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Why we attend a Stay-at-Home Church of God

By Jim Damiano

The author, who holds a B.S. in systems engineering from Boston University, Boston, Mass., works as a database administrator. He became a member of the Worldwide Church of God in 1969 and worked and studied in Pasadena, Calif. from 1975 to 1979, graduating from Ambassador College there with a B.A. in theology in 1978. He and his wife, the former Barbara Wasko, live in New Hampshire.

Dear Ministers and Brethren of ours:

The last Sabbath service my wife and I attended as members of the Worldwide Church of God was May 6, 1995. Up until then, our intention had been to resign from all official duties in the local congregation and maintain marginal contact with the organization by attending about once a month.

Even though the relationship between ourselves and the WCG organization had deteriorated to the point that there were irreconcilable differences, and attendance at services brought us only stress and grief, we felt that we needed to continue to attend at least occasionally not to violate our consciences with respect to the loyalty-to-government issue that had long become an internalized and foundational way of thinking for us over the 26 years we had spent in the WCG.

Also, we were unsure as to God's will concerning our continuing membership in the WCG.

We relied on Him to guide us in this matter and awaited His intervention patiently. Then, through a number of miraculous circumstances in the months just preceding May of 1995, God indicated to us that He might no longer want us to join in this organization. Finally, against our better human judgment, driven as it was by our ingrained loyalty to government, God made it clear to us that we should have nothing more to do with the WCG, not even once a month.

So ended a long relationship, only because God miraculously worked out circumstances beyond our control and against our own desires.

Subconsciously loyal

However, since we had so internalized the loyalty-to-government matter, we have faced an ongoing struggle with this issue. "Loyalty to God's government" had became such an overriding yet subconscious way of thinking that it was difficult at first to identify.

The improper emphasis of concepts concerning "loyalty to God" expressed as "loyalty to God's human government" were for us like damaged parts of the reinforced concrete foundation of a large building, something that would have to be painstakingly jackhammered out and repaired with great care and over a long period, especially when it came to consideration of organizational affiliation.

This faulty foundation is one of two major factors I identify with our inability to affiliate with any new organization. This improper understanding, and its attendant behavioral patterns, may still be having an impact on many of God's people, whether we are yet in the WCG, affiliated with one of the new organizations or are in the Stay-at-Home Church of God (SAH-COG), as Barb and I are.

This is why I wrote a letter to Gerald Waterhouse--former WCG evangelist and now UCG elder--dated July 15, 1995. We felt that he, as one of the premier promoters of that particular concept, might want to address for us in particular, and for the many thousands of affected brethren worldwide in general, how it was that he could make the decision to leave the Worldwide Church of God and become a member of a new church organization.

Given his background and the teaching he had so forcefully and effectively projected all those years, it seemed totally incongruous to us that he could so easily do such a thing, while many of us continued to struggle and struggle with our consciences in this regard.

I have never received an answer from Mr. Waterhouse or any of the other ministers to whom I sent this letter. [See related article by Mr. Waterhouse].

The other major factor is simply our lack of knowledge about God's will in the overall matter of organizational membership and our desire to be where He ultimately directs.

Representative opinion

So I finally decided to break down and write an open letter of sorts. By addressing it to all of the different organizations and members of this audience, I hope to solicit your help and understanding, and present what I feel may be a representative opinion among many of us out here in the Stay-at-Home Church of God. It is my desire to inform ministers, administrators and other brethren alike about the thinking that prevents Barbara and me in particular, and perhaps many SAH-COG people in general, from attending and becoming members of any organization that has been established since the apostasy in Worldwide began.

I would urge all of you to give some thought to this matter and then to consider sharing your own thoughts, in this publication and others, so that we might all be helped, through positive dialogue, to effectively review and deal with our current understanding(s).

The numbers of people we are speaking of here in the Stay-at-Home Church of God are quite substantial. There are anywhere from 10,000 (a conservatively low estimate) to 40,000 people (a moderately high estimate) in our situation. This does not include the numbers of God's people who remain in Worldwide because of their inability to resolve some of the other issues I raise, as well as the distorted understanding in the area of government.

