Thoughts on the Modern Self-Identity of the Church of God Movement

My class for Church of God History frequently requires assignments similar to those you may have seen me post for Old Testament class. While I will not be posting every one of these assignments, I will select those that I regard as interesting, worthwhile or enjoyable for posting on the blog. In particular, the prompt for this assignment (dated February 23) included an evaluation of the Church of God’s modern self-identity. This may or may not be interesting to you 🙂

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PROMPT: At the heart of the discussion of the Reformation Consciousness is the issue of self-identity. Describe and illustrate what you see as the self-identity of the Church of God today.

Expressing self-identity for an individual is usually a simple affair, often merely requiring an interview or two with the party at hand. Nailing down the self-identity of an entire religious movement with many thousands of adherent-members is a substantially more difficult proposition, given that their collective understanding is constantly developing, somewhat nebulous in nature, and in all likelihood quite different from congregation to congregation. Therefore, while I will attempt in this response to describe and illustrate the current state of the Church of God’s self-identity, I am aware that the well-attested and generally preferred lack of movement-wide cohesion signifies that its self-identity has become essentially experiential. In seeking to identify a present self-understanding, I will first compare the modern Church of God’s climate to the basic theological presuppositions first offered by John W.V. Smith before analyzing emerging ideas affecting recent and present self-identity mores. After delineating these two sources, it will be possible to make personal conclusions regarding the self-identity of the modern Church of God.

The self-understanding of the early Church of God movement stemmed from four basic theological presuppositions, including the foundational nature of the Bible, the essentially experiential nature of religion, a New Testament mission of the apostolic church, and participation in a divine destiny. While I believe that the Church of God adheres to each of these four ideas today, it is necessary to explain some subtleties that currently exist. First, the movement continues to share the belief that the Bible lays the foundational bedrock for ecclesial life. However, if we were to take a tour around the movement, from conservative Ohio and Michigan congregations to the Pacific Northwest and to Anderson University itself, we would hear substantially different claims regarding topics like inerrancy, inspiration, authority, and the like. Certainly, as Henry C. Wickersham expressed before the turn of the 20th century, some nuance has always existed in the movement’s interpretation of the Bible,[1] but the Church of God’s pastors, teachers and even laypersons are more exegetically advanced today. Second, the experiential nature of the church remains in some cases, as in the sharing of testimonies at the time of baptism. But for the most part, expressing the facts of personal faith that make us unique is considered less preferable the espousing that in and of which we all find meaning and claim ownership. Third, while most within the movement would nod in agreement regarding the New Testament mission of the church (one, holy, catholic, apostolic), significantly fewer people would specifically claim attachment with the New Testament church vision, which it seems our congregations are grasping less and less in the hunt to revamp worship, church services and communal practices. Finally, our shared participation in a divine destiny has all but lost its apocalyptic nature, instead lying dormant in expectation of the second coming of Christ. We view ourselves less and less as the last bastion of religious wisdom and sectarian detachment, and are much more apt to recognize truth in denominations and the Christian walks of other brothers and sisters.

Meanwhile, over a century of experience has fueled the Church of God to face new challenges and develop fresh movement-wide foci. As a movement, for example, I recognize a distinct willingness to portray the availability of Christ to all peoples, and more importantly, the available opportunity within the church for all peoples. While this may be considered a throwback to the practices to the early Church of God, embarrassing episodes of passive discrimination have driven the movement to strive for diversity in congregational life and in worship. This manifests itself within the movement as reconciliation-mindedness and a global orientation for missions, and closer to home, as an emphasis on opening the doors to women and other minority groups in ministry. Second, the early church of God’s emphasis on “saving souls” has given way, appropriately, to leading men and women to discipleship. I am hearing less chatter regarding theological concepts such as justification and sanctification and more talk about growing in relationship with Christ and relating the life of faith to practical use in society. Perhaps this is an outgrowth of the modern pastoral pattern that places less significance on traveling evangelistic companies, but regardless, the Christian life in the Church of God is less of a singular identifiable experience and more of leading a life worthy of the calling placed on our hearts.

Third, the Church of God is currently toeing a tightrope between continued cultural relevancy and the history of the movement. Though some may choose to identify this as a garden-variety generational and liturgical gap in the church, I see glimpses of the emergent church peeking into some Church of God practices. At the same time, multi-generational Church of God members and other conservative congregations tend to long for a return to the movement’s past beliefs. Will the Church of God become a torchbearer for the liberal Christian church? Will it allow deep exegetical and analytical truths to impact belief and worship? Will the Church of God remain culturally relevant? Finally, for better or for worse, our self-understanding possesses an infatuation with remaining a movement and eschewing all hints of denominationalism. As I read excerpted quotes from Leith Anderson’s 1996 report to the Church of God Leadership Council, I could not help but feel the conclusion remains just as appropriate today: “There is a very strong desire to be described and identified as a movement and not a denomination. However, the Church of God retains few characteristics of a movement and many characteristics of an aging denomination.”[2] As important as it may be to remain true to foundational principles, the Church of God should not be so anchored within a particular belief about its structure that it openly contests and denies what has been constructed over the years while honestly seeking to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit. However, that self-understanding remains at a crossroads, and the stoplight could turn green any minute now.

