Dealing With Reality:
A Non-WCG Member’s Experience With WCG Tradition
by David Harrell
Our church, the independent Active Bible Church of God in Chicago, was blessed with a few newcomers last year. One of them was a lady named Chuckie, who had a Seventh-Day Adventist background.
One Sabbath, shortly after she had been baptized, an elder giving a sermonette made an off-hand remark about Garner Ted Armstrong. Chuckie looked around to those sitting next to her and whispered: "Who’s Garner Ted Armstrong?"
Question: Does she really need to know?
She didn’t come to church to hear about or discuss Garner Ted Armstrong. She came to learn about the Eternal and his way.
Another newcomer, Thurman, was formerly with the Church of God (Seventh Day). He rides to and from church with me sometimes, and since meeting last year the two of us have visited several Sabbath-keeping churches, including other CGI splinters, UCG, and non-COG groups such as the Adventists, the True Jesus Church and the Israel of God—an African-American church in Chicago. While visiting a CGI splinter group, we discovered the "Living Church of Rod" meets separately, in the very same hall, at the same time! So we stopped by LCG and commiserated with some of the latest "Church War" victims.
The more Thurman sees of the Church of God scene, the more he bemoans the divisions between groups. He also complains that he’s tired of hearing "Armstrong this, Armstrong that" and that we seem to think the Church began with Herbert Armstrong.
Probably, many of you reading this article can recall similar situations. Which is why I think it’s time more of us started asking two very important questions:
1) How should we remember Herbert W. Armstrong (and, if applicable, Garner Ted Armstrong)?
2) Considering what we know, is it wise to expose visitors and new converts to the Armstrong name and organizational legacy at all?
Personally, I began to make my own decisions in these questions years ago. I was led to the Plain Truth magazine and to watching HWA on "The World Tomorrow" in 1984, at a young age. But not long afterward, I also discovered his son’s program. Eventually, I began receiving tapes and literature from GTA, who himself was quick to point out some of his father’s errors, especially those related to one-man, top-down church government. Thus, I was inoculated against worshiping one or the other Armstrong or adopting either corporation as the "one true church".
In 1992, at the age of 18, I attended one WCG evangelistic meeting but started to become concerned about the watering down of doctrine and tone that had begun in the Plain Truth. I began attending CGI and was baptized. About a year later, someone lent me some copies of Ambassador Report, which opened my eyes to GTA’s long history of "indiscretions" and more of HWA’s problems as well. The newsletter also introduced me to the work of other Church of God ministers: Ken Westby, Jim Rector, John Ritenbaugh and others, who helped me to see the "bigger picture" beyond the Armstrongs.
So when "Tedgate" broke loose in ‘95, I wasn’t shocked or disillusioned. After the CGI split in 1996, I kept learning through tapes from Jim Rector, Likeminds and other Web sites, and books such as "Herbert Armstrong’s Tangled Web" by David Robinson. (The main focus of my research was not muckraking but spiritual growth, which I felt was not emphasized much in my years in the CGI.)
The more I learned about the Armstrongs, the more it troubled me. Whatever good they may have done—including being used to bring me to the Eternal—almost appeared, in some cases, to be obscured by the many bad things they had done or permitted. Certainly, that is true in the area of their public reputations and in the cases of many who were hurt (some even died) due to HWA’s mistakes. These things are still live ammunition that can be used against us—in fact, they already have been used against us.
Unfortunately, many in the Church of God world are oblivious to the danger. Even in our little independent fellowship, a few folks would like to remember HWA in unrealistically rosy terms. One very sweet but stubborn lady (who had not been through CGI like most of us, as she came straight from the WCG) recently insisted to me that HWA was indeed the "apostle of God!"
In another clique, there are people with a lot of gossip and old "war stories" about the WCG, GTA, etc. (mainly not in the messages, but in the conversations after church and especially at restaurants and potlucks where drinks are being drunk). One way or another, the Armstrong name always comes up.
Now, I realize folks are always going to reminisce about the past. The problem is, if I am inviting new people into such a situation, I feel I either have to:
1) Spend a lot of time "shielding" them from the truth about the Armstrongs (nearly impossible);
2) Spend a lot of time explaining and doing "damage control";
3) Ask the people who are talking about the Armstrongs to stop; or
4) Start a whole new group where we can focus on the Eternal, not the prominent personages of the past.
What is the answer? What should we do?
To me, it seems that if any significant evangelism is going to happen in the future, it will only happen outside the shadow of "Armstrongism"—apart from the Armstrong name, the Armstrongist organizations, even "independents" who still cannot seem to get out of the past. It may even take starting totally new fellowships from scratch—which some are doing.
Not to say those within "Armstrongism" are bad people. However, I doubt they will be able to have much effect upon the world in the future. They live in a house whose closets are full of skeletons. The wisest solution, in my opinion, would be to move to a new address.
We Are Now One of Many Groups
Even though it was not true, years ago it was easy for the WCG to point to its big media campaign and convince new believers that they were the only one doing it and therefore the "only true Church". Today, the WCG splits are a collection of little groups no bigger than many other Sabbatarian groups.
