Friday, December 2, 2016

Falsely Accused? Christmas Trees Were Christian Theater Props

In our last post, we delved into some pagan traditions that some authors - independent of COG-favorite Alexander Hislop - claim gave rise to the Christmas tree. We also explained the problems with these claims and showed why they probably are not the source for the Christmas tree tradition.

But if Christmas trees didn't come from pagan tree worship, where did they come from?

Mystery Plays

Many historians believe that Christmas trees came from the traditional medieval “mystery plays” that European Christians used to teach bible stories to the largely-illiterate population. These plays are also called “miracle plays” and “paradise plays” (although the paradise play technically refers to the performance that told the story of Adam and Eve's sin). German author Bernd Brunner explores this claim in his book, Inventing the Christmas Tree (translated by Benjamin A. Smith).
“A link can be made between the ritual of our Christmas tree and the paradise play, which had existed since the Middle Ages, even before the nativity play,” Brunner writes (p. 15-16). “At a time in which many people couldn't read and books were a valuable possession, biblical stories were dramatized as mystery plays, illustrating doctrinal episodes from creation to damnation to redemption.”
These performances can be traced back to liturgical plays performed at Christmas, Easter and other church festivals, according to “Everyman” with Other Interludes, Including Eight Miracle Plays (p. 10). This early 1900s volume, by Ernest Rhys, includes research about the history of miracle plays, as well as several popular plays themselves. Rhys' research shows that the plays developed concurrently in French/Norman and English/Saxon culture. Not surprisingly, the French and Norman plays developed similarly, while the English and Saxon plays closely resembled each other.

The earliest discovered fragments of these liturgical plays date to around 967 A.D. and were written in Latin, according to Rhys (p. 10). They were part of Church liturgy and were performed within the church building, during the specific times of year the ecclesiastical calendar proscribed. (p. 19). The paradise play was traditionally performed the day before Christmas to explain why the world needed a Savior and to set the stage for His entrance.

The paradise play included a green “tree of paradise” decorated with apples and communion wafers, according to Brunner (p. 15-16).
“Human sin was connected to the enjoyment of a fruit – a bright red apple or a pomegranate – and its atonement is set into motion by the birth of Christ. Jesus reaches for the apple that Mary offers him and takes upon himself the sins of the world – a common motif in medieval art,” Brunner says.
Scripts from these plays themselves confirm Brunner's statements. One script from York, England, compiled in 1415, gives us these opening notes for actors in the “paradise play” segment:
“Adam and Eve with a tree betwixt them; the serpent deceiving them with apples; God speaking to them and cursing the serpent, and an angel with a sword driving them out of paradise.”

In fact, apples were the original ornament used to decorate Christmas trees, Brunner says. Glass ornaments first appeared in the 17th century, when a drought destroyed the apple harvest in the Alsace region. In 1858, glassblowers in the French village of Meisenthal made red glass spheres to replace the apples on local Christmas trees. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Over time, “the first Adam” became traditionally associated with December 24th  in Orthodox Christian traditions as a way of foreshadowing the coming of the "last" Adam, who is traditionally associated with December 25th.

(1 Corinthians 15:45-47) So it is written, "The First man Adam became a living being"; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven.

 The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates a festival remembering Adam and Eve on Christmas Eve. This never happened officially in the Roman Catholic Church, but many Catholic resources tell us that the historical association with Adam remained. Further, the liturgical plays began before the Great Schism of 1054 A.D., so the traditional association is almost certain in the west as well.

The Guilds

Then, in the late thirteenth century, the plays began migrating out of the church. They first moved into the church yard, then onto a nearby street, and finally out in the town, where open space made more props and equipment possible (Rhys, 12). The clergy kept a hand in the scripts, but the rising town guilds supplied the actors, giving the plays new character and relatability. (Guilds were the associations of artisans or merchants who controlled the practice of their craft in a particular town. Guild apprenticeship and memberships were a matter of pride and prestige).

When the Council of Vienna established the Festival of Corpus Christi in 1311 A.D., it helped to make the jump from liturgical dramas to guild plays official. The festival was held on a Thursday in June and featured mystery play performances rather than quotations from scripture (Rhys, 20). Corpus Christi was scheduled during one of the few times in northern Europe when moderate temperatures and long periods of daylight made lengthy performances possible. These conditions were key because, over time, friendly competition between the guilds led to elaborate plays lasting from sunrise until nightfall. Corpus Christi cemented the connection between the guilds and the plays  – they first asserted their importance by having members march with their guild banners during the festival procession.

Some believe the church was eager to transfer responsibilities to the guilds, Rhys said (p. 22). There had been internal objections to religious dramas within the church for some time. The church was probably happy to jettison the financial burden and responsibilities for crowd control. Of course, the church required the guilds to maintain their scripts, and exerted influence over their doctrinal accuracy. We will later see this authority used to subtly bring the plays to a halt during the Reformation period.

In England, the earliest record of a town pageant dates to 1268 A.D. in Chester. By the 1400s, there were regular performances in most English towns and larger villages. By 1422 A.D., the plays were entirely performed by the guilds, and as of 1467 A.D., eight guilds were producing the plays. Scripts from the 1500s list specific parts for local goldsmiths, plumbing guild members and glaziers.

