Ron Dart. I haven't heard his voice in well over twenty years. If I dug through the archives I might still find an old audio tape from his Church of God International (CGI) days. Probably seized up and unplayable.
I've never recommended his CEM ministry, nor his Born To Win radio program. It's probably more than fair to pigeon-hole Ron as "fundamentalism-lite". If you haven't already realised it, I don't do fundamentalism-lite.
But, way back in the late 1970s and early 1980s he was a significant figure for some of us, helping open up our thinking and breaking the back of a one-true-church mentality. Given the fundamentalist mindset that many of us were still in thrall to, Ron was a force for change. Yes, I know he had his faults; Lord, don't we all!
At no stage in the years since I started writing about the Church of God movement have I ever regarded COG sects as anything other than wrong-headed when it comes to a wide range of beliefs and practices. Ron Dart was no different. Yet clearly they're not all equally toxic. Some are downright dangerous while others, by comparison, are relatively benign. Ron Dart's ministry, certainly after leaving the Worldwide Church of God, was of the latter type.
Think of it as scaffolding on a construction site - an analogy often used in education circles. We were scaffolded into a new mindset; nudged into reassessing the path by which we had come. Am I grateful for that? You better believe it.
Ron didn't preach authoritarian leadership or exclusivity. He didn't preach British Israelism - at least, I never heard him do so. He didn't preach triple tithing or make grandiose personal claims. In a lot of ways he was light years ahead of Ted.
Ron did stick with many of the 'distinctives' derived from Armstrongism. I don't have a problem with that, any more than with intelligent Latter Day Saints who still treasure the Book of Mormon, my Lutheran antecedents who took the doctrine of consubstantiation seriously ('ubiquity' to the confessional sticklers) or free-thinking Catholics who nevertheless display Marian artwork and crucifixes in their homes. No skin off my nose. I don't (to quote something Ron Dart once said) have a dog in those fights.
If I do feel a passion about Church of God issues - and I think I have a reasonable track record demonstrating that - it's primarily about abusive, manipulative, unaccountable leadership. Leadership that creates dependence, that scorns mandate, that nurtures mindless "trust me" compliance.
Ron Dart was not in that mold. When he left WCG he headed down a new trajectory, and that definitely included his time in CGI. I suspect Ron was a moderating influence on Ted Armstrong as Ted settled down (fatefully as it turned out) into his comfort zone in East Texas; a Cicero to Ted's Caesar. Maybe he should have walked away from Ted sooner. Then again, I know the wrestling match you have when confronting the need to tear yourself away from any significant commitment, something he'd already experienced in leaving WCG. I'm not about to judge him over that.
Yes, my assessment of Ron Dart's theology, all these decades later, is that it was half-baked. But most theology is - some would say all. I can only say that, when I learned of Ron's passing, I was saddened. Alongside people like Ernie Martin he had an overall positive influence "within the fold" during those crucial years, even if the effect was to create a revolving door out into the big wide world. I'm in debt to him.
That's definitely not something I'd say of Tkach, Meredith, Flurry, Pack, Kilough and the other "Yertle the Turtle" leaders. Believe me, when Meredith goes to meet his maker you won't find me writing any fond eulogies.
You don't have to agree with me. It's not a mathematical formula. It's a statement about personal lived experience. If you weren't "in the wilderness" in the late 70s and early 80s your experience will be different.
This much, though, is consistently true. For too many COG leaders the arrow points to reactionary beliefs, horrendous oversimplification, fudging the evidence, a flight from reason and encouraging their followers to abdicate responsibility. Ron Dart, at his best, pointed in another direction, even if he personally didn't move as far along that road as some would have liked. He had my respect.
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