Volume 12, Number 1, July-August 2008

The State of the Church Today:
Disheartening Woes? or Doing His Will?

Many Sabbatarian believers are disheartened by what they see as the state of the Church today. Some may even long for the big hierarchical organizations of the past that seemed to be “getting things done.” I propose that maybe we are doing what God wants us to be doing and we do not realize it!

I will be quoting in this article from two short books and I want to mention them right up front. One is by Zola Levitt, titled Broken Branches—Has the Church Replaced Israel? and the other is The Dead Sea Scrolls After Forty Years which is a collection of lectures presented by four archaeological scholars who are, in my mind, some of the leaders in biblical archaeological research, including Hershel Shanks, publisher of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Introduction

To begin, I would like to quote James A. Sanders from the “Panel Discussion” section in After Forty Years.

“Sanders, in answer to a question by moderator Hershel Shanks states: “I think there has been an [archaeological scholarship] influence, some of it good and some of it not so good [on the practice of religion.] That is to say, the historic mainline churches are pretty much staffed by ministers from graduates from Harvard and Yale and Union and Claremont and so on. The graduates of these seminaries get their degrees for knowing theories about the historical formation of the Bible, but they don’t know what the Bible says. This is a great lament I have. We get students now in the mainline seminaries who are ignorant of the Bible in the first place because they are not learning it at home or in church anymore. Then they come to seminary and learn all about J, E, D, and P—the documentary hypothesis—but they have not read the Pentateuch yet. The documentary hypothesis is just one theory about possible formation of the Pentateuch.”

Sanders continues:

George Steiner, in the New Yorker [Magazine] of February 1988, engages in a real lament and I agree with him when he says that very few people outside of theological circles, or English departments of literature know Bible content anymore. In an address that I gave at Georgetown University last year, I said, ‘Mr. Steiner, it is worse than you think. They don’t know the Bible all that well in theological circles, either.’ “

Well, one thing I can say about most individuals I have come in contact with who have come out of the Churches of God movement, especially those with former ties to Worldwide Church of God and its successor church movements and individuals who studied at Ambassador College: “They know their Bible!”

Indeed, that is perhaps why these groups frequently indulge themselves in promoting the creation and dissemination of so much negative commentary, purposely seek controversy, and frequently, engage themselves in capricious behavior, backbiting, bitterness, subterfuge and ultimately, sometimes even, disassociation from others that I would consider to be their brethren in Christ!

Why is this so? Could it all be a part of God’s Eternal plan? Are we doing what God expected us to do, perhaps even planned for us to do?

Returning to my opening quotation, Sanders quotes Steiner saying, “very few people” know their Bible and then Sanders embellishes on this by adding, in effect, that it is even less than “very few.” Could this perhaps be a “remnant”?

What Is the Church?

Now I do not want to go into great detail here, and I especially do not want to ignite additional controversy, but it seems to me that as modern day Christians, many of us have preconceived, and often times misconceived ideas about what the “Church” is. In the Old Testament, we frequently find references to “the Congregation of Israel.” To me, there is a simple meaning to this. It means a collection of people, congregated in one place (size of said place indeterminate but probably about the size of what later came to be known as Palestine), which group of people are comprised of Israelites or the children (descendants) of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob whose name was later changed to Israel.

The Greek word ecclesia is almost always translated “Church” in the New Testament. This word means nothing more, than simply “a collection of people.” It had or has nothing to do with a building, an organization, a ministry, or anything like that. The other way the word was translated in the New Testament was for a “confused” assembly of unbelievers in Acts 19:32, 39 & 41. The original “church” was, and still is in my mind, a term for a collection of people.

Nowadays, the meanings of the word “church” are several, and for the most part, these definitions are removed from the original meaning. “Church” now is a place, frequently a building where people gather to worship. “Church”—especially a denominational church—is also an organization which is comprised of people, ostensibly adhering to a set of doctrines by which the church operates and is governed. Indeed, I think that perhaps God might even be amused to see some church organizations adopt the capital “C”, calling themselves “the Church” and, as such, decide that they have the ultimate authority to tell their members what they can or can not do to be Biblically correct and pleasing to God!

