Few things have impacted the Church of God as did the Unique Experiences which developed in the latter half of the Twentieth Century. The Value of those Experiences can VARY widely, depending on How they are Perceived.
© Rich Traver 81520-1411 5 – 24 – 12 [ 208 ] www.goldensheaves.org
For the eighteen centuries between the end of the Apostolic Age and the Modern Era, the Church of God existed under rather humble circumstances. Well after its founding years, most congregations remained small and scattered. There was no major organizational entity, at least none visible, for a number of reasons: Persecution being one that inescapably comes to mind. Congregations were often known to have assembled in homes of the believers, not in buildings dedicated to assembly.
When we understand the complex and dangerous religio-political conditions that dominated the first, second and third centuries, we can appreciate why it was important for the Church to maintain a rather low profile. The Roman Empire required the worship of its Emperor. While the Jewish religion was tolerated and to some degree exempted from this pagan demand, the Jews in time proved no real friend to early Christianity. Judaism may have provided some degree of ‘sanctuary’ for the early Church from their Roman oppressors, but as time progressed, the schism with them widened.
The decades following the deaths of the original Apostles were not particularly kind to the Church. Heresies grew and religious rivalries began to take form, some based on doctrinal divergences with even more based on carnal desires for power and prestige. We see this phenomenon affecting even a local congregation, exhibiting the Diotrephesian effect, where even the beloved Elder and Apostle John was excluded from having contact with believers in the congregation under his control.
Political Acceptance and Apostasy
By the early fourth century, we see evidence of a certain amount of regional organization, but by that time much had changed doctrinally. In fact, it was doctrinal disputes that provided reason for the early councils,first called by the unconverted (and as yet un-baptized) Emperor Constantine. His ultimate quest was for religious unity to bolster the political unity within his Empire, not any real interest in doctrinal accuracy per se. At this time, bishops dominated certain regions, but were not politically subservient to any central or controlling authority.
That was to change!
But, where was the Church theologically during those intervening two centuries? The pages of scripture attest to heresies that crept in from time to time. Some heresies were countered, at least in writing, but history shows that much was retained to undermine the defenders of the Truth, and the more so as time passed.
With the acceptance of “Christianity” within the Empire in the early fourth century, a political structure developed, not one conceived, recognized or authorized by the original Apostles, but one patterned after the Roman political structure, in other places referred to as ‘the beast’! (Rev. 13:14)
What congregations there were that remained faithful to the Truth of God, as found in the Pure Word, were continually challenged, ever the target of Satan and his spiritual forces and his human agents. (Rev. 12:) Through the next 1260 years, the True Church existed in ‘wilderness conditions’, unorganized, never prominent, never influential.
Conditions became so bad, that by the time of the Inquisitions, it was a serious capital offense to even possess a copy of scriptures. Thus, much had to be committed to memory, and not to writing. To be regarded as a minister, of anything but the ‘official church’ (by this time theologically corrupted beyond hope), and to disagree with its dogma or authority could warrant torture and a painful death.
What congregations there were, were of necessity small and hidden and are relatively obscure even in the pages of history. Truth was spread by direct personal witness, not public proclamation! 1 Thus, what Truth there was, remained hidden, and was spread covertly. There certainly could’ve been no organized structure in the true Church during the ‘dark ages’. Persecutions guaranteed that!
Where these considerations are relevant, is the idea that the Church of God was organized and was administered by a structured hierarchy of men at any point in time. That issue came to the fore in recent decades. It definitely was not the case historically. It couldn’t have been the case, not under the degree of extreme persecutions that the True servants of God had to endure through so many generations. Any such structure that there was, existed within the apostate establishment, not the Church of God. History shows that such organization functioned more to suppress truth and enforce error: Little changed in its late-era manifestation. Reference to any such structure had to be of that apostate entity, as it alone had a historic legacy.
The Light Re-emerges
After the 1260 years, conditions began changing, and quite dramatically. The printing of and legal dissemination of Scriptures opened a whole new world of enlightenment and reformations, though under much of the residual darkness and theological biases that had dominated previous centuries. Only gradually did the original truths re-emerge to become better understood. It took generations for the basic Truths of the Law, the Sabbaths, the Resurrections, the Nature of God, the illustration of prophecy within Biblical Holy-days and the Millennial Kingdom on earth to be restored among God’s people. And, it didn’t come all that easily!
