Would You Like Baptism With That?

A Critical Look at the History and Doctrine of the Independent Churches of Christ and the United Church of God, an International Association

 

By Nicholas Gausling

January 2007

(Re-edited June 2007)

 

 

            Jesus once warned people to “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” [1] Yet surprisingly few people think about these words today. Modern Christendom has become so ambiguous and commingled that it is often difficult to tell the difference between Biblical Christianity and false teaching. Of course, almost everyone thinks that they are right and that the Bible is on their side. In identifying false teachers, Jesus said that “You will know them by their fruits.” [2] But what about when peoples’ deeds seem honorable and godly, yet what they are teaching does not appear to fall in line with the Scriptures? Brian Edwards in his book Nothing but the Truth contends that if doctrine seems to go against what Biblical Christianity has believed since the early church, it is quite likely that the modern concept, not the traditional view, is in error. So what about when groups which claim to be Christian and claim to be standing on the Bible as God’s Word hold fervently unorthodox and even heretical views? I am not referring to cults such as the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, but rather groups and “denominations” which have entered mainstream Christendom under the radar.

            The two groups which I will be examining in this paper are the independent Churches of Christ and the United Church of God, an International Association. Before I begin let me state very clearly that it is not my place to make a definitive judgment on the salvation of any professing Christian; that right belongs to Jesus Christ alone. However, Christians are commanded to “Test all things; hold fast what is good.” [3] Since all Scripture is the Word of God, it would seem wise to check anything and everything which claims to come from God with what His written Word actually says.

            My purpose is not to launch into an extensive apologetic regarding these two groups, but rather to provide the reader with a background in where they came from and what they believe, and why it is my conclusion that their theology is --- at least on some key issues --- not Biblical. I sincerely hope that readers walk away from this paper more alert as to the groups and individuals they encounter who claim to represent Jesus Christ, being always prepared to identify and avoid false teaching. [4] Even the godliest theologians make errors at times, but when it comes to things like the Trinity, how to be saved and other key issues, there is no room for mistake.

            In preparing this paper, I consulted Hugh Pyle’s The Truth about the Church of Christ as well as a number of websites, articles, doctrinal statements and the like. Pyle’s book provided the foremost analysis and description of the issues relating to the Churches of Christ, making it one of the best books available on the subject (see the book review for more details). The scope of this paper is not to cover anything and everything about what these groups believe, but rather to provide the reader with a greater depth of knowledge as to the most controversial positions that they hold. I encourage anyone who is exceptionally-interested in this topic to investigate these groups further, and I strongly urge everyone to check the doctrinal statements of any ministry or religious organization that you come across. If you do not, you may be completely unaware if you are slipping into the grasp of a false teacher. Even then, a group may have a seemingly-orthodox doctrinal statement and still be teaching un-Biblical doctrine; test everything by the Word of God.

If you are a member in an independent Church of Christ or the United Church of God, an International Association, please realize that my intent is not to offend you nor attack you as an individual, but to examine your church history and some of its most controversial doctrines in light of Scripture. It should further be noted to all readers that just because a church bears the name “Church of Christ” or “United Church of God” does not necessarily make it associated with either of these two groups; in fact, the names themselves seem to be relatively common. The best way to identify if a Church of Christ is following the doctrine to be discussed in this paper is to find out if it claims to follow the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. The United Church of God, an International Association affixes the italicized subtitle to its name specifically for the purpose of differentiating from other congregations which carry a similar name. Other groups which profess the name of Christ also hold to some of the doctrines discussed in this paper, so always stay alert in regard to sound doctrine.

 

Please keep in mind the following:

 

* The first section will be longer than the second because although both groups hold to a form of baptismal regeneration, I will only be addressing it in the first section in order to avoid repeating information.

* Direct links provided to other ministries and papers do not necessarily mean that the author or Tekton Apologetics Ministries agree to what that given ministry teaches.

* As is the case whenever a research work is undertaken, it is certainly possible that I may have made some mistakes in this paper, though obviously it was undertaken to avoid such things. Readily-available information was typically not cited, but I encourage you to check the sources listed in the endnotes for more detailed information on each point. When I came to re-edit this paper, I found myself re-working concepts and presentation but did not directly recall or locate everything I consulted when I first wrote it. Consequently, sources were changed up a bit and not every specific claim has a direct citation, though again I encourage you to not take my word for anything and to investigate the truth for yourself.

* URLs provided in the endnotes for reference purposes include those of the groups to be discussed and therefore in no way necessitates doctrinal agreement, in whole or in part, by either the author or Tekton Apologetics Ministries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Independent Churches of Christ

 

 

History:

 

The independent Churches of Christ claim to have been founded on the Day of Pentecost and that it is the one true church. [5] However, the actual origin of the denomination was a man named Alexander Campbell (1788-1866). The Second Great Awakening in nineteenth century American society led to a vast number of splinter religious revivals. The Restoration Movement was one such movement which, like the Reformation, attempted to revive New Testament teaching. [6] Campbell and Barton Stone (1772-1844) brought together a number of these splintered religious revivals into a single movement in the attempt to restore what they felt had been lost between their era and the church of the first century. Stone had formerly been a Presbyterian. [7] He eventually left that denomination to embrace a more Arminian form of theology.

After Stone’s death, Campbell was the major leader of the movement and he formulated much of its doctrine. A former Baptist, Campbell once believed that the Baptist church could trace its origins directly to the apostles. [8] Clearly, Campbell fell away from such a belief and went his own direction by forming the Disciples of Christ. [9] He eventually predicted that Jesus Christ would return in 1866; this prophecy was an obvious failure. [10] Yet to Campbell’s followers, the fact that God declared to ancient Israel that a prophet must be 100% accurate or die did not faze them from looking up to him (Campbell) as the restorer of the apostolic church. [11] Interestingly enough, what did happen in 1866 is that Campbell himself died.

