Writer says we must learn the lessons from our past or we're bound to repeat our mistakes
The writer lives in Washington with his wife, Patty, and their two children, Matthew, 15, and Lori, 11. He is a 1971 graduate of Ambassador College, Pasadena. Mr. Lisman served 15 years in the ministry in the Church of God International until his resignation in May 1995. He is not part of any organized group but seeks to build bridges between brethren in (and out of) various organizations.
Editor's note about this version of this article:
This article, posted here May 9, is an updated and longer version of the one that appeared in print April 30 in The Journal.
Learning Lessons From Our Own Church History
By Lee Lisman
BATTLE GROUND, Wash.--Over the last seven years while the WCG was trying to figure out who "God is" and its ministers were trying to figure out what to do, tens of thousands of brethren simply stopped attending church. Their numbers can be added to the tens of thousands of brethren who left prior to 1990. We're not just talking about some seed falling on stoney ground here or folks who were "never really with us." For whatever reasons (and there are many besides doctrine), their unaffiliation is a vote of no confidence in church organizations and its ministry as we know it.
Why is this so? More important, can we do anything to help heal this breach between God's people and prevent something like this from happening again and again? Part of the answer lies in our willingness to honestly acknowledge the effect of our past mistakes and understand the causes of what has gone wrong in the church of God. Mostly it involves a realization of how we've individually been deceived, then understanding that we have a need to make confessions to restore relationships where trust has been shattered.
Now more than ever after having just observed the Passover we should remember Jesus' prayer that "they may be one" (John 17:21) and be yielding to God's Holy Spirit to guide us in a healing/restoration process. Besides those who have stopped attending church, we need to address the uneasiness which is felt among many of God's people who are affiliated with various organizations. As was stated recently in United's New Beginnings newsletter, "Trust has been betrayed and there is a suspicion that it could happen again." Among ministers and brethren in the same or different organizations many relationships are still strained. Things that happened in the past haven't really been dealt with and therefore there's no real sense of closure or real sense of trust. Many brethren don't want to sound negative, divisive or put a damper on the joy of starting a new work so the cause of the uneasiness goes unspoken. History is ignored. History is then bound to repeat itself.
Among all of the various churches of God very few articles and sermons have constructively discussed what has gone wrong in our own church history. Men who put other men out of the church and who were later themselves put out of the church by yet other men still aren't talking about their own role in the tragedy of the past. Nor are many talking to each other. Brethren in the congregations who have ignored their former friends ever since an overzealous man who didn't like to deal with questions told them to, are still ignoring those friends.
We need to be learning from our own church history for until the cause of this conflict is understood and then biblically dealt with, there will always be this tension among many of God's people. The tens of thousands of former members will also still remain "out of sight, out of mind." Letters will still keep coming into publications like The Journal wondering why we can't all just get together.
Never confessing our past mistakes or in some cases even acknowledging those we made is why we won't "just get together." We need to discuss deception in the lives of true Christians and better understand the need of confession in restoring relationships. Ignoring a serious wound won't make it go away. Sometimes it just festers into bitterness. If some people have been offended or hurt we need to reach out to them. If some of them are feeling lost, we need to leave the ninety and nine and go find them. Sometimes you can even be sitting in a large church yet feel lost in the crowd.
Today in the church of God there is a lot of denial, avoidance and unresolved conflict. Simply forgetting the past isn't a solution, but part of the problem. How can we be part of a ministry of reconciliation unless we first learn to reconcile with one another? True fellowship can only happen after confession is made so trust can be restored. To be reconciled doesn't mean we have to eventually be in the same church organization or any organization. It means we have a loving relationship and can worship our Father together anytime, anyplace.
Although it doesn't have to, I believe the example of this reconciliation should start within the ministry itself. That's part of what leadership by example is all about. Before there can be a reconciliation, however, the proper definition of a minister of Jesus Christ needs to be fully understood, for it has within itself an important lesson we all need to learn and pointedly shows why confession is needed.
What Is a Minister of Jesus Christ?
It may seem very basic, but every minister must understand what and who he is. Likewise, the brethren must understand what and who a minister is. He is first and foremost a minister of Jesus Christ called to serve Him in overseeing His flock. The organization that signs the minister's paycheck must be very secondary. The WCG, CGI, United or Global does not own the flock, nor does the pastor of that church. They are merely caretakers or stewards to The Master, The Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.
Let's look at an example. If you are His servant (minister), and The Master told you to graze His sheep on the hillside but somebody else is telling you to feed them straw in the barn, who are you going to obey? That somebody else may have even been the very foreman who assigned you the care of that particular little flock, but will you go against The Master's wishes? Will you at least remind the foreman orally or in writing what The Master said or will you just go along with whatever the foreman says? If you decide to go along with the foreman, once in the barn will you pour gasoline on the straw just because the foreman tells you to? When the sheep smell the smoke and start running around all confused do you tell them to just ignore the smoke or throw any sheep which are alarming the others out of the barn since they are dissidents or causing dissension among the flock? When the barn is finally engulfed in flames and you are now running out the back door leaving 70% of the sheep still in the barn do you yell "fire" or keep your mouth shut like the foreman tells you to?
Unfortunately, over the years there have been too few pastors who ever warned the flock of an impending danger before they left. Yelling "fire" in a burning barn would be unethical or too divisive and we must have unity. In hindsight they feel bad that the barn was engulfed by fire, but rarely is there any acknowledgment of responsibility expressed on their part. It was the foreman who told them to put another "video tape" on the fire. He was to blame for the tragedy. They were "only following orders." They don't understand whose sheep these were. Now, when many of the sheep gather again, some of these same shepherds are back overseeing the new flock and are wondering why not all of the sheep trust them. Some sheep find it hard to trust any ministers again.
