A General Defense of Herbert W. Armstrong’s Ministry Against Norman S. Edwards
By Eric V. Snow
I believe it’s necessary to reply some to your arguments against some of what I said in my letter in the May/June 2000 Servants’ News. Despite the attempts at a serene objectivity in the way SN attempts to analyze the WCG’s past, much remains problematic because of the over-corrective involved. The Servants’ News is no more historically objective than (say) the Philadelphia Trumpet in this regard. The SN routinely operates in a “muckraking mode,” and lists what was wrong in the WCG, month after month. Such an organ as The Philadelphia Trumpet glorifies the WCG’s past under HWA, and discounts all the problems that occurred even under his leadership. The full truth isn’t going to be found in either publication.
A case in point concerns Mr. Armstrong’s failed predictions. You made a point of listing them in the December 1998 Servant’s News, pp. 17-23. But what about the other side of the story? Couldn’t we see HWA’s overall prophetic framework as being correct, despite having made various specific errors when predicting future events, such as mistaken date setting (i.e., 1972, 1975, etc.)? Here the Philadelphia Trumpet (“He Was Right!,” February 2000), performed a useful function by listing predictions which HWA or others in the WCG predicted successfully, such as concerning the end of the Iron Curtain in order that Europe could unify. So then, is the Servants’ News really all that objective, despite the general avoidance of passionate, hard-hitting rhetoric? A long-time handicap for the WCG and its offshoots has been the general lack of objective history writing, and in this regard, Ambassador Report is no better than the Worldwide News, and The Servants’ News little better than The Philadelphia Trumpet. (And just how well did The Servants’ News do concerning its Y2K predictions? ‘Nuf said! And this in a field in which you’re an expert, unlike me.)
A major mistake made in your rebuttal is assuring us that “most people understand” (p. 18) that someone’s hypocrisy isn’t a good reason to reject the truth they teach. The general reaction to the televangelist scandals surrounding Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart shows otherwise. Perhaps one of the most commonly made arguments against belief in the Bible and in God comes from the recitations of various atrocities in traditional Christian history (the Crusades, the Inquisition, the witchcraft trials, the Reformation’s religious wars, various pogroms, etc.) as a justification for unbelief. When I gave a sermonette in Jamaica last year during the Feast of Tabernacles dealing with hypocrisy of religious leaders isn’t a reason to deny the truth taught by them, one highly prominent man in the local church thanked me for what I said, never having thought of it that way before. Furthermore, this point is effectively contradicted by the statement found on p. 21: “’How many people read those media articles you talked about and concluded that Sabbath-keeping and anti-trinitarianism were wrong doctrines because the people teaching them lived such sinful, unchristian lives?’ . . . While the WCG taught much truth, it is easy to see why people who saw the leader[s’] fruits first simply turned and look[ed] no further.” One can’t have it both ways. Either most people make this distinction (which I dispute), or they don’t.
Now, given the reality that a significant percentage of people think the truth of a religion can be decisively disproven by the sins of its adherents, it’s spiritually very dangerous to recommend reading Ambassador Report to people with a WCG background. You mention the possibility (p. 20) that I could have been disfellowshiped if a “big contributor” had first read my paper, then read the anti-WCG literature, and then left the church as a result. It’s far more dangerous, however, to push the reading of literature that could destroy the faith of a certain percentage who read it, not merely in the special teachings of the WCG that distinguished it from Protestantism or Catholicism, but in God, Jesus, and the Bible in general. Jesus warned: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it is better for him that a heavy millstone be hung around his neck, and that he be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt. 18:6). The spiritual application of this principle is that Christians with relatively weak faith may well be best off left not knowing better. It’s better to follow the policy of “ignorance is bliss,” rather than taking the risk of enticing some into the Lake of Fire and losing eternal life because their faith is destroyed by learning about the sins of the WCG’s leaders. A case in point: One local pastor told me about how one man called him up one time concerning whether a certain charge against Mr. Armstrong was true. Despite whatever the pastor said about this charge, the man’s faith was permanently destroyed anyway. You yourself, and perhaps a high percentage of the readers of your publication may not experience such a result. You and they will keep the Sabbath regardless of what sins the leaders of the WCG committed for any reason. But again, many simply don’t make the epistemological distinction between the intrinsic truth of a doctrine and the integrity and godliness of the one who taught them that doctrine. Such people leap to the conclusion that if HWA and GTA committed serious sexual sins, the Sabbath and anti-Trinitarianism are invalid doctrines (or, worse, the Bible is false, there is no God, etc.) because they taught them.
