(Part 2 in 2 part article on How God Desires to Be Worshipped– Revealed at Shechem)
This article has been written particularly for those who are attending one of the many breakaway churches from the old Worldwide Church of God along with other Sabbath keepers who may be simply staying at home.
In Part 1 we saw how, apart from Jerusalem itself, Shechem was the most important city in Israel’s history. It was where Abraham first went when he came to the land of Canaan and there God promised to give his descendants the land. It was where all of the sons of Jacob, including Joseph, chose to be buried. It was where all of Israel gathered twice under Joshua to hear the words of the law read, the blessings and the cursings, at the foot of two mountains and for them to make a covenant with God to continue in His ways. Shechem was also a city of massacres at the hands of Simeon & Levi and hundreds of years later at the hands of Abimelech. It was also a city of repentance where the sons of Jacob, after the slaughter of the men of Shechem, buried their idols and hundred of years later the children of Israel under Joshua buried theirs. Shechem was also a city of divisions– not just during the times of the massacres, but this was where all Israel gathered only to divide under Rehoboam and Jeroboam. Jeroboam then resided at Shechem.
Jesus chose this very location to reveal to the Samaritan woman at the well that He was the Messiah and told her how God really wants to be worshipped in spirit and in truth– not any way or location as man sees fit. His disciples marveled when they saw Jesus talking to her and even she wondered why He was even speaking to her “for Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4:9). When His disciples saw the men of Shechem coming to them in the fields, Jesus told His disciples, “Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest!” (John 4:35). The historical divisive “us vs. them” attitude which existed during the days of ancient Israel and among the 1st century Jewish people had to end. It would take several years after the church began for the gospel to be preached to the Samaritans and then later to the gentiles. Still, in the hearts of some brethren, the “us vs. them” attitude among the Jewish brethren and gentile brethren continued on for decades. Even among brethren in the gentile church at Corinth, the “us vs. them” divisive attitude existed– “I’m of Paul,” “I’m of Apollos,” “I’m of Cephas”.
The lessons learned from Shechem are for us today in all of the churches of God, especially for those brethren who are attending congregations where many there were once part of the old Worldwide Church of God. The lessons are also for brethren who are no longer attending Sabbath services with anyone. There are times when we all need to spiritually step away in our minds to reexamine how we are worshipping God along with the relationships we have with other believers who are a part of the greater body of Christ. We should make sure that the “us vs. them” attitude doesn’t continue on among all of us who today are part of what Paul called “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16).
Examining ourselves in how we worship God and our relationships with other believers first begins with drawing close to God and seeking His will and understanding– looking at everything from His perspective. We need to “think outside the box” so to speak as God doesn’t reside in a box. The actual teaching of Christ at Shechem was that God desires to be worshiped in spirit and in truth in a relationship that transcends all religious human trappings. He is not in a box, on a mountain or a place where our access to Him is through other human beings at a temple. Through Christ Jesus we can each come before our Father’s throne. We call Him Abba, Father. Our Father is not someone we draw near to once a week at the sanctuary or every few months on a holy day in a pilgrimage festival at the Temple. Emanuel, God with us, is here. Every day He sees you, He loves you and He watches over you. The very hairs on your head are numbered and He provides for you. God personally called you (it wasn’t a conference call). Your heavenly Father loves you, leads you and He teaches you as He instructed any father to do. So each day you should commune with your Father “…when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up” (Deut. 6:7). Your Father daily wants that personal relationship with you and He desires to be worshiped in spirit and in truth.
Jesus told the woman at the well that it’s not about this location or that one, but about God our Father who doesn’t reside on a particular mountain or in buildings made by human hands (Acts 7:48). It’s not about where you go, but who you are and as a new creature in Christ the growing relationship you have with Him. We are part of the body of Christ. We already know this and that the church isn’t a building, but it is the saints or called out ones. You don’t go to church, you are the church. Along the same lines, we also know that people may ask us, “What church do you belong to?” You aren’t supposed to belong to a church. We belong to Christ and are part of His body, which is not the “corpus” of a corporation or a church organization. You and I weren’t baptized into an organization of men, but into the body of Jesus Christ, accepting Him as our personal savior. Unfortunately, some brethren today can be subconsciously behaving as though they were baptized into a church organization and they feel that they somehow belong to a particular church. While they recognize other groups as being part of the greater body of Christ, they have never even considered occasionally visiting any other congregation outside of their own acronymic XYZ type of Church of God. There are also other brethren who, apart from health or distance reasons, are choosing to just stay at home each Sabbath and not venture out to visit any church of God congregation.
For the remainder of this article we’re going to look at what has happened and is happening among many brethren who were once part of the Worldwide Church of God. We’ll see the historical reasons for the distancing ourselves from one another and I’ll blend in my own personal experiences and lessons learned. While visiting other churches of God isn’t something each of us must do (we all have different personalities and gifts), it helps to understand what may be making us hesitant or reluctant to do so or what might be keeping many of our brethren away from even attending any church of God. The conclusion is that we should try to look at our relationships with our brethren from God’s perspective and not our own or what seems comfortable to us.