The December 1998 Servants’ News was a good starting point to study some of these groups. Since I live near a big city (Chicago) where many of these groups are present, I have met members from several of them. Just recently, I checked out the web site of the The House of God, The Holy Church of the Living God, The Pillar & Ground of the Truth, The House of Prayer for all People, inc. I realized they have two churches within a 20-minute drive of my home—in fact, I have driven or ridden the bus past their buildings many times, having no idea they were Sabbath-keepers! (See box about Marvin Gaye at right.)
Visited Groups Previously in SN
Last year, a friend and I paid a visit to the Chicago congregation of the the True Jesus Church (http://www.tjc.org/). The meeting was held in a house, and there were perhaps 60 in attendance. They were mostly Chinese, and some did not speak English and required an interpreter.
Coincidentally, the girl doing the interpreting, a student at the University of Chicago, happened to have been a student of our pastor, Michael Linacre, who is a professor there! Neither of them knew the other was a Sabbath-keeper.
I found the members to be wonderfully zealous and dedicated. (At the time, they happened to be holding a special weekend-long "Spiritual Convocation"). However, they hold the unbiblical practice of glossolalia (they believe it is the "sign" that one has the Holy Spirit), which can be very spooky to see and hear in person. Also, the church structure is definitely hierarchical, and the American church, I believe, is run out of California.
That same day, we went to visit a Seventh-Day Adventist Church. After the service we spoke with a couple of the deacons. Upon learning that we observed the Holy Days, one of them said, "You know, I have been very interested in the Holy Days. I’ll have to do some more study into that." Apparently, he had heard of Dr. Bacchiocchi’s works on the Feasts, but had not studied them in depth. I hope we helped encourage them to do so.
Seven Groups Not in Previous SN
Here are seven other Sabbatarian groups I know that were not covered in the December 1998 Servants’ News.
1) The Israel of God. This one is based in Chicago but they have branches in Atlanta, Dallas, Memphis and Buffalo, NY. Their TV show runs in many areas—apparently on free cable access channels. In a nutshell, IOG is like an African-American mirror image of the WCG: It’s led by a charismatic man who is the unquestioned leader. They are quite legalistic about the OT laws (including circumcision), especially since they believe they, as Africans, are the lineal descendants of Israel—not America, Britain, and Northwestern Europeans. Having said that, they seem to be very active in outreach to their community and their worship services are lively with uplifting music. It is a popular haven for black ex-Worldwiders, especially those who were repelled by racism in the Armstrongist movement. I know several people who attend and have visited a couple of times. (www.theisraelofgod.com/).
2) The Twelve Tribes or Messianic Communities (www.twelvetribes.com; P. O. Box 449; Island Pond, VT 05846; 802-723-9708). Three years ago, I ran into some young men from this group "by chance" as they were evangelizing at my school, Columbia College in Chicago. They didn’t tell me what group they were with—they only let on that they were "disciples of Yahshua" and "a band of traveling pilgrims" or some such, and that they lived in the country on a Christian commune. They also said they had no permanent address or telephone number by which I could contact them, so we lost contact.
Last year, after some detective work on the Internet (thank God for the ‘Net!) I located a web-site of a group which fit their description: the Twelve Tribes.
I wrote to the web-master, and he did indeed confirm that he knew of the young men I had met, but "wouldn’t know of any way to reach them". I believe this stems from the group’s practice of cutting their members off from the outside world.
Apparently, the Communities are an outgrowth of the hippie and "Jesus People" movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s. For the most part, they live very simply and primitively, making their living through farming and cottage industries. Everything is shared, as in the early church in Jerusalem. Apparently, they send their young men out on extensive missionary journeys to college campuses, evangelistic crusades, rock concerts, etc.
On his web-site, the "cult-watcher" and "deprogrammer" Rick Ross put some bad stuff about the tribes—allegations of deviant doctrines, mind control, child abuse, etc.—which may be true to one degree or another. (http://www.rickross.com/groups/tribes.html). Their chief "apostle," Yoneq, keeps a low profile, and the missionaries do not mention him—but within the group, he apparently wields absolute power, a la Herbert Armstrong.
I would not recommend that anyone join the group. However, they have some interesting articles arguing that Christians ought to live together in communities, surrender their possessions, etc., just like in the early days. While you could call their viewpoint dogmatic and absolutist, it is still thought-provoking. They question the idea that Christians are supposed to strive to appear "normal" and fit into society, and they have a lot to say about what it means to truly "come out of the world."
3) Overcomer Ministries (Brother Stair):www.overcomerministry.com. They are a communal, Pentecostal-ish, "Oneness"/holiness group following Ralph G. Stair as "the end-time prophet of God." Whatever you may think of Bro. Stair’s calling or his ego, he is preaching the Gospel and his ministry is huge. His radio time totals over 100 hours a day, across many stations. I first heard Bro. Stair several years ago, before I even joined the Church of God.
