My Exit Odyssey
by John B.
I left the Worldwide Church of God for the last time in May of 1992 after forty years of association. I left because I had become absolutely convinced of corruption at the highest levels of the church (thanks to John Trechak's "Ambassador Report"). I knew that any organization guilty of such abuses could not be the "true" church of God.
Still, leaving was the single most terrifying thing I have ever done in my life.
The next few months were a roller coaster of emotions for me. On the one hand I knew the church was guilty, and therefore could not be of God. At the same time, I was fighting literally forty years of programming that conditioned me to accept the church, Armstrong, and the ministry as a latter-day priesthood that carried the very authority of God Himself.
In order to fight the doubts that assailed me almost daily, I had to come to grips with the effects of the programming. Logic had to win out over emotion if I were to remain sane (assuming that I was, in fact, sane to begin with!) The conflict included, but was not limited to, the notion that perhaps the church leadership was corrupt, yet the doctrines were correct. If that should be the case, then maybe I really should be willing to wait for God to "take care of it in his own time".
One of the handicaps I faced was the idea that I really wasn't very good at figuring things out. Over the years, I had many times come to a conclusion based on my own logic and reasoning, only to have it shot down in a sermon, Bible study, or men's club. The result? I did not trust my own ability to judge even the smallest matters. Obviously I was not possessed of enough of the holy spirit to judge things, because I almost always came to the "wrong" conclusion.
Tens of thousands of people, including my own mother, had "proved" that Armstrong was right. Tens of thousands of smarter people than I had made radical changes in their lives to follow Armstrong's "truth". Yet I was now rejecting that "truth" based on my own reasoning. What made me so smart? Why did I think I was smarter than all those others? Could I, in fact, be in the grips of Satan, even though it didn't seem like it?
Another problem was that the doctrines of the church were absolutely logical. They made more sense than anything being taught by any other church. There was more proof to back them up than anything being taught by anyone else. The relationship between the ten lost tribes of Israel and the western democracies made sense. The plan of God as pictured by the annual holy days made sense. The plan of salvation as pictured by the three resurrections made sense. The idea that the true gospel had not been preached for 1900 years (100 nineteen-year time cycles) made sense. No other church that I knew of had anything remotely resembling these doctrines; no other church used all of the Bible to interpret prophecy. No other church understood the truth about heaven and hell, or what death really was, how to keep the ten commandments, or lots of other stuff.
I remember thinking that, if the Worldwide Church of God was not the true church, then no one in the world understood prophecy, because no one else had any doctrines that even halfway made sense.
All these things were totally and absolutely logical.
But were they true?
I had to know.
I had already disproved one doctrine, even before I left. In conjunction with "Ambassador Report", I had read a copy of Ernest Martin's tithing booklet, and that helped me to accept some of the things that Trechak was claiming. If everything Trechak had said was true, there had to be a motive for such hideous crimes. Ernest Martin provided that motive. . .
After reading Martin, there was no doubt that the Worldwide Church of God's tithing doctrines were not only incorrect, they were deliberately incorrect. Many times in my life I had wondered why the tithing laws were scattered through several books of the Old Testament; why didn't God just clearly spell out the tithing laws all in one place? Why scatter it all over hell and back? (Armstrong had said the Bible was a "coded book".) At one point it said we were to pay a tenth of our increase to the priesthood (first tithe). Another place it said we were to eat the tithe at the place where God placed his name (second tithe--supposedly). Still another place it said that we were to give it to the priests for their portion, and in the "third year of the tithe" we were to give it to the widows and orphans (third tithe--again, supposedly).
Never did it say one, two, three. The third tithe, especially, was really foggy. The phrase "third year of tithing" does not say pay a tithe on top of the other two, yet that is what we were taught.
Martin explained very clearly, out of the pages of the Bible, that there was only one tithe. The first reference to it was given while the Israelites were still in the desert. The tithe was given to the priesthood. The second reference came after they had arrived in the promised land. Now the tithe was to be eaten at the place where God placed His name (presumably at the festivals). This was still only one tithe (not a "second" tithe). Finally, in the "third year of tithing", the tithe was to be shared with the priests and the fatherless. Still, only one tithe (not a "third" tithe).
Never, at any time, did the Israelites pay more than a single tithe.
What was even more telling was how the tithe was to be paid. First of all, tithing applied only to agriculture--animals and crops. People who worked for wages did not tithe. Period. And when agriculture was tithed, the tenth animal was set aside, not the first. Therefore, if you had only nine animals, you paid nothing. If you had nineteen animals, you only tithed one. If you had twenty animals you tithed two. Nobody would be left destitute as a result of paying tithes (why force someone onto church relief by forcing him to pay one, two, and three?). Yet the church had told us many times that, when we got our paychecks, we were to write our tithe checks first. After that, we were free to pay bills and purchase groceries (if we could).
