Servants' News

Jan/Feb 2000


Passover 2000: Confessing the Sins of the Past and Moving On

When I was a senior in Ambassador College (1977), I joined a co-ed speaking club. One of my assignments was to "evaluate"—give a two-minute commentary on— a freshman woman giving her first speech. My previous three years of men’s club experience taught me not to "go easy" on evaluations, so I was not about to "let the club down". I took the opportunity to deftly explain her few good points, then showed the great, vast areas where she needed improvement. I remember looking at her somewhat pained face as I spoke, but do not remember being concerned about what affect I was having on her. "I knew how to do evaluations and I was doing it right," I thought. The club was large and met infrequently, and I don’t remember anyone saying anything about that evaluation—I no longer remember what her speech was about or if I ever saw the woman again.

Until 14 years later. She introduced herself to me at the Feast of Tabernacles in Wisconsin Dells. She had not forgotten that speech or my evaluation. Because of it, she never gave another speech in college. She told me that she had forgiven me, but that it took nearly ten years for her to get over it.

At the time of the speech and for all those years, I really had never thought that I had done anything wrong. But the classes this woman took, the friends she made, and her approach to life was altered because of my well-intended, but unthinking two-minute evaluation.

Was that a sin? Yes. Without question. I apologized and asked her forgiveness upon hearing her story. I did not seek to do evil, but I did not ask the Eternal to give me His words for that evaluation. I was more concerned with "sounding impressive" than I was in helping someone who needed encouragement.

So what does this have to do with "Church of God groups"? As I thought I was doing the "right thing" in my evaluation, so most WCG members thought they were doing the "right thing" for many years. They proudly defended their organization as the "One True Church". Leaders were followed and honored no matter what problems their sins and errors may have caused. As I never cared what happened to that first-time speaker, WCG members rarely cared about the "disfellowshipped" who often just "disappeared".

For years after that evaluation, I had an "important job" in the computer department of the WCG. Similarly, many people in the WCG went on to do their "important work", often unknowing and uncaring about offense to new believers. Nobody remembers the person who struggled for three years to overcome fornication so he could attend the WCG, only to find out that a minister’s son was regularly fornicating and was still allowed to attend. Nobody took responsibility for this man giving up on God and the Bible for many years due to such hypocrisy. But there were a number of people who knew about the hypocrisy—and could have done something about it.

I, Norman Edwards, remember regarding hundreds of people as "unconverted" because they were not in my church organization. I remember refusing to talk to people because they were "disfellowshipped". I remember refusing to discuss the Bible with seriously interested people, telling them they could write to my "headquarters" if they wanted to learn. I remember refusing to help people who knew I believed in the Bible and who were in legitimate need, because I was giving my money to the more important "Work." How many people did I "turn off" from seeking God? How many people did I help to convince that Sabbath-keepers were self-righteous and not worth learning from? How much did I help others to do these same things on a larger scale by working for the WCG and GCG?

There is no doubt that a lot of good was accomplished by those organizations—and at least a little good accomplished by me personally. Similarly, a lot of other speakers were helped by my evaluations. I received the "most helpful evaluator" cup several times. But all of this "good" did nothing for the one new speaker who never gave another speech. I have no way of knowing how many other people I may have similarly affected. How many did not recover? How many, for some period of time, rejected God, the Sabbath, or the Holy Days because of me?

How about you? How many people heard you say that you were a member of "God’s One True Church"? How many of those same people knew about serious sin or errors in the WCG and either rejected the Bible or the truth the WCG taught because of it? Is their knowledge of the sins and errors the problem? Does God need to hide the truth—maybe tell a few good lies—to bring people into His Kingdom? I hope you are saying, "No!"

But we must realize many thousands of people who were considering WCG membership studied doctrines, such as hierarchical government, in the Bible and found many scriptures that disagreed with the WCG teaching. Similarly, some heard stories of sins and abuse that were against the Bible definition of a "minister"—and were dumfounded when WCG leaders refused to even talk about such problems.

How often did you justify Herbert Armstrong’s expensive life style to other people as being "necessary to go before kings"? Yet almost anyone who has been to Sunday school knows that Christ and Paul went before kings without wealth—as prisoners. What do those people think of our ways and of our "Bible knowledge"?

I have said these things. I cannot recall all of the people to whom I said them. But God has not forgotten. And, like the freshman speaker I evaluated, many of the people have not forgotten.

Understand the Error

If it is still hard to grasp that someone could have been severely hurt by the WCG, think about this:

  1. During the 1990’s, you almost certainly lost some friends because you were disfellowshipped from their church organization or because they were disfellowshipped from yours. (Simply quitting an organization can have an effect similar to disfellowshipment.) You know what it can be like to suddenly lose long-time friends because somebody else made a decision.
  2. Think about what it would be like to lose nearly all of your church friends at once in this manner. It can take sometimes 10 years to recover.
  3. Now think about the people you know to whom this actually happened. As groups began to split off from the WCG in the 1990s, I was amazed at the number of people who began attending who had been disfellowshipped from the WCG in the 70s or 80s—many, apparently, for unjust reasons. If you have visited a few groups, you probably have met someone like this.
  4. Now think about the many people who were unjustly disfellowshipped or offended, and never returned to a "Church of God" group.

