Wednesday 4 January 2012

A dark and deceitful reformation

(The link in this blog post has been corrected. It originally directed to one of Gary's own excellent posts, and not Dennis'.)

When a sect goes belly up, people are affected. The toll on lives can be incredible, particularly if the group has been "high demand." The tragedy of the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) illustrates it well; a sect that self-mutilated itself in the process of what was euphemistically called 'reform'. Reform it was not, it was convulsive deconstruction fuelled by a small cadre of remarkably inept senior ministers from above, and from the get-go it expressed itself in a blinding contempt of those lower in the pecking order, the grass roots membership. To the everlasting shame of the broader Christian community, the 'reform' process was greeted with accolades and applause. They only saw what they wanted to see.

The irony is that there were many who had long advocated genuine reform, real reform, reform from below. That kind of reform is not arbitrarily imposed, it is negotiated. That kind of reform empowers, not disempowers, and it moves the centre of gravity away from those who sit high on the hierarchical hog, downwards toward the people who actually make up the church. That kind of reform finds  - must find - its mandate among the people who sit in the pews.

Those who advocated that kind of reformation quickly found out that they were unwelcome. As the new leadership dug in, anyone not following the party line ('shut up and do what you're told') was labelled a troublemaker.

I thought I was 'over' all this, but then I read Dennis Diehl's latest contribution on Gary's blog. I wish those moronic evangelical enablers who clapped and hooted at the news that the WCG had been 'won over' would read it. I wish somebody would wave a printout under el presidente Joe Tkach's nose. Tkach, the unelected, unmandated 'president for life' of the downsized rump sect that inherited (and squandered) the assets. Joe who justifies his North Korean-style grip on power by the laughable expedient of calling it episcopal.

The crazy thing is that this whole thing was hardly rocket science. Anyone who has read Dr. Seuss' Yertle the Turtle could have done better. That Joe's throne now sits on top of a much, much smaller pile of turtles than his predecessors is beside the point.

Oh well, it's history, though tens of thousands of people still live with the effects. Just ask Dennis.


  1. It's really tough to be sympathetic since the whole WCG community was forged by an iron handed egotistical false prophet in the first place and everything -- including the perceived friendships -- were fabricated. It's like trying to reform the USSR at the grass roots level under Stalin and then expect the transformation afterward to be more benign as the entire superstructure is deformed by the follow on leadership.

    People mourn the loss of something they never had. It was all lies and delusions anyway, with "friendships" forged in ersatz foundations of sand created from distorted perceptions. It wasn't the truth. The people were artificially put together and it was pretty much a mismatch.

    The truth is that most of the people in the WCG had nothing really in common. They thought they believed the same thing, but the truth is that people sat next to one another for decades in Sabbath Services weekly and had not one clue to what their "friends" really believed until the doctrines were turned upside down by the sociopathic winners in the power struggle who planned very well to make it all come out the way it did.

    The entire venue was dysfunctional from the get-go. No amount of tinkering with the accessories to make the surface image more palatable would make any real difference. The basis is always the same in the cult leadership:

    They lie to you and then they take your money.

    It is an unescapable tragedy and any belief that there was much in the way of real friendships is delusional.

    The real way to recover from this nonsense is to pursue the principles in Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships by Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias.

    Of course you could self medicate by putting up your own blogs and wallowing in the past, like The Supreme Cult Blog. That works too if you have a bent to be nasty and vicious with leanings toward malicious but hilarious parody and irony and have decided that Bobby Thiel and Roddy Meredith must go.

  2. Well, that would be, in a nutshell, why I could never return to any part of Armstrongism, be it old, new, restored, or reformed. Once they admitted to a new doctrinal package, and acknowledged the well-known error of the old, there were teachers far more skilled and experienced in the new, and who were capable of teaching it with greater love (translated: without the contamination of Armstrongist authoritarianism).