The guilds were a natural fit to support and advance the plays, according to Rhys. They rose to civic importance during the 14th century. In many cities, city organization depended upon their inter-relationships. They promoted commerce, and so they had the financial ability for the undertaking.
Guild membership was a matter of pride – they often tussled with one another to maintain their importance and preserve their interests. This pride quickly transferred to the mystery plays. Though they were amateur productions, the prestige of the city often hinged upon them. Roles were a matter of pride. In places like York, regulations restricted actors from participating in more than two plays.

Sketch of Mystery Play performance  in York, England

But what about Germany? Granted, I can't read the medieval German sources like I can the English. But historians tell us that the plays developed along similar lines among the Saxons as they did the English. The earliest religious drama found in Germany was written in Latin and is from the Christmas liturgical cycle. Early on, they were performed in Latin by traveling scholars, began appearing in German in the 13th century and transitioned to the guilds.

Trees Appear on the Scene

So, we see that the guilds presented the mystery plays in the 1400s. We see that one of plays – one with a traditional connection to December 24 – featured a tree decorated with apples. During the same time period, we also see the first Christmas trees appearing on the scene in the 1400s – often connected with guilds, Brunner writes.
 “The tree of paradise and knowledge begins to transcend the religious context of the play and move toward a role in the Christmas celebrations of the guilds,” he explains. “Precisely how is not clear, but hints here and there provide clues of the transition.”

The first record we have dates to 1419, when the Fraternity of Baker's Apprentices set up a tree
decorated with apples, wafers, gingerbread and tinsel in the local hospital at Freiburg (Brunner, p. 4). Another document claims the first Christmas tree came two decades later – in 1441, when the Black Heads (foreign traders guild) set up a tree in front of the town hall for a dance in Talinn, Estonia. The Black Heads also erected a tree in front of the Riga, Latvia town hall in 1510, where children decorated it with woolen thread, straw and apples. A Christmas tree was raised in the Cathedral at Strasbourg in 1539.

Christmas trees in Riga, Latvia

“Where the first tree stood is lost to the ages. But we can assume that these more or less random extant documents refer to something that was already in existence decades before,” Brunner says (p. 5). “What is certainly is the appearance of the trees in the trade guilds of the sixteenth century.”
More complete records exist from guild chronicles in Bremen dated to 1570. A tree was placed in the guild's hall and decorated with apples, nuts, pretzels and paper flowers. During the Christmas celebration, the children were allowed to shake the tree to get the treats. Sometimes, the poor were allowed to plunder the tree before a town dance.

So, now which theory makes more sense?

a). Christmas trees are a reinvention of worship symbols from pagan religions that were discouraged - often under penalty of death - and went underground for several generations. They were then reintroduced as a Christianized symbol by a few diehard, clandestine pagans a few centuries later. Europe's Germanic population suffered from mass memory loss and forgot the origins of the decorated tree.


b) The guilds charged with holding pageants, which included paradise trees, set up decorations that look like paradise trees during a festive season traditionally associated with Adam, Eve and the paradise play.

“According to our current state of knowledge, the Christian paradise play, with its decorated tree of life and death at the center, played a decisive role in the emergence of the Christmas tree,” Brunner said. “In addition, the use of the tree in the play might have lent particular emphasis and dynamism to the custom as we know it today.”

Oh, right, we were originally talking about plays, not trees. Just what happened with these plays?

Most plays died out in the 1500s, despite the fact that they were still very popular. In London, they blamed it on the rise of Shakespeare and similar theater. Elsewhere in Europe, it's more obvious that the Reformation was their death knell. Early on, scripts were revised to eliminate Catholic themes. As time went on, the Church called in scripts for editing and held until it was too late in the year to perform them (perhaps until hours of sunlight and air temperatures were prohibitive), Rhys writes (p. 24). Protestants weren't the only ones to discourage the plays – in France, the  Catholic-leaning Parlement de Paris outlawed the plays in 1548.

The Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation rocked the landscape in Europe for decades to come. It changed religious life, political life and, in some cases, cost individuals their lives. It should be no surprise, then, that traditions and laws generated in this era changed the landscape of Christian worship forever. We will learn about what this meant for the Christmas tree in our next post.

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )
Acts 17:11

Friday, November 25, 2016

Falsely Accused? Christmas Trees and Germanic Paganism

December is a time of year when many churches embrace rich, well-loved traditions. Some take up special offerings for the poor. Others decorate their sanctuaries.

The Churches of God have their own tradition – quoting time-honored, cherished writings that explain why Christmas trees are pagan. These sources have been thoroughly debunked, but that doesn't make them any less loved and accepted among the COGs.

In past years, As Bereans Did has addressed these arguments, which the COGs have largely appropriated from the 19th-century Scottish pastor Alexander Hislop. The excellent series On Nimrod and Christmas Trees is available, in parts one, two and three and addresses most of the COG arguments linking Christmas trees to paganism. They occasionally quote other sources – like the New Catholic Encyclopedia, for example – but most of these sources also circle back to Hislop and related writings.

If Christmas trees are so obviously descended from paganism, there must be other sources besides Hislop, right? This year, we decided to look at some. Primarily German sources, since most believe Christmas trees originated there. If anybody would know about own their history, it would be the Germans, right? So today, we'll look at the claims of authors Christine Ratsch and Claudia Muller-Eberling, authors of Pagan Christmas – The Plants, Spirits and Rituals at the Origins of Yuletide (translated into English by Katja Lueders and Rafael Lorenzo). We will specifically be addressing Christmas trees, not other plants like mistletoe and holly.

