of the tree, but I think that by rejecting those truths, the leadership of Church of God Seventh Day demonstrated a problem with one of the weightier matters of the law: faith, and a willingness to believe and obey what God says in the Bible first. Sometimes God may use something small to test our attitude on something big.
Making mistakes in small doctrines may not be an important problem in itself, but an unwillingness to correct those mistakes, if that becomes the predominant pattern of thinking, is a very BIG problem because it indicates an unwillingness to submit to God.
The Bible is clear that our zeal to be faithful to God even in details and small matters is important to God. While small details may be less important than major issues, our ATTITUDE about details is not. We should strive to obey God even in little things. Not doing so shows a wrong attitude, and a wrong attitude can be a big thing. I think God will overlook honest mistakes in small details provided there is an attitude of wanting to be faithful even in little things. But if the whole attitude is, "little things are not important, so I won't make corrections in small matters", that shows an attitude that is not faithful in small matters, and if a person is not faithful in small things he will not be faithful in big things (Luke 16:10).
Possibly because of the unwillingness of the Church of God Seventh Day to accept correction and new truth from the Bible, and possibly for other reasons also, Mr. Armstrong later concluded that they were the Sardis Church. In the message to the Sardis Church in Revelation, Christ says they have a name that they are alive, but they are dead. More importantly for us today, He admonishes them to remember how they have received and heard and tells them to repent.
Mr. Armstrong applied the messages to the seven churches to the eras of the Church, and I believe that is correct. But Christ also says that he who has an ear to hear should listen to all the messages to the churches (Revelation 3:6) and Mr. Armstrong explained this to mean that in any era of the Church you can have individuals that fall into any of the seven spiritual conditions described, even though one might predominate. We need to be careful we do not fall into the Sardis way of thinking.
In Christ's admonition to those in the Sardis condition, He tells them to remember how they have received and heard. This applies more to the Church today than to the Church of God Seventh Day when Mr. Armstrong first came among them. We need to remember how we learned. Why? We received and heard because Mr. Armstrong was willing to learn new truth, because the Church that backed and financed him was made up of people who were willing to learn new truth, and we were willing to learn new truth. I think Christ is telling members of His Church that are in the Sardis condition that they need to remember and recapture the attitude of being willing to learn new things that they had when they first learned the truth. Otherwise, how are we different from those members of the Church of God Seventh Day who rejected the work God was doing through Mr. Armstrong because it was new and different from what they were used to?
Some may say that if we disagree with the church leadership we are disagreeing with Christ who is the head of the Church. They may say we should trust Christ to lead the Church by believing the doctrines of the Church. They may also say we should not judge the Church.
On the matter of judging the Church, let's look at Mr. Armstrong's example. When he was searching for the true Church, he actually tested the Church by sending in doctrinal papers to see if they would be accepted. He did this to determine if the Church of God Seventh Day was willing to accept new knowledge. In his autobiography, he actually calls this a test! Mr. Armstrong was baptized as I recall, but at this point in the autobiography he was not ordained as a minister. He relates the story in his autobiography. So here was a lay member of the Church "testing", and one could say judging, the leadership of the Church, to see if this was the one true Church Christ had founded. Was Mr. Armstrong wrong to do this?
This raises the question of judging. When and how should we judge? Is it always wrong to judge others, or their behavior? Is it always wrong to judge those who are higher than us in rank or authority or position?
There are places in the New Testament that tell us not to judge, but there are also places that say we should judge. We are told to not judge by appearance but to judge righteous judgment. We are told if we judge ourselves we will not have to be judged by God. We are explicitly told to examine ourselves. And Paul rebuked a Church in an epistle for brethren suing each other in worldly courts instead of judging the matter themselves. See Luke 6:37, Matthew 7:1-5, John 7:24, 1 Corinthians 11:31, 2 Corinthians 13:5, 1 Corinthians 6:1-6.
There are times when we have to judge a situation or a person when it is necessary in order to make a decision God has given us a responsibility for making.
Should a member judge the church leadership?
