This will be a long post. Some posts are more important than others. In the eyes of this author, this post is more important than most others I have published.
Are there Catholic trends in Church of God thinking?
What is the heart and core of Catholicism? If you had to identify one characteristic of the Roman Catholic Church that makes it what it is, what would you pick? Sunday? The trinity doctrine? The teaching that man has an immortal soul? The authority of the pope over the members of the Catholic Church? Is it a teaching that the Bible is not God's word and does not need to be obeyed or believed? How about using images in worship? Or are pagan traditions the heart of the Catholic Church?
In my opinion, it is none of these.
United Church of God has a big problem with governance. But the other major Churches of God are not without problems themselves. This is, after all, the Laodicean era.
Some who have never been Catholic might think that the Catholic Church openly rejects the Bible as the Word of God. They do not. They teach that the Bible is the Word of God, infallibly correct in its original writings, "inerrant" as they say. But they teach that the Bible is not of any "private interpretation" and that you cannot have each person deciding for himself what the Bible means (sound familiar?). They teach that God has given the Catholic Church the authority to INTERPRET the Bible, to tell its members what it means. So for example, they will teach that the command to keep the Sabbath is still in force, but that it was changed to Sunday. They teach that the command not to worship images is true and in force, but that it only means actual worship of the image itself, not using images to represent the true God as an aid to worship. Etc., etc. Furthermore, they teach that the Holy Spirit inspires Catholic leaders to correctly interpret the Bible.
The heart and core of Catholic thinking is that the Holy Spirit inspires the Catholic Church, primarily the pope, to correctly understand and interpret the Bible, and that members of the Catholic Church should accept and believe that church's interpretation of the Bible. It is from this thinking that all the other doctrines of the Catholic Church become possible. That principle has become the foundation of all Catholic doctrine and practices.
The belief that church leaders have authority to interpret the Bible for its members may also be part of Greek Orthodox teaching, and variations of it exist in Protestant thinking. Protestants believe that the Holy Spirit has inspired the traditions of the mainstream Christian church over the centuries.
But the Bible says, "Not that we have dominion over your faith, but are fellow workers for your joy; for by faith you stand" (2 Corinthians 1:24). And a careful reading of "...no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation" (2 Peter 1:20) shows that it is speaking of the WRITING of the Bible, not the reading of it, as shown by the verse that follows: "for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:21). In other words, when the prophets wrote their prophecies in the Bible, they were not writing from their private understanding of events. This has nothing to do with our reading and understanding of the Bible.
Mr. Armstrong taught that the Bible interprets itself. We let clear scriptures interpret difficult ones. I think he was right.
I was raised Catholic and I have Catholic family members, including a sister who used to be a nun. I think I understand Catholic thinking. I have recently debated with a Greek Orthodox member in a social network site forum, and I see that same kind of thinking there too. And it sometimes creeps into the Church of God.
Whatever standard we teach for understanding the Bible, we have to teach the same standard to our own members as we teach to the public. It is not right to have two standards, one for ourselves and one for outsiders (Proverbs 20:10, Deuteronomy 25:13-16, Matthew 23:1-4, Romans 2:17-21).
An Orthodox church member set up a forum for Christians in a social network site I am a member of, and I entered a discussion about prophecy. Someone mentioned that when it comes to prophecy, he let his church interpret it for him. I asked how he knew that his church's interpretation was correct, and he had the usual arguments that God would not allow His church to be wrong. Naturally (?), I began to point out some things in the Bible about which his church clearly was wrong (idols being the clearest example), and I also showed that the messages to the seven churches in Revelation prove that even God's true Church (which in the mind of a member means his church) can be wrong in doctrine (Revelation 2:14-16, 20, 24). But of course, I got nowhere. In every case, their church had some kind of explanation for a scripture, no matter how far-fetched, that fit their doctrine.
I was reminded that for a person who has faith in his church, he CANNOT accept any explanation for a scripture in the Bible that goes contrary to his church's teaching. It goes against his faith. He ASSUMES, without proof, that his church is right about the Bible. His faith is in his church. He may discuss the Bible, but not as most Church of God members discuss the Bible. We usually discuss the Bible to understand what it really says. But he discusses it to see HOW it FITS IN with his church's teaching. It can be ironic, almost amusing, to see the discussion between such a member and a Church of God member about something in the Bible. I suppose someone could write a comedy about it.
