Dale M. Coulter
To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, of the making of resolutions in the Church of God there seems to be no end (Ecc. 12:12). Normally, resolutions fall at the end of the agenda for the General Council, but we find a resolution on human identity and sexuality as item #6 on this year’s agenda. It concerns transgenderism as an ideology rather than the challenge of gender dysphoria that some individuals face. This resolution was submitted by group of Church of God ministers who also published it on Facebook long before it had gone through the normal processes. I am not sure how it made it to the front of the agenda. Still, it is an important topic that should be addressed.
In this article, I am not going to address the content of the resolution. Instead, I want to ask a more basic question: Should the Church of God continue to use resolutions to deal with complex theological and moral issues? My own position is that we should not.
First, it is becoming a new norm to use resolutions as a means of addressing issues in the Church of God. We currently have 68 resolutions listed on the Church of God website. These resolutions range from celebrating the 125th anniversary of the denomination to questionable television programs. Yes, you have that correct: 68 resolutions! In addition, the resolutions on the website are not all of the resolutions passed at the General Assembly. Some resolutions just formally express gratitude to the host city for its hospitality.
The fact that the General Assembly uses resolutions to express gratitude, honor individuals, celebrate anniversaries, reaffirm doctrinal commitments, and address contemporary issues raises the question of how we should even think of these resolutions. What resolutions are binding? Surely not those expressing gratitude or honoring individuals; definitely those resolutions reaffirming central doctrinal tenets such as holiness. To reaffirm a doctrinal tenet points individuals back toward the doctrinal and practical commitments to which Church of God ministers and members must subscribe.
What about those resolutions that seek to apply or extend Church of God teaching to a specific issue such as transgenderism? How should we treat these resolutions? In addition, how should we rank these resolutions? For example, there are two resolutions on biblical stewardship and financial interdependence from 2012 that talk about tithing and using all available technologies to encourage giving. Prior to that assembly, in 2010 we issued a resolution on the deity of Christ. Surely, affirming the deity of Christ is a first-order doctrine whereas using technology in biblical stewardship is not. Yet, both are found in our resolutions. It makes it unclear how Church of God members should take these resolutions on specific issues. What remains clear is that resolutions are not binding as resolutions. No Church of God minister has ever been disciplined for not following a resolution.
Given these challenges, resolutions are not the place to engage cultural issues of the day. They are better reserved for expressing gratitude, honoring individuals, and reaffirming key doctrinal or moral teachings already endorsed by the doctrinal and practical commitments of the denomination. Adding a 69th resolution on transgenderism to the 68 listed on the website does not help us.
Second, the Church of God has already established key processes for addressing contemporary issues. The Doctrine and Polity committee is a standing committee established in the 1990s that falls under the Executive Committee. Its task is to issue statements that both clarify and apply Church of God doctrinal and practical commitments to contemporary issues. The Executive Committee authorizes these statements, which then go on the website of the denomination. Through this committee, the Church of God has in place a platform for ongoing application and clarification of the doctrinal and practical commitments.
Third, resolutions are by design short and punchy. Many resolutions use highly charged rhetoric to make points. I question whether the use of such rhetoric is helpful in addressing contemporary theological and moral issues. Part of the question here is who we intend to speak to with the resolution. Who is the audience? If we are “preaching to the choir,” then this rhetoric is a way of stirring up passions among the base of the denomination. But, if we are trying to articulate a clear biblical witness for the world, then I question the use of rhetoric. Our task is to articulate biblical truth as clearly as we can as part of the declaration of the gospel. It’s not to incite, inflame, or stir up “our people.” Believe me that even a clearly written statement that defends biblical truths will offend some. The purpose, however, is not to offend, but to clarify. This requires something different than a resolution.
Finally, it is interesting to me that the General Assembly over its history has rejected all efforts to add to the Declaration of Faith. This is the case even when a motion was put forward to add a statement on the church. In the 1980s, the Church of God did successfully change its practical commitments, but it took a long time and was not without a lot of heated debate on both sides. I recall some ministers walking to the front of the auditorium and throwing their ministerial credentials at the General Overseer to declare that they were finished with the Church of God.
What does this tell us? The Church of God is very reluctant to change its doctrinal and practical commitments. This reluctance goes back to the beginning of the denomination and R. G. Spurling’s insistence that we should walk together in love through covenant rather than continuing to add confessional statements to an ever-growing list. Holiness would bind us together around a doctrinal core, not ever-expanding confessions.
Of course, we pass resolutions all the time like water rolling off a duck’s back. And, that’s the problem. They turn out to be so numerous and so easily signed off on as to become meaningless. The nature of resolutions prevents the Church of God from the clear application and clarification of our doctrinal commitments to contemporary issues. We should not continue to use them to address doctrinal and moral issues of our day.