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What is the Church of God (Anderson, IN)?

What is the Church of God (Anderson, IN)?

Over the years and to the present there have been several groups using the title of Church of God, which is why this particular group will often self-identify as The Church of God (Anderson) or Church of God, Anderson Indiana. Today there are over two thousand two hundred churches affiliated with the movement in the United States, and there are over seven thousand four hundred churches when assemblies around the world are numbered.

I say that these churches are affiliated with the movement, rather than ‘part of the denomination’, because this is of historical and doctrinal significance to adherents of the principle and doctrines of the Church of God.

First, let’s dig in to the History of the Church of God. I’ll make you aware that most within the Church of God have a restorationist or possibly a successionist view of the church. There’s only one church, the universal body of Christ, and this church was started in AD 33. The Church of God views themselves as that church, and so from a Church of God viewpoint, the history of the church of God begins with Christ and the Apostles. This viewpoint is held by many in the Church of Christ, many Independent Baptists, and some other groups like the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite.

With that clarification, what’s the history that led to the current structure of the church of God, Anderson Indiana? Let’s begin by looking at a man named John Winebrenner. Winebrenner was raised in the German Reformed Church and became a minister in it. As time went on, Winebrenner saw problems within the denomination which led to him leaving it. He says the following in his testimony, which he wrote for publication in the book “The Testimony of a Hundred Witnesses”

For five years I remained in connexion with the German Reformed Church. During this period, some glorious revivals of religion took place both in town and country, and scores of precious souls were happily converted to God. These moral phenomena being new and strange things to the people, intense excitement and vehement opposition ensued. In consequence of these, I was brought to conceive more fully and clearly the errors and corruptions of the church, in her ministry and membership. This led me to a closer and more careful study of the Scriptures; and this, in turn, led to a change of views, in relation to the subjects of baptism, confirmation, feet-washing, church titles, government, discipline, &c.; Under God, and through these marvelous changes and reformations, I was led to fall back upon the primitive and Scriptural platform of establishing churches, administering ordinances, and teaching the way of the Lord more perfectly.[1]

Having experienced firsthand the fierce sectarian nature of a Christian denomination, Winebrenner became adamant that the Bible teaches nothing of denominations, and that there shouldn’t be reformed churches, Methodist churches, Baptist churches, et cetera, but simply on church as Christ intended it. The church of God. He would later write the following in the book “A brief scriptural view of the church of God.”

The unhappy division of the church into such a variety of voluntary associations and parties, wearing different human names and titles, is, in my opinion, utterly wrong. And why is it wrong? First. It is contrary to Scripture to divide the church of God into different sects and denominations. This is sufficiently evident from the fact, as I before showed, that the word ecclesia, or church, is never used by the inspired penmen in such a sense, but always as denoting either the whole collective body of the faithful throughout the world, or a distinct congregation of Christians located in some given place.[2]

Winebrenner had no small influence, and churches that followed him or that were started under his ministry identified themselves simply as churches of God. Those outside of the movement often referred to these churches as Winebrennerians. But these churches today are not the Church of God, Anderson. Today these churches mostly belong to the Church of God General Conference[3], which has 336 congregations, presbyterian church polity, and three ordinances: baptism by immersion, the Lord’s Supper, and feet washing.

So as we trace the history of the Church of God Anderson, we don’t look just to Winebrenner and the churches he started, but to a minister by the name of Daniel Sidney Warner, who after professing salvation in 1865 after living life as an infidel, in 1867 at the age of 25 was licensed by Winebrenner’s church of God to preach. For a decade Warner would preach in Winebrenner churches of God, and according to his journal he had over seven hundred people respond to his altar calls doing those years.

The holiness movement was in full swing at this time, coming off of the second great awakening. In 1874, A.B. Simpson read the book “Higher Christian Life” by William Boardman, which would highly influence him, and he would go on to found the Christian and Missionary Alliance. In 1875 the Keswick higher life conference was held, and in the years following many holiness conventions took place across America.