When I posted in my blog in that social network site that most people do not believe God, I was kicked out of that forum. Not surprising. Actually, I was surprised they let me in to begin with. But it was educational for me.
This incident reminded me of an occasion in Worldwide during the doctrinal changes. I attended there till 1996, so I witnessed the whole apostasy. A deacon gave a sermonette. He said that when he was studying the changes, he could not understand them. So he prayed for understanding, and after he prayed about it he was able to understand the changes. Afterwards I asked him in private, did you pray that God would help you understand IF the church's teachings were true or false, or did you ASSUME the changes were true and prayed that God would help you understand HOW they were true? He said, I ASSUMED they were true and asked God to help me see HOW they were true (in other words, how to fit the Bible with the church's teaching).
This man studied the Bible, but his faith was in the church, not the Bible. Like the Orthodox member I debated, he assumed that God would not let the church be wrong, and he studied the Bible to make it fit church doctrine. He let the church interpret what the Bible means.
I wonder how many in Worldwide were swept away from God's truth because of that very kind of thinking.
We teach, in regard to idols, that the second commandment forbids using images to represent God as an aid to worship. We have taught that the carnal mind of man cries out for something physical he can see, such as an image, but that no limited image can represent the infinite God. But in the Church of God we have the same human nature as the world, and sometimes members make an idol out of something else they can physically see, that is, the ministry and the Church. But like an image, a physical ministry and Church is limited and cannot represent the infinite God. Our ministers can help us find answers in the Bible, and God has ordained them for that purpose, but they can make mistakes, and our faith must be in God directly and His word the Bible, not the teachings of the Church.
So how should a member, and the Church, handle the situation when the member disagrees about doctrine?
This has been and continues to be an issue in the Church of God.
Any large Church of God organization has to deal with members and non-members who disagree about doctrine on some point or another. Some receive dozens or even hundreds of papers correcting the Church for some doctrinal error, real or imagined, or suggesting new knowledge and new doctrines which the writer believes is from the Bible. In such a case, I expect that the vast majority of these papers are wrong. But not necessarily all.
How should a Church of God leadership handle this, especially in its teaching of its members about how they should handle doctrinal issues when they do not agree with the Church?
Herbert W. Armstrong addressed this issue in his article "Should We Listen to Others?", and Living Church of God has addressed this issue in its recent article "My Will or God's Will?" in the November-December 2010 issue of the Living Church News. Both articles address the issue of doctrinal disagreement, though that is not necessarily the main subject of either article.
The Living Church News article helps to clarify the Church's policy. In the past, some have said, "there will be no doctrinal change" or "God doesn't work that way" in reference to members sending in suggestions on doctrine. Some have equated "being teachable" with believing the ministry. But this article acknowledges the possibility that a member's Bible study might lead to accurate and truthful insight, and if so, it is not wrong for the member to humbly share it with the ministry, then trust God to bring about any necessary change in Church teaching in His time and through His leadership. This is basically what Mr. Armstrong taught. And overall, this article in the Living Church News makes a number of good points.
Mr. Armstrong basically taught in his article that if a member finds something in the Bible different from what the Church teaches, he should submit it to his pastor or to headquarters. If the member is wrong, the Church will show the member where he is wrong, but if the Church is wrong, the change will be made for the whole Church. And in the meantime, the member should not discuss the matter with other members.
But in reading the LCG article, I now realize that there is a question Mr. Armstrong left unanswered in his own article.
If a member makes a suggestion to the ministry, and the ministry disagrees and tries to show the member where he is wrong, what if the member still does not agree? What if, after hearty discussion or correspondence, the matter is still unresolved? The member does not see the Church's point of view and the Church does not see the member's point of view.
I don't think Mr. Armstrong directly answered that in his article, though the answer might be implied.
