Our International General Assembly
When delegates to the 72nd International General Assembly meet in San Antonio, Texas, in August, they will be following a 102-year-old practice. For over a century, Church of God members and ministers have gathered to search the Scriptures for answers to contemporary questions and to advance the Church’s mission of reaching the harvest.
The International General Assembly is the highest governing body of the Church of God. It meets biennially for worship, fellowship and business and designates the teachings, government, principles and practices of the movement. All members who wish to attend are welcome, and all those over the age of 16 may vote in its business meetings.
The General Assembly elects some officers of the Church of God including the International Executive Committee, and the directors and assistant directors of the departments of Youth and Christian Education, World Missions, and Evangelism and Home Missions.
The Need for an Assembly
The Church of God traces its birth to the formation of the Christian Union on August 19, 1886. Renamed The Holiness Church in 1902, the movement grew slowly until A.J. Tomlinson joined in 1903 and was selected as pastor. During the next two years he established congregations in Tennessee and Georgia. Growth, of course, brought both new possibilities and new challenges. According to Tomlinson, there was a need for a general meeting “to consider questions of importance and to search the Bible for additional light and knowledge.” This reflected the Church’s desire to continually seek God’s will and to restore New Testament Christianity. Searching the scriptures for a basis for an assembly, they emphasized both the Old Testament gatherings of Israel and the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15.
In its first action, the Assembly declared, “We do not consider ourselves a legislative or executive body, but judicial only.” This declaration reflected their intention to search the scriptures for the laws of God and then recommend a course of action to the local churches. Their congregational polity depended on the local churches to execute God’s laws as revealed in the New Testament. These views did not prohibit the Assembly from having executive offices or the general church from developing administrative structures. Indeed, at that first Assembly, A. J. Tomlinson served as moderator and clerk, and in 1909 the Assembly created the office of general moderator. Yet, that first action of the Assembly remains our movement’s policy as we recognize that it is not the purpose of the Assembly to make God’s laws or to implement God’s laws. Rather God’s laws are revealed in the New Testament, interpreted by the International General Assembly, and implemented by local congregations.
Through subsequent annual Assemblies, the people sought God and searched the Scriptures in order to develop and define practice and polity. They possessed a deep conviction that the models and truths of the Bible were for our day as well as for the first century. Those early Assembly delegates were convinced that when New Testament order was established, the contemporary Church would reap the same supernatural growth and success the Apostles experienced following the day of Pentecost. Tomlinson wrote, “So when the Church gets in perfect order as it was in apostolic days, the gospel will go forth and souls’ [sic] by the multitudes will be gathered in.”
Especially important at the second Assembly was the movement’s adoption of the name “Church of God,” based on Paul’s references to the Church of God in First and Second Corinthians. The movement had attempted to be biblical in all things since the 1886 invitation to sit “together as the Church of God.” And when he received the right hand of fellowship in 1903, Tomlinson had insisted on an agreement that the Holiness Church at Camp Creek was “the Church of God of the Bible.” This adoption of the name “Church of God” in 1907 was a further step toward their understanding that they were restoring the New Testament Church.
Finally, the second Assembly instituted a new order of ministry--that of Evangelist. Up to this time they had recognized the primary orders of Bishop (sometimes called Elder), Deacon and Licensed Minister. In following years the Assembly abandoned the order of Deacon as a credentialed minister and instituted a lay order of Exhorter, which eventually became the initial level of ministry. Today the Church of God recognizes the ministerial ranks of Ordained Bishop, Ordained Minister and Exhorter as well as Licensed Minister of Christian Education and Licensed Minster of Music. There is also a Lay Minister certification for specialized areas of local church ministry.
Other important matters of polity that have developed in succeeding Assemblies include the 1909 selection of a general moderator to serve year-round (renamed general overseer in 1910) and the appointment of state overseers in 1911. An Elders Council was adopted in 1916 to conduct necessary business between Assemblies. Because of the heavy workload of the general overseer, the 1922 Assembly selected a three-person committee comprised of the general overseer, a superintendent of education, and an editor and publisher. Now known as the International Executive Committee, this body oversees the ongoing ministry of the international church and eventually expanded to include the general overseer, three assistant general overseers and the secretary general.
The record of General Assemblies often emphasizes changes in institutional structure and leadership, and these have been important activities and consequences of the past 100 years. But the history of denominational structure and polity pales compared to the story of millions of men and women who have been won to Christ, nurtured, and sent into the harvest through the many ministries of the Church of God. Today seven million members assemble themselves in congregations around the world, and thousands will come together in San Antonio to continue the biblical practice of searching the Scriptures. Now 102 years after our first Assembly, we are grateful for what God did through those first 21 delegates, and we can testify to their zeal and to the zeal and accomplishments of those who have come after them.
Some Historical Highlights