Thus began what Mr. Ruth calls his odyssey in the Churches of God. He was a newly baptized member whose new way of life suddenly got a little bumpy.
Mr. Ruth's jarring journey began in mid-1986 when the WCG transferred a new pastor into the area to replace Mr. Marrs, who headed for a pastorate in Louisiana.
To hear Mr. Ruth tell it, Vince Szymkowiak (who is now a paid minister for the United Church of God) and Ray Wooten (now founder of United Christian Ministries), pastor of another congregation, Detroit West, joined forces to go after Mr. Ruth and three new friends of his: Dave Williams and Mike Summers, members of Detroit East, and Sharon Anders, who attended Detroit West under Mr. Wooten.
Mr. Szymkowiak disfellowshipped and marked Mr. Summers "because he was counseling others and trying to help them through their problems," remembers Mr. Ruth.
"People in the church were coming up to Mike and asking for help about difficulties in their lives. Mike grew up under tough circumstances and understood what these folks were dealing with. It was truly a labor of love to work with them to accept the realities of life and go forward."
But the church didn't appreciate Mr. Summers' assistance "because supposedly only ordained folks had the gifts to serve in such a way. Plus, Mike had a better success rate than they did."
Mr. Ruth recalled an incident at the time of his friend's disfellowshipment:
"When Vince came to Mike's house to disfellowship him, he said he felt the presence of demons in the place. Mike told Szymkowiak the only demons in the house were the ones he brought with him."
Mr. Ruth and the other two friends got into trouble for their continuing communication with Mr. Summers.
"Vince told me to stay away from Mike because he had tossed him out of the church. At that time if you continued to have a relationship with someone the WCG disfellowshipped, they threw your [backside] out too. I just disregarded what Vince said. He eventually tossed me out in part because of this, but I didn't care. God doesn't abide by crazy rules."
In contrast, Mr. Marrs' approach was much more laissez-faire than Mr. Szymkowiak's, said Mr. Ruth.
Mr. Szymkowiak had been commissioned by the son of the WCG's new pastor general to "clean up the area," said Mr. Ruth. Joseph Tkach Jr., who would eventually inherit the WCG when the senior Mr. Tkach died in 1995, was "calling the shots, even at that early date."
After his three friends found themselves on the outside of the WCG looking in, Mr. Ruth wrote a letter to church headquarters in Pasadena to "explain the situation."
"This was the fall of '86," he said. "Because of my letter I got visited by Vince Szymkowiak and Joe Tkach Jr., and I still have the tape of that entire interview."
Mr. Tkach and Mr. Szymkowiak spoke with Mr. Ruth for an hour and a half at Mr. Ruth's parents' house in a suburb of Detroit. (Mr. Ruth was a student at nearby Wayne State University.)
Born of fire
In that meeting Mr. Tkach informed Mr. Ruth that the church was planning, even only a few months after Mr. Armstrong's death, to revise Mr. Armstrong's Mystery of the Ages book because it was allegedly "full of errors."
"So the idea that they didn't plan the massive changes in doctrine in the Worldwide Church of God even back in 1986 is a bunch of baloney," said Mr. Ruth. "Joe Jr. was admitting to this in the early fall of 1986, because he told me in my house. They sure as [heck] knew what they were doing."
Even though his friends were no longer attending the WCG, Mr. Ruth was still technically a member in good standing and still attended WCG services.
But on Dec. 4, 1986, Mr. Szymkowiak visited Mr. Ruth in his parents' residence and, unable to elicit a pledge from him that he would submit to church government by shunning his friend, disfellowshipped him.
"One of the things I told Vince was that God ran the universe and that they [the ministry] didn't. I don't think he liked that because he felt they really did."
Mr. Ruth's experiences while departing from the WCG "kind of freeze-dried or solidified the friendship of the four of us," he said. "Fourteen years later we still have a special relationship because of those events. Our friendship was born of fire."
Some people think Mr. Ruth attended Ambassador College, he said, "but I never did, although I heard a lot from Dave about his Ambassador College experiences. He attended from '78 to '83 in Pasadena. He and I have roomed together now for about 10 years."
Mr. Szymkowiak disfellowshipped Mr. Ruth on a Thursday. On Saturday of that week Garner Ted Armstrong, who was then president of the Church of God International, near Tyler, Texas, would arrive in nearby Lansing, Mich., for a "campaign."
"I got thrown out [of the WCG] on Thursday and said to my friends, 'Why don't we just go and attend this CGI thing?' I didn't know much about Garner Ted, although my friends knew of him."
Although Mr. Williams and Mrs. Anders decided not go to Lansing, Mr. Ruth attended Mr. Armstrong's campaign with Mike Summers. That first CGI contact led to a relationship of several years between Mr. Ruth and the CGI. He continued regular attendance with the CGI in the Detroit area and Windsor until about 1993, when he and his three friends began embarking on what he calls their "missionary journeys."
The missionary journeys were regular visits to other CGI congregations as well as treks to attend with non-CGI-affiliated congregations. Mr. Ruth began taking these trips after what he calls a "disillusioning and enlightening" experience with the CGI.
"I applied for Imperial Academy in 1993," he said, "and was turned down."
The CGI's Imperial Academy consisted of classes and seminars at church headquarters in Texas designed to teach principles of leadership and public speaking.
