Who are you? Identity matters. Without a sure and certain sense of who you are, it is very difficult to navigate in this world, to hold steady when challenges interrupt our normal course, when circumstances move beyond the familiar, the predictable, and the known. We live in an age of exponential change. Frames of reference, social values, and cultural norms once taken for granted are being redefined at light-speed. Technology, social networks, exposure to a Piccadilly Circus of bright lights and ideas all at once, and media access to a world that never sleeps are all threads woven together in a new global consciousness. If your sense of self is vague, hazy, or inherited without thoughtful examination, you will be likely swept away with the tide. Are you a child of chance, or a child of God? What are the non-negotiables of your identity and with what objective plumb line do you measure ideas, conduct, practice? What anchors you? Why?
Similarly, we as a people must wrestle with the same questions. As a Movement within the larger body of Christ, the Church of God must revisit who we are. What is the irreducible prime of our identity, what are our non-negotiables? All across the world, the Movement’s cohesive sense of self has been eroded, with emphases and ideologies varying from place to place and time to time. We are, perhaps more than other fellowships, vulnerable to loss of definition because we have, in the main, eschewed allegiance to written formulas, books of discipline, and regulation-by-notebook so common in the denominational world. Our trumpeted byline, “back to the blessed old Bible,” and our suspicion of anything that might be branded “the tradition of men,” at once protects and empowers us, even as it opens the door to the amoeba of devolution. We have long held that the Holy Spirit would make us one and harmonize our view of the Scripture, as we are sanctified and set apart by His hand. But, from the beginning, the Movement has been stretched by contesting ideas. F. G. Smith and Otto F. Linn, for instance, were not of one mind on some much discussed theology; the founders of the Gospel Trumpet Company did not always see eye-to-eye. These differences were not routinely in plain view and too often were resolved by the dismissal or exile of one Spirit-filled brother by the hands of another, but they speak still from our history. Church life and history can be complicated.
If the Movement has, by any measure, foundered, its loss of self-definition over time must surely be a root cause. Many hours could be spent talking about the causes of such a loss, but suffice it to say today: we need to once again know who we are if we are to effectively live up to our high calling.
As I was invited to become general director at Church of God Ministries, I met with a group of forty church leaders from across the United States and Canada. Seated at this large table were members of the Ministries Council (all twenty-four), members of the general director search committee, and members of what was called the general director transition committee. The Ministries Council, of course, is appointed by the General Assembly; the Council established the other committees in play at the time. Key voices from every discernible neighborhood of the church were present, from our schools, from our ethnic and cultural communities (e.g., the National Association, Hispanic Council, and American Indian Council), from five geographic regions of the United States, from Canada, from the General Assembly, and so on.
I spent some hours answering their questions and then I posed some to them. In fact, I presumptuously gave them some assignments. I asked all present to write down the five theological non-negotiables of the Church of God, as each understood them, individually. I asked them to do so alone, without discussing their conclusions with their neighbors (and thereby being persuaded or detoured by them). I asked them to take the assignment home, pray about it, and return their answers to me, at our next meeting, on the next day. I wanted to test the waters and see what kind of theological drama, if any, might unfold with this tribe if I left my pastorate and moved into this new arena. I feared that there would be such divergent views and emphases that the job would be, for me, untenable.
Why only five non-negotiables? Why not ten? Twelve? Twenty-four? Well, I imagined that five would be enough to take the pulse of the Movement, that I had five fingers and could easily remember an idea attached to each, and that only the Holy Spirit could narrow the theological funnel so precisely.
I was astonished at the outcome; I was deeply affected by the harmony and unity that surfaced; I knew the Lord was calling me to sign up to wave this five-fold flag for the Movement. To my amazement, the independent and individual replies were virtually seamless, a voice of unity and allegiance to defining truths shared in common. What were the five so clearly identified?