Typically, an organized church is a hierarchical structure, utilizing a human evolved legal fiction commonly known as a nonprofit corporation. In nearly every case, the founding document of the corporation contains the wording from section 501(c)(3) of the internal revenue code, which makes for easy tax exemption—and promises that the church organization will be subject to the IRS in all things:

…the corporation shall not carry on any other activities not permitted to be carried on (a) by a corporation exempt from Federal Income Tax under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1954 (or corresponding provision of any future United States Internal Revenue Law)…(Internal Revenue Code, sec. 501(c)(3).)

As a hierarchical structured organization, certain individuals or groups of individuals have power over others in the Church, usually a minority controlling a majority. It is not the purpose of this article to debate the merits or detriments of organized religion of any denomination or sect of a denomination. I felt it necessary to state what I did in the preceding four paragraphs simply as a point of reference for what is in the remainder of the article.

Has the Church Replaced Israel?

“…[R]eplacement theology [is] a doctrine that has been around almost as long as the church has been in existence.” So says Zola Levitt, a Messianic Jew who wrote Broken Branches. Levitt goes on and states that it was St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.) who started replacement theology as a church doctrine. “St. Augustine wrote a treatise called The City of God, in which he concluded that God was through with Israel and the Church [emphasis by this author] was its replacement.”

Look at how early the “Church” was considered to be something other than a collection of people and how early a “Church” (the Roman Church—an organization) was influencing people’s religious beliefs, values, and future understandings and misunderstandings. Questions about “replacement theology” (has the “Church” replaced Israel in Bible promises and prophecy?) are much more easily understood when one starts with a Biblical definition of the “church”.

Who, Then Are Christians?

Based upon scripture, the disciples of Jesus were the first Christians. Reference Acts 11:26 “...the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” The early Christians were the Church—the church being the collection of people-who met, then in individual homes (not church buildings) to discuss, share, learn, and, presumably, then follow, the teachings of Jesus. The church as an institution developed later.

Modern Christianity, from which it logically follows, I would guess, now provides us with an abundance of people who consider themselves to be Christians. But what is modern Christianity? It is a hodge-podge of many organized churches, some 300 denominations in America alone, with sects too numerous to even try and count. And most all are governed by a creed or doctrinal statement which reflects a set of man-developed rules. I know of nowhere in scripture where these creeds or doctrinal statements can be found. I can see how they may have originated, but, again, they are all man-made derivations of scripture, not actual scripture itself.

Now please note, thus far I have tried very hard to not disparage any who have or do consider themselves to be Christian. I have merely tried to present a few facts as I understand them.

Are There Differences Between Christians?

Well, that’s kind of a silly question. Of course there are! I can remember a radio preacher some thirty-five years ago who frequently posed the question, “With so many different churches, can they all be right?” I used to flip that question around and ask myself, “With so many different churches, can any of them be right?” And as a follow on, “and if so, how could one tell for sure?”

After my baptism in 1971, I wanted to do my best to please God. This included, I thought, picking “the right church.” Did I ever find it? The short answer is, “no”. I did decide, without too much difficulty, that the Sabbatarian Churches of God were probably as close to what I was looking for by way of teachings and beliefs as I could get. I traveled to Worldwide Church of God’s Pasadena campus in the spring of 1972 with the full intent of becoming a member. I went to services one Sabbath while I was there in Pasadena and heard one of the most enlightening sermons I had ever experienced delivered by one of their ministers, Mr. Garner Ted Armstrong.

But there was a problem with my being accepted into the Worldwide Church of God. They wanted me to be re-baptized. I refused. I could not forget the three days I spent confessing and repenting before God, asking him to redeem the mess that my life had become. I could not forget going under the cold lake Michigan water in late November, only to emerge shivering, and then to have Peter Dyck, the minister of the Edgewater Covenant Church, along with several Seminary students, lay hands on me and pray that I might be blessed and receive the “gift of the Holy Spirit.” I remember feeling as though my body were a hollow container and somebody started pouring warm wine into it. I felt a warmth starting at my feet slowly move up my body toward my head. I was a new man.

