The following letter has been sent to elders in the United Church of God. While it's very long, it is reproduced here in its entirety.
Dec. 28, 2009
Dear Fellow Elders,
We would ask that you take this letter as a personal message of deepest spiritual concern. It is vital that each of you take time to read the entirety of its contents.
When the United Church of God began in 1995, we were all very humbled but guardedly optimistic about the future. We had the privilege and opportunity to carry on the legacy of preaching the gospel to the world and strengthening members within the Body of Christ.
It has been challenging as we strive to move forward in a form of church governance that has not been “the norm” for the Church of God community as a whole. But it was the approach, based upon biblical principles, that the General Conference of Elders ratified in 1995. At that time we were prompted to focus on the foundation of our organizational relationships and decision-making processes. Our collective attention became focused on the biblical principle spelled out in Proverbs 11:14, that “…in the multitude of counselors there is safety.” Most importantly, we made a collective decision that, rather than simply looking to a man, we would focus on Jesus Christ being the Head of the Church; and we were determined to sense the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit in us as our guide.
God has never left us or forsaken us even though at times we all have fallen short of His perfect guidance. As the Council of Elders of the United Church of God, we believe the Spirit of God is once again guiding and stirring us up to share certain basic words that must be said and understood by each of us. The time for decisive actions has come.
Over the past few months many accusations have been leveled against the leadership of the United Church of God. The Council, which is the senior governing body of the Church, has especially come under attack and been accused of lying, deceit, covering up and unethical behavior. While we are all only men, and have made our share of mistakes along the way, we reject such accusations as being without evidence, slanderous in some cases, and effectively harming the preaching of the gospel by diverting the focus of the duly elected board members of the Church. The time has come for straight talk from our hearts to yours, as brothers in Christ.
Rather than condemning and accusing what we see around us with our human perceptions, let’s consider where God places His focus. Ephesians 6:11-12 states that our real enemies are not one another but wicked or evil spirits in high places: “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”
We are wrestling with an angry evil spirit that never rests in his focused attempt to destroy and scatter members of the Body of Christ. He tried to deliver a death blow in the 1990s, and now he is subtly striving to slowly but surely squeeze the life energy out of those who remain true to the gospel. We all realize that Satan knows he has but a short time left. Make no mistake about it: He hates, loathes and despises what we are called to stand for and perform by God’s grace, and this spiritual adversary will do anything and use anyone to frustrate our mission of preaching the gospel and preparing a people.
Much of our current situation goes back to 2007 through 2008 when a new makeup of membership began to emerge on the Council of Elders. A number of people have voiced the opinion that these men, all ministers with multiple decades of long-term service to the Church, could not have obtained a seat on the Council unless there had been “bloc voting” for nominees or candidates for the Council. (“Bloc voting” here means the formation of a group of individuals to support, promote or lobby for certain candidates for the Council in an effort to influence the ballot.) The suspected vehicle used to engineer such alleged bloc voting was an “alternate forum” (i.e., a private discussion group) comprised of a very small minority of members within the General Conference. Although no evidence of bloc voting has ever been produced for any candidate on any side of the issues, the opinion was expressed, and is still held by some elders today, that these are illegitimate Council members.
The Council’s position regarding private discussion groups involving elders is that they are not forbidden and violate no bylaw, resolution or scriptural principle. The Council has no oversight responsibility over such groups. Since they are private, unless there is proof that there is ministerial misconduct on such sites, it is not the Council’s (or the Church’s) responsibility. The Council will only act on substantiated reports of unchristian behavior by elders, whatever the context.
The detailed report on the alternate forum was officially approved by the Council as not only a statement regarding private forums (of which one or more likely exist at any given time), but was also created as a statement of what kind of fellowship we will be in respecting the rights of others while expecting the highest spiritual standard of all who hold the office of elder. The Council report included a statement from the forum’s administrator telling participants that it was not to be used for bloc voting or discussion of candidates, and the Council has since then received unequivocal statements from participants that it was not used for bloc voting. While some may not accept these statements or the conclusions of the Council in its report or its spiritual and philosophical thrust, the fact is that no actual evidence to the contrary has been forthcoming from anyone else.