    My own beliefs are dynamic, as opposed to being static. This is due to constant study, which makes the process deeply personal. While I do believe that Baptists and Evangelicals are often sincere, converted, and do have much truth which we looked down upon in the past as Armstrongites, I am not about to sign any covenant membership agreement (which is what many do require) with any corporate church group. Also, no one group receives 100% of my offerings.

    One of the problems inherent in church membership is that people tend to equate their church with God. This often opens the door to exploitation. I'm sure that in some cases, accountability partners can be a good thing, but all too often plain old human snoopiness becomes the rule of the day.

    A personal relationship with God is just that. I like that groups can finance and spread the gospel, but only to the extent that those groups encourage God-given independence, and the proper usage of one's mind. That's often a difficult line to walk and embrace.


  3. When it comes to religion, people have at least two choices.

    They can take the broad path of "revealed" knowledge based on faith or the narrow path of actual knowledge based on evidence.

    "Evidence of things not seen" means exactly what it sounds like, no evidence. In spite of what Jesus said, that is the broad path and most people take that path.

    That the broad path does lead to destruction is witnessed by history. But, Jesus had it backward when he said the narrow path is the path of faith that leads to life.

    By far, the path of faith is the broad path that the majority follow. I would urge anyone to take the narrow path that leads to knowledge, real knowledge and "evidence of things that can be seen and examined".

    That way, no one will ever be fooled by the religious hucksters that plague our world. Bloodsuckers and parasites are all they are and all they have ever been.

  4. I have to disagree with Douglas. The friends i am speaking of are not friends that I had to filter through the church or organization first. We had many other things in common and if anything talked openly about things that we could see were not working or even have a laugh at the administration over certain issues.

    I guess I can only speak for myself. There was nothing fake or fabricated any more than my friends in Hight School or an astronomy club were fabricated.

    I really enjoyed my friends no matter how I met them and could easily filter out the kiss ups due to church/minister issues.

    I had many things in common with the friends I trusted to let in from church that had nothing to do with church

  5. As a former member of the WCG, and one who not only agreed with the doctrinal changes but anticipated them by several years, I have a somewhat different perspective from the typical member who was simply rolled over.

    There were others like me who saw that Armstrongism was rife with flaws and were excited to see the church leadership recognizing them and repudiating them.

    I agree that the transition was poorly handled. At the same time, there were a number of factors that made a "smooth" or "democratic" transition almost impossible.

    First, Armstrong's theology was so interconnected and circular, that once you rejected one argument, you called into question ten other teachings. How does one go about conducting an orderly revision of doctrine in such a case?

    Second, most of the people in the church were were used to being told what to do and believe. As condescending as that sounds, it was a reality that the WCG leaders grappled with. They well knew that many thousands of people looked to their local pastor to tell them what to believe. If the pastor disagreed with the doctrinal changes, most people in those congregations were going to close their minds to any new teaching and never have an opportunity to objectively weigh the arguments. (Remember, this whole business occurred before the Internet became a widely available resource for information.)

    Third, I suspect that the church ministry was, on the whole, a catty fraternity filled with personal jealousies, resentments, envy, and infighting. Many of these guys were peers who had been butting heads for years. When push came to shove, the side in power shoved hard. Childish? Yes, but probably inevitable.

    All that said, looking back now, if I could have prescribed the manner of the reformation of the WCG, I probably would have set aside a lot of the frontal attacks on doctrine--maddening as it would have been to continue allowing acknowledged error to be preached and published in the congregations--and focused instead on introducing more and better doctrine about Jesus. If people could have been led to a fuller conception of Jesus (instead of as a mere "newscaster of future events"), then the leap to the understanding that He is sufficient for salvation would have enabled more people to let go of the doctrinal bagatelles they cherished with less tragedy.

  6. Dr. Knotwise, I could not have said it better. Too many people, especially like those who post here regularly, are overly concerned with process....

    Change is ALWAYS messy.

