Why the UCG Should Avoid Falling into Congregationalism While Reacting Against the Problems

                           of Suffering Under a Theocratic Dictatorship



              by Eric V. Snow




             The greatest immediate problem in the United Church of God is the controversy over what form of church government we should have, especially with the all-important conference coming up in December in Cincinnati.  What I fear that at least some of us in the United Church of God (UCG), having seen and experienced the abuses inherent in a theocratic dictatorship are threatening to swing to the opposite extreme, and wish to embrace a full-blooded congregationalism. 


             We are well aware of the defects of too much central control, but I suspect don’t know very well the downfalls of excessive decentralization.  For example, when full-time ministers are paid directly by the local congregations, there is a much greater temptation to avoid corrective sermons when they are needed.  Why?  Because the sharp rebuking of a congregation will inevitably result in a lessening of offerings taken in, and the result will be a ministerial paycut.  When I was attending the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) church years ago (1985-86), the local pastor in the Jackson, Michigan church told me SDA ministers were paid not out of the local church budget for this reason.  Instead, he was paid by the Michigan Conference of the SDA church (based in Lansing) instead.  Putting ministers too much under the thumb of the laity as congregationalism does also subverts church discipline:  putting out members with serious sins can directly affect the local minister’s pay!  Or, a prominent laymember may be able to get the local board to get rid of the minister first in such a situation, to try to cover up his own problems. 


             Further, the boards of such congregationalist churches have a temptation to lower the pay of the full-time minister to be no higher than the annual income of the lowest-paid member(s) of the board, which can be very counter-productive.  And, of course, with ministers getting voted in and out of congregations, the hazards of continual politicking by the minister to hold onto his job, and others to remove him if they dislike him or something he did, rears its ugly head.  The tribulation of a major schism my Baptist grandmother’s church suffered years ago was caused by loyalty or opposition to a personality (not doctrine) is a case in point.  One group left, in a big huff, leaving lasting wounds, and set up its own separate church.  We in the Church of God (here I mean the WCG and its assorted off-shoots) know the defects of a theocratic dictatorship very well.  Do we know the inevitable flaws with untrammeled democracy on the other?  Maybe we should ask out Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, etc. friends and family about how their churches are run for pointers in our own situation. 


             In the August 1995 issue of the Servants’ News, p. 8, Dale Stogner expressed great suspicion of the UCG leadership, and mentioned his opposition to sending tithes and offerings to Arcadia:  “And many of those who are not comfortable with a hierarchy are NOT going to send their tithes and offerings to Arcadia.  As previously stated, I have no intention of doing so and I personally know many others who feel the same way.”  The problem here is that the Sardis era in America had such a decentralized set-up, and it led to its own problems of ineffectiveness.  There are reasons why HWA ended up being an advocate of centralization beyond (it is charged) self-aggrandizement.  The danger the UCG presently has is that we, having become so disenchanted with highly centralized church government for good reasons, will leap to the opposite extreme. The mistake would be to replicate the type of church government the Church of God (Seventh day) had in 1930, which has its own set of problems.  Consider the implications of this excerpt from John Ogwyn’s booklet (a Global Church of God publication) God’s Church Through the Ages, p. 61: 


             The issue of organization and government had long been a source of controversy within the Church of God.  Recognizing that no Work of any consequence could be done with the meager amount of monies coming into the headquarters in Stanberry, Missouri (less than $1,000 in 1917), Andrew Dugger took steps to correct the situation.  He sent a survey to the membership in 1922 to find out how much tithes they had paid over the previous year and to whom it was paid.  It became apparent that most of the tithes were being collected by individual ministers and that one particular minister who “worked little” had collected the lion’s share.  Soon, a policy was enacted that all tithes were to be paid into the State Conferences and that a tithes of that tithe was to be sent to the General Conference.  In 1923 the income of the General Conference in Stanberry jumped to over $18,000.


We’ve gone the highly decentralized route before, and it showed itself to be clearly ineffective.  We need to learn from history, and avoid riding the pendulum from one extreme to another, which long has been a problem in the Church of God since the 1930’s.  We need a church government that maneuvers between highly autonomous congregations and a centralized theocratic dictatorship.


