Learn the lessons from the Wall Street Journal article

The writer is a Church of God member and publisher of Servants' News, P.O Box 107, Perry, Mich. 48872, U.S.A.;

By Norman Edwards

PERRY, Mich.--The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) has a circulation of 1,924,622 in the U.S.A. Most advertisers consider it the publication with the most influence on leaders in business, government, education and religion. It is one of the most frequently read papers at libraries and universities.

A one-time full-page ad for the U.S.A. edition costs $162,557.28. One cannot buy ad space on the front page, but that is where a feature article about the Worldwide Church of God began in the Feb. 21 issue. (See that article, about copyright issues affecting the Worldwide Church of God and the Philadelphia Church of God, reprinted beginning on page 1.)

Although we cannot know what proportion of the nearly two million subscribers read the article, it probably was the most interesting feature of that day's paper.

Copyright issues, which were the focus of the WSJ article--specifically the Worldwide Church of God's suit against the Philadelphia Church of God over the latter's unauthorized publishing of the book Mystery of the Ages, by WCG founder Herbert W. Armstrong--are a hot legal item.

This is especially true as Napster and other Internet sites and software make it possible for music and movies to be freely copied and transmitted to others.

This is further complicated by the proliferation of home equipment for quality copying of CDs, DVDs, tapes and books. It is quite possible that the WSJ article reached more people than the combined outreach efforts of all Church of God groups for several months.

Out in public

What should the people of God do when they are publicly mentioned today? Should they be ready to answer the questions the media raise, or should they simply ignore them and hope people will forget about the apparent problems in the COGs?

What did Christ do when anyone questioned Him? Did He respond to what people said about Him?

Yes! Matthew 11 and 12 contain numerous public defenses about the ministry of John the Baptist, accusations that Christ was a glutton and a wine bibber, leaders who rejected Jesus' miracles, disciples picking grain on the Sabbath, healing on the Sabbath, and Christ healing by God's power rather than Beelzebub's.

Luke 19 records people praising Jesus as He entered Jerusalem, the Pharisees' rebuking of Jesus and then Jesus defending the people's praise.

Then the Pharisees plotted how they might "entangle Him in His talk" (Matthew 22:15).

Did Jesus refuse to answer trick questions? No. He answered them so well that the chapter concludes like this:

"And no one was able to answer Him a word, nor from that day on did anyone dare question Him anymore" (verse 46).

Jesus did not stop there. The entire chapter of Matthew 23 is a continual rebuke of the leaders of His day. He included the scribes in His criticism, those who, in some ways, might be the equivalent of The Wall Street Journal today.

It is true that Christ did not answer at His trial, but it is this writer's opinion that, with His infinite wisdom, if Christ had opened His mouth He would have again been able to put His accusers to silence so that they would not have been able to answer Him, and He would not have died for our sins. So He let Himself be taken like a sheep to the slaughter (Acts 8:32).

It was not the mission of the apostles to die for our sins, so they frequently defended themselves and their teachings before the people, religious leaders and the courts of this world.

The book of Acts contains more chapters that do contain a story of a public defense (2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 14, 16, 17, 18, 19, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 28) than chapters that do not.

Paul's letters include additional accounts of his public defense of himself and his ministry.

Paul was no stranger to Jewish and Roman courts, though the brethren sometimes had difficulty standing with him to support him (2 Timothy 4:16-17). The issues were similar to today's: He was accused of things he did not do. Jealous leaders tried to wield the power of the judicial system to silence him.

The copyright issue

Should the WCG and PCG be fighting it out in court over the rights to Mystery of the Ages? Since each group acknowledges it does not regard the other as brethren, it is probably its only recourse.

This writer believes the courts have done a fairly good job in this case. They are trying to find a reasonable balance between people's right to practice their beliefs and the right of a corporation to control its property.

When courts decide that someone has infringed on a copyright, it is almost always settled by the alleged infringer paying money to make up for lost sales.

The WCG claims it lost tithes and offerings because some people became members of the PCG through reading Mystery of the Ages who might have otherwise become WCG members.

