Basics for Belief
Reviewed date: 2022 Feb 22
Basics for Belief is a slim book that introduces the beliefs of the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana). It's not a book for someone who has never heard of Jesus and who is unfamiliar with Christianity. It is also not for someone looking for a detailed and reasoned Scriptural defense of Church of God doctrines. It is an introduction to what the Church of God teaches. There is surely much more, and I intend to read further and learn more about the history of the movement and the doctrinal development since the movement's origins in the 1880, but Basics for Belief is a good place to start.
Spoiler: if you're not familiar with the Church of God, check out the chapters on sanctification and personal holiness. Those are the areas where the Church of God differs the most from generic American evangelicalism. Oh, and don't forget to notice that the Church of God teaches amillennialism and ordains women to ministry.
by Joseph D. Allison
The Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) comes out of the Wesleyan Holiness movement. It is the second largest Wesleyan Holiness group after the Church of the Nazarene. Wesleyan Holiness should not be confused with Wesleyanism in general, which is a point that I had to look up myself. Wesleyan Holiness is a subset of Wesleyanism; the various Methodist churches are Wesleyan and are bigger than any of the Wesleyan Holiness groups. I wish the author had mentioned that here, because for someone utterly unfamiliar with the development of modern church denominations, I have had to piece together bits of information from various sources to figure out the relationship between the Church of God, Wesleyan Holiness, and Wesleyanism.
Anyway, back to the text.
The Church of God comes out of the Wesleyan Holiness tradition. It is anabaptist, practices believer's baptism (not infant baptism) and foot washing, and has traditionally emphasized modesty in dress. The church supports conscientious objectors, ordains women, and considers itself a restorationist movement. It it ecumenical. It is not Fundamentalist. The Church of God holds a high view of Scripture but does not teach verbal inerrancy. The church is evangalistic and missional. It is amillennial. It is inclusive but not syncretistic.
1. Christian Unity
by Adam W. Miller
The Church of God has a deeply rooted belief that the church consists of all believers, and that unity in the body of Christ (that is, the church) is a spiritual reality. Unity is not realized by uniform practice, it cannot be forced, it produces agreement on vital issues of faith, it must be expressed in outward unity, and it confirms that we live under Christ's lordship. (pages 7-8) The Church of God works ecumenically with other denominations, but this is not a substitute for the goal of true unity. (13)
Miller identifies four convictions that motivate the Church of God movement:
- Back to the Bible - a recognition of the authority of the Bible
- Christian experience - doctrines of the faith as descriptions of spiritual realities that we experience
- The Church as the body of Christ
- Christian unity - a commitment to unity now, not just in some future time after Christ's return
Miller also identifies some doctrinal emphases of the Church of God:
- Divine inspiration of the Scriptures
- Salvation through the atonement of Christ
- Sanctification, that is, the experience of holiness, as a second work of grace (more on that in a later chapter)
- The church - all believers, not just one denomination
- Ordinances - believer's baptism, foot washing, and the Lord's Supper
- Divine healing
- Personal return of Christ - amillennial. The reign of Christ is already established. There will be no literal thousand year kingdom.
by Rolla O. Swisher
The Church of God's teaching on salvation seems pretty standard Protestant free will doctrine. Humans are made in the image of God: we are souls and we possess free will. (20) All have sinned and need forgiveness. (22) To be saved we must repent and confess that we are sinners who need Christ. (24). We must forsake our sin. Which sin? "The sin that bars us from heaven is neglecting to accept Christ as our Savior and refusing to live for him." (24)
Salvation leads to spiritual transformation. (24) Salvation makes you a member of the church. (25) Baptism is a symbol that follows conversion. (26) Salvation is the beginning of the Christian experience, not the end. (26)
3. The Ordinances
Hillery C. Rice
The ordinances are baptism, the Lord's Supper, and foot washing. This chapter focused on baptism. The Lord's Supper gets some space, and foot washing is barely addressed.
