The Church of God has faced many trying times through the centuries, and our day is no different. Every few years, some individual or group causes a distraction, very much after the manner of Korah. The Apostle Paul warns us of this problem in Acts 20:29–31. The excuse is usually “You take too much upon you” or “You are wrong on some doctrine.” Whatever the issue, it is used to justify separating members from the Body of Christ and to temporarily distract and diminish the Church from fulfilling its God-required mission to preach the true Gospel, feed the flock, and warn the Israelite nations and all the world of where they are heading. It was this way long before any of us were introduced to the true Body of Christ. I have personally lived through many challenging times during my 56 years in the Church. Some were relatively small distractions, while others were far more serious disruptions. And sadly, brethren, I doubt we have seen the last of these, although I always hope people will stop hurting themselves and others through self-will, self-righteousness, or pride.
“Government” has become a bad word in the minds of some. Different organizations have taken different approaches to this subject, and some who claim to be members of the Church of God do not want even to look at it, as it seems to them to cause division rather than unity. However, is that the right approach? Should someone lay aside one of the most important and easily explained doctrines because, perhaps, he is afraid that the clear biblical truth might not agree with his personal view or the view of the church he attends? Right government, as consistently described in the pages of Scripture, is a means of bringing peace, unity, and love. And how can we neglect a discussion of government when this is the problem that Christ is coming back to settle? It is what the Kingdom of God is all about!
We read that Jesus is going to be King over all the earth (Zechariah 14:9). David is going to rule under Him as king over the twelve tribes of Israel (Jeremiah 30:9; Ezekiel 37:24). Under David, the Twelve Apostles will each rule over one of the tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:27–28). And those who are faithful and grow in grace and knowledge will rule over cities (Luke 19:11–19). Is this not what God revealed to Daniel in a dream and visions? “Then the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people, the saints of the Most High. His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey Him” (Daniel 7:27). How can we neglect the magnitude of this subject just because some do not want to face the truth?
And we must ask, Why is there hostility regarding this subject? As I have pointed out on several occasions, people naturally believe in government only as long as the decisions of government agree with them. But why is this the case? While few want to admit that this applies to them, Paul gives us the answer: “Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be” (Romans 8:7). Even mentioning this as a possible cause of the problem raises some peoples’ hackles! But isn’t this something we were supposed to learn when coming to repentance and baptism—that our nature is hostile to God and that only with the help of God’s Spirit dwelling in us can we overcome this hostility? Do we remember Proverbs 14:12 and Jeremiah 17:9?
Both Servants and Leaders
We are all tainted by our background. Much of the Western world is based on some form of democratic rule—rule by the people—and this colors the way many view the role of government in the Church. Some of us can still remember that the Second World War and the Korean War influenced some past leaders to administer Church government in a strict, military way. But neither democracy nor a military approach correspond to the model Christ gave us. Yes, the Bible clearly shows there must be order in the Body, but how that order is administered is very different from what we see in the world.
Most of us remember the emphasis Dr. Meredith gave regarding a loving attitude of servant leadership, as described in Matthew 20:25–28. This kind of leadership is understood through the godly family structure, where both love and submission are found (Ephesians 5:21–25), and this mindset must be the standard for the Living Church of God. Sometimes people hear the word servant and forget the word leadership. Both are necessary, and leadership, among other important responsibilities, requires decisions on controversial matters.
Decisions are best made when proper counsel is considered. That is why the Living Church of God has a Council of Elders. We take seriously the proverbs that admonish us to solicit wise counsel (Proverbs 1:5; 11:14; 12:15; 15:22; 24:6). We also take seriously the warning found in Proverbs 18:1–2: “A man who isolates himself seeks his own desire; he rages against all wise judgment. A fool has no delight in understanding, but in expressing his own heart.” Note also that not all counsel is profitable. Rehoboam accepted counsel from his friends rather than those men who had greater experience and had been established in the role of counselors (1 Kings 12:6–8).
Consider, dear brethren: When is government needed the most? Is it not when there are differences of opinion, rather than when everyone agrees? What does the Bible instruct us about solving controversial matters? Brethren, this is vital knowledge that we must understand. Harsh dictatorial rule is not the answer, but neither is everyone doing what is right in his own eyes (Deuteronomy 12:8; Judges 21:25; Proverbs 21:2). This ends in anarchy, as we are seeing all too well in society at large. How often God speaks out against this mindset! Democracy leads to politics and imputing motives to those on the other side of an issue while promoting one’s own agenda.
Neither democracy nor dictatorial rule is how the first-century Church of God solved questions of controversy, and is not solving matters of controversy a big part of leadership? Brethren, let us set aside our personal backgrounds and briefly review what most of us at least assume we understand.
When Moses was overwhelmed by the task of settling differences between individuals, God inspired Jethro’s advice to teach everyone the statutes and judgments. When people know the law of God and understand the intent behind it, as shown in the judgments, many problems are forestalled. But, sadly, as long as we are human, not all solutions are obvious to everyone. That is why capable men must be appointed to judge between individuals when an issue is not clear to both sides (Exodus 18:21–26; Deuteronomy 1:9–18). Once a judgment is made on a controversial issue, it goes without saying that one side is usually pleased with the decision while the other side is not. So, what is one to do if the judgment is not what one hoped? God shows us His mind on the subject and explains how serious a matter it is to violate a judgment that came down from those appointed for this purpose (Deuteronomy 17:8–13).
