The United Church of God Council of Elders sent a letter to the UCG ministry December 28, 2009, according to Ambassador Watch (Gavin Rumney blog, an anti-COG website). The entire text of the letter can be found at his site in his December 31 posting. Note: the posting itself does not include anti-COG opinion, but the comments section does, in case you want to avoid it.
The letter is an appeal for unity and cooperation in the face of a spirit of division and contention growing in UCG at this time.
Many of the UCG ministers seem to be aligned into two camps with different opinions on a variety of matters. There has been a recent change in the leadership of UCG because of the last election.
I won't try to go into details of the matters in which they differ. The move to Texas was one matter, and there may be many others.
The letter addresses the problem of division in a strong way, and much of what is written is good. It is a warning in effect that unless the ministry as a whole builds a spirit of cooperation instead of contention, great spiritual damage will be done to the Church, and though it was not stated explicitly, I think there is an implied warning that if the spirit of division continues to grow, it will fragment United Church of God at some point.
I want to comment on one cause of the division, and some lessons that can be learned.
This letter refers repeatedly to the decision in 1995 to establish governance by the election of a ruling Council of Elders by the general ministry by ballot, which is a different form of governance than the Church had before. And the letter goes on to describe a pattern of divisiveness and contention which has grown to become the dominant spirit in United Church of God.
I believe I can show that there is a connection between the two. One is a contributing cause of the other.
I can understand why United Church of God chose this system of governance. I was attending Worldwide at the time United Church of God formed. I didn't leave Worldwide until after UCG had formed, and then I attended with them for a while. At the time UCG started, there did not seem to be any alternative to governance by ballot. There was no one leader with the standing in the eyes of the ministry to assume leadership without election by the ministry at large. I think the motive for governance by ballot was a desire for unity and cooperation and to keep the ministry together. There may have also been some concern that a system of checks and balances was needed so that no one man had the authority to change doctrine without the consent of the majority of the ministers, as had happened in Worldwide.
But the fruits of that decision have become apparent over time.
It has been instructive. I actually understand certain principles of democracy better than I did before, even as it applies to the United States government, from watching events in UCG. In other words, watching the spirit of division grow in UCG has helped me better understand why the United States is so divided in its politics and government.
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.
But in order for democracy to function, there must be freedom to criticize. Those who vote by ballot must be free to discuss their voting decision with others, even when those discussions include harsh criticism. I understand now why the freedoms of speech and press in the Bill of Rights 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 stiffle information 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 United Church of God.
This kind of factionalism will always grow in a democracy.
Why does this happen whenever those under authority elect those over them by ballot?
You have an immediate conflict of interest. Authority is weakened when those under the authority harshly criticize those above them, but such criticism must be allowed in order for the body doing the voting (General Conference of Elders) to exchange information and views to make decisions on how to vote. 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.
The letter contrasts what is occurring now in UCG with what would not have been allowed in Worldwide or in the individual congregations.
"We would never have allowed this in our former association!" - That is because the former association was not ruled from the ballot box.
"We would never allow it in the congregations that we pastor." - That is because the members of a congregation do not elect their pastor by ballot.
"In what some of our members like to call the 'real world' in which they work, such breaches of confidentiality, slander and lack of organizational cohesiveness would be dealt with immediately by appropriate disciplinary action for those responsible." - That is because the typical workplace is not a democracy. The workers do not elect their bosses by ballot.
"Why should we be different and why should the unity once a hallmark of God’s people be different now?" - Because UCG has chosen a form of governance based on voting of those under authority to elect those over them in authority. The natural effect of that is increasing division over time.
All the Churches of God and their members are now seeing the fruits play out of the 1995 decision by UCG ministers to establish a body based on the authority of the ballot box.
God is letting us all learn lessons from this example.
What is the alternative to governance by ballot in the absense of a strong leader with the prestige to hold the church together without voting?
Suppose those pastors leaving Worldwide in the spring of 1995 had not formed a single organized corporation at all. Suppose those pastors had simply pastored their congregations, collecting tithes and offerings from the members of their congregations, trusting God for the finances and guidence they needed. Some ministers might organize independently, and some might attach themselves to another man they respected and trusted. You would have ended up with many small churches, some with one minister, some with three or four ministers with one man in charge, but each leader of a group would look directly to God for supervision and support. That is what Herbert W. Armstrong did when he left the employment of Church of God Seventh Day. There would have been no voting.
Wouldn't this have created greater division? Absolutely not.
It would have become evident which pastors had a true spirit of cooperation, and those pastors would have cooperated and helped each other in many ways, not by legal requirement, but willingly, as brothers help brothers in a family. And over time, God would show by the fruits which man He chose to lead the other pastors, and as the fruits of love, wisdom, courage, truthfulness, and effectiveness of that man became evident, the other pastors and the whole Church could have gathered to that man. In effect, it would be Christ who would chose the man by showing by the fruits which man He blessed. That man would receive authority by the election of God, not by the election of men.
It might take longer that way to sort things out, but if that had been done starting in 1995, by now the man God had chosen might be in charge and we would not have the division in UCG we see today.
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.
Here are links to related sections in Preaching the Gospel:
Should Each Member Promote His Own Opinion?, Chapter 6
When and How to Judge, Chapter 5
Government in the Church, Chapter 5
Following the Bible -- Pattern of Government, Chapter 6
Church Government, Chapter 7