Question: "What is the Church of God (COG), and what do they believe?"
Answer: The Church of God (COG) was founded in 1886 in Tennessee by Richard Spurling, a former Missionary Baptist minister who desired to restore the New Testament church to its roots, free Christians from tradition and man-made creeds, and promote Christian unity. He formed a Christian Union, which was later called the Holiness Church; the movement grew, and the official name, the Church of God, was adopted in 1907. Later, the specification “Cleveland, Tennessee,” was added to distinguish the group from other groups that also use the “Church of God” label—there are a multitude of organizations, some heretical, that call themselves the Church of God, and careful distinctions are necessary. The Church of God has always been a part of the Pentecostal and Holiness movements, and Spurling himself was involved in the Latter Rain movement. The Church of God claims some 7 million members worldwide, with about 1 million in the United States and Canada.
Members of the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) tend to be moral, law-abiding citizens who are engaged in society and the culture enough to try to have a positive influence. They are politically active, especially in regard to conservative social policies. They have several unique practices, such as foot-washing as an ordinance.
The Church of God holds to orthodox Christian doctrines concerning the Bible as God’s infallible Word (Psalm 119:89), the Trinity (Matthew 28:19), original sin (Romans 3:9–20), the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as God’s plan for salvation (Mark 8:31–33; John 2:19), and personal salvation by faith in Christ alone (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). The Church of God stresses the need to live in moral purity, preaching against sex outside marriage, homosexuality, and other forms of sexual immorality; Church of God members are expected to abstain from alcohol, tobacco, and recreational drugs; they avoid foul language and ungodly amusements such as are common in modern movies and TV shows. The Church of God also encourages moderation in makeup, jewelry, perfume, and elaborate hairstyles.
A questionable point of doctrine in Church of God doctrine is the Wesleyan teaching of total sanctification or sinless perfection in this world, which, according to the Church of God and others in the Holiness Movement, is not just the goal but a mandate for all believers. Like all Holiness churches, the Church of God teaches sanctification for believers. There are varied views of sanctification within the Holiness movement: 1) sanctification is an instantaneous work of grace resulting in the eradication of the sin nature; 2) sanctification is the result of a “second blessing” leading to the “Higher Life,” in which a believer lives above the power of sin; or 3) sanctification is simply a lifelong process every believer undergoes following conversion, with or without the “second blessing.” Whether a Christian can ever attain a state of sinlessness in this life is debated within Holiness circles, although all Wesleyans agree there will always be room for an increase in love for God and for neighbor. Any claim that the sin nature is eradicated or that we can be totally free of sin in this life is contrary to the reality of the human condition presented in both Old and New Testaments (Psalm 19:12; Proverbs 20:9; Luke 11:4; John 1:8–9).
The Church of God ordains women as ministers, a practice not uncommon in other Pentecostal churches. The Church of God teaches that speaking in tongues is the evidence of the baptism of the Holy Ghost (separate from salvation) and that every believer will immediately speak in tongues as proof of the baptism. This teaching is not found in the Bible. The Bible equates Spirit baptism with salvation (1 Corinthians 12:12–13). Speaking in tongues sometimes occurred in new believers in the early church (Acts 2:4; 10:44–46), but there is no Scripture saying it should always occur. Most New Testament conversion accounts make no mention of speaking in tongues.
The Church of God teaches the full restoration of the gifts to the church. Unlike some Charismatic denominations, the Church of God doesn’t claim any leaders as apostles or prophets. However, members do prophesy, and miraculous signs are sought, based on the statement in Mark 16:17 that “signs shall follow them that believe” (KJV).
The Church of God also teaches that Christ’s atonement provides for physical healing for everyone and that God has restored the gift of healing to the church. While it’s true that God can heal any disease, the Bible does not teach that physical healing is always God’s will. The apostle Paul, a tower of unwavering faith, experienced serious illness (Galatians 4:13–14). So did his fellow worker Epaphroditus, who nearly worked himself to death serving the church (Philippians 2:25–30). Paul’s spiritual son Timothy was often sick. Paul didn’t tell him, “Just increase your faith, and you’ll be healthy whenever you want.” Rather, he advised Timothy to drink some wine, not just water, for his stomach’s sake (1 Timothy 5:23).
The Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), while having an accurate view of salvation by grace through faith, adds some teachings that are problematic, including Spirit baptism separate from salvation and an emphasis on tongues and miracles. These teachings make the COG a church that we cannot endorse.