God commands us to pay His tithes, but God does not tell us what name to write on the check or what address to write on the envelope. Today, God's Church is divided, or at least there are many who claim to be God's Church. In order to obey the law of tithing, members have to make a decision on where to send the check, and in order to make that decision wisely, they have to judge which Church is most effectively doing the work God wants done at this time and which Church or Churches God is primarily working through.
Was Mr. Armstrong wrong to test the Church of God Seventh Day? No. He had a legitimate reason for it. He had to do the best job he could of finding the one true Church Christ had founded so he could support that Church and fellowship with it.
Should we express our trust in Christ as head of the Church by believing and accepting whatever the church leadership teaches? One minister told other ministers in the Church that they should teach the doctrines of the Church in faith trusting God to lead the Church. But recent experience shows the fallacy of this. Christ always does his job of leadership faithfully, but that doesn't mean that ministers always follow faithfully, and it doesn't mean God always protects ministers from making mistakes. "Christ leads" does not equate to "minister follows".
In matters of doctrinal disagreement, what about division and confusion in the Church? Doesn't the Bible teach that we must all speak the same thing? Yes it does. But that does not mean we must all believe everything the Church teaches. There is a process for handling doctrinal disagreements that is lawful.
When I first came into the Church, I heard a minister explain that process, and I have since read an article written by Mr. Armstrong that covered the same subject and said the same thing. It makes sense to me and seems consistent with Scripture. The explanation is as follows: If you disagree with a point of doctrine of the Church, do not discuss it with other members, but bring it to the ministry, either by discussing it with the local pastor or writing to headquarters. The matter will be examined with an open mind. If the member is in error, an explanation will be provided. If the Church is in error, the Church will correct itself and present the change to the whole membership. If after this communication, the disagreement still persists, if the Church has not changed and has provided an explanation to the member, but the member still does not agree, then the member should put the matter "on the shelf" so to speak and continue to not discuss it with other members. By declining to discuss with other members the matters we disagree about, in effect, we speak the same thing for the sake of unity, and we wait till Christ chooses to correct the matter or make it clear to all parties, either in this age or in the Kingdom.
This process preserves unity and respect for church government. It does not cause division or confusion. It does not require that members choose to believe the Church more than what they see in the Bible. It does not require that members lie about what they believe or play the hypocrite by pretending to agree with the Church on a point of doctrine when they don't. They simply decline to discuss the matter, and other members should respect that.
So disagreeing in our mind with the church leadership on one point of doctrine or another is not a violation of God's law provided we do not turn such disagreement into a cause for division and confusion by openly criticizing and disagreeing with the Church leadership or trying to promote our beliefs among the brethren contrary to the decisions of the leadership.
The willingness to be corrected by the Bible and learn new knowledge was a vital difference between Mr. Armstrong along with the brethren who supported him and the Church of God Seventh Day leadership and many of their members, a difference that I believe disqualified the Church of God Seventh Day leadership from being the tool in God's hands to do a powerful work. Christ admonishes the members in the Sardis condition to remember how they received and heard. If we do this, we will remember not only what we heard, but our attitude of being willing to learn and be corrected. That attitude may be just as important, if not more important, than the actual knowledge we received, and if we no longer have that attitude, we need to recapture it.
The nineteenth truth that Mr. Armstrong taught, and actually is first in importance and sequence, is the truth that we must grow in the grace and knowledge the Bible reveals, both by allowing the Bible to correct us where our doctrines are wrong and by allowing the Bible to teach us new truth we never had before.
Without the acceptance of this truth, none of the other truths could have been revealed.
Why Voting in the Church of God ALWAYS Leads to Division
The Church of God has been scattered since the death of Herbert W. Armstrong. Most Church of God organizations practice government from the top down as Mr. Armstrong did, but at least one major fellowship has a system of voting where the general ministry elects a board that runs the organization.
And that system of voting is leading to a spirit of division and strife.
I believe governance in God's Church by voting or "balloting" will ALWAYS lead to discord, strife, and division! Every time. Guaranteed.
