Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee)

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Church of God
AssociationsNational Association of Evangelicals
Pentecostal/Charismatic Churches of North America
Wesleyan Holiness Consortium
HeadquartersCleveland, Tennessee,
FounderElder Richard Spurling and several others
OriginAugust 1886
Monroe County, Tennessee
Cherokee County, North Carolina
SeparationsChurch of God of Prophecy,
Church of God with Signs Following,
The (Original) Church of God
Congregations38,989 churches in 185 countries (as of August 2018)
Members7,516,958 (as of August 2018)

The Church of God, with headquarters in Cleveland, Tennessee, United States, is a Pentecostal Christian denomination. The Church of God's publishing house is Pathway Press.


The precise legal name of this body is "Church of God". After a protracted court case involving donations intended for the use of its orphanages being received by other groups using the same name, the Supreme Court of Tennessee determined that it alone was entitled to use the simple name Church of God in 1953.[1][page needed] The group however uses Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) in order to distinguish it from other bodies that use "Church of God" in their titles.


Declaration of faith[edit]

The Declaration of Faith is the Church of God's doctrinal standard.[2] It articulates both an evangelical and Pentecostal doctrinal position with Wesleyan influences. The following is a summary of the Declaration of Faith:

Practical Commitments[edit]

The Church of God offers its members guidelines for Christian living called Practical Commitments.[3] 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 Bible 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 good stewardship.
  • Moral Purity: Engage in activities that glorify God in the body and that avoid the fulfillment of the lust of the flesh. Sinful practices condemned include: "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 recognizes three ranks of credentialed ministers: exhorter (initial level), ordained minister (intermediate level), and ordained bishop (highest level). Exhorters are authorized to preach, serve as evangelists, and serve as pastor of a church.[4] Ordained ministers are further authorized to baptize converts, receive new church members, administer sacraments or ordinances, solemnize marriages, and establish churches. In addition to the rights and privileges held by exhorters and ordained ministers, ordained bishops are authorized to assist in ordination ceremonies. State/regional overseers are designated "administrative bishops", International Executive Committee members as "executive bishops", and the general overseer as "presiding bishop". Women are eligible to be exhorters and ordained ministers. However, only men can become ordained bishops. There are also categories of licensed minister of Christian education and licensed minister of music.[5]



The Church of God is a hierarchical church with an episcopal polity.[6][7] The Church of God's highest judicial body is the International General Assembly.[8] This body has "full power and authority to designate the teaching, government, principles, and practices" of the Church of God.[9] Meeting every two years, the General Assembly's voting membership includes all lay members and credentialed ministers of the Church of God 16 years of age or older who are present and registered. The General Assembly is responsible for electing the church's executive officers. These are the general overseer, the three assistant general overseers, and the secretary general. In addition, it elects the directors of the church's missionary and Christian education ministries.[10]

All ordained bishops in the Church of God are members of the International General Council. The General Council meets every two years to decide what items or actions to recommend to the General Assembly for a final decision. It elects 18 ordained bishops to serve with the executive officers on the International Executive Council.[11] The Executive Council supervises the administration of the denomination and determines the General Council's agenda. Daily operations are in the hands of the International Executive Committee, composed of the executive officers.[12]

State/regional and local[edit]

State overseers (territorial or regional overseers outside the US) are appointed by the International Executive Committee.[13] State/regional overseers supervise the churches and clergy within their jurisdictions, and they are also in charge of church administration on the state/regional level.[14] The ministers in each state/region elect between 4 and 12 ordained bishops to serve on the state council. State councils exist to give advice and assistance to the state overseer. In addition to state councils, ministers' meetings and members' conventions also take place.[15] States/regions are further divided into districts, which are supervised by district overseers appointed by the state overseer.[16]

Local level Church of God in the village of Banovci in Croatia

Local pastors are appointed by the overseer in consultation with the district overseer and the local church.[17] All churches are encouraged to implement the biblical pattern of elders and deacons.[18] Local churches may also elect church and pastor's councils to provide advice and assistance to the pastor.[19] Regular and special congregational business meetings, called conferences, allow the congregation to be informed on the financial status of the church and approve any major expenditures.[20] As a hierarchical denomination, all state/regional and local church property is held in trust for the International General Assembly.[6]

Higher education[edit]

The Church of God operates Lee University, a Christian Liberal Arts university in Cleveland, Tennessee, established in 1918.[21] In response to the need for a graduate seminary, the Church of God Graduate School of Christian Ministries opened in 1975. Its name was changed to the Church of God Theological Seminary and then again to the Pentecostal Theological Seminary (PTS) with the hopes of appealing to a broader student base.

