How God Desires to Be Worshipped–Revealed at Shechem for the Church

(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.  It was also where all Israel gathered only to divide under Rehoboam and Jeroboam.  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.  Jesus chose this very location to reveal to the 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.  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.  The lessons learned from Shechem are likewise 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. 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 spiritual Israel.

By doing so, we can then see how God doesn’t want to be worshiped any way man seeks to worship Him.  We can objectively see how He also doesn’t want a form of shadow worshiping with a new special location or house of prayer to learn proper Torah observance from a rabbi or someone called “Pastor Bob.”  This doesn’t mean, as Christians, He doesn’t want us to come together.  To the contrary, we are still to come together in fellowship with other believers to “…consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:24-25).  Notice that that the 1st century brethren didn’t come together to sing a couple songs, inculcate their spiritual food for the week from a sermon and later after services over a beverage the guys are discussing the political happenings in the Roman Senate or wondering who’s going to win the Olympic games in Greece.

The purpose of our coming together is to stir up love and good works in one another and to exhort one another—including those brethren who are pastors and teachers.  We are not spectators, but participants as also is shown in I Cor. 14 with everything being done decently and in order for edification.   We should be wary, however, of falling into the trap of patterning our assemblies after familiar old Protestant traditions which could easily be called “churchianity”.  People tend to gravitate toward whatever is familiar. During the Protestant Reformation they got rid of the statues of saints and confessional booths, but kept the pews, the pulpits, the vaulted ceilings, the steeples, the sanctuary (sacred place), the days of worship, the clergy/laity divide and many of the basic functions of the Roman Catholic Church.  They fostered a culture of “churchianity” which often plays on the strong human desire of depending upon someone to play the role of the “holy man” or priest.  Pagan cultures feed on this human desire for a priest or shaman or holy man (a “go-between”) as a way to control people.  This was part of their comfort zone based on their own human desires.

Many men in orthodox Christianity will still today try to point others to a certain place and almost play the role of a priest or the holy man.  They will use semantics to make the church a building (which it is not), instead of the church being the saints or called out ones (you don’t go to church—you are the church).  Along the same lines, people may ask others, “What church do you belong to?”  You aren’t supposed to belong to a church.  You are to belong to Christ and are part of His body, which is not the “corpus” of a corporation or a church organization.

In orthodox Christianity, following a non-biblical Catholic and Protestant tradition, men will call the portion of a building where they meet a “sanctuary” (oftentimes with an alter).  Paul never called any place, including Chloe’s house, a “sanctuary” (sacred place).  We as Christians realize that our sanctuary is in Heaven where Christ is.  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 in buildings made by human hands (Acts 7:48), who wants to be worshipped in spirit and in truth.  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.

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 or corporate trappings.  God is our Father.  He is not in a box, on a mountain or a place where your access to Him is through other human beings.  He 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.  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).  When you were baptized you were told that you weren’t being baptized into an organization of men, but you personally were accepting Jesus Christ as your savior.  Your heavenly Father loves you, leads you and He teaches you as He instructed any father to do each day, so 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, who loves you and who daily wants that personal relationship with you, desires to be worshiped in spirit and in truth—not just once a week or in a way that you or I may see fit or in a Hebraic shadow form or in the form that makes up much of orthodox Christianity today. 

Jesus told the woman at the well about a “fountain of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:13).  If the Holy Spirit of God dwells in you, then you have that fountain of living water and can say as Paul did, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).  We belong to Christ and hear His voice.  Through Him we can worship the Father in spirit and in truth.  Throughout all of the gospel accounts and the epistles in the NT, Christ wants us to be at one with He and the Father and we are to love one another as He loves us.  We are not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together.

We already know that our access to God is no longer through a priest at a sanctuary for, since we are converted, the Holy Spirit dwells within each of us.  Our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit which is in us (I Cor. 6:19).  People may not say it, but if they aren’t careful, some can subconsciously want to have a man play the role of a priest and have a holy place to go to so they can be closer to God.  It’s human nature to want to have God in a certain location along with a “holy man” who will link you with God.  This is why the European Cathedrals with their vaulted ceilings and high pulpits were built.  Also, some people want to have a symbiotic relationship with a man who will validate their relationship with God.  They may subconsciously feel that if he likes them (or their fried chicken) then God must like them too.