The only question is the degree of division and the time it takes division to grow.
Democracy has within it the seeds of division. Division is built-in to the democratic process. Democracy cannot exist long without division. The two must exist together, like two sides of one coin. When a new democracy is started, the degree of division may be small. But over time, as voting is practiced, the division will grow as surely as a plant will grow when you give it water and sunshine. It is the process of voting, and the decision making process voters go through in deciding who to vote for, that BREEDS division. It cannot be helped. It is cause and effect.
In a democracy, where those under authority select those over them in authority, the whole question of authority is confused. How does the authority flow? Who is in charge? In Old Testament Israel in the wilderness, authority flowed from God the Father, through Jesus Christ, through Moses, through the rulers Moses appointed (Exodus 18:24), to all the people. When David was king over Israel, authority flowed from God the Father, through Jesus Christ, through king David, through the men David appointed, to the whole nation of Israel. In the first century Church of God, administrative authority over the work of the Church flowed from God the Father, through Jesus Christ, through the apostles, through the whole ministry, to the entire membership.
But today, if 500 ministers regularly vote to elect members of a 12-man governing council, who is in charge, the 500 ministers or the 12-man council? If the council appoints a president or someone in charge of the ministry, the 500 ministers have to obey the man who is in charge over them and the regional directors or pastors. But that man has to obey the council who gave him his authority, and the council is ultimately responsible to the entire ministry. So how does authority flow? Where does God come into the picture? If it is just a circular arrangement, with authority flowing from the 500 ministers through the 12-man board, through the man in charge of the ministry, through the regional directors, through the 500 ministers, through the 12-man board, etc., etc., etc., then this is really just self-rule with God left out of the picture. It is self-government, man ruling man. Such an arrangement excludes Christ as head over the administrative work the Church.
From whom does the 12-man council derive its
authority and to whom is the 12-man council accountable, God or the 500
ministers who gave them their authority? Isn't there a conflict of interest
Some may think that God, through the Holy Spirit, will inspire the 500 ministers to vote correctly in elections, so that the authority really flows from God. Perhaps. But we are here to learn the way of life we will be practicing for eternity in the Kingdom of God, and God has given us His Word, the Bible, so we can learn about that way of life so we can practice it and prepare ourselves in the way of life we will be living for eternity. The pattern of government taught in the Bible is clearly government from the top down, not democracy. God is training us in that way of life and testing us to see if we are willing to live that way of life. So the question becomes, would God bless a process of democracy in His Church if that very form of governance is contrary to God's will and instruction in the Bible? Would God lead the Church of God differently today than He led it in the first century just to accommodate the wrong ideas of men?
God's purpose is to teach mankind lessons - that is the reason for the seven thousand year plan of God. The first six thousand years will show that man's ways, apart from God, do not bring happiness and peace. Then God will rule the earth through Jesus Christ for one thousand years so mankind can see the contrast between the results of man's self-rule compared with the fruits of God's rule.
Likewise, I believe God is demonstrating certain lessons in the Church of God, lessons designed to teach the membership about government and prepare us for His kingdom. And if it is God's will to show the Church that government by voting does not work in the Church any better than it works in the world, I don't think God would bless such a system of governance by leading 500 ministers to vote in a way that produces peace and harmony. Rather, it seems more likely God will let things take their natural course so we can see the fruits of such a system.
The passage of time is showing, and I think
will continue to show, that democracy in the Church of God does not work. God
is letting us all learn lessons about this from the fruits.
The Church of God is today scattered. It can be useful to look at the history of the Church of God in the last 80 years to see if lessons can be learned about government and the fruits of right or wrong government.
Herbert W. Armstrong began to fellowship with the Church of God Seventh Day around the time of his conversion in 1927. While still a lay member, he wrote up papers proposing changes to doctrine based on his independent research in the Bible and sent those papers to the COG7D leadership, including a paper on the identity of Israel. The leadership of that church never accepted the new doctrines Mr. Armstrong discovered in the Bible. Eventually, Mr. Armstrong and the COG7D parted company, and around late 1933 and early 1934 Mr. Armstrong started a work that led to the formation of the Worldwide Church of God, which he led till his death in 1986.
