At the end of 2002, Grace and Knowledge editor Doug Ward was the subject of an email interview conducted by New Zealander Gavin Rumney. Rumney's ``Missing Dimension'' website for several years kept track of events in the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) and other groups in the Sabbatarian Church of God tradition. The text of the interview follows.
Gavin Rumney: Tell us a little about your
background in the
Doug Ward: My first contact with WCG came in late 1970. As a boy
growing up in northern
Given the amount of radio listening that I did at night, it is not
surprising that I eventually ran across the voice of Garner Ted Armstrong. At
that time he often discussed the subject of creation and evolution, and I was
interested in what he had to say. I had grown up believing the Bible, so I
hadn't known what to make of Darwinism when I had first heard about it in
school the previous year (grade 7). In late 1970, I wrote to
Sometime during the next few years, I found out that WCG existed. By the
time I graduated from high school, I decided that I wanted to be part of it. In
the fall of 1975, when I was in my first year at
I have a lot of fond memories from the twenty-five years that I spent in WCG. I met my future wife there in 1978. (We were married in 1982.) I liked being part of a close-knit, caring community. I liked getting together with friends after church. I enjoyed participating in Spokesman Club and church choirs.
The serious problems in the old WCG are by now very well known and well documented. I especially disliked the strong anti-intellectual bias. (Two of the worst things WCG did were to discourage higher education and make people distrust reliable sources of information.) During my first nine years in WCG I was a university student, earning a B.A., M.S., and Ph.D. in mathematics. At that time, not many people in WCG were pursuing advanced degrees, and those who did were often treated with a certain amount of suspicion, at least in the U.S. (In my experience, things were better in Canada.) My best friend during those years, another university student, got fed up with the prejudice he faced and left WCG in 1982.
I think I missed the worst of WCG's abuses, partly because I was a quiet person who tended to stay in the background. During the years when WCG ministers sometimes micromanaged people's lives, I didn't invite that sort of thing and never had to experience it.
The late nineties were the best of times and the worst of times in WCG. On the one hand, many reforms occurred and WCG became a genuinely kinder, gentler place to be. On the other hand, the close-knit community broke up and scattered in all directions. And once some things had improved, it became more apparent how bad things had been and much more difficult to accept the things that didn't improve.
GR: Grace & Knowledge was begun quite some time before you left the WCG. What were your objectives in starting the publication?
DW: Grace & Knowledge was started by my wife Sherry and me along with our friend Jared Olar. Sherry and I had ``met'' Jared on wcgnet, an email group that began in 1992 and was very active for several years. (Interestingly, we had produced four issues of the magazine together before Sherry and I actually met Jared face-to-face, at the Feast in 1999.)
The three of us agreed that WCG's move away from exclusivism and legalism was very positive. On the other hand, we felt that there was much in our church's tradition that was valuable and worth preserving, and we were dismayed at the all-out attack on our worship traditions that Pasadena had begun to institute. This attack was being bolstered by an antinomian, antijudaic theology that (in our view) distorted the message of the Bible by exaggerating the points of discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments. Many errors in teaching had been removed, but others had taken their place.
It seemed to us that there was a fairly large percentage of the people still in WCG that felt more or less the way we did. But these people had no voice and no say in what was going on, with no options other than to stay and put up with things or leave. (By now many of them have certainly left.) We wanted to encourage that group of people and speak up for them. We wanted to explore the positive aspects of WCG's reforms, and we wanted to articulate an alternative theology and vision for WCG in a moderate, reasonable manner. My original vision statement for the magazine, written in 1997, appeared on the first page of the first issue.
GR: Most COG publications are designed as recruitment and retention vehicles, with a heavy dose of polemic. Grace & Knowledge seems to be quite different. You described it once before as ``ecumenical.'' What do you mean?
