[Note: Though it is not my usual custom to post material on here by other authors, this note is an eloquent letter written about the Cogwa situation, responding to a letter from one Joel Meeker  by a friend of mine from the Los Angeles Congregation of the United Church of God named Helmut Rudajs. I post it here so that it may receive the attention it deserves from a wider audience than it has received to date with the express permission of the author.]
WHEN THEY ASK US “WHY”?
The division is complete and the dust settles. What more is there to say? For most of us, nothing. Yet the voices continue, and perhaps efforts to win over our brethren as well. For example, in March 2011, Joel Meeker presented another letter justifying the division. It’s always useful to organize thoughts, before leaving the scene and while memories are fresh. The time will come, when my ten year old and teenager, and all our young people with their new adult minds, will ask us “Why?” Then we shall tell them, and why it should not have happened.
I make a general, simple argument… useful against any present, as well as future accusation. For now it may help keep firm, some who may yet find cause to stumble over past events, or new accusations that dribble in. Perhaps there is someone whose friends, having left now ask “Why not join us?” This might help. And for those brethren who left but in whom doubt lingers, it might help them as well… to find their way back. We all know the main blaze has been controlled, but like a bush fire, small pockets of fire here and there, may still burn in people’s lives.
Why They Left
Joel Meeker explains in his March letter why he and many others left the United Church of God. His last two paragraphs are his most significant. He writes: “The New Testament Church treats the heretic in the same manner as the sinner – separation is justified. We left WCG over heresy, so why would we remain in UCG when confronted with consistent unethical and sinful behavior?” By these words, Joel justifies why he and many others chose division as a solution to differences.
Joel’s own words contain a contradiction.
The NT certainly defines sinful behavior. The same cannot be said about “unethical behavior”, which is the violation of those rules defining conduct and procedure in an organization. These rules are man-made and are found in the Constitution, By-Laws, and Rules of Association, not the NT. Therefore, since by Joel’s own admission the NT alone is the authority for “separation”… Joel himself REMOVES THE ARGUMENT FOR DIVISION BASED ON THE VIOLATION OF ETHICS. Accusation of man-made violations may arise, not because the “offender” is “lawless”, but because he or they sincerely have a different understanding of them. The remedy is simple and provided for… achieve the necessary consensus and remove them from office by whatever due process is available…but don’t divide the Church. We return to this point later.
Does “Consistent Sin” Justify the Division of a NT Church?
Let’s examine Joel’s assumption that “consistent sinful behavior” justifies division. Examples in scripture certainly exist for the expulsion of an unrepentant sinner, but where is the example of an entire church dividing over “alleged” sin? Joel does not provide one. He ought to, if one exists, given the gravity of the issue. WCG is not a valid precedent. I think we all agree that when WCG totally lapsed into heresy, it ceased, or “died”, as the organizational “Body of Christ” on earth (only the organization, not specific members). The “we” who left were individual members, not a pre-organized group. The formation of UCG, Living, and other groups…represent “rebirths” of organizations representing Christ. There never was a “division”. (The separation of David Hulme and friends from UCG is a more accurate comparison…one which Joel refrains from making).
“…why should we remain in UCG when confronted with consistent unethical and sinful behavior?”
Joel asks a good question. If Joel or anyone believes such behavior exists, they are free to leave, to serve God wherever and however they please…they answer to Him as do all. But leaving is not all what many of the ministers and members did. Joel neglects to mention that before leaving and while still in our fellowship, they sowed discord and doubt in the Body of Christ. Where in His word does God sanction the sowing of discord…as a solution for ANYTHING?