Mr. Armstrong taught God's government in the Church from the top down, what some would call "one-man rule." Mr. Armstrong did not report to a ruling board of men or any body of men who vote, or "ballot," to select a leader. He understood, from the Bible, that democracy, the selection of the leadership by those under the authority of the leadership, is not God's way. He understood that he personally was responsible to and under the authority of Jesus Christ, not any group of men. This was an important doctrine to Mr. Armstrong. You can get a clear idea of how Mr. Armstrong viewed the importance of reporting directly to Christ if you read his autobiography, especially the portion that covers the time when he raised up a work independent of Church of God Seventh Day and refused further salary from that organization (in other words, he quit his employment with that organization).
So when he was ill and knew his death was near, he did not leave the selection of a replacement to a voting board of men, but by God's authority appointed Joseph Tkach to succeed him as Pastor General of the Church. I have no doubt that Christ led that decision and inspired Mr. Armstrong to appoint Mr. Tkach, not for any reasons Mr. Armstrong could anticipate, but for God's own reasons. God wanted a man who would turn away from the doctrines Mr. Armstrong taught because it was God's will to scatter the Church, to test us and to teach us lessons.
During the decade after Mr. Armstrong's death, Mr. Tkach changed most of the important doctrines of Worldwide. The Church of God became scattered and split into many organizations. By the end of 1995, most of those who remained faithful to the doctrines taught from the Bible by Mr. Armstrong had left Worldwide at various times and formed a multitude of fellowships, with almost all of the major organizations, except one, following Mr. Armstrong's judgment that right Church governance is from the top down.
But some rejected Mr. Armstrong's judgment
and teaching from the Bible on government and built an organization based on the
authority of the ballot box.
I am not one of those who say that Mr. Armstrong's teachings and judgments cannot be changed. Mr. Armstrong changed his own teachings when he saw in the Bible that he was wrong, and he taught by instruction and example that we should be willing to change, to be corrected, and to learn new knowledge from the Bible. But Mr. Armstrong's judgments do carry some weight, basically because the fruits of the work he did show that he was faithful to and blessed by God, and before any major judgment or doctrine is changed, there should be a thorough Bible study of the matter, and it should only be changed based on the Bible. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever done that with the issue of government in the Church. Those who overturned Mr. Armstrong's teachings on government have done so without biblical authority.
The Bible does NOT teach that governance by voting is permissible in the Church of God. In the Bible, God's government is always by appointment from above (Mark 3:13-19, Titus 1:5). Some may point to Acts 6:1-6 as an example where a congregation chose people for position. But in this example, the people's recommendation to the apostles carried no authority. It was the apostles who made the decision to have the membership make recommendations, and it was the apostles who appointed the men by laying hands on them. The authority of these men came through the apostles, not the members of the congregation. The members of the congregation were in an advisory role only, and the apostles did not have to follow their recommendations.
Some may suggest that the selection of two
men as candidates to replace Judas in Acts 1:15-26 was by voting and indicates
that the whole congregation had the authority to appoint these two. But that is
not the case at all. There is no suggestion of voting. As I point out in
another place in this book, if they wanted to vote, they could have selected
one. God was not a tie-breaker in an election. The two they proposed were
those who were able to fulfill the office based on the qualification that they
had been with the apostles during the whole ministry of Jesus Christ (verses 21
and 22). The proposing of these two was not a matter of voting, but a matter of
asking around to see who was with Jesus from the beginning of His ministry, who
was fit, and eliminating those who eliminated themselves or otherwise could not
fulfill the office. There were only two that fulfilled the qualifications. If
there were three, they would have cast lots for the three. It was not a
popularity contest or a difference of opinion in the congregation. There is no
suggestion of balloting.
