Servants' News

Jan/Feb 2000


Why Do So Many People Seem Blind to “CoG” Abuse and Error?

The above question was sincerely asked on an Internet forum. Pam Dewey’s answer has been turned into this article.


Where do the corporate Church of God groups and their ministers derive their “reason for existence” and the validity of their “credentials” to represent God on Earth? Nearly every one derives their authority from their previous membership in the Worldwide Church of God or from their present work which they proclaim to be a continuation of the WCG in some way. They use similar logic to demand tithes of the people. If they had to go back just to the Bible to establish any of these things, they would be at a loss, for there is nothing in it that would establish their authority in any of these matters. To be specific, they cannot show any prophecies, great miracles or great body of new, unique doctrinal teaching that would establish their current group as “the one” with which God is working.

What they use, on a tiny scale, the Catholic Church’s concepts of Apostolic succession and the validity of Church Tradition. A local minister who is “in charge” of a corporate congregation can say, “I had hands laid on me by someone who had hands laid on him by someone who had hands laid on him by Herbert Armstrong. Therefore, I am in charge. Such a person’s “credentials” would mean nothing to someone who did not know about or was not convicted that Herbert Armstrong was “God’s Apostle”.

Because of all of this, most people in positions of responsibility in the corporate church organizations are very careful to repress almost all evidence of abuse by the leadership within the “old” WCG—particularly any evidence regarding Herbert Armstrong himself. Obviously, most people who “lived through” those years in the WCG are aware of some abuse of power and of some corruption, as most experienced or at least observed, or had friends who experienced or observed, some such abuse and corruption. But unless one has a wider circle of information to draw from, it was easy to excuse such abuse and corruption as likely being just isolated, or infrequent.

When we were marked and disfellowshipped in 1978, the “disinformation” system within the WCG was running full time. All problems were quickly swept under the carpet, “dissenters” were quarantined from sharing information by marking and disfellowshipment. “Dissident literature”, which might document abuse and corruption, was labeled as “spiritual poison” so that members were fearful of ever daring to have a peek. At Ambassador College for a time, the administration even forced the students to sign a document allowing those in charge to physically censor incoming mail, to prevent students from receiving copies of the Ambassador Report.

Meanwhile, after periods of upheaval such as in 1972, 1974 and 1978, and after any complainers were hustled out the door, there were periods of relative quiet and peace in the organization, and enough “good” going on that people were lulled into a feeling of the essential “goodness” toward the WCG. It felt good to be part of a church organization that bought more radio and TV time than any other on earth. It’s pretty neat to see the “head” of one’s organization hobnobbing with the rich and famous of the world. So what if a few people gave up the family farm and the security of their own retirement to fund this sort of thing. They did it of their “own free will”, didn’t they?

Also, it is a frequently observed fact of human nature that the more a people becomes “invested” in a group, in terms of time, money, relationships, belief in the cause, and mental and emotional allegiance to the leadership of the group, the more willing they are to tolerate “cognitive dissonance” regarding what goes on within the group. That is, they can actually see problems, and they may register in their mind as being not “in harmony” with their conviction of the absolute goodness of what they are involved in. Thus there is, inside their head, “dissonance”—dis-harmony.

Under healthy normal functioning of the human mind, this sort of dissonance should send a warning that something is seriously wrong, and they ought to take some sort of action. They should either want to get more information about what is going on so they can resolve the dissonance, or they should face the fact something is wrong in the real world and try to either change what’s wrong, or withdraw themselves from it.

But if people are able to “tolerate” such dissonance, they will probably not take any of those actions. And the more “investment” they have that makes them convinced that they must stay where they are, and that they must not make waves, the more they are forced to somehow try to ignore that dissonance. As one minister put it back in 1978, “I pull a steel trap door over my mind so I don’t have to think about it.” This process went on back then, and it still goes on now.

It is extremely painful for most people to have to consider that a “cause” they have given much of their life to might not have been “the One True Church of God”, and the leader they idolized might not have been the Great Man of God they always believed him to be. They would much rather believe the organization was what they thought it was, and the leader was who they thought he was, and that it was just stolen, or undermined, or hi-jacked, or whatever, by a bunch of unscrupulous men.

