The Scope of Church Doctrine and Our Focus on Biblical Topics has become Confined to a rather Narrowed Range. We’ve become particularly concerned with Limiting Ourselves to ‘just the Basics’. But, Is there a Significant Deficiency carried in that Approach that our Eminent Ministry has Overlooked?
The world of today, and particularly its politically ‘green’ element, has become famous for what has become referred to as its ‘treehuggers’. That faction in our society that are especially concerned with ‘environmental issues’ is often represented by that somewhat derogatory term by those less concerned with such matters. At least of these, we don’t see them doing damage to the tree itself.
But within the Church of God, in the modern era, we see a similar term in frequent use: often called ‘the trunk of the tree’, a term that generally defines a limited number of fundamentally basic doctrines. Under the oft-repeated catch phrase of ‘sticking to the trunk of the tree’, we see many side issues left unexplored or unmentioned, they being relegated to a informational limbo under the consignment of being ‘twigs’, rendering them insufficiently important for consideration.
I suppose it was back in the late 1960’s or early ‘70’s when a resurgence of ‘scholarship’ surfaced in the Church. People who were AC trained were actually beginning to apply that training! Quite a number of individuals authored and presented study papers and even books, broadening the envelope of doctrinal considerations. Some even threw ‘new light’ on doctrines we taught, many supportive, while others posed challenges to long held views.
It was out of that environment that the catch phrase came to the fore, that discouraged getting too far out into undefined or undefinable territory. (At least, undefinable as it would involve the general membership.) We were encouraged to ‘stick to the trunk of the tree’, discouraging forays into any wider field of knowledge.
Where perhaps we failed, by adopting this response to informational challenges, was that we didn’t also with it address the informational needs raised by such broader fields of study. While protecting the general membership from questions they themselves might not have been well equipped to take on personally, those who did have capability were discouraged from addressing them as well. Likely, on account of the leader being disinclined to take them on, his lessers-in-office felt obligated to follow suit. If they did study into anything, it wasn’t made public, and those few who did and who let it be known were officially discouraged.
While the general intent of ‘the policy’ might have been commendable, its long-term effect was not. We should consider the reasons why.
The Church of God has in recent times been polluted by heretical ideas. We’ve had our early vs late Passover advocates, our Calendar disputers, and our “One God” position holders who advocate a range of positions, even to the extreme of alleging that Christ never had any conscious existence prior to His conception and was not God! We even tolerated it back when we had ‘closet Trinitarians’!
The problem is, as a result of this ‘basics only’ approach, we set ourselves up for other problems. While seemingly ridding ourselves of all ‘irritants’ (challengers to our basic positions (or our lack of positions)) by suppression or expulsion, we at the same time built into our culture a tendency to shy away from investigative and effective Bible Study. Anyone concerned with ‘growing in grace and knowledge’, and actually doing so, became viewed with suspicion. The consensus was, we really need not do that! Staying with just the ‘trunk of the tree’ is held as a thoroughly adequate course!
Anyone studying on their own (whether minister or member) came ‘under watch’ at least, sometimes placed on the periphery with respect to service or acknowledgement. The Church thereby rendered itself functionally inept at gaining in understanding and in knowing how to address the informational needs of the time. “Questions”, whether valid or irrelevant, were dismissed by representing them as being ‘only twigs’! It made life easier for those with positions of responsibility, but it left the Church bereft of real scholarship, and inadequate to its full task of “preparing a people”, the second aspect of the Great Commission, something also presented in its organizational statements.
Going Out on a Limb
There were multiple reasons for this: One, the possibility of a person going off base with regard to doctrinal accuracy, and the other of possibly exposing the inadequate doctrinal understanding level of the leadership, local or otherwise. Neither had pretty results! Two and more decades ago, an effective ‘doctrinal glass ceiling’ was set under the leader of the time. No elder dared produce any independent study materials that exceeded the Church’s official positions, (even if supportive) and certainly none dared ever to publish anything on his own outside of official church sanction, which apparently was rarely if ever considered! Why should they? No one would have dared publish anything that exceeded the understanding level of the eminent leader (or leaders) lest it cast dispersions upon his (their) primacy. Following those political efforts to discourage any private publication of even a benign book such as a Harmony of the Gospels, 1 was as amusing as it was counter-productive and despicable.
To counter a person going ‘off base’, we pose the premise that ‘iron sharpens iron’, but then we see that, in actual practice, being strongly discouraged! One should never be allowed to even unsheathe his sword! We don’t provide the environment where a person actually can ‘sharpen’ his awareness and lift our collective understanding level.We are told, we must confine our peripheral view to just ‘the trunk of the tree’!
An Unhealthy Tree at That!
Anyone who knows about trees knows that to trim a tree back to its main stem, just its trunk, and keep it that way, would kill the tree! In the early 1970’s a plague of gypsy moths ravaged oak trees in New England. By late June, the woods looked like early April, with the fully stripped trees struggling to send out another set of leaves. It was said that three years in a row of that would kill the trees. Thankfully, by the third year, the plague faded. The high population density of gypsy caterpillars caused a virus that killed off most new hatches.
