Blast from the past…
From time to time in my adventures, as I read the letters and articles of people on this website and elsewhere, I come across references to the “true church”. When my eyes were first wrenched open by the unassailable facts of corruption at all levels of the Worldwide Church of God, almost the first question that entered my mind was: “If this isn’t the true church of God, then where is it?”
For forty years I had been immersed in the doctrines and prophecies of Herbert DoubleYou Armstrong. Though I did not consider myself a Bible “expert”, I did know without a doubt that no other church on the planet had what we had. What we had was a theology that was so logical that it was perfect. No other church was aware of, nor would they accept, these fundamental “truths”. In a nutshell, these truths were:
- The annual holy days. These seven festivals pictured the Plan of God, from the crucifixion to the arrival of God the Father on earth (nothing about the 4000 years preceding the crucifixion, however).
- The identity of the Ten Lost Tribes of the House of Israel. (I have to admit that I found it a little difficult to accept that the tribe of Dan included both Denmark and Ireland, but hell, I wasn’t very smart in those days. It also amazed me that objects named after Dan included the rivers Don and Dnieper, but no one ever mentioned the Danube!)
- The weekly Sabbath. It was God’s “sign” placed on his people. Sunday, by contrast, was the “mark” of the beast. (No biblical scriptures backed this up, but it didn’t matter. DoubleYou said so.)
- Prophecy. This was clearly the ultimate proof (to me) of God’s true church. Our version of prophecy included pretty much every prophecy in the Bible (at least a whole big bunch of them) and was mapped out from the time of Alexander the Great (and before) all the way to John Paul II. This included Daniel’s vision, Matthew 24, all of Revelation, most of the minor prophets, heavy hitters like Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel, not to mention Jesus and John. Everything was (or seemed to be) covered. It made sense. It was logical. Details might vary here and there, but the “big picture” was intact. No other church had that. No other church came close
The Seventh Day Adventists seemed to believe that the United States was the beast power. I read one of their publications in which they indicted the entire U.S. Government, but ignored the entire rest of the world. Russia, China, Europe, and the Catholic church were never even mentioned. Other “prophets”, such as those on the 700 Club, the PTL Club, and the Trinity television network were so pathetic as to be laughable. They didn’t have a clue.
Our theology was perfect. The Bible was perfect. We read the Bible, believed it, and let it “interpret itself”. There was no way we could be wrong about any of this, because it came right out of the Bible.
Then I discovered the Plain Truth about the Worldwide Church of God. I learned of homosexuality at Headquarters, of incest and rape within the Armstrong family, of adultery and fornication and (probably) statutory rape by Ted Armstrong, of Herbert Armstrong’s alcoholism and “flog log”. I learned of Herman Hoeh’s connections to the Nazi party (his parents were members), of his picture collection of little boys, of the Manpower Meetings held by Rod Meredith, of a putrid cesspool of corruption of all kinds at every level of the Worldwide Church of God. (I already knew in my heart that the Tkaches were corrupt, but it was quite a shock to discover the rest.) And I learned emphatically that tithing not only was no longer required, but was being administered incorrectly (indeed, feloniously).
“In the mouths of two or three witnesses shall it be established. . .” There were piles of evidence, hordes of witnesses and first-person accounts. None of this could be disputed. It was not a suspicion, there was no “reasonable doubt”. In fact, there was no shadow of a doubt. It was true. All of it. For four decades my life had been ruled by people so corrupt that their equal could only be found within the ranks of the KGB or the SS. These “men of God”, these “ministers”, these “spiritual leaders”–were the biggest crooks of the century. And they had done it all in a way that none of them would ever fear legal consequences.
The entire organization was rotten to the core. I was rocked. I was stunned.
And I was puzzled. The question popped over my head like a balloon in a comic book, with a huge question mark in the center. “If this isn’t the true church of God, then where is it?”
It was a good question. Really, it was the only question. A question I had to answer. Because I could no longer remain in the Worldwide Church of God with a clear conscience. I didn’t even want to. But if I were to avoid leading my family into the very fires of hell, I had to know–“If this isn’t the true church, then what is? Where is it?”