The resolution to rescind the move to Texas was also passed in 2008 and created strong feelings on both sides of the debate that arose.
As a result of these differences and others, we have allowed Satan, as well as ourselves and our human nature that so easily besets us, to divide us into rigid camps. We have trouble accepting that others can have strong opinions contrary to our own and still have the best interests of the Church at heart. Satan has created an atmosphere of distrust. There has been a pattern now for some time of members of the same body demonizing (and we don’t use that term lightly) one another.
This spiritual malady of cancerous proportions has now seeped into our general membership with individuals (both within the ministry and membership) who now feel they have some mission to cleanse the Church and who have fallen prey to a spirit that desires to “reject authority, and speak evil of dignitaries” (Jude 8). They openly feel they have a godly duty to send out mass-circulated letters to undermine the Council of Elders and overturn determinations of the General Conference of Elders as to whom they chose to place on the Council. Knowingly or unknowingly, “confidential” or seditious information is being spread like wildfire. Such individuals have assumed a mantle of judge and jury in matters in which they have neither the full facts, nor the total context, nor the collective benefit of wide counsel. Rather, they have chosen to reject the sound principle found in Proverbs 18:17: “The first one to plead his cause seems right, until his neighbor comes and examines him.”
Can we learn to work together without vilifying one another? This is an ageless proposition that confronts every generation of the Church as to how we will relate with one another. The apostle Paul in Galatians 5:15 states, “But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another!” The New Century Version translates this verse as, “If you go on hurting each other and tearing each other apart, be careful, or you will completely destroy each other.”
Paul’s heartfelt concern and admonition is needed more than ever! The reputations of ministers who have served God and the Church faithfully for 30, 40 or 50 years are being undermined and destroyed—whisper by whisper, phone call by phone call, e-mail by e-mail, private meeting by private meeting by members and ministry. We seem free to “bite and devour one another” without talking to the parties involved, but based only on comments from others. Case in point: We have had ministers, called to be stewards of the gospel, who have posted messages on the Elder’s Forum, at one time or another that have lacked the basic Christian civility of knowing how to speak directly with grace or with full knowledge and context of matters on a forum designed to edify their fellow ministers.
Why do ministers who should know better sow discord? We have been granted the high calling of preparing and guiding others in spiritual preparation to be “kings and priests to our God” (Revelation 5:10). Why do some reject the clear admonition of Proverbs 6:16-19? “These six things the LORD hates, yes, seven are an abomination to Him,” we read. Then seven activities are listed that God hates. Verse 19 states that two of these are “a false witness who speaks lies, and one who sows discord among brethren.”
Due to this negative spiritual incursion into our fellowship, for more than two years we have been forced to focus our Church’s time, energy and resources inwardly, rather than focus outwardly to a dying world and the very real needs of God’s flock. When the Council states that it would like to see increased emphasis placed on preaching the gospel, an outward focus that has always been a driving force in the mission of the Church founded by Jesus Christ, the Council is accused of neglecting the local congregations, the youth in the Church or the responsibility of preparing the next generation of pastors.
While the Council strives to move forward with collective boldness and optimism, there has emerged a not-so-subtle negative spin or counter opinion on many actions of the Council. Allow us to speak plainly: This has been expressed in communications by some elders and members alike. Thus, the Church, notably in the United States, has not been allowed to move beyond the alternate forum, fears (not facts) about bloc voting, the rescind resolution and alleged ethical problems on the Council.
For example, the chairman of the Council has been unjustly and falsely accused of lying about the reasons for the replacement of the previous Council reporter and, then again, when a mistake made by the new Council reporter was not corrected before a particular report was distributed. Please understand, a Council reporter does not have a defined term of service. The replacement of our last reporter was based on financial savings and convenience as the new reporter is an employee at the home office (with long experience working with the Council as corporate secretary). Other supposed inappropriate reasons for doing so are simply not true.
The Council even gets criticized for conducting some meetings in “closed session,” a practice that is recommended by experts on nonprofit governance and which has been used by the Council since 1996 to discuss important issues of a private and confidential nature in a more candid manner. No law or bylaw bars this long-standing practice, but it is now being given a sinister spin.