The American Civil War in part left a racial-based rift in the churches of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement over issues such as desegregation. Around this time, the issue arose of whether or not someone must know that baptism was “for salvation” in order for it to be of effect. This issue remains debated amongst the Churches of Christ even today, but the more conservative members of the group contend strongly for such a belief. In 1906, the theological and societal differences between the Disciples of Christ and the independent Churches of Christ led to a formal split between the two groups. At that time, the latest census indicated that the Disciples of Christ was six times as large as its counterpart. [12]

The unified churches of the Restoration Movement continued to go through a number of splits, but the next major division began in the early 1920s in what became known as the One Cup Movement. As early as 1918, followers were debating over whether or not one cup or multiple cups should be used in a congregation whilst taking communion. [13] Advocates of using only one cup pointed to I Corinthians 11:25-11:26 as justification by Jesus’ example, and others even took issue with whether or not wine itself or grape juice should (or could) be used as a sacrament. [14] The more conservative followers stood with the concept of using one cup and around the same time initiated an additional split by refusing to condone Sunday school classes. The debate became so intense and specific that arguments were eventually erupting over how the communion bread should be broken.

Though Campbell, Stone and others were typically premillennialist or postmillennialist in their eschatology, the 1930s led to a further split within the Churches of Christ as most of its followers embraced amillennialism. Most of their churches hold to amillennialism today, many even classifying anything different to be not only wrong, but a deep and dangerous false teaching (though not all Churches of Christ believe this). By the 1940s and 1950s, a number of churches broke away their official ties from the Churches of Christ over the ongoing “one cup” and Sunday school debates, but much of the basic doctrine was retained.

The 1970s saw the emergence of the International Churches of Christ, also called the Boston or Crossroads Movement. This group holds much of the original Church of Christ doctrine, though it also claims its own exclusive monopoly on truth and practices a number of additional unorthodox doctrines. A group known as REVEAL is dedicated to refuting the International Churches of Christ and helping members to transition out of life in that church. Tekton has several articles regarding this group, including this one on works-righteousness and this one on their methods of “discipleship.” Today, the International Churches of Christ is quite separate from the mainstream independent Churches of Christ.

An additional split is currently underway in the Churches of Christ as the Emergent Church movement sweeps through Christendom in an effort to “re-invent” and “modernize” the faith to make it more focused on a religious, mystic experience. Emergent icons influencing this trend include Brian McLaren, Rob Bell and more recently Jay Bakker (the son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker), who espouses his high esteem for McLaren and his own positive perception of the emergents. [15] The Churches of Christ Emergent has yet to formalize a split from the mainstream, but is focusing much more on an accepting, belonging attitude of community and experience in its churches. For more information on the emergent church, I recommend Brian Flynn’s Running Against the Wind. An event more recent, more direct work on the topic (which I have yet to read as of this re-editing) is Dr. John MacArthur’s latest book, The Truth War.

The mainstream Churches of Christ remains strong today, even boasting a number of universities affiliated with it, perhaps the most famous of which is Pepperdine University. [16] Others include Lincoln Christian College & Seminary, Abilene Christian University and Northwest Christian College (largely tied to the Disciples of Christ). [17] [18] [19] The churches currently have about 2,000,000 members worldwide. [20] It is firmly established as part of orthodox Christianity in the eyes of the public, but the real issue is whether or not what the Churches of Christ teaches holds up to Biblical examination.

 

 

Organization:

 

          Churches of Christ typically have administrative deacons to carry out everyday tasks, and the actual preaching belongs to the office of preacher/minister/evangelist. Sometimes a deacon fills this post, as can any male member of the congregation with or without ordination. Church of Christ preachers tend to avoid the title “reverend” because they claim to hold that as a term applicable to God only. Most Churches of Christ claim that God does not call people to ministry but that it is instead the choice of the individual. [21] This is interesting considering that the Bible records God directly calling a number of people to preach (e.g., Paul, Old Testament prophets, etc.).

            Though the local congregations are essentially autonomous, the Church of Christ’s unofficial ties are very much unified and in fact separatist from the rest of Christendom. Most refuse to be labeled with the term “Protestant” because they insist that they are not protesting anything and that they clearly represent the Biblical church of the first century; this will be covered more in the next section. Those who seek to drive a wedge within the Body of Christ over denominationalism do far more harm than good, and they in fact defy Jesus Himself. Look at this passage of Scripture: “Now John answered and said, ‘Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow with us.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not forbid him, for he who is not against us is on our side.’” [22] The Lord forbade sectarian elitism, so what justification does any professing-Christian have to do such a thing? We must be vigilant in resisting bad doctrine, but being part of a certain denomination is not what gets somebody saved.

 

 

 

Theology and Ecclesiology:

 

            Much Church of Christ theology is within the realm of orthodoxy. They believe in the triune nature of God as three co-equal, co-eternal Persons unified in one essence and Spirit. Further, they believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God and refuse to consider any form of tradition as authoritative to their doctrine. It is important to note that because of the wide variety in independent Church of Christ churches, not all of them hold to all of the basic doctrines to be discussed here.

On the more debated issues, they tend to strongly oppose Calvinism and embrace Arminianism (though some members are firmly against identifying themselves with such a term, insisting that they are merely following the Bible). [23] [24] Because of its Arminian background, the Churches of Christ traditionally teaches that salvation can be lost. [25] In fact, many believe that it can be lost quite easily and that a person must work and perform certain actions in order to maintain his or her salvation. Because of these types of beliefs, Watchman Fellowship has classified the Churches of Christ as a salvation-by-works group. [26]

Baptism is the pivotal focus of the Churches of Christ and their view of salvation in that they teach water baptism as a necessary work for salvation and that someone cannot be saved until he or she is water baptized, sometimes requiring the belief that baptism saves in order to be effectual. Baptismal regeneration has always been rejected by mainstream Biblical Christianity, despite what the Churches of Christ may claim, and a countless number of valid Scriptural answers to baptismal regeneration exist. To name a few, Tekton has one here and CARM has several, including a general response, an answer to Mark 16:16 and an answer to I Peter 3:21. These are just a few examples and many more sources exist on the subject, including entire books. There is also a short article on the Christian Answers Network combining references to Greek scholarship and some insight from evangelist Ray Comfort; it can be found here.