             A dynamic system of checks and balances within local congregations and between the home office and local congregations will avoid abuses on both levels.  One may fear a home office telling a local congregation what to do”up until it involves setting right (say) the preaching of heresy or the oppression by a minister and/or a local board against the laity, with perhaps the latter two working together against some minority in the local congregation.  The problem with local congregations that are entirely self-ruling is that they have no external checks against the abuses of local church government, especially if it involves “the tyranny of the majority” against some outvoted minority.  A hierarchy which has controls on it”which is clearly envisioned by the draft UCG bylaws”will be a very different creature from a church hierarchy without any such controls.  So long as field ministers and local elders can vote out “bad apples” on the national UCG board, why should we be so worried about such a hierarchy?  Similar to the Congress under the American constitution, such a church government will be ultimately responsible to the electorate, even if it rules over us.  Picking “the middle way” between an unrestrained, centralized theocracy and a loose, ill-disciplined congregationalism, would be the most responsible course. 


             Someone may object to the foregoing, and say the ministry, being servants, shouldn’t rule over the sheep of Christ, the laity, saying authority doesn’t exist in the ministry of Christ.  But even if one may be able to soften the following text by word studies, one can’t dispose of it completely:  “Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account,” (Heb. 13:17).  The Greek word used for ‘submit” in this text (“hupeiko,” not “hupotasso”) means (Thayer’s) “to yield to authority and admonition, to submit.”  This is the only use of “hupeiko” in the New Testament, but even if one refers to Eph. 5:21’s use of “hupotasso” to parry this point, it fails in context.  Does “being subject to one another in the fear of Christ” cancel out the husband’s authority over his wife in v. 22”  Since it obviously doesn’t, neither will it cancel out the authority of a minister using his authority “within the Lord” (i.e., not abusively).  Similarly, I Cor. 16:16 says:  “[Y]ou also be in subjection to such men [like Stephanas in the ministry] and to everyone who helps in the work and labors.”  Those who dislike the idea of the UCG national board ruling over the church evidently wouldn’t like the message of I Tim. 5:17:  “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching” (compare I Tim. 3:4-5).  Similarly, when Paul told the Corinthian church to disfellowship the man who had his father’s wife, he was in the role of one giving orders, not pleading (I Cor. 5), even if the local brethren had to implement his commands since he wasn’t present there physically.  In short, authority, not just service, exists in the ministry of Christ, since ministers as spiritual servants have been given the authority to give orders.  They aren’t just “employees” whom laymembers should be given the authority to boss around at will and fire if they displease the latter.


             In the dispute between the Global Church of God (GCG) and the UCG’s systems of governance, it seems “the middle way” gets ignored by both sides when examining Scripture.  For example, Acts 6’s appointing of the deacons by the apostles involved a collaborative process with the laity.  Partisans of the UCG’s local boards emphasize the voting-like elements of the passage, while anti-voting proponents cite how the apostles did the final choosing.  The former will note parts of verses 3 and 5:  “But select from among you, brethren, seven men of good reputation. . . . And the statement found approval with the whole congregation.  And they chose Stephen . . .”  But someone with the GCG approach will cite how the apostles had final authority to make the choices of who would be made deacons, verses 3, 6:  “[Choose those] whom we may put in charge of this task. . . . And these they [the laity] brought before the apostles; and after prayer, they laid their hands on them.”  Similarly, Moses in Deut. 1:13 initially says something favoring a UCG approach:  “Choose wise and discerning and experienced men from your tribes . . .”  But then, Moses evidently reserved final authority for himself in the rest of the verse, thus favoring a GCG approach:  “. . . and I will appoint them as your heads.”  (See also verse 15).  Hence, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, we see God using a collaborative process with checks and balances in these two cases:  The laity nominates by a process analogous to voting, but a “hierarchy” of leaders evidently has the final authority as to whom gets ordained.


             Hence, this makes for an important point for those who would like to see the UCG and GCG united eventually, but see disagreements over church government as the main stumbling block.  If such a merger, God be willing, occurred, the local boards, which the GCG lacks, would be retained.  The laymembers would still vote to nominate choices for the local board.  But the local ministry (as a group, not just the local full-time pastor) would select from the higher vote getters who would get to serve on the board.  Similarly, all elders and full-time ministers would vote to nominate elders for a national board.  But the directors already on the national board as a group (not just the chairman/presiding evangelist) would get to appoint from those put forth by the field ministry who would be on the national board.  Of course, such a set-up would displease the partisans both the GCG appointment-only approach and the UCG voting-only approach.  But such a “compromise” has rather clear backing from scripture in Acts 6 and Deut. 1.  Both structures have the advantage of  eliminating one-man rule, which was the core problem with the Church of God’s system of governance in the past 40 odd years. 