First: Jesus is Lord. The singularity, the exclusivity, the divinity of the one Lord Jesus stood tall. The Bread of Life. The Water of Life. The Lamb of God. The Way, the Truth, and the Life. The one Mediator between God and humankind. The Lord of lords, the King of kings. The Son of Man. The Son of God. The Word become flesh. The Name at which every knee shall bow. Jesus is the subject. About His supremacy there is no dispute in the church. It is a non-negotiable. We will not be convening any conferences to discuss whether or not He is all that. He is. Period. This defines us.
Second: Holiness. The Person, the work, and the power of the Holy Spirit is fundamental to who we are as a people. We unabashedly own the truth that the Spirit can transform us, possess us, equip us, and empower us. It is the work of the Holy Spirit that sanctifies us, makes us holy, sets us apart for sacred service, and seals us for eternity’s sake. It is the Spirit that convicts us of sin and enables us to overcome sin. It is the Holy Spirit that can breathe supernatural gifts into us, for Jesus’ sake. He is the Comforter promised by Jesus and the witness of our redemption. We will not be debating whether or not the Holy Spirit is all that or whether or not He can transform us into a holy people. He is, He does. This defines us.
Third: Unity. We are a people uniquely called by God to be a catalyst for Christian unity, believing that the division of the body of Christ is hell’s greatest weapon to thwart heaven’s ends in this world. We are convinced that the splintering of the body is not the Lord’s work, but the Enemy’s; we believe that hell trembles at the prospect of a people united, redeemed by the blood, possessed by the Spirit. Unity is not for us an also-ran on the to-do list of God, but a primary driver of who and why we are called out. We are not spending time arguing whether or not the Church of God should embrace this ambition. It is who we are. A non-negotiable. It defines us.
Fourth: The Great Commandments. Love God with your whole self. And, love your neighbors as yourself. The Scripture tells us this is the sum of the Law and the Prophets. When a teacher of the Law sought to test Jesus (Luke 10), asking, “What must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus asked him what he read in the Scripture. When the man replied with the Great Commandments, Jesus approved, saying, “You have answered well; do this and you will live.” It was this exchange that birthed the seminal parable of the Good Samaritan. As a people in the pursuit of holiness, the Great Commandments clothe us. We are not wondering whether or not they are key, we are not searching for better lights. They are, by the Lord’s own testimony, defining. They define us.
And, fifth: The Supremacy of Scripture. We are a people of the Book, the Good Book, the Holy Bible, the Old and New Testaments, supernaturally inspired, preserved across time, cultures, and continents, delivered to us, useful for reproof and instruction, for righteousness. The Scripture is our backstop, the ultimate field of inquiry and judgment, the measure of conduct, faith, and practice. Whatever the question, whatever the test, whatever comes before us, in the end, it is the Scripture, above all other disciplines, that informs and defines us. We are not wrestling with whether or not the Bible is authoritative, without peer, or supreme; all other sources of knowledge fall beneath its shadow. It is a non-negotiable. It defines us. It is who we are.
I realize that these five may not be comprehensive enough for some—and too restrictive for others. But, having traveled in sixty countries (so far) and in just about every one of these United States and throughout western and eastern Canada, I can safely say that these five are applauded and cheered in the Church of God across all boundaries; with these there is no quarrel. They unite us. There is not another branch of the Christian family that owns all of them. They are, then, unique to us, but not in a way that unnecessarily erects barriers excluding others who have also been born again in Christ. They are not sectarian; they are the stuff of the New Testament and Acts of the Apostles.
They have become a part of me. They are suggestions, shared for your consideration, born of one remarkable intersection with forty of the church’s brightest and best, bathed, I believe, by the Spirit Himself. As far I can tell, they tell us who we are. They are markers of the Movement. The irreducible prime. The non-negotiables.
Hold up your hand. Assign one of these five to each: Jesus. Holiness. Unity. The Great Commandments. The supremacy of Scripture. And with these in view, with these etched also on our hearts, the Church of God will not be swept away by the tidal waves of our time, lost in the tide pools of a beach ever-changing. On the contrary, we will stand with Gibraltar-like strength, fixed and sure-footed. It’s what we have been called by God to be. It’s who we are.