Today, hundreds of years after the Protestant Reformation, the trappings of that culture can still exist in the minds of some brethren in the various churches of God because people gravitate toward what is familiar.  In orthodox Christianity the church pastor is the professional you turn to, just like you would to your doctor or lawyer.  Nothing like what many churches have today existed under the leadership of Paul and the other Apostles.  There was no “house of prayer” or “sanctuary” (which are synonyms for the Temple) to worship God and no one playing a “holy man” role.  Ask yourself who was the bishop of Corinth?  Who was the bishop of Thessalonica or Philippi or Colossae or Rome?  We know they had bishops (overseers) or pastors and teachers, but in his letters to the brethren why didn’t Paul point them to our equivalent of a “Pastor Bob” to solve their problems?  They had elders (plural) ordained in every city, but nobody playing a professional clergyman role as is done in most of churchianity today.  Paul told the Galatians, “Brethren, if any man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.  Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:1-2). Paul was addressing the brethren.  “You who are spiritual” certainly could have included an overseer or older men or women or others familiar with the brother who could give spiritual guidance.  In all their writings the Apostles pointed the brethren to their dependence on Christ and the necessity of loving one another.  They were all disciples of Jesus Christ.  Brethren were still to honor and show deference to those overseers who were shepherding the flock as they followed Christ, but the Apostles didn’t promote any type of spectator Christianity such as that which exists in much of orthodox Christianity today.

Those who are His true servants teaching their brethren, should avoid steering them in that direction and instead be examples in agape love to their fellow brethren and helpers of their joy.  Thankfully, most of those in the churches of God where I have visited have many in the ministry practicing servant leadership and they truly love the brethren. There are some, however, in the more controlling churches of God (where you wouldn’t be welcome to even visit), who are still hanging on to the old WCG practices with a very strong clergy/laity divide. This is because many of us in the ministry were taught at Ambassador College to believe in the concept that “familiarity breeds contempt”, and therefore a minister should never get too close to the brethren or develop close personal friendships with them.  “Familiarity breeds contempt” is a saying that comes from Aesop’s Fables and not scripture.  It’s principle is true for a highly centralized organization like the military, but not for a family relationship as is to exist within the church. Ask yourself, if familiarity breeds contempt then why marriage?  If familiarity breeds contempt then why didn’t Jesus at the Last Supper tell John to stop lying on His bosom?  Why are we all to wash one another’s feet and not follow the way of the gentiles in their governing practices?  We are all brethren and should love one another as He and His Apostles taught.  In the Apostle’s day there was leadership with pastors and teachers whose faith was to be imitated and followed as they followed Christ (Heb. 13:7,17, I Pet. 5:1-4).  It was a good office of those wishing to serve Christ as an overseer/teacher, feed His flock and point their brethren by word and example to Him.  They also were to be honored and given financial support, especially those who labor in word and in doctrine (I Tim. 5:17-18).  In Paul’s case, his desire was not for the brethren to have a dependence on himself or others, but on Christ alone. They were to only mimic (follow) him as he mimicked Christ and his desire was that they would obey God much more in his absence.  The same is true for all of those at all times who are serving in the ministry. 

During the 1st century, at a time of persecution and martyrdom, those God gave as overseers for the perfecting of the saints wanted the brethren to be able to stand on their own with Christ as their guide.  Thankfully, there are many good pastors and teachers today in almost all of the churches of God who are doing the same thing. There are times when we as Christians, through no fault of our own, because of a natural disaster or a pandemic or even a personal tragedy in our lives or health issues, we are temporarily unable to assemble together with other brethren.  We may sometime find ourselves all alone, even in a nursing facility, yet we can still worship our Father in spirit and in truth.  That’s what Paul did when on perilous journeys by sea and, because of his imprisonment in Rome, he was unable to visit the churches.  We know from the letters he wrote that he spent a lot of time in prayer and was close to God.  He occasionally had brethren and fellow workers visit him there in prison, but much of his time was spent alone with God.  He also very much looked forward to once again being with the brethren in Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae and other cities, just like whenever we are temporarily unable to physically join in fellowship, we too can look forward to being together again with God’s people.  In the meantime, Paul drew close to God, probably much the same way on the Sabbath as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and even a Christian farmer living 50 miles outside of Ephesus did.  Paul and the other Apostles, however, (apart from health or distance reasons) wouldn’t have wanted our brethren today to just stay at home listening to online sermons when they actually could be with other brethren.  Likewise, from their letters, the Apostles wouldn’t have approved of the present exclusive (“us vs them”) culture of orthodox Christianity which had slowly developed over the centuries and has unfortunately even crept into many of the churches of God. A look at church history after the 1st century shows how this happened.

