Blast from the past…
The gospel of Herbert W. Armstrong was hard to define because it was ever-changing and never compiled into a written statement of doctrine (when it was tried in the 1970s by his son, it was considered the work of Satan). To point out all the heretical doctrines and inconsistencies would fill volumes. Essentially, it was this: extreme legalism. The Worldwide Church of God lexicon was filled with official and unofficial legalistic restraint: no jury duty, no taking of oaths, no voting (our allegiance was not to this world), no mixed racial dating or marriages, no college (except the church’s Ambassador College, of course – its God’s college), no makeup (it’s for whores), no dating outside the church, no divorce (the remarried had to split up for many years), no military service, almost no doctors (broken bones were OK), almost no medicine, no vaccinations, no birth control pills (they were medicine), no TV or radio on the Sabbath (news was OK-it was watching end-time events) no smoking, no pork or pork ingredients of any kind, white sugar or bread was discouraged (forbidden by some ministers), honey was the food of choice – it had healing powers, no long hair or sideburns on men, no wearing anything fashionable (fashion was dictated by “queers”) on men, and the supreme no; no questions. Alcohol, however, was encouraged as long as you could remember what you were not supposed to do and money was not diverted from three tithes and seven or more annual offerings, with special offerings for dire circumstances (which arose regularly).
The end result was broken and isolated families, needless suffering from denial of medical care, and mental anguish of a generation of youths who could never measure up in a performance based religious system. Fortunately, the tomorrow Herbert W. Armstrong promised to millions began to die the day he did.
In the decade following his death in 1986, the emperor was gradually shown by rebellious heirs to have no clothes; he was slowly exposed by those who grew up inside the system since birth. To those remnant faithful who would not expose the lie for themselves for fear of the answer, it was a rude awakening to realize that Herbert W. Armstrong’s vision of the wonderful world tomorrow was nothing more than eclectic musings of a high school dropout who failed in his first career of advertising, but succeeded gloriously in controlling the lives of his followers through an authoritarian grip. If he was honestly self-deluded in thinking the purpose of man was to become one of many Gods and his mission was to single-handedly warn the world of impending nuclear Armageddon lest they repent and follow God through his church; or if he was a manipulative, deviant, evil person bent on mind control of his “sheep” is a moot point. The damage was done and today, generations of followers lay in the rubble of his cult theology. I am one of them.
Thirty-four of my thirty-seven years were spent under the delusion that the Worldwide Church of God was the only acceptable path to God and the fear of losing out on eternal life if I violated its tenants. I was robbed of being a normal American kid doing the little things that enrich mainstream childhood’s: Friday night football games, Christmas with relatives, dating girls outside “the church,” birthday parties, Valentines Day, being accepted at school because I was very different due to a weird religion. I simply accepted it without question because my grandparents and family believed it, therefore it must be so. Any alternative to God’s true church was not even thought of; that was just the way things were.
A Worldwide Church of God Portrait
As a child, I was told in church sermons and through publications I was required to read that in the coming tribulation, children would be taken from their parents by the Germans (leaders of an emerging beast power in Europe) and we would watch mom and dad swing from meat hooks for following God through Herbert W. Armstrong if they were not obedient enough to God to escape. The decadent, godless USA would be a wasteland by the tens nations of Europe led by the nasty Germans. My classmates would be nuked and my school vaporized. It scared the hell out of me (except for the destruction of the school, which was kinda neat). I would never attend high school, never marry and never have to worry about mortgage payments because Christ would return and make the world one big Ambassador College campus (the church school) with church members as the professors of righteousness. This would all happen by 1975, the late fifties church booklet 1975 in Prophecy extolled, unless the U.S. and Great Britain woke up, repented and modeled themselves on the Worldwide Church of God paradigm.
