Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee)

Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee)
Church of God
Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) logo.jpg
Church of God (Cleveland, TN)
Classification Protestant
Orientation Pentecostal
Polity Episcopal
Geographical areas Worldwide
Founder Elder Richard Spurling and several others
Origin August 1886
Monroe County, Tennessee
Cherokee County, North Carolina
Separations Church of God of Prophecy,
Church of God with Signs Following,
The (Original) Church of God
Members 6 million+ members[1]

The Church of God, with headquarters in Cleveland, Tennessee, is a Pentecostal Christian denomination. With over seven million members in over 170 countries, it is one of the largest Pentecostal denominations in the world.[1] In the United States, it reports 1,076,254 members, making it the nation's 22nd largest Christian church.[2]

The movement's origins can be traced back to 1886 with a small meeting of Christians at the Barney Creek Meeting House on the Tennessee/North Carolina border, making it the oldest Pentecostal denomination in the United States.[3] The Church of God's publishing house is Pathway Press.



The precise legal name of this body is Church of God. In 1953, the Supreme Court of Tennessee determined that it alone was entitled to use the simple name Church of God, after a protracted court case involving donations that were intended for its orphanages that were being received by other groups using the same name.[4] The group however uses Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) in order to distinguish it from other bodies who use the words Church of God in their titles.


Origins (1886-1902)

R. G. Spurling (1857-1935), a Missionary Baptist minister, and his father Richard Spurling (1810-1891), an ordained elder, rejected some of the views of the Baptists in his area as not being in accord with New Testament Christianity. R. G. Spurling disagreed with Landmarkism, an ecclesiology which held that only Baptists were true Christians and that they should not associate with Christians of other traditions. Spurling felt that there needed to be another reformation of the Church that went beyond the Protestant Reformation so that Christians would be united together by love and not by creeds, which he believed divided. As long as something was not contrary to the New Testament, believers should be able to practice their faith in the form they chose.[5]

Although not intending to form a new church or denomination, their rejection of Landmarkist values placed them in conflict with traditional churches in that area. Within a short period of time it became clear that they would not be allowed to remain as members of their churches. On August 19, 1886, after being barred from his local Baptist church, he and eight others organized the Christian Union at the Barney Creek Meeting House in Monroe County, Tennessee. They agreed to free themselves from man-made creeds and unite upon the principles of the New Testament. Between 1889 and 1895, Spurling organized three other congregations, all with the name Christian Union and functioning independently under Baptist polity.[6] While this group would later disband and its members return to their original churches,[7] the Church of God traces its origins to this 1886 meeting.[1]

In 1896, three Tennessee evangelists (William Martin, Joe M. Tipton, and Milton McNabb) with links to Benjamin H. Irwin's Fire-Baptized Holiness Church brought the message of entire sanctification to the western North Carolina countryside when they held a revival in the Schearer Schoolhouse near Camp Creek in Cherokee County. A feature of this revival was that some participants, including children, spoke in tongues when they experienced sanctification. This phenomenon caused great excitement and controversy in the community, and leading Baptist and Methodist leaders soon denounced the revival. Several of the worshiper's homes, as well as a provisional meeting house were burned by mobs opposing the new revival.[8]

The worshipers began to meet in the house of William F. Bryant (1863-1949), a Baptist deacon prior to his joining the holiness movement, who assumed leadership of the group. R.G. Spurling became often worshiped with the small fellowship and was the driving force behind its 1902 decision to organize into a church, called the Holiness Church at Camp Creek.[9] Organization was made necessary because Irwin's more fanatical teachings were influencing the movement, and there was a need for authority to discipline erring members.[10]

Tomlinson era (1903-1923)

It would be Ambrose Jessup Tomlinson and his organizational skills, however, that would be responsible for the growth of the Camp Creek Holiness Church into a national denomination. A Quaker and colporteur for the American Bible Society, Tomlinson had received the sanctification experience and had connections with Frank Sandford's Shiloh church in Durham, Maine. While not an ordained minister, churches often invited him to preach. The church at Camp Creek had known Tomlinson for seven years before they asked him to join their church in 1903. After climbing what is now known as Prayer Mountain in Murphy, North Carolina, and reportedly being divinely assured that this fledgling church was indeed God's reestablishment of the New Testament church, Tomlinson joined the church and was soon elected its pastor.[11] This allowed Spurling and Bryant to pursue evangelism. Fourteen new members were added to the church in the first year of Tomlinson's pastorate, and other churches were soon established in Georgia and Tennessee.[12]

