Thursday, January 8, 2009

I Love the Church of God

In this post-modern era it is normal to distrust institutions. They are impersonal constructs of a vanishing meta-narrative. By their very nature they reduce us to economic cogs within giant machines of power and control. They cannot be trusted and are at best necessary evils. Or so it seems to the rising generation, the one fearful of the very thing it craves, intimacy. I read this mistrust on my computer screen, in our communities of artificial self-disclosure (like this one). The disenchanted gather on “My-space” or “Facebook” or some other site for online discussion; there I find hunger for truth mingled with predispositions toward doubt (the hermeneutic of suspicion) resulting in abundant criticism of the institutional church. In my circles that means the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee).

Let it be noted that it was my generation that said “trust no one over thirty-five.” We too challenged the establishment, dreamed of the “age of Aquarius,” and sought for truth. (True, we were primitive; our resources were limited to lectures/sermons, books, newspapers, magazines/journals, radio and television and our interaction was restricted to face to face conversations, laborious correspondence, or one-to-one telephone conversations.) Most of us who remained in the church believed it needed reforming but we believed in it as well. With that let me say I love the Church of God. This church loved me, taught me, disciplined me, encouraged me, mentored me, and ordained me to minister. But this list does not explain why I love my church.

For all practical purposes I was born into the Church of God. My mother was raised in the Church of God, but she did not join the Church until six months after I was born, that’s when she got saved and I along with my older brother and sister became active congregants. I grew up in the Church: Sunday school, morning worship, Sunday evening “Evangelistic” service, Wednesday evening Prayer Meeting, and Friday evening Young People’s Endeavor (YPE), not to mention quarterly revivals, and two-week Vacation Bible School (VBS). My Sunday school teachers loved me; they and other adults prayed me through to the blessings of God. I joined the Church when I was six years old. I didn’t fully understand what I had committed myself to, but I knew it was important and it was for life.

The Church was my extended family, but that was not sufficient to keep me within its fold. At seventeen I was filled with the Spirit and began to sincerely seek God’s will for my life. One question I wrestled with was church identification. I wanted to know God’s will about my denominational membership. I did not want to be a member simply because I was born into it and made a childhood commitment. I fasted and prayed about this question. Around my 18th birthday on a Monday morning in the early fall of 1971 I was praying as I drove through Birmingham on my way to my physics class at Samford University. Tears and the rising sun blinded me for an instant and as my vision cleared I resolved, “Father from this moment I will be a faithful member of the Church of God until you direct me otherwise.” Alone in my car I had renewed my covenant of membership and I meant it for life unless God directed otherwise.

My first real test for that covenant came one year later. I had transferred to Lee College in Cleveland, Tennessee, headquarters city for the denomination. I was not accustomed to the denominational chatter, who’s being appointed where and why, and I became disillusioned. I truly agonized over the political atmosphere. In a time of prayer God spoke very clearly to me, “The Church of God is not Ray H. Hughes; it is Jenny Williams.” Ray Hughes was the General Overseer at the time and I did not understand this as an indictment against him, but rather a commentary on the nature of the church. Jenny Williams was a departed saint from my childhood. (Interesting, the reference was to someone already in heaven. I don’t recall much theologizing about that.) The church is not defined by its leaders, but by the vision of its members. Godly members are the heart of the church.

I have had ample opportunity for further disillusionment. Prominent leaders have fallen in sin. Others have feuded over the direction of the church, or worse, such as business deals gone bad. I have been mistreated; I have had multiple promises broken, and I have often felt underappreciated. I have been threatened with being disfellowshipped (movies/bowling/high school band) and more than once with having ministerial charges filed (preached at a non-denominational crusade, etc.). But I love the Church of God. Not because it feels good (it often doesn’t), but because I love my Lord and His church.

Yes, I love the Church because of what it has meant to me. And I love the Church because of its fundamental commitment to the Scriptures as the Word of God, its doctrines based on that Word (not that some of our wording could not be tweaked), and its practices of submission to the Spirit. I do not think we are perfect, although I confess a bit of triumphalism in my youth. I work hard to not judgmentally compare us with others. I certainly do not believe we are the only expression of the church. I do believe Brother Spurling was correct; the church exists wherever God’s people covenant to be the church, to walk together in the light of God’s Word as He shines it upon our path. My concern is not to defend some elite status as the church but rather to renew our commitment to fulfill the call to be the church.

