"Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, we ask you, not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the day of Christ had come. Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition" (2 Thessalonians 2:1-3).
I will start with a question. How much less would we know, about Church history or future prophetic events, if this passage were not in the Bible?
Depending on the meaning of the Greek word or term translated as "falling away" (and I am not knowledgeable about the Greek), it may mean falling away from a previous position or a general, intensified rebellion against God. Even if it means "falling away" from a previous position, that could include people in the world as they fall away from what they previously believed. This verse does not say "falling away from the truth". If it did, it could only mean the Church. But it is not restricted that way.
There is a disagreement between Bob Thiel and Living Church of God about what this verse refers to. Dr. Thiel says it refers to the Church, LCG says it can include the world.
But how much of a disagreement is there about what is going to happen or has happened? Not much, if any.
Why? Both Dr. Thiel and Living Church of God agree that many in the Church of God have left the truth, both in the first and second centuries and in modern times in Worldwide during the late 1980s and early 1990s. LCG and Bob Thiel agree on history. And they generally agree that there is a great religious deception coming upon the world from the beast and false prophet.
They are in agreement on those things because there are other passages in the Bible that warn about those things and because we have the historical records of what has happened in the Church and we have lived through some of it in our time. We know that there was an apostasy in the first, second, and third centuries because the largest body of those claiming to be Christian after that had doctrines and practices very different from what the Bible teaches and what the early Church of God practiced. We know that there was an apostasy in the Church of God after the death of Mr. Armstrong because we watched it happen around us. And there are plenty of passages in the Bible that prophesy falling away in the Church other than 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3 or document how fallings away started even in New Testament times - see Acts 20:28-30, 1 Timothy 4:1-2, 2 Timothy 1:15, 2 Timothy 4:1-4, and Jude 3-4.
What about the future?
There are other passages that show a great worldwide religious deception is ahead. "So they worshiped the dragon who gave authority to the beast; and they worshiped the beast, saying, 'Who is like the beast? Who is able to make war with him?' And he was given a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies, and he was given authority to continue for forty-two months. Then he opened his mouth in blasphemy against God, to blaspheme His name, His tabernacle, and those who dwell in heaven. It was granted to him to make war with the saints and to overcome them. And authority was given him over every tribe, tongue, and nation. All who dwell on the earth will worship him, whose names have not been written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" (Revelation 13:4-8).
"Then I saw another beast coming up out of the earth, and he had two horns like a lamb and spoke like a dragon. And he exercises all the authority of the first beast in his presence, and causes the earth and those who dwell in it to worship the first beast, whose deadly wound was healed. He performs great signs, so that he even makes fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men. And he deceives those who dwell on the earth-by those signs which he was granted to do in the sight of the beast, telling those who dwell on the earth to make an image to the beast who was wounded by the sword and lived. He was granted power to give breath to the image of the beast, that the image of the beast should both speak and cause as many as would not worship the image of the beast to be killed" (Revelation 13:11-15).
See also Matthew 24:23-24, 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12, 2 Timothy 3:1-9, and 2 Timothy 3:13.
We don't need 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3 to know that worldwide religious deception is coming before the return of Christ. So Dr. Thiel and LCG can agree that a great deception is coming upon the whole world because of the beast and false prophet. Moreover, we can all agree that true Christians need to be alert so that we are not caught up in that deception (Matthew 24:4-5).
So LCG and Bob Thiel agree on what has happened in the Church and what is prophesied in the Bible for the world.
The big disagreement Bob Thiel has with LCG is over the question of which of these two things, or both, does 2 Thessalonians 2:3 refer to when it says "falling away".
Is that an argument over words?
Apostasies have happened in the Church of God. A great religious deception is coming upon the world. We know about these things. How much does it matter which of these two things 2 Thessalonians 2:3 refers to?
If we say 2 Thessalonians 2:3 refers to the falling away that has occurred in the Church of God, will that add anything to what we already know has happened? If we say it refers to the great religious deception coming upon the world from the beast and false prophet, how much does that add to what we already know from Revelation and other passages?
Does LCG agree with Bob Thiel that there were apostasies in the Church, members leaving the truth, in the early centuries and in our time after the death of Mr. Armstrong? Yes, LCG agrees with Bob Thiel about that.
Does Bob Thiel agree with LCG that there is a great religious deception coming upon the whole world from the beast and false prophet? Yes, Dr. Thiel agrees with LCG about that.
Do both sides agree that members of the Church of God need to be close to God, close to the truth, and careful not to be caught up in the deception that will come upon the whole world? I am sure they agree on that, and the Bible warns about that.
