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Sunday, March 26, 2017

Why is it so hard for an Armstrongite to return to the fold?

An interesting discussion was launched by a post over at Banned by HWA! The post was entitled "Are the problems in the COG the result of bad leaders or its theology?" It was, of course, no surprise that many of the commentators laid the blame for the problems within the Armstrong Churches of God at the feet of their former/current leadership. For many current and former Armstrongites, it has to be about the flawed individuals who were/are in charge (it couldn't possibly have anything to do with the theology/teachings). As one would expect with such a post, prominent among the commentators was Ian Boyne of the Church of God International.

Mr. Boyne maintains that most of the critics of Armstrongism have focused their attention on the failed leadership within the various groups (he acknowledges that failure) and have ignored what he sees as the fact that Armstrongism provides "the best Christian option" available to believers. In fact, he goes on to say:  "I think after Armstrongism, my philosophical destination is likely to be agnosticism or some form of generic theistic existentialism." In other words, if someone were able to discredit Armstrongism, Ian sees himself as abandoning Christianity.

In fairness to Mr. Boyne, such a conclusion does not appear to be rare among former and current Armstrongites (Dennis Diehl, Gerald Bronkar and others have professed their rejection of Christianity). Moreover, one only has to look at the history of the Worldwide Church of God to see that this type of reasoning is not uncommon among Armstrongites. When faced with a return to the more traditional form of Christianity offered by Joseph Tkach Jr, many of the folks within the WCOG jumped ship. Some went to another Armstrong Church of God, but many decided to abandon religion altogether. In other words, for so many of these folks, it was either Armstrongism or NOTHING!

Why? Why is it that many of these folks will not even entertain the possibility of adopting some other form of Christianity?

The answer lies in the way that they were originally indoctrinated into Armstrongism. It wasn't simply a matter of learning a set of doctrines. A large part of Herbert's and Garner Ted's appeal was their focus on discrediting "traditional" Christianity. They talked at great length about the pagan influences on that religion, and the deleterious effect which that had on Christian theology (things like the immortality of the soul, trinity, Sunday observance, holiday observance and idol worship). They focused on just how unfair and unreasonable the teachings on heaven and hell really were, and only introduced their alternative after they had thoroughly discredited the old model.

The reasoning went something like this:  If we can discredit everything else and demonstrate that we have discovered the only legitimate way to put all of the pieces together, then we have to be the one and only possibility! Hence, for many of these folks, when the Worldwide Church of God crumbled, there were only two alternatives:  find another Armstrong Church of God or abandon Christianity entirely. After all, if Armstrongism was ever truly discredited, why would you return to the other forms which you had previously discredited?

Does this begin to sound a little like circular reasoning? Since we have already concluded that traditional Christianity is a worthless pile of $#&!, why would we ever revisit that conclusion?

HWA was also fond of the all or nothing approach. Believe it all, or you have to reject it all. There was no room for discernment or nuance in his theology. Everything was a package deal. It was all truth or all error. Catholics and Methodists were wrong - period. They couldn't possibly be right about some things. We disproved that system - time to move on! We certainly don't want to be like the dog that returns to its vomit!

Armstongism is a mental straitjacket. It was designed by its founder to be a self-reinforcing/self-perpetuating system. It is, therefore, no wonder that so many of its victims find it almost impossible to find their way back to the fold.


  1. Your theory is not only insulting to ex wcg rationalists, but to those part of the much larger contemporary phenomenon of mass exodus from orthodox Christianity - the 'elephant in the room' you conveniently ignore.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. It was meant to be provocative, not insulting. My aim was to suggest that even rationalists can be motivated by things other than rationality (like leftover baggage from their former belief system, and the emotional attachments which that implies). As you know, it is my thesis that "true" Christianity was intended to be more of an emotional experience than a rational one. Hence, it is not that big of a stretch for me to suggest the possibility that there may be hidden motivations at play for those who have emerged from the train wreck of the Worldwide Church of God. Is it possible that residual beliefs (like the discrediting of traditional Christianity) might be behind the reluctance of some folks to consider another form of Christianity? Are the folks who have left orthodox Christianity all motivated exclusively by rationality? Do you think it's possible that any of them were "burned" by their experience? Are we always rational beings (even when we're trying very hard to be just that)?
      *** sorry, typo

  2. Interesting that someone would limit the blame to leadership and doctrine. Couldn't possibly be the people...Me as an individual. Not saying it is, but I find it interesting that this isn't a third option available to be be considered at least.