By 1905, there was a desire for greater organization among the churches. Delegates from four churches met at Camp Creek in January 1906 to conduct the 1st General Assembly of the "Churches of East Tennessee, North Georgia and Western North Carolina". Though the intention was still to avoid the creation of a creed and denomination, the members' consensus on certain endeavors and standards laid the groundwork for the future denomination. The Assembly declared, "We hope and trust that no person or body of people will ever use these minutes, or any part of them, as articles of faith upon which to establish a sect or denomination", and that it was not "a legislative or executive body, judicial only".[13] The 1st Assembly decided that foot washing was on the same level as the sacrament of communion and, like other holiness groups, condemned the use of tobacco. Tomlinson served as moderator and secretary.[14] The name "Church of God" was adopted in 1907, and Tomlinson was elected general overseer in 1909.[15]

The Church of God was a part of the holiness movement and believed in entire sanctification as a definite experience occurring after salvation. While individuals had spoken in tongues in the 1896 revival, tongues were not understood as the initial evidence of baptism in the Holy Spirit. As news of the Azusa Street Revival began to spread and reach the Southeast, Church of God adherents began to seek and obtain Spirit baptism. Tomlinson was one of these seekers. In June 1907, he traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, to attend a meeting of M. M. Pinson and Gaston B. Cashwell. After being baptized in the Spirit at Azusa Street, Cashwell returned to the South spreading the revival and bringing many holiness groups into the Pentecostal fold. Tomlinson invited Cashwell to Cleveland, Tennessee, and it was under Cashwell's preaching that he received the Pentecostal blessing. After Tomlinson's experience, the Church of God would firmly identify as a Pentecostal church.[16]

In 1910, the official publication, The Church of God Evangel, was founded and remains the oldest continuous Pentecostal publication. Growth followed in the years after organization. In 1902, there was one church with 20 members. By 1910, there were 1,005 members in 31 churches throughout the Southeastern United States.[15]


In 1923, Tomlinson was impeached, causing a division which led to the creation, by followers of Tomlinson, of what would become known as the Church of God of Prophecy. The impeachment was the result of lax financial bookkeeping on Tomlinson's part. One explanation often cited for financial discrepancies was that Tomlinson may have used church funds to support struggling pastors and churches and had, on many occasions, reappropriated money from otherwise-designated funds, causing shortfalls. Although there was no indication that Tomlinson used church funds for himself, there were many within the organization who felt that this type of imprudence was an indicator of serious flaws within the organizational structure of the church.

When his handling of finances was called into question, it appears that Tomlinson took offense at the implications against his integrity, and perhaps to having his long-term and substantial authority questioned. Some, mostly in later splinter groups, have suggested that the financial issues were used as an attempt to move the church to a more democratic footing, with the office of General Overseer becoming an elective and termed office, instead of, as then existed, an office where Tomlinson served by general acclaim of the church-at-large. These splinter groups continue to maintain that this change moved the church away from being a theocracy, however, under both systems, the office of General Overseer was selected by the approval of the church. Even during Tomlinson's tenure there was no rule or tenet that prevented an Overseer from being removed.

Both sides of the controversy now tend to admit missteps by either side: by Tomlinson in taking too much umbrage at the questioning; and by those who questioned him for perhaps having more in mind than simple financial probity, and thus not addressing the matter in a way that would have been more conducive to reconciliation. In recent years the Church of God (Cleveland) and the Church of God of Prophecy have moved beyond these issues and have developed a close interdenominational fellowship. The two groups are now working together in many areas of church ministry, meetings, and evangelistic outreach.

The practice of snake handling briefly became a controversy in the denomination in the 1920s after it was endorsed by George Went Hensley, a Church of God minister. The practice was quickly repudiated by the Church of God leadership and Hensley and the small number of congregations which practiced it left to become independent congregations generally using the name Church of God with Signs Following. Hensley died in 1955 after being bitten by a snake during a church service.