The 1921 book “Birth of a Reformation” by Andrew Byers, a biography of Daniel Warner, relates an anecdote about what was taking place at this time in Warner’s ministry:

Brother Warner had been attending some meetings of the holiness people and had received some light. On returning to his charge he preached a sermon on holiness without having obtained the experience. Two sisters who had received the experience knew that he did not yet have it and urged that he get it before attempting to preach it. At the altar service that followed he got down as if to pray for others, but first prayed privately for his own sanctification. Then audibly he began, “Lord, sanctify us,” whereupon one of the sisters said, “Brother Warner, do not pray, ‘Lord, sanctify us’; but say, ‘Lord, sanctify me.'” At this he wilted and came right out with “Lord, sanctify me.”[4]

In 1877, Warner began more and more in his diary to talk about sanctification and holiness[5], and that year he would claim to have experienced a second work of grace – entire sanctification, a theological hallmark of the holiness movement, and something not accepted in Winebrennarian Church of God theology. January 1878 would see him expelled from the Winebrennarian Church of God.

Warner attempted to work with a few different groups at this time but found that they were not open to his theology, and so in 1881, with others helping, Warner became the leader of a movement of non-sectarian holiness churches that followed the same naming pattern Warner had learned from Winebrenner, simply referring to themselves as churches of God.

Warner spent his remaining years growing this movement until his death in 1895. After his death these churches multiplied even faster, having higher growth in the United States than any Christian denomination in the early part of the 20th century.[6]

The Pentecostal movement would come into view in the early 20th Century as well, with the Azusa Street Revival running from 1906 until 1915. Pentecostalism found its converts mostly from the holiness movement, though this mostly led to new denominations forming, as most holiness denominations did not accept Pentecostalism. The Church of God did not join with Pentecostalism, but notably, the leader of the Azusa Street Revival, William J Seymour, had been introduced to the holiness movement through the Church of God during the years that Daniel Warner was the de facto leader.

Let’s now turn to the doctrine and practices of the Church of God.

The Church of God is opposed to creeds and confessions. As one church states,

The stories and teachings of the Bible are not to be creedalized. We would not abbreviate the Bible and its teachings into a sixteen-sentence statement or expand it to a five-volume index of faith. We do appreciate short statements that are affirmations by a group or an individual. We can never suggest, however, that those statements adequately summarize the Bible. Nor are such statements wisely used as a basis to determine orthodoxy or membership in the church. Though we are tempted to make the Bible a list, a prescription, or a proposition, we remind ourselves that it is instead the Book of Life that vibrates with the stories of real persons and the living God.[7]

As was mentioned earlier, the Church of God is opposed to the idea of denominations, and churches in this group don’t consider themselves as part of a denomination. Churches have congregational polity, with no higher authority above each local church. Because of this non-denominational doctrine, the website of the Church of God is titled “Church of God Ministries”, and the website frequently refers to the church of God as a movement, as opposed to a denomination. However, there is a central website for the whole movement, and of course physical headquarters in Anderson Indiana. This contrasts with some other groups with congregational polity that are so decentralized that there is no official website or leadership at all, like independent Baptists, Churches of Christ, and Open Brethren. The Website of the Church of God is unique from what I have seen researching denominations, however – they have a relatively non-standard web address: jesusisthesubject.org.

On the subject of scripture, the church of God teaches the scripture is inspired and fully authoritative. They are generally hesitant to use the word “inerrant” do describe the Bible, probably because of the views that often go along with claiming biblical inerrancy that they don’t affirm: views such as premillennialism or young earth creation. Inerrancy is not mentioned on the Church of God website, nor on the websites of individual congregations. However, the Church of God has a graduate school seminary, the Anderson University School of Theology, and in a 2013 lecture on the subject of Creationism, the following was stated, which may help us to see more clearly what the Church of God teaches, in line with some other Holiness and Wesleyan churches.

Wesleyan theologians have modified the Reformed view of inspiration, advocating a dynamical theory that limits inerrancy to teachings of faith and practice only.

Albert Gray, a Wesleyan theologian of the Church of God (Anderson) specifically rejects the Reformed view as developed by the Princeton theologians because, “It is not possible to reconcile this view of inspiration with the fact that writers report the same instances or the same words differently, even words of Christ. […] Divine perfection should not be expected in a book that is partly human. The divine element is very apparent, and so is the human element.

