Herbert W. Armstrong taught the eras of the Church.
Mr. Armstrong taught three ways to understand and apply the messages to the seven churches in Revelation chapters two and three. The first one is obvious and is acknowledged by all: there were seven actual churches in Asia Minor to which Christ addresses His messages. The second one is less obvious but is indicated by Christ's statement, "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Revelation 2:7 and at the end of each message to each of the seven churches), and that is, that every Christian should examine himself in light of each message to see if it applies to him personally. The third one is the doctrine of the eras of the Church, that these seven messages represent the predominant spiritual condition of the true Church of God in seven eras, from the beginning of the Church to the end of this age.
I believe the doctrine of the eras of the Church is correct. The Philadelphia era of the Church existed during much of the time that Herbert W. Armstrong was leading the Church, but we are in the Laodicean era now.
Yet a Philadelphian remnant must exist at the end because Philadelphia is promised protection during the tribulation, yet to come (Revelation 3:10), while Laodicea must go through it (Revelation 3:18-19). So near the end of the Laodicean era, a small Philadelphia remnant goes to a place of safety while the majority of the Church, in the Laodicean condition, is not protected and must experience the suffering of the tribulation, severe persecution, and martyrdom (Revelation 12:13-17, Luke 21:36, Matthew 24:9-14).
I also believe, based on the principle of God's fairness and His love for Israel to give them a warning, that there is yet a great work to do to get the message of the true gospel and the Ezekiel warning out to all Israel before the tribulation begins. And since Philadelphia is promised an open door for preaching the gospel, it is apparent that there must be a Philadelphia remnant to finish that work - Laodicea is not going to do it.
So I expect that there will be one or more Church of God fellowships, which will be in the Philadelphian spiritual condition, which will do a great work of warning our nations, and then be taken to a place of safety.
What will such a fellowship look like? What will be its doctrines and its practices?
A Philadelphian fellowship or organization will have a leader and the majority of its members zealous to do God's will, not just what God commands, but all of God's will (Matthew 7:21, John 4:34). They will search the scriptures to know how God thinks and to make choices based on what God would want them to do (Matthew 4:4). I think such a group will have hierarchical governance structure, with the top human leader, whatever his title, reporting directly to Christ, and the rest of ministry and members of that Church reporting to that leader in the administration of the organized work of the Church. There will be no voting to elect anyone to offices, but the leader will appoint people to offices under him (Titus 1:5).
The ministers will teach the members by instruction and example, not only to obey all of God's commandments, but to believe what God says in the Bible, to put belief in the Bible ahead of belief in the ministry (2 Corinthians 1:24). Members will be taught that if they see something in the Bible contrary to what the ministry is teaching, they should choose to believe God rather than man. Members will not be told to believe the Bible as interpreted by the Church and by the ministry, but that the Bible interprets itself, and clear scriptures interpret difficult ones. They will be taught to obey and cooperate with the ministry as long as such submission does not require disobedience to God, but that members must obey God first. The Bible will have precedence over tradition, even traditions in the Church of God. That means that if a traditional doctrine or policy of the Church is found to be in error according to the Bible, the leadership will make the change in doctrine, whatever that change might be.
The leadership, the ministry, and the members will "hold fast" to what Mr. Armstrong and Worldwide had in the early years - not a list of restored doctrines, which were in the process of being restored at that time, but a deep zeal and commitment to believe and obey the Bible, no matter what the cost. It is that trust in God's word and the willingness to learn new knowledge that enabled those doctrines to be restored in the first place.
If a member disagrees about doctrine because he believes the Bible teaches something else, he can take it to his pastor or to headquarters, and the leadership and ministry will look at the matter with an open mind. If the member is wrong, they will explain it to him, but if the Church is wrong, the Church will correct the doctrine. Members will not be told, concerning submission of doctrinal suggestions or correction, "God doesn't work that way". In the meantime, the member will not promote his idea with other members or criticize the Church and its doctrines in conversation with other members. And in the end, if it cannot be resolved, if the member and the Church still are not in agreement, the member will "put the matter on the shelf" and wait for Christ to reveal who is right, even if that means waiting until Christ returns. And the member will not create division by talking about the issue with other members, but will keep it between him and God (1 Corinthians 1:10). And as in all things, the member will obey God more than man (Acts 5:29).
