Describing a Cult – The Worldwide Church of God Experience
I should explain first that the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) reformed its doctrines and practices before the mid-1990s. The reforms were so extensive that now the institution is hardly recognizable. This is not to say that all the members changed their beliefs, since many left the Church and even some remaining members retain their original beliefs. (1)
Personally, I don’t see the current WCG (2) as a “cult” any longer. That’s only because I want to reserve the term “cult” for the more potent and corrosive belief system that some call “Armstrongism”, which originated with the WCG and continues to be spread by breakaway groups. (1)
Also, rather than just throwing around the ambiguous term “cult” (3), it is more meaningful to describe the practices, beliefs and experiences of a “cultic” system. In other words, I want to explain exactly why I think Armstrongism is corrosive, and that’s the only sense in which I use the word “cult” – not merely to describe beliefs with which I disagree.
Other people in other cults or in the WCG have certainly had much worse experiences than mine, and I’m sure other people in the WCG have had much better experiences. Nevertheless, my goal is to explain the general idea of “cult” to readers, including those who might recognize parts of what I am describing, and possibly save themselves or others some grief.
Some may deny that there was anything wrong with the WCG. You have to bear in mind that a cult member has to maintain a mental picture of the world that does not allow for the possibility that his beliefs are ruining his life and the lives of other believers. Also, most outsiders have only seen the public relations side of the Church and would not be aware of many of our old beliefs, and the extent to which the Church controlled our lives.
We were asked to “prove” all things that we believed, but in my experience, after many years of “proving”, I just made a commitment to believe and obey. However, part of my mind never stopped searching for final “proof” that the WCG’s teachings were valid. And once I was in the Church, I couldn’t just leave the Church or abandon my beliefs, because then God would condemn me to eternal death in the Lake of Fire, according to my beliefs. We believed that we had invested our emotions, time and money in the “Truth”, and that we had the advantages of being God’s chosen people – his elect. In fact, I’m not sure I ever considered the idea of leaving the Church until the Church started teaching that real Christians could exist outside the WCG.
Whenever I had inner conflicts about why I was unhappy living “God’s way”, or when I felt unsettled by something a minister said, I resolved these feelings by repenting of my “sins”, by blaming myself, by doing some more “proving” of my beliefs, or by toughing it out. By “toughing it out”, I mean that sometimes when the spiritual environment was so mysteriously hostile to my identity, I was able to trigger some kind of inner survival mechanism that allowed me to keep my head up and believe in myself. I believe this was perhaps some kind of natural unconscious self-esteem or forbidden pride (4), and my mind probably allowed it because of the other ideas in my head about universal values that came from non-WCG sources – values such as individualism.
The Church had all sorts of mostly legalistic superficial teachings (5), and I doubt that most of these teachings built a strong sense of self or character, or provided any worthwhile level of self-control (6).
I believe some parts of the Bible were helpful to me, and many fellow Church members were good supportive people, and sometimes even the odd minister was encouraging. But on the whole it seems unbelievably ironic how little attention was paid – within a religious system – to understanding ethics and values. However, it is not so ironic, once you understand that the system was not intended to encourage people to think for themselves, or to strengthen them spiritually, morally, physically or financially. All the believers looked to one tyrant – and his flawed teachings and character (7) permeated the system.
To give you a picture of what I mean, one minister complained – a minister’s job was to criticize Church members – that many in the Church did not know the Ten Commandments. I don’t think the Ten Commandments is a complete description of right and wrong, but his statement was shocking considering that Armstrong went on endlessly about the “Ten Commandments” and the “Law of God”, and defined sin repeatedly as disobeying the Law.
What is the explanation for this alleged ignorance? I believe the Church ministry and literature tried to encourage moral values but in a heavy-handed way, using fear of excommunication (“disfellowship”). Sometimes they may have reviewed the Ten Commandments, but the focus was on many other things that diluted any message about personal responsibility. In any case, how could personal responsibility exist if you were expected to bring your major life decisions to the minister, and follow his “counsel” as if you had a choice – this man who has the power to kick you into hell on a whim?
Between all that fear and intrusion, how much attention is going to be paid to developing wisdom or understanding right from wrong?