"I applied, and I got turned down, and I got mad and said I'm not going to take this anymore.
"I had filled out their excruciatingly detailed admission form, which also required character references.
"The entire ministerial board that approved applications--you know, Ted and Vance Stinson and Ron Dart--all of them except for my former pastor, Bronson James--voted to reject my application because they had gotten a letter or two from two people in the local fellowship who wrote negative, nasty things about me that were distorted and overblown."
No one asked for his side of the story, said Mr. Ruth, "even though they knew of me. Heck, I had just organized a successful Garner Ted Armstrong campaign in Flint the year before. But they wanted to believe the devil. Once someone is ordained, I guess God whites out Matthew 18 from some Bibles. Needless to say, I never got a chance to go to Imperial Academy."
After this incident, which still obviously bothers Mr. Ruth, he decided he was overdue for a change. That's when he began attending with other fellowships.
It was 1993, the year Rod Meredith, a longtime WCG elder and administrator, quit the WCG and began the Global Church of God.
"And there were other groups starting to form," remembers Mr. Ruth. "I thought: Now I can really travel around."
He attended Fred Coulter's Feast of Tabernacles site on the Gulf Coast and "helped him out for a few years." (Mr. Coulter is founder of the Christian Biblical Church of God, Hollister, Calif.)
Mr. Ruth was fascinated by the phenomenon of church splits and resplits, so he began to think how a chronicler or historian might categorize and keep track of them. He began attending multiple Feast sites and Sabbath services and has, to date, attended with 80 or 90 Church of God organizations.
He has also, over the years, compiled and updated a directory of Church of God groups. He lists names (of organizations and founders), mailing addresses and Internet addresses of almost 300 Churches of God. (The Journal plans soon to publish the latest version of Mr. Ruth's directory.)
"Just within the immediate Detroit area I have a choice of anywhere from 10 to 15 groups I can drive to within three or four hours," he said. "There's an independent group in Flint hosted by Jerry Hubbard. There's Norm Edwards' and Jeff Ledy's group in Lansing. There's Carl Franklin, who's a really great guy over in Dowagiac. There are people in Ohio, Indiana and Ontario, Canada. It takes me four months of Sabbath services to visit all of them just in this area."
Besides the independent groups in his area, Mr. Ruth visits the "affiliated" congregations: those who are part of Church of God denominations with headquarters.
"There's Bruce Chapman, who's with Garner Ted [Mr. Armstrong is no longer with the CGI; he and some friends founded the Intercontinental Church of God in 1998]. I've visited a Global affiliate in the area. I've attended with Randy D'Alessandro in a United congregation in Detroit, and there's Melvin Rhodes in Lansing.
"Melvin is personable to talk to, and Dianne, his wife, is just absolutely a scream. She's real fun."
The Journal asked Mr. Ruth about the founding of Barnabas Ministries and the www.biblestudy.org Web site.
"In late 1992, when Rod Meredith came out [of the WCG], I asked myself the simple question: I wonder how many splits there are in the Worldwide Church of God. I was curious."
So in January that year Mr. Ruth began work on a chart that showed, in literally graphic detail, 20 to 30 Church of God groups.
"I talked to Fred Coulter, and he encouraged me on my project."
Mr. Coulter invited Mr. Ruth to his Feast site in Gulf Shores, Ala., in 1993 to present the information on the COG groups to the brethren at the site.
"That gave me a real reason to do this, so I started in earnest to put together information about the splits. I took notes. I read tons of literature. I went through copies of the Ambassador Report [a now-discontinued newsletter by former WCGmembers dedicated to reporting on the WCG and its Ambassador College] and other references to find out where everybody was and locate addresses and all of that."
After his Feast presentation someone suggested he commit his research to paper.
"Since I already had loads of written notes on the splits, it seemed like a great idea," he said.
In the summer of 1994 Mr. Ruth published a paper about the splits.
"That paper got wide distribution. I sent out 1,300 copies myself, and others, like Norm Edwards, distributed it so that literally thousands of copies were going out."
Not long after the Feast of '94 came other memorable events in the history of the splits.
"On Dec. 24, 1994, was the famous sermon by Joe Tkach Sr. [in Big Sandy] about not tithing and all of that. Then in the spring of '95 the big group that came out [of the WCG] began the United Church of God [now headquartered in Milford, Ohio].
Concurrent with the founding of United, at 14,000 members the largest WCG splinter group, came the emergence into the public's consciousness of the Internet, said Mr. Ruth.
"I was contemplating how to start serving the church through computers. People were just then beginning to hear about this thing called the Internet, even though it had been around since 1968."
He had thought about starting up an electronic "bulletin board" that people who owned computers and modems could dial into to retrieve information about Church of God groups. But it dawned on him in late '95 that making use of the Internet would be a more efficient and much simpler way to accomplish the task.
He sought advice from several Sabbatarian Christians, some of whom were part of larger ministries, some who had founded their own.
He spoke with Richard Nickels of Gillette, Wyo., director of the Giving & Sharing ministry. He got advice as well from Mr. Edwards, who publishes Servants' News newsletter.
"Norm suggested that we call it something generic," said Mr. Ruth. "He said if we put 'Church of God' in the name some people--the sacred-namers, for example--would not like that."