These accusations against the leadership have taken on a life of their own and are spreading rapidly. Do we realize that this approach is destabilizing the ministry and beginning to destabilize the Church? We have a toxic atmosphere in the Church where innuendos (“it looks like...”) and whispers are creating an unrestrained chorus of misinformation put forth by minds and hearts lacking sound judgment. Some in the ministry appear to be getting together and “roasting” the Council based upon second- third- or fourth-hand hearsay or rumors. Some claim their “information” came from confidential executive session information that they feel they have the “right” to place in the public domain. Such “information” is biased, imputes evil motives and is often completely wrong and not designed to help or bring peace to the Church of God, but is spread by those who presume they are “in the know.” We constantly hear that information comes from a reliable source, but no one is willing to reveal that source. Is this because the source may have an agenda? Why are some willing to risk their all and the well-being of a Church dedicated to God’s service simply on anonymous accusations?
We would never have allowed this in our former association! We would never allow it in the congregations that we pastor. In what some of our members like to call the “real world” in which they work, such breaches of confidentiality, slander and lack of organizational cohesiveness would be dealt with immediately by appropriate disciplinary action for those responsible. Why should we be different and why should the unity once a hallmark of God’s people be different now?
Please consider these scriptures that focus on this topic.
Proverbs 26:20-21: “Where there is no wood, the fire goes out; and where there is no talebearer, strife ceases. As charcoal is to burning coals, and wood to fire, so is a contentious man to kindle strife.”
Proverbs 16:27: “An ungodly man digs up evil, and it is on his lips like a burning fire.”
What is the solution that has been suggested to the Council by more than one individual? For the Council to resign en masse and hold a new election for all Council seats! Such a solution is not even possible under our governing documents! The real solution is that, accompanied by much prayer and fasting, we all individually need to turn the mirror around and look at ourselves. As the book of James explains, “If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless” (James 1:26).
Allow the following statement to be clear and understood by each of you who read it. This letter is designed and designated for the specific purpose of being a direct intervention action by the Council of Elders for the spiritual well-being and organizational stability of the United Church of God. In 1995 the United Church of God established a system of governance that gave the Council of Elders the responsibility to provide direction, oversight and guidance within the Church. Allow us to be blunt and to the point. The present atmosphere among some in the ministry, and now increasingly filtering into our general membership, is spiritually damaging. Such conditions impede our ability to spiritually and organizationally function. The situation is neither worthy of the high calling by God the Father nor the devotion of His Son, our Savior.
In 1995 the United Church of God established a system of governance that gave the Council the responsibility to provide oversight and guidance within the Church. In 1995, as a duly constituted General Conference of Elders, we all approved the following:
1) The General Conference of Elders would have the ultimate authority in the sense that it can select new Council members, approve amendments and responsibly guard the doctrinal integrity of the Church.
2) The Council of Elders would have authority as a collective body to govern the Church.
3) The administration headed by a president would carry out the daily operations of the Church, based on the directives and guidelines of the Council.
Apparently many do not understand or have forgotten or chosen to ignore this constitutional reality, but this is the binding agreement of our organizational form of governance. The Council is the primary governing body of United, and we all must learn to work together. How can we expect to be kings and priests if we cannot deliberately decide to walk and work together? Shouldn’t we expect the ministry of the Church to set an example of how to work together? Do we expect God to bless an organization in which even the leaders cannot walk together?
Many have said, as has the Council in public and private deliberations, that what separates us is not doctrine, but philosophical and administrational perspectives. We all validate the oneness expressed by Paul in Ephesians 4:4-6: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” Beyond this, we all agree on the scriptural revelations regarding the Ten Commandments, God’s plan as revealed through the Holy Days, the approach of the literal Kingdom of God and so much more.
What divides us are not matters of biblical information and truth, but spiritual application of some of the most basic of Christian principles. Jesus Christ implored those who would follow Him to worship in “spirit and truth” (John 4:24). The reality is, even though we have been strong in the truth of what we know, we have been weak in those matters of “the spirit”—of who and what we are to be.
