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CHURCH OF GOD
Directors' Note: This article is rather old, having been written back in 1992. I have been told that it no longer reflects the Church of God of Prophecy as it is today (2/11/15). I am not able to verify if that is the case or not, as I am not able to attend a CGP church. As such, I will leave this article up, but with this disclaimer. And be sure to read the follow email, linked to at the end of it, which then links to CGP's web site.
By Michael J. Ediger
Researching the Church of God of Prophecy has not been an easy task. There is not much written material on this group. Also, the apparent clannishness of this small denomination makes intimate contact with members somewhat difficult.
My research has consisted of reading what materials and literature I could find (both the group's own publications and overviews by others), visits to a local congregation and observations there, conversations with the pastor and a few members, and an interview with one ex-member of the group.
The Church of God of Prophecy (CGP) was established by A.J. Tomlinson. He had been the General Overseer of the Church of God in Cleveland, TN since 1906, but "numerous sociological, theological, historical, and personal factors plus different views of church government and financial dilemmas" led to his separation from the denomination (Burgess, p.206). Whether Tomlinson was impeached and forced to resign or he initiated the separation depends on which side one hears.
Tomlinson reorganized his following (numbering about 8000) as the Tomlinson Church of God (Mead, p.89). The use of "Church of God" in the name of the new group was bitterly opposed by the Cleveland group. It was only after years of legal battle did the court uphold the Tomlinson faction's right to use the designation.
In 1952, nearly a decade after Tomlinson's death, the group took its current name. "The name stems from Tomlinson's belief that specific organization is the church referred to in Old Testament prophecies and New Testament references" (Hill, pp.162-163).
The conviction that the CGP is the true and visible church of the Scriptures was a fixed precept of the group during its early years, but such elitism appears to be no longer prevalent. However, there are at least some individual congregations which still hold to this exclusivistic view.
After A.J. Tomlinson's death in 1943 there was an internal struggle over who would be his successor. Eventually, his son, Milton A. Tomlinson, became the General Overseer. He continues to serve in this capacity at present.
Current membership is about 75,000 in the United States and 250,000 worldwide. The group seems to be most successful in Africa and Central and South America.
The theological orientation of the CGP is Pentecostal/ Holiness. Its doctrinal position is summed up in a list of 29 tenets called "Important Bible Truths" (Piepkorn, p.183). Emphases include personal holiness, sanctification, baptism in the Holy Spirit evidenced by speaking in tongues, and sometimes an extreme belief in divine healing.
PERSONAL HOLINESS, according to their "Important Bible Truths," entails refraining, "from liquor, strong drink, tobacco, narcotics, the wearing of gold for ornament or decoration, membership in lodges, and oath taking" (Piepkorn, p.183).
Tomlinson taught applicants for membership, "must sever their connection with (other) churches and lodges, if not already free from them" and anyone, "using tobacco in any form should not present themselves for membership" (Conflict, p.195).
On the basis of 1Tim 2:9 and 1Pet 3:3, the wearing of jewelry (even a wedding ring), is not permitted. Wearing jewelry is seen as a sign of worldliness. In short, personal holiness is in sharp contrast to being "of the world."
Editor's Note: The prohibitions about jewelry in the Bible could be due to the practice of prostitutes wearing jewelry in pagan cultures of Bible times.
THE DOCTRINE OF SANCTIFICATION as a second work of grace subsequent to conversion has been adopted from the Holiness roots of the CGP. Simply stated, this doctrine says the old nature is completely rooted out of the believer's heart.
Tomlinson stated sanctification is, "an actual cleansing instead of mere suppression.... We are opposed to painting over the 'old man' and leaving him in the heart. He must be completely eradicated...." ("Sanctification" p.5).
It is this idea of sanctification which leads the CGP to teach that a believer can achieve perfection in this lifetime (Matt 5:48; Col 4:12).
BAPTISM IN THE HOLY SPIRIT, evidenced by speaking in other tongues is a distinctive mark of Pentecostal congregations. The doctrine claims a person who has not spoken in tongues, has not received this baptism.
Tomlinson, "declare[s] emphatically that no one ever has or ever will receive the baptism with the Holy Ghost without the speaking in tongues accompanying as the evidence" (Conflict, p.17).
PHYSICAL HEALING, according to Tomlinson, was included in the atonement (on the basis of 1Pet 2:24). He also taught going to doctors and taking medicine was contrary to God's Word (Conflict, pp.15ff, 81ff). He based this teaching on divine healing on texts like Deut 28:15,20-22,27,29; Jer 46:11 (all from the KJV).
