This series appeared on http://pneumareview.com/75th-church-of-god
A FEW REFLECTIONS ON THE 78TH GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE CHURCH OF GOD (MOSTLY PERONAL IMPRESSIONS & THEOLOGICAL OBSERVATIONS)
Tony Richie, D. Min., Ph. D.
Associate Professor of Theology
Pentecostal Theological Seminary
In writing the following, I am well aware that I am offering only one person’s take on complex proceedings involving varied perceptions by equally, or perhaps more qualified, attendees and participants than myself. Since the close of the Assembly, I have talked with many people who were also present and involved, including clergy and laity, pastors and scholars, and men and women. These conversations have both confirmed and challenged some of my perceptions. That’s helpful for me. I for one wish to be honestly open to continuing dialogue with others. May the Lord help me to do so truly.
The 78the General Assembly (GA) was perhaps one of the most highly anticipated Assemblies ever for at least two reasons. First, the cancelation of the regularly scheduled Assembly in 2020 due to the Covid pandemic meant that it had been four years since the last GA. The GA had been cancelled once before in 1918 due to the influenza epidemic. However, at that time the GA convened annually, so the time span between Assemblies was only two years. Never before had there been a 4-year gap between GAs. Accordingly, anticipation of fellowship and a sense of pressing business were exceptionally strong. Several delegates remarked that the GA seemed like a great “family reunion.” That was certainly my experience as well. Unfortunately, the aftereffects of the pandemic were still present, especially in travel challenges, and that showed itself prominently in the low attendance, especially international attendance. How we missed so many from our global family! Second, several business items were pressing and, to an extent, unprecedented.
However, I found this year’s pre-Assembly activity quite interesting too. My wife Sue works for the president’s office at Pentecostal Theological Seminary (PTS). Along with many others, she worked prior to Assembly getting booths and exhibits set up. Although I had glimpsed this process previously, this GA I saw it “up close and personal.” As I watched (and helped a little) PTS, Pathway Press, Adult Discipleship, Lee University, and many others labored strenuously to get it all together. I came away with an enhanced appreciation for them and for their work—as well as for how truly expansive the Church of God GA is. Although as an Ordained Bishop I tend to focus on GC and GA business sessions and on corporate worship services, there is much, much more that goes on (e. g. Junior Talent!).
Lately (the last several years really), I’ve heard a great deal of questioning about whether we really need a physical GA and, if so, how often. Why can’t we do business digitally? Isn’t that more in keeping with the times? Wouldn’t it be more cost effective? I understand those questions. They’re pragmatic and sensible considerations worthy of attention. Yet, I have a further question: what would we be giving up in terms of community? The church in Acts had a very strong sense of community (e. g., 4:32). If the Book of Acts is the model for Pentecostal churches today, should we give this up? Although a third generation Pentecostal, I was raised in an Independent Pentecostal setting. One of the many reasons I am Church of God today is because of its commitment to community. I know I need it. As much as I appreciate, and often utilize, technology, I just don’t experience the same community over Zoom as I do in the room. I need in-person fellowship with my brothers and sisters in Christ. I need the fellowship (biblical koinonia) of the local church, of state meetings, and yes, of General Assembly.
For me personally, the pre-Assembly “Chaplains on Mission” Conference (July 23-25) was a highlight. I was privileged to share with the chaplains on Monday. I am thankful to my friends Dr. Richard Pace, Director of the Chaplains Commission and Vocational Chaplains Endorser, and Dr. Brenda Pace, Community Service Chaplaincy Coordinator, for this splendid opportunity. In the morning, I presented “On Mission in a Pluralistic Context.” In the afternoon, I served on a panel addressing “Presentations and Panel on Ministering to LGBQT+ Persons.” It was a special joy to encounter several PTS students/former students among the chaplains as well as two former classmates of mine at the Church of God School of Theology (from the late 80s/early 90s!) that I hadn’t seen in several years. Further, Dr. French and Joyce Arrington were with Sue and me for the event, and they were enthusiastically applauded for their stellar service to the Church of God. Many of the chaplains present had been his students either at Lee University or at PTS during his long teaching career. Church of God chaplains are taking what they call “the ministry of presence” (Exodus 33:14) far beyond the boundaries of the Church. At great personal and familial sacrifice, these chaplains represent Christ in the midst of the multitudes. Perhaps few preachers in the pulpit or few people in the pews can begin to perceive what these courageous men and women encounter on a regular basis in fulfillment of their service for Christ beyond the borders of the local church. They need our support!