Over the years, whenever I occasionally go to visit any of the independent churches of God (not any with actual heretical teachings) or visit any of the various somewhat more centralized ones which are usually identified by their acronyms, I found brethren there who love God and an accepting ministry who love the brethren. Yet still, while almost all of them basically have the same beliefs and acknowledge other church of God groups as being part of the greater body of Christ, I find that most of the brethren in each group will only actually see one another at weddings or funerals. The differences between them are so minuscule I sometimes feel like the character Gulliver (in the book Gulliver’s Travels) among the Lilliputians who are arguing over which end of the egg should be opened first (“us vs. them”). The actual differences among the brethren in the NT churches (including those 7 churches in Revelation) were 10 times greater than what many of the various churches of God have now, but we are too often known by our intolerance and divisions instead of our love for one another. We are all part of a ministry of reconciliation which, through love and example, should also include a reconciliation with one another. There are brethren, however, who might even be living in the same neighborhood and shopping at the same marketplace looking for matzo crackers during the days of Unleavened Bread, but they don’t know each other even exists. There are brethren in the various independent and more centralized churches of God congregations who are driving 45 minutes to Sabbath services while passing each other on the highway to go to their respective congregations singing, “we are not divided, all one body we; one in hope and doctrine, one in charity….” In reality, while brethren acknowledge the other churches of God to be “fellow citizens of the saints and of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19), they will usually have nothing to do with each other as they are attending what is in their own minds to be “the best church of God.”. Even old friends from years gone by don’t really have peace with one another. They only have a type of truce as they avoid seeing each other (out of sight, out of mind),. This should not be the case. There are also probably thousands of brethren out there who, apart from health or distance reasons, are choosing to just stay at home each Sabbath and not attend anywhere. For some of them this can be because of past actions made by an overbearing, unloving WCG ministry, two thirds of whom back in 1995 lead the family and friends of members back into orthodox Christianity. Today, many brethren want nothing to do with organized religion, especially anything resembling the past “government from the top down” practice of any church organization. You may even be wondering “what ever happened to so & so?” Some may have wondered the same thing about me as I have about them.
For me personally, I’ve had to look at myself in the mirror and change my attitude toward other ministers and brethren in various church groups. For two decades my primary source of a “Sabbath service” had been with my wife and a friend reading our Bibles together. Between 1995 and 2016 my wife and I at Passover time usually observed the Lord’s Supper at home by ourselves. Apart from attending an independent Feast site, all through that time period we pretty much kept to ourselves. During those years I wrote articles for The Journal (while it was still publishing) and for this website. In 2017, after my wife and that friend had died, I found myself mainly tuning into services online. I came to realize, however, that I had not been putting into practice the practical application of God’s love toward His children. I had been occasionally giving sermons as a guest speaker, but not living those sermons. Intellectually I knew that the church was to function as a body with many members, but I wasn’t with a brother in Christ who may have lost his job nor was I visiting a sister in Christ who was suddenly taken to the hospital. I was practicing a form of spectator Christianity and not bearing any burdens of other brethren and so I was not fulfilling the law of Christ. If we aren’t careful, we can set standards for fellowship so high that we can almost gravitate into being like spiritual hermits, figuratively staying at home to bury our talent and wait on the Lord. We art supposed to be active participants within a body of believers so when one member suffers we all suffer. Imperfect as any body of believers might be, we are to be loving examples of salt & light. We need to seriously ask ourselves “What would Jesus do?” If you are currently staying at home each Sabbath, you may be learning a lot from your personal Bible studies, but please reconsider what you are doing. Maybe it’s time to get off the couch and begin making the practical application of what you know to be your true function within the body of Christ. Looking at my own situation back in 2017, I saw what I had been doing was wrong and therefore (in the greater Portland, Oregon area) I more frequently started attending with other congregations. This included an independent group that, because of the distance between them only met on the third Sabbath of each month in Woodburn, Oregon. I also later often attended with a new local Church of God, International (CGI) group in Kalama, Washington.. As I was frequently traveling to Southern California, where my aging mother lived, I also attended services there with brethren in various independent groups on the Sabbath and Holy Days. This occasionally included the United Church of God (UCG) in Los Angeles where I had some old friends serving in the ministry there. As it happened, one time while visiting a UCG congregation with my sister in Orange County California, I met, then fell in love with and in 2021 married my wonderful wife Kerry, a widow who is a long time member of the UCG. While I’m now primarily attending with local UCG congregations (although I’m not a member), Kerry and I will both still occasionally meet with other Sabbath keeping church of God groups.
In occasionally visiting other groups on the Sabbath or on Holy Days, I’ve found that in all of the churches of God, including the larger more centralized ones where I also have visited, they all for the most part have learned many lessons from the past mistakes we all have made. Those in the ministry aren’t perfect (none of us are) and they are still learning lessons, but they also aren’t like many of the controlling ministers many of us have seen in the old WCG ministry of the past and we shouldn’t from the sidelines stereotype them as such. The ones I’ve met truly love and serve the brethren. I would like to encourage brethren who are currently staying at home, to visit on the Sabbath, even occasionally, other churches of God. Their locations can be found by going to websites like Church of God Network. The same is true for those who have never visited a church of God outside of their current church organization. Notice, I wrote “visit”, not “join”. You or others in your congregation occasionally visiting another church of God isn’t giving approval of an organization’s past leadership decisions, but it’s merely acknowledging and spending time with other brethren within the greater body of Christ, many of whom are old friends– friends you once went to the Feast with, sang in the choir, your children played together and some were old college alumni or even are still Facebook friends. I would also like to encourage all of the more centralized churches of God to continue to have even more openness in their relationships with all brethren everywhere and be more inclusive, like it was in the 1st century churches of God.
