If you are a member of the Church of God, and by that I mean, if you are converted and have the Holy Spirit dwelling in your mind, what is your identity in terms of Church of God affiliation? Whom do you identify with? David Hulme? Jesus Christ?
When a speaker says, "Church of God", do you think of the whole Church of God, all its scattered fellowships and members included, or do you think of the particular fellowship you attend?
If you are a member of Church of God, an International Community (COGaic), led by Mr. David Hulme, and at services someone tells you, "so-and-so left the Church", do you think, that person left COGaic, or do you think, that person left God's Church entirely, going back to the world, not keeping the Sabbath anymore, not believing in the truth anymore? Or if a minister in a sermon says, "don't leave the Church", do you think he is primarily talking about the particular fellowship that employs him or the whole Church of God, going back into the world, in other words? If a member leaves your fellowship to attend another fellowship, do you think of him as leaving the Church of God?
What is your identity? With whom do you identify?
Some groups and some leaders try to build your primary identity with that leader and that group. They want you to identify, in your mind, with them personally more than with Christ, with the fellowship they lead more than with the whole Church of God.
Is it because they are more concerned with themselves than with the members? Is it because they want to build the group that feeds them more than the whole body of Christ? Is their primary loyalty to themselves and to men, not to God?
I am not talking about leaders and groups that may occasionally talk about the advantages of the group, the blessings of the group, in an effort to encourage their members to stay. I am not talking about leaders and groups that give true warnings about the dangers of some other leaders and groups that hold and teach false doctrines.
I am talking about leaders and groups that speak and behave as if they are the WHOLE Church of God, and there is no one else. I am talking about speakers about whom you need have no doubt, when they say, "Church of God", or, "the Church", they are NEVER talking about the whole Church of God, but only their particular fellowship. I am talking about leaders who never acknowledge that there are converted Christians in other fellowships that are part of the body of Christ.
Is this unbiblical? You bet it is!
"For when one says, 'I am of Paul,' and another, 'I am of Apollos,' are you not carnal? Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase" (1 Corinthians 3:5-7).
Our primary identity should be with Jesus Christ and God the Father. And when we think of ourselves as members of "the Church", we should primarily think of ourselves as members of the whole Church of God, the entire body of Christ made up of everyone having God's Holy Spirit regardless of what fellowship we attend, and we should not primarily think of ourselves as members of one particular fellowship as organized and led by one man.
I hope this principle is easy to understand and accept for most members.
Yet some leaders may teach and promote primary identification with themselves and the organization they lead rather than with the whole Church of God.
I call this "identity heresy".
To me, "heresy" is a strong word. I do not use it for minor errors in doctrine. But I think this error is so serious that the word heresy should apply.
There are signs that a Church of God leader may be teaching this kind of wrong identity.
Refusal to perform marriage ceremonies of members of that fellowship with members of another fellowship can be a sign. If a member of Church of God, an International Community (COGaic) wants to marry a member of another fellowship, such as Living Church of God (LCG), and the COGaic minister cannot perform the marriage ceremony because Mr. Hulme forbids him, but for no other reason than that one marriage partner is in a different fellowship, this would be a strong indication of the kind of problem I am talking about. It sends a wrong message, perhaps the message that marriage between Church of God members of different fellowships is somehow tainted, unclean, polluted, defiled, not blessed in God's sight. It sends a message that such newlyweds should feel guilty for getting married. I consider this to be heresy.
God's instructions for marriage are clear. Church members are to marry, "in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 7:39). We are not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14). But there is no prohibition in the Bible against marrying outside of one's organized fellowship or congregation. Unless, that is, an "unbeliever" is considered to be one who is in another fellowship because he does not believe in the leadership of David Hulme, or whoever the leader is who discourages such marriage. There would have been no prohibition against a member in one of Paul's congregations marrying a member in one of Peter's congregations (Galatians 2:6-10).
In 2 Corinthians 6:14, an "unbeliever" is one who does not believe in the gospel, in God's truth, in God's way of life, and in God the Father and Jesus Christ. But if a particular leader thinks "unbeliever" is someone who does not believe in his leadership, he is raising himself to an importance God does not give him. That this is a serious error is evident - thus I call this problem "heresy".
It is also a hardship for young people in the Church of God seeking a mate. Even the whole Church of God is a small community in which to find a compatible mate. How much more one small fellowship within the whole Church? If a member desires or needs a mate, should he or she feel pressured to remain single or to marry one he or she is less compatible with just to please the unbiblical position of a human leader?
It may also be hypocrisy for a leader, who is blessed with a wife he met at Ambassador College, to demand such a sacrifice he himself was never required to make. Christ had harsh words for the Pharisees, who "bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers" (Matthew 23:4).
Not all ministers and Church of God leaders found wives at Ambassador College, but many did, especially the older ministers, and most of the leaders are older. Ambassador College, when you might have about 200 men and 200 women at a single campus, was a blessing in that regard. It was in some respects an ideal situation for finding a compatible mate. Few Church of God congregations have anywhere near even a hundred singles eligible for marriage, and some fellowships do not either. And to meet even that many, one might have to journey from one end of the country to another, attending every social, visiting congregations on the Sabbath at every opportunity, etc. Ambassador College made it easier. How much harder it can be to try to find a mate within a small fellowship.
Another sign of identity heresy is discouraging members from visiting other Church of God fellowships on the Sabbath, or discouraging members from reading the literature of other COG fellowships. And another sign is the teaching that God only works through one man at a time, which I have, in other posts in this blog, shown from the Bible is false. The Bible has several examples of God working through more than one man at a time.
I once heard a minister in a fellowship that had all these signs of identity heresy give a sermon and say to his audience that if any of them even thinks God may work through more than one man at a time, he is causing division. I say that the speaker was promoting division in the body of Christ by saying that, and I think the Bible backs me up.
Another sign is speaking and acting as if no other Church of God fellowship exists, that the fellowship the leader supervises is the only fellowship in the Church of God.
I am happy to observe that Church of God, a Family Community (COGFC) does not seem to have this problem. From what I have heard in their sermons, there is a consciousness, an awareness, that the Church of God is more than one organization. They seem to understand that Church members are scattered and they seem to take seriously their obligation to seek out and help and serve the whole scattered Church as God gives them opportunity. And they seem to understand and teach that our identity should be tied to God the Father and Jesus Christ, not just one fellowship and one human leader.
I also notice that they are giving online Bible studies every Friday night and online Sabbath services every Sabbath for any member who has Internet or a phone. You do not have to be a member of their fellowship to listen in and receive spiritual instruction. In that sense, they are willing and able to feed the scattered flock that the Church has become.
Of course, many Church of God fellowships post sermon recordings and many books and articles in their websites. Church of the Great God publishes its sermons, Living Church of God does also, and United Church of God posts many sermons even by area and congregation (COGaic does not even do this, by the way, as far as I know, at least in a form accessible to everyone). I am sure there are other such organizations, and I am not trying to leave anyone out, but these are some of the biggest groups I know of that publish their sermons for all to hear.
But not as many give live, real-time access to their services, as COGFC does. I have used their website to view and listen to their services real-time, running the executable program that shows their services, and it works fairly well. I find it surprisingly simple and easy to use.
This may be a benefit for many scattered members who are not able to attend services in person with any other group. Some of their sermons are very good. Some of their sermons teach the importance of preaching the gospel to the world, the importance of the doctrine of the identity of Israel, and other important topics. I only hope they follow through with their plans to preach the gospel to the world, the sooner the better.
Here are links to related chapters or sections in Preaching the Gospel:
Church Government, Chapter 7