Freedom of Religion
Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). In or out of context with the surrounding verses, this statement is one that seems lost on one religion after another, from the early church, through the middle ages, the reformation, right up to the present day. Freedom doesn’t seem to be something that’s easily given between human beings. This is especially so when those same humans are cloaked with a mantle of religious authority. It seems that freedom is something that individuals must take for themselves, for the ways of established religion are well entrenched. No one wants to give up their power, their prestige, or their money. They’re certainly not willing to give up the ego-driven nature of humanity that demands we subjugate others; bend them to our will and our way of thinking.
In this day and age, it may surprise some to know that freedom of religion, guaranteed in the Constitution of the United States, is still something which must be struggled with. Not the fact that we have no choices, but rather that some of those choices quickly become a millstone around the necks of those who seek to please.
In the late 1700’s, Thomas Jefferson, a non-church goer, sought to ease the burden of religious requirements for the common people. Depending on when and where you lived, you may not have been able to seek public office, own your own business, hold down a job, or attend a church service of the Baptists, Quakers, Catholics, or Jews. In some places in Colonial America, tithing was enforced by law. Punishment for defying your local church could range from a few hours in the stocks, to whippings, imprisonment, or even death. Jefferson, in 1779, decided the religious community had had its day as America’s thought police, and drafted what became known as the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom. So staid were the leaders of his day, it took 6 years, and a great deal of work with James Madison, to finally pass this legislation, the first of its kind in the colonies. Here is an excerpt from this ground breaking document.
“No man shall be compelled to support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever: nor shall be forced, restrained, molested or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief. But that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion: and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
adopted by the Virginia Legislature December 16,1785
It took many years for this law to become accepted among the populace. Patrick Henry himself vigorously opposed it. Those who had won freedom for themselves seemed reluctant to extend it to others. Even after being adopted, resistance continued as bigotry and prejudice remained deep within the human psyche. Thirty five years later, an aging John Adams tried to have a similar amendment added to the Massachusetts new State constitution, but it was defeated by what he called the intolerant Christian community.
Now, well over 200 years later, it behooves us to examine how much, or indeed, how little has changed. The modern Christian church denomination still seeks to control its members, dishing out rules, formalities, rituals, dogma, ceremonies, doctrine, and all sorts of other requirements, most of which cannot be found anywhere in the New Testament, to keep the membership in close conformity and under strict regulation. Now, to be fair, it can be pointed out that not all congregations are kept on such a tight leash. But we who have come out of the worst of the others, know how important it is to understand true Freedom of Religion. In the days of Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, and Madison, this new freedom simply meant that it was now safe to walk the streets if you happened to be an unbeliever, or of a faith other than that officially sanctioned by the state. In New England it was the Congregationalists. In the South, the Church of England. Today things are much more subtle. Yes, we have the freedom to choose which temple in which to lay our offering. Or to not do so at all. But there are Christian religions extant that are far more intolerant than anything our old Mr. Adams encountered in 1820’s Boston. I speak of the Worldwide Church of God as it existed for 60 years from the mid thirties to the mid nineties. And I speak also of some of its off-shoots, like the “Philadelphia” and the “Eternal”.
I began attending the WCG in 1974. I stayed around until 1996, when I discovered that living as a follower of Christ was, to use one of Herb’s favorite phrases, diametrically opposite to what I had been taught as a loyal follower of the Ambassador way of life.
I was never free as a member of the WCG. I became a willing slave to every dictum that came out of that wretched headquarters and its corrupt administration. I meekly submitted to every demand for more fellowship, more study, more prayer, and, most important, more money. I was the slave of Herbert Armstrong, Garner Ted, and names like Meredith, Hoeh, and Cole. I was the slave of the local pastor, who signed men up for that public speaking venue, the Spokesman Club, whether they wanted to or not. I was the slave of the deacon’s wife, who ordered me to wear a jacket and tie while going through the motions of the Passover service, something I always detested. I was the slave of the ministerial trainee from Pasadena, who ordered everyone to attend Tuesday night Bible Study, IF they were truly converted.
