Blogs > Cliopatria > Church shooting, church schisms

Mar 14, 2005 7:43 pm

Church shooting, church schisms

Though most of the nation's attention this weekend seemed to be focused on the Brian Nicholls story in Atlanta, I was struck by the Wisconsin church shooting that left seven dead.

The congregation that was hit was connected with the Living Church of God, one of the half-dozen offshoots of the old Worldwide Church of God.  Worldwide began with the late Herbert W. Armstrong, who mixed the strange theology of British-Israelism with a strict adherence to Old Testament law (circumcision, dietary law, the works.)  Worldwide folk rejected other Christians as hopelessly compromised with the world.  The church peaked in popularity in the 1970s, and then lost followers in the wake of sexual scandals and failed millennial prophecies.  The church was centered here in Pasadena from 1956 until the early 1990s, where they built Ambassador College and Ambassador Auditorium.  Thousands of followers came to Pasadena to be near Armstrong and his church.

In the late 1980s and early 90s, following Armstrong's death, the church was torn apart in a series of schisms.  Joseph Tkach took over the main branch of the church, moved it into the theological mainstream, and made it virtually indistinguishable from countless other evangelical ministries.  But others clung to the old Armstrongian beliefs in mandatory tithing, Saturday worship, the observance of Old Testament feasts, and so forth.  Of course, these schismatics could not agree amongst themselves, and split again and again.  The Living Church of God (the denomination of the victims of Saturday's shooting) was one of only eight different offshoots of the old Worldwide Church.  In addition to Living (as it is usually known), the other large branch of the schismatic churches is the United Church of God.

I'm struck by all this for personal reasons.  I can't even begin to count how many students I've taught these past 12 years at PCC who come out of one or another of these traditions.  I've taught "Living" students and "United" students and a few from the smaller offshoots.  Time and again, I've heard stories about the chaotic years of the late 1980s and 1990s as families were torn apart all across Pasadena by the schisms.  A few years ago, I had one girl whose entire family had gone with the Tkach clan into the mainstream Worldwide Church; she alone, at 19, was clinging to "Living".  She had left her parents' home and moved in with an older church couple.  She took time off to travel for the feasts of Trumpets and Tabernacles; she was very proud of her faith and very bitter at her entire family for what she saw as their collective apostasy.  A year or two later, when I was teaching on our Florence study abroad program, I had a young woman who was very active in "United."  The only fellow church-members in Italy were in Milan; every Friday afternoon she took the train from Florence to Milan to spend the weekend with them, returning late Sunday.  Her faith was humbling, even as the theology was positively bizarre.  Both young women have since left the church; I recently ran into one at a restaurant she manages.  She looks much happier; a load has been lifted from her shoulders.  I asked her about the church, and she said she had been grateful that it had been there for her in her adolescence, but that she had moved beyond it now.  I told her I was happy for her.

I still run into quite a few of these heirs to Armstrongism.   They always tend to show up in my Western Civ classes, usually when we are talking about Paul and circumcision (or dietary laws.)  They do their utmost to convince me that Paul didn't mean what most Christians think he meant when he proclaimed observance of the Law in these matters no longer necessary.  I always smile, affirm them, and invite them to come and chat in my office.  They've usually got a good story to tell, and they are usually with United or Living.  They're bright kids, more often than not, and I enjoy their participation and their challenge.

And when I heard it was a Living church that was the target of Saturday's shooting, I thought of their faces.

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Judi M Fulcrum - 7/20/2006

Mr. Schwyzer,

I stumbled across your post searching for a more pointed history about the formerly united WCG "Churches of God" and the dates and times of the details that led to its first split and methodical disintegration.

I felt compelled to respond. I found your blog to be kindly albeit condescending--but that would be expected from one outside looking in. Nevertheless, I appreciated reading your post. I'm not a member of either Living or United... the Church actually did not suffer a few splits but in essence has shattered and there are multiple hundreds of variations of the same flavor... sort of like all the different Cola's out there... some minor differences but if you're not terribly discerning, it still fizzles on the palate as any other Cola.

I think a lot of the kids held onto a time when the church was the biggest part of their lives... when all their friends and families met in various locations for the Feast of Tabernacles and there were hundreds of other kids just like them all there with the same stories to share. We live, as you said, a bizzarre life in comparison to the rest of the world and it gave them a chance to live in harmony one week out of the year. They imagined it would be there to grow with them and by it they maintained friendships the world over which fell by the way side as they all ended up in different groups led by despotic men whose main concern was to establish to themselves a captive flock rather than to continue on with the Church. Sad really, what has become of us... the shooting actually shows how sad.

Out of my three kids, 2 still attend here and there, one in Living, one in United and one who makes it up as he goes along. My husband still adheres to the doctrines but doesn't go anywhere and I meet each Sabbath in someone's home and listen to prerecorded sermons. Those who stay with it are still as dedicated as ever they were... our "religion" is not something we do one day a week but it encompasses our entire way of life. Some of us still hang onto it tenaciously... but little by little a lot are losing their grip.

I know this is a year and some later from your original posting but nevertheless, I only saw it just today. Thanks for the read.