Thankfully, there still are many fine ministers of Jesus Christ. They are just that, ministers of Jesus Christ. They are His servants and not servants of an organization. When they saw injustice, they didn't just ignore it. When they were told to preach what they knew was wrong or unbiblical, they refused. Many pointed those in their care to God's word and warned the flock as a good overseer should do. If you're one of those ministers, Jesus saw your sacrifice and so did God's people. They know who you are. I've heard brethren in various breakaway groups say something to the effect, "We used to wonder when those in Pasadena would come up and fire Mr.______ because he wasn't afraid to speak the truth and tell it like it is." When these shepherds smelled the smoke, they warned the flock and got many of them to safety. A few of even the influential shepherds wouldn't sell off their good name for those ongoing little bags of silver (given "for their years of faithful service") which were offered by the foreman to those who kept their mouths shut or quietly left the premises. A minister of Jesus Christ would never do that. For those who were willing to sacrifice their financial security for God's people, on behalf of the brethren, thank you.
There were other ministers, however, supposedly "friends" of Mr.______ who turned their back on him once he was out of favor with those in Pasadena. It's called politics. It's called human reasoning. It is the way of this world. When they "smelled the smoke" they forced themselves to ignore it. They played every tape coming from Pasadena without commentary just like they were told to do. Some of them even put brethren out of the church for not going along with different "new understandings" like the trinity doctrine because their organization demanded unity and loyalty. They fostered so much "consent by silence" and in some cases outright support that the sheep kind of got used to the smell of smoke. When an ostensible "New Covenant theology" got into full swing and these ministers thought it was terribly wrong (ie. the sheep pen was now full of smoke or even on fire), they kept their mouths shut, quietly laid plans to build a new barn and then quietly went out the back door with their full severance pay. They allowed the people they had baptized to swallow everything the WCG was dishing out. Now those brethren formerly under their care are swallowing pepperoni pizzas and have part-time jobs on Saturday.
For any ministers who did not warn the brethren when the WCG microphone was in your hand, the brethren know who you are. They remember what you said about who "God Is" and how broad your smile was in that photo as you stood there alongside Mr. Tkach. You were not a good shepherd, but had become a company man. This is why there is so much mistrust of the ministry today.
In essence, for some, working for the church appeared to be like working for IBM or any other large corporation. You put in your time and if you are planning on leaving, you keep your mouth shut until it's time to clean out your desk. For many, when they finally left the WCG the leadership in Pasadena didn't have a clue they were leaving nor did most of those in their congregations. They had become what Jesus called hirelings. In John 10:11-13 Jesus said, "I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep. The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep." A hireling is more concerned about having to transfer his children out of Imperial Schools midterm than warn the flock.
A hireling is too busy negotiating his severance package and retirement plan to warn the flock. Their responsibility to the flock was not really to Jesus Christ, but to whoever (in Jesus' name) signed their paycheck. On their way out if you had asked them if what the sheep were being fed was good for them they probably would have said "definitely not!" If somebody was poisoning the sheep, did they say anything to the sheep about what was being mixed into their straw? If not, why not? Whose sheep are they? These are very important questions each minister needs to know the answer to deep inside his heart.
There were too many men who acted like good employees and those in Pasadena, Tyler, Arcadia, San Diego or any other organization's home office will think they are very supportive and even ethical. The truth is, however, they just don't yet understand what a minister of Jesus Christ really is.
In the 5-27-96 In Transition article by Guy Swenson about the months leading up to the forming of United we see a lot of behind the scene meetings and strategic planning but no warning message to God's people. Men were angered about how Bill Jahns or other ministers were being treated but they said nothing to the brethren, many of which were by then starting to swallow everything coming from Pasadena. They just played the tapes in church, like they had done for the trinity doctrine and some discussed among themselves the need to form committees to make decisions.
Men could see that the brethren were like a frog in the pot getting comfortable as the water eventually heats to boiling, but they continued their policy of appeasement to Pasadena. Very few were openly challenging the changes. Those who did object felt that the well being of the brethren was far more important than their job security. A willingness to lose your job over the Sabbath day, a stepping out in faith and suffering for righteousness sake was to these men precepts not only to be preached to others but to be actually practiced by themselves.
There was a window of opportunity to preach a sermon by living it. The longer other men stalled, held their private meetings and planned to make a decision which would conversely give themselves financial security (first item on the agenda at the UCG's founding conference in May 1995 in Indianapolis was ministerial salaries and retirement), the deeper the counterfeit New Covenant theology penetrated the church.
There should never have been a policy of accommodation and appeasement toward church officials in Pasadena. The conference in Indianapolis was organized only because those in Pasadena rejected "a request for amicable separation." Paul and Barnabas had an "amicable separation" over which traveling companion to take along, not over eliminating the 4th commandment and calling much of the Old Testament irrelevant. Some things are worth suffering for, including the law of God and the well being of God's people. None of this is being covered in any publications that I know of and it seems as though certain ministers feel they don't owe anyone an explanation for their behavior. This one lengthy article can't make up for the two years of silence toward this subject, but these are critical areas that need to be explored so there can be repentance, confession and reconciliation. This is all very important in God's eyes.
Looking Back to Understand Deception
In a December 1994 meeting of all the California WCG ministry, Joseph Tkach Sr.'s "new covenant" plans were made known to them. Apart from Tony Bosserman or Mike Swaggerty, did any of them at that meeting even question what was being said? Some of them now say that they didn't ask any questions because they were "just shocked or stunned by what was being said." How about the next month after the shock had worn off and more video tapes were coming out of Pasadena, did they then openly question Mr. Tkach? What were their sermons about in January, February or March of 1995?
Had Mr. Tkach held a national ministerial conference in February of 1995 how many men really would have stood up on principle to disagree with the direction the church was going? Would Mr. Tkach and his team even have allowed much discussion from the floor? (or would there have been a tight agenda because "we have a lot to cover in a few days' time and Dr. Stavronedes is on at 2:00 p.m..." or "each of you will have 2 minutes to say what's on your mind, but first submit what you plan to say in writing to the agenda committee").
If a man while he was in the WCG never stood up on principle in front of his local congregation to defend the law of God, what makes him think he would have stood up in front of his fellow-ministers at a conference? He may be brave on the Internet after the last paycheck is cashed; he may give wonderful sermons about the law of God in a breakaway group while he's in essence "preaching to the choir," but in his heart he knows the truth about how he just stood by and watched the decimation of God's flock. This is part of the tragedy of this paradigm of silence.