But that claim is weak since the WCG also admits it does not use or promote the book because it disagrees with it.

Furthermore, the WCG never made a meaningful offer to sell the rights to the book to the PCG. The dispute does not seem to be about money but about stopping the publication of the book.

Others will claim Mr. Armstrong wanted the book to reach a wide audience and that the former WCG members who believe in his work should have a right to decide what happens to it, not a few men who managed to take over a corporation.

With this I disagree. Mr. Armstrong was well aware that the book was printed with "Copyright © 1985 by Worldwide Church of God" on the back of the title page. He was aware that the WCG is a corporation and that he gave complete control of it, not to its members in general, but to Joseph Tkach Sr.

For the last 30 years of his life Mr. Armstrong preached that proper church government operated from the top down and God would correct the man at the top.

Don't let it happen again

It is difficult to know how the courts will ultimately rule in the WCG-PCG case. But it is clear that Church of God writers could prevent this problem from repeating itself. If someone teaches the truth of God, why would he want to stop others from teaching the same thing?

Are not we glad that the King James Bible and the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts are not copyrighted and therefore do not allow any powerful organization to suppress the Bible?

Most religious groups justify obtaining a copyright by noting that it stops someone else from taking their work, altering it and then obtaining a copyright themselves.

That is only partly true. Courts will not usually uphold a copyright that was clearly based on someone else's prior work. But teachers can avoid such court battles by either (1) placing writings in the public domain or (2) copyrighting the work, then granting permission to others to copy the work in its entirety.

If Mr. Armstrong had simply included the little phase "Permission is granted to anyone to copy or reprint this work in its entirety," this lawsuit would never have occurred.

Underlying concerns

The seldom-spoken fears that groups have about producing literature that others can copy are these:

  • Will we lose control of our work?
  • Will we lose donations?

First, are we not glad the Catholic Church lost control of the Bible when independent believers translated it into English in the 1500s? God, not any single man or organization, has kept control of the Scriptures.

Christ understood the money issue: "No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?" (Matthew 6:24-25).

If an individual or group writes solid Bible teaching, he or it needs to think about making that writing available for a long time to come, not how to maximize dollars for today. Cannot we have faith that God will take care of us if we are doing His work?

Problems with corporate-church copyrights do not end with the deaths of their leaders. When Roderick Meredith left the Global Church of God (GCG), the copyrights to his literature were still held by the GCG corporation. The GCG did not want to use the work of a departed leader, but neither could they be used by Mr. Meredith's new Living Church of God.

The same thing happened with a TV program produced by David Hulme just before he left the United Church of God. Hundreds of thousands of dollars was spent, but neither the UCG nor Mr. Hulme's new group could use the program.

Other cases are readily citable.

The idea that a church group must incorporate and hold copyrights to operate is entirely incorrect. Church incorporation was illegal in most states before 1900. A movement is growing among fundamentalist church groups to operate without incorporation. (For information, contact Heal Our Land Ministries, 208 E. College St., Suite 262, Branson, Mo. 65616; phone [417] 337-7533.)

The message we send

Laying the corporation and copyright issues aside, I believe we can learn something even more important from the Wall Street Journal article. If the Church of God groups hope to reach the world with a message, they need to understand the message about them that has just reached the world.

The world will believe the WSJ article to be true.

And guess what? Nearly every word of it is true!

The writer, Jess Bravin, was careful to say that "members contributed up to 30 percent of their income." He realized they did not contribute this much every year, and, even though most of "second tithe" was kept by the members, many gave offerings and building-fund donations that did push their contributions to 30 percent in third-tithe years.

As the Church of God groups preach the gospel to others, they can expect to be confronted with questions from this article (and others like it) and should determine how to answer them.

Indeed, those considering attending our local congregation have asked me many such questions. The Bible teaches us to prove all things and to test the spirits and apostles to see if they are true (1 Thessalonians 5:21; 1 John 4:1; Revelation 2:2). Many church groups claim to teach from the Bible. Many claim that their former leader was a great man of God. We should hope that new believers would ask to see proof of such claims for themselves.

