I have pondered on a possible chicken and egg problem, and I thought it worthwhile to examine the issue as a thought piece to encourage future research (either by myself when I have more texts available or by others) about a question of considerable importance for those of us who neither wish to repudiate the Church of God culture as a whole nor blindly follow tradition. For those of us that recognize a dysfunctional culture in need of major changes and wish to examine how it came to be, I thought it would be useful to explore that question and at least provide potential lines of evidence and argument to pursue. Obviously, this work would make some feel rather uncomfortable, though, so you have been warned.
The question is: what came first, dysfunctional people or a dysfunctional culture and system within the Church of God? Or, to put this another way, were people screwed up by the systems of the Church of God or did they come this way, attracted by some weirdness within the existing culture. Obviously, this question defies simplistic answers, and requires examination on a case-by-case basis, far beyond the scope of a man in a remote location with a computer, such as is the case here. Nonetheless, given such evidence as is available we can at least find areas for future investigation that are likely to lead to more definitive solutions, and at least rough proportions of where the responsibility and blame for the dysfunctionality of the Church of God culture belongs.
It is customary for the Church of God to think itself separate from the world, but even a very basic understanding of the larger generational and political patterns that the Church of God has experienced will show that the Church of God has been greatly influenced by the greater society it has operated it, whatever its claims to the contrary. In order to tackle the claims of the dysfunctionality of the Church of God culture, we need to understand its relationship to the greater society and the influence of that greater society on the people and institutions within the Church of God itself.
Those of us who are a part of the Church of God generally consider our origins to spring out of the work of one Herbert W. Armstrong, who in the 1920’s was loosely associated with one of the two branches of the Church of God, Seventh Day, and then formed his own organization after various doctrinal concerns. There are really two fundamental outside influences here. First, early experiences (and dissatisfaction) with loose organization, along with the influence of isolationist and pro-fascist 1930’s culture, seems to have encouraged the early Radio Church of God to take a much more authoritarian stance, as right-wing thought was moving in a more authoritarian direction during the 1930’s. The period of greatest growth for the Church of God was during the beginning of the Culture Wars of the West, where a large group of conservative, traditional-minded people came into the Radio/Worldwide Church of God, seemingly looking to escape the doctrinal and especially cultural liberalism of the age. As right-wing political culture moved more in a libertarian direction and as authoritarianism was discredited in the post-Cold War period, it is little surprise that the Church of God as a whole has been in a permanent state of crisis at this time, given its tension between the influence of right-wing political worldviews and expectations from outside society and its generally traditionalist mindset, which fiercely defends traditions that are only a few generations old.
It is important to recognize that this movement goes in two ways. The dysfunctional culture of the Church of God throughout the vast majority of its short history certainly has negative influences on the brethren, but at the same time there are certain elements of that culture and mindset that drew people in the first place. The relationship is far from simplistic. For example, we might assume that there was something ready-made in the Church of God culture that attracted first generation members. For example, we might expect that a combination between unusual doctrinal beliefs and a high degree of organization (and a marked dislike of anything that struck of chaos or anarchy) would be a draw for many of the first generation members into the Church of God culture. From at least limited anecdotal research, I have seen in my own family that certain unpleasant aspects of chaos and the breakdown of family and social order seems to have encouraged both sides of my family to long for the stability of the order that was present in Worldwide Church of God in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. In addition, the possibility of existing dysfunctional elements in people attracted to what appeared to be order and stability in the Worldwide Church of God (whose lives may have been filled with chaos–including but not limited to substance and sexual abuse of various kinds) makes it difficult to parse out what elements of the childhood of second and third generational members are the responsibility of the dysfunctional church culture or the dysfunctional parents and grandparents who were originally attracted to that culture for their own particular reasons. These are delicate matters.
It appears that we are dealing with a feedback loop here. We would expect that an institution or organization will reflect the maturity and mental/emotional/spiritual state of its leaders. In addition, these leaders will look to train up other people in their own image and give the most opportunities for leadership to those they judge as most compatible with themselves. Therefore dysfunctional people are expected to create dysfunctional organizations and institutions and to train up and give leadership opportunities to other dysfunctional people to spread that dysfunction in largely co-dependent ways throughout that organization. In addition, we should find that such co-dependent relationships inherent in these dysfunctional organizations and institutions attract those who for whatever reason have their own outside dysfunctions that they are looking to cope with and not necessarily wrestle with and overcome. While a godly and Christian mindset would be to recognize that God calls us as we are and also calls us to overcome our trials and to learn better ways of bearing our burdens, all too often we simply wish to be comfortable with our excess baggage rather than to cast our burden upon the Lord and dispense with it altogether. Scorekeeping rather than forgiving tendencies only reinforce this atmosphere of co-dependency.
