From Outside the Mainstream: a very basic context for the Church of God

There was a clearly identifiable mainstream Christian bloc at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. It was the precursor of modern evangelicalism, and identified largely with the Evangelical Alliance, an alliance primarily of socially influential Methodist, Congregationalist and Presbyterian churches (src).  Many Christian groups could not accommodate themselves to this mainstream.  Historian Sydney Ahlstrom identifies five streams of Christianity that either already existed or developed during this time that found themselves in conflict with the Protestant mainstream.

The first were the developing agnostics, free religionists, socialists and others who left the church altogether to develop alternative forms of thought and values.  The developed out a specifically Christian context, but left the institutional churches.  The second group consisted of more moderate liberals and “social gospelers” who attempted to adapt Christianity to what they saw as more urgent modern needs. This stream led to many Christian organizations and parachurch ministries like the Salvation Army and YMCA.  The third group Ahlstrom identifies is the cluster of those churches who either due to ethnic background of some “special revelation” had always remained aloof from the Protestant mainstream: Mormons, Christian Scientists, Mennonites, Unitarians, Catholics and black churches.  The fourth group was a large movement within the churches who resisted innovations such as critical method and rejected the move toward theological liberalism and the passing of Puritan moralism.  This group called itself Fundamentalism, and makes up a good deal of the current Evangelical mainstream.

The fifth group Ahlstrom describes more fully:

The fifth and final group effected a more distinct separation from mainstream Protestantism than most Fundamentalists sought. A desire for a rebirth of life in the Spirit often led its adherents to schism and sectarian withdrawal. Its chief doctrinal concern was sanctification, and the “gathered” communities which it founded were Holiness or, if more radical in their innovations, Pentecostal churches.  Finding its adherents chiefly among the disinherited and the uneducated, this movement was primarily a protest against the birthright church membership and a Protestantism that had settled for a religion of conformity, middle-class respectability, and self-improvement.  Since the Wesleyan emphasis on Christian perfection was very prominent in its teaching, the Methodist church was deeply involved in the attendant strife. Many of these sectarians, however, came to share the Fundamentalist’s concern for biblical inerrancy, and Christ’s Second Coming often loomed large in their thought.

The largest of the church movements that sprang from this stream called itself the Church of God reformation movement, and locates its ministry headquarters today in Anderson, IN.  The movement is more significant worldwide than within the United States, and more than half of its people (Church of God rejects the language of church membership) are found in South America and India.  It is this church movement that I am happily a part of.

Another historian, John W. V. Smith, however, feels that Ahlstrom overstates the significance of the Methodist element in the holiness movements.  Many other streams at the time emphasized holiness, including the Finney revivals and the Oberlin theology.  George Winebrenner was extremely influential in the early formation of the Churches of God (then so-called), and was himself Reformed, though the Churches of God soon rejected Calvinism and declared themselves Arminians.  Part of this was due to their rejection of creeds and their taking of the “Word of God as their only rule of faith.”

Winebrenner replaced the emphasis on doctrine with an emphasis on ecclesiology.  He said,

It was agreed, as the unanimous sense of the meeting: First. There is but one true church; namely, the Church of God. Secondly. That it is the bounden duty of all God’s people to belong to her, and none else. Thirdly. That it is ‘lawful and right’ to associate together for the purpose of cooperation in the cause of God.

As such, the Churches of God opposed membership and denominational loyalty.

Eventually the Churches of God collapsed into various sects, each one taking with them the name of Church of God.  Three of these exist today, the two most prominent being a Tennessee pentecostal church, and the Church of God reformation movement of Anderson, IN.  When I speak of “Church of God” it is the latter group that I refer to.

The Church of God was pioneered by Daniel S. Warner, whose main divergence from Winebrenner was his embracing of Anabaptist social postures.  So by this time the lines had so crossed and converged that Warner’s Church of God could be criticized by Methodists for their anti-denominational stance, by other anti-denominational holiness groups for their pacifism, and by other pacifist groups for their support of Wesleyan notions of total sanctification.  And despite a hundred years of distance between us and Warner, those lines are largely intact.

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