Forces Acting within the Church of God over the Last Several Decades have Created a Genre of what are Regarded as “Independent” Christians. How should we Regard those who Sidestep Strict Organizational Loyalty?
In the middle decades of the twentieth century, a movement within the Churches of God began to gain a momentum not seen previously in the modern era. What began as a radio-based ministry took root and grew exponentially, providing a nucleus for a potent organization that changed the landscape of the Church for the next several decades. From relatively simple beginnings, that organization grew to become the most dynamic within the spectrum of organizations previously known. It created waves among its predecessors, but even more among the evangelical religious community. That organization attained a credibility we, a generation later, can only hope to regain.
But, while some things were exemplary, growth also brought problems of a rather intractable sort that eventually became unmanageable and led to the precipitous demise of that organization. So long as God led the Church, growth was impressive. But, human nature being what it is, political agendas and errant perceptions were brought into play. Interpersonal posturings, those common within the organizations of men, created a situation that eventually rendered the organization structurally undermined. Then when spiritual ineptitude gained the chief seat, it all came apart rather quickly.
But from its shattered’ remnants,’ several nucleus organizations were formed intending to preserve and, to the greatest extent possible, replicate what once had been. The problem is that certain of the characteristics these various remnant groups want so much to replicate contain the embedded elements, which were the factors that caused the problem. Some ‘successor organizations’ have even taken these characteristics and amplified them to a much greater degree than ever was seen in the Church in its best days.
A prime example is the demand for unconditional ‘organizational loyalty.’ In fact, among some, the strictest of organizational loyalty is required. In the nineteen-eighties, it was alleged that ones’ salvation would be forfeit should the Christian ever withdraw from that one organization. Incredibly, that idea still holds a few in its grip, causing them to remain with the old organization, despite it now being apostate, having cast off its former teachings, and even changing its name to sever all association with its former reputation. They still ‘hold fast’ to the memory of what it had been, as though it would someday miraculously reappear from within itself.
Externally, we see others attempting to “raise the ruins,” as they say, by preserving the memory of what had been, and incorporating key elements, good or bad, into their replica organization, without due regard for the real reason why it all fell into ruin in the first place! Again, being exclusive with their ‘one-and-only’ organization is touted as essential to ones’ very salvation.
But from this climate, a generation of scattered sheep also emerged. Having been battered by unpleasant experiences, most find themselves jaded and reluctant to wade back into the political fray still common among the various successor groups.
From the inside, members of the successor organizations cast a negative eye toward (and even will expel) any regarded as ‘independent.’ Nothing but whole-hearted support of their organization is accepted. Their organization is seen as the very Work of God, and no suggestion of a broader inclusiveness is acceptable. Though the old term, ‘not a dime’s worth of difference,’ is often the assessment of impartial observers of their respective doctrinal positions, these groups mutually exclude each other. It’s generally unacceptable that a UCG member attends with LCG or either of them with the PCG! Even though their ministers were trained and credentialed in the same institution, and in some cases, by the same person, they wouldn’t be allowed to speak before each other’s congregations. Not so much due to any doctrinal differences, but because of their organizational orientation.
Yet these all (separately) regard themselves as the Church of Brotherly Love! But, in fact, it was the absence of practical love that helped create the counterproductive environment within the original organization. We’ve gained very little in that area since. Though a certain inward-reflecting love is evident within the various organizations, that love is limited, conditioned mainly on loyalty to the organization. A love, one being broad enough to be ‘extended abroad’ based on the indwelling of God’s Spirit, is not seen in very many situations. We are not yet that enlarged of heart!
(It would be interesting to see what would happen if a True Saint from a former age were to be made alive and brought into one of these modern congregations without them being made aware of who that individual was. What kind of reception would that person receive? I think we know the answer.)
An Inserted Intermediary
One of the major stumbling blocks we placed in our own path is the idea of a minister (or group of ministers) being placed in an intermediary position between ourselves and God. Wonderful organizational charts were produced in the early 1980s showing a man in a chief leadership position within the Church. (implying an office of the supreme ‘authority position,’ second only to Jesus Christ) Though it might’ve worked reasonably well in one situation, it proved to be very temporary! It served to create a loyalty to the leadership, but when it was attempted to transfer another man into that charted office, it served to authorize an agenda of apostasy, and the overthrow of all God had built into His Church. We were stymied by our own doing. We dared not challenge; we dared not speak out. We allowed an essential component to be effectively canceled out of our relationship with God. The idea of a ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus Christ was a minor consideration if even mentioned at all! We were to relate to God through our chief minister (the apostle) as a prominent evangelist drummed into us so adamantly. 1
It was the severing of the direct link between ourselves and our Chief Apostle, Jesus Christ, our only intermediary, and the insertion of a human office between the individual and God that removed from within the Church its true stabilizing element. The ‘pillars and grounds of the truth’ 2 were effectively stripped of their God-ordained responsibility! Even the ordained ministry of the organization was short-circuited. Any who spoke up, especially early on, were dismissed by a membership oriented to let top leadership do all the decision-making. Thinking ‘dissidents’ were quickly spun off! Small followings gravitated toward a few outcast ministers, but not all of the causes of our problems were fully resolved in them, even with those who realized what was wrong!
