Many of us have come out of the Worldwide Church of God or one of its off-shoots. We learned much truth from them. Unfortunately, we also learned some errors.
One error, I believe, is the practice that places those in the church on two different levels. The common members are treated as being on a low, inferior level—given only a passive role. On the other hand, the “ordained”, ranked by deacons, ministers, pastors, regional pastors, evangelists, etc., is considered to be on a second, and much higher level.
As one minister put it, “You have to follow me because I have a double measure of the Holy Spirit”. (This is not biblical, but it illustrates the attitude.) You may have heard similar examples. This article is not declaring every “ordained person” as “bad” or every “non-ordained” person as “good”. Good things and bad things have been done by both. Each person will be judged by what they say and do and the fruit they produce. The purpose of this article is to see if the Bible clearly teaches a “two-class” system where God works through one class.
We need to ask:
1) How biblical is the two-class system?
2) Are the members, the “sheep”, really inferior?
3) Should the members have more than just a passive role?
We will answer these three questions by looking at 17 Bible examples plus 1 more example from today. Moreover, I hope to show that God puts a lot of responsibility and power into the individual members when they act as a collective body. It seems something special happens when God’s spirit is working collectively in a group of His saints. It is as if the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. As Ecclesiastes 4:12 says: “a three fold cord is not easily broken”. Or, as Proverbs 24:6 says: “In a multitude of counselors is safety.” Also, “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matt 18:20).
A logical place for us to start is the first “ordination” service—when the Levites were put into their priestly positions. For sure the highest hierarchy available at the time would lay hands on the Levites, right? After all, authority comes from the top down, right? After all, the biblical laying on of hands more or less continues into our present day ministers, right? “thou shalt gather the whole assembly of the children of Israel together”...and thou shalt bring the Levites before the Lord, and the children of Israel shall put their hands upon the Levites.”
As one who has witnessed many COG ordinations over the past 35 years, reading Numbers 8 was rather a shock. What a setback for the two-class (and for the hierarchical) system, the first “ordination” seems to have been from the bottom up and not from the “top down”.
These instructions are found in Numbers 35:24-25. Here is a matter of life or death. Yet the people, not the priests, are given the responsibility of deciding the matter between the slayer and the avenger of blood. Surely God would not give something of such importance to those of inferior ability or intelligence.
These instructions are found in Numbers 30:1-8. Surely a daughter (or a wife) making a vow to God is a high spiritual matter. As one steeped for years in the two-class system, I was sure only a priest could annul such a vow. Not so! God gave this responsibility to the father or husband; to one of the “sheep”. Notice furthermore how this ties right in to Paul’s rank or structure in 1 Corinthians 1 (Example #13).
What about members in the New Testament? Let’s notice first Acts 6:1 where we are told the Grecians were murmuring against the Hebrews. In verse 2 we read “the twelve called the multitude of the disciples”. In verse 3 we read “brethren look among you for seven men”. Verse 5 says “and the saying pleased the whole multitude and they chose.....and......” Verse continues “whom they set before the apostles”.
It has always seemed odd to me that of the Churches of God I know, none have the congregation select the deacons, as the Bible example seems to clearly illustrate. (Dave Havir and the Big Sandy church are moving that way.)
Sure, there is a danger that some men may be chosen more for popularity than ability. Has not the WCG past system been even worse? Many deacons were chosen more for their blind loyalty to the two-class system (and thus to the hierarchy) than for their abilities. Overall, I think the congregation would make wise choices. After all, it would be in their own best interest to select the most qualified and the most dedicated!
Another advantage to doing it the Biblical way is that it is only natural to feel an obligation to the person who selects you. It certainly seems to work that way in the business world. I for one have always felt an extra obligation to the person who hired me. If any such obligation or loyalty is just natural, is not it better that it be directed toward the congregation one serves rather than toward a church hierarchy? Unfortunately, it seems a hierarchy whose main goal is control would rather not have the congregation involved in the selection of deacons, or other leaders.