In short, I love the Church of God because I have covenanted with the General Assembly to be the Church. Covenants are sacred commitments to which God serves as partner and guarantor. We are the church, not exclusively, nor perfectly, but we are the church. My commitments to Christ require that I be faithful to Him by being faithful to His Word and to His church. It is for the church he gave Himself; it is the church He purchased with His blood. I must love it as He loves it. The expectation I find in the Scriptures is not to love the idea of the church, or the promise of the church, or the future actualization of the church. The expectation is to love the church. I must love the “one, holy, catholic church.” I must love it as a present reality. The only way for me to do this is to focus on a tangible expression of the Church. In order to fulfill the Biblical teachings on fellowship and submission (see the “one another” passages) I must identify a group of believers with whom to be accountable. That could be United Methodist, Southern Baptist, Pentecostal Holiness, or some other. For me it had to be a church committed to be the church, committed to live by the Scriptures, and committed to the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit (as revealed in the Bible). Thus the Church of God is for me the best expression of the church.

I will fulfill my place in the Body of Christ through the Church of God. This does not exempt me from seeking unity with all followers of Christ and all expressions of the church. I have served as pastor of an Assembly of God and a Baptist church; I was on staff at a Disciples of Christ; I was a visiting professor at a Southern Baptist seminary; I have served (am serving) on a variety of ecumenical ministry boards; and I have participated in a variety of ecumenical dialogues. In all of these endeavors I have remained a faithful member of the Church of God.

Denominational and generational lines should serve to clarify our gifts and callings and to edify the whole. In order for this to happen the boundaries between us must have points of interface, openings for communion. I believe we (my generation of the Church of God) have much to teach and give the Body of Christ and much to learn. Lines of demarcation should not be allowed to divide us. They must become instruments of mutual edification that serve to enrich our fellowship. Doctrinal differences should inform and challenge us while love overcomes pride so that we might be united. I do not have to prove others wrong in order to know that I am right. I do not have to negate someone else’s knowledge of truth to defend my own. Knowledge is power, but it should not be used as a weapon. Rather, let it fulfill its nature and serve as a light.

I choose to love the Church of God because I love Christ and His Kingdom. I hunger to fulfill His will and I can only do that in relation to others in His Body. In this movement/denomination I have found (had thrust upon me) relationships that matter. Though sometimes confused and misunderstood, I have known and been known. I have learned that spiritual intimacy comes with the price of pain and disappointment. It is worth the price. I hold on to this conviction, Christ is the head of His church. Even in the face of institutional blight, He is sovereign and He rules with mercy and righteousness over those who love him. God is at work in, with, through, by, and in spite of the structures of the Church of God. How can I not love it?


Phil Hoover, Chicago said...

This is a wonderful testimony..but then again, your testimonies usually are just that:


Many of us (myself included) owe a great deal of gratitude to the Church of God.

Derek said...

I guess the quote, "The church is a whore, and I am her son", was not redemptive enough to quote here.... :)

I agree. We have to be committed somewhere to a community of faith, dependent on the Triune God revealed in Scripture and in His ongoing work in the world. I do think the Church of God is one of the best expressions but that we are not the only faithful expression of faith. Thus we need to learn to relate better to one another (ecumenism), to God and to the "impersonal construct of a vanishing meta-narrative."

We must live in relational covenant to God and to one another if we are truly to experience the intimacy for which we long. We berate the institution because it makes us cogs and yet we can have no intimacy (and cannot know ourselves) apart from a covenant with it.

Our faith, our lives and our future are bound up in the church (a tangible expression of it, not some esoteric ideal) and those saints whose vision of the church have nurtured our own faith.

Thank you for challenging those of us in younger generations to see that we have no life apart from the God who is in creation and in the church. Amidst economic and ecological calls for thinking locally, we really need to think about the importance of place for the renewal of all that we disparage.