Representative Samples

One of my frequent online debate partners thought she would stir the pot this Sabbath by “innocently” posting a link to a new Church of God (there are hundreds, perhaps over a thousand, of them by now) and seeming to present this group as a representative sample, since she no longer shares the doctrines that we all grew up in. In reading this poorly formatted and extremely dogmatic list of doctrines [1], I was struck by the difficulty in determining a representative sample of groups of people who share my own general religious background, or what such a representative sample would even look like.

I don’t think of myself as a representative sample on my lonesome of my background, and given the immense diversity within the culture as a whole, it would take a group of people to adequately model the whole. Nonetheless, let us use this new and hitherto unknown organization to understand its relationship with the entire Church of God and its fitness as part of a representative sample. And, sad to say, even if the organization itself appears to be an outlier, there are plenty of elements of it that are representative of the larger conduct of the Church of God culture, and that is quite simply not acceptable. Let us therefore examine some of these elements with the aim of self-examination and not merely criticism.

1. Biting The Hand That Feeds

I am fundamentally ambivalent to the legacy of Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong’s work in the Church of God as a whole. Without ever having had the chance to know him personally, and being skeptical of the glowing accounts I have seen of him in many places, I have poured through different accounts of him from both ‘friend’ and ‘foe.’ For a long time I have either privately, or occasionally even publicly, commented on my own doubts as to his conduct. But fundamentally I have been ambivalent and not hostile, as I agree with his stated premises of seeking to find truth through the Bible and not through either tradition or human imagination, in the belief that the Bible itself is self-consistent and authoritative. Even where I have in limited and partial ways rejected certain biases (his bent authoritarian government and pietism), I recognize the intellectual debt I owe to the organization he led for so long. However, there is a certain tendency to go beyond my own ambivalence and questioning and attempting to come to terms with the clear and obvious abuses of the past to a level of demonization and hostility that is quite shocking, especially when it comes from those who wish to be as unaccountable and tyrannical as HWA ever was. All of us who spring from the larger Church of God culture do not need to be afraid to follow the Bible, even if it leads us away from the goofier traditions or occasional contradictions of the WCG culture, but we need to recognize and honor where our culture and worldview sprang from and those people who were best at articulating and forming that worldview in the start.

2. Periphery And Core

One of the more common and representative errors within the Church of God culture is the inability to distinguish between periphery and core doctrines. This new particular “Obedient Church of God” purports to establish a large core of doctrines, many of which are private speculations from a harsh and judgmental would-be prophet, some of which are silly textual games, and others of which represent rather common and fiercely debated issues within the body of the Church of God as a whole (calendar issues, Sabbath practice, tithing and offering), all of which I have commented on in this blog at least in passing. What we have to realize is that the Bible does not give us “Thus saith the Lord” to every single question we have in life, and that means that we have to recognize a continuum of belief and practice ranging from those matters which are crystal clear in scripture and those which are speculative and which no one has any privileged insight in, and showing the appropriate level of humility and tolerance where there is legitimate interpretative ground to work with on a given question.

3. Attitude

And it is that willingness to allow ground of freedom of interpretation to ordinary membership that is generally lacking in the Church of God culture. Mind you, every single authoritarian leader of the Church of God has used great interpretive freedom (and a great deal of creativity) in finding a distinctive place in a very crowded market of would-be prophets seeking to profit from the tithes and offerings of those sincere but misguided believers looking to abdicate their own responsibilities for reading and interpreting scripture by seeking a ready-made biblical interpretative scheme that is a sure ticket to the Kingdom of God. And all of these authoritarian leaders generally show a great deal of hostility to their competition. (Considerably less hostility and considerably more cooperative and generous spirit is shown by those of us who are less authoritarian in our political worldview. One can draw what conclusions one will from this.) But whatever creative freedom these would-be “obedient” leaders grant to themselves in forming their organization’s structure and doctrinal distinctives, and messages, this freedom is absolutely denied to believers and outsiders, who are told to simply agree to everything the blessed leader teaches without demur or exception or one is an apostate or Laodicean or something else even less pleasant. And of course, these tyrannical leaders themselves accept no accountability to the laws of the land or the laws of God, showing a face of tyranny to those they consider below and a face of anarchy to those who could be considered above them. We have to avoid this satanic tendency within our own lives and organizations.

