Around ten years ago, I was conversing with a fellow single man during the feast of tabernacles in Anchorage, Alaska. I was planning to take a drive through the magnificent Alaska scenery to see the Matunuska Glacier. I knew his second tithe funds were running low, and I asked him if he would like to come along.
“No, thank you. I’m going to attend the family day activity. I hear the place where it’s being held is very nice.”
“I was thinking of going,” said I, “but I don’t get to Alaska very often and I want to see as much as possible before I leave. Besides, I don’t have a family.”
“This,” said he, with his arm extended toward the congregation, “is my family.” I wished him well, and went on my way, now happy that I wouldn’t have to spend the afternoon listening to a bunch of politically correct platitudes.
Ah, yes. The family. How many times have church of God members heard that one. The church was one big happy family. Thanks to our shared faith, we now had more in common with our “spiritual” family than we did with our “physical” families. Or so we were told. But, as it turned out, the behavior of the spiritual family was dysfunctional, reflecting the dysfunction of our “father in the faith,” Herbert W. Armstrong.
Joining the Worldwide Church of God meant major sacrifices. Being a church of God member made it harder to fit in with the outside world. Some things we had to give up entirely. Armstrong tried to provide substitutes for everything we lost when we joined the Worldwide Church of God, but they were poor substitutes indeed.
Armstrong deliberately structured his belief system to alienate his followers from their families and make them more dependent on the church. When I joined the Worldwide Church of God, all of a sudden I couldn’t participate in most family get-togethers because they were “pagan holidays,” I couldn’t eat the food on the occasions I could attend because it was “unclean,” and I offended family members, especially my mother, when I did not give gifts on Christmas and birthdays.
My family still gave me their unconditional love despite my beliefs. When I visited my mother, she would always make sure that there were no “unclean” ingredients in my food, and while I felt unable to compromise my beliefs by attending infant baptisms and holy communions, she would attend church social events occasionally. I couldn’t bend to accommodate her, but she did all she could to accommodate me.
Compare that to the so-called substitute “family” the church provided. The “love” the church gave had many strings attached. If you didn’t obey the ministers and submit to their authority, if you didn’t agree with “Mr. Armstrong” in every respect, you could find yourself kicked out, and all of your “family” members were forbidden to have any dealings with you. If you did not regularly attend all of the church’s activities, you were loved less. The more blindly you submitted, the less you complained, the more “love” you received. If you had any questions or doubts, all of a sudden the love was withheld, and if you weren’t careful the “love” disappeared altogether. Former church members were and still are shunned by those still in the Worldwide Church of God and its splinter groups. The church did not only encourage the shunning of disfellowshipped members, it required it. There were serious penalties for associating with disfellowshipped members.
The church provided substitutes for the most joyous family events, the religious holidays. In place of Christmas and Easter, we got Armstrong’s version of the Old Testament holy days. Despite all the talk about the “joy” we were experiencing, there was actually very little joy. My memories of the Feast consist of long lines everywhere, hard and uncomfortable metal folding chairs, hundreds of people I didn’t know, and interminable sermons, most of which were just plain boring.
I am grateful that on Christmas of 1998, I celebrated with my family for the first time in over 20 years. Christmas was always my mother’s favorite holiday, and she always treasured having her five children and their families together. For the first time in over two decades that became a reality, and she was very happy. She died of cancer five months later. I’m glad that I was with her during her last Christmas, and I have shed many tears because of the many times I slighted her because of the church, even denying her financial help at times in order to pay tithes to the Herbert W. Armstrong jet fuel fund.
Since her death, I have been reflecting on how I miss her, and I think about things that I did that hurt her. Invariably, most the times I slighted her was because of my involvement in the church. And it wasn’t always because of the optional activities like spokesman club and bible studies. There were many times I should have been able to help her, but I wouldn’t because of the sabbath or holy days, or because I was short on funds because of tithing. Thanks to my foolish belief in Armstrongism, I denied my mother not only my money, but that even more valuable commodity, my time. When her time ran out, there was no way I could make up for the years of neglect.
Of course, the church didn’t appreciate any of this. When push came to shove, the Worldwide Church of God would dump you in a second. The moment you were no longer of use to the Worldwide Church of God, they would throw you in the trash without any regrets or guilt feelings. They abandoned you and wouldn’t look back. Unless you come from a dysfunctional family, your real relatives will stick with you no matter what. The fact that they would accommodate your beliefs even though you wouldn’t give a damn about theirs’ is proof of that. The Worldwide Church of God was (is?) a dysfunctional “family,” as are her splinter groups. The relationships are all warped, as the laymembers give blind obedience to abusive leaders, and they turn the other way when one of their “family” members is being abused. It’s like the wife who stays with her husband even though she knows he is sexually abusing their daughter (where have we heard that one before?). The whole relationship is sick.
The yoke placed upon us when we were followers of the Armstrong belief system was not easy, and the burdens given us were not light. Looking back on my church membership, I see many promises made by Armstrong and his representatives about the wonderful results one would experience when he followed “God’s” way of life. Real, abundant living, they called it. But the better life never materialized. Their promises turned out to be empty.
There was the promise of improved human relationships with the members of the church, as well as greater spiritual fulfillment and peace of mind as a result of living “God’s way.” A close friend of mine, a product of a dysfunctional family, was told during her baptismal counseling “the church will be the family you never had.” The promises of better human relationships, of a second family, turned out to be false, like all the others. The church always failed to deliver on its promises. The abundant life turned out to be very empty. The physical blessings were not there, nor were the spiritual.
There was no “love” in the Worldwide Church of God. There was acceptance. You were allowed in if you obeyed and didn’t make waves. The moment you disagreed or expressed dissatisfaction, the acceptance was withdrawn. If you weren’t too noisy about your disagreement, you were watched closely, but you were allowed to stick around. After all, tithe money buys just as much jet fuel whether it is received from someone with doubts as it does if it is received from someone who is totally loyal. If you questioned too many things to too many people and were shaking up the base of tithe-payers, you were excommunicated, and your “loving family” no longer loved you, nor did they consider you a part of the family. You were totally disowned. It was as though you were never there. You disappeared into the night and fog. You became fodder for the rumor mill as ministers and lay members invented ever more lurid stories to justify your banishment, if they even bothered to discuss you at all.
It’s been three years since I left “the family.” Since then I have been repairing the ties with my real family. Because of my involvement in “the church” there were many family occasions that I missed: weddings, communions, holiday get-togethers, and who knows what else. Yet, when I attend family functions, everyone is glad to see me, and there are no hard feelings about my past behavior. But if I accidentally bump into one of the members of my former church “family,” most will limit the contact to “hello, how are you, I’m fine, good-bye,” and then try to get away as quickly as possible. These are people whom I thought were my friends. But now, since I no longer share their religious beliefs, and have vocally expressed my disagreement, I am someone to be avoided. So be it. I know where I am welcome, and where I am not, and I prefer to be with people who are happy to be with me.