So if both sides agree on what has happened in the Church, what will happen in the world, and that true Christians need to be spiritually alert and close to God to escape the danger of being caught up in any future deceptions, what matters of real substance, about history, doctrine, or prophecy, do they disagree about? The real disagreement is about which of these events, which we already know about anyway, 2 Thessalonians 2:3 refers to.
This issue of the "falling away" is not justification for Bob Thiel to leave LCG and start his own group, as far as I can see.
I tend to agree with LCG that this verse refers to the great worldwide deception to come upon the whole world, though I think it may have a dual application and can also apply to what has happened in the Church, and may happen again in the Church. I think LCG acknowledges that there is a duality here.
Someone may say, but what about a future falling away in the Church of God? If we believe that this verse only warns about the world falling away (from what they previously believed), then we will miss a strong warning about what can happen in the Church and we will not be on our guard.
That is wrong on two counts. If 2 Thessalonians 2:3 refers only to the Church, that does not guarantee that there will be a future falling away in the Church because it has already happened at least twice, once in the early centuries and once after the death of Mr. Armstrong. The "falling away" was future at the time 2 Thessalonians 2:3 was written, but it has happened at least twice in the history of the Church of God, and there is no guarantee from this verse alone that there will be a third time.
But more importantly, it was never the intent or the teaching of LCG to say or imply that there is not a danger for Church members of being deceived if we are not on our guard and spiritually alert. Anyone who has listened to LCG sermons regularly should know that we are admonished to watch, to be spiritually alert, and to stay close to God to avoid being deceived. The Bible also is full of such warnings.
Bob Thiel and LCG are in agreement about the matters of substance of what has happened in the past, what will happen in the future, and what true Christians need to do:
1) Apostasy in the Church of God has happened in the early centuries and after the death of Herbert W. Armstrong.
2) A great worldwide, religious deception is coming from the beast and false prophet.
3) True Christians need to obey God, to watch, to be spiritually alert, and to seek God and stay close to God through the tools of prayer, Bible study, fasting, and meditation to escape the danger of being deceived in the future.
These are the important things, and we agree on them. There is no disagreement that is a valid cause for dividing the Church of God, in my opinion.
Also, God who inspired 2 Thessalonians 2:3, who knew the future not only of prophetic events but also controversies in the Church of God including the present controversy, did not inspire Paul to write "falling away from the truth". He inspired Paul to write "falling away" or "rebellion", however the Greek word should be translated, but without "from the truth". Why did God not inspire the words "from the truth"? It would have easily ended this controversy. But God did not say that. He left it open so it could apply to the world. I think it does. It may have a dual application, to the Church and to the world, but I think it includes the world as LCG teaches.
There is a phrase that comes to mind from the old Worldwide days, "majoring in the minors". I do not now remember if that was used only after the apostasy started or while Mr. Armstrong was alive. There is also the phrase, common in our culture, "making mountains out of mole hills". And LCG has taught that we should not be so concerned about twigs that we neglect the main branches of doctrine. Sometimes these sayings can be misapplied, but I think these can be correctly applied to someone who leaves a group to start a new group based largely on which of two known events or groups of events, events that we already agree about, a certain verse refers to.
If everyone left a group to start a new group because of any disagreement about a verse, no matter how small, probably no two people would be left together in the whole Church of God. Eventually, if you have 30,000 Church of God members, you would have 30,000 Churches of God. Some things are not important enough for splitting apart.
The Bible warns about being so concerned about small details that we lose sight of the bigger picture.
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!" (Matthew 23:23-24).
"But avoid foolish disputes, genealogies, contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and useless. Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition, knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned" (Titus 3:9-11).
"If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself" (1 Timothy 6:3-5).
I asked before, is arguing about which events we all agree about a certain verse is referring to, which verse adds little to what we already know about those events, arguing over words or substance? If there is substance there, I don't see much of it.
I am not against details or small matters. We need to desire to be faithful, in our trust and belief in and obedience to God's word, even in small things, to show God by being faithful in little things that we will be faithful in big things (Luke 16:10). If Bob Thiel thinks that 2 Thessalonians 2:3 applies only to the Church, then he should believe what he sees in the Bible until God opens his mind to understand the Bible differently. The problem becomes when we let our disagreements about small matters cause us to violate God's law in bigger matters. We need to keep things in proportion. The principle of respect for authority and not creating division is a weightier matter than which of two known events a particular verse applies to.
I know from reading COGwriter for the past several years that some of the reasons that Bob Thiel felt and taught that LCG was Philadelphia was that they held fast to the eighteen truths restored by Mr. Armstrong, that they had top-down government, and that they gave high priority in their budget and work to preaching the gospel to the world. I am summarizing this in my own words, Bob Thiel might summarize it differently.
But has any of this changed? Does not LCG still hold fast to the doctrines Dr. Thiel says are the eighteen truths? Do they not still have top-down governance? Do they not still place high priority on preaching the gospel?