4. Prophetic Speculation

Another representative element of this new (and presumably tiny) organization is its assiduous devotion to prophetic speculation. This is a huge tendency within the Church of God as a whole, and one that is both easy to understand and deeply frustrating for me as a quirky student of Bible prophecy. In the midst of an uncertain and increasingly morally corrupt world, it is greatly comforting to feel that one knows the year, month, week, day, or hour (or occasionally even minute) of the return of Jesus Christ. That comfort is entirely vain, given our lack of such knowledge and the demonstrated falsity of any attempt to calculate the return of Jesus Christ from scripture or numerical games, but it is a very tempting comfort for many who wish for such firm answers. It is lamentable, in the face of the massive and nearly universal interest in prophecy among the Church of God culture as a whole, that such a limited understanding of the nature of biblical prophecy and its focus on crimes and offenses against God’s commandments in both social and personal spheres of life, and the contingent nature of biblical blessings and curses, along with the ultimately optimistic viewpoint of biblical prophecy with its ultimate look towards restoration and the rule of God and of His Christ. These are all elements we tend to downplay in our unending search for dates and names of the beast and the false prophet and other unprofitable prophetic speculation.

5. Conclusions

Based on a reading of the doctrinal positions of this new and purportedly obedient Church of God, we are faced with the truth that while the organization itself is clearly an outlier (and possibly libels some people in its attempts to serve as a harsh prophetic denunciation of other Church of God groups that are apparently not obedient enough to God), the mindset of this particular authoritarian leader is fairly representative of his kind, even if it’s no kind of Church of God organization I want any part of myself. In looking at obviously extreme examples of people and groups within our larger culture, we need to recognize those common elements that have shaped and influenced us (whether we share these qualities and interests and tendencies to less extreme degrees, or whether we have consciously opposed those tendencies within our culture, but recognize their spread). By examining ourselves, we may use such opportunities as the revelation of extremists among our cultures as a way of purifying ourselves of secret sins and tendencies that war against our love of God and of others rather than merely an opportunity to look down at others from a position of unwarranted pride and arrogance, where we would merely share in the errors of the profitless would-be prophets themselves. And we seek a better end for ourselves than that sad fate. Let us demonstrate by our fruits that the harsh and dogmatic and arrogant claims of would-be prophetic leaders are not representative of our own belief and practice.


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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10 Responses to Representative Samples

  1. William E. Males says:

    QUOTE- “What we have to realize is that the Bible does not give us “Thus saith the Lord” to every single question we have in life, and that means that we have to recognize a continuum of belief and practice ranging from those matters which are crystal clear in scripture and those which are speculative and which no one has any privileged insight in, and showing the appropriate level of humility and tolerance where there is legitimate interpretative ground to work with on a given question”

    And thus we see the need for Roman’s 14 condemning the practice of condemning and Roman’s 8:1-4 and Galatians 5:16, 25 stressing the need to walk according to Spirit if we are to truly dwell in the liberty that comes via the Law of the Spirit of Life and not the condemnation of the Letter. For IMHO true godly judgment is always looking for that avenue of grace and mercy into another’s life to heal that which has been stricken by the Law of Sin and Death. Such godly judgment will spring forth from eternal gratitude for what liberties and freedoms have been secured by ones surrender to the light of Divine judgment which now lives and serves through faith and love.

    I believe what Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.”

    If some have foolishly become judges that “we” are the obedient ones and “they” are not… oh my…on what a slippery slope they have chosen to stand.

    • That is well said, and part of what I was implying. Thanks for the comments, and yes, some people do consider themselves the obedient, and thus competent to judge others as disobedient. Ironically enough, the group I was writing about, and had never heard about them before this morning, calls themselves the Obedient Church of God.

  2. William says:

    If people never remove the beam of religious arrogance and hypocrisy from their heart’s eye, they will never be able to assist in helping others with their specks of sin.

    • Indeed, that is the truth, and in looking at others, we can often recognize that the same temptation to judge others for what we are guilty of lies within us all, so we all warn and rebuke others not from a lofty position of superiority but from the point of view of fellow struggling sinners seeking to grow in grace and knowledge and godly practice.