Some who favor voting call it "cooperation" and try to justify it by the principle of seeking counsel. But voting cannot be called "cooperating" or "seeking counsel." Proverbs 11:14, 15:22, and 24:6 cannot be used to justify creating an organization that operates by the authority of the ballot box. Cooperation is voluntary, and while we should seek qualified advice before making a decision, the advisors do not have the authority to make the decision. It is the person receiving the counsel that has total authority to accept or reject the advise of his counselors.
The scriptures in Proverbs that refer to a multitude of counselors are misapplied if they are used to justify placing authority in the hands of 500 voting ministers. Those scriptures have to do with the giving and receiving of advice, not authority for making decisions. Mr. Armstrong used the principle properly when he would get advice from those under him before making a decision. But always the authority for the decision came from Christ through Mr. Armstrong, not through the men who advised Mr. Armstrong.
The Bible does NOT teach that those who give counsel under the principle of Proverbs 11:14, 15:22, and 24:6 have authority over the decision, nor does the Bible teach that those who receive such counsel must follow it. Look at the example of King David and some of the occasions when he received counsel from those who were with him. He did not always follow their advice, as in 1 Samuel 23:1-5 and 1 Samuel 26:7-11. David understood that the responsibility for the decisions he made was his, and he had to follow God even when it meant going against the advice of counselors.
The apostles Peter and Paul did not depend
on the voting of men for their appointments. You will not find a single example
in the Bible of God's authority flowing through the voting of men. Democracy is
one of Satan's forms of government, and you can see the results of it in the
division and steady weakening of the United States. And it should be obvious
that there will be no balloting in the Kingdom of God.
Why have some disagreed with top-down government in the Church and replaced it with government by ballot?
After the man Mr. Armstrong named as his successor used his authority to change most of the doctrines of the Church, many felt that government from the top down was discredited. It was Mr. Tkach's authority over Worldwide, the authority of one man not restrained by any council or board that could vote him out of office, that gave him the power to make massive doctrinal change, change not supported by most of the ministry and members, in only ten years. They felt that the division and scattering of the Church was a result of that form of government, so they replaced it with government by ballot, a government that derived its authority from the entire ministry, not the government of one man under Christ. They felt they needed a human system of checks and balances, modeled after the democracies of this world (they didn't get the idea of voting from any other source), so that no one man had the power to change doctrine without the consent of the majority of the ministers, as had happened in Worldwide. There was a desire for unity and cooperation among the ministers, but without the kind of strong top-down government that existed when Mr. Armstrong was alive. Government by ballot seemed to be a solution to a problem. The idea was that the vesting of power in the hands of the whole ministry would prevent doctrinal heresy that could divide and scatter the church once again.
But there are several problems with that
First of all, putting authority into the hands of the whole ministry will not prevent doctrinal error from entering the Church, it only slows down the process. This may become more apparent as time goes on. The majority of ministers can still vote for those who introduce error gradually. There is also an inconsistency in introducing one doctrinal error in order to prevent others. God's government from the top down is an important doctrine. It doesn't make sense to try to preserve other biblical doctrines by abandoning that one biblical doctrine. We can't pick and choose which biblical doctrines to remain faithful to and which ones to throw overboard in an attempt to protect the rest.
Second, we must not forget our roots and how we received the doctrines and the understanding we have today. God led Mr. Armstrong to understand the Bible and to discover new knowledge, and Mr. Armstrong was able to teach that knowledge to the Church of God because he did not have to report to a voting body of ministers for approval for doctrinal change, but only to Christ.
While making doctrine subject to the will of
the entire ministry may make it harder for any one man to introduce false
doctrine, it also makes it harder for correction to doctrine and new knowledge
to be taught from the Bible. Those who favor voting like to look at what
happened in the ten years from 1986 to 1995 when the important doctrines taught
by Mr. Armstrong were overturned, but they do not look at the fifty plus years
from 1934 to 1986 and how those doctrines came to be in the first place. Mr.
