Thursday, September 17, 2009

Rethinking Warner: Wiggle Room in the Church of God (Anderson)

I grew up in a pastor's home. My father was and is an ordained elder in the Church of God (Anderson), a Wesleyan-holiness Church; as a teenager I immersed myself in the early literature of my group (often called "the church of God reformation movement"). I, myself, responded to God's call and was ordained an elder of this Assembly in 1995.

One distinctive characteristic of the Church of God (Anderson) is an official position against having official positions, at least in a creedal sense. As two verses of Charles Wesley Naylor's heritage hymn put it in The Church's Jubilee:
The Bible is our rule of faith, and Christ alone is Lord,
All we are equal in His sight when we obey His word;
No earthly master do we know, to man-rule will not bow,
But to each other and to God eternal trueness vow.

The day of sects and creeds for us forevermore is past,
Our brotherhood are all the saints upon the world so vast;
We reach our hands in fellowship to every blood-washed one,
While love entwines about each heart in which God’s will is done.
The rationale for anti-creedalism was the conviction that since no creed could contain the entirety of the biblical record an official statement of beliefs would be "sectarian", divisive and wrong.

From the Church of God's website:
The stories and teachings of the Bible are not to be creedalized. We would not abbreviate the Bible and its teachings into a sixteen-sentence statement or expand it to a five-volume index of faith. We do appreciate short statements that are affirmations by a group or an individual. We can never suggest, however, that those statements adequately summarize the Bible. Nor are such statements wisely used as a basis to determine orthodoxy or membership in the church. Though we are tempted to make the Bible a list, a prescription, or a proposition, we remind ourselves that it is instead the Book of Life that vibrates with the stories of real persons and the living God.
And, as the late John W.V. Smith wrote:
The Church of God reformation movement was more than a series of emphases, however. It was a crusade to open the door of all truth. Some of the specific content of this truth was lifted up and proclaimed, but the limits of truth were never defined. That was left open, for God was still at work among his people and who could say when the boundaries of his revelation had been reached?
In theory we are a self-correcting institution. Daniel Sidney Warner biographer and friend, Andrew L. Byers, wrote the following in 1921:
The true church of God, comprising all Christians, has in her normal state under her divine head certain essential characteristics which make her exclusively the church, the whole and not a part. These might be expressed as follows:
  1. Possession of divine spiritual life. If the church does not possess this she is not Christ’s body and therefore not the church. She must know the Spirit of God.
  2. Disposition to obey all Scripture and to let the Spirit have His way and rule. This constitutes her safety in matters of doctrine and government.
  3. An attitude receptive to any further truth and light. This safeguards against dogmatism and a spirit of infallibility and intolerance, against interpreting Christianity in the light of traditions and old ideas.
  4. Acknowledgment of good wherever found and the placing of no barrier that would exclude any who might be Christians. This makes salvation, a holy life, and a Christian spirit the only test of fellowship, and disapproves all human standards of church membership and fellowship.
It is not assumed that Brother Warner was right on every point of doctrine or in every application of a Scriptural text, but that the movement, in addition to being based on correct Scriptural principles otherwise, possesses that flexibility and spirit of progress by which it adjusts itself as God gives light.
Fellow heritage hymn writer Charles Wesley Naylor put it bluntly concerning his friend, Warner:
In hundreds of instances he misinterpreted and misapplied texts, as do all who use his method. We have been compelled to reject a very large portion of his exegesis because it has proved to be unsound.
Byers reiterates:
[The church of God] does not assume to possess all the truth, but stands committed thereto, holding an open door to the entrance of any further light and truth.
So, historically the Church of God hasn't claimed to know everything and has claimed to be open to rethinking doctrine. However, it makes for some problems. Saying, "The Bible is our rule of faith" is noble and right but who decides what is the Faith that has been once and for all delivered unto the saints? With no written creed things hang a bit into theological ambiguity.

An old adage says, "The Constitution means whatever the Supreme Court says it means." In my affiliation ordination is proffered on the state level. In truth, for an ordination candidate the Church of God's doctrine is whatever his respective state's credentials committee says it is (and whatever the committee will allow in theological "diversity" before declaring a deal-breaker). One state may ordain a person that another state may reject. It's subjective.

I'm not arguing for a creed; I'd rather not straitjacket myself with a document produced by an ad hoc committee and debated/amended/ratified by an assembly. Also, as an amillennial Wesleyan-Arminian I don't live in fear of my ordination being yanked. Still, how much wiggle room exists for divergence of opinion? Byers stated that it existed in theory but does it in practice? What is a deal-breaker? What if an otherwise "orthodox" minister in the Church of God becomes convinced...

...that dispensational premillennialism is correct?
...that Scripture forbids women elders?
...that Footwashing is not an ordinance along with Baptism and Communion?
...that entire sanctification is not a second work of grace?
...that tongues are not known historical languages but "angel talk" to be used today?
...that John Calvin, not Jacobus Arminius, had the right idea about predestination?

Decades ago the Church of God had a large debate on how to understand the book of Revelation; was Frederick G. Smith right? Was Otto F. Linn correct? Amazingly enough, near a hundred years ago my group had a controversy over the possible sinfulness of wearing neckties!

Russell Raymond Byrum, writer of the immensely popular Christian Theology and former professor of theology at the precursor to Anderson University, was put on a "heresy trial" 1929. Though he was vindicated of the trivial charges he resigned from his position. It isn't always easy to deviate from the standard line.

How much wiggle room exists in the Church of God? If one is experiencing heat in one state for a doctrinal position should he flee to another state jurisdiction that will accommodate (or at least tolerate) his view?

My state of West Virginia has adopted the nationally produced Credentials Manual (2007 Revised Edition). It isn't terribly helpful in this instance because it leaves things in unsaid ambiguity and tension. The Manual reads in part:
Each candidate for ordination is to write theological statements on 14 issues to be reviewed by the credentialing committee. They are as follows:

• The nature and revealing activity of God;
• The nature and saving mission of Jesus Christ;
• The Holy Spirit's cleansing and gifting work in the believer's life;
• Ordinances of baptism, Lord's supper, and feet-washing;
• Human nature, sinfulness, and destiny;
• Salvation;
• Holiness;
• The nature of the church and church membership;
• The mission and role of leadership in the church;
• The nature and authority of the Bible;
• The kingdom of God;
• The second coming of Jesus Christ and related events.
The Manual then reads:
Although the Church of God movement honors theological freedom within the bounds of biblically based belief, those to whom vocational credentialing is granted are expected to hold persuasions that are in general agreement with the teaching tradition of the Church of God movement.
I understand the wiggle room given in the Manual. It gives the credentials committee breathing room on a case-by-case basis and it saves us from being "creedal", if you will. But I find it disingenuous and essentially worthless of merit.  It doesn't resolve the questions, does it? What is "general agreement"? Can a person get 12 of the 14 topics "right" and still "pass"? Surely the doctrine of the Trinity is more cardinal in agreement importance than, say, footwashing.

What saith the Scripture? What saith the state's credentials committee?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Church Growth the Wrong Way

Can a seeker-sensitive mega church pastor be a caricature of himself?