I’m not in any way advocating for brethren to do any kind of church hopping each Sabbath (going from church to church) and not mainly attending with a primary congregation. Any visiting should only be done occasionally. Nor am I advocating an ecumenical movement to form one large church like it was in the old WCG in the 1960’s. & 70’s with congregations of 300 to 400 brethren which would have been an untenable number of people in the 1st century churches of God.. Among the various churches of God , however, there shouldn’t exist an “us vs. them” relationship between ministers or brethren in different groups. While there should be some organizational structure, we all should avoid the human tendency (with our good intentions) of going in the direction of exclusivity in our relationships with other brethren or ministers in different fellowship groups. We are all brethren– not competing club members. My hope is that those in leadership positions, nationally and locally within the various churches of God, will be better examples to the flock of behaving like true brethren as Christ desires. It may take some time, but we’ve got to begin to “tear down that wall” that so often divides us. Individually, even in a small way, we can take that first step.
For myself, what I’ve learned in visiting many of the various churches of God is that it’s very important to have a primary congregation where we each can function within the body of Christ as we have been taught in the NT. By the same token, however, in our mobile society and our proximity to one another, it’s perfectly alright to on occasion visit other congregations where old friends are or new ones are to be found. That’s how, as a widower, I met my wife while visiting a UCG congregation. Let’s face it, besides widows and widowers, there are also young ladies in their 30’s fellowshipping in smaller church of God congregations which have a lot of older married couples and maybe only a few single men who may not be compatible with them for marriage. These young ladies probably won’t meet “Mr. Right” by never visiting other nearby churches of God or only hoping to meet a special someone at a Feast site some 3,000 miles away from home. They and their brethren should feel free to occasionally visit other likeminded brethren regardless of any organizational differences. Visiting another congregation doesn’t mean proselytizing, causing divisions or comparing ourselves among ourselves. Anyone visiting would be a guest. “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt…” (Col. 4:6). We are to be loving our brothers and sisters in Christ as we are loved by Him. The same is true for those who may be visiting our primary congregation. We are to love one another and express that love in word and in deed. We are to “Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another” (Rom 12:10). Likewise, a visitor/guest isn’t to be seen as a prospective member for us to convince to join or be a part of what we consider to be a better church organization, but treated as a beloved brother or sister-in-Christ.
When it comes to visiting other churches of God, I’ve found that sometimes it’s the young people and not the old time members who feel more free to visit other churches of God. Many younger members aren’t carrying the baggage of intolerance that existed for decades in the old WCG where visiting other congregations outside of “the one true church” was strictly forbidden. They were only children or not even born when various church divisions occurred and family or friends were separated– often times not because of heresy, but over administrative differences driven by nothing but carnal human ego without any consideration for its affect on the brethren. Paul wrote in I Cor. 3:3 “For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you are you not carnal and behave like mere men?” For some of those who were children at the time those divisions occurred, the divisions they experienced back then were like a family being torn apart by divorce (“who do you want to live with, Mom or Dad?”). Many lost their childhood friends, but today these young adults and teens are still keeping in touch. We as older adults should do the same and turn our hearts to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. Thankfully however, thee are some old time members who are doing just that, and they feel comfortable occasionally visiting God’s people in different congregations or at a nearby Feast site. They are peacemakers, building bridges between brethren. So are some of the internet websites such as the Church of God Network, The Bible Sabbath Association and others which encourage interaction between brethren. Many brethren from different church organizations or independent groups are also still friends on social media, such as Facebook. They pray for one another and encourage one another, yet many may still be hesitant to worship with one another because of past divisions among their respective church organizations or their “best church of God” is more conservative or is doing a better job in spreading the gospel than the others. While, I’m not saying that as a Christian we must occasionally visit other churches of God, it may take some time, but if enough are moved by the Holy Spirit to occasionally visit another congregation, they would be like peacemakers throwing a rope across a divide while those on the other side are doing the same thing. If enough brethren are figuratively throwing ropes in each direction they would be building a bridge making it easier for others to have relationships among more of God’s children. We need to take an honest look at why we are not having loving relationships with other likeminded believers.
Historically, there have always been divisions among some of God’s people, even through acts of mistrust or questionable motives within the ministry. Such was the case that happened between Paul and Barnabas. Acts 15:39-40 reads, “Then the contention became so sharp that they parted from one another. And so Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cypress, but Paul chose Silas and departed….” Barnabas may have felt that Paul was saying untruthful, presumptuous things about Mark and that Paul was stubbornly insisting on having his own way. Paul may have felt that Barnabas was lacking sound judgement by insisting on taking Mark instead of someone like Silas. Yet years later we know that Paul never held a grudge against Mark or Barnabas. There was no hardness of heart between any of them. Sometimes when contentions are great and divisive it also takes time to heal those old animosities. Years later Mark was with Paul while he was in a Roman prison and was useful to him (II Tim. 4:11). Mark was probably also with Peter when he wrote the gospel account bearing his name. Paul sent greetings to the Colossian church from “Mark the cousin of Barnabas (about whom you received instructions: if he comes to you, welcome him),” (Col. 4:10). Paul and Barnabas didn’t come together to form one large mega-church or go out on another missionary journey together, but they recognized each other’s ministry and encouraged brethren to welcome those with different ministries within the greater body of Christ. Though they had separate ministries they were still beloved brothers in Christ and the brethren loved them both.