As mentioned, several business items were pressing and, to an extent, unprecedented. The need, generated by the necessity of canceling the 2020 GA, of deciding on whether to extend term/tenure limits for elected officials is a case in point. The General Council of Bishops (GC) voted not to extend term/tenure limits, thus moving into a flurry of nominations and subsequent elections. As noted by Presiding Bishop and Moderator Timothy M. Hill, the Council of Eighteen that was elected is the most diverse in the history of the Church of God. A truly historical moment! The Executive Council, comprised of the Executive Committee and Council of Eighteen, now includes more people (men) of color than ever before. Accordingly, the leadership of the Church of God is now more reflective of its constituency, and of the portrait of the redeemed and worshiping throng in Revelation (7:9). As a churchman and a theologian, I rejoice with others in our Church of God movement for this encouraging sign of progress for partnerships in Kingdom work.
Although there was an unusually high amount of business before the GC, again because of the forced cancelation of the previous GA, a few items required the most time and attention. The GC voted down a motion which would have granted General Council female ordained ministers a right to vote in the General Council, providing they have fulfilled the same age requirements, experience and equivalent testing of the ordained bishop credentials which are standard for their male counterparts. The arguments both “for” and “against” this measure were extended and intense, often emotional and at times quite combative. Both groups claimed scriptural support but disagreed emphatically over scriptural interpretation. A historian argued in favor of the motion based on his knowledge of Church of God history and polity. A missionary gave a dramatic and moving testimony about his wife, an ordained minister in the Church of God, who had been demeaned on the GC floor in spite of having reported as ordered for service. Opponents to the motion warned of their fear that if women were granted a voice and vote on the GC, they would inevitably become bishops and perhaps denominational leaders. It was repeatedly implied that a vote for women on this motion would be tantamount to a vote for homosexuality and same-sex marriage. The tone was often harsh to an extreme (even to someone such as myself who has been attending GA for 40 years). In fact, livestreaming had to be interrupted because of violation of parliamentary decorum through use of derogatory commentary! Because it involved a change in bylaws, this motion required a two-thirds majority vote. It was almost exactly fifty-fifty and thus failed. To say that I was/am disappointed would be to put it too mildly. Why? Because, with all due respect for those of other opinions, I believe equality of men and women in ministry is biblically and theologically sound.
All humanity, male and female, have fallen into sin and condemnation through disobedience to the will of the Creator (Gen 3). Thank God, those who truly repent and believe in Jesus Christ are redeemed from the curse of the law, with its condemnation and consequences (Gal 3:13). Now, redeemed women and men need not live according to their fall but according to their rising with Christ in his rising (Col 3:1-4). Our identity and ministry are not established by the old creation, but by the reality and trajectory of the new creation (Rev 21). Believers today do not live according to the old order, which is passing away, but according to the new creation, which is already shining forth and which endures forever (1 Cor 7:31; 1 John 2:8, 17). Redemption is the inauguration of the eschatological reality of God’s ultimate and eternal purposes. Thus, all the old divisions of Jew vs. Greek, slave vs. free, or male vs. female are already summarily dismissed through union with Christ (Gal 3:26-29). I think that this means, among other things, that in Christ men and women are distinctive and truly complementary in their biology and fully equal in their identity. And ministry arises out of redeemed identity, not physical biology. Respectfully (I have dear friends on both sides of this issue, none of whom do I wish to lose!), in my mind the egalitarian outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost indicates that this is the case (Acts 2:1-4, 17-18). Again, although I recognize that there is room for legitimate discussion, I see this view as most fully consistent with Pentecostal identity, spirituality, theology, and ministry.