Let Him Who Is Without Sin…
Christ had something to say on the subject of accusing others of sin: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” (John 8:7) Christ does not challenge the veracity of the accusation. He does suggest that the accusers also may be guilty of sin. The leaders who left the Church justify their act in part as follows: “We left because those in authority practice sin in the affairs of the Church”. Their words seem to imply that those leaving DO NOT sin in matters of the Church…since they turn around and say (in effect) to any who will listen, “Follow me.” If they ARE guilty of sin in the matters of the Church, then by their own words they condemn themselves… as being unworthy to lead a church. The conclusion is inescapable. So let’s consider some of their actions and see if in accusing others, they can cast the first stone:
1. The Sin of Sowing Discord
What is discord? What does God think of it? Did those leaving sow discord?” (Of interest to note: I do not believe Joel mentions anywhere in his writings the word “division”. He prefers to describe the final outcome using the less odious “separation”, “break-up”, or “split.” Neither did I see the word “discord.) Notice how God views “sowing discord”.
“These six things the Lord hates,
Yes, seven are an abomination to Him:
A proud look, A lying tongue,
Hands that shed innocent blood,
A heart that devises wicked plans,
Feet that are swift in running to evil,
A false witness who speaks lies
And one who sows discord among brethren. (Prov. 6:16-19)
The word “discord” refers to strife or contention, or as a discordant note in music, the absence of harmony. There is some consensus, that in a list of this type, the last item is the most prominent. Here is what fascinates about the list: two of the items (“a lying tongue” and “hands that shed innocent blood”) are direct expressions of the Commandments. Therefore the seventh sin of “sowing discord” is AT LEAST as bad, and MAYBE even worse, in the eyes of God. (We might digress and ask why that is. Perhaps discord strikes at the very heart of God’s plan for mankind. Only if we treasure unity in this life as God does (Ps. 133:1) can we hope to enter the Kingdom. Discord often arises as we seek to impose our will on others. Therefore unity, the opposite of discord, is a test of humility. This is a possible answer.)
There is an irony here: During the past months of controversy, members were informed that the Council and Administration were planning to compromise our teaching on God’s Sabbath, also one of the Commandments. The effect of spreading this baseless accusation was to sow discord…an “abomination” possibly worse, certainly as bad given Proverbs 6, as the sin of violating the Sabbath itself.
Separation and division are not the same. One minister who left wrote to his congregation: “I don’t want to sway the membership either way…I will not try to influence or persuade any UCG brethren to change their affiliation. I will not criticize UCG, its leadership or its members. I separate in peace with HUGE gratitude for all that the United Church of God has done…” This man’s example is commendable and rare, and especially rare in recent resignation letters is his heartfelt expression of gratitude. More common is the example set in my own congregation. One deacon issued e-mails condemning Church leaders and warning of anonymous “wolves” in the congregation, while another leveled criticisms and dire warnings of apostasy, in low tones to small groups. In other congregations, ministers held Q and A’s and freely gave their version of events…using the power and prestige of their office in a way God never meant it to be used. Truth is not the issue here. Michael could have truthfully criticized Satan, and dared not. It is not for lack of truth in accusations that “sowing discord” is a sin.
2. The Sin of Intimidation
In political elections, voter intimidation is commonplace and considered a crime. Voters are threatened, or intimidated to vote a certain way. In our Church, balloting or voting is the means whereby certain decisions are made…such as an office re-location. Each elder has ballot. He has a duty to make a wise decision…and this duty is a spiritual one. This may necessitate asking questions for and against any proposal. To this end, the Elder’s Forum facilitated the free flow of information and ideas. During the last administration, on the proposal to move the office to Texas, one pastor that I know of was intimidated by a council member for posting against the move. “Intimidation” is the unfair influence to ballot a certain way. It undermines the ballot process, and the elder’s duty to make an informed and independent decision for the Church. Such influence was sufficiently widespread to warrant an alternative forum to discuss the move. If voter intimidation can be a crime in political elections, how is it not a sin when done in our Church?
3. The Sin of Willful Deception-Concerning the Move to Texas
Not all error is sin. We all have made statements to others believing them to be true, when in fact they were not. WILLFUL deception IS a sin and of this there is no doubt…it’s called lying. Now then, what about the willful disregard of information, consideration of which might influence the outcome in a manner we find not pleasing? This too can be sinful deception…since our duty before God and Church is to achieve a “good” decision based on an honest assessment of the merits and regardless of personal bias. The victims of our deception are those who rely on us to provide impartial information.