Of course, it's always easy to sit back and be a "Monday morning quarterback" talking about all the brave things we would have done differently had we been in their shoes. We can only hope that we would make the right choices. Nobody knows what they would have done, given the same circumstances, until they've been in their shoes.
The supposed "generous" WCG severance package for those caught in what was in essence a doctrinal downsizing for an aging ministry wasn't really all that generous. Working for the church was not exactly like working for IBM in that most corporate employees also have social security, retirement programs and/or profit sharing programs to look forward to as they approach their 60's. Some companies even offer early retirement packages. A middle manager caught in a downsizing at IBM might even see it coming and try to land a job at Hewlett-Packard or Intel. An IBM middle manager was never told that his wife wasn't allowed to have a career of her own. An IBM middle manager didn't go through a dozen relocations leaving him with few community contacts and little equity in his home if he even owned one. Leaving IBM doesn't separate friends and family.
In the WCG, however, when you are 50 years old, have a wife at home (no career allowed by the church), a couple teenagers to feed, living paycheck to paycheck like the rest of us, not much of a safety net to fall into if terminated and all that your resume for your next job could say is that you've been a minister for 25 years or read religious mail, then it would be very difficult to risk termination. When over the years every minister risking termination before you has been labeled a dissident and lost all of his friends, as brethren would "forget those things which are now behind and go on to do the work," the decision becomes a lot harder than merely switching jobs or trying to find a new one.
If you were fired from the WCG who is going to hire you? Since you aren't going to run down to the Presbyterian church, do you try selling insurance or real estate? For immediate income do you put on a little smock and do inventory counting for a 22-year-old boss? Ever since you were 22 yourself and fresh out of AC you wore a suit to work. People didn't say "hey, buddy" to you, but men old enough to be your father always called you "Mr." These are things that could easily go through a man's mind as he justifies his own indecision.
Men who for decades had dedicated their lives to teach God's truth were in essence being chewed up and spit out by a system that professes love and tolerance but is in reality heartless. Many of their friends and brethren simply stood by and watched. The problem in this system goes far beyond doctrinal differences.
So with the above in mind, let's look at a possible scenario. Let's say you are the Pastor of a WCG church in February of 1995. For the past two months the associate pastor and you have been talking about the "crazy stuff" in the PGN and tapes coming from Pasadena. The previous week, after the song leader led the congregation in singing "Oh How Love I Thy Law," the associate pastor's sermon was about "the perfect law of liberty" in the book of James and the importance of the Sabbath day. Let's say in this scenario that he was fired from the WCG three days later. Now, the following Sabbath, after the opening prayer and sermonette talked about the wonderful new understanding God is revealing through Mr. Tkach, it's time for your sermon. What do you say? Part of you wants to speak out and tell the congregation the truth about where you stand and how you feel. Your friend and fellow-minister just "took the fall" for saying what you know should be said. He might even be sitting there at the back of the hall as a regular member now. The cautious part of you is telling yourself how much more good you can do by remaining the Pastor and just going along for a while. Should you speak out or leave they would probably just replace you with someone who would be worse for the congregation. The reasoning to you may sound strikingly similar to that of certain judges in Germany during the 30's in the movie "Judgement at Nuremberg." Look how much more good you can do by not speaking out about the mistreatment of your friend and fellow minister. Just a little longer and things are bound to change. Surely God will soon work everything out. So out of your mouth at this moment of decision come the words, "Well we certainly live in interesting times, brethren. Strengthening our marriages is something we all need to be doing...."
A Deceived Person Is Still Responsible For His Actions
While we can somewhat understand the difficult positions a number of ministers were placed in it still doesn't justify what they did or make it right. It gives us understanding but not a reassurance that history won't repeat itself or that another similar system of power and control from a home office isn't in the making, especially when they don't express any remorse from the pen or the pulpit. Understanding those difficult circumstances does, however, help us to appreciate the sacrifices a number of men have made by truly stepping out in faith. It was very difficult for them to put principle above a paycheck, yet those who did would probably tell you it was something they just had to do. Isn't that what stepping out in faith is all about?
Too many former WCG ministers in the various breakaway groups, however, don't want to talk about the past. They still don't understand what has happened. There are men today in the WCG and in breakaway groups preaching about love from the pulpit who have publically marked brethren, fired fellow ministers and divided families over nothing but foolishness. Some were deceived, thinking they did God a service; some say they "were only following orders"; few if any are accepting any responsibility. Brethren are making excuses for their ministers saying "they just had to play the tapes or just had to keep quiet... otherwise they might loose their jobs." If you are a minister of Jesus Christ you only have to do one thing- the right thing in following Christ who is your only Master.
Brethren, the tragedies of our past church history goes far beyond any doctrinal differences or even church government, but gets down to right and wrong. It doesn't matter if you left the WCG on doctrinal change #2, 102, 202 or are going to leave on #502. This is about moral courage and integrity or a lack thereof.
How many men were concerned about the severance package or future of their friends who were thrown out of the church or severely reprimanded in '74 or '75, some for even questioning the treatment of the ones who couldn't go along with a Monday Pentecost or D & R? Some of these men who were fired had put in years of faithful service but very few came to their defense. Many of their friends, acquaintances and brethren had just stood by and watched it happen.
Some of the very same men who stood by and watched were in turn put out of the church themselves in '78 and '79 for questioning the church's direction. Their friends stood by and watched. Members would question how the gospel was being preached by having a 20' Xmas tree in the "House for God" for a Saturday night performance of "The Nutcracker Suite." They were told not to question the new age articles in our Quest magazine with its ads for Virginia Ham for it might be symptomatic of being in a "bad attitude." To question meant something was wrong with you.
In their hearts many ministers didn't want to walk out on Wayne Cole in '79 when he stood there all alone on stage in Pasadena expecting the ministry to rally around him because he knew they were good men who loved truth just as much as he. He was a fellow minister and friend yet no man was going to figuratively stand up and say "I'm Sparticus" that day.
Many ministers didn't want to sign the loyalty oath which led to one man having the power to change doctrine and own everything as a corporation sole. Some wanted to put up at least a finger of protest when certain ministers or friends were either unjustly dismissed or put out to pasture in a forced retirement. That could have meant, however, they'd soon be going to another "refresher course" in Pasadena or it might impact the location of their next church assignment.
