The Purpose & Authority of the General Assembly
Forgetfulness is apparently a weakness of human nature. This can become tragic when God's people forget His goodness toward them; when they fail to remember His commandments and His will for them and for the Church. Israel, God's chosen covenant people, were prone to forget, although His law was given for the express purpose that they should not forget. David points back to their history, citing the dire consequences of their forgetfulness: "For he established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children: That the generation to come might know [them, even] the children [which] should be born; [who] should arise and declare [them] to their children: That they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments: And might not be as their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation; a generation [that] set not their heart aright, and whose spirit was not stedfast with God. The children of Ephraim, [being] armed, [and] carrying bows, turned back in the day of battle. They kept not the covenant of God, and refused to walk in his law; And forgat his works, and his wonders that he had shewed them...And they sinned yet more against him by provoking the most High in the wilderness...Yea, they turned back and tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel. They remembered not his hand, [nor] the day when he delivered them from the enemy" (Psalm 78:5-11, 17, 41, 42). "Our fathers understood not thy wonders in Egypt; they remembered not the multitude of thy mercies; but provoked [him] at the sea, [even] at the Red sea...They soon forgat his works; they waited not for his counsel...They forgat God their saviour, which had done great things in Egypt...Thus were they defiled with their own works, and went a whoring with their own inventions. Therefore was the wrath of the LORD kindled against his people, insomuch that he abhorred his own inheritance" (Psalm 106:7, 13, 21, 39, 40).
God instituted and ordained the Passover for annual remembrance of His marvelous deliverance of His people from Egypt. Then at Sinai He gave His law as a perpetual reminder of His will.
When Jesus had established His Church, He instituted the Lord's Supper, showing that the Passover had been gloriously fulfilled. This Communion was to be observed periodically "...in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24, 25). Paul explained, "For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come" (1 Corinthians 11:26).
In a very real sense, the General Assembly of The Church of God brings God's Word and will to remembrance and keeps it in remembrance. The need became evident soon after the Church in these last days arose from 1,578 years of the Dark Ages. Functionally, it was a new beginning. God moved on the group in Eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina to rediscover the New Testament Church. The confusion of denominationalism called for a "grass-roots" searching of the Scriptures relative to the doctrine and practices of the Early Church, with the Bible as their only authority and guide.
When revelation came from God through A.J. Tomlinson on the morning of June 13, 1903, it was specifically pointed out and agreed upon that taking the whole Bible rightly divided was what made it The Church of God. This being the case, it is expedient that we know what the Bible requires. It is here that the purpose and authority of the General Assembly becomes clearly evident.
The Current Need for a Review
With the passing of generations, there is always the possibility that the Assembly's inspired deliberations will suffer a measure of disregard, whether from forgetfulness, neglect, or ignorance of the truth. Therefore, it becomes necessary from time to time to refresh the minds of the Church's membership of the purpose and authority of this instrument of theocratic government. Perhaps this present time is one of those times for a needed review. It should be remembered that the Church has already suffered a major "falling away" and two regrettable disruptions through departures from theocratic government.
Scriptural Basis for a General Assembly
The General Assembly is the product of an urgent need. This need was first recognized, and met, when a dissension developed in the local church at Antioch in Syria. (See Acts, Chapter 15 for more information.) The dispute, or indecision, was over Gentile circumcision. It soon became evident that local church authority was not the proper level for resolving the matter. At that early date in the Church's operation, the Apostles and elders of "the mother Church" at Jerusalem were appealed to as the body qualified to settle the question. From the historical record of that Council we see God's plan and purpose revealed for the nucleus of government for His Church in this present world.
Details in some respects may be unclear, but the essential elements are evident. For instance, we see that the Holy Ghost was given preeminence: "For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost [first], and [then] to us..." (Acts 15:28). The "us" is seen to have been "the apostles and elders, with the whole church..." (Acts 15:22). The Church in these last days has taken the proceedings of that early council, or Assembly, as our pattern for conducting business in matters relevant to the Church in general. Several points are to be observed from that Assembly.
- God used duly appointed men – apostles and elders – as leaders in the proceedings. Of course, there was no succession of apostles, so today we look to God for Holy Ghost direction in the selection and appointment of Church leaders. (See Acts 15:12, 22).
- The question was heard and discussed from both perspectives, in fairness to all (Acts 15: 5, 7, 12).
- The decision was based on the Word of God through the prophets (Acts 15:14-19).
- The decision was reached by unanimous agreement (Acts 15:22, 25), establishing that principle as an order for Church business.
- The moderator, or General Overseer, voiced the decision (Acts 15:19). He did not make the decision himself.
- The Holy Ghost was honored as the One whom Jesus had declared "...will guide you into all truth" (Acts 15:28, John 16:13).
- The decision was equitable in that it adhered to the issue and therefore avoided offending the Jewish members unnecessarily (Acts 15:19-21). Later, God used Paul to clarify the truth that there is no difference in His sight between the Jews and the Gentiles; all are in one body. In fact, this is a major point in the revelation of the Church mystery to Paul. (See Romans 10:12; Ephesians 1:9, 10; 2:11-22; 3:1-11; Galatians 3:26-29; 1 Corinthians 12:13.)
- By Assembly action, the commission was given to choose men to dispense the official action throughout the Church everywhere (Acts 15:22-29; 16:4, 5). This assured unity in faith and doctrine (Ephesians 4:3, 13; 1 Corinthians 1:10; Romans 15:6).
