The Church of God has become scattered since the death of Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong 26 years ago. We are also greatly reduced in power - power to preach the gospel to the world.
We do not have the growth and power we had in the early days of the Worldwide Church of God, in the 1950s and 1960s when Mr. Armstrong was alive. We also do not have the healings we had at that time.
Many are sick in the Church today and are in need of healing. We pray for God's intervention, and though some are healed, many are not.
We need to build an atmosphere of faith within the Church.
Faith comes from Bible study and from our choice to believe what God says in the Bible. The apostle Paul wrote, "So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Romans 10:17). When this was written, the Bible was not complete or widely available. People received the word of God by hearing Old Testament scriptures read on the Sabbath and by hearing the preaching of the first century apostles, whose message was backed up by public miracles from God. Today we receive the word of God by reading the Bible. Increased Bible reading and study is one way of building faith.
Also, faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:4, 9). Faith comes from God.
We have a need for more power and for more faith, faith for healing and power to preach the gospel and a warning message to the world. Yet, we don't have it. Why?
If we want to build an atmosphere of faith so we may have more healings (we do), and if we want to have more power for preaching the gospel (we do), why hasn't God supplied the faith and power we want and pray for?
Could it be that God sees something wrong in the Church, even something wrong in the best of the major Church of God fellowships, that we as a Church have not acknowledged? Could it be that we have a sin we don't see and have not confessed before God? Could it be that God is withholding miraculous healings to get our attention until we really examine ourselves to the point of seeing clearly what we have not seen before?
This kind of thing has happened before.
Read the account in Mr. Armstrong's autobiography of the first time he began to fast. What prodded him to fast? God was not answering his prayers for healing his wife and for other problems.
How did Mr. Armstrong fast?
He did not call a Church-wide fast, nor did he ask other Church members to fast for his wife's healing. He also did NOT, during most of this fast, pray for his wife's healing! In fact, he didn't ask for anything from God during his fast (till the end of the fast), except that God would show him what was wrong with him!
Read the account in the autobiography.
He had faith. He knew God answered prayer. He had received answers to his prayers before, including miraculous healings. But something was wrong. God was no longer answering his prayers as before.
Mr. Armstrong had the faith to know that the fault was not with God, it was with himself. So he fasted, prayed, and studied the Bible only to find out what was wrong with himself.
And through that period of fasting, God have him the answer. Once Mr. Armstrong understood his sin and repented, he prayed one more time for his wife's healing, and God answered him immediately.
That is the kind of fasting that is needed today in the Church.
We can't assume we know our own sins clearly. "Who can understand his errors? Cleanse me from secret faults" (Psalm 19:12). We still have human nature, and our human nature makes us tend to "look away" from our own sins without even realizing it, and Satan also tries to blind us to our own faults. But fasting can help us overcome Satan and his deceptions (Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13, Matthew 17:14-21, Leviticus 16:5-31, Revelation 20:1-3).
What might the Church's fault be that prevents God from inspiring us with the faith that will enable our prayers for healing and power to preach the gospel to be heard and answered? And what might our fault be that prevents God from answering our prayers?
I will make a suggestion, for what it is worth, for consideration.
What I will say is not anything different from what I have said before.
Faith must be towards God and God alone (Hebrews 6:1).
"But of course," you might say. "That is obvious."
Not so fast. Let's think about this in more depth and not just assume that the faith we are trying to build is directed towards God.
"Faith", in the context of the way the Bible uses the term, is always faith towards God. But true godly faith is not always the kind of "faith" people have, in the world or in the Church of God.
Catholics have "faith". They have faith in their concept of God as a trinity. They have faith in their Catholic traditions and doctrines. They have faith in their church and its authority to interpret the Bible. Some of them have faith that their trinitarian "God" will protect them and provide for them. And that faith can be very strong in some cases.
Protestants have "faith" that God loves them, that their sins are forgiven because they have accepted Christ. Atheists and agnostics have "faith" in the scientific method as the best and only trustworthy method for discovering truth.
Millions of people in every religion have faith in their traditional beliefs, in their religious teachers and authorities, and sometimes in their own opinions and "insights".
How is it with Church of God members?