How then did we miss it on this motion? If it is biblically, historically, and theologically sound, how could we miss it so? In my humble opinion, I think it is mostly because this issue became inappropriately, that is, inaccurately, conflated with other motions/resolutions on the agenda regarding gender identity and the nature of God. To be clear, I see the current culture’s efforts to impose same-sex/LGBTQ+ ideologies on Christians as a horrendous effort to displace redemptive unity in Christ with some sort of perverse substitute unified by its biological fixation with sexual immorality and, actually, with idolatry/self-worship (see Rom 1:18-32). But (God forbid!) to be for equality of God-called women in ministry is by no means tantamount to being pro-homosexuality, pro-same-sex marriage, pro-feminism, or pro-feminization of the nature of God. No way! Ironically, the GC proceeded to approve adding the general overseer of the Bethel Indonesia Church of God to the International Executive Council although the Gereja Indonesia Church of God does ordain women as bishops. Somewhere, sometime, the Church of God is going to have to confront its own inconsistencies. When we do, I predict we will quit fighting over whether female ministers are equal. After all, none of us are worthy; only God makes us sufficient (2 Corinthians 3:6).
Items involving difficult deliberations included the following: The Council adopted a “Resolution Concerning Human Identity and Sexuality,” which rejects self-identifying with any sexual orientation or gender identity contrary to the biblical view of gender and sexuality. Similarly, the GC approved a motion titled “Biblical Fidelity in Gender Identity Affirmation,” prohibiting usage of gender identity, including pronouns, contrary to one’s biological sex. Failure to comply is grounds for disciplinary action. The Council also passed a motion prohibiting credentialed Church of God ministers, employees and institutions from feminizing God with the use of female pronouns and titles as a violation of the Declaration of Faith. In an odd-but-since-overlooked twist, these hotly debated measures did not involve debates between “proponents” and “opponents.” Everyone (underscore everyone!) repeatedly and emphatically affirmed support for the intent of the offerings (i.e., opposition to homosexuality, same-sex marriage, radical feminism, or feminization of the nature of God). Those who wished to refer to committee (in parliamentary terms) for further refinement, and when that effort was unsuccessful, to offer amendments from the floor, expressed deep concern with the existing wording of these statements. Indeed, official Church of God legal counsel warned that the language would invite lawsuits. Chaplains warned that it would hamper their efforts to minister in their diverse contexts. Administrators and pastors worried that it was too vague and too open to differing interpretations, and that enforcement would be problematic. Others dismissed these concerns, hinting that some Church of God individuals, and even denominational institutions, especially educational institutions, were simply too soft on issues of sexual immorality, and insisting that something must be done and done right away to counter the encroaching influence of secular culture. To disagree was dismissed as compromise. The latter view prevailed and these items were passed with minimal amendment. Later, and as usual, the General Assembly body proper (all registered delegates, including men and women, clergy and laity) essentially “rubber stamped” the decisions of the GC.