DW: Well, I don't know of any other magazines that are edited by a sabbatarian adventist and a Roman Catholic (Jared became a Catholic in 2000.) One of our favorite magazines is First Things, a journal of ideas in which thinkers from across the spectrum of the Judeo-Christian tradition come together to celebrate and defend that tradition. In some very small way, one of our goals is to be a sort of ``First Things for a COG audience.''
The old WCG tended to take a very judgmental attitude toward the rest of Christianity and toward Judaism. A lot of the things I used to think that I knew about the rest of the Judeo-Christian world have turned out to be a mixture of misconceptions and false stereotypes. (I discuss this in an editorial in Issue 5 of Grace & Knowledge). So one thing that we're trying to do is to clear up those old misconceptions. Our tendency is to take a positive, accepting attitude toward the rest of the Judeo-Christian world as we explore this larger tradition and our place in it.
Several years ago a motto from the era of the Protestant Reformation made the rounds in WCG: ``In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.'' We like this motto and place it on the table of contents page of each issue of Grace & Knowledge. (I talk about this in another editorial, in Issue 6.)
GR: How has Grace & Knowledge been received?
DW: We began in the fall of 1998 as a print magazine. The print version has a very small circulation-about 70. A couple of years later we started a rudimentary web site. By now there must be about 450 pages of material at the web site.
A number of people have told us that they enjoy the magazine. One of the more popular articles is a detailed study of Romans 10:4, based on the doctoral dissertation of Robert Badenas, an SDA scholar (see Issue 4).
Some people who have been especially supportive include Ken Westby, Brian Knowles, and Michael Germano.
GR: Have you had any confrontations with Pasadena?
DW: I'm basically a timid soul and shy away from direct confrontation. But we did have one interesting experience at the end of 1998. It involved a WCG-moderated email ``theology forum'' that started in the late 1990s.
Although there are a number of theological issues of great interest to people in WCG, this forum has never been very active. In the traditional WCG culture, people are accustomed to being told what to believe, and criticism is not welcomed. So the idea of a WGC-moderated ``open forum'' is rather oxymoronic and never really caught on.
In late 1998, WCG made a big push to promote the celebration of Christmas in its U.S. congregations. This was a very controversial subject, and the first two issues of Grace & Knowledge feature several articles related to it. We had no problem with Christians celebrating Christmas, but one thing that we did find objectionable was the approach WCG used in promoting the observance of Christmas. I'd characterize it as an ``ends justifies the means'' approach. They didn't mind shading the truth to promote their agenda. In particular, there was an article in the Worldwide News and a later coworker letter trying to make an argument for Jesus' having been born on December 25. Their argument relied upon the misuse of some historical sources.
In response, Jared Olar dashed off an article, certainly the most polemical article we've ever carried. (See ``The Date of the First Advent'' in Issue 2.) When he finished a draft of the article, he emailed it to me and suggested I forward it to some WCG-related email forums. I decided to forward it to the usually quiet WCG theology forum.
The response was very revealing. Several WCG ministers in the group sent heated rejoinders. None of them addressed-or even seemed to comprehend-the substance of the article. They were apparently just upset that someone had dared to criticize Pasadena about something. One of them said that we should have circulated the article ``through proper channels'' of WCG's official authority structure. The response seemed indistinguishable from what one might expect in a WCG offshoot.
GR: What aspects of the WCG reformation do you regard as positive?
DW: The rejection of anti-intellectualism was very important, as was the understanding that we were part of a much larger community of Christians. Before about 1994, I hadn't taken much advantage of Christian literature outside of what WCG offered. Since then, I've been trying to make up for lost time.
Rejecting some false doctrines has been important, along with making distinctions between truths that we know for sure and other teachings that are more speculative. Overall, WCG is a lot better off doctrinally than it used to be. It has tried consciously in recent years to identify and emphasize the core teachings of Christianity. I appreciate those reforms a lot. WCG's leaders deserve a great deal of credit for making them.
GR: Are further reforms needed, in your opinion?