Related bodies

Recent history

During the latter half of the twentieth century, the Church of God gradually relaxed what they call their Practical Commitments; separate from their Declaration of Faith, which are the biblical beliefs of the church. These practical commitments are the social practices of the church, and originally included "That members dress according to the teachings of the New Testament", "That our members conform to the Scripture relative to outward adornment and to the use of cosmetics, etc. that create an unnatural appearance", as well as other admonitions concerning hair, ornamental jewelry, "mixed swimming", television/movies, dances, and "ungodly amusements". Many of these practical commitments were modified as the church adapted to ministry outside of its southeastern U.S. roots, however the Declaration of Faith has not been modified since its inception.


Declaration of faith

The Declaration of Faith is the Church of God's doctrinal standard.[17] It articulates both an evangelical and Pentecostal doctrinal position with Wesleyan influences. The following is a summary of the Declaration of Faith:

Practical Commitments

The Church of God offers its members guidelines for Christian living called Practical Commitments.[18] A summary is given below.

  • Spiritual Example: Demonstrate commitment to Christ through the practice of the spiritual disciplines (prayer, praise, worship, confession, fasting, meditation and study); demonstrate commitment to the body of Christ through loyalty to God and commitment to his church; and demonstrate commitment to the work of Christ through being good stewards.
  • Moral Purity: Engage in activities which glorify God in the body and which avoid the fulfillment of the lust of the flesh. Sinful practices condemned included: "homosexuality, adultery, worldly attitudes (such as hatred, envy, jealousy), corrupt communication (such as gossip, angry outbursts, filthy words), stealing, murder, drunkenness and witchcraft". Christians are to read, watch and listen to those things which are of positive benefit to spiritual well-being and not to attend or watch performances of a demoralizing nature.
  • Personal Integrity: Live in a manner that inspires trust and confidence, bearing the fruit of the Spirit and seeking to manifest the character of Christ in all behavior.
  • Family Responsibility: The family is foundational to society and the church; Christian worship and discipleship should begin in the home. Marriage is a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman; the only biblical allowance for divorce is fornication. Remarriage after divorce should only occur after a thorough understanding of and submission to scriptural instructions. God created men and women with different characteristics and different responsibilities. Divine harmony is maintained when the husband is head of the home, parents nurture and admonish their children, and children obey and honor their parents.
  • Behavioral Temperance: Practice temperance in behavior (self-control and moderation) and abstain from activities and attitudes which are offensive to others or which lead to addiction or enslavement, such as "abstain from all alcoholic beverages and other habit-forming and mood-altering chemical substances and refrain from the use of tobacco in any form, marijuana and all other addictive substances, and further, must refrain from any activity (such as gambling or gluttony) which defiles the body as the temple of God or which dominates and enslaves the spirit that has been made free in Christ".
  • Modest Appearance: Demonstrate the scriptural principle of modesty (chaste in thought and conduct) by appearing and dressing in a manner that will enhance Christian testimony and will avoid pride, elaborateness or sensuality.
  • Social Obligation: Fulfill obligations to society by being good citizens, by correcting social injustices, and by protecting the sanctity of life (abortion and euthanasia of aged, mentally incompetent, terminally ill and otherwise handicapped, for reasons of personal convenience, social adjustment or economic advantage, are morally wrong).


The Church of God possesses an episcopal polity and is the most centralized Pentecostal denomination in America.[15]


The daily operations of the denomination are in the hands of the International Executive Committee, composed of the general overseer, assistant overseers, and the secretary general.[19] The International Executive Council is empowered to consider and act on all matters concerning the interest and welfare of the Church of God. It adopts the agenda for the International General Council. The members are the general overseer (presiding bishop), the three assistant general overseers (executive bishops), the secretary general, and the Council of Eighteen.[20] The International General Council is a body composed of all ordained ministers of the Church of God which meets biennially to consider all recommendations of the International Executive Council and recommend action to the International General Assembly. It elects the Council of Eighteen and also nominates international officers for election.[21]

The International General Assembly meets biennially to elect officers and consider all recommendations from the International General Council. It is composed of all members and ministers of the Church of God 16 years old and above who are present and registered. Officers elected include the general overseer, the assistant general overseers, the secretary general, and the directors of the church's missionary and Christian education ministries.[22]


State or regional overseers provide leadership at the lower level of the church. Local pastors are appointed by the overseer in consultation with the local church.[19] The Church of God recognizes several ranks of ministry. The primary ones are ordained minister, licensed minister, and exhorter. There are also categories of licensed minister of Christian education and licensed minister of music.[23]

Higher education

The Church of God (Cleveland) operates two universities, the older of which is Lee University in Cleveland, established in 1918. The Church of God also has another University in Oakland, California called Patten University, established in 1944, that serves its West Coast members and students interested in an urban experience . The denomination operates Bible colleges in several countries, including International Bible Colleges in Canada and Seminario Bíblico Mexicano, founded in 1979, in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico, as well as Mt. Zion Bible College and three others in India. In response to the need for a seminary, the Church of God Graduate School of Christian Ministries (now the Pentecostal Theological Seminary) opened in 1975.