What Is the Purpose of "Ordination"?
In Acts 15:4, Paul and Barnabas were received by the church, and the apostles and elders. Verse 7 says Peter addressed “men and brethren. Verse 12 says “then all the multitude kept silence”. In verse 13 James says “men and brethren”. Verse 22 says “then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church”. The letter they wrote in Verse 23 starts out “The apostles and elders and brethren”. Verses 24-25 then go on to use the words we, us, and to send, indicating the “sheep” were involved in the decision and in the sending. Verse 27 says “we have sent”.
Christ Himself gives us instruction in Matthew 18 of how to handle a brother who has trespassed against us. In verse 17 we are told to first go alone to our brother, next Christ says we go with two or three witnesses, then, if still not settled... we go to the ministry? No! We are instructed to go next to the whole church, to the collective body. “Then if the man who has trespasses refuses to hear the church, then let him be as a heathen man”.
Christ in these very clear instructions does not indicate a two-class system or that the members are inferior. Instead we can see the responsibility and power given here to the collective body.
Example #7: When an elder sins, the matter goes to the congregation, not the ministry
1 Timothy 5:19-20 says “them” (the subject is elders) that sin rebuke before all. How many Churches of God follow this simple and clear instruction? It is interesting to note that Paul followed this instruction in Gal 2:14 when he rebuked Peter before all. We again see the responsibility given to the collective body.
1 Corinthians is addressed to the church at Corinth — to the saints. In chapter 5:4 the collective body is told when “you are gathered together” to put out the fornicator. The point again is the collective body, not the ministry, was given this responsibility.
In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul gives some instruction to the church. Verse 29 says “Let the prophets speak (two or three), and let the others judge”. To make the point again, it is not the elders who are to judge, but the collective body; all of the members.
This is found in 1 Corinthians 6:1-5, “Dare any of you having a matter against another, go to the law and not before the saints?”. Paul does not say go to the ministry. No, he says to go to the saints, the collective body, the “sheep”. He then reinforces his high regard for the members by saying, “the saints shall judge the world”. He reinforces this even further by saying “know you not that we shall judge angels”.
Paul, in 1 Corinthians 14:23 to 33 gives instructions of how local churches are to be conducted. Verse 34 about women keeping silent was quoted many times in Worldwide, but not the preceding verses. Notice whole church in verse 23. This same verse says “and all speak”. Notice verse 26 that says “every one of you”. Notice “if any man speak” in verse 27. Notice verse 31 that says “you may all prophesy one by one”.
Paul’s instruction seems to be that many, if not all, the members should have part in the service. Please read verses 23 to 33 for yourself and notice this does not seem to be the Catholic model of a priest/laity service we have been accustomed to.
I am not sure of all the implications these verses picture. It does appear, however, that the members seem to be given more credit for their studies, and for their input, than has been practiced in our past traditions. If I counted right, these verses indicate eleven to twelve different members taking part in the service. Hopefully, this study will help begin a re-thinking process.
This verse was certainly ignored in the past by those Church of God organizations. While they preached individual salvation and individual relationships with Christ, the actual practice amounted to group salvation. A person was considered “probably saved” if he was a tithe-paying member of the church organization in good standing. Those out of the church organization were considered “probably lost”.
But notice in Philippians 2:12 that there is no intermediary mentioned here. There is no superior human hierarchy mentioned—none! Each of us has to work our own salvation. It is between us and God alone. It is obvious God must be confident each member has the ability, and the responsibility, and the power, to accomplish this on our own (with His help, of course), but without a human intermediary.
Here Paul tells us to be followers of him. Is this verse a contradiction to working out our own salvation? No, because he clearly qualifies our following him, not to do it blindly, not to do it as part of group salvation, not a group blindly following the leader, but only “as he follows Christ”.
This verse also gives some instruction in the proper role of a ministry. Paul is teaching that an elder’s job is to lead, to set an example, not to dictate. (God’s leadership style appears not to be dictatorial, as so many teach, but more of “Leadership by Example”.)
