Theology and doctrinal study by church members is not something many did. If it wasn't printed in a booklet for them most never studied theology or doctrinal history. The Correspondence Course was the end-all when it came to established belief. Theology classes at the various campuses were never taught be well rounded theologians, but by men trained at the feet of Rod Meredith, Herman Hoeh and others. We all know now that these men were theologically bankrupt.
“Armstrongists have a ‘loose brick’ approach to theology,” Bell said. “They look at doctrine as a complete whole or as nothing at all. That’s why they refer to their system of belief as ‘The Truth.’ person any one doctrine falls then the whole system falls.”
Bell had been a member of the movement for three years when he began to question its teachings. In 1995 he founded the Owensboro church but soon began to examine central Armstrongist teachings under the microscope of Scripture and history.
For Bell, the first brick to crumble from the wall of Armstrongism was the sect’s doctrine of “Anglo-Israelism.” Influenced by a book called “Judah’s Scepter and Joseph’s Birthright” by J.H. Allen, Herbert Armstrong taught that Anglo-Saxons are direct descendants of the 10 lost tribes of Israel. Armstrongists see this teaching as the key that unlocks a true understanding of biblical prophecy.
Bell read “Judah’s Scepter” and was incredulous at his findings.
“When I got finished with it, I thought, ‘There are some interesting ideas here, but this is historical fantasy,’” he said. “... I began to research it in more depth and quickly tossed it out.”
Though spooked by this revelation, Bell nevertheless dismissed the doctrinal aberration as a peculiarity of Herbert Armstrong’s system of belief.
The next doctrine to tumble down was the Trinity -- Armstrongists are strongly anti-Trinitarian. The final Armstrongist brick that Bell dislodged was the group’s teaching on God. Armstrongists believe that man eventually accomplishes ‘god-status,’ a qualitative equality with God.
It didn’t take a seminary education for Bell to realize that was blasphemy.
“When I was first getting into the Armstrongist movement, I read a booklet that said the resurrection (of the dead at Christ’s return) would be the most momentous event in the history of the world because it would be the birth of gods,” Bell said. “When I read that, I said ... ‘that’s blasphemy.’”
Still, Bell decided to ignore the booklet because Garner Ted Armstrong had not written it. He remained in the movement.
“I chose [to believe] that everything else I was hearing was so good, I was going to shove that aside,” he said.
Under the leadership of Joseph Tkach, who succeeded Herbert Armstrong as leader of the Worldwide Church of God upon his death in 1986, the sect experienced a massive doctrinal shift in the mid-90s toward biblical orthodoxy.
The group’s website trumpets this radical transformation as a “Damascus Road experience.” The Worldwide Church of God was admitted as a member of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1997.
As an Armstrongist devotee, Bell saw the change as a great apostasy. Other true Armstrongists agreed and the Worldwide Church of God lost more than half its members and ministers because of the shift. True Armstrongists still hold fast to the teachings of Herbert Armstrong and have churches scattered about the country, Bell said.
It wasn’t until the spring of 1998, after a series of sexual misconduct allegations were lodged against Garner Ted Armstrong, that Bell’s foray into Armstrongism came to an end.
The allegations turned the Church of God International on its head and struck Bell with sledgehammer force. Due in large part to the accusations, Bell eventually resigned the pastorate and began the journey back to Christian orthodoxy.
Bell enrolled at Southern in the fall of 1998. It was a revolutionary experience and within one year, his view of theology underwent a profound metamorphosis.
That first year, Bell studied Baptist and church history, theology, and hermeneutics. Soon, he had embraced fully historic evangelical Christianity.
“By the end of my first full year at Southern Seminary, I had my theological world rocked,” he said. “I emerged from that a convinced evangelical.”