Most of the boundaries today that keep brethren apart in the various churches of God aren’t major doctrinal boundaries, but are only artificial ones created by men during times of sharp contentions. This too often has resulted in a party spirit of “us vs. them” and prejudices that can continue on for decades separating the brethren, which is what Paul taught against in I Cor. 1:10-17. Being judgmental, stereotyping others and avoiding one another (out of sight, out of mind) can be a way of preventing any cognitive dissonance that can occur when brethren actually get to know one another. Avoiding one another can also be a form of quiet retaliation for what others might have said or done to us. That ongoing “us vs. them” attitude was part of the tragedy exhibited in the city of Shechem’s history. It was also exhibited in the 1st century churches between the Jews, the Samaritans, the gentiles and others following a particular human teacher with all of them comparing themselves among themselves. Even an apostle like Peter along with many other Jews got caught up in the cultural divide between the Jewish brethren and the uncircumscribed gentiles when certain men from the Jerusalem church came to Antioch and Paul withstood Peter to his face (Gal. 2:11-14). Partisanship is even exhibited politically in America today and has spilled over into our churches.
Partisanship and stereotyping others is what Satan, the accuser of the brethren, wants to see happen. He wants to promulgate the rumor mill and turn brother against brother. Paul asked the question we all need to ask ourselves, “Is Christ divided?” (v-13). It’s not a question of your acknowledging brethren in other church organizations or independent groups as being technically part of the greater body of Christ, but it’s about avoiding ever seeing them. If you as a father had 5 sons and daughters who acknowledged you as their father and each other as siblings, but they never actually spoke to one another except for maybe briefly at a relative’s funeral, how would that make you feel? How does our heavenly Father feel when we do the same thing? “For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying: ‘I will declare Your name to My brethren; In the midst of the assembly I will sing praise to You'” (Heb. 2-11-12). We can’t call others brethren and treat them as though they are not.
We can have all kinds of “yeah, but…” excuses for not seeing other brethren, however, we should look at our relationships with others within the body of Christ from God’s perspective and consider how He feels. Sometimes we may find ourselves avoiding other ministers and brethren because of their past actions or inactions. Sometimes it’s because of a difference of opinion on something like a doctrinal point 17, subsection 2a or some other difference of opinion.. We need to remember, however, that the love, mercy and forgiveness that Jesus taught on the sermon on the mount wasn’t conditional upon “as soon as they admit they were wrong and I was right, then I’ll forgive them, treat them like brothers and show them mercy and love.” As we look back on our lives, I think we all have regrets over our own past actions or inactions and we appreciate the great patience God has shown us, giving us time for repentance. We’ve learned many lessons, have changed and we should allow for that change to occur in others. If today Paul could have written a letter to all of us in the various churches of God (including those brethren who each Sabbath are just staying at home like I used to do), I imagine he might have written to us, “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all…. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:1-6, 31-32). He also would have written, “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you must do. But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful” (Col. 3:12-15). We are all to get rid of the artificial barriers keeping us apart and start behaving as true brethren the way Christ sees us. We are God’s children and though we make mistakes, He delights in all of us.
In His Father’s house, Christ is not arranging abodes for us on separate floors so 10,000 years from now we can avoid running into someone who was once a part of the acronymic XYZ Church of God. He’s not saying, “Now those who were in the UCG will be on this floor, COGWA members over there, LCG brethren, CGI brethren, those who stayed at home or supported Mr. Phil N. DeBlank’s end time ministry, those of Apollos and others of my fold who they never heard of, will all also be on separate floors so they’ll never have to see one another.” Today, right now, He walks among our various candlesticks. We are His people and the sheep of His pasture. As such we are to reflect the love of God toward each other as we will be spending eternity together. Our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life and we are His bride. By example, we need to become peacemakers among all of God’s people and avoid the “us vs. them” party spirit of Shechem that goes against the oneness prayed for by Jesus in John 17. We each should also reread I John 4:4-21 in prayer, including v-11 “Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.” As we are walking in the light we should have fellowship with one another (I John 1:14). My purpose in writing this and other articles on my website along with my fellowship in any of the Sabbath keeping churches of God is to point my brethren to Jesus Christ, to love one another and get back to the faith once delivered to the saints. Our relationship with our Father and with His children is through His Spirit as we are all new creatures in Christ.
Worshipping God in spirit and in truth isn’t dependent on where you fellowship, but on who you are (oil in your lamp). Some brethren today may feel uncomfortable visiting with other congregations because once upon a time there was a corporate decision made by some selfish ministers. Others may feel uncomfortable visiting with another group of brethren because once upon a time they left the WCG on the wrong year during the 1970’s or in 1992. Another person is independent or is staying at home and doesn’t want to even visit one of the larger more centralized organizations because he doesn’t trust some of the ministers who behaved like hirlings in early 1995 and he has stereotyped all ministers as being untrustworthy– especially those who are perpetuating a somewhat hierarchical type of church government. Yet all of us should never forget that God is a God of second chances and we all have regrets over past decisions we’ve made. We should allow for changes and growth in others (as Paul did with Mark), including those within the ministry. By the same token, some in the ministry need to figuratively “leave their gift on the alter” and be reconciled with others who may have ought against them. We all have different experiences and it may take time for some wounds to heal, but when individually the time is right for each of us, we should feel free to occasionally visit with one another in the various churches of God, even if it begins just socially. We are all God’s people and joint heirs with Christ..