  7. "Too many people... are overly concerned with process." "There were a number of factors that made a "smooth" or "democratic" transition almost impossible."

    Yup, doubtless this kind of statement brought great comfort to the apologists for Nazi Germany and apartheid in South Africa, or the slave owners of the American South. "You just don't understand our circumstances..."


    "Change is ALWAYS messy." No argument here, but it's no excuse for not doing the right thing.

  8. Reformation of the WCG was a totally unnecessary exercise in futility. It was a building with no foundations to start with - just like it still is.

    The honest thing for the cult's leadership to have done would have been to confess that the WCG was all a fraud and just close the doors and go home.

    The reason they didn't do that is because of their phoney baloney jobs of being teachers and apostles. They are neither - they are religious con men raking in big bucks without having to work for a living.

    It was the same for the proto-Catholic cult leaders - once they saw that Jesus was not, in fact, returning as they had thought - they turned to making up excuses to keep their cushy, phoney baloney jobs as bishops and what have you.

    If they had been honest, they would have confessed that they had been wrong and closed up shop and went out and secured real jobs.

    Think of how much better off the world would have been had those men been honest.

  9. Still, the "new" doctrines placed the leadership of WCG at the beginning of a huge learning curve!
    Normally, in business, when such a thing occurs, wise counsellors defer to more learned experts. The church should have been disbanded, the resources divied up and returned as fairly as possible to those with a history of tithing or offering, and referrals issued to local churches or teachers with more expertise.

    My last date attending any Armstrong related church services was sometime in 1975 or 76. I'd committed months in advance to pulling security detail for that sabbath, and kept the commitment even though I had technically left the church by that time and had not been attending. I have no interest in attending any group's services if they have any history with Armstrongism, or for the most part, in reading any of their literature or publications. There is one resource which I did find to be of some value, and that involves the lit which exposes the error behind the old doctrines, and explains the basis for the changes. Writers and scholars from outside the movement have attempted to do this, but truly it is a task in which only a former insider could really be proficient.


  10. BB's suggestion for former member's of the "now defunct" WCG et al:

    "referrals issued to local churches or teachers with more expertise."

    Sorry. This really doesn't work for one basic reason. When former members of the "Armstrong churches" visit or join "mainstream" churches, they soon discover that they know much more about Jesus, Christianity, the Bible, and religion in general, than their "teachers with more expertise".

    This, of course, includes the answers to the all-important question: "WHY?", which all other religions, including most other Christian denominations, cannot discern.

  11. They lied to us and then they took our money.

    Some may not have known they lied to us, but still took our money.

    Yes, there was power and ego involved: A lot of it.

    But in the end, the WCG then and GCI now would not have existed if it weren't for all that money -- money which provided all the nice things Herbert Armstrong lusted after in his manic mode and acted as self-medication when he spent it during his bouts with depression.

    It was all about Herbert Armstrong.

    And you can't really take him out of Armstrongism, nor can you reform the corrupted Church Corporate even after he is gone (like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, as Gavin might say).

    If you could have taken Herbert Armstrong entirely out of the WCG, do you know what you would have?

    CoG7, Denver.

  12. I tried to read Diehl's article. I just cannot spin up the energy for anything lengthy on Armstrongism. I'm down to sound bytes. I did read some of the comments.

    Like the People's Temple, the WCG was permeated by the personality of one man. But I think that man will always be a mystery. His destructive effect is incontrovertible. But did he believe all that stuff he came up with? Was he a cynical money grabber? Did he actually think he was an apostle who had been trained like the Apostle Paul? I am not sure we will every figure out Jim Jones either.

    I don't think we can ever get documentary evidence that will directly reflect his private thinking. And one would expect this with a great deception.

    -- Neo

  13. Larry,

    It is possible to find a church where the pastor and elders do indeed know more about the Bible than your typical former WCG member. I know, because I have been fortunate enough to find such a church.