             It may be objected that this distinction between ordained elders and laity is artificial, due to the New Testament lacking a word that consistently means “to ordain.”  But, similarly, one could object that no one Scripture states “God is a Family.”  Instead, this can be deduced by citing various Scriptures that refer to one Divine Being as the “Father,” another as “the Son,” and humans as “the sons of God.”  Similarly, by noting such verses as Titus 1:5; Heb. 5:1, 8:3; Mark 3:14; John 15:16; I Tim. 2:7; Acts 14:23; Jer. 1:5; Acts 6:6; Eph. 4:ll; I Cor. 12:28-29; perhaps I Tim. 4:14, etc., one can deduce that God has given the gifts of various offices to certain members of the body of Christ.  Then, one can say that the ceremony and process of setting them apart from others without these gifts can be properly called “ordination.”  Of course, figuring out those who have these gifts is a difficult affair, and would need much prayer as well as fasting by those involved in the choosing. 


             But who should do the choosing?  Should laymembers be able to vote in and out ministers, vote to ordain them, vote while one a local or national board to discipline or remove them, etc.?  Is there any place laymembers choose by election an elder (not a deacon) in the Bible, or remove them from their place of authority for malfeasance”  [While “deacons” and “ministers” may be the same in the New Testament Greek “diaconos” this term is distinct from “presbuteros,” or elders.  Thus, it can be potentially  legitimate to raise a man in rank from “deacon” to “elder.”]  Acts 14:23 is cited as proof, since the Greek word translated “appointed” can mean ‘selected by show of hands”:  “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting . . .”  However, this word can’t mean “elected” for the crushing objection cited by the Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich Greek-English Lexicon (p. 881):  “On the other hand the presbyters in Lycaonia and Pisidia were not chosen by the congregations, but it is said of Paul and Barnabas . . . This does not involved a choice by the group; hence the word means appoint, install, w. the apostles as subj.”  For it’s evident from the context of verse 20 that the “they” that did the ‘selection by hands” was just Paul and Barnabas.  An “electorate” of two men doesn’t make for much of an election.


             II Cor. 8:19-20 is a better proof of an election having occurred, but it points to a man given a physical, not spiritual, duty, like the deacons waiting on tables in Acts 6:  “And not only this, but he has also been appointed by the churches to travel with us in this gracious work, which is being administered by us for the glory of the Lord Himself . . . taking precaution that no one should discredit us in our administration of this generous gift.”  This man”an unnamed traveling companion of Titus”isn’t preaching the gospel, giving sermons, but tending to the physical needs of his fellow saints.  It doesn’t say he is an elder, although functionally (at least) he must have been a deacon. 


             It is said that the Bible never gives the qualifications of an elder.  However, Titus 1:5-6 has Paul telling Titus to “appoint elders in every city as I [not some church board, incidentally] direct.”  It seems Paul is equating “elder” with “overseer.”  Note how verses 6 and 7 are similar since both elders and overseers must be above reproach.  Note verse 6 concerning "elders": “namely, if any man be above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation.”  Then, verse 7 through 9, he lists the qualifications of “overseers”:  “For the overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward . . .”  To say elders merely just aged into their roles appear highly dubious in this context, where “elder” and “overseer” get equated.  Further, there appears to be a case where a verse does refer to the ordination of elders/(overseers”) by the laying on of hands, when the preceding context is taken into account.  Note I Tim. 5:22, which occurs soon after how Timothy, not the laity actually, was given the authority to rebuke elders in the presence of the congregation, and other matters concerning the elders” roles in the congregation:  “Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thus share responsibility for the sins of others . . .”  For with the preceding context this appears to be advice about who to “lay hands upon” for ordaining as elders, instead of generic advice about who to give the Holy Spirit to after baptism.  As the SDA Commentary, Vol. 7, p. 314 notes: 


             Paul may be referring either to the hasty ordination of an inexperienced and untried man (see on ch. 3:6, 10) or to the hasty reinstatement of an elder after he has been under discipline. . . . The office of an elder was too sacred and important for a hasty admission or readmission of anyone who had not proved himself worthy.  The candidate for eldership must first be carefully examined as to his qualifications (see on ch. 3:1-7).