As the Church of God has found, and will continue to discover, the arrival at a crossroads was not unique to 1880, 1980, or 2000. Rather, it is continual; it will repeat. The movement’s modern self-identity, rooted as it may be in the basic theological presuppositions of the early Church of God, will always be driven by the challenges that appear in the developing religious and social landscape, and will constantly be open for interpretation and evaluation by the diverse member-adherents in its churches. Thus, it can be said that we face new issues in the spotlight of our past, but with an orientation toward the future. The Bible remains our foundation, and the New Testament church our guide, but going into the future, our language has changed and our discernment of the life of faith is enriched.


[1] John W. V. Smith and Merle D. Strege, The Quest for Holiness & Unity, 2nd ed. (Anderson, IN: Warner Press, 2009), 83.

[2] Barry L. Callen, ed., Following the Light (Anderson, IN: Warner Press, 2000), 34-35.

Jeremiah 36 and the Prophetic Process

For Old Testament, we students reflect weekly on “some topic, aspect or concept” from the volumes and volumes of assigned reading. I am limited to one single-spaced page each week, and in every case I’ve been forced to cut myself off from writing. So read knowing that my thoughts are manifold!

If you are interested in more selections from my School of Theology Coursework, follow the link to the category of SOT Coursework. I have also set up a new category for these Old Testament reflection papers called OT Weeklies. If all goes well, each new reflection paper will be posted automatically at 2:00 p.m. each Monday, when my Old Testament class convenes.

What follows is my reflection paper from the week of March 7. Enjoy!

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The thirty-sixth chapter of Jeremiah stands out as somewhat of an oddity in which readers are afforded a glimpse into the nitty-gritty of the prophetic process and the subsequent royal response. Chronological order has been disrupted in this middle section of Jeremiah: several chapters dealing with the reign of Zedekiah, Judah’s final king, are followed by this flashback to the days of Jehoiakim. First, although Yahweh appears to order Jeremiah to write a scroll (Jer 36:2), the prophet immediately chooses to dictate to Baruch, his scribe and assistant (Jer 36:4). I view this as an example of prophetic freedom, in which Jeremiah receives the word of Yahweh and is allowed to make key decisions about the development of the message. Yahweh furthermore permits dissemination on Jeremiah’s terms, as when the prophet chooses to have the scroll read aloud from a balcony on the event of a fast (Jer 36:10). Additionally, Jeremiah must have been granted the liberty to present Yahweh’s message in a certain manner, choosing from the many words that Yahweh spoke to him to that point. Perhaps the scroll contained some combination of the first 22 chapters of our present book of Jeremiah, including the metaphors of the linen loincloth and the potter and the clay in addition to harsh words of judgment.

Whatever the scroll may have said, we note that the message was shocking enough that Micaiah and Jehudi combined to request additional readings of the scroll (Jer 36:11-14), and eventually they question Baruch on the manner in which the scroll came to be written. The responses of Jehoiakim and his officials stand out against those of Micaiah and Jehudi, however. The king and his men elect to “play it cool,” calmly destroying the scroll piece by piece in a manner tantamount to choosing whom they will serve (Jo 24:15). Victor H. Matthews notes that none of the king’s men tears their clothes in grief, instead shearing Baruch’s scroll to “remain faithful to its covenant with Nebuchadnezzar, even if it means that it has abrogated its treaty with Yahweh.”[1] Pamela J. Scalise draws attention to the distinctive contrast between the fire that Jehoiakim uses to consume the scroll of Baruch and the eventual “conflagration of judgment that would destroy the nation and his royal line.”[2]

With key elements of the pericope illuminated, we can now tackle the thorny questions of authorship and motive for this chapter. While some scholars insist that the canonical chapter originate with Jeremiah or Baruch, they are unable to properly account for the phenomenon of third person voice that permeates every mention of the prophet and his scribe. Moreover, the story is full of what appear to be eyewitness accounts, parts of which we tacitly understand that either Jeremiah or Baruch would have been absent. Yair Hoffman opts instead for authorship by the biblically ubiquitous “anonymous omniscient teller.”[3] Furthermore, the form of the chapter deviates from most other biblical narratives given its “abundance of technical, administrative and factual data,” including names, places and dates, that would be more characteristic of “a kind of legal or official document, an accurate testimony.”[4] What, then, is the motive perpetuated by Jeremiah 36? Its literary elements serve to indict Jehoiakim, but Hoffman suggests that this is merely secondary to the intention of the author of the chapter, whom he views as the editor of our most basic form of Jeremiah. He suggests, “The author of the story wanted to validate his scroll and to substantiate his own editorial considerations. In order to achieve these purposes, he hitched his wagon to two stars: Jeremiah, and his faithful disciple and scribe, Baruch.”[5]


[1] Victor H. Matthews, Social World of the Hebrew Prophets (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2001), 124.