Despite the suppressive climate, a few began to come out of that self-induced ‘organizational orientation,’ turning back into their Bibles and broadening their awareness of what God expects of those who have His Spirit. To some degree, these found themselves at odds with the professional ministry in direct proportion to how oriented that ministry was to its organization. (We must keep in mind that there was a paycheck to consider.) Those individuals, seen as ‘independents, were diminished in reputation, and in some cases, expelled from service or attendance.
Trained to Be…?
We need to ask ourselves, we who were ‘trained’ for decades in the Church, at what point in time are we sufficiently trained to where we can walk by faith? Was the training we received adequate for use in our lives, or not? The consideration by the ministry that we are still ‘babes in Christ, still needing to be fed the milk of the Word’ should provide us with a partial answer. Some are still underdeveloped spiritually. It’s not entirely the fault of the teaching establishment.
But then we have the flip side of that, where the ministry wants to keep the membership held to a certain limited competence level in order to discourage them from ‘walking by Faith’ as that would put more stress on their oversight than they’d want to have to deal with.
Two Kinds of Independent
As the membership matured, and as the break-up of the established organization occurred, independents began to emerge more and more. Perhaps that was God’s ultimate intent! But as in any such situation, there’s the danger of ‘independent thinking’ people drifting into varying degrees of error. It is the exposure to brethren that can help channel any drift. “Iron sharpens iron,” we were told so often. Will we motivate ourselves to do that? Can the membership function effectively in that capacity? Those who survive through the trials in the end-time are those who “speak often one with another.” (Mal. 3:16) Are our eminent organizations fully comfortable with members doing that?
Two kinds of independents can develop, that kind who shies away from contact with others, usually finding too little common ground to warrant fellowship, and the kind who is amenable to a broader spectrum of organizations and fellowship situations, recognizing the presence of God’s Spirit as the prime consideration for fellowship, not just a person’s organizational affiliation.
Though the label ‘independent’ carries a negative connotation in many of today’s Churches, there’s a kind of independent who can be an asset in the greater fellowship of Saints. To distinguish them from the isolationist type, we should perhaps recognize them instead as “At Large Christians,” those who are willing to extend an open hand of fellowship based on the indwelling of God’s Spirit, as evident by the fruits in ones’ life, not strictly on ones’ organizational affiliation. Being exposed only to ‘the choir’ is a dampener on real growth.
Were the first century Churches of either type? Were they strict exclusivists, or did they face into a broader fellowship situation than our members today would be comfortable accepting? Negative situations they experienced provide some answers to that question.
Yes, There ARE Challenges
Paul experienced ‘perils among brethren’ (2nd Cor. 11:26) and was poorly treated by associates. (2nd Tim. 4:10-15) John, the apostle, was barred from contact with the true brethren by a local minister in at least one notable situation. (3rd John 9-10) Were these endorsements of ‘isolationist or exclusivist’ policy? Would we be stronger or weaker if we succumbed to our fears of facing life’s challenges?
Can we fulfill our personal responsibilities to the greater fellowship of faith when we withdraw into our organizational ‘safe zone’ as we perceive it? When we opt to withdraw, we do a disservice to the others in other organizations or other fellowships who would benefit from exposure to challenges to any narrowed thinking. Iron does sharpen iron! Open meaningful dialog spurs more effective study!
When we attempt to achieve ‘organizational purity’ (often presented as ‘being of like mind’) by being exclusivists, we risk being remiss in our responsibility to uphold the Truth as God has allowed us to understand it, and we deny ourselves the benefit of the growth opportunities that come with challenges. There will always be diversities of Gifts; there will always be a new generation that needs to be worked with to convey to them the same understanding we have developed by years of being led by God’s Spirit. Opting to be reticent has few benefits, not to ourselves and not to others of like mind! We need to strive to mature more fully in faith, grace, and knowledge.
1My lengthy study paper on “Government Concepts” provides a transcript of one such typical sermon from early 1980. It was pointed out that God puts all truth into His Church only through the Apostle, God would never reveal anything to the likes of you! The Apostle can be 95% wrong and you 95% right and God will uphold the Apostle! We relate to God through the Apostle! (And similar statements!)
21st Timothy 3:16