- Unscriptural restrictions were avoided in light of grace versus the ceremonial law of Moses (Acts 15:5, 10, 22, 15, 28).
- Their "much disputing" (Acts 15:7) was silence by the presentation of God's movement through the Holy Ghost: (1) Peter's experience in the house of Cornelius (vv. 7-10), and (2) the testimonies of Barnabas and Paul concerning God's miracles and wonders among the Gentiles.
- Finally, James summarized the discussion on the grounds of the unchanging Word of God (vv. 13-21).
Solomon has said, "...in the multitude of counsellors there is safety" (Proverbs 11:14). The General Assembly provides this multitude, and the Church's safe direction is insured, giving protection from the dangers of private interpretations (2 Peter 1:20).
Hebrews 12:22-24 speaks of the New Testament Church as a "general assembly," in the context of the Church as being an awesome institution which should instigate both the glory and fear of God and His Song as the mediator of the new covenant.
The Need for the Assembly Becomes Evident
We have seen how the need called forth the Assembly in the early Church. Likewise, soon after the revelation of the restored Church in 1903 it became evident that problems would arise, requiring official solutions; especially those concerning the interpretation of Scriptures relating to doctrine and holiness of life. After a careful search of the Scriptures, it was concluded that a General Assembly was the answer; and the first one this side of the Dark Ages was held in January 26, 27, 1906. A.J, Tomlinson reviewed this decision in his address to the 7th Assembly in 1912 as follows: "It was in 1905 that the idea of an Annual Assembly was conceived. There had been some ingatherings of souls during the year, and at the same time some perplexing problems had arisen. We had joined ourselves together as Churches of God to walk in the light, and at the same time search the Scriptures and earnestly seek for additional light and knowledge. Near the end of that year, the demand for such a gathering had grown to such an extent that the ministers were almost forced to look into the Scriptures to see if there was anything that would warrant the call of such a convention. We were walking softly, carefully and prayerfully before God, as we have been up to this day, determined to track the Bible, and not go beyond in any of our teachings and practices, and at the same time advance as light was given."
The Assembly's Status, Nature, and Function
After 83 years of the Church's restoration (1903-1986) and 80 Assemblies, the Questions and Subjects Committee submitted an orderly summary of the Assembly's status, nature, purpose, and function. (See 81st Assembly Minutes, 1986, pages 36, 37.)
Status: Christ is the Head of The Church of God. The General Assembly, under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, is the highest governing authority here on earth.
Nature: The Assembly consists of all members of the Church present, the male members discussing and deciding all matters of business. The very first Assembly adopted the following: "We do not consider ourselves a legislative or executive body, but judicial only." Neither is it a representative body; rather, it is constituted of all members in attendance, every male member having a voice in the Assembly's decisions.
Purpose: While it provides a forum for worship, fellowship, and unity of Spirit, its chief purpose is business, both doctrinal and practical. From the beginning it has been the expressly stated purpose of the Assembly to search the Scriptures for additional light and knowledge; to resolve interpretations which tend to be divisive. The ideal in view is to strive "...for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:12, 13).
Function: The Assembly is moderated by the General Overseer, who, by the Assembly's authority, appoints various committees to consider relevant issues through intensive study and prayer. However, the actual decisions are made by the Assembly in session by unanimous agreement, not by the committees. The Church of God is theocratic in governmental form; government by God through the Holy Ghost's immediate direction. The Assembly is committed to approve only what God approves. It is the function of the Assembly to resolve difference that may arise among diligent searchers and teachers of God's Word of Truth.
It is obviously necessary that there be certain officers and committees to maintain order and to move the business forward. None of these appointees have dictatorial power. Hover, a matter of primary importance is the relationship of the General Assembly and the General Overseer. The General Overseer is selected at the direction of God through the Holy Ghost, and by acclamation on the part of those members present. His appointmental authority is delegated by the Assembly in session, He is answerable to the Assembly for the conduct of his office. Besides being the Moderator of the Assembly, he is also subject to its decisions the same as the other members. The 60th Assembly (1965) accepted the following resolution:
"...that the General Overseer be and is hereby authorized to represent and stand for the General Assembly when it is not in session, to sign any and all documents requiring the signature of an authorized representative of said Assembly, and to handle all emergencies that mar arise between Assemblies."
Each Member's Responsibility
As members of the Church, it is our responsibility to accept and support all Assembly action. If we have grievanes or disagreements with the Church, either in doctrine or practices, we should not publically air them so as to generate strife and division. Rather, our question should be submitted to the appropriate committee for study and consideration, and possible presentation to the Assembly. "When the Assembly is in session, those desiring to make submissions for Assembly consideration should appear first before the Counseling Committee which would help them determine the appropriate course to pursue" (81st Assembly Minutes, 1986, page 38).
We should honor, respect, and comply with the decisions of the Assembly. Loyalty to the General Assembly is also loyalty to God, the Bible, and the Church which Christ purchased with His own blood. If any have forgotten these truths, or if any have been tempted to rise in opposition, we would plead that they conscientiously review the purpose and authority of the General Assembly with an open heart and mind, and with humble submission to "the Holy Ghost and us".
This article was first published in The Evening Light, Vol. 5 No. 10 (August 1997), and was written by R.O. Covey.