While any true Christian who understands the significance and command of baptism should want to be baptized hastily, adding it as a requirement for salvation supplements the cross, and to add to the cross is to deny the cross and the sacrifice of the Savior. That may sound severe to some, but when Jesus cried “It is finished,” that is exactly what He meant. [27] The Greek term used there is an accounting term meaning “paid in full.” Yet the typical claim by the Churches of Christ and other baptismal regeneration supporters is that when Jesus declared “It is finished,” He really just meant that the way to salvation has been opened as opposed to the debt having been actually paid in full at that time. They claim that verses which say that salvation is by faith in Jesus alone give only part of the salvation plan, and that those which mention baptism (and sometimes other works) contain the full plan. [28] In fact, Pyle quotes a Church of Christ preacher who wrote to him and declared, “Faith alone will not save.” [29] Such preachers obviously have not studied Ephesians 2:8-10, John 3:16, Acts 15:11; 16:29-31 or a great number of other texts which declare that salvation is by grace through faith alone.

Those who believe in baptismal regeneration sometimes quote James 2:24 to support that works is necessary for justification before God, but they do not realize that James is talking about both justification before men (not before God) and of works being necessarily a result of saving faith but not a cause of it. James 2 even begins with a discussion over partiality among men. The basic theme is that any true faith will produce works, and faith without works is not faith at all. Therefore, this verse has nothing to do with what someone must do in order to be saved. James’ writings are about practical application to testing genuine faith and living it out to the glory of God, not about establishing a doctrine of soteriology.

How strongly does the Church of Christ hold this dedication to water baptism (which it typically confuses with the baptism of the Holy Spirit)? So seriously that some have argued that failure to be baptized by water (as opposed to being baptized by the Holy Spirit into the family of God) is the unpardonable sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit. [30] In fact, they even contend that Paul was not saved after he arose from his Damascus experience to serve the Lord Jesus Christ, but that he was not actually born again until he was baptized three days later. [31] Consequently, they claim, God cannot hear the prayers of the unsaved. It is true that God does not heed the prayers of those who are not His children, except when it comes to hearing their prayer of repentance at the point of conversion. But if Church of Christ theology is followed, how then could God answer that prayer of repentance?

Alexander Campbell once claimed that the waters of baptism is the “mother” of someone’s salvation. [32] However, as Pyle correctly points out, baptism is always associated with the symbolic death of the old man --- death, not the new birth. Some essentially contend that baptism must be done in “the spirit and form of the Church of Christ” in order to be effective. [33] However, even Campbell himself was never baptized in such a way; he was baptized as a Baptist and not with the supposed understanding that baptism is for the remission of sins. [34]

Pyle recalls a debate between a Baptist minister and a Church of Christ preacher in which the Baptist asked if a soldier wanted to receive Christ on a battlefield and there were no other Christians around to baptize him, would he be beyond help? The Church of Christ preacher responded that he could find “an infidel” to baptize him if he really wanted to be saved. [35] This is ludicrous because only another believer is supposed to perform baptisms, and as Pyle correctly points out, Jesus is the only Mediator between God and man. Some who believe in baptismal regeneration, however, are consistent and admit that people in such a situation may go to Hell despite the fact that they were repentant and wanted to receive Christ. Yet in doing so they not only take the Scriptures out of context, but they take the great I AM and turn Him into a ceremonial taskmaster, the very kind of external religiosity which Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for.

Some radically-Arminian Church of Christ members believe that salvation can be lost at the drop of a hat, thus taking the issue of eternal security to the point that legalism is introduced and a performance-based religious system is the foundation of our security in Christ. Yet, the Church of Christ position generally states that if someone does lose his or her salvation, he or she does not have to be re-baptized in order to be re-saved. [36] The Bible clearly teaches that Jesus Christ, God the Son in the flesh, is the only Mediator between God (the Father, per John 14:6) and man. [37] Yet Pyle references a debate notebook by Church of Christ apologist A.C. Grider which argues that a third party other than Christ is necessary in order to be saved, namely whoever does the baptizing. [38]

The Churches of Christ tend to downplay the fall of man and many hold a view of sin which essentially sees mankind as spiritually crippled rather than spiritually dead. Like many Christians today, the Churches of Christ do believe in an age of accountability before which a person is not reasonably expected to properly understand sin, judgment, repentance and faith, but a doctrine such as the age of accountability is not explicitly laid down in the Scripture and so it is certainly a mistake to extrapolate it as foundational to our theology. This “spiritually crippled” view in its darkest and most extreme form chiefly dates back to a fifth century heretical monk named Pelagius who denied original sin.

One of the biggest marks of performance-based religion within the Churches of Christ today is their view that the use of musical instruments in worship is strictly forbidden, a claim which has been addressed on Tekton here and here. Again, just how seriously is this belief held? A Church of Christ tract once declared that people who worship God with musical instruments cannot be saved. [39] In fact, Pyle notes that Church of Christ tract author A.J. Edward Nowlin claimed that to worship with musical instruments was to preach a different Gospel, and to try and justify the use of instruments in worship would cause someone to fall from grace! [40] The Church of Christ’s dogmatic legalism is perhaps revealed in this example better than in any other.

The Churches of Christ demand that communion be taken every Sunday. [41] In fact, Church of Christ apologist A.G. Hobbs said that taking communion on Sunday was done in order to be approved of by God. [42] What ever happened to the shed blood of Jesus Christ being the reason for justification before the Father? The Scripture declares, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if justification were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” [43] In addition to these beliefs regarding communion, Hobbs also epitomized the Church of Christ position that going to church was a necessary work for salvation. [44] Yes, we are commanded to join ourselves to a local church, but again, such is a fruit of salvation, not a cause of it.