The denomination also operates several Bible colleges and schools of ministry throughout the world, including but not limited to:

At one time the Church of God also operated several Bible Colleges in the U.S. Due to financial reasons, these were closed:

Patten University in California was operated by the Church of God until 2012, when it was sold to a for-profit company.


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, some of its choirs, ensembles, and students having been invited to sing at presidential inaugurations or having had strong showings in reality shows like "The Voice."[citation needed] 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.


In 2018, the total worldwide membership of the Church of God was 7,468,083. Of that total, 1,189,304 members were in the United States and Canada, making the Church of God the 22nd largest Christian denomination in the United States.[22][23] Worldwide, there were 54,995 churches and 42,831 credentialed ministers (including music and Christian education ministers) in the Church of God.[22]


Origins (1886–1902)[edit]

R. G. Spurling (1857–1935), a Missionary Baptist minister, and his father Richard Spurling (1810–91), 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 churches descending from churches with Baptist doctrine were true Church 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.[24]

Even though 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.[25] While this group would later disband and its members return to their original churches,[26] the Church of God traces its origins to this 1886 meeting.[27]

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.[28]

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 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.[29] 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.[30]

Tomlinson era (1903–1923)[edit]

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.[31] 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.[32]

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".[33] 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.[34] The name "Church of God" was adopted in 1907, and Tomlinson was elected general overseer in 1909.[7]

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.[35]

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.[36]


In 1923, Tomlinson was impeached due to complaints about lax financial bookkeeping. 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. This led to a split in the church, with Tomlinson and his followers forming a new group that eventually became known as the Church of God of Prophecy, which Tomlinson continued to lead until his death in 1943. Both groups claim the same history up to 1923.

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[edit]

Recent history[edit]

During the latter half of the twentieth century, the Church of God gradually relaxed what they call their "Practical Commitments". These are 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.

In 2007, the denomination had 6 million members worldwide. [37]

In 2018, the denomination counted 7 million members in 178 countries of the world.[38]

List of General Overseers[edit]

# Name Appointment Secession
1 Ambrose Jessup Tomlinson 1903 1923
2 Flavius Josephus Lee 1923 1928
3 S.W Lattimer 1928 1935
4 J.Herbert Walker 1935 1940
5 John Jernigan 1944 1948
6 H. L. Chesser 1948 1952
7 Zeno Tharp 1952 1956
8 Houston R. Morehead 1956 1958
9 James Cross 1958 1962
10 Wade Horton 1962 1966
11 Charles W. Conn 1966 1970
12 R. Leonard Carroll 1970 1972
13 Ray H. Hughes 1972 1974
14 Wade Horton 1974 1976
15 Cecil B Knight 1976 1978
16 Ray H. Hughes 1978 1982
17 E.C. Thomas 1982 1986
18 Raymond Crowley 1986 1990
19 R. Lamar Vest 1990 1994
20 Robert White 1994 1996
21 Paul L Walker 1996 2000
22 R. Lamar Vest 2000 2004
23 G. Dennis McGuire 2004 2008
24 Raymond Culpepper 2008 2012
25 Mark Williams 2012 2016
26 Tim Hill 2016 2020

Notable ministers[edit]