Luckily, we members were the chosen ones that would escape the horrors of Armageddon if, and only if, we qualified by demonstrating obedience to God. We alone, through Herbert W. Armstrong, knew the keys to prophecy because God has called us, the weak (i.e., losers) from this world to confound the wise. HWA revealed that time was not to be wasted on converting anyone -the unconverted were not lost – they would come to spiritual understanding at a later date since they would be humbled via the Germans and the Beast power (The United States of Europe). Most would then realize that their evil ways, like keeping Christmas or birthdays or eating pork was actually worshipping Satan, not God. Our job as members was to pray and pay with three tithes on our income so that others would remember when the goose-stepping thugs reached their door and we were safe in caves in Petra waiting for Christ and living a squeaky clean obedient life that Herbert W. Armstrong had warned them. Of course, they weren’t going to listen, but it was his duty to provide the warning because that was the mission of “the work.” He didn’t want to do it, but God called him and he was fearful of turning his back on a divine mission. So he was forced to live in opulence – like having a private jet, a collection of artwork and jewels – and flying around the world giving gifts and church money to world leaders like Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos for a five minute photo opportunity. High living was a requirement of a twentieth century apostle; world leaders would not take an average guy seriously. Obviously, HWA was simply a victim of the wealth God required of him.
Despite the admonishment not to worry over converting our neighbors like those crazy Jehovah’s Witnesses, tens of millions a year were spent each year on radio and TV time to warn of a pending nuclear war – the end times- and protection for those who qualified for God’s soon coming kingdom through obedience to clearly defined regulations ranging from hair length to approved sexual positions. Money was proudly never asked for publicly; that is what churches of this world did. The rank and file supported Herbert’s arms, like Moses, with cash to proclaim the gospel with their tithes. Members may be losers of the world, but spiritual winners were made by humble, unquestioned obedience to the local minister and realizing one cannot out give God (e.g., give all your money). To give your money was an honor not afforded most of the world at this time.
Obedience did have its rewards. By sweeping the floor of the rented hall and setting up chairs, one might become noticed and obtain the rank of Deacon. In the early sixties, this meant the ability to wear black armbands with D*E*A*C*O*N spelled in white letters to announce your position. Since relatives were distanced by membership in the church and socializing with the unconverted was frowned upon, the church was usually a member’s total social life. Of course, if one was never a Spokesman Club president, worry not. The real prizes were waiting in the hereafter: a king or priest in the wonderful world tomorrow. As first fruits, the obedient Worldwide Church of God faithful would get the first tier of spiritual prizes to be doled out to those who met the requirements (a city, a country, or even a plant in the wonderful world tomorrow). Of course, avoidance of agonizing death with meat hooks at the hands of the Germans should have been reward enough.
The fact that relatives and coworkers thought you were a religious nut was proof they were not “called” and God had not opened their eyes to understand the constantly changing “new truth” God revealed to Herbert W. Armstrong. New truth was defined as when he changed his mind about something – such as if women should wear makeup – that it was simply God revealing new understanding. Sometimes, the new truth was revealed to him to be not as true as originally thought and the old truth was revealed to be truer than the new truth and it was then the new truth was actually the old truth. If this was confusing, it was proof of being unconverted or having a problem with church government. The fact he was willing to change all the time was proof that God was leading him and he was not deceived like all the other ministries who taught one thing and stuck to it. It was all quite plain when he explained it; hence the name of the magazine, The Plain Truth, which had upwards of six million copies given away each month (if you count the illiterate African tribesmen who used it for insulation for the village huts and giveaway copies at supermarkets). HWA, in turn, revealed these truths to us via “the broadcast,” the Plain Truth magazine and countless coworker letters reminding of God’s wrath on those who robbed him of multiple tithes and offerings to carry out the work. The truth was indeed plain, if we just looked into the bible and read what it said for our self with a little help from Herbert W. Armstrong; God was reproducing himself through creating man and we were destined to be part of the God family. If we qualified, all would become God as God is God, only some Gods would be greater than others depending on our earthly performance and when we joined the line. First come, first served. All Gods are equal, just that some would be more equal than others, so work hard for a free gift of eternal life. George Orwell would be proud of the plain truth.
God’s pyramid system of government was key to up-righting the moral decay of this not so a wonderful world of today. The church chain of command was very militaristic despite the ban on military service. God was first, then Christ was head of the Church, who was head of HWA, who was head of the evangelists, who was head of ministers, who was head of deacons, who was head of husbands, who was head of wives, who was head of children. At the bottom of the ladder were the children, who were mirrors of the spiritual health of the family. Child rearing was the way to display to one’s spiritual conversion.