We see that Jesus appointed the Apostles and gave them authority to make judgments that He would back up (Matthew 18:18–20). We are not talking here about abandoning the truths of Scripture, but rather administrative decisions that need to be made in all ages as circumstances change. The law does not change, but how it is applied in different circumstances and at different times may change. For example, while physical circumcision is no longer required, spiritual circumcision—of the heart—certainly is (Romans 2:28-29)!
As mentioned earlier, this authority from the top down is found in the family (Ephesians 5:22–24). What husband is perfect? I think we know that none of us husbands make a perfect decision every time, but if the wife and children disagree and go their own way, what is the point of the God-ordained family structure? It goes without saying that if a husband abandons the truth and commands his wife to do the same, she ought to obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29). However, she must not plead her “conscience” every time she simply disagrees with him on domestic decisions. So many domestic decisions have little to do with direct commands from God. But the overriding principle for husbands is to show love—caring, outgoing concern—to the wife and family (Ephesians 5:25). Husbands must rise above what they want and make decisions that are best for the family.
Ministers in the world often choose a “calling” on their own. They go to seminary and then look for a congregation that is seeking to hire someone, or they “hang out their shingle” and start their own church. That is not the biblical model. The priests of the Old Testament—and, by extension, ministers in the spiritual Israel of God—were not and are not to take this responsibility upon themselves (Hebrews 5:1, 4). Ministers are chosen from the top down by God’s servants who were appointed before them. Authority to appoint is found in Paul’s instructions to Timothy and Titus regarding ordinations (1 Timothy 3:1–13; Titus 1:5–9). It was seen in the appointment of deacons when a controversy broke out over fairness (Acts 6:1–6). In this case, the Apostles appealed to the brethren to bring forth individuals who were well-respected and who exemplified God’s Spirit working in them, but it was the Apostles who made the final decisions and ordained them, not the members (Acts 6).
We also see appointment from the top down in the selection of a replacement for Judas. Peter spelled out the necessary qualifications. Of the 120 who were there, only two men were found who met the criteria. The Apostles cast lots to see whom God chose, since they had not yet received the Holy Spirit. This is the last time we read of lots being cast for a decision, although it is vaguely referred to in Acts 8:21 (the Greek word here can be translated as portion or lot).
Some individuals think lots were “ballots—votes,” but this is nonsense. Lots were stones, pieces of wood, or other objects by which the names of potential choices were placed in a jar or the lap, and the one pulled out was chosen. See the example of the two goats in Leviticus 16: Clearly, the High Priest was not “voting” on which goat represented the Lord and which represented Azazel! Virtually all scholars agree with this, but in recent decades, to justify a different form of governance, some have tried to stretch the meaning to include balloting or voting. We must ask whether they apply the same principle within the family structure!
After hearty discussion about circumcision, Peter clearly made the decision in Acts 15, and James, the leader of the Jerusalem congregation, where the controversy originated, said, “Therefore I judge…” (v. 19). We also see Paul exercising authority in 1 Corinthians 5 regarding the sinning man. He later exercised his God-given authority again when discussing hair length in chapter 11! After explaining biblical principles that related to masculinity and femininity, he said, “But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God” (1 Corinthians 11:16). In other words, Paul was saying, This is what we teach, here and everywhere else—case closed!
When the People Willingly Offer Themselves
We see what happens when authority breaks down and many, even leaders, refuse to follow directions from leaders above them. California refused to follow the federal government regarding illegal immigrants and declared itself a “sanctuary state.” But then some cities and counties turned around and defied the state government, which, of course, the state didn’t like. It would be comical, if it weren’t such a serious matter with equally serious consequences. We see law and order breaking down as all want to be authorities unto themselves.
The period of the judges was a similar time, when there was no central authority to look to, and we can read the lesson of those times. The last verse of the book sums it up: “In those days there was no king [no central authority] in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). The account of that period shows that it was a terrible time to live in—though there were some bright spots, and the book of Ruth tells the story of one of them.
Another was at the time when Deborah judged the nation. It was during that time when Israel threw off Jabin, king of Canaan, and Sisera, the commander of his army. Following the decisive battle, “Deborah and Barak the son of Abinoam sang on that day, saying: ‘When leaders lead in Israel, when the people willingly offer themselves, bless the Lord’” (Judges 5:1–2)! Not only must leaders lead, but others must willingly cooperate with their leaders. Does this mean we should follow leadership anywhere? Of course not! Paul makes it plain that we are to follow leaders as they follow Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1) and Peter and the Apostles declared, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). This should be a given, but we should never confuse obedience to God with self-will when we face controversial administrative decisions.
Husbands and wives must learn to balance these matters if they are to have a harmonious marriage. Wives are not to follow their husbands in rebellion against God, but neither are they to invoke personal “conscience” because they disagree and think their solution to a problem is wiser. Frankly, it may be, but respecting her husband’s decision is what will work out best for the family in the end (Ephesians 5:22–24).
God shows us the way to deal with controversial matters. It is then up to us to choose whether to follow His way or to go our own way. To follow or not to follow is a choice—a critically important choice, because it has a lot to do with our eventual reward and whether we will even be in the Kingdom. As God spoke through Moses in Deuteronomy 30:19, “therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live.”