For the next few generations, the Church of God continued, small and isolated. Poor travel and communication options dictated as much. But as civilization progressed, the world became smaller in a sense, making it possible to interact with others of like belief to a far greater degree than ever before.
This was the Church of God, as we would have found it in the two or three centuries before our parent’s generation. Mostly small local congregations, generally isolated from one another, each having varying degrees of understanding of the basic Truths of the Word. Though free at last, to function without severe persecutions, there was no common standard of beliefs by which to evaluate where each stood, nor was there any general oversight among and between congregations.
Enter General Conferences
With new forms of communication and easier travel, it became easier for widely spread congregations to associate with each other. General Conferences were formed with intent to enhance the ability of these congregations to collectively ‘do the work’ of evangelizing the world more widely and more effectively.
It was into this relatively new culture that a man with certain talents was ‘called’ from his worldly orientation to be used in a prominent way. We are ever blessed for the experiences resulting from that calling, though not all of us have correctly appreciated what it was we should have gained from it.
As the final generation of the peoples of God came to be, the Church as it then existed was still scattered, somewhat diverse in its understandings and subject to incessant ‘splits’. (And, where have we seen those lately?)
Events of the early 1930’s saw the separation of one man out from one of the General Conferences: This to pursue certain understandings that were largely spurned by the consensus type church administrations of that era. His ministry became a movement that eventually drew thousands into a renewed understanding of many Biblical Truths lost in preceding generations. The Churches of God that had existed previously had embraced the general malaise of their protestantish counterparts.
It was at this point that God intervened to refresh and reinvigorate His Church. He opened the mind of one man to many dormant points of Truth long lost to modern believers. Much of the Word had been rendered confusing and profoundly obscure under the narrow theological positions of the world’s religions of the day. Few truly understood the importance of the Law, not as the means for salvation, but as the logical response to graciously having been given it. Heaven is not the eternal repose of the dead, multiple resurrections have a vital place in God’s Plan for humanity, and we are to become Spirit-Born members of the ruling Family of God here on earth in the Millennial Age.
To many believers, these old Truths were NEW!
God raised up a WORK within His overall Church that re-introduced many essential Truths. Those Truths had a great relevance in preparing the Bride for her impending involvement.
A Multi-Level Education
Though refreshed with ‘new’ understandings of old dormant Truths, there were other ‘lessons’ contained within the experiences that were not adequately understood by the majority. The Church learned that it did not need to be weak and despised, at least not for its poor and scattered state. A degree of unity could elevate its overall presentation into something quite respectable. Witness the campuses and the educated, ‘cultured’ ministry. (Not that all were exemplary.) Scholarship flourished for a time, publications gained respect and presented ‘the Truth’ plainly to millions, whether they responded to it or not. At least that all-important seed was planted. (Mk. 4:3-9 & 13-20)
But with ‘respectability’ came other phenomena. In time, the organization itself became the primary focal entity, and the real purpose of its educational effort was to some extent obscured! It was posed in later years that ‘the Church’ was just this one organizational entity. The idea gained acceptance that there were no other true churches or true members of the Church outside of this one ‘Work’.
Also, the idea began to gain acceptance within the minds of those being educated, that ‘to leave this one organization was to forfeit ones’ salvation’. In spite of the history, even that of its founder, of stepping out from under the control of boards and councils that dictated understandings and practices, for anyone further to consider that option, was declared spiritually lethal. Under that premise, a new degree of control overcame the membership.
Now, this reasoning may have had a certain benefit during our early educational years, but perpetuating it thru ones’ entire lifetime effectively put a cap on personal development. The mindset dictated that sheep must always remain obedient (subservient) as sheep. Decades upon decades of ‘training’ were considered the ultimate objective. Actual use of such training wasn’t a real consideration. So in this way, though the ‘training’ of God’s People may have prepared them for carrying out God’s Great Commission, any inclination to use that training, together with any Talent God might have awarded the individual member, created a negative reaction against that individual by the ‘sanctioned’ ministry.