And I became the slave of my own guilt. Who could possibly meet all the requirements of the WCG, without fail, and carry on with peace of mind and assurance of salvation. The lake of fire was always only one sin away, and I believed that greatest of all deceivers, Gerald Waterhouse, who led me to believe that God was watching me closely, just waiting for me to make one mistake so he could let loose some hideous unearthly punishment. There was no love. There was no peace. There was only fear. And I was its slave. My faith was not a refuge, but a weapon to be used against me. Where was this freedom that Jesus spoke of? The pat answer from the WCG was that we would experience freedom from the slavery of sin. You can find that in those scriptures, it’s true. But by 1996 I no longer believed that that was the only application for that one phrase, “the truth shall make you free”. So I left the church that held me captive for 22 years.
For those who have left the WCG, or any daughter church, who wish to continue a pursuit of the spirituality to be found in Jesus, I have some good news. Yes, I could have physically walked away at any time. But it was not my body they held prisoner, it was my mind. They held me fast with the one erroneous idea; that God has only one ‘true church’. In a sense that may be true. That one church, if it must be called that, encompasses every one who has invited the spirit of Christ into their life, no matter what diverse opinions they may have. In John 10:16 we’re told that Christ acknowledged that he had followers who were not part of the regular group. In Luke 9:49-50 we learn that someone the disciples didn’t even know was casting out demons in His name. And in Acts chapter 8 we find a story of a man who was converted and baptized after only a short talk with Philip. He was heading home to Ethiopia. No chance of belonging to the inner circle there. Are we to believe, as well, that there was time for this guy to absorb how to determine the correct dates for Passover, Pentecost, Atonement, Trumpets, the FOT; first, second and third tithe, clean and unclean meats, the blessing of the children, and the shunning of relatives who believe once and then change their minds? And it certainly couldn’t all have been found in the scroll of Isaiah that he left with. This becoming a “true Christian” doesn’t sound like such an exclusive club to me. In fact, if we read the rest of the story, it states very clearly that the ONLY requirement was to believe that Jesus was the son of God. And the whole process was accomplished for centuries without any New Testaments, pamphlets, tracts, or bible camps.
It’s taken me eight years to come to grips with what I have experienced. For the first time I see the WCG as a dangerous cult. It may have lost some of its power to intimidate, but it still demands that its precious ‘headquarters’ be the source of wisdom and guidance to the local minions. And as long as tithes and offerings are to be sent to a central location, instead of collected and utilized entirely at the local level for the local people, then there remain freedoms to be won. Thankfully I no longer have to wage that battle. I’ve walked away, mind and body, and have no further desire to gather with other ‘believers’ anywhere or anytime.
Jefferson, in his latter years, did an in-depth study of the 4 gospels. He concluded that, although a non-Christian, he was, in fact, a follower of the precepts of Jesus. He had found the truth and the freedom, although he might never have realized it. By refusing to bow before the traditions of clerics and institutions, he was set free long before his statute became law. The truth has now set me free. Jesus replaced all the Old Covenant laws, having fulfilled their requirements, with only two. Two brand new, fresh ideas. Love God, and love your neighbor. That’s all it takes. Every desired human behavior can be put under one of those two simple principles. That’s the truth that has set me free.
-John Adams, by David McCullough
-American State Papers on Freedom in Religion, Review and Herald Publishing, 1943
-John Adams and the American Revolution, by Catherine Drinker Bowen
I imagine there are some Readers who are thinking my cheese has done slid off the cracker, putting this article on this site.
And, under normal circumstances, I'd agree. We don't advertise for "Jeeeeeezus" around here, and I have issues with much of Colin's article.
But I'm making an exception here, this time, for a couple of reasons:
1. I know Colin, and think highly of him, as I do some other christians who actually DO value that little Golden Rule thingy.
2. The reality of the situation is that a lot of the Readers here ARE christian, and are going to continue to be christian no matter how much I jump up and down about it. Colin's article strikes at the heart of some valuable questions: What kind of christian are you? What kind of person? And, do you NEED some Priest to take your money in order to "save" you?
He states: "Love God, and love your neighbor. That’s all it takes. "
I say that people who "Love God" too much end up flying airplanes into skyscrapers, but if you just gotta be christian...just HAVE to.... then at least, take the second part of Colin's statement to heart and be a Good Christian and a Good Person.
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