The Catholic Church from its early beginning first had individual bishops over cities and later had priests.  It created a clergy class who had special titles, who spoke Latin and were educated in all things theological so your worship of God was dependent on men.  A centralized leadership with a bishop of Rome chosen by the election of a college of cardinals developed so that churches could then look to Rome for instruction and truth.  The loose affiliation of congregations which existed under the moral authority of the 1st century Apostles became highly centralized (supposedly to prevent heresy) throughout the Roman Empire with the only exception being that of those churches which were in Asia Minor.  Well into the 5th and 6th century many of those brethren in Asia Minor continued to observe the seventh day Sabbath and Passover as had been taught in the 2nd century by Polycarp (who followed the Apostle John’s example).  These brethren in turn were excommunicated and persecuted by the various bishops of Rome who wanted to blend paganism with Christianity.  

Today, for decades we’ve seen examples in the churches of God that have a highly centralized government structure like that of the old Worldwide Church of God, of men behaving like Diotrophes, wanting to have preeminence in the churches by casting brethren out of the church and men acting like Jeroboam the son of Nebat causing spiritual Israel to sin by blending paganism with Christianity.  They were shepherds who fed themselves and scattered the sheep (Ezek. 34:1-6). Apostacy from within the church is nothing new, especially when brethren subconsciously treat the corpus of the body of Christ as though it is the corpus of a church corporation. Do we realize that virtually every epistle in the New Testament warns the churches about corruption coming from within the church?  Paul even told the elders of Ephesus how over a period of 3 years he warned them night and day with tears about wolves coming from within and without the church not sparing the flock (Acts 20:29-31).  All of the epistles from the book of Romans to Jude give this warning. The letters to the 7 churches in Rev. 2 & 3 talk about the churches who try those who say they are apostles or Jews, but are not, that woman Jezebel, those holding the doctrine of Balaam and others holding the doctrine of the Nicolaitans etc.  The 7 churches in Asia Minor were not told to turn to the bishop of Rome for guidance. 

All of the NT epistles and messages to the churches in Revelation 2 & 3 were filled with warnings to the brethren, but by the 4th century warnings to the brethren about corruption coming from within the church had ceased and they were told to just trust and obey whatever decision was made coming from Rome (headquarters) as God will work everything out through those placed in authority.  The same thing happened during the decades of my beloved Worldwide Church of God which, by 1995, resulted in around 2/3rds of it’s ministry and half of the brethren going back to churchianity.  They are now worshipping on Sunday, celebrating Xmas and ignoring God’s law. Why would any of us want to go back to anything resembling that false illusion of unity that existed in the old WCG system that resulted in perhaps the greatest apostacy among God’s people since the time of Constantine? Yet there are still some brethren today, especially in those closed door breakaway groups, who want a pastor general telling them what to believe and who they can see. You are not welcome to even visit their church services (as was the practice under the old WCG). Other brethren want a somewhat modified central leadership that’s less controlling, but for some of the brethren attending there, it still has some comforting elements of the old WCG system. Part of the reason why many churches of God today still gravitate to a more centralized leadership is because that’s how many of us in the ministry were trained at Ambassador College.  It’s a familiar and comfortable governance style for both those in the ministry and their brethren. 

Unfortunately, over the years the centralized control demonstrated in some of the churches of God often has resulted in church politics, splits and divisions.  Some divisions we’ve seen haven’t been over major doctrinal disputes that can effect our salvation, but instead have occurred because of nothing but carnal behavior.  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?”  By the same token, because wolves might enter the flock or carnal behavior may occur or has occurred, does this mean brethren for safety sake should just sit at home all alone like spiritual hermits? No, because we are to have a function within the body of Christ ministering to the saints (Heb. 6:10) and also wolves or men acting carnally aren’t limited to a church governance style.  There have also been many divisions among the various independent churches of God, just as had occurred in the first century churches.  We are all imperfect human beings trying to overcome our faults and weaknesses. As we can clearly see in all of the epistles written to the churches, there is no perfect church.  Our security isn’t in any church governance style, but in our relationship with Jesus Christ. Nobody has any control over you except the power you give them.  We belong to Christ and as His sheep we are to hear His voice.

