Sunday, 6 January 2013

First Review of Barrett's Fragmentation of a Sect

What is probably the first review of David Barrett's new book, Fragmentation of a Sect, has appeared on the UCG website.  The preamble reads:
Michael Snyder notes that the book is a sweeping and generally balanced secular review of the history and behavioral record of the Worldwide Church of God and its related organizations, particularly the disastrous and ill-conceived WCG breakup. For many, reading the book will likely be a painful experience, as while the book is not an “expose,” it does chronicle shortcomings of WCG and other offshoot leaders. 
Michael Snyder offers a largely positive and honest response to the book, though not without the theologizing, apologetics, special pleading and sermonizing that is par for the course on an official church website.  The body of his review is reproduced below.
Centered on a secular analysis of what has to be one of the world's most spectacular failures in change management, sociologist and British journalist David Barrett chronicles in this new work how successors to Herbert W. Armstrong deliberately deployed a non-biblical logic of "the end justifies the means" to essentially reverse the theological course of the Worldwide Church of God (WCG).  As Barrett painfully drills deep, the reader sees that instead of bringing the majority of WCG members to a new understanding of Jesus Christ, the incomprehensible act shattered the lives of multiple thousands, leaving in its turbulent wake freshly minted angry skeptics and agnostics, now hostile to God. Perhaps worst of all, as Barrett eloquently outlines, the wholesale betrayal of trust set in motion predictable human patterns where former leaders and ministers skip from church group to church group, finally claiming the "authoritative mantle" of Herbert Armstrong (HWA) for themselves and setting up a "new" one-man rule over an all-new religious group or splinter (page 209).

The 283-page book (American edition) represents a greatly expanded version of Barrett’s first look at the WCG breakup, which first appeared as a 40-page case study by the same name in Barrett’s 2001 book The New Believers . This current WCG work is drawn on Barrett’s successful dissertation for a PhD in sociology from the London School of Economics (England).

Reviewing events ranging from the Philadelphia, Global and Restored groups to COGWA, Barrett draws on experts in human dynamics, presenting the secular analysis that 21st century church groups claiming to be the sole heir of HWA "compete for the same public, and frequently appeal to the same sources and authorities in legitimation of their position, thus engendering a competitive struggle to prove the purity of their doctrine and social practice" (Page 147).  Of the larger WCG offshoots, only the United Church of God (UCG) eschews the non-biblical "one-man rule," opting instead to adopt and deploy what Barrett calls a more "collegiate" form of senior government, relying on a collaborative "multitude of counselors" protective approach similar to what is found in the early chapters of the book of Acts. Instead of claiming theological authority from HWA, the United Church of God focuses on confirming that it is a continuation of what the Septuagint renders in Greek Ekklesia tou Theou, literally the spiritual Church of God that transcends any human corporate form of organization. In the United Church of God, Herbert Armstrong is remembered as a man highly respected and regarded as one whom God used in a powerful way, but his legacy of writings, sermons and broadcasts  (particularly as they changed and shifted over his 53-year ministry) are not viewed as divine scripture nor infallible (page 127). Like other human servants of God, Herbert Armstrong was a man, and therefore subject to everything that being a human means.

Barrett notes that unlike former books written about WCG with a decidedly pejorative focus, he strives for a balanced approach that includes numerous direct and indirect interviews with ministers and members (former and current) of virtually the entire spectrum of COGs. The result, however, is decidedly not pain-free for various COG groups. This work focuses on behavioral patterns as opposed to an evaluation of theology, and especially those patterns of behavior associated with the grasping of political power for the formation of new church groups, or in the case of WCG, the reversal of doctrine and organizational belief through raw authoritarian power (which WCG executives wryly refer to as “an ironic dynamic,” given their public condemnation of same). The book, which was more than three years in the researching and writing, includes more than 200 responses from a questionnaire openly circulated within the COG environment. In his analysis, which includes several direct responses from UCG members, Barrett demonstrates where one-man rule and a highly hierarchical form of Church government has resulted in numerous severe organizational issues in the old and new WCG and various offshoots, including outright abuse. The first half of this Oxford University-published book is largely dedicated to this analysis. It is decidedly not a pleasant read.

While striving to maintain a fair balance, Barnett often offers up his examination of the appearance of serious instances of "cognitive dissonance" -- simultaneous existence of conflicting beliefs or facts -- in many of the COGs and the old and new WCG.  He is particularly harsh in his comparative analysis of some old prophetic teachings of HWA, particularly as they are brought forward by HWA-reliant COGs and mistakes made yet again. The United Church of God is not spared in this, portrayed as slow and ponderous toward achieving its goals in its early years, and suffering its own schisms. But Barrett characterizes the measured UCG approach in realizing its organizational intentions as deliberate, noting that over the years “the Church was determined to get it right.” Given the cutoff date of the research, Barrett does not include more recent dynamic events such as the globe-spanning outreach efforts with the Beyond Today television program, and its recent digital growth online to compete directly for attention with nearly all major Christian Internet ministries, leaving the online performance of most other COGs far behind.

