Dale M. Coulter
Since the agenda for the General Assembly went public, I have written a number of articles in order to help the General Council discern the best way forward. In this article, I want to offer some reflections at the beginning of this week of the 2022 Church of God General Assembly.
First, we are more united on fundamental matters of doctrine and morality than we are divided.
I have heard more than one person say that there is an ideological divide in the Church of God. I don’t believe this for a minute. An ideology is a system of beliefs that undergirds how one acts and what one thinks. Communism would be an example of an ideology. I could list other examples like postmodernism.
The system of beliefs that undergirds the Church of God is Christianity in its Protestant form as expressed through a Pentecostal lens. The Church of God expresses its commitment to this system through its doctrinal and practical statements. If a person publicly demonstrates his/her commitment to the doctrine and moral principles of the Church of God, then it seems we are in agreement on the fundamentals. There can be no ideological divide given this agreement.
Sometimes I am reminded of the well-known joke that the comedian Emo Philips tells.
Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump.
I said, “Don't do it!”
He said, “Nobody loves me.”
I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?” He said, “Yes.”
I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.”
I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.”
I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.”
I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.”
I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.”
I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.”
I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.”
I said, “Die, heretic!”
And I pushed him over.
This joke is not intended to indict anyone. But, it serves as a reminder that there really is fundamental agreement on all of the essentials. There is no ideological divide. We need to stop turning minor differences into unbridgeable chasms where all we have left is to aim and fire.
Second, there is a divide over the method and the degree to which we should engage the larger culture.
I have repeatedly talked about how we engage the culture is critical, especially at this moment. It seems that some want our method of engagement to be more tightly controlled in order to ensure that the essentials are preserved. Others want a much more aggressive engagement and thus a greater degree of confrontation. The disagreement is not even over whether we should stand for biblical principles but precisely how we should stand and how confrontational we should be.
It’s not wise to use the rhetoric of the culture war. That’s simply to capitulate to North American realities. One of my colleagues recently reminded me of some advice his Pentecostal mother bequeathed to him. She said, “You don’t put out fire with fire. You put out fire with water.” By engaging in culture-war rhetoric, we are trying to put out fire with fire.
I get it. I love a good action movie. I love it when the hero gets out there and gives it to the bad guys. My own moral world makes sense when good triumphs over evil and the bad guys get what’s coming to them. In that world, everything is simple. I also find myself at times willing to entertain lower standards of ethics just to stick it to the “bad guys.” And, if I’m not careful, I start to think that those closest to me are the real enemies. I have had to repent multiple times for acting on those impulses (and I’m still not where I should be).
We do not wrestle against flesh and blood (Eph. 6:12). Paul spells out how we fight in 2 Cor. 10:4-5, which I offer in my own amplified translation:
The weapons we deploy in our combat do not participate in the flesh. They are not bodily nor do they share in the world’s tactics or strategies. That way of waging warfare is actually a form of weakness even though we sometimes think it’s where our strength lies. On the contrary, our weapons are energized by the very power of God. They are mighty. They destroy every ideological fortress that sets itself up against the knowledge of God. They overpower every thought and every obstacle or barrier that tries to rise up in opposition to God’s wisdom. Rather than allowing every idea to imprison us, our weapons capture the thoughts that enter our mind from this age by conforming them to Christ in obedience.
The Christian apologists of the second century wrote treatises explaining Christian beliefs and practices. They argued that Christians were moral, even more moral than their counterparts in the Roman empire. And, they argued against the system of empire that Rome established. In this sense, they took down arguments. Yet, they made these arguments as appeals to the emperors to join them.
We should make clear statements. We should explain our beliefs and practices. We should seek to demonstrate the inherent rationality of our doctrinal and moral commitments. But, we should do so in a way that welcomes others to come and reason with us. Luke tells us in Acts that Paul “reasoned with the Jews and Gentile God-fearers in the synagogue and daily with others in the marketplace” (Acts 17:16-21).
Finally, we must confront the ongoing issue of mistrust in the denomination.
This mistrust exists on multiple levels. It’s a mistrust of our denominational leaders to handle situations. It’s a mistrust of our institutional leaders to do the right thing. It’s a mistrust of the sincerity of our pastors and of our scholars. This mistrust really participates in the spirit of the age. All forms of deconstruction begin with doubt and distrust. I’ll admit my own struggles here.
People start demanding new contracts when there is mistrust. A handshake is no longer sufficient. Instead, they want new legal barriers of protection with all kinds of fine print. This is not the way of Jesus.
To join the Church of God, I received the right hand of fellowship. It’s a practice we modeled on Paul and Barnabas receiving the right hand of fellowship by the leaders of the Jerusalem church (Gal. 2:9). This handshake meant that we acknowledged one another as brothers and sisters and we covenanted to walk together as the “Church of God” even in our disagreements. We need to learn to walk together again.
Worshiping is where that begins. I will never forget the first time I set foot in the tabernacle at Wimauma in Florida. People were running, dancing, shouting, and lifting their hands. I could visibly see the crowd swaying and moving like wheat as the wind swept over it. The presence of God was so thick that I instantly felt hot tears running down my face. My first thought was: this is what heaven must be like. I have never forgotten that experience.
Whenever I worship with my fellow Pentecostals, I find my way back to God and to them. I see the beauty of Christ on their faces and sense the power of the Spirit in their singing and dancing before the Lord. Most of all, I see the presence of God in the midst of the people of God and I know I’m home. May we find our way back to one another this General Assembly as we worship together. And, having come together in worship, may we fight together, not with carnal weapons but with spiritual ones, the battle before us.