To be clear, sound doctrine (that is, theology—at least, good theology) is critically essential for Christian faith and practice (1 Tim 1:10; 2 Tim 4:4; Titus 1:9; 2:1). I discovered this truth first-hand as a lead pastor of 38 years in the Church of God. I have encountered it perhaps most directly and, yes, drastically, in my service on the mission field. For 9 years I emphasized it as an adjunct professor/special contract professor at PTS. For the last 2 years as a fulltime associate professor of theology at PTS, I continue to do so. With that in mind, let’s look at God-talk, particularly the use of feminine or masculine pronouns, and feminism, particularly in the context of the role of women in leadership/governance. Please know that I do not consider myself or my theology to be infallible. I believe in absolute truth, but I’m not convinced that I absolutely grasp it all—or even express it infallibly when I do grasp it relatively well (per 1 Cor 13:9). This is not false humility. It is just the truth. Yet I must not be an “uncertain trumpet” (1 Cor 14:8). I am convinced that the times call for clarity and conviction. Therefore, note the following, please. While human language is obviously inadequate to express or describe the infinite nature of God, God’s choice and use of human language as the revelatory medium of his nature and will is utterly reliable. My confidence in its reliability is not based on the adequacy/inadequacy of language but on the reliability and trustworthiness of God and his divinely-inspired Scriptures. As a PTS professor I continue to affirm unreservedly the same commitment to the Church of God Declaration of Faith statement on the verbal inspiration of the Bible (Article # 1) as I did when I was a lead pastor in a local church. Thus, I choose not to use feminine pronouns for God or for the Holy Spirit. Further, when I use masculine pronouns for God or for the Holy Spirit, I do not understand it to be attributing gender or sex to God. We know God is Spirit and, therefore, is not a gendered or sexed being (John 4:21-24). I personally think it is wiser to use biblical language with clear teaching about how it is/ought to be used and what it means rather than to use non-biblical language with the risk of cultural redefinition and encroaching revisioning. Accordingly, I adhere uncompromisingly to the classical Trinitarian language of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—as also well stated in the Church of God Declaration of Faith (Article #2).
I suspect that at least some of what was going on in the difficult debates regarding issues of gender and sexuality turned on a clash between two classic Church of God values: purity and compassion. The Church of God is both a holiness church and an evangelistic church. In the former vein, it is committed to ethical and moral purity, often emphasizing separation from the world/worldliness. In the latter vein, it is committed to engaging a lost and dying world of sinners. Both of these values are biblical and Christlike; but sometimes it can be difficult to know how to navigate their relationship. Jesus himself was accused of being “soft on sin” because of His compassionate companionship with sinners (Mark 2:15-16). How did Jesus respond to His critics? “When Jesus heard it, He said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.’” (2:17). Accordingly, in my attempt to faithfully follow in the footsteps of Jesus, I offer two principles for possible aid. At least they help me. First, let’s resist naivete. We live in a sinful world, and compromise is ever prevalent in the (so-called) church—even our own church. Let’s remove the wool from our eyes. We’re called to be holy, separate, pure people (Titus 2:11-14). Second, let’s embrace nuance. As much as we may prefer everything to be strict, and straight, and strong (as I used to hear in my youth), whenever human beings are concerned there are usually subtle differences and shades of meaning hidden everywhere (Galatians 2:11-13). Anyone who has ever done any pastoral counseling knows that little fact of life. In a word, perhaps we need to work through subtilties without walking into those treacherous “shades of gray”. What might that look like, for instance, in seeking to minister to LGBQT+ people?
Human beings, including LGBTQ+, are created in the image of God and therefore their identity and belonging are rooted in God before and above all else. Accordingly, ministers of the gospel should relate to/minister to them on those terms before and above all else. Therefore, they are to be afforded human dignity, and treated accordingly. At the same time, all humanity, including LGBTQ+, exists in a fallen, sinful state and is guilty of sin in the sight of a holy and righteous God, the Judge of all. God loves us/them and sent his Son to save us/them through his sinless life and proclamation of kingdom truth, his atoning death, resurrection, and ascension to glory in victory over all the powers of darkness and evil. All, including LGBTQ+, who repent and believe in Jesus are forgiven their sins and born again as new creations who are reoriented toward holiness and righteousness. The sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit renews the distorted, twisted nature of fallen sinful humanity, including LGBTQ+, in the image of Christ—the ultimate expression of God’s own image and the standard for all humanity, including LGBTQ+. To the point, the redeemed no longer practice sin, including any kind of sexual immorality—which includes same-sex relations (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). Therefore, we should minister, specifically, to LGBTQ+
- As human persons created and loved by God,
- As human persons who are broken and fallen,
- As human persons who are candidates for redemption and restoration,
- As human persons who may be empowered and transformed by God’s grace, and
- As human persons who may be destined for eternity with the Lord.