Mr. Edwards suggested using the phrase Bible study in the Web-site address. Mr. Ruth's decision to do so marked the beginning of Barnabas Ministries and the www.biblestudy.org site.
"I thought the name Barnabas implied encouragement, because the Barnabas of the Bible was one who encouraged. Also, Barnabas and Paul set the example of the right way to part company: an amicable split."
In early 1996 Mr. Ruth began posting on his Web site information not only about but from the splits.
The Journal asked Mr. Ruth for his bird's-eye view of the Church of God movement and where he sees it headed over the next few years.
"Well, I'd say we are still in transition. It's almost like the ancient kings of Judah. Israel always had bad kings, but Judah seemed to have a good king, then a bad one, a good one and a bad one. In the church by and large we had a bad king.
"By bad king I'm not referring to any particular person; it's the bad idea of church government, hierarchy, whatever you want to call it."
The members of the Churches of God, said Mr. Ruth, are "transitioning to a good king," the worthy monarch of a closer relationship with God and each other and a Christian life of actively serving.
Hierarchies and independents
When delving into the hot topic of government among the Churches of God, Mr. Ruth divides the groups and individuals into two broad categories: hierarchies and independents.
"Hierarchy," the way Mr. Ruth means it, sums up a type of relationship in which one person or group rules and tries to unilaterally control another group.
"Those who feel they are above another person or group believe they are superior and therefore have the right to call the shots."
Happy families are not a hierarchy, Mr. Ruth believes.
"Love is not concerned at all with who is in charge. God is not in heaven reminding Jesus every so often that He is above Him. Mutual submission and outgoing love are the name of the game. What the church has done is interpret the Bible through the glasses of their screwed-up family lives. They think God is as dictatorial and neurotic as their families were."
The problem of hierarchy, said Mr. Ruth, boils down to members who think they sit in a class higher than do other members.
Ministers, he said, instinctively try to serve as stand-ins for the Holy Spirit.
"They make the exact error the Catholics do. Catholics think that, although Jesus is the head of the church, He turned over guidance and governance of it to the pope.
"Church of God ministers who practice top-down church hierarchy, though sincere, act as if God's Spirit in the brethren isn't enough. It isn't enough to guide and teach the brethren and to help them obey God's law. The hierarchical-acting minister unknowingly attempts to override or replace God's Spirit in His children."
As "God and Jesus rule Themselves to always be righteous, we are being led by God also to rule ourselves."
Hierarchy, said Mr. Ruth, has led to a "hellish" doctrine that teaches the brethren to submit to a system wherein only a few, the "ordained," are seen as having permission from God "to fully serve," said Mr. Ruth.
But "you already have permission to be Christian. There are no exclusions. There is no territory. There are no boundaries. Permission to be Christian comes at baptism. God leads and guides and softly directs. Satan possesses and punishes and creates chaos and mayhem trying to accomplish his goals."
Hierarchy, continued Mr. Ruth, "is the coward's way out, because character is a long, hard process. Hierarchy is the quick, dirty solution to be able to do something right now that has short-term benefits but long-term problems and chaos."
The very core of hierarchy, said Mr. Ruth, is "evil."
"Some say it's just another way of doing things. Heck no, it's not. The very definition of what the world and our church history define as hierarchy is not God's way, period.
"People need to realize that the old WCG accomplished what it did not because of but in spite of top-down church government. Rather than showing how wonderful hierarchy is, our history shows how merciful God is in working with Christians that have major shortcomings or problems.
"Why do you think the WCG has changed 500-plus doctrines and teachings but hasn't totally rejected top-down church government? It's because it's the devil's chief philosophy for doing the most damage."
The church as hierarchy, believes Mr. Ruth, is on its way out. It is chiefly men in their 60s and 70s who are still at the helm while a new generation, more open to Mr. Ruth's ideals of individualism and independence, gradually and inevitably nudges aside the old guard.
"The ideals of the old Worldwide Church of God are slowly fading into nonexistence," he said. "The WCG will be a burp in history. The old guard, the old ministers, have split and resplit, split and resplit and split so many times that they're growing more ineffective and pretty much living on yesterday's glories."
Many among the aging generation have a particular perspective that hinders the growth of themselves and the brethren, he said.
"They are overly concerned with a man who died 15 years ago. Rather than simply acknowledging him as founder of the Worldwide Church of God, they place Herbert Armstrong on a pedestal and make him part of their religion."
Living on biological time
Even so, Mr. Ruth speaks highly of Mr. Armstrong in some contexts.
"Herbert Armstrong did always take advantage of the latest and the greatest, the newest idea," he said.
The latest and greatest in Mr. Armstrong's day were radio, television and paper with ink on it.
"I firmly believe if Herbert Armstrong could have been alive today he'd have been on the Internet big time spending good money, because the man saw opportunity and took it. That's why the church grew. He was willing to change.
"He had his problems, but one of his talents was boiling stuff down. He was dynamic. He had tons of energy. He was creative and driven toward his goals."
Mr. Ruth makes an unexpected comment about Mr. Armstrong's energy. He thinks he had ADHD, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, a malady few people had heard of only a few years ago but one that's much in the news in recent years.
Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and its close relative, attention-deficit disorder (ADD), are usually associated with schoolchildren who have trouble paying attention in class. As a result, many take a medication called methylphenidate, commonly sold under the brand name Ritalin, which is supposed to calm them down and help them focus on tasks at hand.