In the early 1900s, the church was sometimes called "The Singing Church" due to the exuberance of the singing and the strong reliance upon music as part of the worship service. While the churches within the denomination today utilize many different musical styles, music, in general, continues to play a very important role in the local churches. Lee University's music program is considered one of the school's main specialties, and has a reputation for excellence. The official Church of God Music Ministries Department is known as Spirit Sound Music Group. This department produces studio recordings and conducts music conferences during the year.

Notable ministers

  • Steve Brock (Minister/Recording Artist)
  • Raymond F. Culpepper (General Overseer)
  • Jentezen Franklin (Pastor of Free Chapel Worship Center)
  • Keith Hawes (Evangelist/Pastor of New Covenant Church of God)
  • Steve Lowery (Pastor of National Church of God)
  • T.L. Lowery (Former Pastor of National Church of God)
  • G. Dennis McGuire (Former General Overseer)
  • Perry Stone (Evangelist/director of Voice of Evangelism)
  • Lamar Vest (President/CEO of American Bible Society)
  • Tom Madden (Youth and Discipleship Director)
  • Gary Lewis (Assistant Youth and Discipleship Director)


  1. ^ a b c Church of God. "A Brief History of the Church of God". Accessed June 12, 2011.
  2. ^ National Council of Churches (February 14, 2011), "Trends continue in church membership growth or decline, reports 2011 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches", accessed February 17, 2011. The statistical figures used in the 2010 Yearbook were collected in 2008.
  3. ^
  4. ^ Conn, Charles "Like a Mighty Army"
  5. ^ Roebuck, David G (1999). "Restorationism and a Vision for World Harvest: A Brief History of the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee)". Cyberjournal for Pentecostal-Charismatic Research 5: p. 2. Accessed June 12, 2011.
  6. ^ Roebuck, "Restorationism and a Vision for World Harvest", p. 3.
  7. ^ Vinson Synan, The Holiness–Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements in the Twentieth Century, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), p. 73, ISBN 978-0-8028-4103-2.
  8. ^ Synan, The Holiness–Pentecostal Tradition, p. 72.
  9. ^ Roebuck, "Restorationism and a Vision for World Harvest", pp. 4-5.
  10. ^ Synan, The Holiness–Pentecostal Tradition, p. 74.
  11. ^ Synan, The Holiness–Pentecostal Tradition, pp. 74-75.
  12. ^ Roebuck, "Restorationism and a Vision for World Harvest", p. 6.
  13. ^ Roebuck, "Restorationism and a Vision for World Harvest", p. 7.
  14. ^ Synan, The Holiness–Pentecostal Tradition, pp. 77-78.
  15. ^ a b c Synan, The Holiness–Pentecostal Tradition, p. 79.
  16. ^ Roebuck, "Restorationism and a Vision for World Harvest", pp. 9-10.
  17. ^ Church of God, Declaration of Faith, accessed 14 June 2011.
  18. ^ Church of God, Practical Commitments, accessed 14 June 2011.
  19. ^ a b Church of God, Leadership, accessed 13 June 2011.
  20. ^ Bylaws of the Church of God, Article VI Governing Bodies, 3. International Executive Council, accessed 13 June 2011.
  21. ^ COG Bylaws, Article VI Governing Bodies, 2. International General Council.
  22. ^ COG Bylaws, Article VI Governing Bodies, 1. International General Assembly.
  23. ^ Roebuck, "Restorationism and a Vision for World Harvest", p. 8.

Further reading

  • Conn, Charles W. Like a Mighty Army.
  • Conn, Charles W. Where the Saints Have Trod: A History of Church of God Missions. Cleveland: Pathway Press, 1957.
  • Crew, Michael. The Church of God: A Social History. University of Tennessee Press, 1990.
  • Robins, R.G. Tomlinson. Plainfolk Modernist. Oxford: University Press, 2004.

External links

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