God saw all this. Was it really what He wanted?
The Central Treasury
Even at the late date of the 1940’s there was no idea of a central treasury, a development having a profound impact on the conduct of internal Church affairs, making greater degrees of control possible through financial constraints. The early Church knew of no such arrangement – nor did the Church through the Dark Ages. That never prevented the preaching of the Gospel. In fact, it was the central treasury and considerations with regard to having one that brought the Church full circle with respect to its organizational model. That story is as insightful as it is profound.
(Known to many is the fact that having a central treasury opens the possibility for fiscal corruption, but that’s a story for another time.)
In the early years, the Church of God was adamant that the early New Testament Church had no preeminent leadership structure. It was affirmed that Peter was not the first pope, and that the hierarchical structure of the ‘universal church’ was a far cry from how the Church thru the ages was structured. As early as 1939 such affirmation was published. As late as 1973 such affirmation was preached.
Integrity through Authority
But as the organization gained momentum, and as internal controls began to be challenged, the need was seen for a mechanism to maintain tight control on all decision making, policy and administration. Despite the previous affirmation, a drift toward a hierarchal structure gained acceptance, especially among those ‘highly placed’. We can argue that it was what God wanted, in order to preserve the integrity of the organization. At least that was the justification. Authority was seen as a means to counter internal schisms. Commendable intentions, on the surface at least. Did it work?
The Nicolaitan Effect
While men covet power and control, it actually exhibits a lack of faith to not leave certain developments in God’s hands. Attempting to ‘shore up’ against divisive forces from without, and especially those from within, what was intended to help preserve the organization actually helped facilitate its demise. History now shows that!
By embracing that very political structure that we originally held in contempt, (rightfully so!) one which Christ specifically said that He hates, we set ourselves up for that thing we were attempting to forestall! You see, that structure, after just a few years, provided the means of imposing a wholesale repudiation of Truth upon the Church. What happened could not have happened without that ‘over-lording’ structure. The people of God were allowed no say. The pillars and grounds of the Truth(1st Tim. 3:15)were effectively neutralized from their God ordained function. Those who resisted the imposition were forced to re-organize ‘outside’. (Rev. 3:12) So much for the premise that to leave that organization was tantamount to forfeiting ones’ salvation! Salvation is not a function of organizational loyalty. Love of the Truth and the indwelling of God’s Spirit is the effective determination. We should have known that all along!
What Does God Want?
Our question is, did God disapprove of what was being developed, or did He use that to further His ultimate intent? Is the situation we see developing even yet in the Church in accord with God’s Will or is it in defiance of it?
What is that ‘situation’? We see the incessant splitting of our organizations into smaller and smaller entities, not unlike our original state in the 1930’s and before. Is this what God wants? If not, how is it that He is unable to counter it? We need to consider that this IS what God intends.
While the scattered and underdeveloped brethren of the 1940’s were holding onto what they still had, (as Revelation 3:3-4 admonishes), God called together those who could hear what the Spirit says unto the Churches. They were reintroduced to many fading Truths, and the congregations overall were refreshed to a major degree. This was the Worldwide experience. A faithful few were called together into one particular educational forum to be better educated in God’s Way. It was never His intent that we remain closeted in that educational environment forever without being sent back out into the world, as His Great Commission commands.
Being that the educational institution turned inward into itself, seeking absolute control and suppression of any Talents God might choose to award, He allowed us to embrace that perverse structure that would assure our self-dissolution. It was not God’s intent that we cloister ourselves into one exclusive organization. The mindset that developed and the political orientation we took on was not what God wanted. All too many seek to replicate that system when they ‘reorganize’, as though it was a God ordained standard of righteousness. Where ever that system is repeated, God will see to it that it divides them further. He wants His people to be free to employ those Talents as He awards them, not for them to be continually stifled. As things have developed, many have been placed into situations where they are called upon to ‘step up to the plate’ and serve in ways they never would’ve considered doing under the late era WCG. This is a positive.