4) Sabbath-keeping Mennonites: I met one such lady last year at the Feast (Ozarks). I don’t know how many of these are around, but according to Richard Nickel’s information, they can be contacted at: PO Box 1061; Lacombe LA 70445; 504-882-7080.
5) The German Seventh-day Baptists: I don’t believe they are associated with the regular SBDs or even listed on the SDB web-sites. German Seventh Day Baptists; RR 1 Box 14B; New Enterprise, PA16664; 814-766- 3378. Also, Snow Hill Society of German Seventh Day Baptists; 9400 Anthony Hwy; Waynesboro, PA 17268; 314-766-3583.
6) The Body of Christ, a small, local house church in Chicago, about 15-25 members (at least, last time I visited, a couple of years ago); mostly black and Hispanic. They adhere to the Sabbath and Holy Days, Sacred Names, and food laws, as well as some other doctrinal peculiarities. All I know about their history is that the first members were formerly Baptists. Body of Christ; 1528 N. Talman Ave.; Chicago, IL 60622. Asst Pastor: Victor M. Ramirez Jr., 773-486-1274
7) Many, many Sacred Names groups, such as the Assemblies of Yahweh based in Bethel, PA (http://www.assembliesofyahweh.com/) You have probably covered them in previous issues, however.
The Eternal Calling Many Out
One might tend to view these groups as a bunch of weird people with a weird history that probably think they know everything. Welcome to the club! Many of them may view us that same way! I’m not saying that because all groups have some truth and some error that "one group is as good as another". However, it is very easy to view our problems as "things we are working out which outsiders should be able to overlook", but view other group’s problems as reasons to totally dismiss those groups.
I would encourage all readers to keep in touch with various Sabbath-keepers, to be "bridge-builders". If you visited another group, would you like to be treated like a "fellow believer" or "another heathen"? How do you regard people from a "strange" group who might visit yours? New brethren who are really seeking Bible truth often listen to several groups. Will they think we are Christians if we don’t know anything about other groups—or if we seem to hate them?
I believe the Eternal is giving more light to, or alternatively, calling His people out of, all groups where they have been in bondage to men and to human traditions. I believe He is re-building a pure church to which the man-made church organizations were only stepping-stones. And, by the way, one of the instruments I believe He is using is Servants News. I wish to thank them for this invaluable ministry!
—David Harrell; 708-957-9478
l8910 Springfield Ave.
Flossmoor, IL 60422
Singer Marvin Gaye has Sabbatarian Roots
The following biographical information about the popular singer, Marvin Gaye, comes from the web-site: http://afgen.com/marvin.html.
The private and professional lives of Marvin Gaye—the forces which led to his undertaking a work of this nature—were dramatic. He was not a happy man. His childhood had been difficult. He learned the Bible and the joys of sanctified music in a store-front church in which his father, a scholarly but violent man, presided as a charismatic preacher. The Christian sect with which the Gays (Marvin added the "e" later) were affiliated was as eccentric as its name, a combination of quotes from the Old and New Testaments, Isaiah and First Timothy, The House of God, the Holy Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth, the House of Prayer for All People. The church was a bizarre mixture of orthodox Judaism and Pentecostal Christianity.
"We follow Biblical instructions," Bishop Simon Peter Rawlings told me [the biographer] in the early eighties when I was researching a book on Marvin’s life. "And the Bible does not ask us to celebrate Jesus’ birth or the Crucifixion. Christmas and Easter are holidays that some might even view as pagan, and we feel obligated to ignore them." At the church’s central sanctuary in Lexington, Kentucky, I noticed that the pulpit was adorned with a large Star of David; I heard how the congregants follow Old Testament dietary laws, celebrate the Jewish Day of Atonement by remaining in prayer for twenty-four hours and eat unleavened bread on Passover.
Along similar lines, the famous piano player, Little Richard, was interviewed by Tom Snyder on The Late Late Show. He mentioned that he grew up in a seventh-day-Sabbath-keeping home, and he appeared to still hold the Sabbath in high esteem—but didn’t quite come out and say that he is a Seventh Day Adventist. &
Correction to Article on 26 Church Groups
The group under the heading "Queensland Australia" on page 44 of the December 1998 issue is called the International Christian Embassy (Jerusalem). These people are members of the pentecostal Assemblies of God. They journeyed over to Israel to convert the Jews to Christianity. Instead, they themselves became convinced that they should start observing the Sabbath and Holy Days. They now sponsor a Christian Feast of Tabernacles each year in Jerusalem.
There is no ICEJ group in Canberra where I live, though their base of operations is in Queensland under a man by the name of Bruce Garbutt. One of their leading spokeswomen is a lady by the name of Jesme O'Hara (email: firstname.lastname@example.org). I have met her and heard her speak and she is right on the money with her advocacy of the Torah—though a good bit 'out in front' of other members of her church. We recently got a phone call from a local woman who I believe is connected to this group. I hope to get more information about their activities in future.