Someone emailed me with a question: Why do Christians differ in calculation of appointed times, and how can we know?
I thought my answer to this would make a good post, so here it is.
God gives directions for the appointed times of His Sabbaths and feast days in the Bible, and it is from the Bible that we can know the dates.
The weekly Sabbath day, the seventh day from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset, is easy for anyone who believes the Bible to understand. The weekly cycle has been kept by the Jews, wherever they are in the world, for centuries since the time of Moses until now. There is no serious disagreement about when the seventh day is, although most traditional churches prefer to observe Sunday.
God uses the seventh-day Sabbath day to test those who want to live by every word of God, as Jesus said (Matthew 4:4). You don't need a church organization to know when the seventh day is.
But the annual holy days are more complicated. God gives instructions in the Bible that tell us when these days occur, but you have to put scriptural passages together from different places in the Bible to understand them properly. And sometimes, a judgment is required to make a decision God has given leaders in the Church the authority to make.
Part of the problem is that the annual days - Passover, Days of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, Trumpets, Atonement, the Feast of Tabernacles, and the Last Great Day - all depend, directly or indirectly, on a calendar.
But God does not give an exact calendar in the Bible.
Most, not all, disagreements among those calling themselves "Church of God" about when these days occur involve disagreements about what calendar to follow.
But God gave authority for deciding these issues to the leaders He has appointed. God's leaders do not have the authority to contradict or disobey the Bible. But they have the authority to make judgment calls to decide details that are not spelled out in the Bible.
In the Old Testament, God gave this authority for Israel to the Levitical priesthood. "If a matter arises which is too hard for you to judge, between degrees of guilt for bloodshed, between one judgment or another, or between one punishment or another, matters of controversy within your gates, then you shall arise and go up to the place which the Lord your God chooses. And you shall come to the priests, the Levites, and to the judge there in those days, and inquire of them; they shall pronounce upon you the sentence of judgment. You shall do according to the sentence which they pronounce upon you in that place which the Lord chooses. And you shall be careful to do according to all that they order you. According to the sentence of the law in which they instruct you, according to the judgment which they tell you, you shall do; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left from the sentence which they pronounce upon you. Now the man who acts presumptuously and will not heed the priest who stands to minister there before the Lord your God, or the judge, that man shall die. So you shall put away the evil from Israel. And all the people shall hear and fear, and no longer act presumptuously" (Deuteronomy 17:8-13).
In the New Testament, for the Church of God, God gave this authority to the apostles and the ministry in the Church. "And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 16:19).
This is good, because it is a way God can test our willingness to submit to the leadership of those He has placed in authority over us. "Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you" (Hebrews 13:17). "Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct" (Hebrews 13:7).
This authority that God gives to the leaders He appoints is for the purpose of maintaining unity and enabling the Church to work together as a team. It is necessary that we learn this lesson because unified teamwork is the pattern of how we will function in the millennium and for eternity in the Kingdom of God.
"And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head - Christ - from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love" (Ephesians 4:11-16).
So, difficult questions about the exact timing of the calendar and annual holy days and festivals are decided by the leadership and ministry in the Church of God.
So, as God tests each Christian with the weekly Sabbath day to know if that person will obey God directly when God's word, the Bible, is simple and easy to understand, so God can use the calendar and annual holy days and feast days to test each person to know if they will submit to the judgment of the Church of God leadership and ministry as He instructs in matters that may not be simple and clear from the Bible and easy to understand.
Now for some history of this issue in the Church of God in modern times.
When Herbert W. Armstrong was first converted, he had to be willing to obey God by keeping the seventh day Sabbath. It was a hard test for him, but he finally obeyed God. He also learned at that time from the Bible that Christians are also to keep the annual holy days and feasts of God.
He began to fellowship with the Church of God Seventh Day. They knew about and kept the seventh day Sabbath. But they did not observe the annual holy days and festivals. So Mr. Armstrong and his family had to observe the annual days alone.
In the matter of the calendar, Mr. Armstrong recognized that God committed the "oracles of God" (which would include the calendar issues) to the Jews (Romans 3:1-2), and also, this was the calendar in effect when Jesus Christ, our perfect example, kept these days. So Mr. Armstrong made the judgment to follow the Hebrew calendar.
Mr. Armstrong eventually left most fellowship with the Church of God Seventh Day when he raised up the Radio Church of God, later renamed Worldwide Church of God. As this Church grew and the work of God expanded, and as God revealed to Mr. Armstrong more and more new doctrinal knowledge from the Bible, Mr. Armstrong and the Worldwide Church of God recognized that God was using Mr. Armstrong as an apostle.
As I understand it, during all this time, Mr. Armstrong, as Pastor General of Worldwide, taught the Church to observe the Hebrew calendar. This was in line with the authority God gave to the apostles and the ministry to make binding decisions (Matthew 16:19).
That did not eliminate every controversy regarding the holy days and festivals, because a few issues remain even when we agree on a calendar. But at least the calendar was a base upon which most observance of annual days can be based from clear Bible instruction.
Can men, ministers, and even apostles make mistakes? Yes. For years, Mr. Armstrong thought Pentecost was on a Monday, and the Church thus observed it. But that was an error due to a misunderstanding of scripture. Later, Mr. Armstrong corrected his mistake and taught that Pentecost is on a Sunday, which is correct.
That raises a question. What should a Church member have done during the time when Mr. Armstrong was teaching a Monday Pentecost if that member could see in the Bible that this was a mistake and it should be Sunday? Should the member obey Mr. Armstrong and keep it on Monday or obey God and keep it on Sunday?
I believe the correct answer is, both. And I think some did exactly that. There is no reason for division here.
Such a member could obey God by quietly resting and reading the Bible on Pentecost Sunday to obey God, without making an issue of it with the Church or discussing it with other members, and also resting and attending Church services on Monday with the rest of the Church. That would be obeying God, obeying the ministry, and avoiding division.
After the death of Mr. Armstrong, his successor, Mr. Tkach, began changing doctrine and Worldwide split up into a number of fellowships, each with a different leader or form of governance. I think God allowed this because we, as a Church, had become Laodicean, lukewarm, and it served God's purpose to let the Church become scattered to test us and try us and teach us lessons.
"I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth" (Revelation 3:15-16).
This left members to turn to God, turn to the Bible, and really study the issue of where to attend and who to support. I think members with spiritual discernment understand the need to attend with and support an organization that is governed from the top down and is actively doing God's work of preaching the gospel to the world.
Even so, the vast majority of members and major fellowships continued in the traditions and judgments of Mr. Armstrong regarding the calendar and holy days. This includes Living Church of God, United Church of God, and most or all of the other large organizations that came out of Worldwide. Only some small groups reject Mr. Armstrong's judgment in these matters.
I have studied these issues myself to a certain degree, and as far as I can tell, Mr. Armstrong was completely correct in the calendar and holy days once he corrected his Pentecost error.
Why do some groups do things differently?
I cannot judge if their leaders are sincere. I cannot read minds. If a man is not sincere, he may make an issue of the calendar or holy days just to create a following. Or, if he is sincere but is not whole-heartedly following God and the Bible, God may have removed from that man the spiritual discernment to realize his error.
Of all the fellowships, I think Living Church of God is doing the best job of being faithful to God's instructions in the Bible including the annual holy days and festivals. They follow the same schedule Mr. Armstrong followed and taught, and I follow the same.
Why is there this division in the whole Church of God?
God allows it to test us, to force us to dig into the Bible, to be zealous, to search out where He is working, and to test our obedience both to His word, the Bible, and to His appointed ministry.