Doctors in recent years, said Mr. Ruth, have recognized that children with ADD or ADHD grow into adults with ADD or ADHD.
"I believe that not only did Herbert Armstrong have this condition, but that the Church of God as a whole has quite a few leaders and members with it," he said. "It's not uncommon for it to be undiagnosed, labeled as something else or simply denied by the person who has it."
Symptoms are said to include inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity, and the symptoms must be consistently displayed.
"In Herbert Armstrong's case he certainly was hyper," said Mr. Ruth. "He was intense, driven, focused. I've listened to several of his recorded sermons from the 1950s. In 1955 he was 63 years old. He would talk fast and at times virtually scream at the audience. He would pound the pulpit and even shake it."
Mr. Ruth described an amateur movie a Church of God member made of a visit Mr. Armstrong took to a Feast site in the 1950s.
"It was a home movie of Herbert Armstrong overlooking the site at Big Sandy. It was interesting because Loma Armstrong was standing there prim and proper, but Herbert Armstrong would run up this little hill and look around, then run down it, then three seconds later run back up it and look around. He was like a busy little bee. It was fascinating. This was the '50s. He was wound like a clock."
Mr. Ruth noted that Mr. Armstrong must have been naturally energetic to have founded a college when he was 55 years old.
"Imagine starting Ambassador College in 1947 when he was already 55. Most people would be looking to take it easy and begin contemplating retirement. But not him. He just couldn't sit still. Where did he get all that consistent energy to start a college, preach, do radio and TV and write for two magazines all at the same time? You can't get that prolonged energy by eating chocolate or drinking coffee."
Then there's Mr. Armstrong's famous impulsivity: "acting first and thinking later," as Mr. Ruth put it.
"Joe Tkach, Sr. [WCG pastor general after Mr. Armstrong's death] visited Detroit in the early 1990s. He told the crowd that Mr. Armstrong fired him five or six times, then rehired him back. Being fired, rehired, fired again, etc., happened to several other ministers as well. If that's not impulsive behavior, I don't know what is."
(For an account of Mr. Armstrong's firing of an employee seven times within three hours, see The Journal's interview with Jeff Booth, pastor of a congregation in Amarillo, Texas, in the Sept. 30, 2000, issue.)
"Of course, Herbert Armstrong was also full of new ideas, new ways of doing something," said Mr. Ruth. "He talked a lot. From his autobiography you get a picture of him having only two speeds: asleep and full steam ahead."
Whether anyone likes it or not, said Mr. Ruth, "the Church of God has been built by people who display many of the traits of ADD and ADHD."
Mr. Ruth admits his own mainspring could probably benefit from a muscle relaxant.
"Hey, we're all human. It's hardly a secret that many times I need a seat belt to hold me in my chair."
He checked off the names of some historical figures and celebrities said to have ADD or ADHD, including inventor Thomas Edison, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, genius Albert Einstein and, of course, actor Robin Williams.
He also thinks the apostles Paul and Peter "may have had a touch of ADD-ADHD. They exhibit several of the major traits as well. But that's another story."
The good news
After his discussion of ADD, Mr. Ruth focused on what he considers to be the good news in the Churches of God, the upside to the downside of the splits.
The brethren have made progress, and much is to be lauded in the COG movement and culture, he believes.
"Because of technology and other innovations such as the Internet, people have unparalleled opportunities to communicate and serve, and they're taking advantage of those opportunities."
The breakup of the Worldwide Church of God into at least 300 new groups has forced people to take their Christianity seriously, he believes.
"It forces us to sink or swim. Now you don't have 300 people getting together in a group so large that an individual Christian can fade into the background like wallpaper."
It is much harder to blend in, but it is also much easier to get directly involved in "helping other people" and "serving God," said Mr. Ruth.
In the turn-of-the-century Church of God "it's a different world," he said. "But that's good. As more and more people spread out and are more active, the Word of God gets spread a lot more."
Mr. Ruth can point to at least 280 Church of God groups, but he thinks there are really thousands, if one counts (or tries to count) the smallest fellowships.
Speaking of numbers, The Journal asked Mr. Ruth if he has an idea of how many people hold to a version of Sabbatarian Christianity.
"Well, United has about 15,000, Philadelphia about 7,000, Global and Living combined another 7,000 or so. You've got groups like Fred Coulter with 500. John Ritenbaugh's got maybe another 500. So in those kinds of groups you may have something like 25,000."
But the home fellowships may bring the total up to 50,000 or so, he said, and that's considering only the splits from the WCG.
What about the splits from the Church of God (Seventh Day), from which the WCG split in the 1930s?
The CG7 and its own splits may have as many as a quarter of a million members, most of them outside this country.
Don't forget the Seventh-day Adventists, who descended in the 1800s from the William Miller movement (along with the Churches of God). SDAs number perhaps seven or eight million, said Mr. Ruth.
Then there's the True Jesus Church of China and elsewhere, with perhaps a few million.
"Easily you have, if you include the SDAs, 10 million or 20 million or even 50 million or more Sabbatarian Christians."
The Journal asked Mr. Ruth what he thinks is the Churches of God's biggest problem.