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  5. Tim says:

    You made the following comment: “I am fundamentally ambivalent to the legacy of Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong’s work in the Church of God as a whole.” Having grown up in WCG as a third generation, I can say that there are times when Mr. Armstrong did a good work and times that he was lead astray by men like Stanley Radar. However, what I can say is that it is sad to see so many of the off-shoots put Mr. Armstrong on such a high pedestal. If you read some of the material from many of the off-shoots, he appears to be higher than our Messiah, Moses, the 12 disciples, etc.

    I do not see the description of the New Jerusalem with 13 gates; one for each of the tribes and the “Armstrong Gate’ where every faithful Church of God member can enter. This is the sad state that we now find ourselves in as we begin to wrap up 2017.

    • Thanks for your comments. I can definitely see a great deal of ambivalence in your own reflections. I hope neither to deny the debt I owe to him at least indirectly for the biblical truth discussed by himself and by others that strongly influenced my own upbringing as well as that of my family, nor to place him on such a high pedestal as many others do. I seek to be honest both in my praise as well as in my critique of him and in the institutions which he founded and influenced to such a high degree. How far and how well I succeed in those aims I do not consider myself unbiased enough to fairly judge.

      • itsallprocess says:

        Having grown up in Pasadena, I can say that I saw many things that many members did not get to see. That being said, the early years were some of the best years of my life. I owe my foundations to Mr. Armstrong. You said that you can see a great deal of ambivalence in my comments. I guess that is a good assessment. In looking deep into Scripture we can see examples where our Creator was happy with the Israelites when they followed His ways and not so much when they didn’t. That is where my mixed emotions are. I remember when we put everything into the church (hearts, souls, work parties, tithes and offerings) and then to see things like building two extremely custom houses (4,500 and 3,000 sq. ft) on the Wisconsin Dells feast site and leaving them set vacant for years. Millions funneled off to Radar’s multiple companies: Rader, Helge & Gerson; Rader, Cornwall, Kessler and Palazzo; Worldwide Advertising, Inc.; Mid-Atlantic Leasing; Wilshire Travel, and Gateway Publishing. On top of this, to watch things like the formation of secular organizations, with the tithes, such as Ambassador International Cultural Foundation (AICF) and Quest Magazine. Then to watch AICF purchase the book publisher Everest House who published books such as “Dark Dimensions; A Celebration of the Occult” and “Zen Running,” a book on how one can let his mind go through the use of Zen. If that wasn’t enough, funding the motion picture “Paper Moon” starring Tatum O’Neal. This movie had a con man and a theme stealing, etc. Need I say any more? There is NO WAY anyone can stand before our Savior and justify those actions. We are allowed to judge actions – we just have to leave the final judgement up to our Savior.

        While this was going on, we had widows which were supposed to be helped by our Third-Tithe in many cases have little to no assistance. There is so much more that I could list but won’t. These are the things that disappoint me or as you said appear to show a “great deal of ambivalence.” Don’t get me wrong, I loved the WCG days. But I can tell you, that I stood inside the Grumman Gulfstream II jet and looked Joseph Tkach straight in the eyes two months after he took over and said to him, “I know what you are going to do to this organization and I am sorry to see that the brethren will go along with the direction you are going to take it.” Joe Tkach told me that I was not welcome on the jet anymore and to please leave as he was ready to take off. I can’t imagine why I was asked to leave, was it something that I said? I was able to say this to him because I knew of ‘bad business deals’ that he did while he is in charge of ministerial services. This is the kind of stuff that hurts deep into my heart. I don’t think of it often, but to see an organization that had so much momentum, go so far astray. I know that these things had to happen to fulfill our Creator’s will. We see this in Romans 8:28 “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” These changes were the way that He removed the dead wood. In watching the various COG groups, I hate to see all of this political infighting among the “leadership” and the outrageous claims such as “we are the only true group of believers,” or “we are the only ones that qualify to be Philadelphians.” In closing, yes maybe it is ambivalence, but more than that, it is disappointment with those that continually want to set themselves up a the leadership, but then continue to show a lack imitating our Savior which is our only true job in life; all the while leading the flock down a different path.

      • I’m aware of much of what you talk about, and yes, there is a great deal to be disappointed about. Regardless of how much of an insider one was, there is likely a great deal of that felt about the way everything has happened.

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