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Getting Back to Basics
By Brian KnowlesOne of my early mentors, in the face of our church's then endless crises, used to say, "Brian, there are three things that I know: God exists, the Bible is His Word, and this is His Church." At some point, he omitted the third item and left the organization. I’m not sure how he presently feels about the first two. In times of crises, it is natural to reexamine the foundations of one’s own personal faith.
Now that war with terrorism has settled in as an integral part of American life probably from here on out, it is natural to ask oneself, "What do I really believe? For what would I be willing to put it all on the line?" Make no mistake; we are facing an enemy that hates our faith, and that of the Jews. To this demonic enemy, we are mere prey. Furthermore, this enemy does not make any distinction among kinds of Christians. A Sabbatarian is as much an "infidel" as is a Catholic or a Baptist.
With all this in mind, let’s reexamine my mentor’s three issues, and see where we can go from there.
Back in the twelfth century, English philosopher Roger Bacon suggested that there only three basic reasons for believing, or claiming to know, anything: reason, external authority, and experience. He was convinced that the third was the best. I agree. When it comes to the existence of God, reason can only take you so far. Not that reason is a bad thing. There are many convincing reasons, born of the process of reason, to believe that God exists. It is far more rational to believe that God exists than that he doesn’t.
External authority means virtually nothing to me any more. The fact that someone in ecclesiastical authority says that God exists is not of itself a valid reason to believe that he does.
Experience is the real clincher.
So how do we experience God firsthand?
If you’ve ever experienced the healing power of God, you’ll never again doubt his existence. I have. I’ve prayed for people, and anointed them, and seen them miraculously healed – sometimes within minutes. Once, when I was praying over the phone for a man who lived in a distant city, a tumor fell off his temple while we were on the phone. The place where it had been was smooth as a baby’s tummy. I knew that it wasn’t my power that made that happen.
Like many of you, I’ve experienced personal healings as well as divine protections and interventions. I have seen the shape of my own moral life transformed by the indwelling Spirit of God. I have experienced the phenomenon of conversion and subsequent transformation. By the influence of the Spirit of God, I am no longer the same person I was 40-plus years ago.
I have a myriad of personal reasons to believe, on the basis of experience, that God exists. I’ve had prayers answered in ways that could not be attributed to coincidence or time and chance. I’ve seen the hand of God in world affairs. I’ve seen it in the personal lives of thousands of believers. I doubt that anyone could convince me today that he does not exist.
On the other hand, I can’t claim to understand him comprehensively. His thoughts are not always my thoughts. His ways are past finding out. God is profound beyond all apprehension. I can only claim to know what he has revealed to me, and that seems to be a drop in the bucket of the vast sea of divine knowledge. The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. I am perpetually embarrassed by my ignorance of God’s ways. Yet I understand them better than I ever did.
God is real, but he’s sometimes a real mystery. He doesn’t do things on my terms. He doesn’t always drop everything to answer my prayers exactly when I want them answered. He tests my patience. He tries my faith. But in the end he comes through because he is my Father and he loves me.
The Bible is His Word
At the same time, I no longer accept the Evangelical view that Scripture as we have it is inerrant; and I certainly reject the idea that we have such a thing as an error-free translation. That is simply an indefensible idea. We have no original autographs of Scriptural writings. We have only copies, and those copies are at variance with each other in myriad points. At the same time, within those copies, we have all of the critical information that God has revealed. It just takes good scholarship to sort it out.
When it comes to the translation of these copies, we run into all kinds of problems. To illustrate, let me quote from a book entitled Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus by David Bivin and Roy Blizzard (p. 67):
"The Gospels are rife with mistranslations, ‘But does it really make any difference?’ the reader asks. ‘Even if there are mistranslations here and there, does one really have any difficulty in understanding the words of Jesus? Are there any passages that have been misinterpreted to such an extent that they are potentially damaging to us spiritually?’
"Unfortunately, the answer is ‘yes.’ In fact, had the Church been provided with a proper Hebraic understanding of the words of Jesus, most theological controversies would never have arisen in the first place."