The proposal by the prior administration to move the office to Texas is considered by most to be the starting point of the “crisis”, certainly its flashpoint. The Cincinnati office supposedly was too small to handle future growth and Texas was a reasonable alternate location, capable of meeting our future needs, and worth the cost and disruption to move there. The GCE was to consider and decide the question. The prior administration and most (all?) ministers who left were in favor of the move, and promoted it. To this end, well before the GCE evaluation and vote on the move, the administration sent to all congregations a DVD presenting their argument in favor of it. In Challenge 8, Joel said “bring out the evidence” of “wrong information” concerning the Texas move. In three posts entitled “Move to Texas” (parts 1, 2, & 3), a long-time member and office employee did exactly that, several weeks ago. Those posts provide the details in the discussion that follows. The DVD contained multiple errors of information:
- It stated the present home office site was too crowded and could not be economically expanded. This was absolutely not true…the office was designed to allow for expansion and multiple options were known and available. Thus the underlying premise of the move was a deception.
- The DVD ruled out a local, far less expensive and disruptive move within the Cincinnati area. In fact, many local locations met or exceeded the requirements needed for a home office facility…unless the requirement criteria were manipulated such that only a Texas location could meet the requirement.
- One of the major arguments in the DVD in favor of the Texas move was statistical data comparing proximity of elders, members, donors, subscribers etc to the proposed location, with proximity to the current one. However the data was known to be grossly inaccurate even as the DVD was played to the churches. The careless or deliberate perpetuation of false information to members is deception.
- The DVD stated that the COE was in unanimous approval of the move (as I listened to the DVD, this point impressed me greatly). But the statement was false, and known to be false as the DVD was played to the churches. The COE were ONLY unanimous in bringing the proposal to the GCE for a vote. Again… an error knowingly perpetuated is deception.
Let’s move on from the DVD. Much debate on the Denton, Texas property disclosed its many serious flaws as a new office site. There were only two alternate sites, and these also failed to meet requirements. The impression of a multitude of choices in the Dallas/Ft Worth area, created by those favoring a move there, was deceptive.
Now the requirements were changed to allow a property more distant from Dallas, at Sanger to be purchased. Given the new criteria, many properties in the Cincinnati area now met or exceeded the requirements, even more than did the Sanger property. Yet the Cincinnati area was not re-considered. Why not? By this time, the GCE had approval to purchase a property, but serious controversy and debate still prevailed within the GCE, concerning the Sanger property. A resolution to rescind the purchase for the upcoming May GCE Conference had already been submitted. There was a significant chance it would be passed. The administration chose not to wait until after the vote, and paid the $1.6 million for the property. The resolution did pass and the property sits vacant to this day.
God’s servants have a duty to wisely manage the tithe money sent in by members. Why then did they not wait? Did they think the act of creating the commitment would “force the hand” of elders to vote against rescission? If so, the purchase became an act of coercion, which is wrong. Was the timing of the purchase simply an act of foolishness? Certainly it is not “wise” to tie up God’s tithes in an unprofitable way. The administration’s supposed right to make the purchase, did not abrogate their duty to act wisely. Even the Strategic Planning expert hired by the administration and Council publically said the move was not a good one. Scripture sometimes links foolishness and sin together, as in Proverbs 24:9: “The thought of foolishness is sin…”
Joel Meeker writes in Challenge 8: “Council members are required by their code of ethics to support the consensus of the Council and GCE. Both…voted in favor of moving the office to Texas. To immediately begin organizing to overturn the decision can hardly be characterized as supporting the consensus.” Joel is incorrect in his conclusion. An elder’s duty to support a resolution does not abrogate his right to organize another. This would especially be true if he or his fellow elders possessed solid evidence that they were victims of deception on the first resolution. Their “right” might in fact become a duty since God does not support the fruits of deception.