DW: Of course it's easier to revise a doctrinal statement than to change a culture. The authoritarian culture that still exists in WCG has undermined the reforms to some extent.
One example: At some point in the mid-90s, Joe Tkach Jr. recorded a sermon about worship that was played in all the congregations. In it, he expressed a preference for contemporary worship music. Immediately thereafter, traditional hymns were ``out'' and contemporary praise choruses were all the rage in WCG services. It didn't matter if anyone knew or liked the new choruses. The change was seen as mandated from headquarters.
I think Mr. Tkach's goal in giving that sermon must have been to promote some kind of worship renewal, with the hope that our worship services would encourage people to openly praise God from the heart. But what he succeeded in doing was to create a strange WCG version of the ``worship wars'' between traditional and contemporary music that have been occurring in many churches in recent years. The already tense atmosphere became even tenser. Everything that happened during a worship service became fraught with political overtones.
For instance, some people raised and waved their hands during the praise choruses, as is often done at a Pentecostal service. In some cases, this may have been a spontaneous expression of praise. Many times though, it signaled that the worshipper was ``with the program'' and approved of Pasadena's reforms. Meanwhile, people struggling with the doctrinal reforms had to put up with the additional turn-off of unfamiliar songs.
For many, the whole thing was very alienating. It certainly made it nerve-wracking to be a worship leader. What would be the political overtones of the songs one chose for the service? Could a service be planned that was meaningful for those in attendance and at the same time ``politically correct''? One of my favorite solutions was to introduce Messianic Jewish praise choruses. This music is contemporary-and therefore politically correct-but at the same time dealt with themes that resonated with many people, like the literal reign of Christ on earth or the meanings of the annual Hebrew festivals.
It also became ``politically incorrect'' in the late 1990s in WCG to mention publicly in a worship service that it happened to be a weekly Sabbath day or festival day. Thus we had Feast of Tabernacles celebrations at which no one in an official capacity would acknowledge that it was the Feast or that the Feast of Tabernacles might have some Christian significance. I imagine that the ``dueling prayers'' which occurred at Grand Junction were in part a reaction against this strange state of affairs.
Another example: A couple of years ago, the regional pastor was coming to visit one weekend, and some special seminars were scheduled. The announcement in the church bulletin advertised the seminars with words like, ``Come find out where the church is headed and where you fit in.'' In other words, we (the folks in charge) are the ones who will determine the future direction of the church. We decide what you're to do and where you fit in. You lack the ability to figure that out, and you don't have any say in the matter either.
I don't know who wrote the announcement, but it described a situation that's just taken for granted in WCG. Over the past several years, WCG members have been subjected to lots of sermons about identifying and developing one's spiritual gifts. Such sermons are pointless, though, in an atmosphere where it's understood that the organization has control over whether and how those gifts are exercised.
GR: If you had the opportunity to sit down with Joe Tkach over coffee, would there be a message you'd want him to hear, and if so, what?
DW: My message would also be addressed to Mike Feazell because it would deal largely with two areas of ``cognitive dissonance'' that are evident in Mr. Feazell's book.
In The Liberation of the Worldwide Church of God, Feazell points out that one of the main things that led Herbert Armstrong into error was his failure to seek and heed the guidance of the larger Christian church. Then later in the book, Feazell admits that WCG leadership has ignored the advice of Christian leaders who counselled WCG to hold onto its distinctives. WCG's failure to heed this wise advice has done a great deal of damage. By opposing WCG traditions, WCG leaders have caused much needless alienation and attrition in membership. WCG's policies have also partly sabotaged its doctrinal reforms. People in WCG would have been more receptive to new teaching if the teaching hadn't come from people who so obviously viewed them with arrogance and contempt and were basically trying to destroy their culture.
This first area of cognitive dissonance is partly a byproduct of a second, larger one. Mike Feazell states early in his book that one of the major problems in the old WCG, along with exclusivism and legalism, was authoritarianism. Then later in the book, he finds ways to rationalize the fact that the new WCG still has an authoritarian approach. It's hard to let go of absolute power, but WCG's reforms will never be complete until some accountability is introduced into the organization.