Be aware that the greater part of our combined tithes, regular offerings and Holy Day offerings are building and building in bank accounts all over the globe. Even if we are talking about only 10,000 people, the dollar amounts that are accruing must be staggering. The human resources left largely unpotentiated are staggering as well.

Where is God working the most?

Barbara and I receive tapes and publications from many "Church of God" organizations and from other sources as well. In some of their taped sermons and literature, we in the Stay-at-Home Church of God are increasingly berated as "selfish," "hard-hearted" and even "rebellious" for not "seeing the light" and becoming official members of the particular organization that originated the message.

We apparently are supposed to have shopped around the various Church of God organizations and concluded that the particular organization whose tape we are currently listening to, or whose publication we are currently reading, is the one with which God is obviously working the most and that we should decide the matter for ourselves based on the results of our shopping survey.

I just want this audience to know that many of us who are in this situation don't feel we can shop around to "join" a Church of God like we would comparison shop for, say, a car. We find ourselves unable to use our personal evaluations of what you, as organizations, have to offer or our observations of what you are doing as a work as the sole basis of deciding where we belong. The singular pledging of our allegiances and energies to a particular organization looms large and complex. It is just not that easy anymore.

Let me say, however, that the arguments making the case for membership in particular organizations are, collectively, both appealing and compelling. If God was leaving it entirely up to us, then it would be a very difficult choice indeed.

It's not up to us

But that's the whole point. We don't believe God has left it up to us. We don't believe we could make that decision any more than we could have made the decision to become members of the Worldwide Church of God 26 years ago. That is not the way we became members of the WCG.

One minister told me that God did not lead us to the WCG, that we made all the decisions about "joining." It was most disconcerting to be told this, since I know that the way we were drawn to the Worldwide Church of God originally was by God.

In almost everything that happens to those God is calling or has called to salvation, God is involved! God leads us if we are willing to be led. He led us to the WCG through circumstances. He has led us numerous times and in numerous ways ever since. He leads us today. We trust Him and depend on Him to do so in the future. It's as if, in all matters of life related to salvation, God leads us to the right door, then we do indeed have to choose whether to go on through it.

The two trees

After He brings us to the right place via circumstances, we then voluntarily choose either to accept or reject the calling, to do as God has led us to do or to turn away. That critical choice always seems to eventually boil down to "the two trees."

Some of those we know wonder what the big deal is. Why don't we just go to services already?

Well, to put those issues into perspective once again, I have to say that the big deal has to do with our personal relationship with God, and what, within the realm of that relationship, pleases or displeases Him. That's our big deal. Although loyalty to God through fealty to church-ordained government as we've previously defined it is an underpinning, as persistent as it is irrational, in this, there is no other real issue for us. Pleasing God is the bottom line.

Unfortunately, making an act of faith our foundation is difficult for many people to accept. It's only after multiple arguments from every angle conceivable--which people use to try to convince us that we should indeed join the church of their choice and to which we respond with this same core issue--that they sometimes accept what we are saying.

Some think we're looking for perfection, that we somehow believe that the former Worldwide Church of God was a paradise and that we want to regain that state in a new organization.

Few things could be further from the truth. I was both a student and an employee of the WCG and Ambassador College from 1975 through 1979, and I know that there were many, many problems with the way the churches were handled, governed and run. I know that there were many problems in the Armstrongs' personal lives, in the ordination and empowerment of ministers who often acted like little Hitlers over God's people.

God's intervention was undeniable

In our many years with the WCG, we spent considerable time as members of almost a dozen local congregations, and I know how much distress was caused in the lives of people because of political maneuvering and the like. I know that many sermons, sermonettes and speakers were uninspiring, boring and sometimes just plain wrong. But, all this aside, the point is that the fruits of God's interventions were undeniable, and God wanted Barbara and me to be a part of the organization God used Mr. Armstrong to build, regardless!

Yes, we do miss services. We miss the live messages. We miss the spontaneous fellowship.