So, since I refused to be re-baptized, I never became a member of the church organization that I thought at the time to be God’s true church. Perhaps God intended for me to be spared from the fallout that occurred when that church group later changed leadership, changed doctrines, and then largely disintegrated. I do not know.

In the meantime, I came to understand the Bible better and I learned a lot about “churches,” both their organization and their governance. But it wasn’t until recently, and by this I mean within the past three or four years, that I really began to grasp what the true church really was about and how one could “find it.”

Enter The Journal and PABC

Perhaps seven years ago I subscribed to The Journal. For those who are not familiar with The Journal, it is a publication that features stories concerning what is going on with Seventh Day Sabbath Churches, splinter groups that absorbed much of the membership of the original Worldwide Church of God (The Journal, P.O. Box 1020, Big Sandy, TX 75755, U.S.A.; www.thejournal.org). Coincident with this, I became interested in the work that Norman Edwards was trying to move forward in Port Austin, Michigan.

When the very first issue of the “Journal” arrived in my mailbox, I eagerly took it into my home and started to read the many articles and paid advertisements. I was immediately “blown away” by one thing.

I had never before in my life been exposed to such controversy!

Now this is not to imply that I thought this to be bad. Indeed, quite to the contrary, I found that there were important scriptural interpretation issues that others had and were still struggling over. I was overwhelmed, to say the least. And, I was elated that I had finally found many others who struggled as I had struggled. I quickly realized that I was not the only one who felt there were important things left indeterminate to present day believers. The calendar issues are an example of what I am referring to here.

The other thing that I was exposed to (which truly surprised me) was the depth of conviction different groups, and, in particular, certain individuals had adopted. It reminded me of how Old Testament Israel was frequently referred to in scripture as “a stiff necked people.”

An Important Scripture

Deuteronomy 4:2 and Rev 22:18-19 admonish us not to take anything away from scripture that is stated and not to add (or embellish) on anything that is presented. Well, isn’t the whole idea of a modern organized church (Worldwide Church of God and its offshoots included) something a little more than what is taught in the Bible? Jesus took Peter and stated “Upon this rock, I found my church” (Matt 16:18). I ask, could this not be interpreted as, “With this person Peter I begin to build a collection of my people, ecclesia

It had nothing to do with an organization, a building, a membership list, a doctrinal statement, or anything like that!

Eternal Life Is for You,
Not Your Church Group

I personally learned a lot of lessons from being in a hierarchical church organization for 20 years. Much can be accomplished and there is often peace. (Those who stay must obey; everyone else is sent away.) However, one often has a false sense of “I am right before God because my group has the truth”. Since I studied little else other than the writings of my own group, I was not aware of other views concerning the meaning of Scripture. Nor was I actively seeking the Holy Spirit to reveal anything to me.” (1Cor 2:10)

Another false concept is, “I will be protected because I am in the right group”. Most church organizations teach a “rapture”, “a place of safety,” or some other doctrine that promises their members deliverance from tribulation to come. This idea that a whole church group will be delivered is opposed to the numerous verses that instruct us to pray for our individual deliverance and to overcome, and, by the Power of God, to do those things that make us worthy of deliverance (Luke 21:36; Matt 24:20, 40-41; Eph 6:13, 1Jo 2:28; Luke 12:41-49; Rev 2 & 3).

The Church of God groups should realize that they have a gift of knowledge—they have learned a lot from the Bible that they need to share. There are now many thousands of evangelical Christians observing, to some degree, the Feast Days, Sabbaths and other related Biblical doctrines. Church of God groups should realize, however, that they don’t know everything and that knowledge is not the only gift worth having. Other groups do a better job of helping the needy, healing the sick, evangelizing unbelievers, receiving revelations from God, and teaching young people.