(This series will not address the origins of Christmas itself. For discussion on that topic, please read The Plain Truth About December 25th.

World Trees

Pagan Christmas first explains that the Christmas tree came from the “World Tree,” an idea that's present in many ancient non-Christian religions. (p. 19). Though the “World Tree” is a different species in various mythological traditions, it is depicted as an enormous tree that supports the heavens; linking the heavens, earth and underworld.

In Germanic mythology, the world tree was called Yggdrasil, and was a place where the gods assembled daily. The tree's branches supposedly reached far into the heavens and its roots extended to other mythological locations.

But Yggdrasil was an ash tree, not a fir tree, according to both the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda, which are 13th-century compilations of earlier traditional sources. In fact, none of the many “World Trees” we researched were evergreens.


Besides the problem that world trees were not evergreens, the authors give no evidence connect the world tree and the Christmas tree. Why should we accept there is any relationship at all? Simply because they are both trees??? This is the only argument one can make, and it's a childish, grossly simplistic one at that. It's about as logical as, "Jesus couldn't have died on a cross because Tammuz starts with a T." (Maybe you think we are joking, but that claim was common in the Worldwide Church of God and survives in some pockets of the COGs even today). So it is with this claim about Yggdrasil.

Claiming that the Christmas tree came from the World Tree because people worshiped trees is shallow and circular. The conclusion - tree worship - is assumed before any proof is ever given. That the Christmas tree emerges from tree worship is just assumed from the start, so any example of tree worship is pulled out and declared an ancestor of the Christmas tree tradition. Combining Yggdrasil and the Christmas tree makes no sense if the conclusion is not assumed before the start. Proof is required, but the premise is unsupported. That's not how people looking for real evidence conduct research. We at ABD prefer to have actual, verifiable chains of evidence rather than just being satisfied with confirmation bias. And you should, too. Therefore, we reject the World Tree origin for Christmas trees.

Tas... Tam... Who?

A few pages later, Ratsch and Muller-Eberling claim the Christmas tree came from an ancient feast Tasana, which involved holy fir trees.
“Tacitus (I, 51) describes the Holy Feast Tasana,where people carried fir branches in their hands; and our Christmas trees also originate in this feast.” (p. 26). 
In Tacitus' Annals, the senator briefly mentions the destruction of a temple dedicated to Tamfana and the massacre of many followers. Aside from this, there are no other undisputed sources relating information about Tamfana. One disputed source notes than an autumn festival to Tamfana might correspond with a sacrificial holiday Disablot, which appeased certain female spirits in hopes of a good harvest. And that's the most conclusive information we have about Tasana/Tamfana. Which, I might point out, are not necessarily the same name. And, if even the least dubious source is to be trusted, had a festival in the fall, not the winter.

But wait! The old High German word “tan” means "forest", note Ratsch and Muller-Eberling (p. 26). And “tanna” can mean both fir and oak! Haven't you heard the old hymn, O Tannenbaum?

We're sure some of you were thinking about O Tannenbaum before we brought it up. We bet someone out there is thinking something like, "Tan is a grove and a fir tree, and Tannenbaum is a Christmas tree, therefore we have a clear relationship between Christmas trees and paganism!" Now, before you go rushing off to quote Deuteronomy 12: 2 and Isaiah 66: 17, just stop. There is something we need to make perfectly clear - Tannenbaum is not the word for Christmas tree. As my very good friend from Germany relates:
"Tannenbaum means fir tree. The song doesn't really say anything about Christmas. It's more about the tree being the only tree to stay green even in the winter....symbolic for having faith even in difficult times. Weihnachtsbaum would be a Christmas tree."
That's right, Tannenbaum does not mean Christmas tree, Weihnachtsbaum does. Even if O Tannenbaum has become a Christmas staple, the word tannenbaum nothing to prove pagan roots just like a song written in the 1800s does nothing to demonstrate that Christmas trees originated from German pagans in the years before Christ. So if we actually stick to the facts and put aside our false conclusions, we have no connection between the Christmas tree and paganism here, either.

Donar's Oak

We'll skip over the dubious links the authors make between Christmas trees and May poles and instead spend a moment on oak trees. I'm so glad they brought them up. Let's talk about them. Specifically, about Donar's Oak – also known as Thor's Oak - which is discussed in the account of Saint Boniface. Legend has it that Boniface, who was a missionary to the Germanic people, cut down the sacred oak to prevent a ritual human sacrifice.

After felling the oak, Boniface is said to have directed the attention of the gathered pagans to a new “holy” tree – a nearby evergreen.

Ratsch and Muller-Eberling describe Donar's Oak as central to the life and spiritual culture of the pagan Chatten, who were ancestors of the Hessians.
“For them, the sacred tree represented the world tree that maintains cosmic order and insures the survival of humanity. When this tree was torn from their consciousness, their culture broke down, no longer having roots or a trunk. Understanding exactly how significant this was, the converted Aurelius Augustinus (354-430 CE) also known as the Neoplatonic church father Augustine, came to a new conclusion about the cutting of the holy trees of the heathens. He declared: “Do not kill the heathens – just convert them; do not cut their holy trees – consecrate them to Jesus Christ”  (p. 24-25). 
Relatively good records of Boniface's life actually do exist. Accounts of his sermons, correspondences, legal documents and other items were compiled shortly after his martyrdom. It would appear that the felling of Donar's Oak was historical, but the legend about the fir tree was not. The gathered pagans were astounded that Thor did not strike Boniface down, and many converted to Christianity on the spot. Wood from the tree was then to use build a church on the site where Donar's Oak once grew.