Ask yourself what the reasons might be that you have been avoiding other brethren within the greater body of Christ. Sometimes our avoiding one another can be nothing but a carryover of that familiar tradition of men created in the old WCG where for decades brethren were taught to avoid visiting another group outside of what we had called “the one true church”. Back in the 1970’s leaving the WCG (or being fired by HQ) made you a “persona non grata“– someone to be avoided. Many brethren back then who went with the Church of God, International (CGI) or various independent groups were fired, disfellowshipped, marked and were told by church pastors that the brethren were to have nothing to do with them. Predictions were made by ministers and members in the WCG that those “liberals” who are no longer with us were becoming too Protestant and they would soon be doing away with keeping the Sabbath and the Holy Days (actually just the opposite happened). When I left the WCG in 1978, I was told by the college security at the Pasadena campus that I was no longer welcome to set foot on the Ambassador College campus. My aunt never spoke to me again until 10 years later briefly with a polite nod at my grandmother’s funeral and then I never saw her again because I had left the one true church. By leaving the WCG each of us in the CGI and other groups had become “persona non grata” and lost many of our church friends and some family members in the process. Yet, although I can’t speak for all of the old timers like myself who experienced that ostracizing, we hold absolutely no animosity toward those who ostracized us or spread rumors or made accusations or false predictions about us, because Christ and His Apostles taught us not to. We should from our heart forgive our brother his trespasses (Matt. 18:35) and not let any bitterness or resentment reside within us. It can be easy for some who have been wronged by overbearing ministers in a corporate church organization to get in a mental cycle of victimhood– kind of like someone going through a bad divorce because of an abusive or uncaring spouse and thus singing the old Eric Carmen song, “Never gonna fall in love again… no, I never wanna feel the pain” (then a few years later after some healing realize that the problem wasn’t with marriage, but with the wrong person). Many brethren who may have felt hurt or betrayed or saw their families torn apart by certain ministers or misguided Pastor Generals are feeling like “never gonna be a part of any organized religion again.” They had practically dedicated their entire lives to the old WCG which betrayed them. Those of us who left the WCG earlier understand the concerns of many scattered brethren who are avoiding organized religion or anything resembling the old WCG corporate culture. We understand having suspicions, yet we also fully understand Christ’s personal guidance in our lives and no man (or church organization) has any control or power over you except the power that you give him. I feel free to visit anywhere because we aren’t to put our trust in men like we did in the old WCG organization, but we are to hear our Shepherd’s voice and act accordingly.
Over the years, in every church division which has occurred, there are often men in leadership positions who behaved carnally or politically rather spiritually. For some, during various church divisions, it may take time for us to forgive from our heart a brother who trespasses against us, but if we draw near to our Father, seek His help and hear our Shepherd’s voice, we can do that. As time and years go by, especially as we age, I think all of us older members and ministers who are now living in our 70’s and 80’s can look back on our lives and have regrets about our own past actions or inactions. We need to give up any unforgiveness or resentment that may still reside in our hearts and love all of the brethren as Christ does. The continued practice of avoiding at all costs any brethren outside our own organization (an old WCG church policy) needs to end. By 1995, this practice of avoiding other groups decimated the WCG. In the early 1990’s there were loving ministers in the CGI and the Global Church of God (some are now even pastoring UCG and LCG congregations) along with other ministers in independent congregations, giving messages about the true meaning of law and grace. They were speaking out against the trinity doctrine being promulgated by the WCG leadership, but most WCG members never heard them or even knew the other groups existed because the unscriptural “us vs. them” WCG tradition of avoiding other groups was being practiced. This carryover tradition of men needs to be seen for what it is and eliminated.
Brethren who previously avoided others outside of what they once considered to be “the one true church” are applying the exact same practice today concerning those brethren outside of what they consider to be “the best true church”. It’s like they’re somehow being disloyal and feeling guilty if they occasionally visited elsewhere. Pastors can also be behaving as though they are part of a corporate franchise like being a manager at a McDonalds restaurant not wanting to be seen having lunch at a Burger King. They are ministers of Jesus Christ, not of the XYZ corporation or a competitive church franchise. While we should function in a primary congregation (bloom where you’re planted), there’s nothing wrong with occasionally visiting brethren at other nearby church of God services or Feast sites. It doesn’t mean we should visit congregations that are teaching heresy or those that are cultish (we can oftentimes listen to some of the past online sermons being given on a local church website to get a sense of their teachings). In most of those highly centralized exclusive church groups you wouldn’t even be welcome to visit them.