We need to use our gifts for the blessing of other believers—and accept the gifts of others that are bearing fruit. We must stop thinking of ourselves as former members of a group, but rather to think of ourselves as fellow believers doing what God wants done now. We need to work with others of like mind—who may be meeting and working in a great variety of places. We should not judge them by the actions and beliefs of their former group any more than we would want to be judged by the actions and teachings of our former group. May the Eternal help us to do this!      —NSE

My proof: The seven “churches” discussed in Revelation 2 and 3 are simply groups of faithful believers who gathered in those seven cities. They were the ecclesia and nothing more. They met in each others homes. They did not all believe the same doctrines—how else could it be that Christ was correcting various groups for different problems.

Something From the O.T.

When God worked with his people Israel, as is frequently revealed in the original Hebrew Scriptures, He got very little cooperation. I mean these people had the luxury of prophets and leadership in many cases, who communicated with God. The message back then was very simple: “You are my people, obey me, and I’ll take care of you.” And what happened most of the time? God’s people, Israel, failed miserably in obeying Him and trusting Him to take care of them. And along the way, God caused it to be, that His people, for the most part, forgot their heritage, lost track of the promises made to their forefathers, and became the so called “Lost Tribes of Israel.”

But, in Exodus 31, we are informed of a sign by which God’s people can identify one another. We are told they will be able to identify each other by the simple fact that they are Sabbath keepers.

Fast Forward to Right Now

So prior to Jesus walking this earth, God’s people had some pretty intimate contact with their Creator through individuals God raised up periodically to let them know what He wanted to be done. The canonized texts of the original Hebrew Scriptures are proof of this.

So, in our times, does God raise up individuals to serve His purposes? Were Herbert W. Armstrong and his son among those individuals? I cannot answer that question nor do I need to. I never met either one in person, but I do know that their teachings strongly influenced my religious thinking even to this day.

Did they have to have a hierarchical church organization to do what they did? I don’t know the answer to that either. But, I have also been influenced by other people who had no such organization, but who wrote and taught, and whose hard work has been preserved.

Now, let me address the really big issue. Does the Church (those with a capital “C” in their name) have ANY authority over how you live your life? Well, the answer is: It depends. Let me be even more specific. Does a church organization have any God-sanctioned, biblically-authorized control over your life? Please help me here, but I do not know of any scripture that indicates this to be so. Some scriptures do come to mind about the authority of brethren in a congregation (Matt 18:15-17; 1Cor 5:4-5). I’ve already mentioned my interpretation of “Upon this rock...”

Speaking of Interpretation

It seems interpretation is the area where we always seem to get ourselves in trouble. Nearly every group, and every individual, it sometimes seems (and I include myself here, big-time!), appears to have an idea or two as to how to interpret scripture. Some even go so far as to formalize their thoughts into doctrines and promulgate them through the vehicle of a “church.”

But this is the lunacy of the whole thing I am discussing. The church is simply a collection of people. Can an organized church, then, tell the body of believers what to do or not do? I do not think so; unless the individuals who consider themselves to be participants (members) of that church allow this to happen. To restate my premise and to put it quite bluntly: No church has any authority to claim and extend its particular doctrine, good, bad, flawed, or otherwise, on any believer. Furthermore, when that church uses such a powerful social weapon as disfellowshipping to keep their membership in line—especially when it is a personal belief that is not a threat to the congregation—I think that the leadership of that “church” is pushing the limits of what God intended for His church (again, a collection of believers.)

So What Did God Intend?

Well, truthfully, here, I can only speculate and offer my opinion because I confess that I have no specific spiritual insight. Only experience. Many experiences. I think God intended for us to be doing exactly what we are doing at this point in time. But, hopefully, without so much of the bickering, backbiting, and the blatant self-assuredness displayed by many that I mentioned earlier in this article.

Paul instructed us to gather together and reason with one another. Let us, the church, get back to that: more Bible study and reasoning with one another. Let us utilize a governance of elders who are truly elders. Let’s utilize what we are instructed to do in Matthew 18:15-17 as a proper means of conflict resolution. And, above all, while it is good to be seeking absolute truth (of interpretation), let us recognize that, if I am correct, there never will be complete harmonization of beliefs among all.