Tomlinson asked, "What advantage is it to you to invest your money (in doctors etc.) when God says their medicines will not cure you? ... Are you going to continue to heap up condemnation and disobedience on yourself by resorting to physicians and medicine contrary to God's Word?" (Conflict, p.82).
Tomlinson's extreme view of healing is no longer widely held in the CGP. But some member still do, mostly elderly ones.
Evaluation of Theological Tenets
The call to PERSONAL HOLINESS by the CGP is admirable. Indeed, Christians are called to lead a holy life (Matt 5:20; Eph 1:4; 1Tim 6:11). But the CGP goes beyond Biblical grounds in defining a life a holiness as outlined above and by withholding membership from those who do not perfectly exemplify such a life.
According to one minister, some of the things listed in the above definition are not stringently insisted upon any more, namely, the prohibitions against wearing jewelry, lodge membership, and oath-taking.
THE DOCTRINE OF SANCTIFICATION as taught by Tomlinson is contrary to what Paul said he experienced in Romans 7. We are sanctified, but we cannot achieve perfection in this life (John 17:17; 1Cor 6:11).
It seems Tomlinson has taken Christ's admonition to, "be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" the wrong way (Matt 5:48). We can never be perfect, but we are to strive toward that goal. As we do, we mature in our behavior or become "perfect in the sense of not lacking any moral quality." This is the sense conveyed by the Greek word, teleios, used in this verse (Louw, p.746).
THE BAPTISM IN THE HOLY SPIRIT, evidenced by speaking in other tongues, as a THIRD work of grace (following salvation and sanctification) cannot be supported by Scripture. The two primary proof-texts do not support the idea (Acts 2 & 10).
Both of these passages are describing historically unique events and can not be taken as patterns for how the Spirit must work throughout the centuries. Second, Paul says ALL believers are baptized in the Spirit (1Cor 1:1,2; 12:13; see also Rom 8:9; Eph 1:13,14). Lastly, Paul taught all do not speak in tongues (1Cor 12:30).
As for PHYSICAL HEALING, there is no doubt God heals. But the CGP's belief this healing was provided for in the atonement is not supported by the 1Peter 2 passage. There is no hint of physical healing in the text; rather, our SPIRITUAL healing was provided for in Christ's sacrifice.
Further, if one is not supposed to turn to medicine for healing, what of Paul's words to Timothy to, "use a little wine for your stomach's sake and your frequent infirmities?" (1Tim 5:23). Also, Jesus commended the "Good Samaritan" for using oil and wine when helping the injured man (Luke 10:33-37).
What draws people to the CGP? Some major reasons are its friendliness, caring, and support of one another. During my visits, many people let me know how glad they were to have me there, and that I was welcome anytime. One lady even invited me to come to her house along with some others for lunch.
There seemed to be a genuine sense of caring among the people. Prayer requests were made for several who were ill or having other kinds of difficulties. Support for those who were in need was spoken of by some of those in the congregation, especially for their pastor who was looking for a new house.
Moreover, everyone is welcome to share in the service in some way, whatever their talents. This includes minorities. The congregation I visited had a worship band. Three members were Hispanic.
The congregation also opened its doors to a group of Hispanics who needed a place to worship. Now they share in worship services frequently, using an interpreter when necessary.
These people have been made to feel needed and wanted, and their talents are appreciated by the congregation. I was invited to sing or play guitars or drums if I ever wanted to. This is a very important thing for the Church as a whole to realize. People need to be needed. The CGP surely succeeds at this.
The freedom to worship in one's own way is also a drawing card. No one need fear ridicule for expressing himself in worship. Even prayer times are open-ended.
During what would "normally" be a time of pastoral prayer, nearly every member of the fellowship I attended prayed aloud. While I didn't hear any praying in tongues, what I did hear was typically Pentecostal in nature. Groaning, weeping, and phrases like, "Bless you Jesus" or "Thank you Jesus" were common.
An Ex-Member's Story
I interviewed an ex-member I'll call "Anita." She was drawn into this group because she was hurting a lot and wanted to seek the Lord again. The CGP was a big part of the lives of the relatives she was living with at the time. So she went to church with them. She thought she'd find the help she needed. But what she found was anything but help.