But the point is, a tree stripped of all its leaves repeatedly will die! No less a tree stripped of its ‘twigs’ continually, let alone its branches. Cut back to just a trunk, and kept that way, how long would a tree be expected to live? Under our well-intentioned restrictions of what can be allowed to sprout on our tree, we risk producing a tall stately but rather dead stump! Roots pushing up sustenance but with nowhere to go by way of foliage! Perhaps we have our “Daniel” who will put a band around what remains of our tree 2 until better stewards come along, but don’t hold your breath!
Under the guise of dismissing off-hand what are labeled as just ‘vain babblings’ directed toward those who study and think and ask questions, our ministry (at least those with scholarly talents) take cover from having to do the brain work needed to address these important issues, which when left in unanswered condition, continue to erode the confidence base of the Church in its positions.
How many have been taken out by New Moons? How many have become strained in fellowship by Sacred Names? How many doubt the Divinity of the Son of God under Jewish “Unitarian” concepts that go unchallenged? How many of our genre think the original Passover in Egypt was killed late in the afternoon of the fourteenth rather than earlier, just after sunset? How many doubt the three resurrections? Our greater fellowship sphere continues to erode from lack of clear and decisive scholarship. These issues aren’t unexplainable. We need scholarly leadership that will vigorously man the walls and stand in the gaps when and where needed. Ducking behind the stately but branchless ‘tree-trunk’ is the easier approach, but doesn’t meet the minimal requirement of stewardship!
Who IS the Church?
That perceptual approach of years ago also helped define for us what “The Church” was in subtle ways we didn’t notice at the time.
The question should be, are we the Church or is its organization the Church? Do we ‘belong to’ the Church or does the Organization carry the Church’s mandate to identify and carry out our Commission in an orderly, unified and effective manner? IF the Organization were to under-excel in its effectiveness, should the membership then press for the replacement of its officers? Should the Church (the membership) act if the Organization should erect a ‘tree’ not in strict accord with clear Scripture? (Subtly modifying doctrines as did the WCG?)
Allowing God’s Spirit
I expect we can determine where people stand on that question by whether the Organization can expel members out of what they regard as their Church or whether the membership (who have God’s Spirit) can collectively influence what’s done officially by its Organization. That issue was the essence of the problem under the WCG, and that organization later became the ultimate casualty, though the membership certainly suffered loss. Apostasy has its many forms and its varied consequences!
How much branch infrastructure have we lopped off our tree? How tightly do we embrace the trunk that’s left? Is there room for branches and twigs and leaves, or are we re-growth obstructionists? Are there sufficient leaves to process sunlight and allow photosynthesis, or might we expect the trunk to become increasingly dependent on only its internal sap reserves to remain alive, tho’ only temporarily?
Despite any inerrancy of ‘trunk of the tree’ issues, despite their essential nature, when we boil down our theology to just that, and limit ourselves to just that most of the time, we run the risk of becoming discouragingly boring, theologically stagnant, and a disservice to the Church of God. If God wanted us to limit ourselves to such a narrowly defined theological field, we’d have a much shorter Bible!
I recall the final years of Mr. Armstrong’s ministry, after his eyesight faded to where he could no longer read, he was forced into speaking ‘off the cuff’ and invariably did so based on “the Two Trees”. The ministry reacted with noticeable swoons of how wonderful his sermons were, how ‘needful’ this subject was, as though no one was yet fathoming ‘the way of GIVE and the way of GET’, despite year after year of that recurring theme! I also recall rather distinctly, seeing the teenage children of prominent members rolling their eyes as soon as he’d just begun. They knew well beforehand where he was going and what his message was again going to be. They saw what their parents, peoples of position, seemingly could not! Over-repetition of even the best of information can yield an unconscious degree of contempt for it!
Bland Diets Suppress Appetite!
Fundamental doctrines, if alone and by themselves incessantly, are like meals without seasoning. The Word even discourages such blandness. “Jesus said unto them, Have ye understood all these things? They say unto him, Yea, Lord. Then said he unto them, Therefore every scribe which is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which brings forth out of his treasure things new and old.” (Matthew 13: 51-52) “Old” re-presenting the basics, while with it “new” seasoning the topics with updated understandings, from an ongoing discovery process, not just what was “new” two and more generations ago. When we turn-off the hearers, and when we suppress their questions, and even their answers that may have originated ‘outside of the cloisters’, we do disservice to the fellowship of Faith and risk ‘dulling out’ what should be Berean enthusiasm!
We should actively seek and process Truth lying undiscovered, or left unconsidered due to our reluctance to face challenges posed to us by God’s Spirit. When something is discovered and its applicability is realized, isn’t it our obligation to graft those new realizations into the living tree? Is a rejection of broader understandings a reaction of those who are unskilled in doing such a thing?
1 Fred Coulter’s Harmony of the Gospels, first edition, in 1978, is a case in point. Many ‘higher ups’ in the Church were alarmed with the prospect of such a book and worked to intimidate the author against publication.
2 During Nebuchadnezzar’s seven years of insanity, Daniel preserved his office and dynasty for him. (Daniel chapter 4)