The historical record deals yet another blow to Ratsch and Muller-Eberling's credibility. Augustine, whom they quoted as weighing in on the matter, died in 430 A.D. Boniface, however, was not born until 672 A.D. Augustine's death predates Boniface's birth by more than 200 years. So if any man in question learned from another, it was Boniface, not Augustine. And Boniface still cut down the tree. Thus, we also reject the argument that the Christmas Tree came from the Donar's Oak legend. And we subtract a few points for logic and style given the faux pas about Augustine.

Weak Roots

Most of the pagan traditions to which critics try to connect the Christmas tree can be traced to the Dark Ages, during relatively early missions to the pagan Germanic tribes. Specifically before Charlemagne's campaign in the 700s to convert western Europe. Why does Charlemagne matter? Because no single person did as much to end traditional German paganism as Charlemagne did.

Now, no one's claiming that Charlemagne completely wiped out paganism. But he earned the title of “the scourge of Germanic paganism” for a reason. Anyone who would massacre 4,500 Saxons in a single day as Charlemagne did at Verden meant business. Historians describe Charlemagne's policy towards Saxons as ensuring they were defeated, converted or exterminated. Later Christian kings in Germany continued to complete the conversion process that Charlemagne started. It's hard to imagine pagan traditions being both widely-known enough and tolerated enough to resurface as admitted paganism several hundred years later. Especially in era when the religious climate was tenuous, and the Church exercised even more authority and influence.

This is an area where the COGs can't help but fall short. In Armstrongism, we were conditioned to write off anything after the first century, lumping it all together as pagan nonsense. And that thinking was based on false history, as we've proven here in the past. For just a few examples, please read our articles A True History of the True Church, Another True History, and A Pattern of Dishonest Documentation. So we in the COGs miss the significant differences between the Christian world of 500 A.D., 1000 A.D.  and 1500 A.D. - a point which will become relevant again later in this series.

Did ancient Germanic pagan worship involve trees? Absolutely. Is any religious act involving trees pagan? No. After all, the Feast of Tabernacles, properly celebrated, involves tree branches.

(Leviticus 23:39-40) Also on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruit of the land, you shall keep the feast of the Lord for seven days; on the first day there shall be a sabbath-rest. And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees, the boughs of leafy trees, and the willows of the brook; you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.

"But the trees mentioned in Leviticus aren't fir trees," you say! Right, and neither was the Germanic World Tree. Neither was Donar's Oak. Neither were the white oaks worshiped by the Druids. Why do willows and palms get a free pass?

At some point, we must accept simple logic. If Christmas trees came from Nimrod and Semiramis, as Hislop claims, then they did not come from the World Tree. If they came from the World Tree, they did not come from St. Boniface. Or Tasana/Tamfana. We can't even get the details of the goddess's name right, let alone anything else about her.

Once again, as we've seen time after time before, it all boils down to standards of evidence. Behind the claims of the COGs, there are none. Hislop, the COGs and those in their camp jump to conclusions before evidence is provided. Nothing needs genuine research. Everything is confirmation bias. Anything goes. We should probably write off the world "Christian" as pagan because, like Tamfana, it contains letters like like “t,” “a,” and “n."

Perhaps if we have to try this hard to force a connection, there's a chance that the connection isn't there. Maybe it's time to entertain the possibility that the Christmas tree can be traced to an innocent origin, and that it has been slandered over and over again thanks to sloppy, circular research.

We'll consider this possibility next time, when we look in-depth at what many believe is the true origin of the Christmas tree – the medieval Christian mystery play.

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )
Acts 17:11

Thursday, October 20, 2016

When Your Feast Fever Breaks

By now, those of you who observe the Feast of Tabernacles are several days into the festival. Are you having the best Feast ever? Were you able to find enough palm fronds and willow branches to build your booth? You don't have any bugs in it yet, do you?

Wait, you didn't build a booth? Why not?  Couldn't find enough palms in Victoria, British Columbia? And I won't even bring up the fact that you're keeping the Feast in Victoria, British Columbia and not Jerusalem.

I know, I know, He didn't come to change one jot or one tittle. Like the jots and tittles about three times a year and Jerusalem and building a booth from particular trees and then staying in it rather than a condo. Ok, maybe just a couple jots and tittles. But certainly nothing more.

Anyway, we're sure some out there are having the best Feast ever. But they probably aren't the ones who read blogs like As Bereans Did.

Maybe you feel guilty that you're failing to rejoice as well as everyone around you. Maybe you wonder why God let your original LCG site in Hilton Head, South Carolina get washed out by Hurricane Matthew. Maybe God was sending a message when He allowed the remains of typhoon Songda to lash your booth, er, hotel, in British Columbia. Is God punishing you? Is Satan angry with you?

Or is it simply that man was never intended to celebrate a Hebrew harvest festival in hurricane-prone North American cities? Yes, I know, He didn't come to change one jot or tittle. Right.