As long as the texts of Scripture, particularly those that describe God’s acts of creation and his interaction with the universe are interpreted from a theological position of absolute inerrancy and are held to be more authoritative when they supposedly speak to scientific matters than science itself, the war between creationism and science will continue. Young people will be forced into a false position of having to choose between believing the Bible, or rather a specific interpretation of it, or believing science. When they become persuaded by the overwhelming scientific evidence of the old age of the universe, they will feel betrayed. They will realize that the interpretation of the Bible they were taught is not credible and many will turn away from the Church and their belief in God. Other orthodox theological options are available to approach this issue. We should not be afraid to articulate those options and give to the next generation a solid basis upon which to build a strong spiritual life and also to be prepared to live in a modern age which is shaped by valid findings of science. [8]

This lecture is representative, not only of the Church of God’s rejection of a strict literalist inerrant view of scripture, but also of their rejection, generally, of Young Earth Creationism. Wording that the Church of God does use about the Bible would be,

The Bible is the inspired Word of God and is the final authority for Christian faith and living.[9]

and the official statement on the Church of God website,

We are a people of the Bible—the Old and New Testaments, supernaturally inspired, preserved across time, cultures, and continents, delivered to us, useful for reproof and instruction, for righteousness. The Scripture is our backstop, the ultimate field of inquiry and judgment, the measure of conduct, faith, and practice. Whatever the question, whatever the test, whatever comes before us, in the end, it is the Scripture, above all other disciplines, that informs and defines us. All other sources of knowledge fall beneath its shadow.[10]

In 1981 the General Assembly of the Church of God stated that “the Bible is without error in all that it affirms.” And finally on inerrancy, in the book “A Closer Look at God’s Church: A Biblical Evaluation of Key Beliefs of the Church of God” by Mark Jackson, he comments on the 1981 statement by saying:

Should we be concerned, however, that the specific word inerrancy is not used in this statement to describe our view of scripture? The word inerrancy means “without error”, and so though the word is not used, this statement does affirm that Scripture is “without error in all that it affirms” and that it is “fully trustworthy and authoritative.” The reason the word inerrancy may have been left out is because it is not always carefully defined and to some it carries unnecessary baggage.

On Salvation, the Church of God does teach a born-again theology. In the doctrinal pamphlet, “We Believe”, the Church of God states,

We believe God calls all people to respond in faith to the gospel of Jesus Christ, whereby they become members of the universal church of God.[11]

An example of this from a local congregation is the “How to get to heaven” page on the website of the Wildwood Church of God in Ashland Kentucky, which asks “Why do I need Salvation?” and answers the question with many Bible verses, and stating that “the wages of sin is death”, “Jesus paid for our sins”, “Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life”, and “We must confess Him as our Savior,” before giving a more detailed plan of salvation.[12]

The Church of God even produces evangelistic tracts which speak about being born again, such as the tract “Tell me about Salvation”[13]

Salvation Is taught as being by grace through faith, and not requiring baptism or good works. Mark Jackson says in “A Closer look at God’s Church”,

“Salvation results in a life of good works. We are not saved by our good works or self—effort or by our baptism…”[14]

The Church of God believes that salvation, and not baptism, is the thing that adds an individual to a church – and by this they mean not only the Universal church, but even makes them a ‘member’ so-called at their local church. Because of this, there is no church membership. A statement of faith that is used by several Church of God congregations states:

There is no formal membership. Individuals are assumed to be members on the basis of personal conversion and conduct that supports that conversion experience.[15]

The Church of God believes salvation can be lost, not holding to a doctrine called “Eternal Security.”

In the paper “Eternal Security: A Biblical and Theological Appraisal”, Dr. Gregory Robertson, Associate Professor of Christian Theology, at the Anderson University School of Theology states:

…in the Church of God (Anderson) we have traditionally rejected this teaching as inadequate to the biblical witness.[16]

The Church of God has a congregational polity. Ministers meet in regional or national assemblies, but each church is autonomous. Women are able to be in pastoral leadership.

As was stated earlier, the Church of God has historically called itself a movement and not a denomination. As Mark Jackson states in “A Closer Look at God’s Church”

This brings us to an important question: is the Church of God Reformation Movement itself a denomination? Some think that we are or at least that we have the characteristics of a denomination. Historically, we have claimed to be a movement rather than a denomination. Is this an accurate description of us, or have we become (or always been) a denomination? It’s hard to deny that we have certain characteristics of a denomination these days. The point I would emphasize is that the church of God as revealed in Scripture is not a denomination, though we as the Church of God Reformation Movement might be.[17]

On the ordinances, the Church of God believes in three. First is Baptism. It is only by immersion, and only for believers, not infants, and it does not bring regeneration or salvation.