Besides, most of the evangelists respected by the field ministry were in positions to fully know what was going on and they certainly weren't sticking their necks out. The safest course was to just stand by and watch. As far as what went on in Pasadena it was safer for ministers in the field and all of the brethren to put on blinders with a policy of "don't ask, don't tell." You don't want to know about what's going on in the accounting department or why a certain evangelist is now in Hawaii. What was in reality nothing but moral cowardice was justified under the teaching that it was wrong to question those "over" you.
Some of these same ministers and brethren who stood by and watched in the 70's and 80's were in turn rejected in '93 and '94 for not silently allowing the church to adopt the trinity doctrine. Many of their friends, however, just stood by and watched them being dismissed. Nobody protested over their mistreatment either. Most just played the tapes and said nothing.
In January and February of '95 a number of men finally took a stand against the new teachings coming from Pasadena and warned the brethren. They paid the price while their friends stood by and watched. Some of their friends may have been privately active on the phone, but from the pulpit under the banner of loyalty to an organization many of the ministers now in United gave their consent by their silence. So did many of their friends who are still in the WCG playing it safe.
Nobody wants to talk about the first three months of 1995 when half of the church was deceived while most of the ministry stood by and watched it happen. It seems that nobody now in United is apologizing for their part in that deception.
In January of '95 brethren in many local congregations were asking their ministers what should be done. In some cases "mom & dad" or friends were starting to get interested in the new teaching. The answer was that they should just sit there and wait. God will work everything out. Something (United) was going to happen, but in the meantime, they were to just hang in there and listen to another tape from Pasadena. Several months later some ministers finally found their moral compass and put up a finger of protest. Unfortunately, others may have simply put up a wet finger to see which way the wind was blowing in their congregations and changed employers. This is not leadership. Each man has to answer to himself and God for the choices in life he makes.
Today there are thousands of brethren (and even some ministers) in the WCG who don't believe in what is being taught in the WCG, yet they are still there. Many of these brethren would have gone with the United or Global or CGI when their ministers left, but the reasoning has always been that just a little longer and things are bound to change. God will work everything out. There's no need to question why a minister is fired or leaves, for those in charge must know what they're doing and questioning can cause dissension. They shouldn't read publications from other groups formerly with the WCG or those like The Journal because the official correct version of what happened will come from home office. Also, they have always been taught not to question God's government or headquarters on earth even by the man who was now leaving.
The fact that a 53-year-old brother, after decades of service, is now facing financial ruin in a few months when the "generous" severance money runs out is of no concern. He'll be replaced by a new minister, who will tell the brethren not to dwell on the negative past, but rejoice in the wonderful things God is now doing in Pasadena (until it's his turn to go). The brethren are to just patiently stand by and watch. I think every minister who eventually leaves the WCG could sing the words, "and as I turned to leave it occurred to me, the church was just like me, yeah, the church was just like me...."
Some may say, "Well all of this is just water under the bridge; let's just forget the past and go on and do the work." Are we to learn anything from history by just forgetting the past? Is the book of Acts and Paul's epistles a catalogue of all triumph and no tragedy? We have become masters at forgetting the past. We'll study the past mistakes of Corinth, Galatia or Laodicea but we totally ignore our own. After each tragedy throughout the 70's it was preached, "let's just forget those things which are behind and go on and do the work." The intent may have been not to let bitterness creep in, but not dealing with the past had the opposite effect. Instead we eliminated any lessons to be learned and changes that needed to be made.
A lot of those "things" which were forgotten and left behind were people whose lives had been shattered. After each crisis the brethren were told to just forget those "things" which are behind and go on and do the work. After each episode of collective memory loss we were supposed to believe that the church was all together in a spirit of unity and God's church was "back on the right track." Today once again we are in a forgetful mode because we mustn't be negative. It's time to "do the work." It may sound like the right thing to do just because it is so familiar but to many it's obvious that we're simply in the process of starting another cycle of the same old paradigm.
The natural course, just like in a cult, is to once again have a siege mentality and circle the wagons. Start equating disagreement with disloyalty and separate those who disagree with the home office from the true believers so once again there will be unity in God's church. When are we going to stop separating for unity?
A Time For Overcoming
As God's people we should all be learning many valuable lessons from the past mistakes we and others have made. Many are quick to spot some things that are wrong with other individuals or groups, but it is always much harder to see or even want to see what is wrong with ourselves. This is exactly, however, what overcoming is all about. We as individuals have to repent or change before the church as a whole will be changed.
God doesn't want us to dwell on the past in bitterness or point the finger at others with an "I told you so" attitude. We all need to be willing to clearly see and then learn from our own individual and collective wrongs. This is so we can stop repeating the same mistakes! It's part of the very reason we are sojourning here and living a life of overcoming. God wants to and will work these things out for our own good. It's just a matter of how soon we start yielding to His Spirit for His help.
We should be learning to both recognize and hate sin, especially when it's in ourselves. Only then are we truly yielding to God's Holy Spirit as God helps us to "sin no more." Only when valuable lessons of our own past are really understood can we finally be used to help others change. Let's not be afraid to take a close look at our own recent happenings in the church of God today.
Many of those now in Global, United, CGI or other organizations or no organization will readily admit that they have learned a lot since leaving the WCG that they just couldn't see when they were all caught up in the WCG system. It seems very difficult, however, for many former WCG members and especially ministers to admit that they were ever even a part of the system.
Some apparently feel the system per se was just fine, but only needed the right man at the helm or a few minor administrative checks and balances. Others feel betrayed, used or deceived by the WCG system and consider themselves its victims. Still others feel they "saw through" the wrongs and did the right thing by quietly walking away. What seems to be missing in all of the above, however, is a personal accountability which comes from introspection or real soul-searching. We were all part of the system and had a hand in each other's predicaments in different times and places. To the Godly man or woman this article should not be offensive, but be seen as a help in meeting a huge need in God's church today.
