by Murray Palmatier
As we assess the panorama of the Church of God groups, The Church of God International (CGI) is often tagged with the label “liberal” while others are known as “conservative.” In a recent conversation with a fellow minister, this topic came up and we discussed both the misfortune and misuse of these labels.
While it is not right to label each other in this way, given that it does happen, it is important for us to understand why it does, what these terms really mean and how a proper understanding of them is reflected in the application of one of the cornerstones of our Vision, that of being “The Safest Place.” When these labels are used to differentiate between Church groups, they typically involve answering questions such as the following:
Do we have an open-door or invitation-only attendance policy?
Do we prohibit interaction with members of other church organizations or not?
Do we set prophetic dates or apply prophecies to specific books or people in our group or not?
Does the ministry do all of the work or do we help people discover and build gifts of the Spirit for service to God?
Are we inwardly-focused in all of our congregational activities or do we understand and are we actively engaged in evangelism?
Do we ask members to seek permission from the ministry for every decision they make or not?
Do we have a “one-size fits all” service format or do we allow some reasonable variations from congregation to congregation?
Do we demand perfection before baptism or do we baptize willing and committed people that desire to grow in grace and knowledge in their long journey with God?
Much of what sets CGI apart, as you will notice in answering the above questions, is what allows others to apply those unfortunate labels to us. But if you think about it, the questions that should be asked in answering whether or not CGI is liberal, should be the following:
Do we take liberties with God’s Word in setting rules or policies that are simply not in the Bible?
Do we take liberties with God’s Word by developing and teaching doctrines that are a matter of private interpretation and are not substantiated by the Bible?
When we review the initial list of questions in light of these last two, we should see that CGI is working towards being “The Safest Place” because God instructs us to do just that (see Isa 61:1-2 and Luke 4:18-21). God’s Word provides the boundaries by which we live our lives. Scripture does not give us the right to overstep the instructions of God and teach what cannot be found in the Bible. When we work within the confines of God’s Word, we assume a truly conservative approach.
In reviewing the answers to that initial set of questions, what is labeled as “conservative” actually is a “liberal” approach because of the liberties taken that cannot be supported by God’s Word. Christ warned against this approach in Mark 7:6-7, when in quoting Isaiah he said, “This people honours Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men”.
Being “The Safest Place” means adhering to God’s Word – nothing more and nothing less. Note the truly conservative approach that we find in the pages of our Bible:
Matt 16:24 – Deny your own desires and follow Christ.
Matt 20:25-28 – Seek to serve God’s people, not lord over them when you are in a leadership role.
1 Cor 11:1 – Paul instructs us to follow Him AS HE FOLLOWS CHRIST.
Eph 5:1-2 – Be imitators of God, walking in love (Agape).
1 John 2:6 – Abiding in Christ means walking in the same manner as He did.
God’s Law acts as a boundary for us to live our lives as we seek to walk with Him. But there is freedom within those boundaries. This is why it is so important to consistently study His Word – so that we keep our eyes on those boundaries and keep ourselves within their limits. Acting conservatively within the borders of God’s teaching is not liberal at all – rather it is our reasonable service. Let’s ignore the labels and continue to focus on building The Safest Place within which God’s people can worship Him.