[2] Pamela J. Scalise, “Scrolling through Jeremiah: Written Documents as a Reader’s Guide to the Book of Jeremiah,” Review and Expositor 101, no. 2 (Spring 2004), 216.

[3] Yair Hoffman, “Aetiology, Redaction and Historicity in Jeremiah XXXVI,” Vetus Testamentum 46, no. 2 (April 1996), 181. Hoffman regards the scroll, rather than Jeremiah or Baruch, as the chief protagonist of chapter 36.

[4] Ibid., 183.

[5] Ibid., 189.

My Old Testament-Style “Prophetic Message”

For Old Testament, we students reflect weekly on “some topic, aspect or concept” from the volumes and volumes of assigned reading. I am limited to one single-spaced page each week, and in every case I’ve been forced to cut myself off from writing. So read knowing that my thoughts are manifold!

If you are interested in more selections from my School of Theology Coursework, follow the link to the category of SOT Coursework. I have also set up a new category for these Old Testament reflection papers called OT Weeklies. If all goes well, each new reflection paper will be posted automatically at 2:00 p.m. each Monday, when my Old Testament class convenes.

What follows is my reflection paper from the week of February 28. Enjoy!

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FIRST, a special note about this week’s reflection paper. I wrote in the traditional prophetic style, applying themes that are common through the prophets. Many of them are referenced below. Don’t crucify me, dear readers: I know full well what Jeremiah says about false prophets. I’m not actually claiming divine inspiration or prophetic status here. Thanks!

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Immersed this week in three minor prophets of the late seventh century, I became interested in what seems like the redundancy of the prophetic word. But for all of the repeated messages and allusions, the people of Judah were unable to respond to Yahweh’s incessant call to save their nation. While the American Christian church is not threatened by a military foe like Babylon, the second chapter of Habakkuk saddened me for the state of our empire that, while proclaiming liberty and freedom, equally oppresses the people of the world and obfuscates the life of faith. What follows is my reflection on the prophets we have studied thus far in the semester, and an application of their messages I believe to be relevant to the modern church.

The word of Yahweh that came to Rob Heaton Ben-Donald of St. Louis in the third year of President Obama:

My chosen people, my royal priesthood, says Yahweh,
they have fallen far from me,
they no longer can see me.

I have raised this people to bring blessing to a troubled world,
but they have learned nothing from the demise of Israel,
and even less from the fall of Judah.

Every desire of my heart, says Yahweh,
is to rejoice over them with gladness,
to renew them in my love (Zep 3:17).

Are they interested in that?
Will they be a people who seek truth?
Can they follow the example of radical inclusiveness?
Can they be a light unto the world,
that I may once again shine through it and take delight in my creation?
They,

Who are impressed when they erect magnificent buildings,
Thinking their height brings them closer to me,
Or that their great volume can better accommodate my glory.

Who wave their national flag boisterously,
And with incessant pride applaud their warriors,
When such exuberance should be reserved only for me.

Who trounce the globe holding the rifle with two hands,
Relegating the good news to their day-pack.
Bullets and bombs are their chief exports,
Bibles are far behind.
In which does their trust lie?

Who obsess over the size of their savings,
Building their nests on high,
Hoarding their lives from the Lord,
Safe from the reach of harm (Hb 2:9).
To what benefit is their accumulation when but bones they will become?

Who burden the world with a particular set of beliefs,
Their dogmatic assent to this or that
Overshadows applying the life of faith.

Who continually divide themselves among doctrinal lines,
Striving to prove to themselves that they are more right
than their brother.

Who stand by idly while my people are oppressed in their midst;
Why would they dirty their hands with the problems of their world,
Of the homeless man, of the battered woman, or of the orphaned child,
When they have grasped eternal life,
When their salvation has surely been reached?

Who vow to dedicate their entire lives to knowing me,
Yet gladly settle for lesser versions of my truth.
“I hate, I despise” their worship ceremonies;
I take no delight if they cannot express belief with their lives.
My ears are turned from the noise of their mouths (Am 5:21 NRSV, 23).

Who claim to know my word, yet care not what it says,
And even less, why it says.
In pursuit of relationship with me, they lose sight of my story, says Yahweh.

Who selectively ostracize their neighbors based on sin and perceived sin;
So easily they forget where they came from,
The people they once were.

If they really believed that the kingdom of God was at hand,
Wouldn’t I be able to see it in their lives?
For the life of faith is not about rules and regulations to follow,
But rather me to follow, says Yahweh.

For, “what does Yahweh require of [his people]
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with [their] God?” (Mi 6:8 NRSV)

In past days I have raised up other nations to destroy this people, but no longer.
For they have proven perfectly capable of destroying themselves,
Of detaching from me, of forgetting their mission,
Of becoming worthless (2 Kgs 17:15).

But I, Yahweh Adonai, “a God merciful and gracious,
Slow to anger, and abounding in hesed and faithfulness,
keeping hesed for the thousandth generation” (Ex 34:6-7 NRSV),
I do not change.

In love, I shall continue to pursue my people.
Who knows? They may repent and change their lives;
they may turn from their staunch individualism and their cheapened faith,
so that they may live evermore for me (Jon 3:9).