There was no indication in the New Testament whatsoever that tithing laws were still in effect.
So the Worldwide Church of God had been lying to us about tithing. They wanted our money. That alone was enough to get me out the door.
But what about those other incredible doctrines? Could I prove them wrong? If I could, how come so many thousands of others could not? Was I really that smart?
My wife's oldest brother is a Lutheran pastor. I contacted him and asked for anything he might have concerning some of the doctrines I was concerned about. He didn't have a lot, but he did send me some literature debunking the idea of British Israelism. To be truthful, I wasn't fully convinced by his offering, and I never did satisfactorily "prove" conclusively that this doctrine was false. But taken in context with everything else, by the time I finished my odyssey it no longer mattered.
Other major doctrines still had to be addressed. . .
The Holy Days.
Clean and unclean meats.
The year before I left, Tkach released a new booklet on the Holy Days. Part of it was from Armstrong's original booklet, part was written by (probably) Mike Feazell. I read it carefully, especially the first chapter, which had been written by HWA. I no longer have the booklet (I have since trashed everything from the Worldwide Church of God), but I remember a section that claimed the Holy Days were in effect before Moses climbed Mt. Sinai. To prove this, the article cited sections of Exodus where the Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread were ordained. The author went on to elaborate for two or three pages about these events, then suddenly said something to the effect that: "So we see clearly that these festivals were in effect long before they were given to Moses on Mt. Sinai".
Whoa! I read over that entire section again. Nothing had been said about Pentecost, the Feasts of Trumpets and Tabernacles, Atonement, or the Last Great Day. My eyes were opening wider, for I was seeing how Armstrong used sleight of hand to extrapolate conclusions that his source material (the Bible) did not support. He cited two events mentioned in Exodus, then changed the subject for a minute, and grandly concluded that he had proven the preordination of all the holy days by those two examples.
I was intrigued. I read on, watching carefully to see what else I might see.
Subsequent chapters outlined the feasts of Pentecost, Trumpets, Atonement, Tabernacles, and the Last Great Day. Yet the claims being made were not supported by the scriptures. For example, verses were quoted showing where Moses had been commanded to observe the Feast of Trumpets, and then New Testament verses were quoted to show that trumpets would sound at the return of Christ. But nowhere was any correlation between these two events shown! For the first time in my life I realized that we had accepted the Worldwide Church of God's word on the relationship between the Feast of Trumpets and the return of Christ. The only common denominator was the word "trumpet". Nowhere did the Bible say that the festival pictured the return of Christ.
The only authority for that doctrine came from Armstrong and his lieutenants.
Likewise, the Days of Unleavened Bread. Leavening was to be put out for the duration of that festival, and it was sometimes called the Feast of Firstfruits--but the Bible did not say that it pictured the first gathering of called-out Christians. Nor did it say that the Feast of Tabernacles had any connection to the Millennium and a thousand-year reign of Christ. That was another fiction fostered by Armstrongism.
As for the Last Great Day--the verse most often quoted was John 7, in which Jesus preached on the Last Great Day. This scripture was frequently used to support Christian observance of this day by showing that Christ had observed it. Yet the text of his sermon as quoted by John said nothing whatever about the second resurrection when the uncalled had a hundred years to learn and accept the truth of God. All Jesus really said was that, should anyone thirst, "let him come to me and drink".
That was it.
So in the final analysis, what had I learned? We had been taught that the holy days pictured the entire plan of God:
* Passover - The sacrifice of Christ, making salvation possible
* Days of Unleavened Bread - Putting sin out of our lives
* Pentecost - The coming of the Holy Spirit
* Feast of Trumpets - The return of Christ
* Day of Atonement - The binding of Satan
* Feast of Tabernacles- 1000 years of rule by Christ
* Last Great Day - The rest of the world gets its chance.
Yet a careful reading of the scriptures did not support this plan at all. Sure, it was logical. Sure, it made sense. But it wasn't what the Bible said. It wasn't true. It was a great plan, carefully orchestrated, easy to understand.
But it was false.
Still, the question remained, were these days to be kept? And what about the weekly Sabbath? What about the dietary laws? Was the Old Covenant still in effect? Did the New Covenant still enforce observance of these things?
It was enough to make you silly.
Or maybe I was already silly.
It had been pretty clear to me for some time that the Old Covenant was no longer in effect. Jesus had established a New Covenant, so that should have terminated the old one. However, the Bible said that God was the same yesterday, today, and forever. So if He required obedience to His immutable laws back in 3000 BC, surely He still required obedience to those same laws today. Yes? No? Logical?
