In late 1979, along with a significant number of other people, I left the Worldwide Church of God. I’d been in its employ for some 15 years, 13 of them as an ordained minister. I’d served in the ministry in Alberta, Canada, and pastored or co-pastored churches in Oklahoma and California. In addition, I’d been managing editor of the three major publications of the WCG: Tomorrow’s World, The Good News and The Plain Truth.I’d served as manager of the Editorial Services Department, secretary of the Doctrinal Committee, Instructor of Theological Journalism at Ambassador College and as a Board member of the college.
Because of my jobs, I’d had the opportunity to travel several times to the United Kingdom, to Europe, and to the Middle East, and to various parts of the United States. It was a great ride while it lasted. I learned a lot, and I believe I gained more than I lost from the experience. I’m not sorry I had it. I hope I helped more people than I damaged, but I’ll be the first to admit that I taught a lot of theological drivel during those years. At the time, I didn’t know it was drivel.
In effect, the job of a minister in the old WCG was to teach the doctrines of Herbert W. Armstrong, and to encourage the “sheep” to support him and his son, Garner Ted Armstrong. As ministers, we were qualified only to do just that and not much more. We knew nothing beyond the average person about personal finances, economics, human sexuality, academic theology, scholarship, marriage counseling, matchmaking or health and diet. Yet we were frequently called upon to pontificate on all of these topics. Granted, some of us had a little experience or horse sense upon which we could draw, but for the most part we were largely unqualified to hold forth on most of the above mentioned subjects. There was nothing in our Ambassador College training that qualified us to do so.
I realize that some “old school” types will take exception to my words above. Can’t help it; that’s how I feel. We were propagandists for Herbert W. Armstrong, and not a whole lot more.
In the 28 years since leaving the old WCG, I’ve passed through many stages of personal development. I’ve learned a lot of things, and I’ve jettisoned a lot of learnings. I no longer believe the “Armstrongian doctrinal package” was compatible with New Covenant teaching. Put another way, the original apostles would not recognize Mr. Armstrong’s doctrine as their own.
For a time, I passed through humanist, atheist and agnostic stages. I even saw myself as an Alan Alda-type feminist for a while. Fortunately, that nonsense lasted only a few years, but at least it gave me an insider’s understanding of those things. (I wrote about all this stuff in my book Because There Was No Shepherd which is still available through the ACD website: www.godward.org.)
In the early 80’s, I got back to serious Bible study. I sought God’s leading throughout. I didn’t want to repeat the errors of the past. I wanted to see Scripture with fresh eyes. In retrospect, I believe God opened my eyes to two areas of study that have yielded much fruit: the Holy Spirit and the Hebrew Roots of the Bible and the Church. For more than 20 years, my wife and I have studied these two subjects quite intensely. In fact it was my wife who got me into Hebrew Roots studies. She gave me a copy of a great little book by David Bivin and Dr. Roy Blizzard called Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus. It was an eye-opener. I began soaking up anything I could find in this field of study. I now have accumulated boxes of cassette study tapes, and a small library of books on the subject.
In studying the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church, we attended many seminars and listened to many more tapes. In 1974, Richard Plache, a fellow minister in the WCG, had given me a book called Nine O’Clock in the Morning by Dennis and Rita Bennett. I read a few pages and rejected it on grounds that it recommended infant baptism. Later, in the early 80’s I purchased another copy of the same book. I still rejected the idea of infant baptism, but I read further and found some great information on how the Holy Spirit can and does work in the Church today.
Studies in both these areas have been ongoing for both my wife and me.
After we’d had a few years of fresh study under our belts, we began to seek God for how we should now serve the Body of Christ. We were led to, and through, various churches and from each of them we learned something we needed to know to round out our spiritual development. We took courses, attended seminars, and continued to study. At some point, I began to feel that I should be ministering to the “walking wounded of churches” – that is, to people who’d had similar experiences to my wife and me. The parable of the “ninety and nine” came to mind (Luke 15:1-7).
I began writing for the ACD web site, accepting speaking engagements to church services and festivals, writing for various Churches of God Pod publications, and trying to be helpful to anyone who came to me at the personal level. I wrote the book I mentioned above specifically to help such people. I paid for its publication myself. People like Ken Westby, John Stickel, Ken Ryland and a few others, including a group in Australia, helped me distribute it. I am deeply grateful for that help.