The second is the Lord’s Supper. It is viewed as symbolic, to the exclusion of a transubstantiation view as taught by the Roman Catholic Church. “A closer look at God’s church” states,

…the Lord’s Supper is symbolic in nature. Some churches teach that the elements (i.e., the bread and the juice) actually become the body and blood of Christ. This doctrine, known as transubstantiation, has no scriptural foundation to support it. The bread and the juice remain what they are, even though they point toward Jesus’ death for our sins on the cross. They are symbolic.[18]

The Church of God believes in open communion, where any professing believer is invited to participate. The third and final ordinance taught in the Church of God is footwashing. A common Church of God statement on the practice says:

…It is an act symbolizing the servant ministry of all Christians to each other and to the world. Usually men assemble in one room and women in another. In some congregations, young persons assemble separately so they can be instructed more fully on the meaning and practice of foot washing. Some congregations now provide opportunity for family groups to participate in the ordinance of foot washing. Persons wash each other’s feet, sing hymns, and give personal testimonies of God’s blessing on their lives. Participation is not considered a test of faith. Rather, it is a spiritual experience which Christians are encouraged to observe and join.[19]

On End Times, or Eschatology, the Church of God is mostly amillennial. Wildwood Church of God in Ashland Kentucky states on their church website,

We are aware of the diligent study by many premilennial scholars and the optimism of postmillennial Christians; however, we are amilennial. In our study of the Bible we do not discover any teaching about an earthly reign of Christ in a governmental or military sense. Scriptures speak of last things in figurative language (Revelation 20) and we believe they often refer to spiritual rather than temporal realities. We, for the most part, find little doctrinal compatibility with groups who see the establishment and success of the nation Israel as essential to God’s plan.

Books from Church of God ministers promote the amillennial position. One example is the book “Last To Leave: What the Bible really says about the End of Time” by Bob Highlands III, published in 2015. This book also teaches, as does the Church of God, that there is not a rapture or a literal 7-year tribulation period. He states:

…the ungodly, or the tares, will be taken out of the world first. The believers are LAST TO LEAVE. [… ] Time will come to an end, and the final separation will take place. Angels will separate out of this world all non—believers and then come back for the believers.[20]

The Church of God believes in a final judgment day, as stated in “We believe”,

We anticipate the future consummation of the Reign of God, at the time of the one and only return of our Lord, who will carry out final judgment separating the righteous and the unrighteous.[21]

On the subject of Pentecostalism, a commonly used Church of God statement says the following:

Is the Church of God Charismatic and Pentecostal?

Yes! and, no! We are charismatic if by that you mean persons and churches are empowered by the Spirit for the edification of the church on mission in the world. Yes, we are Pentecostal if by the term you mean the Holy Spirit was given to the early church and continues to come, empower, and call the church to servant ministries. No, if you mean by charismatic or Pentecostal an emphasis on speaking in tongues as the sign of a spirit-filled life or the freedom for persons to speak in tongues at their own discretion in public worship.[22]

The Church of God has historically had an emphasis on divine healing. Mark Jackson says, in “A closer look at God’s church”,

“One way that we demonstrate our commitment to a holistic ministry is by emphasizing and praying for divine healing. This is biblical, and even in our modern age of science and medicine, there is still a need to emphasize the miraculous healing of the body.

The Church of God has traditionally placed a strong emphasis on divine, physical healing. By divine healing, I am referring to the supernatural healing of the body that occurs without medical aid and often instantaneously. This emphasis was especially strong in the early days of our movement. Divine healing was more than simply a doctrine that was preached or practiced occasionally. It was one of the key beliefs of the church.”[23]

On contemporary issues, a 1993 statement by the Church of God General assembly said the following, in part:

RESOLVED, however, that the General Assembly of the Church of God go on record affirming our convection that, biblically, we believe homosexual behavior is sin; be it further RESOLVED, that the General Assembly stands firmly opposed to the licensing, ordination, or approving for leadership those who are involved in this life-style; be it finally RESOLVED, that the General Assembly supports instruction which brings understanding to issues related to homosexuality, but opposes instruction which endorses or promotes homosexual behavior as an acceptable alternative or Christian life-style.[24]

In 2014, the General assembly reinforced and restated these beliefs, confirming the Church of God movement believes that marriage is between a man and a woman.