Another reason brethren separate from one another is a misconception of the idea that “we must all believe (or speak) the same thing.” That’s true for things that involve our salvation. Paul spoke out about those who preach another gospel, practiced major sin or were preaching heresy, but on secondary doctrinal issues or teachings, he allowed for many differences, especially for conscience sake, and so should we. Many divisions I’ve seen over the decades have involved things like calendar issues, sacred names or interpretations of prophecy or other things that don’t involve our salvation, but men will gather a following after themselves with an amplified “new truth” and off they go. After the split, those brethren will once again avoid seeing other brethren because “we all must believe the same thing” The reality is we as brethren needn’t agree on every single secondary doctrinal belief or interpretation of scripture nor should this cause divisions among God’s people. Had the NT churches practiced our modern day standards of church membership they would have broken up into hundreds of different little churches of God . There would be those of Apollos who would breakaway from others of Apollos that felt eating meat sacrificed to idols was not alright and then those brethren would split over eating meat sacrificed to idols being only that meat sold in the shambles Others would avoid seeing another church group who felt it was good to circumcise gentiles or another group was questioning Paul’s apostleship or something else. They all would have formed little bubbled echo chambers of special truth and would have been intolerant of other believers. All the little groups would have avoided seeing any other brethren, including brethren like those at Chloe’s house in Corinth because they all “must believe the same thing.” Paul spoke out against this divisiveness. He didn’t create conditional secondary doctrinal barriers or traditions between brethren in Ephesus, Corinth or Rome. When you think about it, the brethren in the 1st century churches of God probably couldn’t have recited the 24 or 30 or more qualifying doctrinal beliefs, along with many of their 3 or 4 sub-categories for each belief. Those are 50 to 60 shibboleths for church membership and qualifications for an overseer in some of today’s corporate churches, By some of today’s standards the Ethiopian eunuch would have been sitting in Philip’s chariot for hours and hours while Philip would be trying to get through points 17 thru 24 with all of their vital subsections and you could forget about trying to baptize 3,000 people in one day. The old WCG tradition that many of us experienced didn’t tolerate many (if any) differences in secondary doctrinal beliefs or ideas so there existed an atmosphere in the church of “don’t ask, don’t tell”. Back then, all truth regarding all matters no matter how big or how small came through church headquarters (something that never happened in the early churches of God until the 4th century under Constantine and his bishop of Rome). Thankfully, over the years more churches of God are becoming more inclusive than once was predominant in the old WCG. As long as you’re not causing divisions, it’s okay to have different opinions or perspectives on various topics. We all should have more understanding and acceptance of each other, like the Apostles were, as we’re all on different stages of growth in our sojourn to the Kingdom of God.
By the same token, our criteria for accepting or visiting other brethren who might be with a different church of God congregation shouldn’t be based on a narrow minded comfort zone or a barrier created in our own minds used as an excuse for avoiding other brethren. If we’re honest with ourselves, our uncomfortableness with others may even be a symptom of our own narrowmindedness or maybe even some insecurity within ourselves. Today there are some brethren who may feel uncomfortable visiting a congregation where some of the brethren there are wearing tassels, lift their hands in the air while singing praises and calling Him Yeshua instead of Jesus. Yet had they lived in the first century with that same attitude they never would have heard the teachings of the Apostles James, Peter or John, because many brethren in the Jerusalem church wore tassels, lifted holy hands above and Christ’s name was Yeshua (they may have even played a tambourine or other musical instruments). Some brethren may feel uncomfortable visiting a Feast site where they sing a lot of old Protestant hymns and the accommodations at the Feast aren’t very comfortable. Yet had they lived in the 1940’s or 1950’s with that same attitude they never would have heard messages from the old Radio Church of God where they sang many old Protestant hymns, most of the brethren camped in tents or lived in small booths or cabins during the Feast and they also wept at the end of the Feast while singing the old hymn “Blest Be the Tie That Binds”. Some may feel uncomfortable if the minister giving the sermon isn’t wearing a suit and tie. Yet had they attended the a Sabbatarian church in the early 19th century, I’m sure they would have heard some ladies bemoaning the fact that some of the men are starting to attend services not wearing their finest frilly blouses. Some might have said, “You should wear your finest attire before God to honor Him and dress more like Presidents Washington and Adams did. The next thing you know, men will be showing up to services wearing long trousers instead of their finest silk stockings going up to their knee.” There may have been brethren in the late 19th century bemoaning the fact that some ladies’ ankles were showing beneath their hemlines when they came to services. Fifty years ago there was a controversy over women wearing pants and if the zipper must be on the side. .When you think about it, our comfort zones are often nothing but what is familiar to us based on nothing but our own current cultural traditions. Each of us should be a little more open minded in how we worship God and not look for comfort zones as we outwardly compare ourselves among ourselves.
While there’s nothing wrong with having church traditions, we should never ever elevate them beyond what they are– just traditions, which unfortunately for some can become like stiff old wineskins and an intolerant criteria in how they can worship God. Do our traditions of men for some brethren create an intolerance or discomfort to any variation in how they worship God? Would it be alright to visit a church of God where the minister steps away from the pulpit to move around while he’s giving a sermon or he is addressed by his first name (as it was done among all of the apostle for “ye are all brethren”) or he later has a participatory discussion of the message given or the sermon is preceded with some contemporary Christian music instead of Dwight Armstrong hymns? Are we to be only comfortable with what is familiar in how we worship God or shouldn’t we all be more like a family, allowing for differences, including with those who have different understandings or others who might even be weak in the faith like it was in the first century churches of God? Jesus didn’t teach “blessed are the comfortable,” nor did any of His Apostles.