If muckraking the WCG’s history takes the risk of causing some to end up in the Lake of Fire, it’s best to leave the stones unturned. Similarly, does everyone have to read the works of Darrell Conder (or any other critic of Christianity, such as (say) the philosophers Ayn Rand or Bertrand Russell) in order to prove they have an “open mind”? For many, reading such works will result in mere confusion and trouble, so why encourage it likewise? There may be some in our midst who should take on such unpleasant chores for the purposes of Christian apologetics, etc., but hardly do most have a spiritual need to do such things. I still remember Pat Buchanan’s reply to those who thought critics of the movie “The Last Temptation of Christ” have to see it to know it’s spiritually bad: You don’t need to lift up the manhole cover to know the sewer stinks. Other people’s reports about something are fine enough for most purposes for most people for spiritually unhealthy things that are best left avoided. Is it, likewise, a good idea to expose oneself to pornography in order to show one can sucessfully resist its incitement to lust? Would it be a good idea for a recovering alcoholic to go to a bar on Saturday night? There is a general duty to avoid subjecting ourselves to unnecessary temptations (cf. I Cor. 6:18, 7:5; Gal. 6:1; James 1:14-15). There are good reasons to practice some self-censorship, whether we like to admit or not.
You ask the question: “The AR staff offered to meet with the WCG and talk over their differences, the WCG was never interested. If you had to be a leader in one of these groups facing judgment, which would you rather be?” (p. 20). Remember, John Trechak’s differences with the WCG didn’t merely concern criticisms of the WCG’s church government structure as cultic or the personal behavior of its leaders. He also denied the validity of the Old Testament law for guiding the conduct of Christians today, such as the Sabbath being binding. Hence, much of his theology differed little from what the Tkachs advocated publicly starting in late 1994. If a man upholds the Sabbath, but later denies it, he is an apostate, and can’t be saved unless he repents. Suppose Darrell Conder wanted to visit the group you fellowship with in the Lansing area, and still fully upheld the views advocated in Mystery Babylon and the Ten Lost Tribes in the End Time: Would you sit down with him to “discuss your differences”? Ex-Christians who are determined to spread spiritual poison should generally be avoided when it’s clear that they have unrepentant attitudes and they insist on discussing spiritual falsehoods with you (cf. II John 10-11; Rom. 16:17; I Cor. 5:11) . (If they want to discuss the weather, business, sports, etc., and you meet them in a public place apart from where one meets for church services, it’s not necessary to shun them then). Hence, it’s true Jesus might surprise a number of the past leaders of the WCG by telling them, “I never knew you” (Matt. 7:23) despite their good works. But also anyone who turns apostate, who knew the truth but later denied it (which makes him fully responsible for it, unlike the uncalled), has a guaranteed trip to the Lake of Fire. This includes, whether we like to say it publicly or not, all those who one time believed in the binding nature of the Old Testament law (such as for the Sabbath and Holy Days), but now deny it. Such people can be no more saved than someone routinely committing adultery without repentance.
As for the statement that the “Gideon Bible Society” has taught more spiritual truth than the WCG did is simply unverifiable and unprovable, if not completely false. Remember, the WCG wasn’t distinctive merely because it taught the Sabbath. It also taught the Holy Days and what they symbolized for God’s master plan for humanity, tithing (which I know you reject, but I don’t), conditional immortality, the unconscious state of the dead, the impersonality of the Holy Spirit, Christians not being born again now, and, most importantly, the God Family doctrine, which reveals the real purposes for human life. This is a doctrinal “package,” and it’s unlikely very many ever figured out most of this on their own, or any “less centralized Sabbatarian evangelists,” etc. did so either. One can make an excellent case that, if we believe that avoiding Sabbath-breaking is as necessary for salvation as avoiding committing adultery, the same goes for the Holy Days since they’re major commands of God as well (which promptly eliminates almost all SDA’s and much of the CG7 from consideration as true Christians). Furthermore, the WCG’s influence was greater in another respect: Those partially persuaded to accept its teachings, but never attended its services. I ran into two people, during the brief time I attended the SDA church in Jackson in 1985-86, who first heard about the Sabbath from HWA/the WCG, one studying to be baptized, the other (apparently) recently baptized. The father of the Baptist minister who performed my grandmother’s funeral just about six weeks ago left the Catholic church because of HWA’s teachings. Although the Plain Truth may have taken a “soft sell” approach in the 1960’s-70’s, and often had articles dealing with news put in a prophetic context or general spiritual articles that could have appeared in an evangelical magazine, one must not ignore the wide circulation of its booklets. Your brother’s experience was the opposite of mine: Since I requested first the most requested booklet the WCG ever put out (over five million copies of HWA’s U.S. and B.C. in Prophecy were distributed), I accepted the Sabbath based on what that booklet alone said. (Admittedly, since I was 16 and alone in my family in keeping it, I didn’t do an especially good job of doing so until several years later). There is no doubt, as Walter Martin said in The Kingdom of the Cults (p. 306), that HWA was the most prominent single advocate of British-Israelism at the time he wrote: “Armstrong is also the founder of Ambassador College in Pasadena, and is by far the most well-known and widely heard and read of all Anglo-Israelite cultists. Mr. Armstrong is editor of The Plain Truth, a monthly magazine with a circulation of around 1,000,000 and is a strong influence in the publishing world of the cults.” I would challenge you to find a similar statement made about the CG7 by any anticultist. I even remember picking up a secular book that dealt with the creation/evolution controversy that listed The Plain Truth of the WCG as one of the leading public critics of evolution (in the United States).