Facing up

I reread the Wall Street Journal article, trying to think from a perspective of people who were just coming in contact with a Church of God group. They would probably like the Bible truth taught there, but they would also want to be sure that the Church of God groups do not teach false doctrine or have a habit of not practicing what they preach.

It is not always easy to face the difficulties of our past. It took me years to do it. But I would rather think about answering these questions now than have to answer them all in the judgment (2 Corinthians 5:10). Here are some questions I came up with:

  • Is Mystery of the Ages the book of great importance that Gerald Flurry (founder and pastor of the PCG) claims it is?

First, we can readily find a precedent for Mr. Flurry's regard for Mystery of the Ages. Mr. Armstrong commented on it less than a year before he died:

"For the past three months I have been hard at work on a new book--the largest and most important book since the Bible" (letter to WCG members, March 11, 1985).

"I feel I myself did not write it. Rather, I believe God used me in writing it" (coworker letter, Sept. 12, 1985).

If Mr. Armstrong's statements are accurate, why aren't the other Church of God groups trying to reprint the book?

Many groups will answer that they don't need it because they can preach the truth directly from the Bible. I agree. We can teach from the Bible.

So are we then prepared to admit that Mr. Armstrong's statements here are wrong? Have not the Strong's and Young's concordances as well as other Bible helps served millions of people for many decades and been far more helpful in discovering Bible truth than Mystery of the Ages, a book circulated for only three years by the WCG and a couple more years by the PCG?

  • Was Herbert Armstrong an apostle and the only person to teach the truth of the Bible since the original apostles?

Mr. Armstrong frequently made such claims. They are difficult for new believers to accept, especially now that Mr. Armstrong is dead and his work fragmented.

If the WCG had been the "one true church" up to the 1980s, where is the one true church now? Does God have an apostle now? If an apostle is no longer necessary because we have Mr. Armstrong's writings, have not apostles always been unnecessary since the original apostles' writings?

Virtually every WCG doctrine was also taught by other groups. The Internet now makes it easy to find these groups.

If we believe that truth is revealed by the Holy Spirit (John 16:13), we cannot know how many people throughout history have understood the truths we understand. History does record that many thousands of Christians were killed trying to preserve, translate and obey the Bible. Can we convince an outsider that our faith and sacrifice to obey were greater than theirs?

More than gossip

  • Were there moral lapses in the WCG leadership?

Before anyone dismisses this question as gossip or none of our business, he needs to read 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. These scriptures describe mostly personal moral traits as requirements for brethren who would be church leaders.

If knowledgeable witnesses were available who would testify that allegations of immorality against certain WCG leaders, including Mr. Armstrong, were false, the Church of God groups could convincingly deny such charges.

But for years I have tried to obtain writings or testimony from people who were close to the WCG's former top leaders who could refute the charges, and I have found none who will defend them.

Many of these people are active in the Church of God groups and could make life much easier for all of us by exonerating these men if that were possible. It would then be so much easier to deal with new brethren.

We cannot deny that Mr. Armstrong accused his son of moral lapses and that others wrote that Mr. Armstrong himself sinned. Neither man ever publicly claimed that certain evidence cited by their accusers was phony.

If a new believer asks us about these issues and we refuse to talk about them or say, "It is not our business," do we uphold the law of God?

If we find no difficulty with our leaders defying the law of God, how are we any better than the groups who claim that the "law is done away"?

Unnecessary extravagance?

  • Did WCG leaders live extravagantly?

Numerous court documents and the testimony of many people show that Mr. Armstrong and a few of his aides lived what nearly everyone would call an extravagant lifestyle.

He claimed such was necessary to meet heads of state, yet almost any Bible acknowledges that Scripture mentions no instances of wealth on the part of prophets and apostles who spoke to kings.

Indeed the Bible describes some of them specifically as poor and some as prisoners.

Furthermore, in hindsight we can see that none of the leaders Mr. Armstrong visited ever made a public acknowledgment of God, changed their national policies or admitted to changing their personal lives based on his visits.

