Pentecostal preacher Robert J. Pruitt believes the small denomination he leads from a tiny office in east Tennessee is the only true church on earth. To support his theology, he filed an application seven years ago with the United States Trademark Office to claim ownership of the name "The Church of God"--even though the 850,000-member Church of God, based in Cleveland, Tenn., has used that name for decades.
"We believe there is only one church," Pruitt told Charisma News Service. "It is exclusive, but we don't say that arrogantly or proudly."
Pruitt, 74, filed his trademark claim in 1993, triggering a prolonged legal battle. The larger denomination has been forced to hire a Knoxville, Tenn., law firm to prove that they own the right to their name because they've used it for more than 90 years.
Pruitt, meanwhile, has stated in court documents that the name belongs to his organization--which he calls THE Church of God--because "God wants it that way."
Currently, Pruitt and Church of God attorneys are waiting on a decision from the state's Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, and it is highly unlikely that Pruitt will win. But the case involves more than a dispute over a name. Pruitt's actions have opened a festering wound that has not been fully healed since the Church of God split in 1923.
Pruitt's belief that his tiny group is the only true church was borrowed from A.J. Tomlinson, a backwoods preacher who founded the Church of God in 1903 in North Carolina. Tomlinson taught that the "church of God" mentioned in Acts 20:28 was his Pentecostal denomination, and this so-called "exclusivity doctrine" was promoted for years.
The two denominations were bitter competitors for years, and the dispute over Tomlinson's leadership split families and communities. COGOP, which has an estimated 250,000 members in the United States today, maintained for years that it was the true church--suggesting that those who belonged to the rival Church of God were not converted Christians.
The Church of God abandoned Tomlinson's exclusivity doctrine in the 1940s, and COGOP rejected it after 1990 when Tomlinson's son, Milton, retired from the position of general overseer. Perry Gillum, 66, one of COGOP's general presbyters, said his denomination today embraces all Christian churches and promotes cooperation.
"We have been enlightened," Gillum said. "The body of Christ is not one particular isolated group."
But it was the decision to abandon the exclusivity doctrine, and the 1990 appointment of a new leader, Billy Murray, that prompted Pruitt to leave COGOP to form his own sect. He views himself as the rightful heir of A.J. Tomlinson's legacy, and he says he will continue to promote the belief that no one can be assured of salvation unless they belong to his organization.
Pruitt claims to have 400 churches in 26 countries, including two in Cleveland. They are located just a few miles from the Church of God's and COGOP's headquarters.
Pruitt's actions, which seem to be repeating an old pattern of hostility, have embarrassed members of COGOP who want to forget their divisive past. Some leaders, such as Gillum, say the only way to break the cycle is to promote reconciliation with the Church of God.
An initial attempt to heal the breach between the Church of God and COGOP was made in 1995, but insiders in both groups say there is still much healing that must take place before this ugly conflict gets a decent burial. Observers say Pruitt's odd campaign just might force the two churches to face the wrongs that separated them.