"The biggest problem is the "ordained ministry itself," he unhesitatingly replied. "I mentioned it before, and I know many may disagree, but I've had a chance to read literature from 300 groups and visit their Web sites, about 160 of them, and have personally visited 70 or 80 different groups.
"The biggest hindrance to preaching the gospel is the ministry."
Mr. Ruth has somewhat against the Church of God ministry because, he says, ministers have perpetuated (1) a "false concept" of what it is to preach the gospel and (2) an erroneous notion of what it is to have a relationship with God.
What does Mr. Ruth think is the false concept of preaching the gospel that COG elders perpetuate?
"It's the concept that the brethren can just sit there--in fact must just sit there--unless or until the hierarchy, the ministers, gives them permission to do something, be it sell oranges or restock magazines on newsstands.
"This is a false concept because the individual Christian already has permission, given to him at baptism, to do the work of spreading the Word of God. If a minister tries to get in the way of or stop the honest expression of a Christian's gifts of service, then he is sinning and causing said Christian to sin.
"Yes, I said S-I-N. Jesus told all Christians directly in several parables to use the gifts He gives us, and you better believe He will not be happy if we do not get a return on the investment He put in us."
How does Mr. Ruth think the ministry promotes a flawed view of a relationship with God?
"As I said before, the brethren have replaced the Holy Spirit with the ministry. Instead of relying on God's Spirit to lead them into all truth and to direct them to preach the Word or do anything they should be doing, they rely on the ministry to tell them when, if and how to do those things."
That concept, of filtering one's Christianity through a ministerial system in the Churches of God, has been promulgated by the underlying notion of "apostolic succession," said Mr. Ruth.
"We've had the tradition that one minister makes another minister, then he makes another one, then he makes another one. But in the Bible I think it's clear that a group of people in the local church helps ordain a person. The ultimate irony is that Herbert Armstrong was ordained by a bunch of unordained folk. There was but one elder in the whole group."
But Mr. Armstrong, said Mr. Ruth, turned around and created an organization, originally called the Radio Church of God, that soon opposed the concept of a congregation ordaining elders.
"In his autobiography Mr. Armstrong always said, 'The ministers gave me trouble; the ministers gave me flack.' Ironically, if he had followed the rules he made up later in his life, he would have just sat down, shut up and done what they told him to do rather than starting a ministry that would eventually grow into a sizable work."
Mr. Ruth credits Jesus of Nazareth with setting the tone and pace of service and brotherhood.
"He didn't say, 'I am your Master, and some of you are at a higher level than others.' He said, 'I am your Master, and you are all brethren.'"
Texas independent spirit
But isn't Mr. Ruth espousing what some people might say is American democracy or even the Texas independent spirit? Aren't those just fancy ways of saying stiff-necked rebellion?
"Nope. They could say that, but I could say to them that they're espousing the philosophy of the beast power. Why would God's church use the Catholic Church's form of government?"
The acceptance of personal responsibility in real Christianity is indispensable for the building of character in a person, said Mr. Ruth.
So The Journal asked him about independent Church of God ministries such as that of Robert Roenspies of Elgin, Ill., who doesn't believe in free moral agency and who rejects the concept of character-building.
"That's crazy for a variety of reasons," said Mr. Ruth. "For example, God says pray that you don't enter into the tribulation. Pray that this or that won't happen. Well, if everything's all set, we just have to glide. We just hop on a spiritual surfboard. Why pray for someone to be healed or pray for the work if it's already determined?"
Without free moral agency, said Mr. Ruth, the brethren are nothing more than sophisticated robots.
"Why put us through all this pain and suffering if everything is really predetermined? That becomes foolishness, not life. That doctrine turns God into an evil, sadistic being who manufactures beings that are already preprogrammed to act a certain way. God ends up being the grand puppeteer."
Quite the opposite of yanking on puppet strings, God is subtle in His intervention, believes Mr. Ruth.
"God can do whatever He wants. But more times than not God does not get involved in our lives in the sense that people think. He says, 'I gave you a brain; I gave you My Spirit.' I don't think He cares whether we use a green or brown toothbrush. I think God is selective. There needs to be a tweak here and there, but to do more could take away from our free moral agency."
Just what do you mean 'the work'?
The Journal asked Mr. Ruth about the "work," the goal of the old WCG and many of its offshoots of witnessing to the world, preaching the gospel and feeding the flock.
Mr. Ruth believes members of the Church of God are to do a "great work" before Jesus returns, and they're already doing it.
"The glorious Church of God tradition has it that for 1,900 years the gospel wasn't preached and all that," he said, "but that goes against Jesus Christ's statement that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church.
"The church has always done a big work, because God working in the lives of individuals to take them from where they are to being in His image is by definition the biggest work."
That work is the "building of character," and that is "God's great work. God can build stars and planets, but He cannot create holy, righteous character by fiat. If He could, what we go through in our lives would be unnecessary and totally useless, and God would be sadistic for putting us through unnecessary pain."
Every time God calls someone and converts him, "that's a big work," said Mr. Ruth. "It's always gone on. It was going on when He got His hands dirty creating Adam."
To put it bluntly, said Mr. Ruth, Church of God members are "generally hacked off" (except he used a more colorful expression) because "we're not doing as big a work as we think we ought to. We get all mad because we think God's not doing anything through us. But God's always done a big work."