And just what was the Old Covenant, anyhow? Armstrong had said the Old Testament "law" was divided into four parts: the Ten Commandments, the sacrifices, the law of rituals (washings, etc.), and the dietary laws. (He said this in a taped sermon in the early 1980's, but he offered not a single scripture to prove it. Whatever happened to "prove all things and hold fast that which is good"?) According to Worldwide Church of God, the laws of sacrifices and rituals were part of the Old Covenant, but the Ten Commandments and the dietary laws were still in effect.
Was that true?
The answer came from my close friend Bruce Renehan, who was several miles ahead of me in all this at the time. During one of our many lengthy telephone conversations, he pointed me to Ex. 25:16, and Deut. 10:5, which explains what went into the Ark of the Covenant. I was astonished to realize (I should have known this, but didn't) that the only thing inside the Ark of the Covenant were the tablets containing the Ten Commandments. This was the "old covenant". Lights flashed in my head as I realized that, contrary to all of Armstrong's claims that the law was not "done away", if the Old Covenant was no longer in effect, the law really was "done away".
And it made sense. Jesus had said he gave us a new law: Love God with all your might, and love your neighbor as yourself.
That law replaced the Ten Commandments. (Of course, observing the new law faithfully would require observing the spirit of the previous ten.)
Everything I had ever been taught was collapsing around my head. If the Old Covenant was dead, then so were the Holy Days, the Sabbath, tithing, clean and unclean meats. No longer did the apparent conflicts regarding unclean meats in the New Testament pose a problem. No longer did I have to wonder why Jesus had broken the Sabbath. No longer did it matter which day you observed, or if you observed any day at all.
But one thing still nagged at me. What about the scripture that said God was the same yesterday, today, and forever? Why would God impose all these burdensome laws on the Jews, but not on the Christians? Didn't that suggest that God was being wishy-washy?
It took a few more weeks to work that one out. The answer came in the form of a definition of the word "covenant" (do I sound like Bill Clinton?). A covenant is a legal agreement, a contract. God had made a contract with the Jews. He had not made the same contract with the Christians. I tried to explain this to a lawyer friend who was still a member, but it was too difficult for him (he is only an attorney, after all). The example I gave him was this:
"Dave, let's say that I have a contract with George that he owes me a hundred dollars a month for ten years. George is legally obligated to pay me a hundred bucks every month. You, on the other hand, are under no obligation to pay me anything. I didn't make such a contract with you. Now, if you want to give me a hundred bucks a month, fine. I'll take it. But you'd be a fool to observe the terms of a contract that I made with somebody else." (Poor Dave. He's still a Worldwider.)
By that point (late 1992), I was free. I still had sudden doubts that sprang out of nowhere. I still had surges of fear generated by the programming. But logic was winning, and I was proving, one by one, that Worldwide Church of God's doctrines did not hold water. Some of them did, of course, but every church has some truth, no matter how stupid the organization.
As Christmas approached, a new crisis suddenly reared its head, one I had never considered. Upon leaving the Worldwide Church of God I had never intended to observe Satanic holidays. But my wife, born a Catholic and converted to Armstrongism only reluctantly, wanted to resume observation of Christmas and Easter. I was apprehensive about that. There was no shortage of genuine documentation proving that Christmas, Easter, and most other secular holidays were pagan in origin.
Did I want to worship Satan?
I certainly had no intention of forbidding my wife to keep Christmas (as if I had the right!). But I was less certain that I wanted to do it myself.
Once again, simple logic won the day. Driving to work one morning, it dawned on me that just about everything in the world, both good and bad, could probably be traced circuitously back to some kind of pagan origin. But so what? Just because Christmas had originated in the societies of idol worshippers, did that make the pure intentions of Christians any less pure if they worshiped the true God on that day? No one that I knew was praying to the tree. It didn't even have to be a religious event. It was a day set aside for family togetherness, and what was the harm in giving presents to your children? We did it at the Feast of Tabernacles, didn't we?
Christmas of 1992 was the first Christmas I had celebrated since I was a child. And every Christmas since then has been "the best feast ever!"
As time went on, I learned more and more, and gradually came to understand that the Bible itself is of questionable origin. Understanding this made all those previous contortions of proof-texting seem like an exercise in futility. But that's another subject for another day.
My odyssey will never be completely over, but by 1993 I had completely escaped the clutches of the keenest criminal mind of the 20th Century. I had spent most of my life in the finest religious cult ever devised by a single man, the Cadillac of cults--for Herbert Armstrong truly was a twisted genius. Those who were deceived by him never had a chance.
In spite of the forty wasted years, I consider myself one of the luckiest men alive.
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