Where’s My Bitterness?

I’m somewhat a part of the Armstrongite recovery community, since Felix links to my blog on his excellent site, Post WCG Life and Theology. For those who don’t know much about Armstrongism, it was a movement founded by Herbert W. Armstrong in the 1930’s. Armstrong was a traveling salesman, and he was one of the first evangelists to take advantage of radio. As a result, he built a religious empire, and he met with prominent world leaders later in his life.

The mainstream Christian community considers Armstrongism a cult because it denies the trinity. Also, it’s outside the norm because it observes the seventh-day Sabbath and the festivals of the Old Testament (or at least it claims to do so. An orthodox Jew would laugh off Armstrongite “observance” as a joke!). But Armstrongism is also what Hank Hanegraaff calls a sociological cult: it is oppressive and authoritarian. It fleeced the flock, which led to legal problems in the 1970’s. (60 Minutes did a story on this!) Several people still bear the scars of their experience with Armstrongism.

Readers of James’ Thoughts and Musings will probably notice a difference between me and other former Armstrongites with blogs: I don’t display any bitterness or anger towards Armstrong. Ordinarily, I refer to his belief system to inform the reader about how I was raised–the thoughts with which I’ve interacted most of my life. But I don’t talk about how that movement has mistreated me.

So why aren’t I bitter? It’s not because I’ve learned the art of forgiveness. Believe me, I’ve not! Here is the reason:

I was not really a part of Armstrong’s sociological structure. My parents taught me his belief system as the correct way to interpret the Bible. I listened to his movement’s tapes and read his books. Often, I played his tapes to help me fall asleep, not because they were boring, but rather because they put my mind in a state of coziness (believe it or not). When we went to church (and, many Sabbaths, we did not), we attended the Church of God, International, the group established by Herbert’s son, Garner Ted Armstrong, who was booted out of Herbert’s group. And the CGI wasn’t really that horrible, sociologically speaking. Sure, there was the typical group-think that exists in virtually every organization, but it didn’t boot too many people out, unlike its parent group.

My family also went to the Church of God (Seventh Day), the group from which Herbert Armstrong seceded to start his own movement. We knew that the CoG7 differed from us on certain issues. It didn’t keep the annual holy days, for example. But we still fellowshipped with them and enjoyed their company.

One thing I credit to my dad is that he never said something was true just on the basis of his saying so. Rather, he always showed us why he believed something was true. Although we as a family believed in certain doctrines, questions were always inevitable, because interaction with real life was a given. “Why can’t I keep Christmas, like my friends?” “We observe the Old Testament law, but didn’t Paul say we don’t have to do that anymore?” “You say the Holy Spirit is not a person. Then how come he does personal sorts of things in the New Testament, like speaking?” “We just went to a funeral in which the Southern Baptist preacher said that our great grandma is in heaven. But we believe that people don’t go to heaven after they die, right?”

I guess what I’m trying to communicate is this: It was all an intellectual exercise for me. In my eyes, the Armstrongite belief system was one way of seeing the world, in the midst of other ideas that were out there. For a while, I maintained that our belief system was the best (of course), but I eventually got to the point where I thought that Armstrongism wasn’t the only valid way to interpret the Scriptures. Sure, it has its points. I can see why someone may arrive at those sorts of doctrines in reading the Bible. But I can also understand why people may reach opposite conclusions.

It was never personal for me, for I had never experienced the group’s oppression. When we did go to church, we attended one that was tame compared to others that were out there. And we felt free to go outside of that organization for fellowship. Also, my family and friends in the Armstrongite movement did not just accept everything the organization told us. We questioned. We criticized. We even laughed and joked.

Although I don’t have much bitterness against Armstrong, I’ve been around the bitterness for most of my life. There are people in my family who experienced oppression by the movement. Every time my dad and I went to a new splinter group, I would hear the usual sad stories about how bad the Armstrongite movement was. I can understand their need to heal by talking about their problems. But the thought often entered my mind: “Just once, I’d like to hear about religion without hearing the name Armstrong!”

Don’t get me wrong. I have my bitterness against certain ideologies and movements: evangelicalism, liberalism, etc., etc., etc. Part of this is that their writings and speeches turn me off. But there is also the human element: I have met liberals and evangelicals who have somehow wounded me, not always intentionally. Or they have turned me off with their smug self-righteousness.

It would be so easy to bury myself under a rock and never interact with people again. That way, I wouldn’t get hurt! But I’d also miss out on all the decent people of faith who are out there, people who have much to teach me with their words and their lives.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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11 Responses to Where’s My Bitterness?