Armstrong was able to discover those doctrines in the Bible and teach them to
the Church precisely because he reported directly to Christ and not to a voting
board. Had he stayed with Church of God Seventh Day, we would not have those
doctrines (unless God used someone else). Had those doctrines been subject to
the voting of men, we would not have them today.
Third, democracy is a guaranteed recipe for division. You cannot separate the two. You will ALWAYS have division, eventually, if rule is by ballot. Balloting MUST lead to division and will ALWAYS lead to division.
Why? Why will voting lead to division?
There is a biblical principle that those under authority should respect and submit to those over them in authority. That is how government works. Part of that respect and submission includes not openly criticizing those who hold an office of authority in front of those under that office. When you do that, you weaken the authority of the office and make it more difficult for leaders to lead. You should not openly criticize those holding an office of authority over you in the Church of God.
But in order for democracy to function, there must be freedom to criticize. And church governance by the authority of the ballot box is a democracy, not a spirit-led consensus. Those who make an important decision, such as how to vote, must be free to seek counsel and others must be free to give counsel and advice. The receiving and giving of advise and counsel before major decisions whenever possible is taught by the Bible (Proverbs 11:14, 15:22, and 24:6). That means that those who vote by ballot must be free to discuss their voting decision with others, even when those discussions include harsh criticism.
In such a system, authority of those in charge, such as a 12-man ruling board, comes from those under that authority, such as the full body of voting ministers. But to make wise decisions about whether to vote for or against those in power, the voters have to be able to discuss not only the faults of those in power, but they have to be able to discuss and agree on alternative candidates if they choose to replace those in power. Those who vote must engage in discussions about those in authority to know whether to vote for or against them, and if those discussions are honest, there will sometimes be harsh criticism.
The writers of the United States Constitution understood the role of criticism when they included freedoms of speech and press in the Bill of Rights. Those freedoms to criticize government are vital to the functioning of democracy in the United States. It does no good to give the people the authority to vote their leaders out of office if those in office have the power to squelch dissent and free expression. Without the free flow of information and opinion, government leaders can stifle information and ideas critical of themselves or favorable to their opponents. But the price that is paid is that of division and factionalism. We see that in the political arena in the United States. And we can see it in the Church of God.
In the Church of God, we should not undermine the authority of those over us by openly criticizing them in front of others. We should also seek counsel before making important decisions.
You cannot follow both of these principles if you have governance by ballot. It just won't work. You cannot follow the principle of not weakening the office of those over you by openly criticizing them in front of others, and the principle of seeking a multitude of counsel before making a voting decision. Either those in authority will have so much power to squelch dissent that it will be impossible to replace them, and voting becomes meaningless, or those who vote will be discussing among themselves the faults of those they vote for in order to seek counsel and make a wise decision, which inevitably leads to division. And if the voters cannot discuss their choices among themselves, you have a violation of the principle that in a multitude of counselors there is safety.
But these principles work very well together in top-down government because those under the authority of an office never have to discuss among themselves if the person in authority over them should be replaced. In the Kingdom of God, we will not be discussing among ourselves if Jesus Christ should be replaced as King of Kings. Nor will the twelve apostles, each the leader of a tribe of Israel (Matthew 19:28), have to discuss among themselves if the king over all twelve tribes of Israel, David (Ezekiel 37:24-25), should be replaced. So there will be no need for us to seek counsel about replacing anyone over us in authority in the kingdom of God.
There is a contradiction between principles of respect towards authority and seeking counsel before a decision when voters criticize those they have elected. But there is no contradiction between those principles in God's government. The contradiction is between these two principles and government by voting. In top-down government, the principles of respect towards authority and getting counsel before a decision compliment each other.
Democracy cannot work if criticism is stifled. Having a system where those under authority select who will be over them in authority virtually guarantees negative criticism of those in charge.
