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.