The Church of God International's Messaging Problem
Over the years since leaving CGI, I have watched the evolution of that organization with fascination. For those who are unfamiliar with this history, CGI began as a reaction to the autocratic and intellectually stagnant atmosphere within the now-defunct Worldwide Church of God. Unfortunately, one of the "founding fathers" of the organization was the morally flawed son (Garner Ted Armstrong) of the autocrat (Herbert W Armstrong) who ruled over the parent organization. Eventually, the moral failings of GTA became so egregious that some folks abandoned CGI (like Ron Dart) while others (like my own father) forced GTA out of the organization and attempted to institute a more spiritual and democratic direction for their organization. It is as they say, however, good intentions so often go astray.
Like many of the other organizations which descended from Herbert's Worldwide Church, CGI began as a mix of true believers who sought to perpetuate the "core" doctrines of Armstrongism and those who recognized that there were real problems with some of the teachings of the parent organization. Over the years that followed those major disruptions within the organization caused by GTA's indiscretions, these two groups grew further and further apart. Unfortunately, the conservative forces within the church (those loyal to Armstrongism) came to be led by Pastor Bill Watson of Ohio. The reformers, on the other hand, were represented by men like Charles Groce, Vance Stinson, and (more recently) Jeff Reed. The illusion of unanimity between the two groups has been preserved by the desire of the men in both camps not to further dilute the already diminished resources and reach of the organization. Both sides recognized that a rupture between them would effectively destroy the ability of the church to promulgate its message to a wider audience.
More recently, this uneasy truce between the two camps has been sorely tested by the radicalization and extreme polarization of American society at large. In short, the larger tensions between liberals and conservatives within the United States have exacerbated tensions between the two camps within CGI. Indeed, the same denigration of the motives, morals, and intellectual capacity of the other side which has characterized the larger society has excited those same kinds of recriminations within the church. The reform camp sees the other side as stubborn reactionaries that are preventing the church from reaching a wider audience. Likewise, the Bill Watson camp sees the other side as being caught up in the same deception and wickedness that is afflicting the larger culture and views them as an obstacle to getting out their message of warning.
Of course, for CGI, this tension is further underscored and exacerbated by the fundamental differences in the way the two camps react to those "core doctrines" of Armstrongism. Watson (and most of his supporters) still embraces Anglo-Israelism and its attendant notion that the church's primary mission is to proclaim a warning to the "nations of Israel" (chiefly the English-speaking peoples of the earth). Hence, for these folks, the message of the church should be one of warning against the evils of socialism, homosexuality, globalism, gender identity, abortion, immigration, etc. In other words, the culture war on steroids! Most of the reformers, however, reject the teaching of Anglo-Israelism and believe that the church's messaging should be focused on the commission to preach the gospel which God gave to his disciples. For the Watson camp, the thirty-third chapter of Ezekiel is paramount. For the Groce/Stinson/Reed camp, the twenty-eighth chapter of Matthew is supreme. Sure, both camps claim that their objective is to proclaim the Gospel of the Kingdom of God to the world. Nevertheless, we can see that their respective understandings of what that encompasses are fundamentally different.
How have both sides handled this dilemma? Heretofore, the reformers have told themselves that the conservatives are simply stuck in the past and haven't seen the light yet. They pride themselves on being inclusive and not censoring the messaging of the conservatives with which they disagree. The conservatives, on the other hand, feel like they are being stifled and censored! They feel like the impact of their messaging has been thwarted and diluted by the reformers. Of course, for those of us on the outside, it just appears that this organization is speaking out of both sides of its mouth. The messaging is mixed, and both sides have only succeeded in engendering a great deal of cognitive dissonance in their audience!
I just finished listening to a sermon by Vance Stinson that was apparently delivered this past Sabbath titled Shepherding the Flock
. In the message, Mr. Stinson directly addressed some of the issues raised in this post about the church's messaging.
More particularly, he addressed just how divisive the issue of mRNA Covid-19 vaccinations has been within the church. In fact, Mr. Stinson pointed out the specific post by Jeff Reed (which referred to the widespread misinformation about the vaccines within America and called them a blessing) that this blogger had previously called attention to as causing so much discord within the church (and within my own family). According to Mr. Stinson, the issue has proven to be so divisive that the Executive Council of the Church has made the decision to not allow ANY further posts regarding Covid-19 mRNA vaccination (anti or pro) on their organization's website.
As I suggested in the above post, Mr. Stinson claims that this step has been taken to avoid dissension and promote unity within their church culture. However, while he insisted that this did not amount to censorship because it would apply equally to both sides, he repeatedly stressed that nothing further would be allowed to be posted on the subject.
Mr. Stinson went on to suggest that there was a strong biblical principle upon which the Executive Council's decision was based: That the shepherds of the flock have a responsibility to forgo their rights to express their own opinions on subjects for the sake of the flock. According to him, the primary responsibility of the shepherds is to promote unity and harmony within the church. In adopting this position, he comes very close to the point which I was originally trying to make with regard to these kinds of issues - that ministers of Jesus Christ had absolutely NO business wading into controversial political and cultural issues.
However, Mr. Stinson failed to address a minister's responsibility to protect his flock from harm and to tell the truth. Moreover, it hardly seems even-handed and fair to this observer to allow all of the many ridiculous statements about social distancing, masking, and vaccinations that had provoked Mr. Reed's post in the first place to stand (remain posted as part of the sermon archive). In other words, in this instance, it appears that those who have made the most noise have prevailed (irrespective of the merits of their objections or the truthfulness of their messaging). And, I'm betting that the Executive Council's decision will NOT satisfy folks in either camp. As John likes to say, time will tell.