Jesus instead of a computer
But a "work" even in the sense of converting new people and helping them learn to obey God is happening, said Mr. Ruth, more than people may realize.
Besides, the methods the WCG used in the '50s and '60s are no longer as effective as they were, he believes.
If people want to use technology to do "a work," he said, they need to concentrate on the Internet, because it gives the most bang for a buck. One person can broadcast a message via Mac or PC that is available instantly to literally tens of millions of people in virtually every country.
But, wondered The Journal, if relying on the technology of the past can lull someone into thinking he's doing more than he really is as far as spreading the Word, can't a person let the Internet lull him into that same false sense of accomplishment?
"One-to-one, individual evangelism, personal witnessing or whatever you want to call it will never, ever be replaced," said Mr. Ruth. "There's no more effective means of reaching your neighbor or your friend than talking about Jesus Christ face to face, His interaction in your life and what He's done for you. That can never be replaced. That's why God sent Jesus instead of a computer. He came and talked to people face to face."
But, if you're going to use technology, you might as well use effective technology, he said, and the effective technology at the beginning of the third millennium happens to cost only a small fraction of the expense of the old technology.
The Internet, more than all the other technology that has ever existed, can help Christian individuals and groups who realize their personal responsibility before God, said Mr. Ruth.
"The Internet is an evening of the playing field. In some ways it is extremely egalitarian because all that matters is your words, what you say. One person--you or me--can reach more people on the Internet for $10,000 than the hierarchical groups with $15 million budgets or $8 million budgets and several thousand people supporting them.
"I am the smallest group--one person--but the Web site I created reaches more people, pound for pound, than the big organizations of the Church of God. I don't know how much more egalitarian you can get."
While Mr. Ruth is reaching hundreds of thousands of people, he holds down a full-time job. He works 40 hours helping a chemical company engage in electronic commerce, then labors another 30 or more in his spare time at Barnabas Ministries and www.biblestudy.org.
"In 2001 about 277,000 people will visit the biblestudy.org site," he said. "That's 277,000 separate people. The number of visits, many of them by the same people, is of course much higher than that."
At The Journal's press time Mr. Ruth said his Web site was averaging 1,100 visitors a day, with about 500 of that number new to the site.
What's right about the COGs?
Mr. Ruth sounds as if he's down on the larger Church of God groups, the ones he describes as hierarchies. Can't those organizations do anything right as far as Alan Ruth is concerned?
"Yes, they can," he said. "But what they view as growth is not very much at all. They look at the glory days of the Worldwide Church of God and remember it was sending out eight million booklets, and they shoot for those kinds of numbers. But that is small potatoes compared to what we can do and what is being done now by individuals."
The WCG had 100,000 Feastgoers at its zenith, he said. "But that's nothing. There are Protestant churches that have 10,000 members in one congregation. One hundred thousand people for a whole denomination is insignificant."
70 CGI splits
The Journal asked Mr. Ruth to elaborate on specific WCG splits and resplits. Have some of the splits spawned numerous splits of their own?
He cited the Church of God International as an example of a split that has engendered a whole string of splits.
"The CGI has split at least 70 times" since its beginning in 1978, said Mr. Ruth. "I can list them all."
The United Church of God, because of its splits since its 1995 founding, could be called the disunited Church of God, said Mr. Ruth.
"United has had almost 30 splits, if you count separations such as Mark Kaplan's recent departure. There are the Ray Wootens and the Dave Havirs who have split from United. United has had the most splits in the shortest time of any Church of God group that I can find in the last 100 years."
The Global Church of God split into Global and Living, then Living suffered subsequent splits, said Mr. Ruth, and Global no longer exists under that name except in countries outside the United States.
The Philadelphia Church of God, founded by Gerald Flurry, has had several splits and resplits.
"The Church of God groups will tell you how many people they have brought in, but they won't tell you how many people leave," Mr. Ruth said. "United, for instance, began with 19,000 people, and they've got 15,000 or less. What happened to the 4,000-plus?"
The wrong guard
Mr. Ruth is critical of many members of the old-timers in the WCG and its splits. But he has a soft spot in his heart for some of the veterans. An example is Ray Wooten, founder of United Christian Ministries, who lives in a suburb of Birmingham, Ala.
"We knew Ray when he was Saul," said Mr. Ruth. "He went from being Saul to being Paul. He was a terror in Worldwide. He was a big-time trip.
"But Ray has changed 180 degrees. Even though he has had his difficulties, his attitude is such that he deserves going the extra mile for, because an attitude will take you places that just commanding won't. I think he's deserving of help and encouragement simply because he is one of the very few who has the heart to care and give a damn and is willing to be honest with people."
Mr. Ruth also compliments Dave Havir, pastor of the Church of God Big Sandy, and Ed Marrs, his first pastor in the WCG (who is now a United elder).
"Ed's pretty well retired, but he's the gold standard in a lot of ways," said Mr. Ruth. "He shows what it's all about without the fluff and pomp."
Mr. Ruth also applauds Ron Dart of Tyler, Texas, founder of Christian Educational Ministries and speaker on the Born to Win radio broadcast.
"I would say people like Ron Dart are getting there," said Mr. Ruth. "He's still got the two-class system banging around in his head somewhere, but, given where he was, he's on the right road.