  • Steve Brock – Minister, recording artist
  • Mark Williams – Pastor of North Cleveland Church of God and Former General Overseer
  • Charles Paul Conn – President of Lee University
  • Raymond F. Culpepper – 1st Assistant General Overseer
  • Tim Hill – General Overseer
  • Rufus Hollis Gause – Distinguished Educator within denomination
  • Ray H. Hughes – Former General Overseer, Lee College President
  • Judy Jacobs – Minister, recording artist
  • Steven Jack Land – President of Pentecostal Theological Seminary
  • Steve Lowery – Pastor of National Church of God
  • T.L. Lowery – Former Pastor of National Church of God
  • Floyd McClung Sr. - Former Pastor of the Westmore Church of God
  • G. Dennis McGuire – Former General Overseer
  • Lamar Vest – Former General Overseer, former President/CEO of American Bible Society
  • Paul Laverne Walker – Former General Overseer, pastor, educator
  • Mark Walker – Former Pastor of Mount Paran North Church of God
  • Marcus Lamb – President of Daystar Television Network
  • Perry Stone – Voice of Evangelism/Perry Stone Ministries Cleveland, TN.
  • Tony Stewart - Pastor of City Life Church Tampa, FL
  • David Smith - Pastor of Oak Park Church and Television Ministry
  • Travis Johnson - Pastor, Director of PCL, Founder of Buy a Tree Change A Life
  • Bryan Cutshall - Minister, Author, Educator

Along with these ministers, there are many notable others across the world. They include many backgrounds and various ethnicities.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Conn 2008.
  2. ^ Church of God, Declaration of Faith. Accessed May 25, 2013.
  3. ^ Church of God, Practical Commitments. Accessed May 25, 2013.
  4. ^ In emergencies, exhorters may be authorized by their state overseer to baptize converts and receive new church members. When serving as pastors, if state laws allow, the exhorter may solemnize marriages. 2012 COG Minutes S58.II, pp. 155.
  5. ^ Roebuck 1999, p. 8.
  6. ^ a b 2012 COG Minutes S35.1, p. 115.
  7. ^ a b Synan, The Holiness–Pentecostal Tradition, p. 79.
  8. ^ 2012 COG Minutes S1.IV.A, p. 58.
  9. ^ 2012 COG Minutes S3.I.1, pp. 65–67.
  10. ^ 2012 COG Minutes S2.VI.1, pp. 59–61.
  11. ^ 2012 COG Minutes S2.VI.2–3, pp. 63–65.
  12. ^ Church of God, Leadership Archived 2013-05-23 at the Wayback Machine. Accessed May 5, 2013.
  13. ^ "State overseer" may refer to an overseer of a state, states, or part of a state in the US. 2012 COG Minutes, p. 18.
  14. ^ 2012 COG Minutes S21, pp. 101–104.
  15. ^ 2012 COG Minutes S22, pp. 102–104.
  16. ^ 2012 COG Minutes S32, pp. 110–113.
  17. ^ 2012 COG Minutes S40.I.3, pp. 123–124.
  18. ^ 2012 COG Minutes S37.II, pp. 116–117.
  19. ^ 2012 COG Minutes S41, pp. 125–127.
  20. ^ 2012 COG Minutes S39, pp. 121–123.
  21. ^ "Facts in Brief". Archived from the original on February 13, 2013. Retrieved December 5, 2012.
  22. ^ a b 2012 COG Minutes, Statistical Summary August 2010–2012, p. 18.
  23. ^ 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 2011 Yearbook were collected in 2009.
  24. ^ Roebuck 1999, p. 2.
  25. ^ Roebuck 1999, p. 3.
  26. ^ Synan 1997, p. 73.
  27. ^ Church of God. "A Brief History of the Church of God" Archived 2011-11-07 at the Wayback Machine. Accessed June 12, 2011.
  28. ^ Synan 1997, p. 72.
  29. ^ Roebuck 1999, pp. 4–5.
  30. ^ Synan 1997, p. 74.
  31. ^ Synan 1997, pp. 74–75.
  32. ^ Roebuck 1999, p. 6.
  33. ^ Roebuck 1999, p. 7.
  34. ^ Synan 1997, pp. 77–78.
  35. ^ Roebuck, pp. 9–10.
  36. ^ Synan 1997, p. 79.
  37. ^ Eric Patterson, Edmund Rybarczyk, The Future of Pentecostalism in the United States, Lexington Books, USA, 2007, p. 139
  38. ^ Church of God, A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CHURCH OF GOD,, USA, retrieved July 17, 2019



  • Conn, Charles W. Where the Saints Have Trod: A History of Church of God Missions. Cleveland: Pathway Press, 1957.
  • Robins, R.G. Tomlinson. Plainfolk Modernist. Oxford: University Press, 2004.

External links[edit]