Who is responsible for the people who were offended and left? We all have excuses: I was just a member who could not change anything; I was just a minister following orders; I was just a Church Administration employee following orders; I was a Pastor General too busy doing "the Work" to know what was happening in local congregations. Christ will ultimately judge, but there is probably something that everyone could have done. He will not accept these excuses.

Following Christ is not a process of patting ourselves on the back for the good things we do, and ignoring sins that are hard to think about, hard to see, and only hurting people whom we do not know. Christ said: "Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Matt 5:48).

We must also realize that once we understand what we should be doing, we are responsible to do it: “Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin” (Jms 4:17).

So many people seem to want to go back to the "good old days" of the WCG. They seem content to "coast into the Kingdom" on the merits of those days, and are very little interested in righting any wrongs that Christ has now made clear. But if we are sinning now—failing to repent and correct error we now recognize—then the good we have done in the past will not "make up for it":

But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and does according to all the abomination that the wicked man does, shall he live? All the righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered; because of the unfaithfulness of which he is guilty and the sin which he has committed, because of them he shall die (Ezk 18:24).

I am thankful that the Eternal has shown me my sin in that 1977 speech evaluation. I am thankful that He has shown me my errors of idolatry—giving honor and allegiance to church organizations and leaders when it really belonged to Christ. Those were sins in ignorance at the time—I did not know any better way. But I know a better way now.

I believe that the Eternal has allowed the WCG to split up to show us what we were like all along. WCG leaders usually kept internal fighting and sins quiet—not telling the members and disfellowshipping anyone who talked about it too much. Now, when we are split up among many organizations, leaders do not hide the truth about each other. We see the way it is—and was.

Having spent so much time in the WCG, it was initially very hard for me to grasp how to worship and serve the Eternal outside of that environment. So has it been—and still is—for many others. But the many organizations that have split off from the WCG—even though they may still teach hierarchical government—have each helped people leave the WCG and the one-man rule system. Each person who leaves the WCG for another group proves that Christ expects individuals to choose the leaders and congregations with which they will fellowship.

I believe that all of the WCG split-off groups are serving a purpose—though some probably better than others. Most formed to serve a specific need—with much joy and rapid growth. But unless they continue to be willing to seek Christ and change, that joy and growth usually stops. Now, many groups’ evangelism efforts do not replace the numbers of their members that are leaving or dying.

It is possible that a few thousand dollars spent by Tom Justus to reprint an old Sabbath book read by a couple of independent Sunday congregations has produced more new Sabbath-keepers than the millions of dollars spent by some hierarchical group’s evangelism programs. Now, someone may argue that these new independent Sabbath-keepers "don’t count" because they did not join Tom Justus’ "work". But that is exactly the point that we need to learn: Is evangelism teaching people to "follow us", or to learn truth and to follow Christ? Can we trust Christ to work with the groups that learn some truth from us? Or must they follow us—accepting all of our truth, our methods and our error?

We have included a number of articles in this issue on various WCG split-offs—listing some of their strengths and weaknesses. The purpose is not to condemn them, but to help those in the groups see how they look to others, and to help all of us overcome our difficulties. Many are tired of church organization issues and would rather not read or think about them any more. I feel that way some times. But ignoring the problems and hoping they will go away will not solve them. If you have a friend who might benefit by an article or even a page of this issue, please copy it and give it to them.

It Is Never Too Late

As long as we are alive, it is never too late to see our sin and repent. The Passover is a time when we think about people we may have offended and make peace with them. Indeed, Christ instructed that making peace with our brother is more important than "doing work for God":

Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matt 5:23-24).

If we know we have personally sinned against someone, it is good to ask for forgiveness and make the situation right if possible. But it is also good to think about people—like the first-time speaker that I evaluated—whom we may have offended and forgotten about. During this Passover and the days of unleavened bread, I encourage you to think about possible sins in the following areas, repent if you have some, and ask Christ to give you a new heart so they will not be repeated:

  1. If we attend with a church organization, we need to stop viewing it as "the group with the truth that is going to get us into the place of safety and the kingdom". It is a place to grow, serve others and help preach the gospel. We should not look down on people who attend other groups or home fellowships.
  2. If we do not attend with a church organization, we need to be patient, kind and loving to those who do. We probably cannot "argue them out". We should not judge them and say that their reasons for staying are wrong. Some people—even ministers—are remaining in those organizations primarily to help them change or to help brethren see a way out.
  3. We need to think about friends and relatives that we have needlessly offended in the past because of our religion. Did we justify some unbiblical practice or teaching to them simply because it was taught by the WCG? What do they now think of the Bible, the Sabbath, etc. because of us?
  4. Did we reject people because the WCG told us to do it, even though we did not know why?
  5. Do we avoid mentioning the Eternal, Christ, the Bible or the Sabbath because the WCG taught us to do so? We should not be obnoxious to others. But, if someone asks us to do something that is against what we understand the Bible to teach, do we identify our Master to them, or do we just say, "I’d rather not do that."

Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven (Matt 10:32-33).

Let us think about these points and judge ourselves now. "For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged" (1Cor 11:31). If you have not read the last issue on "Eternal Judgment", please do so. We need to see which "talents" Christ has given us and set about using them! We cannot sit and glory in the good of the past, nor can we live on, repeating the error. Christ has enough love and mercy to forgive any sin, but we must ask for it (1Jn 1:9).

Norman Edwards

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