I am not saying myself that these are the marks of a Philadelphia organization. To me, the criteria is whether 51% of the members are Philadelphian in character, and only God can know that. There can certainly be outward signs, especially an open door to preaching the gospel and zeal for going through that open door (and LCG has an open door and zeal for preaching the gospel and Ezekiel warning greater than any other Church of God, in my opinion). But these are Dr. Thiel's own reasons for saying in the past for so long that LCG is Philadelphia. I am asking him for consistency here.
Here is my challenge for Dr. Thiel. Go through your own writings you have used for so long to say that LCG is Philadelphia. List your reasons why you felt LCG was Philadelphia, the same ones you taught in your posts and articles, starting with LCG holding fast to the 18 truths restored by Mr. Armstrong. Then state what has changed since then. If LCG no longer fulfills one of the signs that YOU TAUGHT in the past marked them as Philadelphia, then state this clearly and give the proof. For example, have they failed to hold fast to the 18 truths? Now, if they have not changed, but YOUR CRITERIA HAS CHANGED, then state this, that you had the wrong criteria before, but now you have it right, and state what you have changed in your criteria to know if a Church of God is Philadelphia.
I think LCG is closer right now to the Philadelphia standard than any other major Church of God and closer than CCOG, which has just started.
By the way, what was Paul's purpose and intent in writing 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3? That the brethren not be "shaken in mind or troubled" (verse 2). Does anyone see an irony in the way Bob Thiel is using this passage?
Bob Thiel spends considerable time in his latest sermon on the falling away picking apart and trying to show what he thinks are mistakes in an LCG sermon about the falling away of 2 Thessalonians 2:3, but I think there are plenty of mistakes in what Dr. Thiel has said, and I will discuss some of them.
He makes the point that, because 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3 is addressed to "brethren", that the falling away must apply to the brethren, not the world. But that is wrong logic. Of course Paul is speaking to the Church, but that doesn't mean that the things he tells the Church are never about what will happen in the world. Dr. Thiel acknowledges that 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12 applies to the world being deceived, yet that is also part of the same epistle addressed to the Church of God. So the fact that Paul addresses his statements to "brethren" (2 Thessalonians 2:1) does not mean that the "falling away" in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 only applies to brethren, not the world.
Dr. Thiel talks about the word "first" in verse 3 and says this shows that the "falling away" happens first before the man of sin is revealed. But that is not necessarily what the word "first" is referring to. That word "first" obviously means that the falling away happens before something else. What is that something else that comes AFTER the falling away? The return of Christ (verses 1-2). That is what this is all about. Christ does not return until the falling away happens FIRST, BEFORE the return of Christ. Then the second part of verse 3, the man of sin revealed, is connected with the falling away by the word "and", and this can indicate they happen together. So this word "first" can mean that the falling away and man of sin happen FIRST before the return of Christ.
At one point, he says that saying that the idea that this verse applies to the world diminishes the warning to the Church to be on guard and alert and close to God to avoid the danger of deception and falling away. No it does not, for two reasons. As I said before, there are plenty of other verses in the Bible that warn the Church to be spiritually alert, to watch and pray, to be close to God to avoid the future deception. But also, even if 2 Thessalonians 2:3 applies only to the Church, if someone wants to ignore those other warnings, they can discount 2 Thessalonians 2:3 by saying that a falling away has happened at least twice in the Church after this was written anyway, so it has been fulfilled. In other words, if you say that 2 Thessalonians 2:3 applies only to the Church of God, there is no guarantee from this verse alone that a third major falling away is yet to happen, since two such events have already happened. The Church is warned of the danger of future deception by these passages: Matthew 24:4-5, 8-16, 23-24, Luke 18:8, 2 Peter 3:17-18, and Daniel 11:29-36, to name a few.
One thing he said I found offensive is that he has renamed Living Church of God, "Falling Away Church of God". I do not remember him once calling LCG, which he obviously is referring to, "Living Church of God", but continuously called them "Falling Away Church of God". In one case, he even seemed to quote Dr. Winnail using the term "Falling Away Church of God" to refer to LCG, which of course Dr. Winnail never said. Maybe he thought readers would figure out he was just kidding or figure out that he was inserting his own words into the quote of Dr. Winnail, but it was still wrong. This was about 50 or 51 minutes into the part 2 sermon on the falling away. Maybe he thinks calling LCG the "Falling Away Church of God" is cute or funny, but I think it is needlessly insulting towards the whole Living Church of God ministry and membership. There is no indication that LCG leadership and ministry think of any doctrine about the "falling away" in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 as the defining doctrine of what LCG stands for. This is inappropriate and shows a lack of wisdom and common sense on Dr. Thiel's part.