The fact is that these teachings are not Scriptural and are nothing more than open legalism: zeal for self, not zeal for God. It is true that holiness (through sanctification) is commanded for Christians. We are in the world, not of the world. Yet no matter how holy we try to be, we all fall far, far short of God’s infinite standard. [45] As believers, we all need grace. We all need ongoing sanctification to grow us in holiness. Those who refuse to admit that they cannot save themselves and that it is entirely the work of God (Note: repentance is not a work for salvation; it is granted by the Holy Spirit. See 2 Timothy 2:25 and Acts 11:18) are holding onto pride and trying to meet God “part way.” Remember that pride was the sin of Lucifer. [46]

The Church of Christ claims to have a direct line to the apostles, claiming to be the exact continuation of the New Testament church.[47] In fact, some even claim that their very name, “Church of Christ,” is the only acceptable Scriptural name for a body of worship. [48] Yet at the same time they claim to not be a sect or denomination, but simply Biblical Christians. However, even American statesman Henry Clay openly proclaimed that the Churches of Christ were indeed a “religious community” which had been founded by Campbell. [49]

Churches of Christ are well-known for rarely teaching from the Old Testament. However, they are notable for preaching from it when arguing for their view of water baptism being the replacement of circumcision. Some ex-members have reported that Church of Christ preachers often deny the working power of the Holy Spirit (though they assert His divinity) and even esteem the church above Christ Himself. [50] They teach that any New Testament doctrine which came before Pentecost is seen as invalid for a modern Christian, though they themselves draw some of their doctrine from events which preceded the Pentecost, namely John 3:5 in relation to water baptism. [51] What happens to those who disagree with the more extreme members of the Church of Christ? A Church of Christ preacher in a debate with a Baptist minister (who is a friend of Pyle) became so angered that he eventually screamed that the Baptist would be going to Hell. [52]

The Lord clearly hates it when people attempt to divide His Body over petty matters. Issues which deal with eternal salvation cannot be compromised, but legalistic groups add countless rules and regulations to God’s simple plan of repentance and faith for salvation (which would then be evidenced by works), just as the Pharisees tried to do. In fact, the Book of Galatians exists foremost to address the issue of legalism. The word “legalism” gets mistakenly thrown around a lot in modern Christendom whenever somebody suggests that dressing a certain way or watching a certain explicit television program may not be a God-honoring decision. In fact, the late revival preacher Leonard Ravenhill once appropriately noted, “When there’s something in the Bible that churches don’t like, they call it ‘legalism.’” True legalism, however, is represented in the issues we have discussed: trying to be justified before God by keeping the law. The Churches of Christ often look down on anyone who is not a part of their group as being “religious,” a term they use condescendingly.

They allow elders/bishops to “disfellowship” a member, which is a form of excommunication outside of the Scriptural pattern of church discipline found in Matthew 18:15-19. Paul seems to support such a notion in I Corinthians 5, but it is only after progressive rebuke and the person’s refusal to repent of open, blatant sin, indicating that he or she was probably never a genuine believer to begin with. Yet for the Churches of Christ, any number of offenses could lead to such an incident at the leadership’s discretion. Many of the more conservative members also discourage the celebration of Christmas or Easter, send their children to vacation Bible schools to be educated further in Church of Christ doctrine which helps them to better identify “apostates,” and so forth. Currently, members of the Churches of Christ have put together a number of different media outlets including (but not limited to): Apologetics Press, Christian Courier, The Christian Chronicle, The Workman Radio, WSOJ Radio and others which may or may not openly identify themselves with the Churches of Christ but do support a number of their beliefs.

The Churches of Christ in Australia is quite different from the group in the rest of the world and could actually be considered an orthodox branch of Christendom. While they still do follow a degree of Stone-Campbell heritage, they deny baptismal regeneration and instead embrace believers’ baptism. [53] Furthermore, they reject separatist denominationalism (and are even ecumenical to a degree), have several colleges in Australia which back such a doctrine and overall vary much from the mainstream independent Churches of Christ. [54]

 

 

Overview:

 

I clearly stated in the beginning that it was not my place to judge a professing Christian’s salvation, nor the place of anyone other than Jesus Christ. While we may not be able to judge souls, we can “test fruit” to see if a person has evidences of walking in the truth. Many independent Churches of Christ members appear to be very passionate for God and even dedicated to living holy lives, but remember that the Pharisees did the same thing and they became so jaded that when the God they claimed to serve came to them in the form of a man, they not only did not recognize Him but they had Him executed as a blasphemer.

Water baptism cannot save anyone. The baptism of the Holy Spirit, when God applies the propitiation accomplished by Christ to a repentant believer and causes instant regeneration, is what can and does save. A new convert should be baptized in water as soon as he or she can, not to be saved but because it is commanded by the Lord Jesus Christ. I plead that you do not ever make the mistake of trusting in baptism --- or any work --- to save you, add to the blood of Christ, supplement saving faith or maintain your salvation. Genuine faith will always lead to works; a good tree cannot bring forth bad fruit. [55] I John was written so that professing believers could know if they were truly saved; nowhere does this book mention water baptism. If you have repented of your self-righteousness and your sinful self-will with the desire to yield to Christ and have received Him (trusting in Him alone for salvation) then be baptized immediately and get about the Father’s business. [56] Stay focused on the cross, where the Author and Finisher of our faith sacrificed it all for our salvation and His glory. [57]

 

 

 

United Church of God, an International Association

 

 

History:

 

The United Church of God, an International Association (hereby known as the United Church of God, IA) comes from a very different background and context than the independent Churches of Christ. Not only are there vast historical background differences between the two, but they are so markedly different in theology that they consider each other in error. Despite this, they share similar beliefs in several key areas of doctrine.