Over the last 25 years, many people who have left the WCG have fallen into a common trap. They want to blame Mr. Armstrong or Mr. Rader or Mr. Tkach or all organized churches, anybody but themselves. In reality, nobody has any power over you except the power you give them. When we know that, then we have taken the first step toward repentance. Repentance can only come through the introspection given by God's Holy Spirit. It can only come when we accept responsibility for our own role in past tragedies. Then and only then can we properly understand the collective wrongs we as a church have made.
If you or I have been deceived in the past we need to know how it came to be that we were deceived. In other words, learning our lessons from the past isn't just saying that from now on I'm going to keep my eyes focused on Christ or follow "the pillar of fire." We need to understand how and why it is that we took our eyes off the pillar of fire the last time. Until those questions have been truly dealt with and we see what our own responsibility was in that past deception we will have learned nothing from the past. Understanding what went wrong helps us to avoid the same pitfalls. It shows us the need for an internal cleansing of our hearts and not just some external new and improved "governing documents with built in extra protection to guard against false doctrine."
Many brethren truly admired the introspection of Don Hooser's article in the 5-95 issue of "In Transition." He had learned a valuable lesson and made a heartfelt admission. It wasn't an "I was only following orders" admission trying to shift the blame elsewhere (or "I was wrong, but what would you have done?"). He wasn't at all concerned about a ministerial image and frankly our respect for him went very high. Those in his congregation could see that he understood that it was possible for him to make certain mistakes that also impacted others and he will conscientiously try not to repeat the past. It's always easier to just forget the past than to "fess up." Confession is a necessary part of living as a Christian. The Bible tells us in James 5:16 that we are to confess our faults one to another. That's part of what Godly sorrow and repentance is all about, especially when we have secret sins that have impacted others. We need to make some heartfelt admissions. Sometimes those secret sins aren't so secret, it's just that nobody is coming up to you to point them out, just like you aren't going up to others perceived to be "above" you. The One who is "above" us all tells us in Matt. 18 and Gal. 6:1 when and how we should go to our brother to restore him. I honestly thought Don's would be the first of many such articles to appear in print, but it wasn't. From the pen and pulpit there seems to be a famine of any introspection.
When I was in the CGI, we too had very little public introspection on our part back in the late 70's when our new breakaway church started. We could see plenty of what was wrong with those still in the WCG, but it's doubtful that even a few could see how we had been part of the problem or the system ourselves. To us "the current crisis" back then was the fault of those who had corrupted the leadership. In all of the sermons it seemed as though GTA too was never really even part of what was wrong with the WCG system. To us he was just a reformer who had become an innocent victim and now his dad wasn't even talking to him.
Most of us felt betrayed and very right about walking away from the WCG. Also, for many brethren simply walking away wasn't even an option. Back in those days brethren were publicly marked and "turned over to Satan the devil" just for asking questions or visiting a CGI service. In some cases the WCG minister even told brethren to no longer speak to their family members who had left "the one true church." It was a very hurtful time as friends and relatives would avoid one another. Still, for us it was time to get busy and "do the work." We couldn't understand why more of God's people couldn't see what was so obvious to us. At the same time, we never picked up the phone and called those who had left a few years earlier, because we thought we were the ones who had left at the right time and for the right reasons. Besides, some CGI ministers had a few years earlier as WCG ministers been the very ones involved in putting those people out of the church.
It's human nature to ignore our own part in a church's tragedy. You really have to want to see it. As GTA would portray himself in a certain way, it was also human nature for me not to confront him. It didn't seem necessary to question him, but just believe the best, leave those things in the past and get on with doing the work. That sure sounded good to me and was a lot more pleasant than confronting Mr. Armstrong.
Over the years we in the church have been conditioned to at all costs avoid any confrontation. This is usually just fine with us because most of us don't really like confrontation anyway. Unfortunately our reluctance to confront, disagree with or even ask questions of certain ministers (or anyone "in authority") when they were wrong has just emboldened them to make statements from the pulpit or in articles without concern over anyone challenging them. Those who questioned things in the past were considered to be in a "bad attitude" or were divisive or negative and therefore asked to leave. The higher up you were, the more you could preach or write whatever you wanted, even contrary to scripture and nobody was going to confront you. Again, we've been conditioned not to. That's also why most of the ministry in January or February of 1995 never picked up the phone to call Mr. Tkach or sent him a letter disagreeing with what he was saying. They sat in meetings and "glared at him" or quietly stewed after following orders with another video tape from Pasadena. The tragedy today is that they apparently still feel this was the proper thing for them to do.
Under what men called "the government of God" wolves can spring up from among our own "selves not sparing the flock" or "that woman Jezebel" or the Nicolaitans or those "that say they are apostles and are not," and we'll be non-confrontational. The thinking has been that you aren't supposed to question those in authority and if God wanted a man removed it's up to God to remove him.
This is why many will remain in the WCG no matter what changes are being taught. This is also why too few are asking any questions in the breakaway groups today. We don't ask our local pastor or a fellow minister about the comments he made back when he had the WCG microphone in his hand. We'll extend the right hand of fellowship and talk about the weather with an evangelist who used to conveniently change the typology of Zerubbabel every time a new administration came to power. We'll just smile and steer away from certain topics so as not to disturb the love, agreement (consensus) and humility. These same principles propounded by Joe Tkach Sr. ten years ago imposed guilt on the brethren for questioning those over them. It has been used repeatedly as a tool for the leadership to keep control over those who would disagree. I'm convinced that the UCG leadership could announce later this year that Dr. Hoeh is now in the UCG and all that many people would say to Dr. Hoeh would be "saw you in a photo at Mr. Tkach's funeral... nice suit."