The Feast is a tough time of year for those beginning to question Armstrongism. We know, we've been there. If you're out there and feeling bad because your "Feast Fever" broke - or maybe you didn't catch it at all this year - please stop. It doesn't necessarily mean there's something less righteous or spiritual about you. Maybe it means you are on the right path. You are growing up, spiritually speaking. Why?

Few new people are coming into "The Church," which means that most of us grew up here. The Feast was super hyped for us as children. And it was an easy sell.  A road trip, new toys, the one time of year we got to eat Lucky Charms for breakfast... what's not to love? The same goes for teens. Dances, new clothes, hanging out on the beach... why would anyone question the Feast? You'd have to be nuts.

You may coast on your childhood feelings about the Feast even into adulthood. This is a foretaste of the Kingdom of God, people! You are practically commanded to snorkel or ride a camel or go parasailing, if it's what your heart desires. Second tithe can buy you a steak dinner, a new iPhone and a Coach handbag. But it can't buy you spiritual fulfillment. Even Solomon eventually found these kinds of things to be vanity.

(Ecclesiastes 2:10-11, NIV) I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.

But the Feast isn't about things, Martha. It's meaningful because it pictures the Kingdom and time spent with our spiritual brothers and sisters! Spending time with family and our far-flung friends!   That's really what makes the Feast great!

Yes, your kids will treasure their memories of that trip to Dollywood with their cousins. When they meet up with them after attending COGWA services in Pigeon Forge with God's real "true church," of course. With cousins who finished up services in Gatlinburg with God's Laodicean "true church," UCG. Later, the innocent children will be the only ones to ask the lamentable questions you are all thinking - why do grandma and grandpa meet them for dinner but not for church?  Shame on the "leaders" whose pride and ambition puts families in these situations, dividing you among scores of organizations and more than 227 Feast sites, often in adjacent cities or hotels.

And those friends... enjoy them while you can. If statistics are any guidance, you will lose at least half of them in your next church split. And we won't even talk about what happens when you leave. What happened to the friend who sticks closer than a brother?

Well, there's your problem, Martha. You're counting on men to make the Feast meaningful. Only God can provide that. That's why Solomon felt empty. He wasn't pursuing God.

Are you sure you are? I empathized with Solomon for years. It was only when I dared question the narrative I had been handed that I could understand the hollowness of the Feast. The funny thing is, I think that's what God wants all of us to see.

Though many groups try to read the Hebrew holy days into Genesis, the Bible does not mention them until they were given to Israel at Sinai. They contained imagery that pointed to the Savior, and demonstrated why the Sinai Covenant and its observances were incomplete. It was a fleeting, shadowy celebration intended to dissipate in the Light of the World.

Ethnic Jews like Paul continued to observe these festivals after the New Covenant was established, but there is no command for gentiles like you and me to observe them. There is nothing sinful about marking them, but they are shadows that were components of an obsolete covenant that has been replaced with one that's much better. They often set us on a slippery slope toward pride, spiritual confusion and faith in our own works. They give us a form of godliness, but deny its power - the power of Jesus Christ -  to remove our sin and reconcile us to God. Instead, we focus on a shadowy, multi-step plan of salvation intuited by a man. A multi-step plan that hints our path to the Kingdom depends upon our steps, not His.

(Hebrews 8:7-9) For if the first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. Because finding fault with them, He says: "Behold the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah - not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in my covenant, and I disregarded them, says the Lord. 

(Hebrews 8:13) In that He says, a "A new covenant," He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.

A new covenant. Not according to the covenant God made after he led Israel out of Egypt. Not according to the Sinai Covenant. That one is obsolete, and that includes its worship practices, like the holy days. So if the Feast is starting to ring hollow for you, consider the reason might not be something you are lacking. It might be something the Feast is lacking.

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )
Acts 17:11

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Just what do you mean... ATONEMENT?

One of my children recently learned about compound words. It was fun to see the lights go on and the connections made. Sunshine is the light that the sun shines. The mailman is the man who brings the mail.

I can remember a similar light-bulb moment in my life, when a deacon in the Worldwide Church of God explained that the Day of Atonement is when believers will finally achieve at-one-ment with God. It sounded good. Of course, back in elementary school, I didn't know that the Bible wasn't originally written in English.

To be fair, this wordplay is a connection that some even outside the Churches of God try to draw out of Leviticus 23. Unlike other arguments that have come out of Armstrongism, the idea that "atonement" allows sinful man to be reconciled with a Holy God makes sense. But just what is atonement, and what does the Day of Atonement picture?

COGWA, one prominent Armstrongist splinter, calls the symbolism of the Day of Atonement "unique, intriguing and often misinterpreted."

"But considered in conjunction with with the prophetic timeline in Revelation, the meaning becomes clearer," COGWA posits

ABD's translation: Traditional understandings of the Day of Atonement are misinterpretations. You probably misunderstand it yourself. But when you marry our correct interpretations with our brand of speculative prophecy, the meaning is clear and rock-solid.