The United Church of God, IA story began in 1863 with the union of two Adventist groups which ultimately formed into the General Conference of the Church of God (Seventh-Day) by 1884. [58]  In 1933, one of their ministers named Herbert W. Armstrong (who, like Alexander Campbell, had once been a professing Baptist) started the Radio Church of God; it was originally part of the General Conference of the Church of God (Seventh-Day) until it later separated and became autonomous from that body. [59] Inspired by the untraditional Bible prophecy teachings of professing Baptist William Miller (from whom this group of Adventists came) and the beliefs of his (Armstrong’s) own wife, Armstrong began to postulate that mainstream Christian teaching had been wrong in many ways throughout the years. [60] [61]

The Radio Church of God --- now known as the Worldwide Church of God --- paid special attention to the Old Testament, often more than the New Testament; this is a contrast to the independent Churches of Christ. The Radio Church of God took worship practices and Old Testament symbolism as being necessary for practical applicability in modern Christendom. In time, Armstrong became seen as an icon, almost a prophet in and of himself; it was even claimed that he would not die until Jesus’ return. [62] Gerald Waterhouse, a Worldwide Church of God evangelist, proclaimed, “If Herbert Armstrong would die, God is a liar, brethren!” [63] Because of such claims, the group quickly turned into what some saw as a cult which held a very direct control over the lives of its members. Yet, Armstrong did eventually die in January 1986 and a series of drastic reforms within the church began (aided by Hank Hanegraaff and Reformed seminary professor Ruth Tucker), causing such change that the Worldwide Church of God was eventually allowed to join the National Association of Evangelicals. [64] [65]

Some members of the church did not respond well to these changes, causing major splits which led to several new denominations, including: the Philadelphia Church of God in 1989, the Global Church of God and Living Church of God in 1992, the Restored Church of God and eventually the United Church of God, IA in 1995. [66] [67] [68] [69] [70] David Hulme, the communications director of the Worldwide Church of God, was one of the separatists; he became the first president of the United Church of God, IA after a meeting was held in Indiana in regard to the recent reforms of the Worldwide Church of God. In 1998, Hulme was ousted from the presidency by the Council of Elders over disagreements regarding leadership structure and other issues of critical importance within the church. [71] He then went on to form the Church of God, an International Community; he remains with that group today.

Les McCullough became the new president of the United Church of God, IA in 1998, followed by former Council of Elders chairman Roy Holladay in 2001. [72] [73] In May 2005 chairman Clyde Kilough became the president (and he remains so today); elder Robert Dick became the new chairman at that time. [74]

 

 

Organization:

 

            The structure of the United Church of God, IA is very centralized, controlled by the Council of Elders; this group of twelve men is selected by the General Conference of Elders. The General Conference of Elders meets annually, during which time it forms budgets, lays operations plans and conducts seminars, as well as approves the major changes and alterations handed down by the Council of Elders. [75] The Council of Elders meets four times per year to form policy as well as, if applicable, alter doctrine. [76] The Council of Elders also appoints the church’s president. [77] The global headquarters of the church is called the Home Office and is located in Ohio. From this location the president and his three operation managers (who may be on the Council of Elders simultaneously) run the day-to-day business of the church’s organization.

            The Ambassador Bible Center, likely named after the Worldwide Church of God’s Ambassador College, serves to educate interested persons and church officials in the doctrine and Biblical interpretation of the church; it is located at the Home Office. [78] Senior United Church of God, IA officials serve as faculty at this institution, including president Clyde Kilough and former president Les McCullough. The program lasts for seven months and yields a certificate upon completion. [79]

In addition to this, the United Church of God, IA also runs a formidable number of media outlets in the tradition of the original Radio Church of God. These include: the self-proclaimed apologetics magazine The Good News, Beyond Today television broadcasts, World News & Prophecy newsletter, the Vertical Thought magazine for youth and the United News newspaper. They previously operated Anchor, a magazine which spoke out against homosexuality; it is no longer in print. [80] The Good News magazine apparently has a relatively wide-spread circulation. In fact, I used to have a free subscription to it until I realized what sort of doctrine it was teaching. This goes to reinforce my earlier claim that it is wise to check the source and doctrinal statements of any ministry or group you come in contact with; you never know if you may stumble across a false teacher.

 

 

Theology and Ecclesiology:

 

          Much like the independent Churches of Christ, the United Church of God, IA also believes that water baptism is necessary for salvation. [81] However, since this was covered clearly in the Churches of Christ section it will not be focused on here. Yet, the doctrinal errors of the United Church of God, IA go far beyond just the issue of baptism. Undoubtedly, the most unorthodox position that they hold is a denial of the Trinity. This alone is enough to accuse them of heresy (a word which I don’t throw around lightly), so let us examine how they go about this belief.

Unlike the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, the United Church of God, IA actually does believe that Jesus is God. [82] However, their god is a duality consisting of a divine family of “father” and “son.” [83] This clearly contradicts the Biblical claims of God’s triune nature. [84] Like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the United Church of God, IA teaches that the Holy Spirit is merely an impersonal active force through which the will of God is carried out. [85] Some Christians contend that it is not necessary to believe in the Trinity in order to be saved. I disagree, as the Bible teaches that in order to be saved we must believe in Jesus Christ. [86] Belief and repentance are the two sides of the “faith coin.” Without both belief and repentance, faith is either incomplete or in vain. If there is no Biblical belief, then there is no salvation.

The Biblical Jesus Christ the second Person of the Trinity. He is not the archangel Michael, the brother of Lucifer, a great prophet (but still a mere man) or an ascended spiritual master. Further, He is certainly not part a duality or divine family. Therefore, to deny God’s Holy Spirit is to deny the Godhead as a whole: they stand together, for there is only one God. [87]

Denying the Holy Spirit necessarily is a denial of Jesus Christ, and thus there can be no Biblical belief and no salvation for those who deny God’s triune nature. Groups such as the United Church of God, IA fail in the belief category because their theology is not just bad; it is completely trashed. Again, it is not my place to judge salvation. The Bible, however, indicates that unless a person believes in the Biblical Jesus --- the only real Jesus --- then he or she cannot be saved.

To tack on one final counter-Biblical doctrine held by this group, as was mentioned briefly earlier, they view their dual god as a family. [88] This god plans to increase the number of the divine family by adding to the body via saving people through “Jesus Christ.” [89] The Bible certainly does teach that Christians are part of God’s family and will eventually be “like Him,” but we will never become deity like God Himself is. [90] Adam walked and talked with God, having a personal, Father-son type of relationship with Him; after all, Luke 3:38 does that that Adam was “the son of God” (lower-case sonship). However, God did not create Adam as an equal (comparative to the fact that God the Father and God the Son are equal by nature, as is God the Holy Spirit); God has always and will always be far above human beings, and until someone comes to Him in humility, pride will block the way to salvation. The belief in a “divine family” held in such a fashion mirrors the beliefs of Mormonism and the quest for ascendancy to godhood.