"You know, we used to joke about Ron being the ice man. Every time he'd open his mouth to say something I could almost swear you could see a little refrigerator light go on in there. But he's learned to be warm and personable, and he's definitely one of the top teachers in the Church of God."
Mr. Ruth thinks a few Church of God elders, including Mr. Havir, Mr. Wooten and Carl Franklin of Dowagiac, Mich., would be comfortable showing up in blue jeans and having a beer with some of the brethren.
"There are probably several others in the church as well that I'm not aware of. But many of the old-timers are fossilized; they're frozen in time. If they don't get moving here quickly, they could end up stuffed and put on display in a Church of God museum."
Elders with training in the WCG come by their aloofness honestly, said Mr. Ruth. "AC taught its ministerial candidates not to get too close to the brethren, because the brethren would lose respect for them if they discovered they were human. That was actually taught at Ambassador College."
Since an apparent source of disunity among Church of God brethren involves differences in doctrine, The Journal asked Mr. Ruth how important it is that the brethren walk together in doctrinal agreement.
He responded that, even though a Church of God denomination may present a unified set of beliefs (and elders) to its membership, it is probably not unified behind closed doors in meetings such as "executive sessions."
"Those guys have agreed to disagree, in many cases," he said. "They agree that, if two thirds or three fourths of a council or conference agrees on a doctrine, then they will all support it and present a unified front to the brethren, whether they really believe the doctrine personally or not. So this unity thing when it comes to doctrine is largely an illusion.
"These guys are preaching unity, yet some of them can't stand to be in the same room with each other. They don't give up their disagreements, but they want the brethren to."
On the other hand, he said, a statement of beliefs can be helpful. "But it depends on how it's used" and "how long it is."
Such a statement will not force unity, he said, and unity per se isn't the goal of a godly way of life.
"I don't think a statement of beliefs should be very big. What was Jesus' biggest criticism of the Pharisees? It was that they went into more minutiae than He intended. They added layer upon layer upon layer of rules and regulations, their traditions. Did that bring unity? It brought on condemnation."
What about the independents?
Mr. Ruth has strong opinions about the "hierarchies" and "ministers" and doing the "work." Does he have constructive criticism of the independents, those who tend to eschew anything that smacks of hierarchy?
"The biggest problem with the independents is they have freedom but they haven't learned responsibility," he said. "They're like little kids who have a new car but haven't learned how to use it responsibly. They drag-race with it. They abuse it. They gun it.
"And, sadly, it's many of the independents that come up with new, crazy doctrines."
Also, the independents no longer cheerfully give as they once did.
"I understand they may have doubts about tithing or reject the idea of God requiring 10 percent of their income," he said. "But they don't go to 7 or 8 percent giving or even 3 or 4. They go to almost nothing, and a few seem almost proud they are giving nothing. Boy, is that ever sad."
Some independent-minded Church of God people--recognizing problems with the hierarchies and with a segregation of humanity into those ordained and those not--will go to the other extreme and not listen to anybody, said Mr. Ruth.
"There is eldership in the church," he said. "I'd argue against the titles, but not against the responsibilities and gifts. The gift of eldership means you've been around long enough to know the ropes. You don't need a title for that. You've been in the church 20 years? You'd better be an elder. If you're not, shame on you, and shame on your teachers."
The independents, he continued, can take the concept of freedom to a ruinous extreme.
"They say, 'I'm not going to listen to anything from anybody,' and that's not right, either, because the truth from a jackass is still the truth. Even Jesus said listen to what the Pharisees say, just don't do what they do."
Some among the independents are "rebellious," he said. But others successfully deal with "the liberty by which Christ has made us free."
"It's very much a growth process because they're learning how to cooperate with people."
Independents can be unreasonably impatient with their brethren in the organizations, Mr. Ruth continued.
"They forget where they came from. They forget what they went through. They wanted their friends to cut them some slack back then, but they're not willing to cut any now."
Mr. Armstrong's history
The Journal asked Mr. Ruth about Mr. Armstrong's proper position in Church of God history and Church of God members' religion.
"He should be neither demonized nor deified," said Mr. Ruth. "God used him, and I mean that in the sense that God uses all of us. God saw the skills and talents the man had, and God led him to do certain things because of his skills and talents."
Some people have grown disillusioned with the legacy and teachings of Mr. Armstrong, he said, not because of the reality but because they previously saw him through "Herbert Armstrongcolored lenses."
"They had him high on a pedestal. They expected him to be more than he really was. When they found out he was human, like he always was, they got all mad, as if God had tricked them. No, their own unrealistic beliefs disappointed them."
Instead of placing one's faith in a dead man who spoke of the gospel and of the resurrection, "you should put your faith in a live Savior who is the gospel and is the resurrection," he said.
The Journal asked Mr. Ruth about the new Evangelistic Association of the Churches of God, founded by Lawrence Gregory, pastor of the Tulsa Church of God, and some friends and associates of his.
"At the founding conference [in Tulsa, Okla., in July 2000] I went up to Dave Antion, who is a licensed psychologist, and asked him if he knew what it would take for the Churches of God to cooperate and preach the gospel. He didn't have any answer, so I gave him mine: medication. You know, Prozac, lithium and Valium would be a step in the right direction.
"When he heard this he smiled and ticked off several other drugs we could use. I thought his answer was pretty cool."