    Admittedly, we are dealing in terms of percentile here, though. Walking up the street to your little local neighborhood church may be relatively easy and painless, but, just as looking for a good school, you're going to want to do your due diligence about this, and it can be a much more involved process.

    There are actors, fakers, and neophytes all over the air waves, and a Biblically literate person will undoubtedly become discouraged when barraged by the sheer numbers of these. But there are also some genuine scholars and intellectuals who can help us reach the next level.

    One of the embedded time bombs the Armstrong movement left us with was the idea that nobody outside of the WCG really studied their Bibles. I've found that to be patently untrue. Granted, most of the mainstream Christian churches are not enmeshed in Adventist eschatology, but as most of us have come to realize, that is highly speculative at best, starting with the idea that the branch and leaves of the Olivet discourse symbolize the rebirth of Israel as the catalyst to endtime events.


  14. "One of the embedded time bombs the Armstrong movement left us with was the idea that nobody outside of the WCG really studied their Bibles. I've found that to be patently untrue."

    Wow! I don't know where you have been hanging out, but I have never met a non-minister outside the Church of God who has EVER read the Bible from beginning to end. Furthermore, I don't know anyone under the age of 35 who can recite the books of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.

  15. Larry, sounds like you've been visiting the wrong folks. Depending on your interest you can find folks who've read the Bible from beginning to end on both ends of the spectrum.

    From people like my little grey haired Baptist grandma to some of my friends in the Episcopal church. As for under 35s who can recite the books of the Bible, I have some nephews and nieces who can. But then they are Roman Catholic and don't have the same number of books in their Bible;)

  16. Yes, Larry has not been getting out much, has he?

    About twenty years ago, one of my non-ACOG Christian friends made me aware of programmed Bible reading. He was following an outline provided by a mainstream Christian organization, which if followed, would ensure that the reader had read the entire Bible, cover to cover, in one year's time.

    Several years ago, when I began taking Dr. Charles Stanley's "In Touch" magazine, I noticed that at the bottom of each page in the devotional section were listed specific Bible chapters for daily reading. It was the same kind of program, and apparently, many Christians do follow it.

    Last, but not least, the non-denominational, evangelical church which I've been attending for the past three years, at the beginning of 2011, initiated the same type of program. My interest was finally piqued to the point where I said, "OK, I'm on board with this!" Because I used my study Bible for this, I got behind, due to reading all of the footnotes. Therefore, my own reading is still ongoing. It's January, and I've just begun Acts.

    This has been a great help to me in correcting some long held errors. It's been very educational to be reading everything in context rather than from a list of machine-gunned proof texts.

    But, it goes deeper. The pastor of our church is a graduate of Manhattan Bible College, has ties to this institution, and occasionally we get to hear messages from the learned visiting professors. We've been admonished to study the Bible on our own, as the real meal, and that the sermons, while good, are actually like a prepared meal, or Stouffers' TV dinner. We've been made aware of serious Bible sites, where one can compare the most popular translations, while also comparing to the original, literal, Hebrew and Greek.

    I hate to keep driving this point home, and I hope some people eventually catch on, but we were really lied to BIGTIME about the activities which take place in mainstream Christianity.

    Also, widespread Christian Bible Study in the mainstream didn't just start happening to coincide with Joe Jr's discoveries. Azusa Pacific University has been around for decades! I knew some graduates back in the mid 1980s, and was extremely impressed by their overall Bible knowledge, as well as their ability to support their beliefs with scripture. Ditto the members of the Calvary churches which take over abandoned strip malls! Calvary has been known for years for teaching its members to indulge in deep personal Bible Study.

    I've encountered quite a number of sincere Christians who "walk the talk" throughout my adult life. Problem is, I'm afraid I was somewhat dismissive of them back then, and really wish we could cross paths again, so that I could communicate with them not as an atheist as before, but as a Christian brother!