Can a Church of God member or minister have faith in his Church of God doctrinal traditions he has held for years? Can a Church of God member have faith in his pastor, his Church leader, or the ministry of his Church of God fellowship in general? Can a Church member have faith in Mr. Armstrong and in Mystery of the Ages? Can a member have faith in his own opinions?
To that last question, most experienced ministers will say, "yes", because they have had discussion sessions with people whose "faith" in the truth of their opinions was rock-solid.
But what about a member having faith in Church of God traditional doctrines, or faith in the Church ministry? Is that possible? And if a member had that kind of "faith", what would it look like? From the outside, would it look different from true faith in God and God's word, the Bible? Probably not much. In behavior and conversation about doctrine it would look about the same, as long as the ministry is teaching true doctrine from the Bible and as long as our traditional doctrines are generally correct.
But God looks at the heart. He sees not only what we say and do, but He sees our inner motives, why we say and do. And to God, faith in traditions and ministers will look very different in the heart from faith in God and the Bible.
But members whose faith is in their COG traditions or in the Church ministry more than God and the Bible can change, especially if the ministry points them in the right direction, teaching them to believe the Bible more than the ministry.
But what Church of God organization does that today?
Instead, too many ministers compete with God for the faith of the members. They teach the members to believe and trust the Church's doctrines more than what the members can see for themselves in the word of God. They do this by teaching the members to have faith that Christ is controlling the teaching of the ministry to make sure it is accurate. But God, in the Bible, nowhere promises to make sure that the ministry's doctrines are accurate, rather, the examples in the Bible and in Church of God history show that even the true Church and true ministers can make mistakes in doctrine.
Why do some ministers teach members to believe and trust that God will make sure the ministry only teaches the truth on everything and that they should "trust Christ" to lead the ministry to teach accurately without error? Why do they teach members to believe and trust the Church's interpretation of the Bible rather than let the Bible interpret the Bible and believe what they see in the Bible for themselves?
Part of the answer may be that ministers are afraid of each member interpreting the Bible for himself, then spreading his own doctrinal ideas among the congregation, causing confusion, division, and error.
This is a legitimate concern, but there is a right way and a wrong way to deal with this.
Teaching the members to trust the Church's interpretation of the Bible because Christ is head of the Church and to assume that the Church's interpretation of scripture is correct is the wrong way to deal with the problem.
For many of us who did not grow up in the Church, we had to give up our former beliefs. Whether we were Catholic, Protestant, or non-religious, when we heard Mr. Armstrong say, "Don't believe me, believe God, believe your own Bible", we had to make a choice, and when we chose to believe the Bible, we knew we were choosing to believe God more than our Catholic or Protestant ministers or more than our personal, non-religious opinions. Yet, millions of listeners never came into the Church because they made the opposite choice - they chose to continue in their religious traditions. They believed their ministers and priests more than the Bible, more than God. In this, they followed Satan, who deceives the whole world. They no doubt were sincere and well-meaning - they were deceived by Satan and by the traditions of this world and didn't realize they were making a mistake. In their minds, they were doing the right thing. The real guilt and blame is on Satan's head. But the result was, they didn't believe the Bible. They didn't believe God's word.
Perhaps Lucifer himself made the choice long ago to disbelieve God's warning and teaching about the way to live, and his choice to doubt God's word was the beginning of his downfall. Now he leads most of mankind to make that same choice. But we in the Church of God, who have been called by God to overcome Satan in this age, must be different.
Believing God more than man is a way of life, and we must continue in that way of life.
Now, we all make mistakes. In this physical life, we only know in part (1 Corinthians 8:2, 13:9-10, 12). This means that two Spirit-filled true Christians can read the same verses in the Bible and come to different conclusions. The Bible is a large book, and sometimes many verses must be put together correctly to fully understand what God is saying on a particular topic or doctrine. We all come from different backgrounds and with different experiences, talents, and perspectives. Also, we need God's help to understand, and He helps each person with the help that person needs, to teach each of us, to test us sometimes, one point at a time. And God does not give all of us instant understanding at once.
But God is able to see past our sincere mistakes, our misunderstanding of this scripture or that scripture, and He looks at the heart. Are we willing to believe Him, in other words? Are we really trying to understand what God is saying in the Bible so we can believe and do it, even though we make mistakes because we are human?
We have to believe what God says as a way of life. Whenever we are faced with a choice, believe the Bible or doubt what the Bible says, we must choose to believe the Bible because the Bible is God speaking.