As it was in the 1st century church, including those 7 churches in Asia Minor, the churches of God were not a bunch of #2 yellow pencils with overseeing pastors authorized by a headquarters in Rome.  The answer for a brother-in-Christ 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 out of town and stay at home so as not to be influenced by a flawed church or avoid even visiting the church in Thyatira so as not to appear to be condoning the past leadership decisions made by that woman Jezebel.  They were all on 7 golden lampstands with Christ walking in their midst. Those letters written to the 7 churches in Asia Minor were written for you and I as individuals to ponder.  He (not they) who has an ear to hear, let him (not them) hear what the Spirit says to the churches. 

Perhaps the most flawed 1st century church with carnal attitudes among all of those churches which Paul wrote to (requiring two letters with 29 chapters for us to read) was the church at Corinth.  He not only discouraged a divisive attitude, but also they were to have an active function within the body and when one member suffered they all suffered (I Cor. 12:25-27).  They were to comfort others in their affliction as God has comforted them (II Cor. 1:3-4).  Again, Paul wrote that the very reason for us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together is to provoke one another to love and good works and to exhort one another, especially as we see the Day approaching (Heb. 10:24-25).  We are to also confess our faults one to another (James 5:16) and as the sheep on His right hand, we are to provide for the physical and emotional needs of “the least of these my brethren” (read Matt. 25:34-49).  In essence, we are to love one another as Christ has loved us.  We aren’t to figuratively stay at home, bury our talent and wait on the Lord.  There are many brethren today who have been hurt in the past by church politics, have a mistrust of any form of organized religion or for other reasons they are comfortable choosing to just stay at home each Sabbath and listen to a sermon online.  If this is where you are right now, I hope you will reconsider what you are doing.

For me personally, for two decades my primary source of a “Sabbath service” had been with my wife and a friend reading our Bibles together. Apart from attending an independent feast site, we pretty much kept to ourselves. In 2017, after my wife and that had friend died, I found myself tuning into services online and only occasionally visiting other congregations.  I came to understand that it is absolutely best, when available, to be with other brethren and not just stay at home. I therefore (in the greater Portland, Oregon area) more frequently started attending with other congregations. This included an independent group that, because of distance, only met on the third Sabbath of each month and also I later often attended with a new local Church of God, International (CGI) group.  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) where I had some old friends who attended there. As it happened, one time while visiting a UCG congregation in Orange County California, I met, 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, Kerry and I will both still occasionally meet with other Sabbath keeping church of God groups.

Looking back, ever since early 1995, when I realized my ministry to God’s people was best served as an independent minister outside of corporate boundaries, I’ve visited various congregations, occasionally giving sermons as a guest speaker, but I’ve mainly been concentrating more on writing articles– first for The Journal while it was publishing articles and later articles such as are those seen on this website.  Over the years, wherever I go in all of the independent churches of God (not any with actual heretical teachings) and in the various somewhat more centralized ones, 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 fighting over which end of the egg should be opened (“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 exists.  There are brethren in the various independent and more centralized churches of God congregations who are driving 45 minutes to 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.  Even old friends from years gone by don’t really have peace with one another; they only have a type of truce.  This should not be the case.

For me personally, I’ve had to look at myself in the mirror and change my attitude toward other ministers and brethren. In doing so I’ve found that in all of the churches of God, including the larger more centralized ones where I also have visited, they all have learned many lessons from the past mistakes they and others 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 we’ve 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 other churches of God, including the more centralized ones which are identified by their various acronyms.  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”. Your 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 have an openness in their relationships with all brethren everywhere, as it was in the 1st century church. 

Among the churches of God there shouldn’t exist an “us vs. them” relationship between both the brethren and the ministry with those in other fellowship 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.  My hope is that those in leadership positions, nationally and locally, within the various churches of God, will continue to be better examples to the flock of behaving like true brethren as Christ desires. Figuratively, fathers should turn their hearts to the children and children to the fathers. It may take some time, but we’ve got to begin to “tear down that wall” that divides us. Individually, we need to take that first step.

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. For myself, what I’ve learned in visiting many of the various churches of God is that while 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, 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.  By the same token, visiting another congregation doesn’t mean proselytizing, causing divisions or comparing ourselves among ourselves.  You 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).  A visitor/guest isn’t to be seen as a prospective member for us to convince to join or be a part of a better 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. They were only children or not even born when various church divisions occurred and family or friends were separated– not because of heresy, but oftentimes over administrative differences driven by nothing but human ego.  For some, now as young adults, 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 these young adults and teens are still keeping in touch.  We should do the same and turn our hearts to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. There are also some old time members who do feel comfortable visiting God’s people in a different congregation or a nearby Feast site. They are peacemakers, building bridges between brethren. So are some of internet sites such as the Church of God Network 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 may still be hesitant to worship with one another because of past divisions among their respective church organizations.