COGWA's explanation gives low-billing to Jesus Christ in its article about the Holy Day plan of salvation, mentioning only that event the Day of Atonement pictures is after His return. According to COGWA, this day is all about breaking Satan's hold on humanity. Not surprisingly, the sacrificed goat gets little more than a mention, despite the fact that at least half - if not more - of the holy day ritual focused on goat whose blood is shed. (Since COGWA mostly focuses on the meaning of "atonement" and the symbolism of the goats, I will do the same. I assume that those who are reading this are familiar with the Old Testament rituals of fasting, the high priest's individual sacrifice, his entrance into the Holy of Holies, etc.)

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. First, let's make sure we understand what's meant by "atonement."

Some sources say that the English word comes from the idiomatic phrase "one-ment"  (an idiom is commonly-used expression whose meaning does not relate to the literal meaning of the individual words in it) that can be traced back to the 13th century. Others believe it came about in the 16th century and owes its origin to the Latin word adunamentum, or "unity." William Tyndale's 1534 New Testament uses the word in 2 Corinthians 5:19 to express the idea of reconciliation and restoration, concepts which the original Greek text encapsulates. Just a few decades after Tyndale, William Shakespeare used the term "atonement" to explain reconciliation of characters in his play "Richard the Third."

This is all good background information to keep in mind, but if we are really going to understand what the Day of Atonement pictures, we need to go back to the Hebrew language of Leviticus 23. This book was written about two thousand years before the earliest traces of English and several centuries before the earliest forms of Greek language appeared on the scene.

Looking at Leviticus 23:27, we see the word used in "Day of Atonement" is the Hebrew hakkipurim. It is derived from the Hebrew words kopher and its close relatives, koper, kapar and kippur, which we see reflected in the Hebrew name for the day, Yom Kippur. These words communicate the concept of ransom or "price of a life."

The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament expounds further. Kopher, for example, is parallel to the word "redeem." It is occasionally used in the negative to describe the concept of bribery. The Theological Wordbook states that the verb is always used in connection with the removal of sign or defilement, except for 3 instances where it refers to appeasement with a gift.

"It seems clear that this word aptly illustrates the theology of reconciliation in the OT. The life of the sacrificial animal specifically symbolized by its blood was required in exchange for the life of the worshiper," according to the Theological Wordbook (p. 453). "This symbolism is further clarified by the action of the worshiper in placing his hands on the head of the sacrifice and confessing his sins over the animal which was then killed or sent out as a scapegoat." 

Right. About that scapegoat. What did it symbolize? And why was it sent into the desert rather than killed?

The United Church of God, another splinter, aptly explains the symbolism Herbert Armstrong attached to the Day of Atonement through the lens of speculative prophecy, for which he was famous. Armstrong claimed that the scapegoat released in the wilderness pictured Satan being be bound and thrown in the bottomless pit, as described in Revelation 20. Removal of the devil would allow man to achieve "at-one-ment" with God, they say.

"This sending away into the desert is part of the reason for translating Azazel as scapegoat, or goat that escapes. But many scholars identify Azazel as the name of a demon inhabiting the wilderness," UCG explains. "It stands to reason that Azazel is one in stark contrast to the Lord—indeed, the ultimate enemy Satan the devil."
This explanation sounds good until you examine the context and timing of Leviticus versus the literature that names Azazel as a demon. The primary source scholars use to support the Azazel theory is the Book of Enoch. Scholars believe the Book of Enoch was written between the 300s B.C. and the first century A.D. because it includes late Aramaic names not present until that time period, according to The Expositor's Bible Commentary. It is likely that the Book of Enoch used Leviticus, which is believed to date to the 1440s B.C., as a source. Not vice-versa. The demon of the wilderness likely got its name from lore related to this ancient ritual, according to both Expositor's and the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon. The ritual did not borrow a name from a figure that appears in literature at least a thousand years later.

Further, the COGs have traditionally rejected non-canonical sources such as the Book of Enoch. In fact, the Living Church of God disfellowshipped members last year for reading and discussing the Book of Enoch. So the Azazel teaching puts the COGs in the precarious position of placing faith in a book that it tells its own members is heretical.

COGWA, UCG and LCG put forth several other arguments about the Day of Atonement, the Azazel goat and Satan. But all depend upon Armstrong's speculative prophecy regarding the Hebrew holy days and the relatively modern designation of Azazel as a demon. Unless the Book of Enoch really did come from Noah's great-grandfather, unless it was preserved on the Ark, AND unless Herbert Armstrong's prophetic speculations have been shown to hold water, there is no point in discussing them further.

The Expositor's Bible Commentary offers an explanation that avoids time travel. Many biblical translations do not alter Azazel - they translate it as one word. But literal, word-for-word translations like the King James Version and New American Standard Bible, based in the Septuagint, explain the concept as the "goat of departure."

"The first part (`az) can mean "goat" and the last part ('azel) is from a verb that means "go away," Expositor's explains. "Compound nouns like this are rare in ancient Hebrew, but new evidence for them is turning up in Ugaritic. It is simply the designation of the goat to be taken away, the escape goat."

Expositor's notes that Numbers 29:11 also describes the scapegoat as "the sin offering for atonement." But how is this possible? This goat was not slaughtered.

The goats were opposite sides of the same coin. Both goats pictured both pictured aspects of Jesus' sacrifice. One goat was killed as a sin offering. The other one took the Israelites' sin out of their presence.

"The two goats thus symbolized both propitiation for sins by death and complete removal of the sins for which atonement was made," according to Expositor's.

