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 🙂
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, 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.” 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.