Under a broader view, we were called together to be re-educated. God used one man to re-introduce many to important Truths that were lacking. It was NOT His intent that we form ourselves into an ultra exclusive, walled in fold, but that we spread out into the world to proclaim the Truth in ever expanding venues. We weren’t meant to be held ‘in training’ forever. We were supposed to have graduated at some point. But for them to allow that meant the lessening of control and preeminence (and revenue?) of the august central authority.
Lessons and Counter Lessons
While we were taught many fundamental Truths that we wouldn’t have discerned fully in the Churches of the previous generation, at the same time there were negative lessons that also could not have been gained except thru the experiences we were exposed to. In dabbling with the idea of hierarchical government, we came to see why it is that Christ hates it as He does. (Rev. 2: 6 & 15) Of course, we never defined it as Nicolaitanism, at least, not in the later years.
We now should know the negative effects of that kind of thinking – that form of ‘government’. God does not want that in His Kingdom, and we now can see exactly why. It wouldn’t have been so apparent had someone only explained it to us. Experience in this case was an essential reinforcer. It elevates a man (or men) to inappropriate positions of esteem that places them between the believer and Christ, competing with our ‘personal relationship’ with Him (a term that was rarely used!). It suppresses the use of Talents that God might place within an individual, inhibiting the growth dynamic and the greater out spreading of the Word.
No, the over-lording of His people is not what Christ wanted in His Church. He wanted us to be re-educated with many of the Truths that were fading in this end-time, and for us to eventually filter back into the various venues where we could re-establish those Truths among others.
Doing Great Exploits
As we see in places like Daniel 11:32-35, members will be provided opportunity to witness and teach in powerful ways. Not thru a structured ministry, not by a tightly controlled ministry acting on their behalf, but one-on-one in direct personal situations. Some of understanding will be physically abused, murdered even, to refine them further and enhance their stature in the Family of God. These are not the weak (v. 32) but are those ‘who know their God’, who shall arise in strength! Even those who might seem the more ineffective will be used by God to prophesy in surprising ways. (Acts 2:17-21 quoting Joel 2:28-32) This is the legacy of that re-educational experience we were provided under the WWCoG of the 1950’s to 1980’s.
Some yet have failed to see what God intended by all this, due to a blindness resulting from what we knew as ‘the Government issue’. Many are still locked in their perceptual envelope, thinking that “it’s all about Government”. Well, in a way, it is, but it’s a matter of whose government. We substituted a man made institution for our personal and direct obligation to obey God and not men. We are to follow men only as they follow Christ. Early on, we were told that, but in time things changed.
“Government” made a Primary Doctrine!
Where, in the early years, we were told that there was no hierarchical structure in the early Church, that such an idea was anathema, later that was dramatically revised to allege that “its all about government”, meaning the top down authority of the ministry within the Church. We were assured that “God always works thru just one man”. The idea that Peter was indeed the Chief Apostle was used to justify the absolute supremacy of our modern day apostle. Toward the end, it was even declared that “the only thing the Catholic Church has right is government”! 2 Full circle, or what?
While we were exposed to many positive lessons, we also were given negative lessons as well. There are things God wants us to learn that we could not have learned in any other way. The problem is, we still have members who haven’t yet realized what all of that was for. They are locked into this aberrant reasoning, thinking they are obligated to replicate that form of government within their Church where ever they re-form organizationally.
If in fact it ISN’T what God wants, will we then see any replica of that governmental structure being broken up by Him? That seems to be the pattern. We are seeing splits upon splits. Every few years, schisms develop, breaking our congregations down into smaller and smaller groups.
God called us together into an exclusive group, for a time, in order to re-educate us to some essential Truths. It was NOT His intent that we be kept subjugated within that one group, especially as it hardened into an over-controlling environment of suppression of God-given Talents. It was His intent that we ‘graduate’ from that college and employ what He allowed us to understand by His Spirit working within us. That’s what it all was for!
1 Do we see the important reason for the Great Commission being worded as it is? Going into all the world as a witness was to be the primary means of spreading the Gospel for some sixteen centuries. Little else would’ve been possible.
2 Though rarely re-mentioned after 1987, Melvin Rhodes, in a general message to all UCG congregations in December of 2010, repeated this perverse statement in a critical context.