But criticism weakens the authority of its target and creates division. Authority is weakened when those under the authority criticize those above them, but such criticism must be allowed in order for voters to exchange information and views to make decisions on how to vote. They must be able to freely discuss their differences, not only differences among themselves, but differences between themselves and those holding elected office. They must be free to criticize, and WILL criticize, the men they elect. This very criticism weakens those in authority and causes division. Then such criticism begets more criticism as those who are criticized retaliate. It is an unstable system of governance that weakens and becomes more divided over time.
It becomes a vicious cycle.
You will always have factions and divisions
in a democracy as different sides struggle for control. I think this will
become increasingly evident over time.
Fourth, the decision to overturn Mr. Armstrong's judgment was based on human observation and reason more than God's Word. Experiment, observation, and human reason have their place, but not as a substitute for God's revelation to the Church in the Bible. God's word must come first, observation and human reasoning second.
It boils down to how to determine truth. That controversy has been going on since Lucifer disbelieved God and chose to experiment for himself with vanity to see if it brought him greater happiness. God must have warned Lucifer, and all the angels, of the dangers of sin, BEFORE Lucifer sinned. And if Lucifer committed the first sin, then there was no one to tempt him, so he didn't sin from personal weakness. I don't think Lucifer deliberately chose a path that would bring him long-term misery. But he didn't believe God's warnings. He probably wanted to see for himself, to experiment, if thoughts of vanity and self-exaltation would make him happier.
So rather than trust God to tell the truth and to lead him in the way that produces happiness, Lucifer chose the method of experimentation, observation, and interpretation of results. After he sinned, he became Satan, the Devil.
He taught that same method to Adam and Eve. Eve SAW the fruit (Genesis 3:6). She observed that it was good for food and pleasant to the eyes, just as some Church of God ministers observed that Mr. Tkach used his one-man authority to make massive doctrinal changes in Worldwide. She interpreted what she saw, just as these ministers interpreted what they saw happen in Worldwide to mean that government should not be from the top down, but there should be a system of balloting to prevent any one man from becoming too powerful. And Eve disbelieved God, just as many of these ministers did not trust (or did not understand) God's teaching about government in the Bible.
Solomon was another man who experimented. You can read of how he experimented, and observed, and interpreted, in the book of Ecclesiastes. See Ecclesiastes 2:1-11. But his experimenting did not bring him happiness, but frustration and depression, as you can read in the whole book of Ecclesiastes, and he also became unfaithful to God (1 Kings 11:1-13). Contrast this with the example of Abraham, who believed what God told him even when it seemed contrary to what he observed (Romans 4:3, James 2:23, Genesis 15:4-6).
Today, one of the greatest controversies in the United States is the evolution-vs-creation controversy. I have debated this issue in many blogs and forums, and those who are hard-core atheists and evolutionists will not accept any idea or knowledge that cannot be verified by the scientific method of experimentation, observation, and interpretation of results. For them, the scientific method is not just the best path to truth, but the ONLY path to truth.
But God's method for us to learn truth is to
trust His wisdom and integrity enough to believe and obey what He says. As we
believe and obey Him, he gives us more wisdom to understand His will and the
Bible so we can believe and obey Him more.
Because mankind, starting with Adam and Eve, has not trusted and believed God's revelation and rule, God is performing an experiment for mankind, to teach us lessons. That is the purpose of God's 7,000 year plan for mankind.
God Himself is performing an experiment for all mankind. This is not an experiment for God to learn what is true. He already knows. It is a demonstration experiment, to teach mankind what God already knows is true. It is like experiments in high school chemistry labs, where the students perform a textbook experiment so they can see what happens, but the writers of the textbooks already know the results.
The seven thousand year plan of God is a demonstration to show mankind that man cannot govern himself, and that God's way works best. For six thousand years, mankind has been following the pattern set by Adam and Eve and set by Satan before that, of learning by experimentation and observation, and then interpreting the results to decide for oneself what is best. But God's way is different. God reveals by His Word, APART from experimentation and observation, what is best, and He commands us to believe Him. Mankind is writing the lesson in death and suffering that the scientific method, when used as a substitute for God's revelation, does not bring long-term good.