The book has already been reviewed by a number of prominent religious figures, including James Tabor, a liberal American theologian who once served on the Ambassador College faculty. The fact that Oxford University Press has published the book virtually guarantees that it will receive serious attention as an authoritative work on WCG, UCG and other WCG-related organizations.  However, Barrett recognizes that many American evangelical figures regarded the shattering of the Worldwide Church of God  as a politically positive event, noting: "It is a truism that history is written by the victors, and in the case of books about the changes in Worldwide (Tkach 1997, Feazell 2003, etc.) this is at least partially valid" (page 245). Perhaps the true “ironic dynamic” of this phenomenon appears as the catastrophic failure of post-HWA WCG leaders to achieve the religious goals for the majority of members, all of whom had contributed more than $1 billion in tithe contributions in the post-HWA years, but for most now had little to show for it.

What lessons can UCG ministers and members—indeed all those experienced in the COG phenomenon—possibly learn from Barrett's work, particularly given its largely unsavory recounting of many unfortunate and sometimes tragic events of the last 75 years? Perhaps the chief takeaway is this: speaking to His disciples Jesus said, "Therefore do not fear them. For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known" (Matthew 10:26).  Certainly this is true of the 21st century Internet, where virtually anything can be published, true or not. Perhaps echoing this instant impact of the Internet thousands of years in advance, Moses wrote in the Torah, "be sure your sin will find you out" (Numbers 32:23).

Perhaps the real value of Barrett's work can serve to remind all of us of the urgent need to be individually and humbly transformed spiritually, that we "prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God" (Romans 12:2), each of us following the true Leader of the Ekklesia tou Theou, Jesus Christ Himself (Colossians 1:15-20) as opposed to any single human leader.  In doing so, we can understand the critical role of the Church and its ministry in effectively demonstrating and truly bearing witness of God's way of life, as we are all individually accountable to God. As the apostle Peter wrote: "sanctify the Lord God in your hearts...having a good conscience, that when they defame you as evildoers, those who revile your good conduct may be ashamed. For it is better, if it is the will of God, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil" (I Peter 3:15, 16-17, emphasis added).

To sum up, as translated by the 2011 version of the New International Version, the apostle Paul declares to us that the divine gift of love " does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs" (I Corinthians 13:5, emphasis added).  Instead, love , the godly quality that Jesus Christ said would be the openly defining behavior of true Christians (John 13:35), "always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres" (verse 7). Unlike prophecies or knowledge, Paul declares that " love never fails " (verse 8).

In the light of Barrett's book, as the literal Ekklesia tou Theou moves forward -- ignoring any physical organizational boundaries -- perhaps each one of us, wherever we are and whatever we've done, can abandon the names and titles like "Abigail" or "pastor general," and truly heed the words of our Savior and soon-coming King: "love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you" and finally, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5: 44, 16).
May God speed that day. 
(View the UCG review page here).

I get the feeling that Michael Snyder is, to some extent, whistling bravely.  Beyond that, I'm not going to comment further at this stage, and won't until I've got my hands on a copy.   And then... well, stay tuned.


  1. For all the valid criticism and analysis Barrett may produce, how will he handle one overriding fact: The WCG/GCI organization moved from the theological fanatasy outer world to near the orthodox heartland? To most of us, this is the story, not the mnagement or mismanagement and organizational dynamics. And this is a zone that, of course, Michael Snyder is unable to step into.

    -- Neotherm

    1. You call membership in the NAE the "orthodox heartland"?

    2. I would define a broader scope for my statement. Take all of he generally recognized Protestant churches, roll in the Catholics and that to me is the orthodox heartland. GCI is witin this boundary. The UCG is not. I should of made a simpler statement: GCI became a Christian organization and the UCG remains outside the pale of Christianity. My guess is that this sea change should eclipse many other WCG related topics but I doubt that it gets much attention in Barrett's writing. And, of course, Snyder could not remotely acknowlege this view.

      -- Neo

  2. Snyder's profession is PR. He had to do this as a public relations task for UCG. He did the classic "acknowledge, bridge, message." Snyder says a lesson is "your sins will find you out." A more appropriate way to look at that is "you shall know them by their fruit." But he will not use that one, since it is still what they use to hammer other COGs -- believing they are not, in fact, some of the bad fruit off the bad HWA tree. Sad -- so sad.