Now that Holy Week is done, I’d like to turn to a very thoughtful piece by Jonathan Stone about the future of the Church of God written as if that future had passed. For superannuated hippies such an approach suggests the Moody Blues, and indeed the piece has an artistic ring to it.
There are many things to be discussed about this, but in the midst of it all he brings up one that, to my mind, stands out:
Somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century we became embarrassed of our roots. We desired respect from the other tribes. So, we worked hard to make ourselves more presentable to them. During that time some of the tribes came together to form what was called the National Association of Evangelicals. We made some changes in order to qualify for membership. Not everything was bad in it, and the NAE was a fine organization. But in its early days it was marked by a very conservative fundamentalism. In order to fit in with our more conservative brothers and sisters we at times betrayed our own foundations. For example, we regressed in our treatment of women in ministry despite the fact that one of our original foundations was equality. We never kept our anointed sisters from pastoring, evangelizing, serving as missionaries, etc. But we restricted their rights to serve on certain boards and blocked them from some nominated positions of leadership. It was a confusing and unfortunate time for everyone.
I’ve heard the sentiment that “joining the NAE ruined the Church of God” more than once from many of our academics. Was that when we really crossed the Rainbow Bridge, so to speak? One thing I’ve learned being in this church, and especially working at its centre, is that things look different from the inside out then they do from the outside in. Looked at from the centre, joining the NAE was momentous, if only in retrospect. But for the church at large, joining one denominational umbrella organisation wasn’t enough to affect the changes we have seen in this church.
If I had to pick one event that really altered the course of this–and really every–denomination out there, it would be World War II. Eurocentric type of people always see World War I as the watershed event in Western civilisation, but the U.S. wasn’t involved in that conflagration long enough to have the impact it had on, say, the UK, France or certainly Russia. World War II affected our society in a deeper way, and in ways that were and are so counterintuitive that we, the generation which resulted from the aftermath, haven’t really sorted them out.
The first obvious affect that World War II had on our church and society was its militarisation. It’s easy to forget that Pentecostal and Holiness churches were, at their start, pacifist, and really didn’t like the idea of their people serving in the military. Pacifism has always been a hard sell in Scots-Irish society, as the career of Alvin York is a testament to. But World War II, which mobilised an entire generation of Church of God young men into military service and sent them throughout the world, changed that in a profound way, and the generation that came to command the church was first taught leadership and life organisation by Uncle Sam.
The second effect came from the first: an emphasis on authority, and specifically human authority. When I came to work at the International Offices in 1996, I came to work in what was the most formal, rank-conscious workplace I had ever experienced. It’s true that Pentecostal and Charismatic churches produce special pastoral challenges re the productive exercise of spiritual gifts and manifestations. The Boomers, mindful of their own rebellion, have drank deep from the wells of the likes of Bill Gothard and they too put a great deal of emphasis on their own authority, which sooner or later will clash with the free move of the Spirit.
The third is broader than the war: the obsession with respectability and upward mobility. Usually that’s associated with the Great Depression. After one decade of economic hardship and another of war, the “Greatest Generation” was ready to bury its problems in the past, put on a happy face and make for themselves a secure, predictable life in the suburbs. For the Church of God, a very Southern institution, the Depression started at a lower economic level and went on longer than it did for the rest of society, which only made the desire to get out of it deeper.
The results of this have been manifested in many ways, but I’ll touch on two: women’s ordination (or WO, to use the Anglican acronym) and prosperity teaching.
At the start of modern Pentecost women in ministry were very much a given. The early pioneers didn’t set women forth into ministry based a secular, “women’s rights” model, but on a “calling/ministry fulfilment” one. The Church of God’s own statistics, however, show that the number of ministerially credentialled women peaked about 1950 and declined thereafter. I don’t think the date is accidental. On the secular side of things, women (including my own mother) filled munitions plants and did men’s work all through World War II only to be put back into the home to tend to a major jump in the birthrate. In this respect the Church of God was following societal trends.
It wasn’t the first time this had happened. As Michel Walsh pointed our in The Triumph of the Meek: Why Early Christianity Succeeded:
By the end of the first century the charismatic, itinerant group of preachers which had followed Jesus and learnt from him, had become an organisation. It had its organisational model and code of rules, both geared to making the church acceptable to the pagan environment in which it dwelt. One of the aspects of its early life which was sacrificed to convention was the leading role of women.
In general society, this trend brought the backlash that was the 1960’s and 1970’s. By then, however, the postwar mentality was set and defended vigourously.
The real tragedy of all of this, however, is that when we get WO in the COG, we will likely get it for the same reason the Episcopalians and others got it: as a secular women’s right and equality issue, not a calling/ministry fulfilment one. This not only secularises the church in general from a mission and purpose standpoint, it also will mask the one thing that needs to be fixed with ministry in general: the authoritarian/careerist bent of our ministers, which will then be replicated in both genders. But this is what happens when you abandon the God-given way you started with.
The other result of the quest for being a somebody is prosperity teaching. Having been in this church for more than a quarter of a century, if there’s one thing that has corroded the holiness construct in our church more than anything else, it’s the creeping acceptance (implicit or explicit) of prosperity teaching, something which the NAE had nothing to do with. It has turned the quest for joy in this life and eternity with God in the next into a “get rich quick” scheme where the main beneficiaries have been the ministers who are the most skilful at raising money.
It’s not the first time that American Christianity has equated being a Christian with economic prosperity. And it does attract people for whom moving up is a big deal. But it’s a Faustian bargain, and with the increasingly rigid class stratification of American society Mephistopheles is coming to fulfil the contract. It is there that the “Great Collapse” that Jonathan Stone speaks of will come, not only to the Church of God but to Evangelical Christianity in general.
In the meanwhile our secular society in general moves towards it own collapse, burdened by a society increasingly content to go on the dole, an elite with no idea as to how to make it productive again, and a ballooning debt to service with a weakened economy. How the Church of God responds to that confluence of events will ultimately determine whether the Church of God has a future or not.