4. The Sin of Slander and the Sin of Not Doing Good…(James 4:17)
The entire Council was repeatedly accused by various voices (sympathetic to the prior administration) of ignoring a supposedly “sinful situation” in their midst. In fact, eleven out of twelve council-members knew absolutely nothing of the situation. Only the chairman knew. Fully aware of this, prior administration members could have promptly ended the slander simply by speaking out and/or correcting the accusers who were their de-facto representatives…but they chose not to. Why not? Remember the words of James: “Therefore to him that knows to do good, and does it not, to him it is sin.”
Conclusion to this section: Paul said: “Now I urge you brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you have learned, and avoid them.” (Romans 16:17) Rather than following those who divide a church, we ought to avoid them. Of all sins, the VERY ACT of causing division is a DISQUALIFICATION for leadership. (This scripture must be quite frustrating for those seeking members to start a new church.)
The Matter of “Unethical Behavior”
“Unethical behavior” when distinguished from “sinful behavior” refers to the violation of the man-made rules found in our Constitution, By-Laws, and Rules of Association, and their equivalent documents in other countries.
Joel accused Church leaders of consistently violating or disregarding these Documents, and he called it “lawlessness.” (Challenge 21) The wisdom of “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” applies equally well to the matter of “unethical conduct.” Those who left were extremely quick to judge on this matter… surely they know that many of our man-made documents are subject to nuanced interpretations, especially if they have yet to weather the scrutiny of a challenge. An example of how rules can be disputed was the attempt to pass the May, 2010 Resolution to Establish a Governance Review Task Force. The two sides differed on whether it complied with our Documents. Lawyers were consulted, and the consensus was that it did not. (A lawyer in Texas differed from the consensus, but he remained anonymous).
The solution to ethical disputes is not to retain the services of an outside lawyer each time. That would be absurd, the expense enormous, and contrary to the scriptural injunction to resolve matters among ourselves. The issue of the Resolution demonstrates that our documents are subject to dispute. John Adams said long ago: “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” He meant… for men to govern side by side, the godly qualities of humility and self-sacrifice must exist in full supply. Otherwise, the government will fail. This was the test that faced our church…did we have that full supply? Many ethical disputes have arisen in recent times. The solution to them all is the same: Appeal to whatever due process is available. If that fails, attain a consensus and find a remedy in the ballot. If that fails, apply the godly quality of humility. Be prepared to admit that if the majority of faithful ministers disagree with you, perhaps it is you who are wrong. But do not divide the Church.
“Why Can’t We Just Talk…?
The assumption is sometimes made that the present Council and Administration was unwilling to consider complaints, grievances, requests etc from the ministers who left. The conclusion drawn by some is that the division could have been avoided had the Council only been willing to communicate. Both the assumption and the conclusion are false. Let’s consider who showed an attitude of wanting to talk and listen.
Latin America…one example among many of where the Council tried to reconcile on Latin America, is their repeated effort to connect with elders by inviting them in for discussion. Only one elder responded. He was asked to encourage the others to come as well, and for that he was ostracized and ridiculed. Their firm precondition was that Mr. Walker first had to be reinstated. Joel acknowledges (in Challenge 10) that as an employee of UCG, he could be fired, but as Regional Director of the Spanish area, he answered to “Spanish-language national councils”, and could not be fired.
Assuming Joel is correct, then let the “councils” appoint Mr. Walker “Regional Director for Life” if they so choose. Then let UCG appoint its Representative to Latin America, who alone is responsible for salaries, subsidies, hall rental, camps, scholarships, and anything requiring the expenditure and administration of U.S. sourced funds. Members in the U.S, whose duty it is to pay tithes, send them to our Home Office so that OUR Council and Administration determine their wise use, not foreign councils and ministers. Here is the point: Unless the RD is also an employee of UCG, his office tends to be meaningless.
Southern Africa…our Council members attempted to visit our churches there but were bluntly told by the local ministers that they were not welcome. The local ministers had chosen to listen to only one side of the dispute in the U.S. Filtered information led to filtered decisions. It was they who now cut off communication.
