As someone who by temperament and background tends to enjoy debates (perhaps a little too much), I am often amused whenever I am present in a particular environment where debate is looked down on and actively discouraged. While I will freely own that too much debate is a very negative matter when it comes to stress, I find the fact that people are willing to go through the effort of building an online community among highly contentious people with the active aim of stifling debate given the existence of greatly controversial areas in dispute to be a task akin to trying to tame a hurricane or wrestle a tornado. Rather than describe this vaguely, let us describe a specific example and seek to explain what it means.
Not too long ago, I read a book written by a fellow named Wade Fransson, called People of The Sign . As a result of reading the book, and intrigued by someone whose life and mine shared a number of startling similarities among the broken families who were attracted to the godliness and order of the Worldwide Church of God, I joined the internet forum of the same name of his book that he started. Being a person who likes to observe the rules of the game before diving into discussion with both feet, I was curious in the fact that without fail, just as is the case with any group that has a membership among the diverse population that has survived the nasty breakup of the Church of God into a multitude of fragmented and often feuding groups, the group immediately attracted a great deal of debate. Given that the Church of God “community” is just about as unified and coherent as contemporary Somalia and other completely failed states with a total absence of unity, legitimacy, and common beliefs and practices, debate and conflict and the lack of order are inherent in any particular place where people on different “sides” of the major divides involved in the spectacularly nasty breakup of the Worldwide Church of God among a large group of fighting and feuding domains, a process that began in the 1970’s but really started to get ugly in the 1990’s.
There are really two main divides that have, over and over again, pitted people against each other who shared a common set of reasonably eclectic doctrines within my nearly two decades of experience as an observer and sometime participant in the fighting of the long War of Armstrong Succession within the Church of God culture. Both of these divides, not insignificantly, involve questions of authority. One of these divides is an essential disagreement about the role of the Sabbath (and related biblical laws) within the present obligations of Christians. As the Sabbath is the key sign that divides people into one camp or another, it is the subject of endless and inevitable dispute for people on both sides of the debate, and one’s position on that one issue will be related to a host of other questions concerning the depth of one’s understanding of justification and sanctification and other very serious issues. Within each camp there are divides in given issues, but just about everyone in either camp will ally readily and fiercely with any of their broader cohorts when those specific areas are under assault from the enemies on the other side of the divide.
The second area of divide is what has kept the two sides from being coherent themselves, and has divided everyone involved into a baffling array of miniature states and fiefdoms that resembles the position of Germany in the aftermath of the Thirty Years War, minus the ersatz unity of the Holy Roman Empire and its seven electors. Perhaps these similarities are not accidental. This second divide is a crisis of legitimacy in authority between two generally broad groups of people, along with some people whose position is roughly in the middle. The two broad camps are those who have sought to follow one of the hundreds of self-appointed wannabe prophets who have claimed their own special insight and legitimacy as heirs to the authority of Herbert W. Armstrong, and those people whose experiences have led them to reject any authority that contradicts their own personal positions. There are those in the middle who steer a dangerous and stressful course seeking to respect authority but keep it within strict limits so that what happened in the past never happens again, and who struggle to show the proper respect for authority while also providing space for open and respectful discussion.
Obviously, these two larger divides have led to nearly ceaseless and chaotic fighting within the larger Church of God culture. The general lack of legitimacy authorities have makes every contentious decision the opportunity for further fission and dividing, opportunities that are seldom avoided, to our shame. These divides over doctrine and authority have made every discussion a potential minefield, as even discussions of food can become highly politicized, especially if one is dealing with a loud-mouthed bacon-loving antinomian. Those who wish to avoid debate in such a volatile climate those trying to wrestle with the wind, and even if they may be temperamentally unsuited to conflict, by choosing to create venues where people can talk, they ensure debate and fighting simply by talking about subjects where there is ferocious disagreement simply by their presence.
How does one avoid a fight in these circumstances? How does recognize that the doctrinal errors of others result from a great deal of emotional wounds that have led people to adopt faulty positions (for example) regarding law and grace simply because they have faulty views of God’s laws and ways because of what they have experienced and witnessed without endorsing their wrong belief systems? This is no idle academic exercise, but rather a daily experience in the aftermath of the Church of God culture. Experiences of abuse and fears (and experiences) of chaos and disorder impel us in different directions, and seemingly obscure topics of discussion hit deeply personal wounds and cause great personal offense. Treating others with love and respect, and feeling loved and respected by others, is immensely elusive. We may know intellectually that God’s people will be known not only for their observance of God’s commandments (all of them), but also for their demonstration of agape love. This love and respect are elusive and rare, and are matters I struggle both to recognize from others and show them to others in ways that they can be recognized and felt by others. I suppose practice makes perfect, though.