Even his stated purpose to announce the Kingdom of God coming to earth seems hollow when we realize that most of the leaders who heard that announcement died without seeing the Kingdom.

What do we say when we hear about other religious groups whose leaders ask their members to sacrifice but then decide they need half a million dollars per year?

Dated prophecies

  • Did Mr. Armstrong consistently set incorrect dates?

The WSJ article mentioned several of the dates that Mr. Armstrong predicted would be the beginning of the tribulation or the return of Christ.

Why should anyone believe our prophetic teachings today if we base them on Mr. Armstrong's understanding of prophecy? Can we really expect someone to believe Mr. Armstrong got the interpretation of symbols, countries and events correctly from God but just got the wrong dates?

"When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him" (Deuteronomy 18:22).

Mr. Armstrong signed his letters that included erroneous prophecies "In Jesus name," speaking in the name of the Lord. Can God hold people accountable for not listening to Mr. Armstrong's warning message based on his performance?

It is true he frequently did not set dates, but even his standard phrases of "in a few short years" or "in your lifetime" are becoming erroneous. Many people who heard him in the '50s and '60s are dead.

We should study all of the Bible, including prophecy. But how many Church of God teachers sit down with their Bible and history books praying for God to show them the meaning of these prophecies and then studying? How many are simply teaching what Mr. Armstrong taught?

We are comfortable with the old teaching because we heard it and believed it to be true much of our life. But, to a new person who sees failed past prophetic interpretations and little new prophetic study by living teachers, it is difficult to accept it as the truth of God.

How much interest would you have if someone tried to get you to study the prophetic teaching of Ellen G. White, G.G. Ruppert or some other deceased Sabbath-keeping teacher and informed you that some of the person's prophecies failed but the rest still look real good? Would you bother to study them at all?

Would it be better if he simply did not tell you about the prophecies that failed and pretended as if there had been no mistakes?

We do not want someone knowingly to deceive us. Similarly, when we teach prophecy to new people we need to be honest about the source of our teaching. When we teach prophecy we need to clearly know and state whether our interpretation of a beast or a certain number years is based on what we believe God has shown to us, on a thorough study of history, or on what one man said whom we believed, at the time, to be God's apostle but whose prophetic interpretations have not always proved correct.

True doctrines damaged by speculation?

  • Did the WCG confuse people with an indiscriminate mix of scriptural truth with out-and-out speculation?

The WSJ article mentions many doctrines Mr. Armstrong taught that are easy to support from the Scriptures, among them the Sabbath, eating clean meats, avoiding Easter and rejecting the Trinity.

However, the WSJ mentions these teachings along with other doctrines that are difficult to prove from the Scriptures: outlawing makeup and birthday celebrations, interpreting the Bible as a coded message, and believers going to a place of safety.

Although scriptures were always cited to back up these doctrines, usually "church authority" was invoked as well. "God's apostle had the right to bind and loose," we said.

In some cases the supposed apostle changed his decision more than once. These church decisions were usually taught as dogmatically as doctrines that were provable from the Scriptures.

Now that the WCG has broken up and so many groups are making various church decisions on these issues, it would be helpful to new people to separate the clear Bible teaching from church leaders' opinions.

Answer the questions

I am thankful for the truth of God that I learned during my years in the Worldwide Church of God. I hope we realize that the truth of the Bible can be taught without Mystery of the Ages.

Even though the book contains many basic truths, it also contains speculation that is difficult to prove and a few mistakes (see a careful analysis by longtime Church of God member Bruce Lyon in the May-June 2000 Servants' News).

The future of biblical Christianity does not depend on whether the U.S. Supreme Court rules for or against the PCG. The important issues are to understand the opinions that others form of us from articles such as the one in The Wall Street Journal so we can truthfully answer the questions raised by them (not just ignore them) and be effective preachers of the gospel.

More information on how to do this is available from Servants' News (see the address at the beginning of this article).

May God help us to increase our faith and trust in Him.

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