A typical Worldwide Church of God dad, in an ill-fitting polyester suit (the only one he owned), briskly walked into services each Sabbath with vinyl briefcase full of bibles in hand, ready to begin fellowshipping with the other brief casing men. Mom, loaded down with pallets and kids hanging off each arm, trailed behind. Kids sat almost motionless beside the parents during the two-hour church service. If children were emotionless robots who obeyed through sheer terror, dad must be doing it God’s way. He was a Godly man. Mom did the actual correction under dad’s direction, taking the kids in and out of services while dad sat taking copious notes on top of the briefcase sitting on his lap. He used to tape record every sermon until it was discovered tapes could be used by Satan to attack the church for what it said. Dad would intervene only if mom let the situation get out of control, with a glaring eye toward the kids and to mom for letting it happen. She would immediately leave for the mothers room with kids in tow. Dad would straighten both out later.
Kids, we were told, were innately carnal and by destroying anything resembling personality through generous corporal punishment for even little offenses, God’s holy character would be instilled by Dad and peace and harmony abounds. Life would mimic the scene depicted on the church seal, kids would play with lions and everybody would eat unprocessed foods. Happy. Happy. Happy. Mom had a little more leeway than the kids, but not much. Help meets were there to help dad, who knew how to govern God’s way. Hippies were ample evidence that the world was doing it all wrong and society was going to hell in a handbasket. An unchecked carnal kid was a sure bet to graduate to hippiedom and may cost dearly in the upcoming white throne judgment. A good kid, might, upon recommendation of the minister, be accepted to Ambassador, God’s Westpoint, and emerge part of the minister class or wife of a minister. At least, they would return to the local church area to give sermonettes and struggle during the week at a lousy sales job (sales were the usual avenues for a BS graduate in theology).
Children were not the only way to display spirituality, and health was another. Doctors and medicine were taboo until the 1970s, when lawsuits caused the church to make unspoken rules rather than church dogma. Processed foods were out, but natural foods were in. Booklets like the Seven Laws of Radiant Health (written by the medical expert: a man with a doctorate from Ambassador) promoted things like the exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays were highly beneficial. Vaccinations were discouraged, God, not man would protect those who placed their faith in him. State law said differently and my mother, under the council of knowledgeable church members, rubbed lemon juice over my polio vaccination in the parking lot of the doctor’s office to counteract the effect of the medicine. Operations other than setting broken bones were demonstrating a lack of faith in God. Illness was also the result of sin in some way. There was spiritual sin and physical sin; disease was physical sin. If you were sick, God would heal without doctors if the proper faith was present and for those who were weak, go ahead and submit to the evils of modern medicine. Combining the two: making your sick children follow God by choosing not to place your faith in doctors was the biggest demonstration of faith. If the child died, and many did, it was the result of a lack of faith on the parents or the other church members as a whole because it was their job for collective prayer.
Race relations were also clearly understood by Herbert W. Armstrong. God was the creator of the races and separate was the way they were created. In the wonderful world tomorrow, the races would be separated again to live happy on their very own continent. In the meanwhile, dating someone of another race was verboten. In the early to mid sixties, congregations had roped-off sections for the blacks, presumably to make sure that intermixing was at a minimum and providing practice for ruling in the world tomorrow.
The annual Feast of Tabernacles in Big Sandy, Texas during the 1960s was the perfect example of a proving ground for the world tomorrow. Ten thousand people camped for eight days. Old station wagons loaded with kids, tents, liquor and ubiquitous brief cases. Here, God did things orderly and orderly it was. Men who held no power in the world were given titles for a week, creating hundreds of little Hilters doing it Gods way. Captain of a Thousand. Captain of a Hundred. The Captain of Ten. Each had a nicely lettered sign above his campsite telling the world of his power over men despite a loser status in the world headed by Satan. Decisions of Solomaic proportions were made; who swept the dirt streets each day, policing the campgrounds, making sure lights were off at ten and keeping track of anyone who stayed in their tent during the seventeen two-hour services held over the eight days. Ordinary rank and file men watched the leader captains and returned to their homes practicing God’s government on wives, children and pets after each feast. This would prepare them to rule in the world tomorrow as part of the God Family and maybe earn a planet to call their own!
This is only a brief glimpse, the tip of the iceberg of the Worldwide Church of God experience and mind set. Doctrine, policy and customs of the Worldwide Church of God were erratic and unwritten, which makes describing it extremely difficult. Each person that grew up in the Worldwide Church of God has memories and experiences, large and small, that formed a spiritual concept of themselves and their relationship with God. However, the effect the legalism had on shaping the core identity of a person is profound and concrete.