It is the hallmark of co-dependent institutions that they show immense rigidity. And that has been the experience of anyone who has spent a great deal of time within a vast majority of the Church of God culture (including Worldwide). If we are to assume that the Church of God is supposed to be a model of a godly family, we would recognize that a godly family is to nourish and support the well-being and gifts and abilities of its members. In addition, it would recognize that growing maturity and capability would change an initially very unequal parent and child relationship into a relationship of mutual respect. Dysfunctional institutions and families show no such flexibility. Instead there are rigid roles that have to be followed, with little or no tolerance of deviation or even the slightest bit of independent-mindedness. Even if leaders are given great latitude for their own laziness or health issues, everyone else must work without rest or release, as meaning is only found in doing and not in being or relationships (which may be actively discouraged except among elites). In addition, a dysfunctional family does not show any change in its views. There is never any way to lower the gap between leaders and followers, no flexibility in recognizing changes in what roles or places a person would be best served, and often no interest in helping people find a best fit between their own talents and abilities and the places they serve, unless that person has reached sufficiently elite status to merit such (rare) personal attention and consideration.
Again, such dysfunctionality in families and organizations may be seen from a slightly different perspective as well. In a well-functioning family, there are the emotional resources to help take care of those who are in need, not merely out of duty and obligation, but also out of love. People are treated with worth not out of what they can do for the family or organization, but for who they are as people. On the other hand, dysfunctional families and organizations are known for making high demands upon their members (including standards enforced by leaders that leaders may not hold themselves to) but do not provide a great deal of support and encouragement and love, largely because there is no genuine and unselfish consideration for them to give to others, because they don’t have any within their own hearts. People can only give the love they have, and in dysfunctional institutions and relationships there is a lot of fear, a lot of guilt trips and manipulation, but not a lot of love. It should go without mentioning that Jesus Christ Himself said that the way the His genuine Church would be known is for its love for one another.
But again, recognizing the dysfunctionality of a given institution does not indicate where that dysfunction comes from. It is likely, in fact, that such dysfunction comes from a variety of sources. Some of it is likely to have been present in the original people responsible for creating the Church of God to begin with. Other dysfunction came about as people were attracted, in part for reasons of their own personal issues, to an organization of like-minded people. And other dysfunction came about as the result of dysfunctional people acting dysfunctionally, insecure people acting insecurely, abusive people acting abusively, and all of that. At this point we must be more concerned with the question of what we are going to do about it rather than who is to blame in the first place, because there are too many people to blame (including ourselves).
Indeed, it would appear as well that the most urgent needs for cultural change are a result of the recognition and the hostility toward continuing dysfunctional patterns of behavior within our larger Church of God family, as well as within the frequently hostile and divided families within that larger family, mirroring the tensions and conflicts of the larger body. We cannot expect the Church of God to cease to have dysfunctional people, for that is precisely whom God calls to make His Family–the foolish, the weak, and the base of the world. But we are not called to remain that way. And that means that the Church of God itself must greatly change if we are to fulfill our God-given purpose on this earth. We cannot learn the right way to live unless those behaviors are modeled by others that we can learn from. God’s truth is not something that is to be proud of knowing, but rather something that is to be practiced in the context of relationships between ourselves and God and between ourselves and other children of God, who are to be treated with love and respect. Orthopraxy (that is, correct practice) is every bit as important as orthodoxy (that is, correct doctrine), and vastly less evident in our behavior (and that includes mine).
We have a culture that has used the weaknesses of others as ways of slandering and reviling them, showing that people with a given weakness cannot be trusted and supported and listened to. And yet we all struggle with our own sins, our own personal backgrounds, and our own blind spots and weaknesses. We cannot grow into the likeness of God and Jesus Christ unless we are able to openly wrestle with our struggles in the knowledge that our brethren will respond with love and compassion and encouragement. Otherwise, we will only live empty lives of pretense, pretending to be fine when we are not, pretending to be righteous and virtuous when we know ourselves to struggle against whatever demons it is our lot to face. Our choice is therefore to continue along the destructive and dysfunctional ways of the past, which trained people to be hypocrites, parroting a line of belief that they may not believe in order to maintain or gain power and position or connections, and which did not allow for the frank and respectful discussion of deep and difficult and uncomfortable matters because we lacked the maturity to wrestle openly with such matters and the truth that we could speak openly without scoundrels in high places seeking to blackmail us with such evil knowledge.
So clearly, there is much to wrestle with. We all have much to forgive others of, and much to be forgiven of. I do not stand as anyone’s judge or executioner, but I merely wish to remind everyone (including myself) that we will stand alone before a Judge to answer for ourselves what we have said and done in His name. If we desire to be less dysfunctional than our past, we all need to greatly change, and our larger culture needs to change along with it. Our recognition of the source of the dysfunction is not to cast stones or blame at anyone, but to show that responsibility is shared, and that it requires a knowledge of and awareness of the way in which our personal backgrounds and our society have influenced the way we behave, often in opposition to our goals and aspirations. We cannot change our past, much as we would like to, but we can learn and grow from it, and therefore give our immense suffering some meaning and worth, rather than letting it remain arbitrary and seemingly without meaning and importance. If we understand why we have suffered so in the dysfunctional culture we grew up in, we are better equipped to respond to it in a proper mindset, preserving what is worth preserving, recovering the best of what has been lost, and striving on to achieve the best that we have yet to reach.