Many believe that the Hebrew holy days were given as a picture of what Jesus Christ would accomplish for humanity. This is what Colossians 2 means when it discusses observances as shadows. These shadows have value in that they teach us about the Savior, but we are meant to embrace Him, not the shadows. The Day of Atonement - the priest, the sacrifice, the goats and the mercy seat - pointed to what Jesus would do - die in your place and remove your sins.

Theologian John MacArthur concurs.

"This goat pictured the substitutionary bearing and total removal of sin which would later be fully accomplished by Jesus Christ" (MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 154).

Psalm 103:12 gives us a poetic picture of what the Azazel goat accomplished.

"As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us."

Remember, the priests confessed the sins of Israel over the goats. But the goat charged with the sin was falsely accused - just like Jesus. Satan would would not be falsely accused, especially according to COG theology.

"In contrast, Satan bears the blame for sin as he was the first to lead mankind astray in the Garden of Eden and continues to deceive humanity today," UCG states.

False Armstrongist teachings about the Day of Atonement subtly prop up HWA's teachings about
man's tabula rasa nature. This theory, which originated with Aristotle, contradicts multiple scriptures by teaching that man is born morally neutral. According to HWA's teachings, Satan broadcasts his evil, subversive thoughts through the air like radio waves, silently influencing mankind to sin.

Now, I'm not going to argue that Satan doesn't influence mankind. He clearly does, as both the Bible and anyone who spends a day observing news outlets can see. But HWA claimed that humans were capable of changing their "tuning" back to God's if they just tried hard enough. Oh yeah, you somehow use the Holy Spirit to do it. And you must do it to an acceptable degree to maintain the justified state that Jesus' sacrifice bought for you. And if you don't do a good enough job, God will abort you.

This teaching has led to scores of suicides in the COGs and has landed even more members in lifestyles of despair and depression. On many levels, it is what keeps many of you in your seats, even though you no longer believe what Armstrong taught or his ministers perpetuate. It is what keeps you in fear. It is what allows the ministry to keep on dividing you from your friends and family - fear that following the wrong splinter will land you in the Lake of Fire. And it is what leads you to continue to hand in your tithes and keep their dying organizations on life support.

The symbolism of the Day of Atonement - the substitutionary sacrifice and removal of sin pictured by the two goats - did produce "at-one-ment" with God, in both the ancient Hebrew and the modern English sense of the word. Fasting denoted the symbolic gravity of the solemn day that the Savior died.

But that day, the day of the atonement, is finished. Jesus rose victorious. He paid our ransom. We are redeemed. We are reconciled to God now. We have no reason to remain in the shadows of mourning.

(Psalm 30:11-12) You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness. To the end that my glory may sing praise to You and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )
Acts 17:11

Friday, September 30, 2016

Are You Ready for the Feast of Trumpets?

So, are you ready for the Feast of Trumpets? 

I sure am, Martha, you're probably thinking. My boss approved my time-off request months ago. I have directions to the building for our local church service. I even have lunch plans with friends. I'm ready. 

No, that's not what I mean. Are you ready for the Feast of Trumpets? 

Oh, now I get it. Have you seen the news lately? Did you watch the debate this week? I know a lot of prophecy remains unfulfilled, but I'm still praying that that Jesus returns next week. I've never been more ready, Martha. 

No, I mean, are you ready? Like, personally?  

The Churches of God traditionally associate the Feast of Trumpets with the return of Jesus Christ and resurrection of those who have “qualified” to enter God's Kingdom. It's interesting to note that the Feast of Trumpets is never mentioned in the New Testament. The Hebrew people – to whom the festival was given – viewed the observance as an alarm and call to repentance in preparation for Yom Kippur . Whose interpretation is more accurate is certainly debatable. Still, since both traditions associate the festival with judgment, my original question is relevant. 

So, I ask, are you ready for Jesus to return? 

The answer might depend upon whom you ask and which church you attend. 

But wait, don't all the COGs basically teach the same things? Not according to United Church of God's Donald Ward, who recently gave a sermon on authority hinting that Christians needed to attend and obey UCG ministers in order to be right with God. This seemed out of step with UCG's usual moderate tone and has many wondering whether this well-publicized, hard-line message indicates trouble is brewing again in the group. 

“People ask me if I think that the splinters of the former Worldwide Church of God will ever get back together. They go on to say, ' After all we basically believe the same thing,” Ward explains.
“And I say, 'No I don't think they will get back together. And there are far more differences than one might discern at a distance,” he says.

Ward never explains just what these differences are. Rather, he says they are largely matters of mindset and organizational culture. But, he then defines culture as “a reflection of everything you believe at the core of your being.” At least we know it's nothing serious. Only vague, trivial stuff that's at at the heart of your existence. Stuff that determines whether or not you're part of God's true church. Minor stuff like that.

About the only point on which Ward ISN'T vague is that faithful church members don't buck church authority, citing 1 Corinthians 12. After all, God has placed these ministers in authority over the body. Who are you to reject His decision?

While church authority is a valid concept, Ward's use of 1 Corinthians 12 to support it is ironic. It's hardly a treatise on cold, steely hierarchy. Read in context, 1 Corinthians 12 discusses topics like unity in the Spirit and exhorts members of the church body to rejoice and mourn together as one. And, of course, it leads into 1 Corinthians 13 – commonly known as the “love chapter.”  

