March 13, 2005
Cult Experience: The Worldwide Church of God
Part 1: Why Did I Get Involved?
Doctrinal Pull - The Three HellsWords -> Mind -> Ideas and Beliefs -> Effects in Real Life
This Saturday, March 12, 2005, a Wisconsin man murdered seven members of a congregation of the Living Church of God, wounded four, and killed himself. This occurred while members were attending regular Sabbath services. According to the news he was a member himself or affiliated with the Church in some way. The Living Church of God is an offshoot of the Worldwide Church of God, founded by Herbert W. Armstrong. You can read the story here and here.
I don't have anything to say about what was going on in this man's mind, except for the news accounts of depression. The man is responsible for what he did and deserves condemnation for his actions - just like regular run-of-the-mill killers. And also, I don't have any knowledge of what the ministry was like in his area or what went on in his particular circumstances and in those of his family and fellow church members. I don't assume anything about that situation or the people involved in his life. Except I know one thing.
The following is a fact based on personal experience and knowledge: Some of the doctrines and practices of the old Worldwide Church of God (pre-1990's pre-reforms) and its offshoots are destructive to many people's emotional and general well-being. A Church should be a place that creates an uplifting positive environment where people can build their lives. If the leadership or structure of the Church is not helping you to build your life morally and direct it in a positive way, you should recognize it for what it is, stand up to it and leave it.
I say "should" but none of those things are easy to do because of the nature of the situation. So the point of writing about this whole subject is so that maybe some people can avoid making these kinds of mistakes in their lives or correct them sooner. To that end, I'm going to continue to explain the appeal of Armstrongism and describe what was wrong with it. But I'm writing as an agnostic, or a deist, as one who does not recommend to people that they hold beliefs that they can not verify or have some good reason for holding. I don't know everything, so the civilized approach to religion is to recognize that others have reasons for their beliefs and maybe they are good reasons. That's up to them to think about all those complicated belief systems. Of course it is. Everyone has to do their own thinking.
I am trying to limit myself to criticism of specific beliefs and practices that I feel are harmful based on my experience, reasoning, and my belief in rational standards of human conduct. I'm not making any recommendations about other belief systems - only my own. I'm not going to recommend to Armstrong followers that they become Protestants or Catholics or even Agnostics. I'm just saying there is good and bad, and maybe we can find some common ground about what is good and bad so that people can make better judgments and recover their lives.
Because religious institutions and the people who lead them - and their ideas - deserve appropriate blame for their bad effects or inconsistencies, the leaders of these groups should be persuaded to accept responsibility for their mistakes. People who feel free to criticize, who are now free from the lock on their mind, should be speaking out and criticizing the harmful practices that are still going on in one group or another. There are literary critics, for example, and movie critics, but there should also be more religious critics. People should be peaceful but they should not be passive about religion. And when Church leaders feel they have wronged someone by spreading beliefs that they now believe to be false or by following practices they now believe to be oppressive - if they feel that guilt - then they should confess to those who were affected. How will they do that unless they speak publicly and openly so that all the current and former members of the WCG denominations might be able to hear?
Government should not be involved in peoples' beliefs unless a person's life or property have been violated by force or fraud. No doubt there are clear cases of fraud involving religious institutions where money is donated and used for a purpose other than what was stated, and I wish people the best of luck in pursuing similar abuses legally. But generally we, as donors, gave money to the Church for the open-ended general purpose of proclaiming the Gospel, so they could spend it as they pleased towards that end, which included everything from salaries to media.
It would be extremely dangerous to our remaining freedoms for the State (usually a powerful and often war-making cult itself) to impose its decisions and make judgements about the minds and intentions of a religion's adherents and evangelists. We buy into religion with money, time and devotion and accept what we are told because we believe it. To us, it's true or as true as we can make ourselves think it's true. The preacher makes promises that God will protect us from the Tribulation and save us from the Lake of Fire. Then over time, sooner or later, some of us learn something that makes us disillusioned and wiser.
But how can we prove that many of these promises are false? That's not proveable, but we strongly suspect they are false. We believed them anyway even though many others never believed them, and many people will continue to believe them their whole lives. But they'll only find out they're false when they're dead - or never! Personally we might come to conclusions about the insincerity of a preacher over time, but how can we prove to someone else that the preacher didn't believe the scriptural promises himself? We don't read minds. These promises about salvation and prophetic scenarios are in the minds of men - spiritual rather than material - but probably in my opinion not even the slightest bit real.
Freedom of religion and conscience should not be violated by allowing the government to judge beliefs. People are responsible for their choices and who and what they believe, so they need to learn all they can to protect themselves, and listen to advice from their friends and family. A worse evil should not be made of purely religious issues by involving the government, which is for criminal matters like this shooting. In the Soviet Union, the government sent many believers to psychiatric hospitals. So when I talk about accountability, I'm referring to being accountable socially, to the consumers of religion so to speak, to the members of the Church. Churches should take their lumps in public criticism and in the spiritual Free Market. Ministers should save their honor and reduce the damage done by their mistakes by owning up to their mistakes. To hear open criticism of harmful practices might help some of those members of splinter churches who still have to live with Armstrongite practices.
When I am talking about bad experiences in the Worldwide Church of God, I am not talking about something directly physical generally speaking - like being chained in a cell or being drugged or being shot. (Obviously those things do happen in some very special cases as in this week's news.) Instead, I am talking about the results of what goes on in our minds. I'm talking about ideas and the effects of those ideas on our lives. And these effects are real. They are physical, financial, emotional, mental and spiritual: how we treat our children, how we treat ourselves, how poor we are because of tithing, whether we get medical treatment because of doctrine, whether we get married or divorced because of ministerial interference, or how much we hate our own selves and what that self-hatred leads to.
Remember that religion is part of the world of ideas, and ideas are not physical things that you can see, hear, touch, taste or smell. An idea is not a whip or a club. Sure, you can see the words on paper, or hear the words coming from the preacher on TV. But the words have to be interpreted in a certain way by our minds, and different people react in different ways to the same words. Some scoff and some believe partially and some believe to the full extent of their ability. Those who believe the words see the power of God behind them while others see them as just fairy tales.
Some ideas - religious or not - have good effects, and some bad. But the minister didn't beat me with his fists, did he? Not in my church. He used words. The Plain Truth magazine, the Good News magazine, the World Tomorrow program, the Worldwide News, the local ministry they issue words. They become commands in the minds of some listeners. Someone says Do this! and you do it. Someone says Don't do this! and you don't do it. Why? Because you believe the whole picture being presented - you hear GOD speaking rather than the minister - whereas someone else will not take it seriously at all.
Ideas or beliefs are very real in that they can greatly affect your life. You don't think of them as harmful and you know that many of them are beneficial. They can constrict your horizons, or widen them, they can heal you, help you, build you up, or they can make you sick, weaken you or destroy you.
OK. Enough of that. So let's discuss at more length what was so appealing to me about Armstrong's doctrines about resurrection, soul and immortality.
Armstrong taught that there were three "hells" in the Bible, or several words translated "hell" in the traditional King James English Bible...
To be continued here