Sunday, March 31, 2013

On "The Fragmentation of a Sect" by David V. Barrett ****

This is the first truly scholarly study of the Worldwide Church of God and its various offshoots I've ever come across. As such, it was rather fascinating to read about the church of my birth and my continuing fellowship. Barrett isn't an evangelical with an ax to grind (though I did get the sense that he might be Episcopal or of some vaguely mainstream Christian sect); rather, he's a sociologist, one interested in why people make the decisions that they make. The study essentially applies rational choice theory to the religious choices that people make, based on who went where and why after the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) radically changed its doctrines in the mid-1990s.

WCG was a Sabbath-keeping church whose major tenets also included the celebration of the biblical (Hebrew) holy days, adherence to biblical food laws, a binitarian concept of God, tithing, and an adherence to a British-Israelite worldview of history and prophecy. In 1986, its pastor general Herbert W. Armstrong (HWA) died, passing on power in the church to Joseph W. Tkach, who over the course of the next decade would oversee the church's transformation to mainstream evangelicalism. In the process, the church would fragment into various offshoots--four hundred and counting at present--the three major ones being Philadelphia Church of God, Global Church of God (the bulk of which later would become Living Church of God), and United Church of God. Each group would hold similar doctrines. So how did people make their decision about where to attend?

After a brief introduction laying out the theory behind the study, the book provides a brief summary of the church's doctrines and then of its history. The author seems largely objective with regard to laying out the doctrines, rather than skewing them as most evangelically based studies have done in the past.

His account of the history is a bit more biting, but understandably so. As he notes throughout, it is almost impossible to find history on the church and its various pastor generals that is not either ridiculously hagiographic or ridiculously slanderous. He chooses to present elements of both views, since the differing viewpoints themselves have much to say about the nature of the choices that people have made.

Still an adherent to much of what HWA taught, I tend to think some of the more scandalous claims about him are probably rumors created by people with hateful agendas. Yet, having grown up in the church and knowing how the church tended (in the spirit of trying to avoid ruining people's reputations) to hide bad things from view, I also know that "truth" when it comes to much of what has gone on in WCG or its offshoots is sometimes hard to come by. Sometimes, a minister might be on a pedestal one day, and the next day, he might be gone and all mention of him swept aside as if he never existed. The reasons might remain a mystery or they might be revealed by someone with a particular agenda, and that someone might not be telling the truth either.

And then there are the contradictions that Barrett raises, even in the writings by the church about its history. Some people perceive as HWA as a humble and kind man; some perceive him as arrogant; almost all agree that he had a temper and could be hard to work with (certainly, his job wasn't an easy one, as people around him vied for power, lending reason for paranoia). A lot has to do with how those people knew HWA. Since I was just a teen when he died, my own perceptions are based a lot on recordings, and I tend to perceive him like the apostle Paul: determined and diligent but not someone I would particularly enjoy being around. And so it comes to the history, wherein HWA had a tendency to talk about how God had uniquely revealed things to him, things that often came from other sources. Of course, one could say that HWA was unique insofar as putting all those things together or that he was not a scholar and so not aware of the need for scholarly documentation or . . . But whatever conclusions one might reach about how he came to his understanding, he clearly was effective as a preacher.

After a discussion of the church's history, its struggles in the 1970s, and then its transformation in the early 1990s, Barrett turns to his analysis. The first part of his analysis focuses on church government, which turns out to be of great importance to his eventual conclusion. WCG was, in its later days, run hierarchically. As such, people were expected to fall in line with the ministers above them, and the ministers to fall in line with the ministers above them. So what happens when the doctrines that those above no longer match with the doctrines that were formerly espoused, save in the matter of the doctrine of government? Does one hang on to the government, or does one let go of said doctrine to hold to the other doctrines? Barrett nicely even explores, though briefly, those who have stayed in WCG despite not believing in most of the doctrinal changes, precisely because of this belief.

Barrett's discussion at this point widens a bit. He talks about what can happen with a religion's founder dies. Essentially, it can move from a charismatic leadership style to a rational one, and it can remain stable. Or in the process, it can lose steam and although stable eventually dissolve. It can also change or reform, but in that process, it might also divide. He shows examples from various religions.

Finally, Barrett gets to a chapter based on an albeit sadly too small survey of members that explores among other things how and why people made the choices they did: what finally compelled them to leave, where they went, how, and why. The two basic factors, Barrett says, that previous researchers would point to would be family/friends and doctrine, but Barrett points out a third factor that would influence where people went: leadership (which he terms a "moral" choice as opposed to a "religious" or "social" choice). Interestingly, people's choices were much less likely to be based on friends and family. However, just as interestingly, their choices were almost as likely to be based on the leader/minister as on the doctrine. That's right: people follow their ministers. I was reminded of my attendance with the church in Fort Worth after the 1995 split. One congregation had left with UCG, as that minister had left; one congregation had stayed with WCG, as that minister had stayed. (Both ministers adhered to the same doctrines, as the minister who stayed did not abide by the new WCG teachings, so leaving was not a matter of "religion.") Very few members transferred from one congregation to the other when this happened. Similarly, in a recent split in my local congregation, probably 80 percent of the congregation followed the minister into a new group. We really do just follow the leader, it seems.

And some of us get tired, as is evident in the survey as well. While many initially left WCG with one of the various offshoots, quite a few people have since become stay-at-home believers, sick of the political power games that so-called ministers play in an attempt to garner followings for themselves.

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