Once one is more deeply involved in the CGP, or becomes a member, he finds out more specific beliefs, attitudes or expectations of the group. Anita expressed that each of the sociological characteristics mentioned above were on the "surface" only.
Anita said she felt like she was in "spiritual bondage" during her time in the group. She began asking questions concerning some of their teachings, especially in relation to their idea of holiness.
She was condemned for her questions and told to accept the church's teachings by faith. And despite the claim above that the CGP does not stringently insist upon some aspects of these "holiness" beliefs, Anita said she was condemned and labeled a "backslider" if she wore jewelry or makeup to church.
She also noticed inconsistencies in the group's attitude toward her. One minute they would call her a sinner; the next minute they would ask her to teach Sunday School or be the Music Director. She was, to say the least, confused.
Any questioning of the group's teaching is dealt with quickly and severely. Once Anita asked a relative about a point of doctrine she didn't understand. He kept her up until 2:30am "talking" with her about it despite the fact she had to get up in just four hours for work. He also told her just where she was wrong and why.
Also, despite the claim the CGP no longer teaches it is the only true church, it appears some congregations still hold to this belief. In Anita's case, she had to sneak in and out of the house if she went to a non-CGP activity or another church.
If it was discovered one went to another church, the pastor had a visit with the "offender" and told him what was wrong with the other church. Repentance was expected to follow.
Another interesting point in Anita's experience was the pledge members had to make to the CGP flag, similar to the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag of the USA.
Since leaving the CGP, Anita has been shunned by people in the group. Neither the minister nor his wife have spoken to her. She has also experienced a certain fear of going back, even to her relative's home to get her possessions. It is a fear of being condemned for leaving the "one true church."
She has discovered who she is in Christ and feels truly set free now that she is out of the group. Anita said she was delivered from the bondage she was in. She can now really sense the freedom and peace only Christ can give (John 8:36; 14:27).
There is much in the CGP with which Evangelicals can agree. As was stated earlier, their insistence on a life of holiness is commendable, despite its legalistic nature. Their insistence of the Bible as authoritative, the necessity of the new birth and the expectation of Christ's return are a few things we can all agree on. Also, their theology of God, Christ and the Holy Spirit are orthodox.
The points of doctrine evaluated above should not cause us to label the CGP as a "cult." On the central matters of the Christian faith they are orthodox. Its Pentecostal teachings are shared with other such groups and these are accepted in the circle of Christianity.
Also, in contrast to Anita's experience, the minister of the group I visited freely admitted the CGP had missed the mark on some things. It was his opinion a lot of changes were going to be made.
From our conversations, it is my opinion he is one of several younger CGP ministers who are working towards some serious changes within this movement. If the changes he voiced take place, the CGP will move closer to Evangelical Christianity.
Judgment of the CGP should be made ON THE BASIS OF INDIVIDUAL CONGREGATIONS. I believe the minister I spoke with was open and honest with me. The changes he and others are working for show they are concerned with the direction their denomination is taking and want to change that direction for the best. We should pray these changes come about and effect the entire CGP organization.
Author: Michael J. Ediger is in his final year of study in the Philosophy of Religion program at Denver Seminary. He is emphasizing the area of cults and alternative religions.
For a follow-up to the above article, see Response to Church of God of Prophecy.
The links below are direct links to where the book can be purchased from Books-A-Million.
All Scripture references from: The New
King James Version. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers,
1982, unless otherwise indicated.
Burgess & McGee, eds. Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements . Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988.
Crews, Mickey. The Church of God: A Social History: Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990.
Hill, Samuel S. Ed. Encyclopedia of Religion in the South . n.a. Mercer University Press, 1984.
Jocquet, Constant H. Jr. ed. Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches . Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990.
Louw & Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament : Vol. 1. New York: United Bible Societies, 1989.
Mead, Frank. Handbook of Denominations in the US : Rev. by Samuel Hill. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990.
Melton, J. Gordon. The Encyclopedia of American Religions . 3rd. ed. Detroit: Gale Research, Inc., 1989.
Piepkorn, Arthur Carl. Profiles in Belief. Vol. 3. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979.
Tomlinson, A.J. "Sanctification: A Peculiar Treasure." Cleveland, TN: CGP Committee on Doctrine, n.d.
The Last Great Conflict. New York: Garland Publ. Inc., 1985.
The above article originally appeared in Darkness to Light
newsletter in 1993.
It was posted on this Web site in July 1996.
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