    To me the whole question would only meaningful if I forgot that my walk is between God and me. It doesn't matter who is correct and who isn't. It doesn't matter if someone has some truth or all or none. They aren't me. And they certainly aren't God. No, what matters is to let God lead me through the experiences of my life and the ability to reflect on them while informed by his word.

    I doubt that Balaam's ass had much truth, but there was something to be learned from it. We would be best to keep our eyes open and learn from any sources that offer us value.

    I like learning, but really what I most want to learn is how to care about other people and accept them, meeting them wherever they are on their path in life and helping them make a correct turn at the next intersection, AND how I can trust God by knowing who he is and what he can do.

    Framed against the foregoing thoughts, COG problems do not give me concern except to the extent that I can help comfort someone by helping them know who God is and what he can do (a favorite phrase of mine), and to the extent that I can help someone make a decision that will improve their outcomes. Sometimes whether or not they are in a COG doesn't seem to me to be material in those outcomes.

    Not what you might have been seeking in a response perhaps, but it is what I think.

    1. I think that this is a great response!

    2. Well written. Once you let go of all the power issues, the hierarchy, the stuff that matters is still as valid as ever. The experience of being "the work" of God as He develops each of us is transcendent. You cannot limit it once the hierarchy is gone. No one left to perform for....all on the individual.

  3. Most of this post-mortem dissection relates to people who made a conscious decision to enter Armstrongism as mature adults. Over the years, I've identified several reasons why it seems to be either Armstrongism or nothing for so many that leave.

    1). People had found something lacking in their previous church, and felt that Armstrongism truly could supply the "missing dimension". The lacks could have been associated with their own lack of depth or understanding, but when Armstrongism also let them down, they felt that they had nowhere else to go.

    2). Their experience in Armstrongism was so extremely horrible that they became totally disillusioned with all faith.

    3). As part of the indoctrination leading towards baptism into Armstrongism, the purveyors waged a systematic campaign of destruction, destroying faith in and pleasure from anything not directly connected with HWA's church. With Armstrongism later failing and being out of the picture, ex-members were left in a Kafka-like state of consciousness, requiring years of rehabilitation. Unfortunately, they had also been programmed not to trust the professionals who could actually help them, or any other Christian churches.

    4). Many joined Armstrongism because they had bought into the portrait of HWA as "God's endtime Elijah". They were scared into turning to HWA's church as the only viable alternative to the agony of the tribulation. This was also a continuing source of leverage and manipulation used against them. After decades of this, when it became obvious to all but the most brainwashed that the prophecies were not unfolding, they left. Most saw religion and church soley as being manipulative, and were loathe to become involved with any other groups.

    5). I've also encountered some few who continued to see themselves as having been cut off from God's only true church. They see themselves as lost souls, and as such, of course they are not going to seek other fellowships. This is the attitude that the teachers of Armstrongism would prefer that all who leave share, as well as all current members. Additional research and study is the only thing that can help such ones.

    Armstrongism leaves all of its followers damaged in some way or other. It either keeps them operating as perpetual children rather than adults, or leaves them at least temporarily depressed and paranoid. These are perfect examples as to why Father God detests false teachers.

    I was in the WCG because my parents dragged me into it. If I had not had positive religious experiences from mainstream Christianity in my years before WCG, and if I had checked my brain at the door, next to my parents' brains, I probably would never searched for better answers or solutions as Armstrongism demonstrated itself to be a failure. Fortunately, there were examples in my early life of successful mainstream Christians, whose faith had been responsible for some pretty awesome lives.


    1. I think that many folks can relate to the points which you made in your comments. I especially appreciated the fact that you underscored the fact that there are numerous reasons/motivations which can explain this phenomenon - one size doesn't fit all.
      Although I read Ian's post on "Banned" and followed the comments there, I get the distinct impression that Ian's mind is made up - that he simply is not willing to entertain any arguments which contradict his conclusions about Armstrong theology. He wants to convince the rest of us that we've been either too hard on Armstrongism or too dismissive of its merits. And I think Martha made an excellent point about the emotional nature of his argument.
      Anyway, thanks for stopping by and commenting. I hope that all of these comments will help some folks to sort through their own feelings and experiences relative to Armstrongism.