I think the answer is, the member should continue to believe the Bible, but respect the authority of the ministry by not contradicting the leadership in front of other members. In other words, the attitude of faith towards God and respect towards the ministry that the member had while seeking resolution of the disagreement should continue even if resolution becomes impossible at that time.
There is a statement in the Living Church News article that concerns me. The article states that if a member's Bible study leads him to a doctrine that the ministry disagrees with, he should be extra careful to be cautious, even to the point of ASSUMING that he is wrong and needs to study further.
That can't be right. That is what the Catholics do. But we are to be different.
This is what the deacon I mentioned did when he asked God to help him understand Mr. Tkach's changes. He ASSUMED the church was right and he was wrong and needed to study further. He prayed for God to help him verify that assumption, to show him HOW to believe the church, or in other words, HOW to fit the scriptures into the doctrinal framework the ministry was teaching. And he got his wish, because he said that after praying that way, he understood and accepted Mr. Tkach's changes. But what the church was teaching was not right, and this member became deceived by his decision to believe the ministry more than the Bible. And his prayer to God did not protect him from deception because he was praying for the wrong thing. He was praying for help to believe the ministry.
But our faith must be towards God (Hebrews 6:1, 1 Thessalonians 1:8). The ministry has certain authority to make binding decisions on the administrative work of the Church, which includes the doctrines that will be officially taught. But the ministry does not have authority over the faith of the membership. They have no authority to tell us what to believe. As the Bible says, they do not have dominion over our faith (2 Corinthians 1:24).
Scriptures do NOT necessarily mean what the ministry says they mean. Ministers, even in God's true Church, can make mistakes. But God does not make mistakes, and His word, the Bible, is perfect. That is where our faith must be, not in the Church and its ministry.
In the above scenario, where member and ministry share opposing viewpoints about what a scripture or collection of scriptures means, from the member's point of view, he faces a choice. He has to choose to believe the Bible or the ministry. Which will he choose? A minister might say, "but the Bible doesn't say that, and the member is mistaken", but that misses the point. Even if the member is wrong, he doesn't know he is wrong. The choice for him is the same whether he in fact is right or wrong: believe God or believe man.
If he is sincere but mistaken, and is still not convinced after a minister tries to correct him, then he doesn't understand the Bible correctly. But he still has to make the same choice as if the minister was wrong and the member right. He has to believe God or man. Because, if he can't understand where he is wrong FROM THE BIBLE, the only way he can ASSUME he is wrong is to place belief in the word of the ministry over that of God Himself! And if he makes that choice, he has broken faith with God!
When we see what God says in the Bible and begin to believe and trust him, but then ASSUME our belief is wrong because it disagrees with the Church, that ASSUMPTION is the same as doubting what God says. How can it be otherwise? It would in fact be choosing to believe our traditions and the ministers of our Church more than the Bible just as we teach the world NOT to do. It is that kind of thinking that has opened the door for all kinds of false teaching in traditional mainstream Christianity. Members of those churches, most of them, will not believe what we show them in the Bible because they ASSUME that their traditions and their ministers are right, that their church has the right interpretation and understanding of the Bible.
How important is this?
It is vitally important for our salvation, and for doing God's work of preaching the gospel to the world, that we believe what God says. We have to be like Abraham in that regard, if we want God to impute righteousness to us as He did to him (Romans 4:3-25, James 2:23, Genesis 15:6, Isaiah 51:1-2).
It is actually a sin to disbelieve God. Why? Sin is the transgression of the law, or "lawlessness" (1 John 3:4). And faith is one of the weightier matters of the law (Matthew 23:23). So lack of faith, or disbelief, is a transgression of the law, and is sin. A whole generation of Israel in the wilderness lost their opportunity to enter the promised land because they didn't believe God's word (Hebrews 3:16-19). Disbelieving God can cost us our salvation (Hebrews 3:12, Romans 11:20-23, John 3:18, 36, 1 John 5:10).
Do some ministers even realize that they could be injuring the faith of some of their members in God and in the truth of God's word by teaching them to accept the Church's teaching even when they see something different in the Bible?