And, there’s a precedent for ordaining elders by the laying on of hands since the deacons were in Acts 6:6.  Also, Timothy’s gift of teaching, exhortation, and public Bible reading in I Tim. 4:13-14 (i.e., ministerial functions) may also have had its origin in the laying on the hands, not just him having the Holy Spirit like any other Christian.  Hence, there is good evidence that elders were ordained by the laying on of hands.


             It is commonly claimed that each local church of the primitive church was self-governing by congregationalists.  But this was true more by default under the conditions of first century communications and transportation technology than by design.  Repeatedly, one can find Paul commands people to do things when he was off elsewhere in his letters.  His disfellowshipping of the man with his father’s wife (I Cor. 5:4-5, 13) has already been alluded to.  This commanded had to be implemented by those in the local congregation, but that was because he wasn’t around physically present to do it.  Nobody questioned his authority to put this man out by his sole authority (under Christ).  He directed the churches in Galatia to make a collection for the saints (I Cor. 16:1).  Then, there is the fascinating way the decrees of the Jerusalem Council on circumcision passed down to be obeyed by local congregations (Acts 16:4):  “Now while they were passing through the cities, they were delivering the decrees, which had been decided upon by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem, for them to observe.”  This sure doesn’t sound like ‘self-governing congregations,” but an exercise in what has been called “democratic centralism.”  That is, they had free discussion of an issue, starting from the lower ranks and moving up the ladder of authority until the highest level leaders came to a consensus (here, given to them by divine revelation, however).  But then,  once that final decision is made, it is to be supported and implemented by everyone, including those somewhat unhappy with it.  For voting for making someone an elder is different from voting among elders to choose leaders, or make administrative or doctrinal decisions, which is why the GCG will have votes on its Council of Elders concerning doctrine or administrative decisions (which would be following after Acts 15’s precedent to a significant degree, even if there wasn’t actual voting at that Council), but will avoid them when it comes to laymembers choosing who should be ministers or who should cease to be ministers.


             To sum up, while many of us in the Church of God have had extensive experience with the abuses of a hierarchy with no checks and balances restraining it, we shouldn’t think congregationalism doesn’t have its own flaws as well.  These problems include incessant politicking, much greater temptations towards slackness in enforcing church discipline to avoid reductions in ministerial income.  The tendency to teach members ‘smooth things” in order to hold onto their jobs would exist as well.  A hierarchy that has controls on it,  and checks and balances within and between the home office and local congregations, will produce very different results from a hierarchy found in a church with a theocratic dictatorship.  In short, the problem in church government isn’t “hierarchy” as such, but what kind of hierarchy exists in a church, and how it is controlled. 


             When we turn to the proposed UCG bylaws, we can see they have some problems, but they plainly envision a hierarchy controlled by the electorate of the entire ministry, not a theocratic, doctrinal dictatorship.  True, section 7.3.2 needs to be changed so that the general conference of elders can petition to nominate elders not nominated by the proposed nominating committee.  One could add a provision saying if 10% or 30 elders (whichever is fewer) wish to nominate someone not already on the slate for choosing directors, and they sign a submit a petition for such a man, he should then be added to the candidate list.  Also, it would be scriptural (I Tim. 5:19) to junk the evident “employment at will” provisions found in and 3.6.2. that allow dismissing ministers without “oral or written evidence” potentially.  More details on how and when to do a “recall election” on how to remove a bad national director from office would be nice (see 7.5.1 (d)).  The proposed system of governance is good in that it avoids putting laymembers in positions where they can fire ministers, which could land us the potential problems of congregationalism mentioned above.  These bylaws allow us to learn from the mistakes of both the late Sardis and Philadelphia eras of the Church of God, and avoid the extremes of decentralizing or centralizing.


             Hence, I think it would be best if we in the Church of God could learn from our past history of wandering from one extreme to another in this century, constantly wandering from one extreme to another as the pendulum keeps swinging.  May we in the UCG, with the help and power of God, avoid either extreme concerning church government!