Yes, matters of “the spirit”—like going to your brother (Matthew 18:15-16), evaluating your own spiritual moorings before correcting another (Galatians 6:1-2), avoiding following people and saying “I am of” this man or that man (1 Corinthians 1:12-13), focusing on the positive (Philippians 4:8), leaving our worries with God in prayer and fasting (Philippians 4:6-8) and, yes, forgiveness! How can we effectively preach a message of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation of our fellow human beings to our Heavenly Father if we cannot be reconciled ourselves? Such talk is cheap and falls on shallow ground if we do not show proof of Christ living in us.
The Council of Elders is concerned for the preservation of the United Church of God.
This is not simply another letter to merely encourage us to consider “getting along.” This is not only a new day, but a new way of moving forward. There is a collective need and responsibility for every officer of the Church, every level of management, every employee and every minister to support the direction and resolutions of the Council and the General Conference of Elders. Some of those resolutions you may not personally agree with, but they will have been arrived at within the governance structure that we have all accepted. All should support them in a manner consistent with Christian principles and communication, while at the same time exercising our privilege as individuals to contribute to the ongoing discussion concerning the welfare of the Church. Those matters that have been formally reviewed over an extended period of time and approved by the Council (for example, the Council’s conclusion that no evidence has been presented that “bloc voting” for candidates via an “alternate” discussion group occurred) will not be revisited unless new and extraordinary circumstances dictate otherwise. We must move on from here with those who desire to move forward.
The Council will rely upon all employees, elders and members to act upon this basis of assurance and Christian goodwill.
With this resolve established, are we saying that Church leadership should simply be followed and never questioned? Absolutely not! There are a number of responsible communication and governance mechanisms in place to assure a wide level of input. But once a decision is made, we need to move forward and quit rehashing the same issues, objections or opinions of detractors over and over again.
We fully understand that every Council, past, present and future, will not be perfect. The members of this Council have been diligent and merciful, knowing we have men with strong feelings on opposite sides of issues such as relocation. In attending to Council responsibilities, we accept that actions on issues of the past three years may have not been as well considered as they might have been. But they have been mistakes of procedure, not of the heart. Beyond that we eagerly look forward to working with a duly appointed administration that works and serves at the pleasure of the Council on behalf of the General Conference of Elders.
As an organization, United has so much going for it. We are on the cusp of so many dynamic dynamicopportunities. Our ways and means of preaching the gospel via the Internet, commercial television and publishing are just now crystallizing in a way that will hopefully merit God’s blessing and be used toward His glory. We are seriously looking at remodeling our home office facility in a way that will facilitate the needs for an expanded effort by a growing Church. Always behind this are the faithful members, trained and dedicated pastors, elders who go above and beyond the call of duty, skilled and experienced employees carrying out important functions, and numerous volunteers serving in our Church youth and educational programs. Yes, good things are happening that should allow us to move forward with great confidence that the work God has given us to do will be done well.
We have laid out where we have been, where we are, what we expect and where we are headed. It is our eager hope that you will desire to be a part of a unified effort based on these shared heartfelt words. We realize this letter will be received by different individuals in different ways. One individual might describe these words as long overdue, while at the same time another might be challenged by its implications. Please know that we are all being challenged at this time to move forward in a godly manner. It is our deepest desire that you will continue to support the efforts of the Council as it guides the United Church of God toward fulfilling God’s purposes.
As we move forward, we are going to advance by not only focusing on the word “united,” but focusing on a key attribute of the Head of the Church, Jesus Christ, who is the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6) and whose Spirit brings us peace (John 14:27). Beyond that, “united” does not mean merely external conformity to rules, bylaws and policies. True unity comes from God’s Spirit working in us. It is your personal gift to God and to others that your life’s confession and its fruit by word of mouth and deed is “not my will, but Your will be done.”
With these stated goals in mind, we are encouraging the entire ministry to devote time during the month of January specifically for prayer and fasting in seeking God’s guidance and perfect will toward us as individuals and as a collective body of believers.
Dear friends and fellow servants of the Living God, we need to work together with a common purpose—not divided by our differences, but strengthened by our commitment to the far greater things that unite us.
In deep respect,
Council of Elders