Our relationship with God has to be a personal relationship, where God talks to us through the Bible and we talk to God in prayer. In that relationship we believe what God says in the Bible. The Bible is personal to us. It is our Father and Christ talking to us. We HAVE to believe what God says. The job of the ministry is to help that relationship, not COMPETE with it.
But some might say, "Won't members believing different things create confusion because they promote their own ideas with other members?"
That has been a problem, but there is a better way of handling that than teaching members to assume that Church is right in its interpretation of the Bible. I covered that in my recent post The Responsible Use of New Knowledge. Basically, a member who has a different understanding of a scripture should respect the authority God has given the ministry for teaching and for deciding what doctrines will be officially taught, and he should refrain from discussing the matter with other members. In other words, He should believe what God says in the Bible, but keep it between himself and God until God, in His time, shows the Church it is wrong or until God shows the member he is wrong. In other words, "put it on the shelf." That teaches the member to keep His faith in God and remain at peace in the Church. That process of waiting for God to make the correction through the leadership is also a teaching of the Living Church News article, and it is right.
This is a difficult subject, and I respect and appreciate that LCG has addressed this in their article. It is easy for a reader to misunderstand a writer's intent, and I may have done that here. Perhaps the article is simply emphasizing the humility with which a member should approach Bible study. If that is the case, then it is right on target. If the article had said, we should assume we MIGHT be wrong, and try to keep an open mind and continue to study, I don't think I would be as concerned. Sometimes a slightly different word or phrase can mean a lot.
Living Church of God is doing an outstanding job compared with many other Churches of God, in practicing top-down government and in preaching the gospel to the world effectively with zeal. God has blessed them with many new members brought into the Church through their TV program, magazine and literature, and public Bible lectures. Because they have a door to preaching the gospel that is open wider for them than for most COG fellowships, I think there must be a number of members among them who are in the Philadelphia spiritual condition (Revelation 3:7-8). Their article in the Living Church News tackles a tough subject, and it is one that Church of God members need to think about.
Since the scattering of the Church of God after the death of Mr. Armstrong, I think there have been several Church of God organizations that have made the error from time to time of teaching members, perhaps inadvertently, to put their trust for interpretation of scripture in the leadership and ministry of their organization more than in the Bible itself. Also, some organizations teach that Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong was definitely the Elijah to come and that none of his doctrines should be changed, which puts faith in his teaching above faith in the Bible. But it is my hope that the Churches of God will be willing to learn new knowledge from the Bible and accept correction in doctrine from the Bible. That is what most Churches of God teach the public and we should practice what we preach.
That has also been the practice and example of Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong.
Here is a link to the Living Church of God website where you can find the November-December 2010 issue of the Living Church News in pdf format. In the left-hand column, find the picture or heading "Living Church News" and click on that. That will bring you to a list of issues, click on the NOV-DEC 2010 issue link. The article is titled "My Will or God's Will?" and starts on page 5.
Here are links to sites that publish Herbert W. Armstrong's article, "Should We Listen to Others?", which I mentioned in this post, as well as other articles and booklets by Mr. Armstrong:
Church of God Faithful Flock
Link to page that lists "Should We Listen to Others?":
Direct link to "Should We Listen to Others?":
Here are links to related sections in Preaching the Gospel:
Our Attitude and Approach Towards God's Word, Chapter 1
How to Understand the Bible, Chapter 1
Focusing on the Bible, Chapter 5
Practicing What We Preach, Chapter 6
Changing Doctrine, Chapter 6
A Lesson from the Autobiography, Chapter 6
The Source of Our Beliefs, Chapter 6
Faith, Chapter 6
The Message to the Sardis Church, Chapter 6
The Inconsistencies of Saying We Can't Change Herbert W. Armstrong's Doctrine, Chapter 6
Does the Bible Teach Us to Follow Tradition?, Chapter 6
God Speaks Through the Bible, Chapter 6
Should Each Member Promote His Own Opinion?, Chapter 6
Did Mr. Armstrong Point to Himself as the Authority for Belief?, Chapter 6
A Possible Problem in the Church, Chapter 6
Can We Make an Idol out of a Man or Church?, Chapter 6
How Is the Church Organized?, Chapter 7