It is symbolic, but commanded and therefore necessary. It symbolized death, burial, and resurrection. It is not salvific; it symbolizes our membership in Christ and in his church. (31) Baptism is a bold testimony and a witness. Baptism is immersion. It is only for believing Christians, so it is not for infants. There is no biblical prohibition on rebaptism. Baptism should be done immediately after conversion, don't wait years or even days.
The Lord's Supper is a representation of Christ's broken body and shed blood.
The Church of God also practices foot washing. It is a humble act of service that cultivates humility and love.
Milburn H. Miller
The doctrine of sanctification in the Church of God is a bit unusual, at least to me. Miller begins by pointing out that every Christian is promised the Holy Spirit. (42) Further, being filled with the Holy Spirit is as definite as conversion. It is a specific experience. We are all commanded to be filled with the Holy Spirit and should seek to experience it.
Miller talks about Christians who have been sanctified compared to those who have not:
I can remember the days of kerosene lamps. A lot of inconveniences were associated with them. We had to clean and fill the lamps, trim the wicks, and carry the lamps from room to room wherever they were needed. Then electricity came to our community. (We called it "the power" back then.) The one-bulb, pull-chain fixtures suspended from the ceilings of our homes were a great advancement over the kerosene lamps. Now we push buttons or flip switches and bright lights come on. What a difference between the days of kerosene lamps and today!
This is somewhat like the difference between a Christian who lives without the Holy Spirit and a Christian who has the Spirit dwelling within. So many weak and spiritually defeated Christians are like soldiers fighting with spears and arrows when they have modern weapons at their disposal. They are like construction workers using wheelbarrows to build a highway or construct a dam when they could use massive earthmoving equipment. Many people live on the fringes of God's blessing and only enjoy fringe benefits. It need not be so. Failure in the Christian life is so often the result of failure to live immersed in the Holy Spirit and to walk in the Spirit.
E. Stanley Jones was a strong advocate of living in the Holy Spirit. To him, the Holy Spirit made the difference between living on the low levels and living on the high levels of Christian faith.
In order to receive the Holy Spirit, we must: (46)
- Be a Christian
- Ask for the Holy Spirit
- "Consecrate himself to obey the will of God and be used by the Holy Spirit" (47)
- Accept the Holy Spirit by faith
The experience has many names: baptism of the Holy Spirit, receiving the Holy Spirit, being filled with the Holy Spirit, entire sanctification, Christian perfection. (48) Whatever it is called, it is the experience that brings "purity, peace, and power." (49)
We do the consecrating, God does the sanctifying. (49)
To reiterate: sanctification in Church of God teaching is an "immediate and definite experience" separate from salvation. (49)
The Holy Spirit at work in us will bring forth fruits of the Spirit such as those listed in Galatians 5:22-23. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness (generosity), faith/faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (50-51)
I am disappointed that the author of this chapter doesn't address the question of sinless perfection. My understanding is there are those in the Church of God who teach that those who have been sanctified no longer sin. I'd like to see that discussed.
5. Personal Holiness
Gene W. Newberry
Personal holiness is related to the Church of God doctrine of sanctification and their odd definition of sin, so another chapter on the personal implications of sanctification on a person's holiness is necessary. Newberry starts out by talking about the doctrine of the Trinity, then he distinguishes divine holiness from human holiness. (56) God is holy; other things are holy because they are declared holy and set apart for God. (57) Next, he puts doctrines of holiness into four main categories:
- Mystical, or ascetic holiness. E.g., monasticism.
- Sacramental. E.g., Roman Catholicism and grace via the sacraments.
- Position, or confessional holiness. I.e., a Christian is holy by virtue of being a Christian.
- Experiential holiness, or Christian perfection. I.e., "a doctrine of purity of heart, realizable now through the power of the Holy Spirit and in communion with a God of love." (58) This is the doctrine that the Church of God teaches.