And mostly they were interested in obedience to “God’s government”, in maintaining control by kicking out “rebellious” people – for who knows what illegitimate reasons. Their focus was on impressing you with their “authority”, and in how many people they could bully into submission. Threat, Fear and Force – the doctrine’s threat, your fear and God’s force. Unfortunately, we associated this display of “power” with goodness. People admire power, and they mindlessly confuse “might” with “right”. “Might” isn’t “right” if it is unjust.
The Church defined righteousness by ritual acts such as not working on the Sabbath, or by paying tithes to the Church, or by attending the Church’s festivals. Ministerial sermons and the endless quantity of Church literature occupied the minds of Church members with a thousand other concerns:
- Sermon complaints about the way members dress.
- Preparation for the Feast of Tabernacles.
- Removing leaven from our homes for the Days of Unleavened Bread.
- Worrying about what activities we shouldn’t do on the Sabbath.
- Paying tithes, holy day offerings and reacting to constant demands for donations.
- Repenting of our “attitudes”.
- Worrying about world news and prophecy; anticipating the end of the world.
- Etc. …
In a rational moral system, the teachers would discuss more about why it is wrong to steal, for example, or what good a person is able to do in this life, or about how they are able to be in control of their own life. A rational system would seek to empower people to think for themselves so they can stand up to evil and corruption. In a rational system, people would not be condemned as sinners just because of the human nature they were born with. They would not be left to condemn themselves for breaking a thousand senseless, arbitrary rules, or for failing to measure up to petty standards of perfection.
I believe self-esteem is based on recognizing values, but the WCG system was not in the business of either values or self-esteem. Its ministerial tyranny, endless prophetic warnings and browbeating, head-spinning capricious pronouncements were meant to leave people helpless and unable to make decisions for themselves. Thus they were more easily controlled.
Because there is denial about this, that is why I am going to go ahead and explain this subject piece by piece in order to describe what exactly is so destructive about such a religion. And I am certainly not claiming it is a unique experience. Rather, I’m making a very broad point about the value of being in control of your own life and mind. I believe right actions and a positive life, contrary to what some might assume, are more likely to come from a free mind.
I’m not too interested in writing much personal detail if I can help it. I want to focus on the subject – which is describing what a cult is, what a cult does, and how a cult member thinks. Also, the subject of the Bible and Christianity is inseparable from the subject of cultism, Armstrong and the WCG.
It’s a little uncomfortable to write about this subject because less and less do I want to think of myself as a victim, or to focus on past mistakes. But I think that is part of the truth, and the truth may be helpful to others. Some might say, “Get on with your life”. That’s fine for them, but someone in a cult may not be getting on with much of a life. First, you have to know that you are allowed to be in charge of your own life first. Then you can “get on with it”.
Anyway, the experience did me some good, because it taught me a lesson I might not have learned otherwise. I think it is helpful to look at this subject as an issue about survival, in the same way that people learn wilderness survival or safety tips about boating, driving, or how to avoid food poisoning. You want to “street-proof” yourself against certain spiritual organizations. You want to keep your life and mind free of unhealthy and dangerous influences. It really is your life that is at stake. A cult member can become weakened, swept away in self-loathing and suicidal urges, having given up everything, and gained nothing.
Notes and Further Reading
1. See article at Ambassador Watch, Issue XXI – September 13, 2002, about WCG members trying to hold on to their old beliefs: http://homepages.ihug.co.nz/~gavinru/watch21.htm
Issue XXII has another story like this.
Home Page: http://www.missingdimension.com is an informative site with a lot of information and recent news on the WCG and its splinter groups.
2. Worldwide Church of God Home Page is http://www.wcg.org/ Evangelical Protestantism now. No more Armstrongism.
3. Recommended reading:
Home Page for AFF’s Cult Information Service Information about Cults and Psychological Manipulation: http://www.csj.org/
4. The following Bible verse condemns us for being human because everything described here could be interpreted as essential human traits that our Creator gave us to allow us to survive and feel good about our lives:
1 John 2:16 “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.” KJV
When would anyone ever measure up to that “standard”? Only when dead. No one.
5. The W.C.G. Talmud: http://www.herbertwarmstrong.com/ar/Talmud.html
at Ambassador Report Archive
This astonishing list of rules should give you an idea of what the WCG was like and help you understand what was wrong with it. (Abortion is a more serious issue so I don’t agree with it being listed here.)
6. BibleGateway.com: Colossians 2:22-23
7. Please read Marc A. Mojica’s Amazon.com review of this Herbert W. Armstrong biography. His review gives a good short summary of the major concerns about Armstrong.