The 78th General Assembly of the Church of God is history now. I make no claim to be a prophet, but I predict we may have to live with its decisions in ways not anticipated or desired. We have not dealt decisively, definitely, or deliberately with many issues—especially regarding our fellow laborers in Christ who are female. Although as a man I know that I cannot begin to fully understand it directly or personally, the brokenness, pain, and deep woundedness that I have seen and heard from many precious sisters since GA has been heartbreaking.
Furthermore, it is clear that there appears to be a sharp disconnect in the Church of God between Church and Academy (specifically between pastors and scholars). In spite of deep-seated and longstanding suspicions of “head” knowledge separated from “heart” experience, Pentecostals from their earliest days have practiced ministerial preparation and training, often coupled with at least a modicum of biblical scholarship and doctrinal/theological grounding. Yet, this GA revealed that distance between educational institutions and local church/parachurch ministries does exist. (Oddly enough, many Church of God folks appear to trust non-Pentecostal schools, particularly Baptist and Reformed institutions, more than they do their own. What does this say about their assumptions and presuppositions? What are their loyalties?) In my opinion. there are two basic reasons for the mutual reserve and, regrettably, sometimes, suspicion. First, there needs to be intentional work on (re)building a healthy relationship. All-too-often pastors and scholars simply move in different circles and work on different schedules. It’s time to get together, to get to know each other, to talk and to build trust. No condescension. No opposition. Just Christian fellowship and partnership in the shared mission of our great Church (Matt 28:19-20).
Second, most academics adhere to some version of the principle of academic freedom. At its broadest academic freedom involves the ability to help students think through all kinds of positions, even contrary ones, in preparation for their understanding and defense of the classic Christian faith. Accordingly, academics may sometimes address topics and/or utilize textbooks that reflect positions to which they themselves do not adhere or espouse. A problem occurs when liberal educators in the broader academia often use academic freedom as a cloak for the fact that they don’t actually adhere to or teach biblical truth or the classic Christian doctrine. All educators may come under suspicions as a result. I have not found that to be the case at PTS. I learned my understanding of the relationship between the Church and Academy from my mentor, French Arrington. He taught me 40 years ago that the Academy exists to serve the Church. PTS, where I teach along with my professorial colleagues, is a denominational institution. That requires commitment to and conformity with the denomination’s official doctrinal statements and practical commitments. To be clear, I’ve been to a few liberal universities and seminaries; PTS is not one of them! Do professors always agree on everything? No! Do pastors always agree on everything? No! But our disagreements are couched in the context of commitment to our shared faith. Accordingly, it’s a privilege for me to follow in the footsteps of a “seminary professor” named Paul (Acts 19:9) in fulfilling my calling as a teacher (Ephesians 4:11).
In conclusion, as usual, but more so, the corporate worship services were the bright spot in the GA. Every night the praise and worship in song, preaching of the Word, and prayerful responsiveness of the congregation were phenomenal. An older minister who has been attending GA for more than half a century told me that he’d never felt anything like the move of the Spirit in Friday’s evening service at a GA. Incredible! I was surprised at perceptions from some of those who watched via the media (I kept up a stream of updates for social media groups I help moderate). There were shockingly stout observations about the racial and gender diversity of ministry in the worship services (and the Council of 18, minus the gender question, of course). The back-and-forth was not always respectful. Well, at least it wasn’t the General Council again. Perhaps my takeaway from the 78th General Assembly of the Church of God in San Antonio, Texas sounds a lot like Paul to the Colossians: “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one” (4:6).