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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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Church (Churches) of God

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

At least 10 denominations in America are called Churches of God and, though juridically distinct, they reflect a common reaction against denominationalism in all its forms. The very name implies a profession of faith in God as the only founder of the Church and a protest against other “man-made” institutions.

There are two main forms of Church of God in the U.S., deriving either from the Holiness or the Pentecostal movements, and both tracing their ancestry to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism (see HOLINESS CHURCHES; PENTECOSTAL CHURCHES). In his original teaching, Wesley stressed the importance of rising above the level of justification by faith to a true conversion of spirit or sanctification by grace. The Churches of God have sought to give these Wesleyan principles organized expression; but unlike other Holiness or Pentecostal groups who are in the same tradition, they want to avoid anything savoring of a structured, authoritarian society and prefer to speak of themselves as a “reformation movement” among the various Christian bodies.

The three largest Churches of God account for almost 80 per cent of the American membership and are generally representative of the movement as a whole. One group calls itself simply the Church of God and has its headquarters in New York. It was founded in 1903 by A. J. Tomlinson, an American Bible Society salesman from North Carolina, and was headed by him until his death in 1943. As first conceived by Tomlinson, “There are no creeds connected with the Church of God, but only the Bible, rightly divided, with the New Testament as the only rule of faith and practice.” Tomlinson’s death was the signal for a chain of schisms that is still going on. He had designated his son Homer to succeed him, but the choice was opposed by a group of state overseers. Homer placed his younger brother Milton in charge. Shortly after, Homer was expelled from the church, whereupon he formed the New York group, which claims direct lineage from the elder Tomlinson. In 1964 this church reported a total of 71,606 members.

Two other groups, Church of God, Anderson, Ind., and Church of God, Cleveland, Tenn., had independent beginnings and no relation to Tomlinson’s organization. The Anderson body was started in 1880 by Daniel S. Warner and several minister companions who “severed their connection with humanly-organized churches” and maintained that “Scriptural, all-sufficient standard for Christians is membership in the body of Christ alone.” In January 1881 Warner published the first issue of the Gospel Trumpet, which later (1963) became Vital Christianity, to give the church a weekly journal that, more than anything else, has kept the denomination organized and flourishing, beyond that of other Churches of God. In 1964 inclusive membership totaled 145,241.

Like the Anderson group, the Church of God of Cleveland believes in the soul’s personal encounter with God, but its emphasis is more extreme. It began in 1886 under the title Christian Union, was reorganized in 1902 as the Holiness Church, and in 1907 adopted its present name. Its total membership as reported in 1964 was 179,651. The Church of God Evangel, an inspirational weekly, serves to encourage the faithful to share their own conversion experience with others. Where the Indiana segment is more conservative, the Tennessee organization believes that the Holy Spirit manifests His presence in the soul through such extraordinary signs as the gift of tongues. Revivalism is prominent and mission work in countries such as Brazil caters to those who want a strong emotional appeal in Christianity.

Even when they are well organized, as in Anderson, the Churches of God are strictly congregational in policy. The highest directing body is the General Assembly, which meets annually or biennially. Ritually they recognize baptism by immersion, the Lord’s Supper as a memorial of Christ’s Passion, and (among some) foot-washing as a divine ordinance. Ideally they are pacifist in their sentiments, oppose all secret societies, and abstain from alcoholic beverages.

The Churches of God may be described as anti-sectarian in their concept of Christianity, Wesleyan in their belief that divine grace offers the prospect of personal holiness, fundamentalist in theology, legalistic in the stress on external practices of morality (notably temperance), and charismatic in their expectation that the Holy Spirit will manifest His presence by extraordinary signs.

Bibliography: A. F. Gray, The Nature of the Church (Anderson 1960). H. C. Rice, Tell Me About the Church (Anderson 1956). F. G. Smith and K. Jones, What the Bible Teaches (Anderson 1960). J. W. V. Smith, Truth Marches On (Anderson 1956). R. E. Sterner, We Reach Our Hands in Fellowship (Anderson 1960).

New Catholic Encylopedia
Vol. 3, 1967, pp. 847-848

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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