Unfortunately, the “Church of God” leaders who most strongly dismiss Herbert Armstrong’s shortcomings as “minor” often themselves refuse to fairly investigate his problems. But at the same time, they will investigate the shortcomings of other groups with which they disagree—and dismiss those groups as “not of God” because of their problems. Where is the concept of “judging righteous judgment”? Does God care if we have a totally different standard for judging ourselves than we have for judging others?

I have, in the past twenty years, studied a broad cross-section of religious groups that have arisen since the first century. I have particularly been interested in researching those groups that taught that they were the “one true church” and/or predicted the End of the World in their own time. I know it may be very difficult for most people who have invested a lot in the WCG to accept, but the experience of those involved in the WCG is not unique in any way. It is practically a “classic text book example” of the kind of evolution such groups go through. Leaders of such groups often start by teaching that they are just one of many groups that God is using. But they point out where doctrines of major denominations differ from the Bible and they offer new explanations for prophecies. Their diligence and energy in teaching attracts many new followers. As these groups grow bigger, corruption, abuse, high-living and sex scandals increase among the leadership. Each group will then usually react by even more loudly asserting itself to be the “one True Church”, and by removing members that try to expose or correct the problems. Groups usually continue or crumble, depending largely on the ability of each leader to continue to operate like the previous leader.

The fact that the WCG fits this typical “cult” pattern does not invalidate all that happened there. To the contrary, consider this:

1. Those who truly repented, were baptized and received the Holy Spirit really had a relationship with God. The Bible’s promises to individuals are not made void by the mistakes of organizations.

2. The value of relationships between brethren established while being a member of such an organization still stands. (WCG split-off groups often discourage close friends between their members and members in other groups—but these brethren ought not let organizations take away what God may have built up over years.)

3. The truth of the doctrines taught by HWA and the WCG are not “canceled” because of some errors. I am firmly convinced those doctrines ought to be lined up against the Bible, and accepted or rejected on their own merits. If a doctrine can be proven to a new person from the Bible, then it should be taught. If a doctrine must be taught by saying: “this scripture has that meaning because HWA said so”, then it is not worth teaching.

4. Even the value of our “happy memories” about specific Feasts or other experiences from better days while involved in the organization do not have to be rejected. Most of those memories come from people sharing together and doing what they understood to be the will of God at that time.

But lots of good and sincere and godly friends, and happy Feast memories, and conviction of truth that one learned do not, in any way, negate the fact that corruption and abuse were rampant in the organization, and do not “justify” any of the flaws in the leadership including HWA. Those acts also ought to be “lined up” against the Bible standard for church leaders, and evaluated by that standard, not “excused” by one’s own desire to avoid painful reality.

It was easy to have wonderful memories when you were devoting yourself to be a diligent member of “God’s one True Church”, when you thought the leaders were great moral men of God, when you knew of no major doctrinal problems, etc. Once you know about the reality of the problems, the wonderful experiences that produced those “wonderful memories” are gone. How can anyone ever whole-heartedly support a particular church organization that claims to be the “main group” that God is using, when they have close friends in other groups whom they consider deeply converted? We will probably not have whole-hearted conviction and wonderful memories again until the center of our religion turns to Christ, the Bible and our relationships with all the other believers we know. That means our religion must no longer be centered around a particular human church organization that makes claims about itself that it cannot prove.

Why are so many still so blind to all of this? Because they and their leaders do not want to do this hard and painful work of evaluation and, in their own minds, “risk” so much. It is so much easier to label publications like The Journal, News of the Churches of God or Servants’ News as “heresy”—without even reading what they say. It is easy to dismiss Likeminds and other Internet forums as “gossip” without seeing the many sincere and truthful statements there. Most COG leaders simply do not want their congregations to know about past or present problems in the Churches of God. But God will bring all of these things into judgment. The good, the bad, those who attack the good, and those who defend the bad.

—Pam Dewey

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