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, “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 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).  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 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.  That continuing “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 even among some of the gentiles (“I’m of Paul,” “I’m of Cephas”, “I’m of Apollos”). Partisanship is even exhibited politically in America today.  Partisanship and stereotyping others is what Satan, the accuser of the brethren, wants to see happen.  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 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, 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 aren’t.

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.  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 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), I imagine he might have written, “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. 4:31-32).  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 behave as true brethren as Christ sees 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 XYZ Church of God. Today, right now, we are His people and the sheep of His pasture. As such we are to reflect the love of God toward each other.  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 reread I John 4:4-21 in prayer, including v-11 “Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.” My purpose in writing these articles and in my fellowship in all 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. 

Worshipping God in spirit and in truth isn’t dependent on where you fellowship, but on who you are (oil in your lamp).  Some 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 such as 1978 or 1992.  Another person is independent 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.  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 because of past decisions they’ve made.  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.  We are all God’s people.

Sometimes our hesitancy or avoidance of 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 other 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 that those “liberals” who are no longer with us would soon be doing away with keeping the Sabbath and the Holy Days. When I left the WCG in 1978, I was told by the college security that I was no longer welcome to step foot on the Ambassador College campus. My aunt never spoke to me again until 10 years later at my grandmother’s funeral and then I never saw her again. By leaving the WCG we in the CGI and other groups had become “persona non grata” and lost many of our church friends 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 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. Over the years, in every church division which has occurred, there are those who behave 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 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 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 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 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. Although we were told at baptism that we weren’t being baptized into an organization of men, sometimes we can still behave as though we were. Pastors can also be behaving as though they are part of a corporate franchise like being a manager at aMcDonalds 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. We should all feel free to occasionally visit brethren at other nearby church of God services or Feast sites. It doesn’t mean we should visit congregations that are teaching heresy or 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).

By the same token, our criteria for visiting another congregation also isn’t to be based on a narrow minded comfort zone or a barrier created in our own minds used as an excuse for avoiding other brethren.  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 Yashua 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 Yashua (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 there 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 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 other brethren may feel uncomfortable visiting a church where the pastors or elders are addressed by their first name or they aren’t wearing a tie. Each of us should be a little more open minded in how we worship God and not look for comfort zones as we 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 on the Sabbath.  Do our traditions of men (such as 3 hymns, opening prayer, a sermonette, announcements, 4th hymn, sermon, 5th hymn and closing prayer) for some create an intolerance or discomfort to any variation in how they worship God?  For some it even has reached the point where I’ve heard of various brethren being uncomfortable if the minister steps away from the pulpit while giving a sermon or he later has a participatory discussion of the message given or the sermon is preceded with some contemporary Christian music.  Do they not realize that the word “sermon” is nowhere to be found in the Bible?  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 are weak in the faith or have different understandings, like it was in the first century churches of God? 

Sometimes we all need to occasionally step completely out of our comfort zones and meet with other brethren no matter where they are in their sojourn within the body of Christ.  Those stepping out to visit other congregations includes those brethren who today are only staying at home each Sabbath. They should (apart from health or distance reasons) be with other brethren where they can be examples of love and good works.  We all have, through Christ, a lot of love and understanding through our life experiences to share with one another. By the same token, over the years, His sheep have been scattered all over the place. Both the shepherds and all of the brethren in various congregations should reach out to old friends who are no longer attending with anyone. We are all brethren. As we occasionally visit other congregations (again, not those which are divisive, uninviting or are teaching heresy), if the brethren there where we visit aren’t as warm and friendly 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. We should never be fearful or overly concerned about occasionally visiting with others in different congregations within the body of Christ. The absolute worst that could happen is we may discover that they aren’t godly after all (figuratively their candlestick has been removed) and so we will never go back. To the contrary, however, whenever I personally have visited any of the independent or the churches of God which are usually known by their various acronyms, 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 you will find when visiting other congregations. Sure, there will be exceptions in the attitudes of some brethren there, but “welcome to how it was in the 1st century churches of God.”

Some brethren in the churches you may visit were once part of the the old WCG and some never were.  Still, if you are one of the old timers 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.

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 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 (spiritual Israel) 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 sheep of His pasture. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.  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 God.  This is the desire of our God 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