I love the Church of God.
And I’m not just talking about the universal body of Christ (though I love that too). I’m talking about the ‘Church of God Reformation Movement’ that began in 1881 when D.S. Warner and others looked around and noticed two glaring problems: the church was divided thirty-seven ways from Sunday and many members of the church weren’t experiencing genuine, spiritual transformation.
So they preached the cure to those two problems: unity and holiness – and in doing so, they started a movement.
I love that movement. I love the Church of God.
Yes, I love her and believe in her despite her many idiosyncrasies. You know, like her insistence that she’s not a ‘denomination’ even though by every definition but our own, she is.
But despite that and my concerns about some of her past methodological decisions, I really do love her. I love the Church of God.
Growing Up Church of God
And it’s not just because she’s the church of my childhood. I mean, it is true that I grew up hearing stories of my great-grandmother experiencing God for the first time after hearing a Church of God preacher. And I heard how she went on to have a lively ministry in and around Jonesboro, LA. I grew up with two great-uncles and one aunt who pastored Churches of God.
Throughout my early life, my family attended Churches of God when we could and Nazarene Churches when we couldn’t. Every night, my mother read to me from the Egermeier’s Bible Story Book. And I can remember singing ‘Joy Unspeakable’ while standing next to my grandmother and listening to her aging and at times faltering voice belt out the chorus as loudly as she could – “It is joy unspeakable and full of glory, full of glory, full of glory!”
And then, when I finally came to faith in Christ as a teenager, the Church of God fed me. I devoured her books and pamphlets. My first ‘systematic theology’ was Russell Byrum’s ‘Christian Theology’, published in 1925 by the Gospel Trumpet Company. And when I wanted to get a degree in ministry, one of my first university choices was the same Church of God school that my father had attended decades before, Mid-America Christian University.
So I don’t think that it’s wrong to say that I love the Church of God because she was the church that raised me. She was. And I love her for that. But there is something more to my love for her.
I Love Her Message
I love the robust gospel she preaches and the value that she’s always placed on holiness and unity. And I happen to believe that, though times have changed since 1881, that robust gospel that they preached back then is the same message that we need today.
Though I must admit, I’m not sure that all of their methods would work as well now as they did back then. I don’t know how effective the Floating Bethel would be if it set today. And I don’t think that cranking up the old press and pumping out new issues of The Gospel Trumpet would create the buzz it did then. And then there are the things they did that I think we probably ought to avoid, like getting caught up in debates over neckties or the Book of Revelation.
Instead, I think what we need to do is reach back for the best of who we are – who we’ve always been – and let that shape our approach to today’s problems.
Called to Holiness
We need to remember that we are a movement that has stressed the importance of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. We believe that God actually changes us – that he transforms us from the inside-out. He begins the work of making “all things new” right now, in my heart (Revelation 21:5). We should hold on to that as tightly as we can and strive to communicate it in innovative and exciting ways. And we shouldn’t just communicate it with our lips. This is a truth that must be seen to be believed. So we should live it boldly!
Called to Unity
We need to remember that we are a movement that has valued and preached the unity of all believers – even when we haven’t quite lived up to it. After all, this same movement that preached unity has also given birth to an incredible number of schisms and divisions through the years. To paraphrase James…
“…no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. With it we preach unity, and with it we curse men who don’t believe/speak/dress/attend the same church/vote the same way/act exactly like us, men who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way” (James 3:8-10).
If we truly value unity, then let us live it. Let us reach our hands in fellowship to every blood-washed one, whether the church they attend has ‘Church of God’ above the door or ‘Baptist’ or ‘Presbyterian’ or ‘Pentecostal.’ But again, this requires us to reexamine our methods and innovate. We face a world that is fundamentally different from the one that the early reformers faced in the late nineteenth-century. Today’s divisions look very different from those of 1880. Our approach should follow suit.
In other words, maybe we should focus on preaching and living holiness and unity in today’s world instead of trying to adopt the same methods and exact phrasings of our forebears.
But, you may be wondering, what would that look like? I’m not entirely sure. I’m still thinking about it. But I’m thankful to know that I’m not the only one thinking about it. And I believe that, together, we can once again be a catalyst to the larger body of Christ. And maybe – just maybe – we can see that universal body called to greater unity and a greater reliance on God’s Spirit.
Until then, I’ll just keep on loving the Church of God.