Such a Church and its leadership and ministry will never say to the members, "We will never change doctrine" or "We will never change Mr. Armstrong's doctrines". But Mr. Armstrong and his work and doctrinal judgments will be respected and only changed if clear evidence is found in the Bible that a change is needed, and then the Bible teaching on the subject and why the change is needed will be presented to the membership in detail. Members will be taught to believe doctrine because the Bible teaches it, not because the ministry teaches it.
A Church fellowship that is Philadelphian in spiritual condition will have an open door for preaching the gospel to the world and the Ezekiel warning to Israel, and part of that open door will be a zeal on the part of the leadership and the membership to get that message out. That zeal, and the open door God provides, will be evident in the allocation of funds for the gospel in the Church's budget, and it will be evident in the positive fruits that result. The Church, from a motive of love towards God and neighbor, will have a sense of urgency to get the warning out to all Israel before the tribulation begins and it is too late for our neighbors to escape.
There will be a camaraderie and brotherly love among the members resulting from God's Spirit and from a sense of shared mission, as well as agape love for God and man.
The ministry and members will have a loyalty to God that has moved them to go out of other groups when necessary to remain faithful to God and His word, and Christ encourages them that in the kingdom of God, they will "go out no more".
There may be more than one such fellowship. God may organize Philadelphian Christians into two or more such fellowships to test and demonstrate the brotherly love and cooperation between organizations that is possible, and if so, the leaders of those organizations will help each other and seek ways to divide up the responsibilities to help get God's work done as effectively as possible. The two or more organizations will cooperate, not only because of their love towards one another (John 13:35), but because they deeply know that they work for the same Master, for whom they have a common love. The leaders will put God's work first, and not try to engage in "sheep wars" by competing with other organizations to get and hold the most sheep, bragging that they are doing a better job than all the others.
"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. Indeed I will make those of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews and are not, but lie—indeed I will make them come and worship before your feet, and to know that I have loved you. Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth. Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown. He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more. I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God, the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God. And I will write on him My new name. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Revelation 3:7-13).
Does any such organization in the Church of God exist today?
That is a question.
If it does not, it will. Before the end comes, it will.
That is what I look forward to.
Some old-timers have seen what a Philadelphia group looks like when Mr. Armstrong was alive and when the Church was being blessed with enthusiasm, an open door, and rapid growth. There was a zeal in the Church in the early days of Ambassador College and in the 1950s and 1960s that does not exist today in most Churches of God. I hope to see that zeal recaptured in the Church of God.
More to come...
Here are links to related sections in Preaching the Gospel:
Government in the Church, Chapter 5
Following the Bible -- Pattern of Government, Chapter 6
Church Government, Chapter 7
How Is the Church Organized?, Chapter 7
The Ezekiel Warning, Introduction, Chapter 3
The Great Tribulation, Chapter 3
The Blessings and Curses, Chapter 3
The Responsibility of a Watchman, Chapter 3
The Ezekiel Warning, Chapter 3
The Effect of the Holocaust, Chapter 4
My Comments and Conclusion, Chapter 4
The Two Witnesses and God's Fairness, Chapter 4
The Church, Chapter 4
Why the Gospel Must Still Be Preached to the World, Chapter 4
Is the Church Commissioned to Preach the Gospel to the World?, Chapter 5
Practicing What We Preach, Chapter 6
Changing Doctrine, Chapter 6
A Lesson from the Autobiography, Chapter 6
Should Each Member Promote His Own Opinion?, Chapter 6
A Possible Problem in the Church, Chapter 6
A Summary -- the Nineteenth Truth, Chapter 6