After a time, I realized, as have other ex-WCG ministers, that the conditioning of people in the WCG Pod is irreversibly deep. Armstrongian doctrine is almost an addiction with some. If nothing else, is a deeply entrenched habit, all but impossible to break. Furthermore, it profoundly affects how they view alternative ideas. A few examples:
The Holy Spirit
For those who are deeply conditioned by Armstrongian thinking, anything that smacks of “Pentecostalism” is anathema. To them, it is at best emotionalism, at worst demonism. Gifts and manifestations cannot be real – they are simply the products of the power of suggestion, mass hysteria, and overwrought emotions. I know people who are even disturbed by the Biblical practice of raising one’s hands when praying, or by those who occasionally shout out “Hallelujah!” Those who sing “special music” are sometimes required to stand like tin soldiers, show no emotion, and avoid gesticulation. It is as though they feel required to don an emotional straightjacket before entered in to services. Any display of passion or “emotionalism” is anathema.
In some cases, these negative assessments are right on the money. In others they are not. Many have thrown the baby out with the suds. As with most things religious, there is a genuine article, and there is a counterfeit. It may take some discernment to distinguish between the two. The Bible, not subjective opinion, is the place to start in learning to understand what’s really going on.
Point is, teaching about the Holy Spirit against the background of Armstrongian conditioning is an uphill battle.
One of the most shocking things I’ve have discovered in seeking to minister to the walking wounded of the Churches of God Pod is the deep-seated anti-Semitism, not to mention racism, that grips the minds of many. The nicest people can suddenly lift the corner of the lip and snarl when anything “Jewish” is given serious consideration.
The feeling seems to be that the Jews are a rejected people, Christ-killers, legalistic hypocrites, who, in the divine economy have been replaced by the one true Church that believes Armstrongian doctrine. They are accused by Evangelicals of “works righteousness” and by Armstrongites of hypocrisy. What good can come out of Judaism? Besides, aren’t “we” Israel too? Isn’t the US “Manasseh” and the UK “Ephraim” (or whatever the current theory is). Isn’t the Church “spiritual Israel”? When it comes to the subject of who is Israel, confusion reigns.
A few, to be sure, have gone off the deep end when it comes to Jewish roots studies. They have become virtual Jews. A few have joined “sacred names” groups who insist that there are only certain permissible ways to pronounce the names of God and Christ. Others wear pray shawls, lace their conversation with esoteric Hebrew words, and embrace all things Jewish as if Jews could do no wrong.
When one tries to serve up a balanced diet of Hebrew roots studies, one runs into rank prejudice, bigotry, misunderstanding, hostility, and sometimes virulent hatred! It’s quite remarkable. Point is, Hebrew roots studies, like teaching on the Holy Spirit, is an uphill battle. The conditioning of both the Pod Churches, and the neo-WCG, is to strongly oppose any new understanding of either the Holy Spirit or the Jewish roots of the Church.
At the same time, when I look at the hodgepodge of understanding that is reflected in the literature of the Churches of God, including The Journal, I am appalled that in all these years so many have not advanced far beyond standard Armstrongian doctrine – or Evangelical doctrine for that matter.
Dr. Roy Blizzard (www.biblicalresearchfoundation.org) has often said that the restoration of original apostolic doctrine is “never going to be accomplished on a denominational level.” I believe he’s right. Only a few individuals, animated and enlightened by the Holy Spirit, are going to “get it.” In any group, only a minority, if any, will come to understand that there is a deeper dimension of understanding than that of their experience. The prejudices and negative opinions are too deeply entrenched.
Life is too short, in my opinion, to be bogged down in the doctrinal mud. We only have one, very short, life. There is much to learn, much to understand. Solomon wrote:
“Get wisdom, get understanding: forget it not; neither decline from the words of my mouth. Forsake her not, and she shall preserve thee; love her, and she shall keep thee. Wisdom is the principle thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding” (Proverbs 4:5-7).
“Wisdom is the principle thing”! It is wisdom that will promote us, bring us to honor and provide an “ornament of grace” to crown our heads (verses 8&9). We must push beyond the mundane and open the floodgates of understanding. The treasure house of God’s wisdom is a cornucopia of understanding and knowledge. It is not something to be bolted shut and forbidden. We must give ourselves permission to learn that what we have known is not all there is to know. It’s not even the tiniest tip of the iceberg. There is so much more!
I no longer believe that I have a duty to minister to the walking wounded. Been there, done that, got the battle scars. It’s time to move on. The apostle Paul said it best when he wrote, “Not that I have already attained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind, and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize, for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14).
It’s up to each of us to press on, advancing in knowledge and comprehension where we can. I don’t claim to have any corner on the market of understanding. Most of what I have learned has come from those who are smarter, more learned, wiser and more spiritually advanced than I am. Almost none of what I have learned is original with me. Any reader of this article can have access to the same materials to which I have access.
What is necessary is the desire to advance in understanding. It’s a matter of giving oneself “permission” to break out of the mold, shift paradigms, and move into unfamiliar territory. It can be a great adventure. If we follow the Light, and continually move Godward, we will be rewarded in our quest for understanding. The light will grow ever brighter and understanding deeper.