In fact I Cor 11:1 reinforces my very point. Paul did not say: follow me if your local minister agrees, or follow if your church hierarchy agrees. No, the decision to continue following Paul obviously has to be made by each individual member and this personal decision has to be made on a continual basis. Paul evidently had the confidence in, and placed the responsibility squarely on, each member of the congregation.
Does following really mean being ruled over? Some have misused this and similar scriptures to mean a lot more than mere following., They want following to become being ruling over. Is this right?
Let Paul himself answer: Notice verse 1 where the subject is following Paul, as he follows Christ. Lest there be any misunderstanding as to where Paul (or any elder fits in) Paul then goes on to explain in verse 3 God’s rank system, or structure.
Notice Paul starts out verse 3 with the word “but”. Using “but” means verse 3 is a continuation of, and an explanation of what was said before. Paul is pointing out, in effect, lest you misunderstand what “following me” means. “But the head of every man is Christ (not Paul) and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God”. Paul is not in this structure, nor should any other elder thrust himself into it. Could what “following” means be any plainer thanks to Paul’s extra effort to make God’s rank structure perfectly clear?
An incident comes to mind regarding Herbert Armstrong. It happened sometime in the seventies. Garner Ted had been put of the church for some reason. Herbert Armstrong in a sermon thundered to the members a statement “Garner Ted has cut himself off from me, that means he has cut himself off from God!”.
I am ashamed to admit it now, but I sat in the congregation and accepted his statement without questioning or analyzing it. Hopefully all of us have matured beyond this point and would no longer passively accept such statements.
Unfortunately the attitude behind Herbert Armstrong’s statement still exists. It exists in a ministry that puts itself above the members. That attitude is what this article is all about.
One other point should be noted regarding a hierarchy that wants to stretch “follow” into “rule over” or to put themselves on a higher level between the members and God. Please note that the same Greek word for followers in 1 Corinthians is also used in Hebrews.
In Hebrews 6:12 we are told to “be followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises”. The very next verse identifies one of those persons we are to follow. It is Abraham—who is dead. Further on in Hebrews 11 the great cloud of witnesses are identified—they are all dead. Thus those who want Paul’s follow to mean being ruled over can’t be right because these others we are told to follow are all dead. Can the dead rule over anyone? Obviously not! No, we can only follow these dead witnesses as they followed Christ.
Furthermore, these dead witnesses we are to follow made mistakes. This reinforces my very point. It is obviously up to each individual to follow them as they followed God, and to make an individual decision not to follow them as they made mistakes or as they sinned.
Some with the two-class attitude will say “I don’t teach ruling over, I teach following”. The New King James version and many other modern translations do not even use the word “following” in 1 Corinthains 11:1. The NKJV says “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.” An “imitator” copies what he sees, not what he is “told to do”. Today, many of the “sheep” are finally learning the lesson to look at the fruits—what people do—not what people say.
This account has always been of special interest to me—it is an especially timely lesson for us today. 3 John verses 9 and 10 relate how Diotrephes wants to have the pre-eminence and thus would not receive John’s letter. Further, Diotrephes actually cast true believers out of the local church. Surely, casting out believers has to be one of the worst things a local elder can do, right?
One way I find this account significant is in what John does not say. John does not say I am the high mucky-muck with all rule and power and I am dethroning Diotrephes right now! Neither does John say, “I have turned him into Ministerial Services. They will take care of it.” Neither does he write to the “regional director”.
No, John’s first approach in verse 9 is to write to the church, the members. John’s letter is then not well-received by Diotrephes so John tells the church if he comes, John will remember his deeds.
We don’t know if John ever did get there.
What then in the meantime? The implication is the collective body has to take care of it. John certainly minces no words in reporting about Diotrephes, but takes no immediate action on his own. I find that fascinating.
Notice how this example comes squarely back to our point—the high regard God has for each member’s ability. What is John’s instruction in the very next verse? “Beloved, follow not that which is evil, but that which is good.” This is exactly what we have been discussing, personal responsibility, personal decision leading to Godly collective results.