Another highly-questionable doctrine held by the United Church of God, IA is called the Gospel of the Kingdom. In essence, it combines the Armstrong-heritage view of Bible prophecy and makes it an integral part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and salvation. This doctrine basically argues that the Gospel is not just about man’s sin and how God the Father sent forth the Son to die for the sins of the world under the Father’s wrath so that God could save sinners from Himself and adopt them into His family for His glory, but rather that in addition to this, the “gospel” also refers to how Jesus intends to bring solutions to today’s everyday problems (including natural disasters). [91] While it could be argued that this will certainly be the case when Jesus makes all things anew (see Revelation 21:5), this “Kingdom Gospel” leads to a focus on the human element; for example, it teaches that the United States of America and the United Kingdom are grounded in Hebrew genealogy and have inherited the birthright of Joseph. [92] Such nonsense, besides having no real historical or theological basis, distracts from the reason that God became man: to save us from His judgment by taking our punishment upon Himself.

In one of its much more legalistic views, the United Church of God, IA insists that Christians not celebrate modern holidays --- Christmas and Easter included --- because of their apparent pagan ties (among other things). [93] Some Christians choose not to celebrate these holidays for similar reasons, and that is their prerogative, but it is not Biblical to forbid others from celebrating Jesus’ birth and resurrection any day of the year, holiday or not. Instead, the United Church of God, IA argues, Christians must keep all of the Old Testament holy days just as the Jews did. [94] They keep a literal Sabbath day as in the Old Testament, as well.

It is debatable whether or not God requires an actual Sabbath since the resurrection of Christ, though the obvious principle which can be drawn from that law is that we must honor the things of God daily; this is all the more reason to be reading your Bible every day without fail. Thus, shouldn’t every moment be a “Sabbath” for the Christian, in which the things of God are kept holy and consulted in all that we do? In any case, Jesus healed on the Sabbath and stated to the Pharisees: “…Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?" [95] Yet we see that in the Old Testament, a man was stoned to death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath. [96] In the latter case, the problem likely went deeper than merely the picking up of sticks. The actions of that man were almost certainly a representation of his general distrust of God and His promises to provide for His people; the stick incident was merely the expression and culmination of his distrust of the Lord, which led to his execution for not only not keeping the Sabbath, but perhaps also for blaspheming God by calling Him a liar (which is what occurs when God’s promises are disbelieved, as Martin Luther once observed). [97]

Furthermore, the United Church of God, IA, much like the independent Churches of Christ, sees itself as a representation of the New Testament church in the first century A.D. [98] [99] Therefore, the ceremonial aspects previously discussed are integral and necessary parts of their view of “Biblical Christianity.” They consequently revel in legalism and the focus on ceremony as opposed to worshipping in spirit and in truth. [100] To disagree with them is, in essence, to make oneself into an apostate church. As the culmination of this view, the church claims that the Ten Commandments (the law) define love. [101] Some people may not see a problem with this, but Josh McDowell once explained the problem with such a concept quite well. The Bible --- including God’s Ten Commandments and every other moral law --- is dependant upon God, not the other way around. [102] For example, it is not wrong to hate or murder, commit sexual immorality, steal or lie because the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth commandments say so. It is wrong to do those things because God is love, pure, just and true. 1 John 3:4 (KJV) states that “…sin is the transgression of the law.” Yet we know that the law proceeds from the perfect nature of God, and sin involves having hated Him in rebellion and thus, as Romans 3:23 says, fallen short of His glory. A commandment only has authority because of the God standing behind it.

 

 

Overview:

 

            The United Church of God, IA seems to be very involved in creation apologetics, preaching holiness and so forth. Thus, on the surface it can be difficult to differentiate between it and Biblical Christianity as there are some orthodox teachings within its doctrinal beliefs. Dr. John MacArthur said, “The key to being a successful false teacher is to tell as much of the truth as possible.” [103] However, a close look at United Church of God, IA publications, broadcasts and detailed doctrine indicate that their beliefs are markedly, dangerously different from the teachings of the Bible. Not only is their church riddled with legalism (almost always backed by a demand for enforcing ceremony), but it is theologically off-base in far too many key doctrines to be considered Biblical. Thus, it ends up being works-righteous and denies Biblical grace.

            As I have stated on numerous occasions in this paper, it is not my place to ultimately judge the salvation of any professing Christian. However, I cannot help but be concerned that this group is, through its vast array of media and outreaches, spreading its ideas amongst mainstream Christianity and most people are not even aware that it is happening. We live in an age of vast spiritual ambiguity. People are hungry for spirituality, but they seem to run to anything (or anyone) other than the actual God of the Bible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conclusion

 

In this paper we have examined two groups: the independent Churches of Christ and the United Church of God, an International Association. These groups come from different backgrounds and operate under very different circumstances. Even so, they also share a number of similarities in the doctrine of baptismal regeneration and a passion for personal and, in the case of the United Church of God, IA, ceremonial forms of legalism. Holiness is by no means a bad thing. In fact, God commands it of His people. [104] However, holiness is only valid when it is propped up by the sanctification of God to guide us and His grace for when we fail. Without this, holiness is anything but holy; it is zeal for self (self-righteousness) and not a passion for God and His ways (true righteousness) with the intent to be set apart for Him. I highly recommend this short article from Watchman Fellowship which explains what real legalism is clearly and concisely.

The principal error of the doctrine of baptismal regeneration is that it adds to the cross. Baptism is undoubtedly commanded of Christians and is not something to be put off, but to add to the cross is to deny the cross. Some people say that Jesus’ sacrifice could not be enough to pay for their sins so they feel the need to tack on “a little extra.” This is not an act of humility; it is an act of pride. Who are we to say that the price God paid was not high enough, when in fact it was the highest price of all? Remember, though Jesus experienced immense physical suffering, it was ultimately His drinking the cup of the Father’s wrath --- not merely some Roman whips and nails (though that obviously played a key part since Jesus did have to actually bleed and die to make His sacrifice effectual) --- which paid off our sin debt. We cannot earn or merit salvation, nor can we add to or maintain it. God gets all of the credit and the glory for what He did, so to attempt any such addition to the cross is to rob God of His deserved praises.