Though there are no official statements available online from the Church of God on abortion, in can be stated that churches in the movement are on the whole opposed to abortion. Some individual congregations state this in their statements of faith.[25]

The Church of God does not take an official stance prohibiting alcohol, but avoidance of drunkenness is generally taught, and some congregations may take a more firm stance.[26]

There is no official stance on the death penalty or euthanasia in the Church of God.

The Church of God is part of several multi-denominational partnerships, including Christian Churches Together, the Christian Holiness Partnership, Wesleyan Holiness Consortium, and the Global Wesleyan Alliance.

[1] John Winebrenner “The Testimony of a Hundred Witnesses” Compiled by J. F. Weishampel, Sr. accessed from https://web.archive.org/web/20030313073410/http://www.mun.ca/rels/restmov/texts/believers/weishampelthw/THW009.HTM (3/7/2020)

[2] John Winebrenner, “A brief scriptural view of the Church of God”, Chapter 1, the church. Accessed from http://www.reformedreader.org/history/winebrennerians/scripturalview/chapter1.htm (3/7/2020)

[3] https://www.cggc.org/

[4] Andrew Byers, “Birth of a Reformation” Accessed from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/47630/47630-8.txt

[5] Ibid

[6] Mike Atnip, “An inside look at the Church of of God (Restoration), p.13 Accessed from http://www.elcristianismoprimitivo.com/Church_of_God_Restoration.pdf (3/7/2020)

[7]Poplar level Church of God, “Beliefs” Accessed from https://www.plcog.org/Beliefs (3/7/2020)

[8] Dr Robert Branson “Creationism and Science: The Continuing War” (Accessed from https://anderson.edu/uploads/sot/branson-creationism-science.pdf 3/9/2020)

[9] Farmington Hills Church of God, “Our Beliefs” (Accessed from https://www.fhchurchofgod.org/copy-of-our-staff 3/9/2020)

[10] “The Supremacy of Scripture” (accessed from https://www.jesusisthesubject.org/our-beliefs/ 3/9/2020)

[11] “We Believe” (accessed from https://www.jesusisthesubject.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/WeBelieve.pdf 3/14/2020) p.8

[12] Wildwood Church of God, “How to Become a Christian” (accessed from https://www.wildwood.church/how-to-become-a-christian 3/14/2020)

[13] A digital copy of this tract can be found at https://www.jesusisthesubject.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/01Salvation.pdf

[14] Jackson, Mark “A Closer Look at God’s Church: A Biblical Evaluation of Key Beliefs of the Church of God” Kindle Location 862

[15] An example location is https://www.chapelhillchurchofgod.com/the-church-of-god.html (Accessed 3/14/2020)

[16] Robertson, Gregory “Eternal Security: A Biblical and Theological Appraisal” (https://anderson.edu/uploads/sot/eternal-security.pdf accessed 3/14/2020) p.14

[17] Jackson, Mark “A Closer Look at God’s Church: A Biblical Evaluation of Key Beliefs of the Church of God” Kindle Location 721

[18] Ibid, Kindle Location 1315

[19] “The Church of God” (accessed from https://www.chapelhillchurchofgod.com/the-church-of-god.html 3/14/2020)

[20] Bob Highlands III, “Last To Leave: What the Bible really says about the end of time.” Kindle location 3070.

[21] “We Believe” (accessed from https://www.jesusisthesubject.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/WeBelieve.pdf 3/14/2020) p.7

[22] (Accessed from https://www.wildwood.church/what-we-believe 3/14/2020)

[23] Jackson, A closer look, Kindle location 2596

[24] Moss, Bob “How the Church of God “Speaks” (Accesed from https://www.jesusisthesubject.org/files/downloads/documents/convention/HowChurchOfGodSpeaks-SCOTUSResponse.pdf 3/14/2020) p.2

[25] One example is here: http://journeychurchofjupiter.com/beliefs/ (accessed 3/14/2020)

[26] A relevant article on the CoG website that dismisses the idea of prohibition can be found here: https://www.jesusisthesubject.org/a-taste-for-temperance/ (accessed 3/14/2020)

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