I have to admit that there is an upside to having such a centralized authority structure: good changes can be made remarkably quickly. But there's also a corresponding downside: the personal prejudices of the guys in charge are imposed upon the entire organization.
Mr. Feazell mentions toward the end of his book that WCG is still in search of a direction. I agree. WCG will never find a direction as long as the only ``acceptable'' directions are those mandated from the top. The continued authoritarianism in WCG precludes the possibility of real revival occurring there. Revival is something that springs up spontaneously from the grassroots, and such a thing is hindered in an authoritarian culture.
I believe that revival could have occurred in WCG if its leaders had followed a different policy with regard to the church's worship traditions. There is a lot of interest right now among Christians in the ``Jewish roots'' of Christianity. More people are discovering the Sabbath and Hebrew festivals and celebrating them with great enthusiasm. This Hebrew roots revival is something that resonates deeply with many people from a WCG background. It would be a natural area of involvement for WCG members and congregations. But one obstacle is in the way-Pasadena's prejudice against WCG's traditions. That prejudice has created much internal strife in WCG and has greatly impeded the denomination's progress. The WCG hierarchy has a tendency to shield itself from criticism, quash dissent, and treat those under it with disdain. People who try to express disagreement with someone in authority in WCG are generally treated in a very patronizing way. It's assumed that such people must be ignorant.
The rank-and-file members of WCG are sincere and zealous folks with a high level of dedication and commitment to God. It's a shame that Pasadena has treated them with such a lack of consideration. I have talked with three local church elders-two from the U.S. and one from Canada-who were removed from their positions for refusing to promote Pasadena's harsh and pointless anti-Sabbath campaign. These men are not legalists; they are in perfect agreement with the essentials of historic Christianity. They have given countless hours in service to their brethren. But for refusing on principle to mistreat the people in their congregations, they have been kicked out.
I would like Joe Tkach and Mike Feazell to understand how much damage has been done by Pasadena's abusive policies.
GR: Do you consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist about the future growth and stability of the wider Church of God movement?
DW: There certainly are things to be pessimistic about. Pasadena's policies have caused WCG's membership in the U.S. to dwindle. UCG's demographic profile, with such a high average age among the ministry, is not encouraging.
I think we should keep in mind, though, that the future of most Christian
churches is in the global South--Africa, Asia, and Latin America. For more on
this theme, see Prof. Philip
Jenkins's recent book The Next Christendom: The
Rise of Global Christianity (
Take the Church of God (Seventh Day) as an example. In Ohio, where I live, that denomination is almost nonexistent. But on a global scale it is thriving, especially in Latin America. COG7's large Spanish-speaking membership is making itself felt in the U.S. too. Many of its congregational leaders in the U.S. are Hispanic. COG7 has 20 congregations in the Houston, Texas, area alone, including several Spanish ones.
For a denomination to grow in what used to be called the ``Third World'', all it needs to do, as far as I can tell, is to plant a few seeds and then stand back and let the locals grow them. One person who can attest to this is Leon Sexton, who assists groups in Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), and India and reports continual progress.
Even the UCG, as rigid as it often is, will probably grow. Several years ago it turned down a group of several thousand in India that wanted to affiliate with it, but more recently it has accepted a group in Ghana. It will be interesting to see how long it will take for UCG's African membership to exceed the U.S. membership. Down the road, will some of UCG's congregations in the US be pastored by men from Africa? It's certainly possible.
So I'm an optimist. From a global perspective, Christianity is growing. Not every COG denomination will survive, but overall the Church of God movement, in spite of itself, will probably grow along with the rest of Christianity.
GR: What contribution can churches in the Sabbatarian tradition make to the wider Christian community?
DW: For one thing, they can strive to be good ambassadors for the Sabbath. I think that Samuele Bacchiocchi has been a fine example in this area.