It seems you’re too confident about thinking you could have found the truth on your own given a Bible to read without any further human guidance (p. 40): “I would much rather rely directly on what I can learn and what Christ will reveal to me from the New Testament than on the teachings who for many years missed the qualifications of a congregational elder.” Remember, Paul saw the evangelist’s role as absolutely necessary for people to accept the truth: “How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent” (Rom. 10:14-15). Likewise, when the Ethiopian eunuch was trying to figure out Isaiah 53’s messianic text, Philip asked him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The eunuch replied: “Well, how could I, unless someone guides me.” (Acts 8:30-31). Of course, raising this issue opens up the entire church government debate. But it’s time to give credit where it is due, since I doubt hardly any of us would have figured out the list of doctrines mentioned above as part of the WCG’s package (others could be listed, such as what the Gospel and kingdom of God are) given a Bible only to read, etc. We shouldn’t take the doctrinal foundation we learned from the WCG for granted, and then think, “Ah, this is all so clear, I could have figured it out on my own!,” after becoming disenchanted with a paid, ordained ministry that has spiritual authority.
There’s a fundamental problem in saying if men in ministerial positions sin, therefore, we can arbitrarily reject them (p. 21), when the sin doesn’t concern apostasy and false doctrinal teachings. You’re never going to find moral perfection in any church group, including among the laymembers. If one wishes to reject ministers who commit significant sin based on laymembers’ judgment of them, one faces the problem (potentially) of constantly changing fellowships, etc. if one can’t persuade fellow laymembers to go along. The potential for continuous divisiveness is enormous. Perfection is never going to be found, among laymembers or ministers, so one should be careful about insisting on rejecting people (including laymembers who don’t measure up to one’s desired standards). Furthermore, how serious do these sins have to be before one would (in a congregationalist fellowship) fire the minister? Suppose a majority vote to keep the sinning minister: What then? Would you leave or stay? Furthermore, as we saw in the 1970s in the WCG, the “liberal years” did see their end when GTA’s faction eventually lost out. I know enough about the WCG’s history to know that God can clean up the mess from the top down also. Personal corruption should be dealt with differently from apostasy or false teachings, which is the difference in the problems besetting the WCG in the 1970’s as compared to the 1990’s. I find that Timothy, an evangelist/overseer, had the authority to rebuke elders publicly (I Tim. 5:19-20), but I find no text in the New Testament saying laymembers can hire and fire elders who teach their congregation for any particular reason.
Finally, we’re faced with the issue of being stuck with the history we’ve got. You can speculate that God could have reached us another way (p. 40), but that’s not what happened. Similarly, God could have chosen someone else besides an aged Solomon to write Ecclesiastes, but He didn’t. He also could have found someone else to fight the Philistines besides Samson, but didn’t. It’s necessary to deal with what God has done, not what God could have done otherwise. It’s time to set aside any personal bitterness one may feel towards HWA for any errors in teaching or personal sins he committed, and give credit where credit is due. True scholarship, true history writing, requires listing and weighing all the facts relevant to the points in contention, not just those supportive to points one wishes to prove, and then forming a thesis (or generalizations) that attempt explain all of them, not just some of them. Since muckraking the WCG’s or HWA’s past isn’t any more objective than glorifying what was done and sweeping the sins and problems under the carpet, I’m skeptical that The Servants’ News is much more objective than The Philadelphia Trumpet, or that Ambassador Report is any better than (say) Stanley Rader’s Against the Gates of Hell. Readers of your publication, at least if they don’t have a background in the WCG, should be aware that it doesn’t give a full account of the WCG’s history.