In the final issue of In Transition "...scores of elders (including members of the council of elders)... did not want to speak on the record." They all wanted to be interviewed anonymously. The article went on to say that "Two other pastors, not previously quoted, said they would like to talk on the record but that the home office had made it plain to them that those who questioned the office's practices would find themselves at a disadvantage when it came to salary reviews and transfers to more desirable regions of the country." Doesn't this seem like deja vu? Doesn't this sound like in spite of all the verbiage that in reality people are back to a system of fear and are being controlled by that fear or guilt? It almost makes you want to shout "Oh foolish Galatians. Who hath bewitched you?" Why were all these ministers only willing to speak out provided they remained anonymous? What were they afraid of? Didn't they have confidence in the UCG code of Ethics? If a home office tried to transfer the men out or lower their salaries wouldn't the brethren in their congregations stand up and come to their defense (or would even questioning those over you show a lack of humility and consensus building)? Would the brethren or their friends in the ministry confront the home office on their behalf or would they all just stand by and do nothing? Apparently these men thought it would be the latter. It has always been that way in the past. How can ministers even select members for a council if nobody knows where they stand? This is why there needs to be a lot more soul searching on the part of all of God's people especially in the ministry. All of us, especially those in leadership positions have to learn from the past. We were not just victims of a system, but full participants and in some cases its cheerleaders. It's easy to think we're now different from the organizational system we just left, but the same paradigm is alive and well.
This really isn't a surprise to many of us. Back in '78 the CGI started out determined to be different too. Nobody was going to get "behind" Ted. Instead of a pyramid we would be "shoulder to shoulder" doing the work. We would have checks and balances that would prevent anything like what happened in the WCG from happening to us. Pyramids, however, aren't built overnight. They are created by chipping away a few corners over here, and adding a few stones over there. The change can be so slow or subtle that many in the field barely notice it, so they quietly stand by and watch. Sometimes those closest to what is being built may have the greatest of intentions, but are the least aware of the shape it's taking. Those who remember the "shoulder to shoulder" sermons or the "spirit of Indianapolis" are slowly replaced by those who have "that home office big picture." What we need is to step away and shine the light of God's Word on our ourselves along with our organizations. Placing ourselves in the light of God's Word results in introspection. Introspection leads us to seeing our secret faults and repenting which is needed to make Godly changes.
Public introspection from the pen and the pulpit assures the brethren that the ministry understands that what Jesus wants will come ahead of what the minister himself or an organization wants. All of us need that same introspection as we look to God's will from Jerusalem above instead of to the will of a home office here below. As can be seen by our own church history they haven't always been the same. There is only one "head" quarters and no man can serve two masters.
Maybe privately from the prayer closet or behind closed doors or in private phone conversations there's been some introspection, but again, from pen and pulpit there hasn't seemed to have been very much "searchings of the heart." The church has gone through a lot lately. There's nothing wrong with being upbeat about the future, but the brethren in and out of the church organizations need to see some reassurance that history isn't repeating itself.
Unfortunately, there never seems to be very much introspection or coming clean after a WCG breakaway church starts. By that I mean we all portray ourselves as the victim of wrong doers in high places like we had no hand in our current predicament. We want to conveniently forget about certain past sermons we had given, articles we had written, conversations we've had with others or the support through our silence we gave for home office decisions that were wrong. Each breakaway group should be hearing the former WCG ministers say words to the effect, "you know, I was really all caught up in the system myself and I sure blew it. I want to apologize to you for when I said stupid things from the pulpit about the need to support the new direction God's work was going. I want to first publically apologize to Mr.______ for any grief I caused him or his family. He understood things that I should have seen but didn't and I'm very sorry. Let me expound for you some of the things I would have done differently so none of you will make the same mistakes and in your forgiveness you can rest assured that I've learned my lessons...." No, instead we portray ourselves as the defenders of the truth and guardians of the faithful. We were the ones who left the WCG at just the right time and for just the right reasons. What we all really deserve is a large helping of humble pie.
Nobody likes to bring up negative things of the past that haven't been dealt with. Avoiding things that have been simply swept under the carpet isn't the same as love covering a multitude of sins, but is a denial of our own church history by showing no fruits of repentance. You can have a nice clean newly finished wall with 2 coats of paint on it, but if the sheet rock installers put up the wall so fast that they didn't notice the dead rat they had just incased, there's going to eventually be a terrible odor in the room. Nobody wants to do it, but the only way to end the odor is to tear open the sheet rock and remove the problem. Unfortunately, like those who have lived next to a pulp mill for a long time, some people have gotten used to the odor and don't smell anything wrong. Brethren, something isn't right in God's churches today. Those of you with God's Holy Spirit, can you sense that? It's time we finally start dealing with some of the issues of the past.
If you're a United minister look at your own example and try to put yourself in a member's shoes or even a Global minister's shoes. You or some of your colleagues were some of the very same ministers who, after showing full support of Mr. Tkach either directly or indirectly through your silence, suddenly in late April or May of '95, almost without missing a paycheck, joined United. Your past example of caving in to a home office is never openly discussed. In 1994 and even in early 1995, some (not all) of you, when you were in the WCG, spoke out against those going to Global or CGI. Some of you in '93 and '94 even put out of the church those who questioned Mr. Tkach or those who were too vocal in their opposition to the trinity doctrine. Some of you even had encouraged other ministers who are now in Global or United to send letters to Pasadena objecting to the so-called New Covenant changes and then distanced yourselves from those braver men who "took the fall" without a safety net. Now, former friends in the ministry are never called and the people you either put out of the church or who left the church in disgust are still at home. Nobody is asking any questions so there is obviously peace, unity and consensus so let's all turn to number 112 in our hymnals and sing all four verses of "We Are God's People." Something is wrong with this picture.
For the shepherds in some cases 50 to 70% of the flock under their care had just been decimated, yet these same shepherds are portraying themselves as the victims. Some of these same men are currently involved in hiring ministers who are just now leaving the WCG. Did the new recruits who left the WCG in '96 say anything to the brethren when they had the WCG microphone in their hands? Are we hearing even a "whoops, sorry 'bout that" from any of them or are they too just victims? ("...second verse, same as the first....")
We shouldn't be just ignoring or revising 25 years of our church's history. Terrible things have been occurring in God's church. Brethren need to know what went wrong and how things like this could occur. Otherwise we will have learned nothing. We shouldn't just make general statements like "mistakes were made" or "we have not always conducted ourselves in a godly manner in our roles and in our relationships."
When trials and problems hit a church in the New Testament, Paul's epistles to that church were often circulated to many churches so they could also learn those lessons. That's part of what the Bible is-- an accounting of the triumphs and tragedies of Israel and the New Testament churches so that we and others won't repeat the same mistakes. Moses really did strike the rock. Demas really did forsake Paul. We would be blind to think that these things don't happen in our day too.