Mr. Ruth credits association founder Mr. Gregory for "trying hard."
"But I have major reservations about the evangelistic association because I think Lawrence and some of the other folks are closet hierarchists. This of course doesn't mean they aren't nice guys. It's just that they are unaware that they retain many of the hierarchy concepts of the old WCG."
(See "Oklahoma Pastor Seeks Wide Support for Significant COG Gospel-Preaching Efforts," The Journal, Aug. 31, 2000.)
"The clues that the association would likely retain many of the old hierarchy practices and attitudes of the past were subtle, but they existed," Mr. Ruth said. "For example, why was it at that conference that during open comments from the floor the nonordained folks for the most part were limited in time while the ordained guys got to ramble on as long as they wanted?
"Not only that, but I noticed when one of the ordained guys wanted to say something they were quickly next in line to receive the microphone.
"And why were only the known names the main speakers and not others who are in the trenches actively trying new ideas and expanding the church's horizon of service? Even when they wanted to form a board at the end of conference, people suggested that C. Wayne Cole, Dave Antion, Ken Westby, etc., be on the board because people knew them."
Don't get Mr. Ruth wrong, he interjected. "I'm not certainly not knocking the ministers that attended per se. It's just that by and large they added nothing really profound or new or insightful. It seems we're still hung up on fruits not mattering, but notoriety. In our hierarchical minds we still place great weight on the title minister and assume ministers are in the forefront of serving and new ideas. But they're not even close."
Mr. Ruth said Mr. Gregory initially wanted to invite only elders to the conference but was counseled to open it up to all interested parties.
"That was wise, because he may have then had only people show up for a good poker game."
The Journal asked Mr. Ruth about the Christian Leadership Academy, a ministry founded by the unordained Alfred Harrell of Hot Springs, Ark.
"I think Al's a good guy," said Mr. Ruth. "He's trying hard. He's meaning to do well. I don't think there's a hierarchical bone in his body. I applaud anybody who can get two or three people to throw in with you to help do something to preach the gospel, which I haven't been able to do. God bless the man."
Process of approval
Individual efforts--small groups and even lone Church of God members--can move faster and more adroitly than can the larger organizations, Mr. Ruth said as The Journal's interview with him came to an end. And such agility can come in handy.
"Ron Dart made a good statement, and it's true. He said the good thing about the little groups and service organizations is we're nimble; we move fast. If you see a need, you don't ask for board approval. You just do it. If I have a good article, I'll put it on the Web site. I'm not going to wait three months for someone to sanitize it and approve it through all the levels.
"The little service groups can run circles around the big organizations that just sit there and have to labor through the approval processes."
Mr. Ruth commented on the efforts by task forces from the United Church of God and the Church of God, a Christian Fellowship (the CGCF, formerly the Global Church of God), to seek cooperation between the two organizations.
"I don't think that effort is merely a bunch of guys getting together and talking about old times," Mr. Ruth said. "They're doing this because there's a benefit for Larry Salyer's group [the CGCF], and that benefit is stability and a paycheck."
But what is the benefit on United's side?
"United gets the bragging rights. It's not kosher anymore to say we're the true church. But they can say: 'Look, we're the most important group God's using because we're reconciling. We're trying to iron out our differences with our brothers. We'll be nice to people whom we used to be warm and fuzzy with back in Worldwide.'"
Mr. Ruth has some advice for Joe church member, the average Church of God attender.
"Understand the principle that you've got permission to be Christian from baptism," he said. "Never forget that. Engrave it on your forehead. You do not have to ask for anybody's permission to do good, whether it's serving, teaching or preaching. I don't care whether it's considered to be a quote unquote ministerial function or not, you have your permission to be a Christian."
Second, visit the other churches. "Find out what people are doing. Help them out as much as possible."
Third, he said, "pray, study the Bible, fast and meditate. Those are always applicable."
But the common denominator, the tie that binds these three pieces of advice together, he said, is a willingness to take risks.
"It's okay to make a fool of yourself sometimes. It's okay to stumble, as long as you keep moving forward."
Is it all right with Mr. Ruth if Joe church member continues attending with a Church of God organization, or must he quit and join an independent group or home fellowship?
"No, it's fine to attend with the larger group if it is not hindering the expression of God's Spirit in you," he said. "But, as you do more, you're going to run right smack into the hierarchy because ultimately you're the hierarchy's competition."
Jesus will eventually ask Joe church member what he did with his talent, said Mr. Ruth. Joe church member needs to find out how he can serve, how he can best do what God wants him to do.
Mr. Ruth talked about determining what are one's talents and gifts.
"How did you find out what you wanted to do for a living? You tried a bunch of things to see what you were good at.
"We need to take risks to find out what we're good at, how we can serve, what we enjoy. Those things are likely the gifts that God gave us to serve."
The founder of Barnabas Ministries concluded with examples of works people can do, even without any man's specific permission.
"There are the proverbial truckers' Bible studies, prison ministries, telling people about the Bible, reading to senior citizens, giving out booklets and pamphlets and placing them underneath windshield wipers, personal witnessing to other people, helping out the Salvation Army, supporting children overseas.
"Visit sick people, give somebody a hand who is poor, blind or crippled. There are tons of things happening out there. Use your imagination. Create a Web site. Take a risk. Just look around."