The Readers Digest is a monthly magazine with articles of varying quality covering a wide range of subjects and interests.The magazine has a large circulation in Britain and North America, helped by vigorous advertising. Over recent months a new advert has appeared in this magazine on behalf of the United Church of God.
The advert offers a free copy of the church’s own paper called Good News. You have guessed right! It appears that the advertisement has been relatively successful and copies of this religious paper have been requested by a number of Digest readers. And some people are asking the inevitable questions: What is this United Church of God? Is this church a cult?
One important fact to appreciate concerning the United Church of God (UCG) is that it only began in 1996, and then as a breakaway group from the Worldwide Church of God (WCG). While the latter was endeavouring to become more biblical and trinitarian, the United Church of God was formed by a group of WCG members who wanted to pursue certain Old Testament practices. These practices could, in effect, undermine the gospel of grace.
It is estimated that the UCG has 200 members in the UK, served by eight ministers. Some 160 members are located in England in eight churches. There is also one church in Northern Ireland and one in Scotland.
The second thing to note about the United Church of God is that it has a well-organised group of churches spread over thirty-six countries. An interesting breakdown of these countries reveals that the church is located in twelve African countries, eight South American countries, six Western European countries (including the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Switzerland), and four Australasian countries. The church is weakest in Eastern Europe, where it has a presence only in Estonia. The UK centre is in Milton Keynes.
A third observation about the United Church of God is that it makes effective use of an internet web-site. The church is up-front in describing itself, its aims and resources. Their openness in this respect is welcome.
Fourthly, this church appears well intentioned in terms of evangelism and offering counsel to people. For example, their Mission Statement declares that ‘The mission of the United Church of God is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God in all the world, make disciples in all nations, and care for those disciples’.
The statement itself appears satisfactory on the surface but we will need to examine the terminology more carefully later to see what they really mean. But make no mistake about it, the United Church of God is eager to help and counsel people. ‘We desire’, they say, ‘to share God’s way of life with those who earnestly seek to worship and follow our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Our ministers are available to counsel, answer questions and explain the Bible’.
Fifthly, the overall leadership of this church is in the hands of a Council of Elders. At a General Conference of Elders in Cincinnati, Ohio (3-5 December 1995), twelve elders were elected to function as ‘the first permanent Council of Elders for the United Church of God, an international association’.
As many as nine of these twelve elders represent the United States and the remaining three are denoted ‘international’, representing Canada, Europe and Spanish-speaking countries. Since 1995, the council members have been chosen from nominated elders at the General Conference, ‘and serve staggered terms’. Notice that the church is centrally led and is predominantly American in terms of both leadership and membership.
But what do they believe? Their web-site identifies their ‘Fundamental Beliefs’ and there are twenty of them. In a preamble, however, we are warned that this ‘is not intended to be a comprehensive statement’ of their beliefs. Clearly, theological development is taking place within this church, and we are informed that matters relating to belief ‘will be addressed by a process adopted by the Council of Elders’. The church’s doctrinal position appears fluid and vulnerable, as well as questionable in some areas.
Consider, for example, their doctrine of God which is lengthy but ambiguous. There is no reference to the divine attribute of holiness, and statements concerning the person of Christ and the Holy Spirit are inadequate. They describe the Holy Spirit as ‘the Spirit of God and of Christ Jesus, the power of God and the Spirit of life eternal’. This fails to affirm the distinct personality of the Holy Spirit and the co-equality of the Holy Spirit within the Godhead. At best, these statements point to a binitarian rather than a trinitarian position; at worst, they express a non-trinitarian, or ‘oneness’, doctrine.
The statement concerning Christ’s death is useful, in that it brings out our Lord’s real humanity, sinlessness, and active obedience, as well as the sacrificial nature of his death ‘for the sins of humanity, sufficient to pay the penalty for every human being’s sins’. What it does not do is highlight the substitutionary nature of this death, its glorious accomplishment, and its successful application. One also suspects that behind their statement regarding the Lord’s sacrifice is a hint of an earlier Worldwide Church of God doctrine, namely, that his death only saves us from the death penalty, freeing us to go on to give obedience to the law. I hope this is not so.
There are commendable features included in these Fundamental Beliefs, such as a high view of Scripture; the reality of Satan; the fact and significance of human sin; the physical resurrection of Christ, followed by his ascension and session at the right hand of God; and an emphasis on personal faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour, for forgiveness and justification.
Old Testament rules
Reading these Fundamental Beliefs, however, distresses me for at least two reasons. One is that they draw no distinction between primary and secondary doctrines. Thus they regard matters like seventh-day Sabbath observance, tithing, and millennialism, as primary beliefs equivalent in importance to Christology and soteriology. The same primary significance is attached to strict observance of the seven Old Testament Holy Days and the observing of the New Testament Passover on the night of the fourteenth of Abib, ‘the anniversary of the death of our Saviour’.
In addition, they stipulate that all meats designated ‘unclean’ in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 ‘are not to be eaten’ by Christians. This requirement, again, is put on a par with the major doctrines of God and Scripture.
The second reason for my distress is that some of these Old Testament practices, which the United Church of God perpetuates, raise major questions concerning discontinuity and continuity between the Old and New Testaments and threaten the gospel of grace by imposing legalism on Christians.
As a response, I limit myself to two points. First of all, Colossians 2:16-17 is extremely relevant: ‘Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day’.
This passage clearly teaches that no one has the right to demand that Christians should observe regulations about ceremonially ‘unclean’ meats or special days. The reason given in verse 17 is that a Christian has been freed from bondage to such requirements: ‘These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ’. This is a major truth with far-reaching implications.
The Old Testament ordinances which the United Church of God seeks to perpetuate are no longer binding, since they were only a ‘shadow’ of ‘the reality’ which is in Christ. The UCG provides extensive information on observing ‘holy days’ including a calendar, dates, and a ‘sunrise/sunset table generator’, which all serve to focus on the ‘shadow’ rather than the reality in Christ. Now that Christ has come, the shadows (which in earlier times served as pointers to him) have disappeared, being gloriously fulfilled in the reality of the gospel.
Christ, not ritual
Secondly, the question of ‘unclean’ foods was a problem in the early church. Our Lord abolished the distinction between ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ in Mark 7:19 (cf. John 4:9) and this was impressed on Peter in Acts 10:11-16, 28 (see also Acts 15). In 1 Corinthians 10:26-33 Christians are told they should refrain from certain foods. However, this is not because they are ‘unclean’ but because of love in not wanting to offend other Christians (cf. Romans 14:15).
The United Church of God must face up to this New Testament teaching, and major exclusively on the reality of Christ rather than on retaining shadows.