Again, we'll study and underline the past mistakes of Corinth, Galatia and Laodicea but want to totally forget about our own. Today, families have been torn apart, Satan is roaring like a lion, perhaps one of the greatest apostatizing upheavals of God's people since Constantine has just taken place and men who never even missed a paycheck as they jumped from the WCG to another organization want us to just ignore the past. This has got to be one of the biggest whitewashing abdication of ministerial responsibilities ever seen.
While we all can feel guilty about our own past mistakes, this isn't about casting the first stone at a fellow minister or judging another man's servant, but rather helping someone who has been overtaken in a fault. This is not the time for ministerial cronyism or pretending that the complicity men had in former administrations never happened. We need to see where we all went wrong at different times or places so we can repent and God's people can have reconciliation. Forgetting the past won't bring reconciliation. Confession is necessary.
There are tens of thousands of God's flock scattered all over the hillsides. There may be more of His flock out there than in the WCG and all of the various breakaway groups combined. Some are doing just fine for they have found The Good Shepherd. Others are lost and confused or caught in a thicket of bitterness. Various leaders may have been directly involved in stampeding the herd while others just stood by and watched or held the corral gate open. In any case, we cannot just forget about them or expect them to just come wandering back while we "do the work." Their well being is a major part of what "the work" is all about. Jesus cares about His sheep.
There are prophetic warnings to those who have scattered and chose to ignore His flock. Jer. 23:1-2 says, "Woe be unto the pastors that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! saith the Lord. Therefore thus saith the Lord God of Israel against the pastors that feed my people; Ye have scattered my flock, and driven them away, and have not visited them: behold, I will visit upon you the evil of your doings, saith the Lord." Ezek. 34:2-6 says, "Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy, and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God unto the shepherds; Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? ... neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them. And they were scattered, because there is no shepherd: and they became meat to all the beasts of the field, when they were scattered. My sheep wandered through the mountains, and upon every high hill: yea, my flock was scattered upon all the face of the earth, and none did search or seek after them."
Brethren, before we can go out and do a work of reconciliation in the world, we need to first seek reconciliation with all of God's people and reconciliation with our God. Like Israel of old we need to turn our hearts back to God and the sheep of His pasture.
Some Unfinished Business
In Matt. 5:23-24 Jesus said, "Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift." If as a minister of Jesus Christ you ever ran roughshod over one of God's people because of past ideas of organizational loyalty, the impetus is on you to initiate a restoration of that relationship. It's not up to him to see how obviously God is with Global or United so he should come join the right group.
If there is a fellow minister or employee that you never called after he was fired for not signing the loyalty oath in '79 or went to Global in '93 but neither of you has spoken, maybe a phone call is in order. Maybe you aren't a minister but a member who never called your good friend that was put out of the church long ago by an overzealous minister for questioning Mr. Stanley Rader, "the evangelist," or you were told by a minister not to visit with that person who is now in Global or CGI or is sitting at home all alone. You had just stood by and watched him or her go.
Forgetting is easy. Remembering and taking action, however, can bring restitution. Who knows but maybe a phone call on your part telling someone how sorry you were for your past behavior may mean more to him or her than 1,000 sermons about Matt. 5:24.
At the same time, I don't want to leave a wrong impression which has often been stereotyped about those who have left the WCG and haven't rushed in to join a particular group. Most of God's people (those who have His Spirit) who have left the WCG over the years aren't "sitting on the sidelines... hiding out at home, nursing old wounds and resentments." They aren't "waiting for that phone call" when others will apologize or vindicate their decision to leave on doctrinal change #4 or 44 (take a number). The same can be said for ministers in or out of different organizations. Those with God's Holy Spirit have let go of grievances a long time ago. They've learned to forgive others in advance just as they know they also need that forgiveness themselves. What is sad is that some very old friends are still no longer in communication with one another. Sin does separate. Even though we are forgiven in advance, there still needs to be expressed repentance on our part for the separation to end and the relationship restored.
As mentioned before, people used to write in to publications like "In Transition" wondering why we can't all just get together. We all could just get together, but we first need to redefine what being "together" is all about. It's not about being in the same church organization or any organization, but it's about having a unity through the Spirit of God. A corporation is not the "corpus" of the body of Christ. There is only one church no matter how many ways we take it upon ourselves to organize and reorganize. God sees all of us that are yielding to His Spirit in us as His Beloved Church and Bride-to-be, clothed in white. If we see each other as God sees us, then we won't be seeing our brothers and sisters in various stereotyped organizational uniforms. Instead, through the Spirit we'll want to fellowship whenever and wherever possible. Therefore, all of us "getting together" doesn't mean everyone else finally realizes that obviously "my group" is the right one. Each of us need to individually take the responsibility to make true unity through the Spirit a reality. If we wait for certain church leaders to take the initiative it might be a long wait. All of those in the ministry certainly could make it a lot easier.
If you were fired by your boss and publicly humiliated by him in front of all the other employees for something you didn't do would you want to later on come over to his place for a little company barbeque while he acts as though nothing has happened? Even if you have already forgiven him in your heart and hold no bitterness your relationship is still not going to be close. Maybe the reason your minister isn't going to suggest even a "let's get together" picnic between churches is because a number of people in the other group were disfellowshipped by him while he was a WCG minister. There are brethren in various churches still not talking to one another or even visiting another church because physically avoiding the other person allows for a false sort of "peace" that isn't true peace. There have been a lot of hurts, misunderstandings and wrongs of the past that need to be worked out.
There are church leaders now in their 60's who long ago made some judgment calls based on what they thought was good information and hurt a number of people in the process. Maybe a little fact finding on their part and a few phone calls can bring reconciliation. This is something we all need to be working toward.
I believe it's time for the ministry to set the example of reconciliation for the church as a whole. We should be known by our love for one another and not by our divisions. Ignoring one another, stereotyping one another, avoiding one another and practicing collective amnesia isn't going to cut it. You don't need to wait for someone to form an ad hoc committee to form recommendations on a strategic plan to make a decision on reconciliation. Just "leave your gift on the altar" and do it!