How the Worldwide Church of God Affected Me
The very things that set me apart from “the world” were both a source of embarrassment and a badge of honor: conviction of the Worldwide Church of God as the one true church, unwavering Sabbath attendance in meeting halls that ranged from dance halls to Masonic Lodges (why build churches when the end is nigh?), faithful viewing “the broadcast,” reading all church publications, God’s annual holy days in lieu of pagan holidays (Christmas, Easter, etc.), being among the select to escape the coming tribulation and nuclear destruction of “unconverted” mankind in the end times, fleeing to a “place of safety” in 1972 (to avoid the meat hooks) and the return of Christ in the 1975. The biggest enlightenment was my understanding of the plan of God; that God was calling first fruits (us Worldwide Church of Goders) to qualify for his soon coming Kingdom by overcoming our human nature in this life. I repeatedly tried and failed on all accounts (apparently others did too because that is why Christ did not return in 1975- Herbert W. Armstrong said the church was not ready – it was our fault).
I did all the things a good Worldwide Church of God member was supposed to do: one year of Ambassador College (I quit only because they closed it in 1978), bought Envoys (the AC yearbook) every year and placed on a coffee table even though I knew no one there, married within the church, became a Spokesman’s Club graduate (a Worldwide Church of God version of Toastmasters), meticulous tithing (often 30% of gross income) and offerings, and generous helping of self-loathing at Passover. I was a quintessential Worldwide Church of God “Christian.” I was taught to look down upon those that were not called in benevolent pity. But inside, I knew I was a fake because I didn’t get it like everyone else around me. Cognitive dissonance arose from being told eternal life is a free gift from God but we must “make it” through obedience to a rigid set of laws derived from a Worldwide Church of God interpretation of scripture. I tried and tried to obey and constantly failed. I finally gave up trying because God could not continue to forgive someone who did not grow in grace and knowledge and because he did not bear fruit like those who did obey. The obedient were seemingly all around me in the Worldwide Church of God. If I obeyed, God would bless. If bad things happened, it was a test of faith by Satan. God punishes the ones he loves, therefore if bad things happen, I was blessed by God. But the fact that it was happening showed there was a weakness or a lack of faith. It all came down to me; the system seemingly worked and I was the problem or so I thought.
There were answers for everything as long as you did not look too deeply. I knew them all and every world event fit nicely into God’s end time plan, just as Herbert W. Armstrong had discovered in growing in grace and knowledge of new truth. Smug superiority resulted from knowing “the truth,” yet fear from knowing I never measured up to the standards everyone else did with apparent ease. I lived in comfortable misery knowing all the answers and realizing I was never worthy of the prize because I was a fake, a person who had been given the gift, but would die for eternity because he would never “overcome” personal battles with sin out of a lack of faith.
Fate dealt me a double punch. My personal and religious world came apart at the same time in 1993. A diagnosis of cancer shattered my world at the same time that mine and everyone else’s Worldwide Church of God world was dismantled from the inside out under the pretense of nothing has really changed. Cancer was finally God’s way of dealing with me for being a hearer, not a doer of the word, or so I thought. Then, suddenly, came intellectual freedom of facing death and realizing my own mortality in an unexpected way.
Something awoke inside me. Most people find religion when faced with catastrophic illness. I lost it. I was suddenly free of the hold the Worldwide Church of God had on me for my entire life. The cancer experience taught me that the people of “the world” were often more compassionate, more understanding, more accepting and more loving than most Worldwide Church of God members who had decades of overcoming and growing in grace and knowledge of God’s law. The problem was not with me, it was the toxic system I was in.
I was suddenly able to accept my mortality. I was not afraid to die anymore; death would no longer become the answering to God for why I failed to overcome human nature. Realization that a supreme being accepts and understands those who seek him and those who don’t, equally, suddenly hit me broadside.
I had always been afraid to leave because leaving Worldwide Church of God meant leaving God and that meant eternal death. Those who left where spiritual lepers that were avoided or simply became non-persons. I only wish I been asked to leave the Worldwide Church of God when leaving meant something. I quit as everyone else either awoke to find the emperor had no clothes or joined a splinter group who was convinced he still reined in regal garments. I left and suddenly, the world was a kinder, gentler place inside my soul.