The Holy Spirit and Pentecost
We expect Christians to be filled with the Holy Spirit, but the events of the Pentecost were unique and should be not expected. Tongues of fire and rushing wind were a singular event, not to be repeated or expected. The languages given at Pentecost were human languages for evangelization, not heavenly languages--the text does not support the idea that they were heavenly languages. The Pentecost was for Spiritual empowerment. It revealed the missionary, "universal outreach of the gospel." (61)
So if being filled with the Holy Spirit is not about tongues and rushing winds and heavenly languages, what is it about? Well, a Christian needs the Holy Spirit to progress in sanctification (62), and the Holy Spirit is promised to all Christians. Furthermore, "holiness turns more on the presence of love than it does on the absence of sin." (64)
A moment of sanctification, and a unique definition of sin
We must avoid focusing too much on the moment of sanctification and neglecting further spiritual growth. On the other hand, we must go to the other extreme and declare that there is no moment of sanctification at all. (63) Notice this: the Church of God teaches emphatically that sanctification is a second work of grace. It is not the same as salvation, but something that happens afterward: "Beyond conversion there is a distinct and separate experience of divine infilling, which imparts God's own moral likeness and strength." (65) When this happens, the result is best described as an "infilling of the Holy Spirit." All else is crowded out, and we are in a right relationship with God. (63) And because the Church of God defines sin as being in wrong relationship with God--"Sin is not a thing that can be quantified; rather, it is a relationship, a rebellion against God, a refusal of his love. Human carnality is overcome most effectively by crowding it out through love" (63)-- this means Christians who have been sanctified no longer sin.
The Church of God teaches that God calls us first to conversion: "by repentance and faith to receive his forgiveness and become new spiritual creatures"; and second, to sanctification: Beyond conversion there is a distinct and separate experience of divine infilling, which imparts God's own moral likeness and strength." (65)
Personally, I don't buy this idea of sanctification being a second work of grace, a unique and specific moment where sin is crowded out by the infilling of the Holy Spirit. I don't see that in the Scriptures.
6. Divine Healing
Dewayne B. Bell
We expect divine healing of sicknesses and disease. The elders should pray for the sick, and they should pray for healing. Healing can be instantaneous. It is often accompanied by heat, cold, and other sensations, and by a deep sense of God's presence. Chronic conditions often take longer to heal.
We should receive healing in this way:
- Prepare by reading the Bible, examining ourselves for sin, and repenting
- Appropriate healing by calling the elders, and by taking concrete steps to receive healing. Don't just sit and hope for healing. Go get it.
- Affirm it. Praise God after the healing.
7. The Kingdom of God
Kenneth E. Jones
The Kingdom of God aka the Kingdom of Heaven is "moral and spiritual power of Christ in his work as Messiah and mediator between God and man." Christians are citizens of the kingdom. Christ is the king. Jesus is also king of all creation. The Kingdom of God is spiritual, not physical. It is the whole world, not just Israel. It is on this earth now, not just later in heaven. The Kingdom of God is eternal, and it exists now. It came into reality with Jesus's ministry.
Dispensationalism is a false teaching. It denies the present reality of the kingdom. It looks forward to a future millennial kingdom. Dispensationalism also teaches a physical kingdom, which is wrong. And it teaches that the cross was a failure, and that the church is just a temporary measure until Christ returns to get it right on the second try. (Aside: OK, wow, that was not fair to dispensationalism. Look, I get it: the Church of God is amillennial. I agree. I'm also amillennial. I also think dispensationalism is a false teaching. But I don't think it's fair to claim that it teaches that the cross was a failure. I have never heard a dispensationalist say that.)
Dispensationalists and amillennialists have a different view of the Old Testament: the amillennialists (including Church of God) believe the prophecies are already fulfilled. We believe the cross was a victory, not a setback. We believe we can have peace, unity, and victory over sin right now--we're not waiting until some future return. The kingdom is here and now. Seek it. Bring others into it.
8. The Church of God
W. Dale Oldham
The Church of God is all Christians. We should not confuse God's church with today's denominations. Membership in the church is by conversion, not by joining a particular group. True Christians seek unity with other Christians, not divisions. The church is the people, not the building, and every believer is a saint. The church has responsibilities to preach the gospel, help the poor, and honor civil authority. We should organize ourselves like the New Testament church: as-needed, mostly informally. (This probably explains why it is traditional in Church of God congregations not to have formal membership. All Christians are members of the church, and we do not cause divisions by keeping lists of members.)