If you have regrets about how you acted publicly, maybe you should admit it publicly. The Bible doesn't say we are to confess our faults one to another unless we're a minister. Maybe there's a 17-year-old boy out there in the congregation who will one day be in the ministry. He needs to know that a man confessing his faults isn't considered weak but spiritually mature like the Apostle Paul. He needs to know that loyalty oaths aren't good and holding a man's paycheck over his head to make him compromise his conscience is wrong. He needs to know that a policy of accommodation and appeasement when dealing with apostasy is wrong. He needs to know that it's OK to strongly disagree with the church's direction and yet remain loyal to God. He needs to know that it's wrong to just standby and watch injustice take place. James 4:17 (NRSV) says, "Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin."
He needs to know what can happen when the fear of a man replaces the fear of God and that "playing it safe" is never the drum a man of God marches to. He should understand how it came to be that over the years God's people have been lied to, manipulated and used by past administrations all in a false sense of loyalty to an organization which called itself "the government of God on earth today." To ignore this fact is to simply perpetuate the lie and manipulation of God's people not to mention taking God's name in vain.
In the national organizations the congregations need to know that their well being is of the highest concern. The true Home Office we all should look to is in Jerusalem above and not in a corporate office here below. Any physical "home office" here should exist only in a very limited way to serve and support the field churches and not the other way around. Frankly, an organized highly centrally controlled "Universal" ("Worldwide," "International" or "Global") church never came into being until a Bishop of Rome wanted absolute control over the field churches. The church needs to come out of Babylon and pattern itself after the first century church instead of the 4th century one.
When challenged on this 1st century pattern by Howard Davis at the recent UCG conference, Steve Andrews said that without the corporate umbrella vulnerable church members along with the physical assets would be subject to attacks by Satan. Take a long look at the last corporate umbrella we had in the WCG and ask yourselves how the physical assets or the vulnerability of God's people faired. You can only battle Satan by putting on the armor of God and a corporate umbrella is not listed as part of that armor. People were looking to Pasadena for their protection and their direction when they should have been looking to Their Savior, The Rock. The "Head"-quarters that the ministry should have been pointing the brethren to is not on earth. The protective corporation wasn't the solution, but the problem.
Ministers also need to be ministers of Jesus Christ and not of an organization. In other words, a minister in the UCG should feel free to refer a person requesting baptism to a closer Global or independent minister because frankly, apart from physical home offices who are too often in the business of religion, who cares where the person eventually sends his tithes or offerings? What matters is that we have faith in God and trust Him to bring that person along to spiritual maturity. What matters is what is best for the individual and that we love him wherever he decides to fellowship. His well being isn't dependent on the size of a fellowship group or a corporate umbrella, but on his individual relationship with Jesus Christ. God's church shouldn't foster co-dependent members whose safety is in men or a set of bylaws, but men and women of God whose strength is in Christ. These are members who have put on the whole armor of God and are Spirit led. This should be especially true for any man who calls himself a minister of Jesus Christ.
The only thing that can help prevent tyranny in a church is for Godly men of conscience to stand up and let God's Spirit use them to oppose what is wrong. Too often in the past this has not occurred. Brethren, this even goes beyond a form of church government and even doctrinal differences, but gets right down to the character of its members.
God's people need to be willing to stand up when they see injustice and quit shifting responsibility to others. A country is only as great as the composite of its people. A church can only be as spiritual as its members are yielding to God's Holy Spirit. The church didn't go astray in '74, '78, '86, '93 or '94. It went astray on the first day you or I saw an individual being mistreated and chose to just stand by and watch. We need to always remember that we are the church, each one of us, and to answer Cain's 6,000 year old question "Yes, we are our brother's keeper."
Where Do We Go From Here?
Let's not forget the past, but rather, learn from it; really learn from it. "Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works...." (Rev. 2:5). That letter of repentance was written to a church that had a lot of old time church members in it. Before we can repent, we first need to know that we have fallen. Before we can repent, we need to know why we fell and accept our own individual responsibility for that fall.
As for those tens of thousands of forgotten sheep scattered all over the hillside that nobody seems to think about, maybe it's time to do some remembering. "Leave your gift upon the altar," cancel your next strategic planning meeting and seek reconciliation. You can plan to do "many mighty works" in His name, but if you don't first turn your attention "to the least of these My brethren" it can be all for not.
Maybe it's time for brethren all over to make some phone calls or invite some old friends over. There are some tears that should be shed and "I'm so sorrys" to be told. There are more articles like Don Hooser's to be written and preached from the pulpit. All of us need to take responsibility for our own past actions and seek reconciliation.
As a church we need to acknowledge our sins and repent, asking God for help in confession to the brethren we've hurt. There's been too much glossing over the past and unless we clearly see what was wrong then we are bound to repeat the same mistakes. This is what many of those tens of thousands who have left are concerned about. It's why they don't even want to visit a breakaway church. It's like having been divorced after you've put your whole being into a marriage that turned abusive and now you're down on marriage in general ("Never gonna fall in love again . . . I don't want to have to feel the pain...."). They need reassurance that the old WCG paradigm is over and those who were part of the system have truly changed. They don't want to be like new wine trying to exist in old wineskins. Ignoring the past and those who were affected by it won't bring reconciliation. Not understanding what went wrong in the WCG or acknowledging our own sins won't bring reconciliation for indeed it is unacknowledged sin that continues to separate brethren.
One leader in the United proudly told his new United congregation in May of '95 that nobody knew where he stood until after he left the WCG. He still doesn't understand what a minister of Jesus Christ is. I pray that he will. Then he can teach transgressors God's way and sinners can be converted. Then some of those tens of thousands of brethren who are at home alone may find it easier to see Christ in him and want to fellowship. Then the heart of the minister would be turned to the hearts of the brethren and vice versa as they are all one in Christ. Then he can be part of a ministry of reconciliation by showing others how to reconcile. Then he will know, those around him will know and God will know what and who he is-- a minister of Jesus Christ. Then we can leave those things behind which have been dealt with and do a work of reconciliation.
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