Life After the Worldwide Church of God
For me to now embrace Christ without questioning everything seems no different from accepting the Worldwide Church of God lock, stock and barrel. To become overly “Jesusy” after being “WCGsy” seems like substituting one drug for another. That road has been traveled and will not be taken again. I will think long and hard before I leap into anything new.
Do not misinterpret. The deity or the sacrifice of Christ as savior is not rejected. I want to accept Christ as my personal savior. I simply do not know, nor do I think I ever will, have absolute proof of which view of the spiritual world is valid because they all funnel through the interpretations of fallible men. The wonderful difference now is the freedom to question without fear of rejection from God. I know that a supreme being loves me as a fallible human adrift in life. It’s OK not to know life’s answers. Simpletons are those who are convinced of their infallibility, while experts are those who realize they don’t really know much at all.
Previously, to even question sent waves of panic and anxiety coursing through the core of my soul. Those who question or have doubts do not measure up. I must therefore keep up the pretense of “getting it” or “being on track” with doctrines and teachings of “God’s true church” and “the work,” or will be exposed as a sham. Not worthy of God’s love. I must “make it into the kingdom” by obedience to God’s laws as understood by the Worldwide Church of God. When I failed to obey unrealistic standards, it was my fault because I was not close enough to God or rebellious to his government. Ironically, as hard as I tried to force myself, I never felt very religious despite hours of trying to pray and falling asleep instead. Instead of trying harder, I simply quit all together and confirmed what I felt I was: a failure. Guilt bred guilt.
Herbert W. Armstrong seared an innocent belief in man-oriented religious systems for me. A supreme being surely must understand the spiritual warping as the result of 35 years of Worldwide Church of God indoctrination. He must make allowances for those who are spiritually dysfunctional and intellectually honest when they confront the unanswerable questions of the meaning of existence and come up blank. If he doesn’t, I am in big trouble.
Why did he leave all mankind in the dark? If he had a simple message for mankind, why did he not make it clear to all what was expected and why we are here in a manner that would not be subject to interpretation and manipulation by religious despots such as Herbert W. Armstrong? Why obscure it behind ancient texts? Why not just write it in the sky each day or appear to each of us personally with his infinite ability to know every hair on our head? Why doesn’t God have a web page? Something as important as the meaning of life should not be encoded for an elite few to understand. If this is the case, I am pretty ticked at God for not making it clear to everybody.
I sincerely want to have a relationship with God. I want to feel spiritually secure in the knowledge of whom I am and why I take up space on the planet earth. It would be nice to absolutely know Christ is the vehicle for access to God and just invoke his name and everything is taken care of. I can say the words, but they are devoid of meaning for me. It is just a name when I say it. I am numb. Am I lost forever because of it?
No longer is hope held to find any answers to the ultimate questions. Never again will total, unwavering loyalties be given to a religious organization. On a sojourn without a clue to my destination, comfort lies in knowing that I no longer lay deluded in a toxic system such as the Worldwide Church of God. Love my neighbor as myself and share the burdens and joys of my fellow man. Be nice and think of others. Beyond that, what can God expect? Will punishments occur for only following this simple creed that Jesus said was the greatest commandment? I think not. My personal conviction is that in our existence after death, the higher power will reveal it to us and we will wonder why we ever made such a fuss about it in the first place. Of course, I could be wrong and a vengeful God will destroy me for all eternity. I will take the chance.
Two and a half years out of chemotherapy, my cancer is apparently gone for good. I am forging new, post-Worldwide Church of God, life full of pagan holidays and a new zest for life. I have not given up on Church entirely. Organized religion is to foster companionship with others in a social setting and as a vehicle to help my fellow man. Whether anyone believes as I is now irrelevant to me, although I enjoy discussing any theory or possibility of knowing the unknowable. The difference is that I no longer feel threatened or intimidated by not knowing. Had I grown up in a traditional Christian environment, this may not be the case. At least I can thank Herbert W. Armstrong for that (I am no longer afraid of the Germans or meat hooks either). Luckily, HWA’s tomorrow never came and a loving creator who accepts us unconditionally is now a possibility in my world of tomorrow. I now look forward to the spiritual recovery from a lifetime of cult teaching that formed my core identity. Tomorrow is quite wonderful after all.