September 10, 2003
When cults end

I was Googling last night for a church in my neighborhood when I stumbled across the website for the Worldwide Church of God. I'd heard about this church from Telford, since they're headquartered in Pasadena and some of his students grew up in it. It has quite a remarkable story, which the site recounts here.

Basically, the WCG was a cult. It got started by a radio preacher named Herbert Armstrong, who did an in-depth study of the Bible and developed some "unusual ideas" about it, as the site delicately puts it. In a way, it reads like an amalgam of Christian fringe beliefs. There's the imminent end of the world (ho hum) and messing up the concept of the Trinity (for which I can't entirely blame them -- I can't say I get it myself). There's shifting the Sabbath back to Saturday, like the Seventh-Day Adventists, and refusing medical aid, like the Christian Scientists. There's the identification of the Anglo-Saxons with the lost tribes of Israel, thereby binding them to the kosher laws. (As a rule, whenever anyone tells you they've identified the lost tribes of Israel, you know you're in flying-saucer-land.)

In 1986 Armstrong died, and the WCG passed to new leadership. Remarkably, the new leaders decided he'd been wrong about a whole lot of things, and have embraced mainstream evangelical Christianity. Not surprisingly, a group of loyalists split off and formed their own church to preserve the original teachings, but most members adapted. Telford says his WCG students are delightful to have, as they preserve some of the passion of newness and discovery. Apparently this led him to rather startle his class one day by remarking, "I wish I'd been brought up in a cult."

This isn't the first time I've heard a story like this. After Elijah Muhammed died, he passed leadership of the Nation of Islam to his son Warith, who renounced his father's racism and turned the group into a mainstream Muslim organization. But as with the WCG a group of purists split off, in this case led by Louis Farrakhan.

It's interesting to see how people make these adjustments while not abjuring the solidarity and passion that make cults so appealing. The WCG concludes:

We acknowledge that many of our doctrines were erroneous. We acknowledge that the WCG would not exist without those erroneous doctrines. But we do not conclude that Jesus Christ rescued us as a group merely to have us disband. He has bought and paid for this church. It belongs to him, and we have told him that he can have it! If it is of any value to him, he can use it as his instrument, and we are happy to let him lead us. We rejoice in the fellowship we have with him, and we believe that he is already leading us into usefulness.

Posted by Camassia at September 10, 2003 09:06 AM | TrackBack
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