There was no point in investigating other churches. I had already done that. One thing Herbert DoubleYou was very good at was knocking down the teachings of other religions. Yet I did talk to various “Sunday Christians” that I knew, read some articles, read a few books. Nothing answered the question. The people I talked to knew a lot less about the Bible than I did, all the literature talked a lot about Jesus and little else. What about the prophecies? What about the plan of God? What about the Millennium? What about a lot of things?
I could have consulted experts, but where to find them? And how to determine if they knew what they were talking about? All the books I had read were written by people with letters after their names, and they each had their own personal axe to grind. Finding a disinterested or neutral “expert” seemed unlikely.
I was left with only one avenue of approach. And that was one the Worldwide Church of God had ridiculed for decades: I was left to my “own understanding”. More precisely, I had no option but to think it through as logically as I possibly could.
You may laugh. Who the hell does he think he is? What degrees does he have? I’m nobody, of course–the Worldwide Church of God made sure I understood that. I have no degrees. But I can tell right from wrong (in a moral sense), I know the difference between up and down, black and white, right and left. As a computer programmer I can track down a bug that no one else can find, which means I have to think in logical terms to do my job.
And I had never had a more open mind in my life than I did at that moment in time.
It took time. I don’t remember exactly how much time, but I left the Worldwide Church of God May 29, 1992, and it was probably late 1994 before I knew the answer. I can’t recount here all the avenues of thought that I went traveled. I don’t even remember them all. Certainly every day in my car (I drive 35 miles to work each way) I thought of little else. Many hours each week went into the sorting down of facts, fiction, and fables. I went back over sermons, articles, discussions, lectures, announcements, and various other data in my mind. And I found myself returning again and again to two fundamental quotes:
- Prove all things. . . (from the Bible)
- We came in at the middle of the movie (from Herbert DoubleYou)
The first one, Prove all things, is a scripture unknown to most of the Christian world. If they ever read that, or believed it, most of them would never be able to believe half of what they do. If the Bible was ever right about anything, it has to be right about that one.
The second one, a favorite of Herbert Armstrong, turned out to be much more revealing than he ever intended. He used it in the context of world history, pointing out that we are born and live our lives at a certain era in the history of the world and our perceptions are colored only by what we can see, with little or no knowledge of what went before. A very good point. (The same is true, of course, of the Worldwide Church of God itself. Those of us who came in the Sixties or later had no knowledge of what HWA himself had done or taught in previous decades.)
These two quotes made my job a little easier. The first was incentive to make sure I finished the task. The second offered a clue as to how to do it.
To make a long story short, it boiled down to this: Everyone assumed that there had to be One True Church. Period. There was no recognition of the historical saga of church and churches, of orders and groups and unions and cliques and brotherhoods. The apostles who wrote the New Testament were generally accepted as the founders of the new religion called Christianity, but since their time the evolution of that religion had been constant, to the point that today what was called Christianity bore very little resemblance to that original philosophy (with its creeds and tenets and rituals). That was Herbert DoubleYou’s major appeal (or one of them, anyway), that what passed for Christianity today did not square with that original faith. And he was right. It does not.
Neither did the one he instituted.
Where does it say, in the Bible or elsewhere, that there has to be one “true church”? The Bible speaks of the “body of Christ”, but what exactly does that mean? Many who left the Worldwide Church of God in the early 90s adopted the idea (and I was one of them, initially) that “the body of Christ” consists of “true believers” wherever you may find them–in the Worldwide Church of God, the COG 7th Day, among the Catholics, the Lutherans, the Baptists, the myriad fundamentalists–even Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. In other words, if they individually have that “personal relationship” with Christ, then they are “true Christians”.
Was this, then, the “true church”? Was there no single organization, but rather a scattered congregation of individuals mixed in among the hordes of traditional Christians like nuggets of gold among so much slag? It seemed likely for a while, but then how would one obey the admonishment to “forsake not the gathering together” of believers? How would you know who to congregate with? How could such a disorganized mob be effective? How would such powerless individuals carry out the great commission to carry the gospel to the world? How could God reveal his intentions to such people through his prophets, if they didn’t even know each other, if there was no network, no means of communication?