  1. Anonymous says:

    It is good you are not bitter, nor do you seem to be tarnished by your experiences. It has been my greatest regret as a mother that I cooperated in allowing my children to be raised in, or even to be exposed to, that cult, even though it was, and is, just one of many. I am sure I am not alone in that regret. Personally, I have no good memories at all of being a part of that particular theological persuasion, and will probably fight bitter feelings against the Armstrongs and their cohorts as long as I live; again, I am sure I am not alone in feeling this way. But, it is good to hear that you were not scarred by the actions of your parents. Mom

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  2. James Pate says:

    But, Mom, the church we specifically attended was not that cult-like.

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  3. Anonymous says:

    Very true; however, my own experience with those churches (whether COG7 or GTA’s offshoot) was colored by the Armstrong experience. And, in my opinion, even if the churches, themselves, were not “that cult-like”, their ministry still exhibited a dangerous “we’re the only ones with the truth” attitude of exclusivism which spilled over to their members–especially GTA’s group. Anathema to anyone with post-modernist leanings. Mom

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  4. James Pate says:

    Yeah, Mom, I think what you say applies to a lot of people in CGI. They were so scarred by the Worldwide’s authoritarianism, that they were taking care to oppose any remote smack of that in other organizations, even if it wasn’t as bad.

    But there’s group think in all sorts of places. I’m sure there are things that are even forbidden among postmodernists.

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  5. Anonymous says:

    Maybe the congregations we were exposed to weren’t so bad, (really abusive) but who stood up against the ones that were…and there were MANY!? No matter where you were, or what splinter group you ended up with, it was the underlying “we are better” mentality that was always prevalent along with just plain false ‘doctrine according to Armstrong’. I have some good memories and I have some regrets, but that is a part of my life, like it or not.
    I have come to realize that sometimes children aren’t as scarred as we as parents tend to imagine (in our guilt).
    Perhaps we can get some points of view on this blog from some who are older and wiser? :)Aunt C.

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  6. James Pate says:

    I think they’re still figuring out how to reply on this blog, Aunt C. 😉

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  7. Anonymous says:

    I went to a Calvary Chapel church, which many would say has cultic tendencies: anti-intellectualism, millarism, and a strong distrust of orther churches and institutionalism. They were pretty accepting of outsiders, however, so long as they eventually commited themselves to the church.

    While the line between “cult”, “cultish” etc… are hard to define, and subject to many definitions; I think that an abnormally large fear of intellectualism, other churches, and strong belief in the impending end of the world are pretty common ingrediants.

    Am I bitter? Not really, but I would probably get irritated if I wnet to a service.

    -Jake:)

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  8. James Pate says:

    Hi Jake,

    I somewhat enjoy listening to Chuck Missler myself, but, then again, I also enjoy listening to Armstrong, and I know Armstrongism is a cult.

    Those characteristics you mentioned fit Armstrongism to a T. Rabid end times speculation. Squashing people’s right to think. Suspicion of other churches (I can tell a lot of stories on that one)!

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  9. Anonymous says:

    Funny story. While many of us read “Dr” Walter Martin at this Calvary Chapel, I found that one particularly zealous Jehovah’s Witness and I made good friends in high school. While we disagreed on nearly every theological doctrine, our antipathy towards the world and the pernicious liberalism in local churches forged a deeper, and more dynamic, bond.

    Chuck Missler, eh? I listened to all of his tapes. I’d wager to bet that you’re the only Harvard (Divinity) graduate that listens to him. There’s a write-up that I’d like to see! I sure hope he’s wrong; I don’t want to see the world blown to smitherians in the near future!

    Jake

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  10. James Pate says:

    Yeah, Armstrong actually made chapter one in “Dr.” Martin’s book. That’s interesting what you say about your JW friend. So were you an ultra-conservative in your younger years?

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  11. Anonymous says:

    Herbert W. Armstrong revealed that plan to the world—before Germany was destroyed—believe it or not!

    Mr. Armstrong wrote, “Even before the end of this war, I revealed to you the Nazi plans for a Nazi underground movement, to go underground as a secret organization the very moment they lost the war—to lay low a few years during Allied and Russian military occupation, then to come forth when least expected, restore Germany to power, and go on to finally accomplish their aims in a World War III” (Plain Truth, Sept. 1948).

    He also wrote, “… as certainly as we restore Western Europe to economic prosperity, and then to military power, a successor to Hitler will emerge, gain control of this power through a ‘United States of Europe,’ which we [the United States] also are encouraging, and we shall then wake up, too late, to realize we shall have restored our fascist enemy to power to destroy us!” (Plain Truth, Nov. 1948).

    Notice, he made four specific statements, three of which were: Nazi Germany would go underground; Germany would emerge after Allied and Russian occupation; and they would rise again to military power. These events have now all happened—and in that order.

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