The meaning of membership

"But," we have been told, "listening to tapes and reading the literature of an organization in effect constitutes being a member of that organization." That's absurd. Being a member of an organization means to me the following:

  • It means being recorded officially on the rolls of that organization.
  • It involves attending Sabbath services with members of that organization. We worship God under their auspices, organizational policies and doctrinal understanding. It is not simply a matter that converted brethren get together and there is Christ in the midst of them. Meeting in an officially sanctioned service of a particular organization constitutes our acceptance of the whole environment that organization promotes while we are there. We have already seen what happens when members of different organizational affiliations try to officially meet together in close cooperation with each other without the official permanent sanction of their respective leaders.
  • It means we attend Holy Day services with that organization. To me, this means that I am acknowledging that this is the area "God has placed His name." I will give a Holy Day offering to this organization's work, acknowledging that this is the "Work of God."
  • It constitutes our support of the work of that organization. We acknowledge that this is indeed the work God wants done and we give of our time and resources to accomplish the particular goals of this particular work, in the manner in which this organization wishes to do it and with the particular message it highlights.
  • It means we consider its membership "the household of God." We socialize, fellowship with and serve this group of human beings, not exclusively, but with greater priority than we would any other group.

Divided commitment makes no sense

We then have to ask the question: Is God working through one or many organizations? If the answer is "many," then the obvious question we need to answer, considering this underlying issue of government and loyalty to God, is which of those organizations would God want me to commit to and thus fully support (that is, become a member of)?.

Would He want us to be divided in our commitment, bouncing from one to another when our wishes dictategiving tithes and offerings to different ones depending on our own personal preferences at the time?

This kind of divided commitment makes no sense to Barb and me, although God has not yet conclusively convicted us of His will in this regard.

I know that expressing faith in God's guidance in this matter opens us up for and invites all sorts of ridicule. One person said, "What are you waiting for? A fiery chariot? The Red Sea to open up?" Another thinks I'm making "a mountain out of a molehill."

I don't consider God making His will plain in the large and small areas of our lives a molehill. Surely, membership in an organization of converted people with whom we worship and serve God cannot be considered a trivial matter. If I personally cannot be sure God started these organizations, as I was confident that God started the organization under Herbert W. Armstrong, how can I be confident that God wants me to be a part of them?

My God is the same God who called me and miraculously and unambiguously guided me to the WCG 26 years ago. At present we don't see that God has, by circumstances or any other telling means, led us anywhere after taking us out of the WCG.

We brethren in the field are not many scholars. We don't know the nuances of Koine Greek. We don't have a handle on ancient culture, history and archaeology. So, to some degree, we depend on the ministry and those who have studied these things in some depth to give us accurate explanations to support the theories they propound.

The unthinkable happens

We rely on God to lead us to organizations and teachers who will not misuse the knowledge of these technical topics to manipulate us to their own ends. Even when the unthinkable does occur, we depend on God to relieve us of that oppression, as He did so mercifully by taking us out of the WCG.

Perhaps it would be helpful for the leadership of the Churches of God to answer a few specific questions for those of us who might be considering joining one of their organizations:

  • Mr. Armstrong's autobiography clearly showed how God worked with him to set up the WCG as a work and an association of God's people to do that specific work. Can you clearly show how God has been involved in the startup of your organization?
  • Do you think God is working exclusively with your organization? If so, why? If not, why do you think God would want me to be a part of your organization more than any other?
  • Can you tell me about the background of your human leaders and why you feel God put them in charge?
  • Can you tell me how your doctrinal positions significantly differ from the other Church of God organizations and why you feel that your understanding is a superior position? (I assume that, if you did not feel this way, there wouldn't be much reason to be separate from the other organizations.)
  • Can you tell me why your church governmental structure is the one you feel God wants you to exercise in your organization and why you feel that this structure is superior to that exercised by others?
  • Can you tell me why you feel God wants you to do the specific work you are presently involved in as opposed to the work that others are doing? (I assume you feel that your work is more pleasing to God, or you'd want to be united with the others doing the same work so that it might be done more effectively.)

To this point no one has addressed our questions, and the only reason we can come up with is that perhaps the questions cannot be answered, except, as I've tried to point out, by each of us individually as we are convicted by God.

In the meantime, the representatives of the various COG organizations who pronounce the SAH-COG members as "selfish," "hard-hearted" or "rebellious" seem to have no definitive doctrinal and biblically sound basis upon which to condemn our reluctance to join with their organizations. Until they do, perhaps judgment ought then to be reserved.

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