Notice how after reporting Diotrephes, John’s instruction to follow is much the same instruction as Paul gave us in 1 Corinthians 11! Indeed, the Greek is similar in both, and most modern translations say: “do not imitate what is evil but what is good.”
John goes on to reinforce this by adding “He that doeth good is of God, but he that doeth evil hath not seen God”. Another way of saying “look at the fruits”. (In the past few years, many members have certainly learned that!)
Each person is required to look, to decide, to act on what they follow, good or evil. In this example John reports the evil and in his very next verse puts the responsibility, not on the deacons and elders, but on each member to not follow that which is evil.
Could John have made the member’s individual ability and responsibility any clearer?
It is generally accepted that John wrote 1, 2 & 3 John in about 90 to 95 AD, approximately 25 years after the other apostles had written their books.
Picture John in 90 to 95 AD. He had been an apostle for about 60 years. He had lived 3.5 years with Jesus, had witnessed His death and resurrection. He saw the Holy Spirit given on the day of Pentecost, the early church beginnings, the persecution and the scattering of those early Christians. He witnessed the fall of Jerusalem and the utter destruction of it’s magnificent temple. He knew all of the other apostles had died—most of them martyred. He saw grevious wolves enter the flocks. He saw elders, some even chosen personally by Paul, draw people away wanting their own followings. He looked at his present time and saw many deceivers at work.
Really, he had “seen it all”!
Thus, in 90 to 95 AD John looked back over his long Christian journey, and considered all of his 60 or so years of experiences and observations, and gave us a marvelous summary in 1 John, 2 John and 3 John.
Now notice what this “elder statesman” said in 1 John 2:27: “And you need not that any man teach you.” Does John think the members are inferior? Does John think that they require a “minister” for spiritual success? Hardly!
Let me hasten to say, however, does this mean there should never be teachers? I don’t think so, especially to bring babes to baptism and then to feed milk to those new babes. John is talking to Christians that have the Holy Spirit, in fact one of John’s points is that the Holy Spirit is now our teacher. This whole matter should be dealt with in more depth, but for the purpose of this article it seems John certainly did not consider the members inferior or that he sponsored a two-class system.
Chapter 3 of Hebrews reveals the writer is addressing the holy brethren—partakers of the heavenly calling. Then in chapter 5:12 these brethren are told they ought to be teachers. This certainly reinforces John’s instructions in the above example and does not indicate a two-class system.
I think most of us will agree we are attempting to become mature christians. Indeed, we are told that should be our objective. Fortunately, the Bible seems to give us a formula we can follow to accomplish this. Notice Hebrews 5:14 which says “solid food belongs to those of full age [maturity] who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil”.
So here it is yet again. Not inferior members, not group-salvation members, but the instruction is that each individual must use their own abilities guided by the Holy Spirit to make their own discernment between good and evil. They are the things we have been discussing: personal responsibility, personal capability and personal decisions. There is no minister or hierarchy in this formula.
Moreover this verse seems to go beyond mere reinforcement of this article’s theme. Indeed Hebrews 5:14 seems to say that each individual christian is required to use (practice) their own personal discernment between good and evil if they are going to become mature, of full age.
If so, now may be a good time for us to exercise personal discernment about the two-class system.
Several sources have said that the exodus from Worldwide was led in many cases by the members. The ministry followed only after many members had led the way. If so, this would certainly be another case of the members, the “sheep”, having both individual and collective discernment.
[Editors note: I worked for the Global Church of God during its first two years (1993-1994) and indeed most of its members left the WCG because of their own study. Most GCG Sabbath meetings were “video groups” run by unordained “hosts”. Other groups used similar techniques. Many ministers did leave the WCG to start the UCG-IA in 1995. Some of the members in their congregations simply “followed”. But there were also many congregations that started as a local board or by members who simply left—hoping that their ministers would follow their lead. —NSE]
Is this study saying the congregation should not have leaders? Not at all! Should there be elders? Yes. The New Testament indicates multiple elders were placed in each church. Many of our 17 Bible examples involve elders. Did these elders, however, rule over the people? I think not according to Christ’s instruction in Matthew 20.