In the 1st century church, including those 7 churches in Asia Minor listed in Rev. 2 & 3, the churches of God were not a bunch of #2 yellow pencils. Had you lived back then and were traveling by land from Antioch to Rome, would you be reluctant to visit the church in Corinth or Ephesus or any of the other churches where Timothy might have been, because they had serious problems there or there were brethren who questioned Paul’s apostleship or had different ideas about circumcision, meat sacrificed to idols or had serious issues that Paul would later need to address? Where would you go to services or feel comfortable to attend? Their services probably wouldn’t have resembled anything we’re used to (read I Cor. 14). They would have been more participatory, yet everything being done decently and in order (v-40). How did a Christian living in the 1st century church decide where to fellowship? The answer for a brother-in-Christ in the 90’s AD living in the city of Laodicea was not for him to hop in a chariot and move to the city of Philadelphia so he could be in the “best” church of God. Nor was it for him to move 30 miles out of town and stay at home each Sabbath so as not to be influenced by a flawed church or avoid even visiting the church in Thyatira where many brethren there were putting up with that woman Jezebel. Those 7 churches in Asia Minor were all very different churches of God on 7 golden lampstands with Christ walking in their midst. Those letters written to the 7 churches were written for you and I as individuals to ponder. He (not they) who has and ear to hear, let him (not them) hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
We are all imperfect human beings trying to overcome our faults and weaknesses. As we can clearly see in all of the epistles and those letters to the 7 churches in Asia Minor, there is no perfect church. Our security isn’t in any church governance style or organization, but in our relationship with Jesus Christ. Over the years, for a variety of reasons, there exists today thousands of His sheep who have been scattered all over the place. I don’t say “lost”, just scattered. Like Elijah, you may not realize it, but there are thousands of brethren out there who figuratively have not bowed their knee to Baal. Both the shepherds in each congregation and all of the brethren in various congregations should socially reach out to old friends and others who are no longer attending with anyone. If you are one of those who have chosen to stay at home (like I used to do), perhaps so as not to be influenced by a flawed church, please reconsider what you are doing. Likewise, if you are one of those Sabbath keepers who after 1995, may have stayed in the WCG for 5 or 10 years or longer, but are reluctant to attend with others on the Sabbath out of concern that you might be judged or unwelcome, please change your mind and come visit one of the churches of God. God’s people, apart from health or distance reasons, should be with other brethren where they can have a function with other believers as we all are to exhort one another and stir up love and good works in one another, especially as we see the Day approaching. We are not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together as the manner of some can be (reread Heb. 10:24-25). We all have, through Christ, a lot of love and understanding through our life experiences to share with one another. As the sheep on Christ’s right hand, we are also to be taking care of the physical and emotional needs of “the least of these, My brethren.” I myself had stayed at home way too long listening to sermons online. We have a lot to offer the people of God and by example can show that love for them as we are all family.
Finally, something else we all should consider concerning our avoiding other believers is the fact that to a certain extent, we can be influenced by a growing social phenomena of aloneness and social isolation that has been taking place for the past several decades. Many of us grew up surrounded by family and friends interacting with us. Today, oftentimes our grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings and cousins often live hundreds of miles away so there is no frequent interaction between family members. Many of us don’t even know the names of the neighbors across the street. Today we can find ourselves spending hours and hours watching characters on TV and various news panels interacting with each other so it’s as though we are vicariously living our lives enjoying that interaction, but we are really just spectators. Social media, including Facebook and Twitter, has added to modern society’s decline in physical interaction and a growing aloneness that was only magnified during the Covid pandemic. Kids aren’t seen outside riding their bikes together or playing games with each other, but are instead in their bedrooms playing video games or staring at their smart phones. People can be seen sitting at restaurant staring at their phones instead talking to one another. More and more people are working from home on their computers instead of going into an office. Today we can find ourselves spending hours by ourselves on our computers, smart phones and watching TV. We in America have become a nation of couch potatoes and so have many of our children.. Over the past 20 years the TVs have gotten thinner while Americans have gotten fatter. Social isolation has also affected all church denominations everywhere and there is a general societal disillusion with all organized religion. All that has been happening in our modern day culture has also been affecting the churches of God. Brethren, we can study the cultural and societal influence on the churches in Corinth, Ephesus, Rome and Laodicea, but we shouldn’t underestimate the influence of today’s culture of social isolation. It’s time for all of us to reread all of those instructions in the NT using the phrase “one another.” This includes greet one another, loving one another, provoking one another to love and good works, forbearing one another in love, exhorting one another, confessing your faults one to another, forgiving one another, bearing one another’s burdens, encourage one another, edify one another, being kindly affectionate to one another etc.. You and I can’t do that while sitting at home and just watching a sermon online. On the Sabbath we could and should an be interacting with other believers and we can always still listen to various online sermons another time. We all as a family need one another. No man is an island (“just you and me Lord”) and whenever and however it is possible, we should be with one another and not forsake the assembling of ourselves together..