Here is the biggest mistake, and it is understandable, but a mistake nevertheless. I will spend some time with this one.
In his two sermons, he said that when people in Europe, who are mostly materialistic and non-religious right now, are deceived by the beast and false prophet, they will think they are returning to their mother religion, not falling away. Now, what they think doesn't matter, it is what God thinks that counts.
But there is a deeper misconception here.
Falling away does not have to mean falling away from the truth. It can mean falling away from a previously held belief or condition.
I think a lot of people assume that a person who is a member of a false religion, not God's true Church, but a Christian-professing religion, is closer to God than an atheist, agnostic, or someone who simply has no interest in religion. Thus, an atheist who is persuaded by the beast and false prophet to turn to their religion is better, closer to God, than when he was an atheist. Not necessarily so. Also, some tend to assume that the beast and false prophet will embrace the Catholic religion as it is, but that is not necessarily so. It may be similar in some ways but there can be serious differences also. The religion of the beast and false prophet may be much worse than the Catholic religion today. We believe that the Catholic religion has errors, but it has some truth too. They teach that Christ died to pay the penalty for our sins. They teach that Christ is God. They teach that people are to honor our parents, avoid sexual sin, avoid theft, etc. They teach that we should love other people. They do not teach these things perfectly, but they do stand for some moral principles. They are against abortion. They are against homosexuality and pornography. Those elements of the Catholic religion that are right are things people can fall away from.
As I said before, I am no expert in Greek. But if the "falling away" in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 can mean an intensified rebellion against God, then it is possible that accepting the religion of the beast and false prophet will be such an intensified rebellion against God no matter what one previously believed.
There is an assumption that moving from materialism, atheism, agnosticism, and secularism, which dominates the western world today, towards the religion of the false prophet and beast will not be a turning away from God. I do not share that assumption.
Which will be worse, the false religion of the beast and false prophet, or the present atheistic materialism?
Historically, who has been most zealous to persecute the true Church and to kill true Christians, atheists or those of false religions?
I think the false religion of the beast and false prophet will be worse and more anti-God than anything this earth has ever seen since man was put on the earth. It will be far worse than the present materialism and atheism. It will be far worse than any known religion today. It may have much in common with the Catholic religion but there can be differences also.
Consider. When this happens, Satan, who has probably existed for hundreds of millions of years and has ruled the earth for the 6,000 years of man's existence, will be about to come to the end of the line. He will soon be cast into the bottomless pit, and except for a short time after the millennium and before the white throne judgment, that's it for him. No more rulership. No more power. No more influence. No more opportunity to argue or rage against God. It's over. After millions of years, it's over. No more to look forward to except an eternity of darkness, powerlessness. Don't you think, knowing this, that he will pull out all stops? Don't you think he will drop some of his pretense and go all out against God? The religion he inspires through the false prophet and beast may be far more anti-God than anything we have ever seen including the worst religions ever on earth.
Now, while the false religions of this world are not the true religion, and while they are somewhat anti-God in various ways, they are not totally against God. They are a mixture of truth and error. And even atheists are anti-God in the sense that they claim He doesn't exist, but they don't totally and consciously hate Him.
I remember Mr. Armstrong saying, in reference I think to the scripture that says the carnal mind is enmity towards God (Romans 8:7), that the average person has a kind of passive hostility towards God and His law, not actively hating God, but just not wanting to have anything to do with God.
But that is not how Satan thinks. I think Satan hates God with all his being. I think Satan accuses God of being unfair towards him. I think Satan blames God for all the misery that has come upon Satan and will come upon him. I think Satan fervently longs for some kind of revenge against God and humanity. And I think Satan will go all out to turn humanity against God as never before.
If you think false religion or atheism is bad today, just wait and see what is coming.
That is how the world can "fall away". Right now, the average person has a passive indifference towards God and simply wants God to leave him alone (except when in trouble, then he begs God to save him, as in "no atheists in a foxhole"). At the same time, some people try, in their own human way, to live up to some kind of standards, though those standards vary from person to person. Some believe in God. Satan and the great false religion to come will turn mankind against God's and God's ways as never before.
The bottom line is that a falling away is a change from a previous condition to a lower or worse condition, and that can certainly happen with mankind's attitude towards God when Satan goes all out.
Will Church of God members be in danger of being deceived also? Absolutely YES, if we are not diligent to be close to God. The idea that the whole world will fall away, farther from God than ever before, by no means waters down the warning for the Church. The future falling away can include the whole world and can include any of the Church of God members who have allowed themselves to drift from God and get caught up in that deception.
And there can be a duality involved with Thessalonians 2:3 so that it also applies to any past or future falling away in the Church of God, though its final and most intense fulfillment may be with the world when the beast and false prophet do their work of deception.