Gradually it dawned on me that the “great commission” had already been achieved. There was no need for an “end-time apostle”. If the New Testament were true, there had already been twelve apostles (one for each tribe of Israel, I suppose). They had already done the job. We have the Bible, which supposedly contains all their writings that are important for us to read. The Bible has been published for centuries, is available throughout the world in purt-near every language. There is no need for an “end-time work” such as Herbert DoubleYou established, or like those we see and hear on the airwaves today. The word has been spread. The world knows about Christianity. So communication between individual believers, for the reasons I considered, is unnecessary.
That still left questions hanging, of course. What about the place of safety? What about escaping the tribulation? What about prophecy? What about . . .
What about. . .
Hm. What about what?
Slowly I realized that everything I thought I knew about anything was suspect. Talk about your paradigms–I was asking all the wrong questions, based on my Worldwide Church of God training. I assumed there had to be a true church, because I assumed that prophecy was important, because Herbert DoubleYou had said it was. I assumed that Christians had to be able to identify one another–I assumed a lot of things, but I didn’t really know very much at all.
I had to ask new questions. For example, What is required for salvation? Membership in the One True Church? Subscription to the correct set of beliefs? Did you have to keep the sabbath on Saturday? Did you have to keep the Passover and the Jewish holy days? Would you be condemned for keeping Christmas or worshiping on Sunday? Did you need to understand the subtle variations of meaning between the Greek and Hebrew text? Was it necessary to be able to translate the precise meaning between the original text and the modern English equivalent? Did you need to understand the precise archaic context of every parable spoken by Christ?
Just what the hell did it take to avoid crashing and burning?
Even in the Worldwide Church of God no two people ever completely agreed on every single nuance of scripture. Not even among the ministry. Hell, especially among the ministry! They were more divided than anyone. And if no two Worldwiders could get together on these issues, then none of them were going to be saved, and the rest of the world didn’t have a prayer (assuming that Worldwide Church of God theology was correct–which it wasn’t).
I asked the question: What about some poor sod in Africa or China who meets up with some smiling missionary who tells him about Jesus, and he buys it? The Bible said that anyone who “confess that Jesus is the Christ” is a Christian. So this poor sod confesses that Jesus is the son of God. He is therefore a Christian. This poor sod can’t read, write, or use the internet. He has no Strongs Concordance handy. How in the hell is he going to distinguish between the three words for heaven or the three words for hell? How is he going to figure out the punctuation in the King James Bible when Jesus said, “Verily I say unto you, today you shall be with me in paradise”, as opposed to “Verily I say unto you today, you shall be with me in paradise”? Hell, even educated Americans can’t find that one!
So is God going to burn up this poor sod just because he can’t read?
If he is, then he’s no god of mine! And if he doesn’t, then all this legalistic crap is nothing but the dung of an ox (i.e., bullshit).
So where did that leave me? Where does it leave you? When you consider that a “church” in today’s environment is nothing but a legally organized corporation (i.e., a business), it really takes away any question of which church is the “true” church. After all, who is asking which store is the One True Store? Or which team is the One True Team? Or which factory is the One True Factory?
We were led astray, totally, to the point that we could no longer think. We were told that God had to have a “true” church. No proof was offered. No questions were tolerated. It was stuffed down our throats, and we never really thought much more about it, except to say that, “Once you’ve been in God’s true church, where else can you go?”
I finally arrived at my bottom line. Simply stated, it is this: There is no True Church. You are either with God or you aren’t. Christianity is an individual endeavor, pure and simple. As for churches–well, we’ve already been there and done that. Any organization that attempts to catalog its beliefs and structure its membership has already lost the battle. It has become man-made religion. You can attend any church you want, from fringe-lunatic cult to Catholic or anything in between, and take whatever you want from any of them, but don’t look for the “one true church”. As an organization, it does not exist.
Thank God for that!