So because we only understand in part, because we are human and can make mistakes, a Church member may have a different understanding of what a portion of scripture means, and as a result, a different view of a doctrinal question, than the ministry.
Who is right? Is it always the ministry? No, there is no promise in the Bible of that. Ministers are human too.
Could God open a member's mind to understand a point of truth in the Bible that the ministry does not understand? Might God do this to test both the member and the ministry?
God did this with Mr. Armstrong and the Church of God Seventh Day. Mr. Armstrong was only a lay member of the Church, not yet ordained, when God revealed several truths to him through the Bible and used Mr. Armstrong to take these truths to the Church of God Seventh Day leadership, which rejected them.
So a member could be right and the Church wrong on a particular point.
But even if the member is wrong, until he is able to see his mistake, he must continue to believe what it appears to him that God is saying in the Bible because he must choose to believe God's word even when he misunderstands it.
Instead of teaching members to believe the ministry, the Church should teach them to believe what they see in the Bible, and if there is a difference of belief between the ministry and a member, in the process of time God will show the ministry and the member who is in error. But in the meantime, the member should not discuss the issue with other members.
So members should be taught a simple formula for developing faith in God and His word while respecting the ministry and keeping peace in the Church:
1. If a member sees something in the Bible different from what the ministry teaches, take the question to the ministry with an open mind, willing to learn, but a mind that believes the Bible first.
2. The ministry may be able to show the member, from the Bible, that the member is in error, so the member can see his error and be corrected.
3. If after counseling, the member still cannot see, from the Bible, that he is wrong, then the member should continue to believe what he sees in the Bible, even though it differs from what the ministry teaches, until God opens the mind of whoever is wrong to see his error, whether that be the member or the minister, even if this doesn't happen till the return of Christ.
4. In the meantime, to preserve peace and unity in the Church and to uphold the office of the ministry to whom God has given the authority to teach, the member should respect the ministry, avoid contradicting the ministry in conversation with other members, and refrain from discussing this particular doctrine with other members.
Will some minister please tell me, what is wrong with this formula? It encourages members to put their faith in God's word. It puts God and the Bible first. It preserves peace and unity in the Church. No member lies about his beliefs, but instead he tactfully declines to discuss with other members any doctrines he isn't in agreement with the Church about, so there is no hypocrisy. It preserves honesty, it preserves peace, it preserve respect for the ministry and the office that ministers hold, and it teaches the member to direct his faith towards God, not man.
And if this formula is the right way to handle doctrinal disagreements, why isn't it taught more in the Church? Is there any Church of God fellowship that teaches this? Is there any minister who teaches this?
Some ministers quote 2 Peter 1:20: "knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation", but the context shows that it is talking about the inspiration of the writing of scripture, not the reading of it, for the next verse says, "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). No scripture in the Bible was written based on private understanding or interpretation of events and doctrine, but men wrote as God inspired them by His Holy Spirit.
God has not given the ministry authority or "dominion" over the faith of the members (2 Corinthians 1:24). Only God has authority over what we believe.
This post is about building an atmosphere of faith, and I am suggesting that the ministry should actively teach members to believe the Bible more than the Church. That is the right kind of faith, the kind of faith I think God will help to build in the Church and the kind of faith He will honor with answers to prayer for healings and power to preach the gospel to the world and the Ezekiel warning to Israel.
God is a jealous God, and if the leadership of the Church is inadvertently pointing members in the direction of believing the Church more than the Bible, I don't think God will give the gift of greater faith or the gift of more healings. God will give us faith and accept our faith only if that faith is pointed in the right direction, towards God and His word, not towards the Church and its leadership and ministry.
God has promised healings, and if He has withheld those healings, it may be because He is showing us that there is a problem in the Church and its teachings that needs to be corrected.
"He who corrects a scoffer gets shame for himself, And he who rebukes a wicked man only harms himself. Do not correct a scoffer, lest he hate you; Rebuke a wise man, and he will love you. Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; Teach a just man, and he will increase in learning" (Proverbs 9:7-9).
Here are links to related chapters or sections in Preaching the Gospel:
Chapter 6 - Obtaining God's Help -- Practicing What We Preach
Chapter 9 - Repentance