We have a function within the body of Christ as lively stones and by isolating ourselves from one another we are not fulfilling the law of Christ.. Christianity isn’t to be a spectator type of “churchianity” where the purpose of church attendance is to “inculcate your spiritual food for the week”. That’s something that can be done at home by just watching sermons online. If that’s all there is, you can soak up information and be just a hearer of the word without having to deal with the messiness of forbearing one another or restoring a brother who is overtaken in a fault or actually look after the needs of “the least of these my brethren.” or any of the other “one another” instructions given by the apostles. Staying at home we can gain all kinds of biblical and spiritual knowledge by soaking up sermons online, but it’s absolutely nothing without the love shown in I Cor. 13 and actually being a doer of the word by doing what Christ and His apostles told us should be done. Of course, there are always exceptions for not being able to physically be with other brethren because of health or distance reasons.. Paul had those exceptions while traveling by sea and when he was in prison where social interaction within a congregation wasn’t possible. You can still by other alternative means interact with others by text or phone (or by letters like Paul did). Paul also prayed fervently for the brethren. Whether you are in regular fellowship in a local congregation or are currently staying at home, however, we should not let other believers be “out of sight, out of mind.”
If you are one who for the time being for various reasons still want or need to stay home on the Sabbath, consider having several other brethren to be with you to watch online services and read your Bibles together. During the 1st century many brethren met in homes. If this isn’t an option, maybe there’s an older brother in Christ who feels almost imprisoned while residing in a nursing home who would love for you to come over with your laptop so you both could watch services together and have some good conversation. Jesus said to the righteous, “… I was sick and you visited Me. I was in prison and you came to Me” (Matt. 25:36). If you are regularly attending a church of God congregation and aren’t already doing so, consider inviting into your home over the Pentecost weekend or other Holy Days those who may be living too far away to regularly attend Sabbath services. Be given to hospitality and as Jesus taught, invite to your feasts those who can’t return the favor (Luke 14:13). Look for some variations to bring more interaction between brethren. The Church of God, 7th Day in Oregon used to have what they called a Super Sabbath. That is where on the first Sabbath of each month, those who lived a little further away and couldn’t regularly attend services would try to make it to services on that 1st Sabbath so at least once a month many brethren from outlying areas could all be together. Brethren should be with other brethren as often as is possible. This can include the occasional congregational social events and the willingness of some brethren to occasionally visit other nearby church of God congregations.
As some brethren are moved by the Spirit to occasionally visit other congregations (again, not those which are divisive, uninviting or are teaching heresy), if they discover that the brethren there where they visit aren’t as warm and friendly or joyful as they should be or the brethren’s conversations there are more political than spiritually uplifting, as visitors we can be Christ-centered examples of warmth to our brethren there and initiate more Spirit-led topics (ask how God called them into His church and talk of God’s goodness). To the contrary, however, whenever I personally have visited any of the independent or the somewhat larger more centralized churches of God, I’ve found there’s a lot of likeminded, loving and welcoming brethren there, including those in the ministry. That’s the reality of what will usually be found when visiting other congregations. Sure, there will be exceptions in the attitudes of some brethren or ministers there, but “welcome to how it was in the 1st century churches of God.” Be a light and a peacemaker wherever you visit.
Some brethren in the churches you or others may occasionally visit were once part of the the old WCG and some never were. Still, if you are one of the old time members going way back to the Radio Church of of God days, you will remember that Loma Armstrong’s favorite Bible verse was Psa. 133:1 “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” Isn’t that true! One of her favorite hymns in the old gray Radio Church of God hymnal, that in the WCG hymnal was subsequently removed after her death, needs to be reinstated in some of the hymnals and sung once more by all of the people of God in the various church congregations. It reads as follows:
1. Blest be the tie that binds
our hearts in Christian love;
the fellowship of kindred minds
is like to that above.
2. Before our Father’s throne
we pour our ardent prayers;
our fears, our hopes, our aims are one,
our comforts and our cares.
3. We share each other’s woes,
each other’s burdens bear,
and often for each other flows
the sympathizing tear.
4. When we asunder part,
it gives us inward pain,
but we shall still be joined in heart,
and hope to meet again.
Let’s bind our hearts in Christian love and make our fellowship of kindred minds like to that above. What Jesus told the woman at the well at Shechem about worshiping the Father, wherever we are, in spirit and in truth is relevant for all of us who are Christians at all times. There have been many other messages over the millennia given from Shechem about repentance and believing God’s promises. By having Christ in you, by His Spirit, this is what we all should do. We’ve been sanctified and we are all unleavened (I Cor. 5:7). In all the various churches of God and with many brethren who may be staying at home, each year for one week we eat the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (v-8). Thousands of years ago, Joshua addressed the nation of Israel at Shechem and he called on physical Israel to repent and “serve Him in sincerity and truth” (Josh. 24:14). Such is the call for all of us in the churches of God (the Israel of God) to do the same. This has always been the end result that God desires. Look at everything, including other brethren in other congregations, from His perspective. See them as He sees them. We are all the sheep of His pasture with one Shepherd. We are joint heirs with Christ. We are the Bride of Chris.t. Our names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. We are all His ambassadors of a heavenly kingdom and we look to the same author and finisher of our faith. “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:1-3).
They say that “home is where the heart is.” Our true home is up above and every day in Christ Jesus as we sojourn in this human flesh we can worship our Father in spirit and in truth. We can love our heavenly Father, His Son and truly love one another in all our various congregations as we are seen and loved by them. This is the desire of our God and His Son, Jesus Christ, who for eternity loves us all. “Blessed be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love; the fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.”
Written by Lee Lisman