It’s one thing to recognize that the COGs have abusive tendencies, but it’s another thing to define it in such a way that you can see the pattern, understand what those tendencies are, and where they’re coming from. I find it necessary to do this so I can get the tentacles unwrapped from around my mind and heal.
So, where did the culture of the COGs come from? I think that many leaders would haul out the phrase “God’s government” and start declaring the culture of the church is 100% biblical. Well, if it’s so biblical, then why is it so dysfunctional and abusive? Why are the COGs so full of hypocrisy? While the COGs might PREACH out of the bible, the CULTURE of the church has little to do with the bible.
So then where does it come from? The culture of the Armstrongist churches was not woven from the fabric of the bible. It came from Herbert Armstrong and from the society of his times.
Herbert Armstrong was born in middle America (Des Moines, Iowa) in 1892. His family was of Quaker background, known today as the Friends Church. The Quaker movement began in the 1600’s with the express intention of restoring the original faith and practices of the first century apostolic church. (Sound familiar?) In a sense, when HWA decided to get religion and found the Radio Church of God, he was returning to his Quaker roots. But this is the obvious theology, which is just the decorative window dressing, not the form and structure. Where did the steel undergirders come from that hold the structure up?
The power structure of the church, the government hierarchy, if you will, was always stated as being Jesus Christ, and then Armstrong, and then ministers and then regular members in a government where power and authority flowed from the top down, just like a monarchy. Apologists today will point toward the bible, and Jesus Christ as a king to argue that HWA was trying to create the “’government of God’ here on earth” within the church. However, if you suppose that Jesus Christ is not the head of the Armstrongist churches, then suddenly it’s not a benevolent monarchy anymore, it’s a fascist state.
But there’s a better viewpoint on Armstrongist churches that sheds much more light on the dynamics driving them: the nuclear family. The family is also a top-down structure, but borne of natural necessity, not fear. HWA preached that God is in the process of creating a family, and he claimed that the church was “the bride of Christ” or a part of “’God’s spiritual nuclear family’ here on earth.” I don't dispute that there is biblical support for the idea that God is making a family. However, unless God is making a horrendously dysfunctional “family,” as HWA created within his church, the culture of Armstrongism has nothing to do with God or bible necessarily, regardless of the theory.
In Victorian society, into which HWA was born, until the cultural revolution of the sixties, children were expected to be respectful of their parents, women were expected to be submissive, and the husband was expected to be the dominant head of the family. These were times when the media presented the father figure as someone who knew what was best. To be fair, these values are rooted in the bible and come from a religiously-centered society. But since people are people, there’s a darker side, too.
For thousands of years, within the context of society, men have had a lot more power than women did, and this created an environment in which women were very dependent upon their husbands. During most of HWA’s lifetime, there was a stigma attached to being a single parent, or being a divorced woman, and the prevailing sentiment was that women should not earn a living outside the home. There was a paternalistic view that men go off to work and do important “men things,” while adult women were not very intelligent, little more than glorified children, really. Women were expected to be subservient and children were expected to be “seen and not heard.” In reality, some men were dictators who were not so benevolent and wives and children were easy targets for abuse. If a wife was abused, most people would assume she had done something wrong, and that she somehow deserved it. For the wife who HAD to escape, she wouldn’t usually have a lot of options to support herself. Overlaid on top of all this was a hypocritical whitewash as everyone pretended to be happy and that there were no serious problems. But the façade of “Leave It To Beaver” was never anything more than a flimsy fiction. Who believed that crap even when it was new?
This is not just a description of American society from a bygone era, and the traditional nuclear family from those days (which the COGs still advocate today as the model nuclear family, whitewash and all), but also the culture of the Radio Church of God, a.k.a. Worldwide Church of God. (The hundreds of splinters are all daughters with a strong family resemblance.) This stands to reason, too. It was the culture in which HWA was born and raised, it is the culture in which the church originally formed, and there is a biblical interpretation to back it up. What else would you expect? But while they claim they got these values directly from the bible, they didn’t. They got them from “the world.” The proof is that they also incorporated the dark side, wholesale.
From a church culture standpoint, the ministry are the “husbands,” the children are the children (obviously), and everyone else is the “housewife.” As the “housewife” the members are basically the minister’s bitch. This is why ministers demand an inordinate amount of unearned respect from members. This is why they expect subservience and paternalistically look down on them all as glorified children. Many of them in the past have presumed to tell the membership that their only access to God is through them, thus preaching a doctrine of dependence. And all the while, they have the nerve to call themselves servants. They are merely setting themselves up as the dated father figures from yesteryear, complete with the paternalistic mysogeny. The membership has aided and abetted them by buying into the model and playing their assigned role. The liberating thing from this understanding comes from recognizing what everyone is really doing and realizing that you have a choice.
To pretend this is some kind of righteousness makes my stomach turn. They would have you believe that they are modeling the “coming government of God” here on earth and thus preparing everyone to play a role in the real thing when it arrives. BARF! That is not what is going on at all. In truth, “ministers” are just a collection of Willy Lomans: sad sack salesmen with a dwindling client base who are attempting to repackage something used as though it is new, and then selling it for more than it’s worth.
If you’re buying what they’re selling, then I suppose it’s also easy to believe this is all “godly” and “biblical” too. But all of it is “worldly” albeit a pre-1960’s world, to which it is possible, if you are foolhardy enough, to attach a certain amount of nostalgia. There are some places where this model does agree with biblical principles, but this is accidental, because the model was taken from a Christian society, not because HWA got any of it from the bible.
One of the problems with the culture is that the cultural values are more important than the biblical ones. If you violate all the commandments in the bible, you’re just a sinner, like us all. But if you violate cultural values, you are promptly disfellowshipped as though you had committed the unpardonable sin. Obviously I suppose you have, though not in a biblical sense. Which begs the question, what are these churches teaching? Are they teaching people not to sin, or are they teaching the opposite? Or perhaps COGs are just societies dedicated to a particular brand of nostalgia? Or maybe it’s just whatever keeps the money coming in. However you look at it, the bottom line is, you can sin all you want, just so long as you keep the cultural commandments.
In the mean time, American society has marched on. There have been vast changes to the prevailing societal values, expectations, and norms, and I would agree, not all for the better. But Armstrongism has stayed anachronistically fixed in the past, like a cultural time capsule, as though the hypocritical society of middle America 100 years ago were somehow the pinnacle of godliness. It wasn’t then, and it isn’t now.
Just as surely as so many COGs want to recreate WCG in its heyday, if it were up to them, I suppose they would also take the whole world back to recreate Victorian era America. That’s what they’re expecting the millennium to be like, I guess, where God comes back to Earth and forces nostalgic American values upon the whole world? If I were given a choice between that and the lake of fire, I think I’d rather take the hot bath. Who in their right mind would want to live inside of an eternal “Leave It To Beaver” marathon?
That makes me curious, besides Sabbath vs. Sunday and holy days vs. holidays, what else did Herbert Armstrong have to rail against in 1934, when the cultural values of the church were identical to the cultural values of America? Perhaps a better question is what a Quaker preacher would have had to rail about, seeing they don’t even have the difference of Sabbath and holy days like the COGs do? Oh, nevermind, the Friends Church, like the Amish, are probably dedicated to preserving and recreating the culture of the 1600’s! Get thee hence!
As time continues to march on, society will continue to change, and, like the Amish, the COGs will also continue to get further and further out of step with the world around them. They will seem more and more odd, their solutions will seem more and more out of touch, and their client base will continue to dwindle. Meanwhile, they will continue to bicker and argue and divide. Soon, the last embers of Armstrongism will blink out and grow cold. Amen.