And that is because, as I stated previously, I believe God wants it that way! It allows Him to judge each and every one of us by what is in our hearts. Jesus admonishes us, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” But it is not good enough for many of us to simply “Keep the commandments.” Why is it then that so many of us are modern day “legalists?” Why do we sometimes conclude that others must accept our interpretation of scripture to be “used of God.” I am speaking here of the calendar and similar issues.

Why can’t the statement “alternative calendars accommodated” by church groups be more the norm than the exception? Is not that what love and the golden rule are all about? Look for the log in your own eye first; I am trying to tell everyone. God is judging us not by how perfectly we keep the commandments, et al., but by the intensity of our commitment to try and do what pleases him while at the same time, maintaining our love, concern and cooperation for other brethren.

Keeping Sabbaths, feasts and clean-meat rules is not all there is to the Christian life. We are commanded to love others, to help them in need, to teach them, etc. Truth is not something that we use to feel better than all of the others that do not understand our truth. God is finding out who will use the freedom we have to love and serve others, and who will use it to exalt themselves—or to just sit back and do little.

Conclusions

We can know who our brethren are by the simple fact that they attempt to maintain both obedience to their Lord and Savior and are recipients of the love of Christ. So, then, should we submit ourselves to the governing authority of an established church? That is an individual choice, but I cannot see where it has anything to do with salvation. It is an issue of works and eternal reward (1Cor 3:12-15). Believers in and out of church organizations have sometimes accomplished little, and have sometimes accomplished much.

Should we continue to debate and discuss various interpretations of scripture? Absolutely, but we should do this at the level of reasoning, not at the level of enforced dogma.

It is like the weather. What does it mean when one says “It’s raining.” To me it implies if one goes outside without adequate protection, you’re going to get wet. To a trained professional weatherperson, it could mean virga—rain (or snow) that falls from clouds but never reaches the ground because the atmosphere is so dry it evaporates before it hits the ground. Take the phrase “Godisnowhere” and remember, in the original Hebrew scriptures there were no separations between words. So, does my run together English phrase mean, “God is now here” or “God is no where”, or, perhaps even, “God I snow here”?

Do you think that I am trying to be cute here? Think again. This is serious stuff and it causes extreme divisiveness among members of the church (meaning again, a collection of people.) I am going to quote a technical example that teaches a very important lesson from Dead Sea Scrolls, p. 66:

You saw [original authentic] manuscripts this morning with just consonants and maybe a few marginal notations, but the Masoretes did three things with those consonants. They inserted vowels according to the tradition of the oral readings of the time. They inserted accent marks (te’amim) and cantillation marks (in the case of poetic sections) so the lector knows how and where to pause. Hershel [Shanks] was citing from Isaiah 40 [v. 3] this morning.

“A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord’” is the way the Masoretes put the accent marks. Matthew was free to read the verse his way because he did not have the advantage of the Masoretic accent marks. He [Matthew] was able to say:

“A voice cries in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,’” and apply it to John the Baptist.’

The only thing different in the two examples is the punctuation. The Masoretic scribes understanding does not tell where the voice is located, but says that the Lord’s way would be in the wilderness. Whereas, Matthew understood that the voice would be in the wilderness, but does not give a location of the Lord’s way. Matthew was obviously correct as John the Baptist cried out in the wilderness, but Christ taught in both the wilderness and the populated areas.

I rest my case. On certain things contained in scripture, we may never know for sure what was actually intended until we meet God face to face. Does this mean someone in a modern organized church is needed to dictate some sort of “fixed” and “approved” understanding. I think not! The true understanding does not always go to the wisest or most studied, but to whom it is revealed: “At that time Jesus answered and said, “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes” (Matt 11:25).

Finally, a word about Port Austin Bible Campus. What I find so refreshing about PABC is the freedom I have to believe as I believe, share what I believe, learn from others who share what they believe with me and others, and never feel pressured to conform to a particular interpretation of scripture. If Norman Edwards is successful in keeping this freedom of conscience alive and flourishing, as more and more people learn about what is actually happening on the campus of PABC, their short term financial difficulties will be resolved.

PABC may well be a model for what God now intends to help us learn. Only time will tell. &

 

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