I think the same thing is happening in the Church. When God scattered the Church of God for our Laodicean attitude, He allowed at least one major fellowship to practice governance by the voting of men. I think that just as He is allowing Satan to rule this world for 6,000 years to demonstrate that Satan's way does not work, so He is allowing one major fellowship to govern itself by the voting of men to demonstrate once and for all that democracy does not work, that it causes division, and that it does not prevent doctrinal error.
What happens in a Church of God fellowship that governs itself through voting is a mirror-image of what is happening in the United States Congress. They are both the same system, and as our political divisions are weakening our country, so the political divisions in the Church are weakening the Church.
But we must be different if we are to learn
the way of life we will practice in the Kingdom of God.
I have no doubt that God led Mr. Armstrong
to name Mr. Tkach as his successor as Pastor General of the Worldwide Church of
God. God had His reasons, and it seems apparent that it was God's judgment to
allow the Church to be scattered, to test and correct the Church of God, perhaps
for the Laodicean attitude of most of the members. But whatever God's reasons,
it was His decision to allow this. God did not make a mistake. To reject God's
teaching in the Bible about government because we do not like God's decision
regarding Mr. Armstrong's successor is to reject the authority of Jesus Christ
over the administrative work of the Church.
The Church of God is commissioned by God to preach the gospel to the world. We are to teach and represent God's way of life to the world, and we are to announce God's plan to send Jesus Christ to this earth to replace Satan and man's governments under Satan's influence. When Christ comes, He will get rid of the governments of man, including the democracies of the nations of this world, and establish the government of God. For one thousand years there will be peace and happiness on the earth, in contrast to the war and misery that have occurred during the six thousand years of man's self rule under Satan. To preach that message effectively, we have to practice what we preach. We have to live a way of life that shows that we believe in that message of good news and that we agree with God, that God's rule over man is better than man's rule over himself.
We must live as if we believe that God's direct rule over us from the top down is really good news. We must show that we prefer that to our own systems of ruling ourselves.
We are not practicing what we preach if we practice democracy in the Church, governing ourselves by the authority of the ballot box, replacing Christ's rule over the Church with our own man-made system of self rule, and then preach to the world a message announcing the good news that Christ will come to replace man's self rule with the government of God. We are also not showing trust in Christ to lead the Church of God from the top down.
For those who read this and still think that it is God's way to lead the Church of God through a system of balloting, and that such voting is not necessarily one of the ways of this world that we should come out of, I will close this section with a question to consider. When a major Church of God fellowship set up governance by balloting, where did they get the idea? Where did the idea of voting come from? Everybody in the United States knows what "voting" means. We take it for granted, but how do we know what it means? Where did we learn it? From the Bible? From our own traditions in the Church? Or from the example of our own national government and many other governments of this world? We learned that system from the governments of this world, not from the Bible and not from our traditions in the Church of God. And those governments are about to be replaced by God's government when Christ returns, and voting will come to an end.
For more discussion of the issue of Church of God governance, see Chapter 8 - Government in the Church of God.
Mr. Armstrong taught us by word and example to put the Bible first, as the Bible itself does. I have proved to myself, by looking at creation, that God exists, and I have proved to myself, by looking at prophecy and seeing how it has been fulfilled in history, that the Bible is God's word. I made a decision before I was baptized that I will always believe what God says, and therefore I will always believe the Bible. That was part of my commitment to God. I am determined not to break that commitment for any man.
By supporting the preaching of the gospel to the world and the Ezekiel warning to Israel with my tithes, offerings, and prayers, I am in effect participating in a work that tells members of the public to be willing to make any sacrifice to change their beliefs and practices to strive to believe and do whatever the Bible says. In order that my support of this may be effective and be blessed by God, I must practice what I preach -- I must make sure I am willing myself to learn new knowledge from the Bible. In spite of my human weaknesses and faults, I must make it my goal to strive to believe and do everything God tells me in the Bible, to learn to live by every word of God. I have to let myself be taught and guided by the Bible more than by my traditions, church government, or my own personal opinions and preferences. That is my goal.