The problem with strict Arminian forms of doctrine as held by the independent Churches of Christ and the ceremonial legalism espoused by the United Church of God, IA is that they rob God of His glory, turn salvation into a cosmic game of jumping through hoops and pervert grace to the point where a person can never be sure if he or she has done enough to please God. The truth is, we cannot ever please God on our own merits. The blood of Christ is the only method and standard of justification. Any true Christian will desire to live a holy life and God will proceed to sanctify that person and convict him or her when he or she does sin; the Father disciplines His children when they wander away from His straight and narrow path. [105] In short, Christians will not be practicing drunkenness, sexual immorality, blasphemy, lying or anything of the sort. Christians can and do sin, but they don’t live like heathens as a continual practice of life or turn grace into a mockery of God’s character. Yet legalism robs grace of its meaning, and thus takes the glory away from God. Overall, it is simply not Scriptural.

Some people do not like to accept the fact that we can never do enough to please God, but that is the truth. It is a wonderful thing that God did all of the work for us; repentance and faith is the method by which we receive His gift, but even then repentance and faith are ultimately granted by God. [106] In this paper, the two groups we have examined display a demand for conformity to all of their beliefs, sectarian standards and performing many ceremonial acts in order to present ourselves blameless to God. The Bible teaches that the only way to be presented as blameless before God is to humbly receive the gift of eternal life from the risen Lord Jesus Christ.

The Christian life is about growth, but in essence we are growing down. We grow in humility and brokenness before God, and as time goes on we feel less and less worthy of what He has done for us. Isaiah 66:2 (KJV) says, “For all those things hath mine hand made, and all those things have been, saith the LORD: but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word.” Consequently, we are driven to a deeper love for our Savior-God Who gave everything for us while we were yet sinners. [107]

 

 

 



[1] Matthew 7:15 (KJV)

[2] Matthew 7:16 (NKJV)

[3] I Thessalonians 5:21 (NKJV)

[4] Mark 13:21-22

[5] Hugh Pyle, The Truth about the Church of Christ (Murfreesboro: Sword of the Lord, 1977), 7.

[6] Tom Olbricht, “Who are the Churches of Christ?” Online at Memorial University at http://www.mun.ca/rels/restmov/who.html

[7] c.f. John Rogers, The Biography of Eld. Barton W. Stone, Written by Himself: With Additions and Reflections (Cincinnati: J.A. & U.P. James, 1847), 120-29. Online at Memorial University at http://www.mun.ca/rels/restmov/texts/dpurviance/purv2.html

[8] Pyle, 64.

[9] William G. Wells, “Many Churches, One Faith.” Online at North American Mission Board at http://www.gostudents.net/site/apps/nl/content2.asp?c=ejINI5PNKpG&b=881019&ct=366818

[10] Pyle, 65.

[11] Deuteronomy 18:20-22

[12] United States Department of Commerce and Labor, Bureau of the Census, Religious Bodies, 1906 (United States Printing Office, 1910), 236.

[13] Freedom in Christ. http://www.freedominchrist.net/Sermons/Lord's%20Supper/One%20cup_non-Sunday%20School%20Movement.htm

[14] Lonnie Kent York, “Fruit of the Vine.” http://www.newtestamentchurch.org/York/libraryfiles/FRUITOV.html

[15] c.f. Pamala Miller, “Hard Rock Preacher.” Interview with Jay Bakker published 12/29/06 by ReligionNewBlog, online at http://www.religionnewsblog.com/16963/jay-bakker-hard-rock-preacher

[16] Pepperdine University, Office of Church Relations. http://www.pepperdine.edu/churchrelations/

[17] Lincoln Christian College and Seminary, “Mission and Overview of Lincoln Christian College and Seminary.” http://www.lccs.edu/AboutUs/tabid/273/Default.aspx

[18] Abilene Christian University, “Faith Commitment.” http://www.acu.edu/faith.html

[19] Northwest Christian College, “Northwest Christian College Profile.” http://www.nwcc.edu/about/profile.aspx

[20] Batsell Barrett Baxter, “Who Are the Churches of Christ and What Do They Believe In?” Online at Internet Ministries at http://church-of-christ.org/who.html#numbers

[21] Pyle, 87.

[22] Luke 9:49-50 (NKJV)

[23] Ex-Church of Christ Support Group, “Who are the Churches of Christ?” http://ex-churchofchrist.com/whoareCoC.htm

[24] Ibid, William G. Wells. http://www.gostudents.net/site/apps/nl/content2.asp?c=ejINI5PNKpG&b=881019&ct=366818

[25] Ibid.

[26] Watchman Fellowship, The Watchman Expositor 2001 Index of Cults and Religions. http://www.watchman.org/cat95.htm#COC

[27] John 19:30

[28] Pyle, 14.

[29] Ibid, 15.

[30] Ibid, 32.

[31] Ibid, 87.

[32] Pyle, 96.

[33] J. Dominguez, “The Sacrament of Baptism.” http://www.religion-cults.com/spirit/baptism1.htm

[34] Pyle, 65.

[35] Ibid, 13.

[36] Pyle, 23.

[37] I Timothy 2:5

[38] Pyle, 24.

[39] Pyle, 78.

[40] Ibid, 78-79.

[41] Pyle, 73.

[42] Ibid, 75.

[43] Galatians 2:21 (ESV)

[44] Pyle, 12.

[45] Romans 3:23

[46] Isaiah 14:12-14

[47] Watchman Fellowship. http://www.watchman.org/cat95.htm#COC

[48] Pyle, 67.

[49] Ibid, 71.

[50] Ibid, 19.

[51] Ibid, 22.

[52] Ibid, 29.

[53] Churches of Christ in Australia, “Who Are We?” http://www.churchesofchrist.org.au/

[54] Ibid.