Sadly, the Church has been building dogma and doctrine on translation, rather than on the meaning and intent of Scriptural texts themselves. Those of us who are unable to work with the texts in their original languages should not be "doing theology." The fact that we have has resulted in a world of cultic error. Furthermore, I am convinced that if we don’t understand Scripture Hebraically, we hardly understand it at all.
"This" Is His Church
The point here is that I no longer believe that the true Church of God can be identified on the basis of organizational structure, doctrine, dogma or by its leading personalities. God may or may not be doing a work through certain individuals. There’s certainly no single doctrinal "package" that represents the absolute truth on the subject. Each group embraces true and false doctrines, true and false Christians, true and false ministers. Individuals are more or less led by the Holy Spirit. We all have varying degrees of understanding of Scripture. We all have blind spots, prejudices, flaws, sins, and hang-ups.
I’ve said it many times: Organizations are what the Church has, to use as tools, not what the Church is. The real Church is the Body of Christ. It is made up of all of the people on Planet Earth to whom God has given His Spirit (I Corinthians 12:13). Such people may be found in most Christian churches.
Fragments, parts and particles of truth may be found throughout the larger Church. There is no perfect denomination, or congregation. And I have never yet met a minister who seals up the sum of all theological knowledge and understanding, myself included.
I can now understand why former members of the Churches of God are finding places within so-called "mainstream" churches. They know that Sunday is not the Sabbath, but they also see no harm in meeting on Sunday to learn the Word of God, or to fellowship with brethren. To use a Biblical expression: "Against such there is no law." If they see the Spirit of God working in a Sunday-keeping Church, they are drawn to it rather than to a Sabbatarian Church that displays carnality, party spirit, negative politics, and intolerance for difference of opinion. I know of ex-ministers and lay people alike who are now attending, or even ministering in Lutheran, Congregational, Nazarene, Orthodox, Presbyterian, and charismatic churches. I am acquainted with others who attend Messianic synagogues or Church of God Seventh Day congregations. All, in some ways, are finding their spiritual needs met in these churches. They are discovering parts of the Truth that were suppressed in the Churches of God. At the same time, they are running into error, blind spots, politics and all of the other negatives that seem to plague the larger Church. They seek the wheat, and reject the chaff. It’s that simple. In the midst of it all, the Lord knows them that are his.
The Body of Christ still exists. Like the mustard seed it continues to grow. But it hasn’t yet gotten its act together doctrinally, politically or organizationally. That may not happen until Messiah comes to straighten us all out.
In the meantime, we all have to find a place in the Body where we can grow and produce fruit for the Kingdom. That may or may not be within the Churches of God Pod.
It is simply beyond the capacity of most of us to resolve all of the theological and political problems that exist within the Church in the span of our lifetimes. As they say, it’s not "doable." At some point, we have to pick the hill will willing to die on. We have to decide where in the Body we’re being led to settle, and there try to do all the good we can while avoiding the downside of things. If God loved us while we were yet sinners, the least we can do is learn to love each other even when we disagree on points of doctrine. Not long ago, a friend sent me a copy of something the late Albert Einstein said. It seems appropriate to quote it here:
"Strange is our situation here on earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to a divine purpose. There is one thing we do know definitively: that we are here for the sake of each other."
We are not here to kill each other, as were or are the communists, Nazis and Islamic terrorists. We’re here to nurture, support, and love, care for and heal each other. We’re here to exercise loving dominion over a beautiful earth that is the handiwork of God. We are here to learn how imitate God in whose image we are made. We are here to be refined, purified and made ready for an eternity with our Creator. Life is Boot Camp for eternity.
God, who is unchanging, has instructed us, "You shall not hate your brother in your heart…you shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge…you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:17-18 NKJV). That was God’s will in Moses’ day, and it is his will today.
When the Church repents of party spirit, cults of personality, and doctrinal exclusivism, it will make a great stride forward in spirituality. I still know that God exists, and that the Bible is his Word – but I don’t always know that "this" is his Church.
©Association for Christian Development