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 , 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.
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.
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.