Of those congregations in the U.S. where the pastor disagreed with the Council, how many in the spirit of open communication and desire to reconcile, invited speakers in to present “the other side”. Answer: Probably none. In France, did Joel Meeker? Why would a minister not do this? If truth is on his side, and a desire to reconcile, and a desire to have his congregation “prove all things”, what has he to fear? Once again, filtered information led to filtered decisions.
What can we conclude? The Council and Administration demonstrated many times their desire to communicate and reconcile. As ministers of Christ, they are prepared to speak personally with anyone. We have seen, that in areas where further communication might resolve something, the Council and Administration has responded. However, the letters signed by multiple ministers and sent to the Council is not such an area. These letters, while appearing to seek reconciliation, were in fact demands that a minority point of view, opposed by roughly two thirds of the ministry, might prevail over the majority view. It would be an illusion to think that further communication alone can resolve such differences. The differences trace their origins to core questions of church mission and government, which lead to different understandings of our founding documents, and definitions of “ethical” versus “unethical” conduct.
Given our differences, it is only with a fuller measure of patience and humility that unity can be maintained. For those who left and TRULY believed the present Church government was unworthy and in need of change, there is a decent, orderly, and godly way of doing it, but it requires patience. That “way” was placed into our Documents, from the beginning. Every year, three new Council members face the ballot. Therefore every two years, a new majority is conceivable. The prior leadership had been out of power a mere 2-3 years, during which time they claim all the “sinful and unethical” behavior occurred. If we assume their claim, then let us remember the woman in Luke 13. After being bound by Satan, she had to wait for God 18 long years. Could not those who left have waited a mere two?
Joel addresses his final paragraph to those who did not leave: “For any who are as yet uncertain, watch carefully. “You shall know them by their fruits.” I believe if you remain alert you will come to see evidence of the unethical behavior and nature of these men.”
Why not apply to Joel and the leaders who left with him, the same standard…”You shall know them by their fruits”? So far, the fruits of this whole mess have been doubt, discord, division, broken families, lost friendships, loneliness, sorrow, distraction from proclaiming the gospel, and the list goes on. No doubt, those who left will disclaim all guilt for these fruit.
But an accusation they cannot evade is the one that we were planning to compromise the Sabbath. It was an accusation believed by many, since it was made by honorable men (and for that reason alone). Months have since elapsed and our belief in the Sabbath is stronger than ever. TO THOSE WHO LEFT: Your leaders have produced “fruit” worthy of examination…that of false accusation. What does this fruit tell you? Might some of their other claims which you heard and believed, also be false? Perhaps you feel more time is needed to see if they are false, just to be sure. Very well, let us be guilty (of planning to compromise the Sabbath) until time proves us innocent. A false accusation does not age well, and at some point will be exposed for the lie that it is. Then search among the accusers for the fruit of repentance.
Let’s continue our search for fruit. The noble reason given for the division was the “spiritual danger” facing members. What danger? Some leaders said they would have to feed the flock “poison food”. That simply is not true. No one EVER was asked to preach ANYTHING other than our fundamental beliefs and Christ, nor have they to this very day. When time proves this accusation false as well, how then will they defend their action to divide the Church?
CONCLUDING THOUGHT: I fully endorse Joel’s parting words: “…watch carefully, You shall know them by their fruits.” Watch carefully, all who left. You will see a re-invigorated UCG, ministers and members bonded together in common purpose, mutual respect and humility. You will see Summer Camps, for which excited teens now register, and new volunteers prepare to serve. You will see unbelievable web-page innovations serving the needs of brethren and visitors as never before. You will see new men ordained. Overseas, you will see our service projects continue, with our young people assisting there and learning. And you will see a new Feast site at Puerto Vallarta to serve the needs of our Spanish brethren. You will see the Church continue faithfully in the teachings and practices of God’s word. There is excitement now in the Church. For over three years, the Work of God has been distracted. Now we move forward together, as we go about our Father’s business.
Remember the words of Paul to Timothy (11 Tim. 3:13) that it is the evil men who wax worse with time. The opposite is true for the faithful. Consider that, as you judge the fruits to come.