Moreover, I think the members had a role to play in the selection of their elders as well as the selection of deacons. Readers are urged to get Norm Edwards’ [see back page] and Ernest Martin’s studies [PO Box 25000; Portland, OR 97298; 503-292-4352; firstname.lastname@example.org] on the matter of church government to make this clearer.
This leads to the question: should elders be paid “full time” wages that are far higher than the wages of the average member? Paul accepted some limited offerings, but had an outside trade and says that he gave us examples to follow.
My family spent nine years in CGI which had an unpaid local ministry. Ministers which moreover generally had the “handicap” of performing a full time secular job. Yet our experience was that an unpaid ministry worked very well. We saw many fine examples of real concern and zeal from unpaid ministers. Those examples put to shame some full time, full salaried, two-class ministers we have experienced. Furthermore, many of the best sermons my family has heard in the past thirteen years have been given by unpaid ministers. Another advantage to the unpaid system was local ministers were clearly not “in it for the money”.
Perhaps there is a middle ground, especially for large congregations of several hundred or more. Such middle ground may be that the local congregation set any wages and pay the local elder(s). Moreover the local congregation can decide on services desired from the central office and pay for those services from local funds. Before I was baptized in 1964 by the WCG, my Lutheran church background proved the local congregation method to work extremely well.
After all, Jesus Christ should be our final authority, right? Let’s notice his instruction in Matthew 23:8 “But be not you called Rabbi; for one is your Master, Christ, and all you are brethren.
I recall years ago meeting numerous times with four Baptists selling them real estate investments. (They represented their church members in an investment club.) These four were always referring to “brother so and so” and “sister so and so”. This included calling their minister “brother so and so”. Good Armstrongite that I was at the that time, I smugly snickered to myself at such ignorant “Protestantism”.
About the Author
The author, “Onethird Century In-CoGs”, uses this pseudonym at the request of friends who believe they would lose certain friendships with those in hierarchical groups if it was commonly known that he was writing for Servants’ News. The man has spent 36 years in various “Church of God” groups—as his pseudonym implies.
This article is not about being “sour grapes”—never having been given a “position” in the Church of God groups. The author enjoyed much of his time in the Church of God groups and had many responsibilities: Spokesman Club offices, (twice as president), Detroit area Administrator for various wills and estates, head usher for many years, sermonette lists for many years in three church areas, deacon for many years, deacon-in-charge of a church in the absences of the visiting minister. He was asked to become a Local Elder, but turned it down. Indeed, the author has seen both sides of the two-class structure.
However, I now feel these four Baptists were more biblical than I was about this matter. (And in other respects as well, I probably was the ignorant one.)
Indeed, I believe if COG members, and the hierarchy, had followed Jesus’s instruction and simply addressed themselves as brothers (and sisters) it is quite likely the COG two-class system would not have developed nearly as much as it has. It is interesting in our Matthew 18 example that Christ says “if a brother trespasses”.
Isn’t it better that we follow Christ’s clear instructions in Matthew 23 and
eliminate completely anything that is not His “all brethren” system with
Christ as our one and only master?
The two-class system so well practiced by so many does not seem to have much support from the Bible. I believe these 18 examples show God does have a very high regard for the members’ intelligence and abilities. And that collectively the members have a lot of responsibility and power. The passive role, therefore, given to the “lower class” members by the various COG’s does not seem to be what the Bible teaches.
Rather than stifling and suppressing members talents and abilities, I have come to believe the assembly should be structured exactly the opposite: to encourage every member’s talents and abilities to grow. Even more—to grow vigorously. How then should the “sheep” and their “shepherds” work together? I have some thoughts on it, but that is another study. What are your thoughts?
— “Onethird Century In-CoGs”