[55] Matthew 7:18

[56] Luke 2:49

[57] Hebrews 12:2

[58] c.f. Caroline Fidyk, “The Church of God (Seventh Day).” The Religious Movements Homepage Project. Online at University of Virginia Library at http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/nrms/ChGod7th.html

[59] Kate Rube, “Worldwide Church of God.” The Religious Movements Homepage Project. Online at University of Virginia Library at http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/nrms/wcg.html

[60] Ibid.

[61] Adventist Heritage Ministry, “Miller Farm.” http://www.adventistheritage.org/article.php?id=23

[62] Pam Dewey, Field Guide to the Wild World of Religion, “History and Overview of the Ministry of Herbert W. Armstrong.” http://www.isitso.org/guide/hwahist.html

[63] Ibid.

[64] c.f. Joseph Tkach, Transformed by Truth (Multnomah Pub, 1997)

[65] National Association of Evangelicals, “Current NAE Members.” http://www.nae.net/index.cfm?FUSEACTION=nae.members

[66] Philadelphia Church of God, “Who We Are.” http://www.pcog.org/Default.asp?siteMapId=WhoWeAre

[67] Global Church of God, “Statement of Beliefs of Global Church of God.” http://www.globalchurchofgod.co.uk/beliefs

[68] Living Church of God, “Official Statement of Fundamental Beliefs.” http://www.livingcog.org/beliefs.shtml

[69] Restored Church of God, “Who Are We?” http://www.thercg.org/about.html

[70] Johnny Kretz, “A Forgotten Hero: Herbert W. Armstrong (1892-1986).” http://www.ucg.org/un/un0601/armstrong.htm

[71] David Hulme, “David Hulme Letter About His New Organization.” e.d. Norman S. Edwards. Online at Servants’ News at http://www.servantsnews.com/sn9803/s980326.htm

[72] “Council Member Profile: Les McCullough.” http://www.ucg.org/un/un0608/mccullough.htm

[73] Gary E. Antion, “Roy Holladay: The Heart of a Pastor.” http://www.ucg.org/un/un0505/royholladay.htm

[74] “Council of Elders.” http://www.ucg.org/about/council/

[75] “Constitution of the United Church of God, an International Association.” (Last amended May 15, 2005) http://www.ucg.org/about/constitution.htm

[76] Ibid.

[77] “Council of Elders.” http://www.ucg.org/about/council/

[78] “Ambassador Bible Center.” http://www.ucg.org/abc/

[79] Ambassador Bible Center catalogue. http://www.ucg.org/abc/abc.pdf

[80] Doug Johnson, “United Church of God, an International Association Council of Elders Meeting Report,” December 11, 2001. Online at http://www.ucg.org/about/council/tampa2001/ce121101.htm

[81] Don Hooser, “Baptism: Beginning of a New Life.” Online at The Good News at http://www.gnmagazine.org/issues/gn67/baptism.htm

[82] “The God Who Became a Human Being.” Online at The Good News at http://www.gnmagazine.org/booklets/JC/humanbeing.htm

[83] “Is God a Trinity?” Online at The Good News at http://www.gnmagazine.org/booklets/WG/isgodatrinity.htm

[84] c.f. Matthew 28:1, I Corinthians 12:4-6, II Corinthians 13:14, I John 5:7

[85] “The Holy Spirit: Not a Personal Being.” Online at The Good News at http://www.gnmagazine.org/booklets/WG/holyspirit.htm

[86] Acts 16:31

[87] c.f. James 2:19

[88] “The Family of God.” Online at The Good News at http://www.gnmagazine.org/booklets/WG/familyofgod.htm

[89] Ibid.

[90] c.f. John 1:12, 1 John 3:1-2

[91] “The Gospel of the Kingdom” Introduction. Online at The Good News at http://www.gnmagazine.org/booklets/GK/

[92] c.f. “The United States and Britain in Bible Prophecy.” Online at The Good News at http://www.gnmagazine.org/booklets/US/

[93] Scott Ashley, “The Top 10 Reasons Why I Don't Celebrate Christmas.” Online at The Good News at http://www.gnmagazine.org/issues/gn67/christmas.htm

[94] “Holidays or Holy Days: Does it Matter Which We Keep?” Online at The Good News at http://www.gnmagazine.org/booklets/HH/

[95] Luke 14:5 (ESV)

[96] Numbers 15:32-36

[97] c.f. Martin Luther, Modern History Sourcebook, “On the Freedom of a Christian.” comp. Paul Halsall. Online at Fordham University at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/luther-freedomchristian.html

[98] “About the United Church of God.” http://www.ucg.org/about/

[99] “What Did the Early Church Believe and Practice?” http://www.ucg.org/booklets/UC/churchpractice.htm

[100] John 4:23

[101] “A Royal Law of Love.” http://www.gnmagazine.org/booklets/TC/

[102] c.f. Josh McDowell, “Judge Not, Lest You Be Judged.” Presentation at the 2004 Worldview Weekend Conference in Brandon, Missouri. See http://www.worldviewweekend.com/secure/store/product.php?SessionID=&CustomerID=&ProductID=225

[103] John MacArthur, Joy and Godliness, “The Epistle of Joy.” comp. Tony Capoccia. Cited online at Bible Bulletin Board at http://www.biblebb.com/files/MAC/sg50-1.htm

[104] Hebrews 12:14

[105] c.f. Hebrews 12:7

[106] 2 Timothy 2:25, Acts 11:18, Ephesians 2:8

[107] Romans 5:8

 

 

 

See also the following sources potentially-consulted in the initial draft:

 

F. L. Lemley, “The Most Intimate Sign.” Cited online at Memorial University at http://www.mun.ca/rels/restmov/texts/wcketcherside/mm/mm33_04c.html

 

H. Leo Boles, Biographical Sketches Of Gospel Preachers (Gospel Advocate Company, Nashville: 1932) comp. Scott Harp. Cited online at http://www.therestorationmovement.com/cmbla.htm

 

Kenneth Sublett, “Sunday and Sabbath Observance, Rest and Worship.” Online at http://www.piney.com/ChristSunday.html

 

 

 

Special thanks to brother in Christ, Nick L. (Kelp), for his assistance in helping me to edit the original paper.

 

This paper was written exclusively for Tekton Apologetics Ministries.