The Sabbath has great meaning. It points to God as Creator and Redeemer, symbolizes the rest in Christ we experience today, and looks forward to future rest in the world to come.
The Sabbath has great value as a spiritual discipline. It is a vehicle for coming into closer fellowship with God. It helps us to put our lives into proper perspective. The Sabbath is a source of spiritual strength for those who choose to take advantage of this wonderful gift from God.
Those who keep the Sabbath also make a philosemitic statement. One of the great tragedies of Christian history has been the church's alienation from its Jewish roots. The Sabbath points a way for Christians to start getting back in touch with those roots.
Sabbatarian denominations can promote all of these aspects of the Sabbath.
On the other hand, they should not use the Sabbath as a way of dividing Christians. In my opinion, the Sabbath should not be advertised as a ``test commandment'' or litmus test to identify the ``true Christians'' or the ``best Christians.''
Pastors of Sabbatarian churches can sometimes help out by filling in, when needed, in the pulpits of local churches that meet on Sunday. Seventh Day Baptist pastors have often served in this way.
The different Sabbatarian denominations have their own distinctive contributions to make too. For example, the Seventh Day Baptists have a strong ecumenical emphasis. They were active in both the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches before those organizations became so highly politicized. They have long been active in the Baptist World Alliance.
The Seventh-day Adventists have always emphasized moderate and healthy living. They have served many people through their network of hospitals.
In the U.S., both the Seventh Day Baptists and Seventh-day Adventists have been strong advocates of religious freedom.
GR: I'm wondering if there are some things the COGs desperately need to learn from the mainstream as well. Would you agree, for example, that ``church government'' continues to be an Achilles heel for the WCG and its daughter churches?
DW: Church government is a big problem, as we've been discussing. It is widely understood in the Christian world that a healthy fellowship needs to have both leadership and accountability. There's still no real accountability in WCG, as you often point out.
The COGs also need to learn more about where they fit into the larger Christian community. Too many in the COGs still lump all the rest of the Christian world together as one big ``false church.'' If they get their version of church history from (largely fictional) sources like the Dugger and Dodd book, then they remain mostly unaware of their own history. People in the COGs often speak disparagingly of ``Protestants,'' even though the COGs have their roots in the Reformation.
One of the things we hope to do in Grace & Knowledge is to present facts and dispel myths about the prehistory and history of the COGs. For example, our current issue features an article on the Waldensians. Contrary to some Sabbatarian mythology, the Waldensians were not Sabbatarians.
GR: Which ministries, publications or fellowships would you recommend as helpful to either former members or interested people with no prior background in the WCG?
DW: I highly recommend the Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, the teaching ministry of Dwight A. Pryor. I think of Dwight's congregation, the Church of the Messiah in Dayton, Ohio, as a model for what WCG could have become. Dwight teaches about Jesus and Paul in their first-century Jewish context. He upholds the teachings of historic Christianity and at same time brings out the value of Hebraic traditions like the Sabbath and biblical festivals. He's a balanced, inspiring Christian teacher.
For small groups and home fellowships, I highly recommend the teaching materials produced by First Fruits of Zion. They offer a 14-part course for small groups called HaYesod (Hebrew for ``the foundation'') that deals in a balanced way with a number of the issues that have divided WCG in recent years-e.g., the relationship among the biblical covenants and the role of God's law in the life of the Christian. One of the fourteen parts focuses on the importance of both leadership and accountability in any Christian fellowship.
First Fruits of Zion also has a set of study materials that take a weekly Bible study group through the Gospels and Acts in a year. I'm involved with a study group that is using these materials, and we're very pleased with them so far.
One of my favorite biblical scholars is Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. I have found his books to be very helpful in exploring the theological questions that have divided WCG, and I believe that he offers better answers than those that have been put forward by WCG leaders. I especially recommend The Messiah in the Old Testament, Toward Old Testament Ethics, and Toward Rediscovering the Old Testament.
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