At any rate, Ward's position on authority must be news to the former UCG members and would-be leaders who bucked UCG's leadership in 2010 to create COGWA, God's new-and-improved only-true-church. So, what do those errant COGWA leaders say you must do to qualify for the Kingdom? 

As usual, COGWA's web site is sparse. We get the usual cognitive dissonance, like this:

 “Jesus told the wealthy young ruler that the way to salvation required keeping the 10 Commandments (Matthew 19:16-21). Jesus Himself kept all the 10 Commandments, including the seventh-day Sabbath (Luke 4:16),” explains longtime COG writer Cecil Maranville (Law and Grace: Jesus vs. Paul?). 
“Obviously, Jesus wasn’t intimating that anyone could earn salvation by keeping the 10 Commandments. Yet He taught and showed by example that God has set a reasonable standard of behavior for His children. That standard is the 10 Commandments,” Maranville tells us.
Ok, I see. I can't earn salvation by keeping the Ten Commandments, but I am required to keep the Ten Commandments for salvation. Got it. Thanks.  

Another article from COGWA elder Charles Haughee gives further insight into the group's mindset. 

“God declares that He is holy and wants us to be holy (Leviticus 11:45; 20:7) as His sons and daughters (2 Corinthians 6:17-18). John 1:12 and 20:17 and other scriptures also verify this concept. Our Father wants all of us to be like Him—holy and clean,” Haughee writes. 

“Every father wants what is best for his children, and God is no exception. We cannot remain clean if we eat things that are unclean.”

We cannot remain clean if we eat things that are unclean. COG elders like Haughee remind listeners every week that they must remain clean if they wish to qualify for the Kingdom. Obedience can't earn you your white robe, they tell you, but you better keep it spotless if you want to “make it.” The problem is, there is only One who can make us clean. And it isn't us. 

But the Living Church of God appears to demonstrate the most ignorance on this topic  In his article, “Love and Government,” Wyatt Ciesielka, an adjunct assistant professor of theology at LCG's Living University completely butchers the deep symbolism of of Genesis 15 as an opportunity to commend Abraham for his righteous behavior.

“While no human can act perfectly as God acts, notice that Abraham is counted as practicing righteousness (cf. Genesis 15:6),” Ciesielka writes. "It is no wonder that Abraham and David will receive very high positions in the coming Kingdom of God! What then is the purpose of this royal and perfect law? The purpose is to reflect His righteousness, which leads to salvation.” 

The problem is, Genesis 15 is almost universally recognized as the template through which Christians receive salvation today - by faith. Genesis 15:6 doesn't tell us that God numbered Abraham as someone whose behavior was righteous. Rather, it tells us that God recognized the depth of Abraham's faith and, as a result, credited him with righteous standing before Him.

(Genesis 15:6) And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.

This is not Martha's interpretation of scripture. This is Paul's interpretation of scripture.

(Romans 4:1-6) What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him to who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works.

Further, God credited Abraham with righteousness before he attempted to sacrifice Isaac (an act of faith for which the book of James commends him). It was credited to him even before he was circumcised.

(Romans 4:9-11) Does this blessedness then come upon the circumcised only, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness. How then was it accounted? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised but while uncircumcised. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also...

Still not convinced? Let's turn back to Genesis 15. Have you ever studied the bizarre account toward the end of the chapter? Rounding up animals, cutting them in half, spreading them on the ground, then chasing the vultures away. Craziness. Abraham must have looked like a madman.

Well, not exactly. Abraham was setting up a traditional middle eastern covenant ceremony. In this "walk into death," the parties involved in the agreement would walk between the pieces of the animals, indicating that they should suffer a fate similar to the animals if they broke the agreement.

But Abraham fell into a deep sleep - some believe it was supernatural - leaving God alone to pass through the pieces Himself (Genesis 15:17). This indicated that God alone was responsible for bringing these promises to pass.  As we have seen, Abraham had responsibilities according to the covenant. But it would be God's actions - not Abraham's - that would fulfill the covenant promises.
Our salvation is no different.

Now,  I know you COG folks start getting nervous when I say that your salvation depends upon what Jesus did, not what you do. Trust me, this is a blessing. Because if your record of obedience is a factor in your salvation, then everything you do matters. And I mean EVERYTHING.

What, you didn't know the beef-with-broccoli at your favorite Chinese restaurant was made with oyster sauce? Too bad. You're unclean.  

That doesn't count, you respond. I didn't know that. I didn't do it willfully. God is merciful. He wouldn't judge me for something I didn't know I was doing wrong.

Ok. So, tell me, how are you observing the new moon tonight? That's right. The U.S. Naval Observatory lists the new moon as September 30. Technically at 8:13 p.m., so maybe you've still got time. Observing the new moon is listed in the same "forever" scriptures as the Sabbath. They are listed in the same passage you use to support Sabbath-keeping and dietary laws in the New Testament. It's not stealthy, like oyster sauce. The weather app on your phone tells you the moon every time it boots up, for crying out loud. You knew. Or you should have known.

I know, I know, your minister says you don't have to observe new moons. Why are you taking his word for it? If forever means "forever" with regards to the Sabbath, then it means "forever" with regards to the new moon, too. Will you believe man or believe your Bible?

And how about the meal you planned to eat at that restaurant on Trumpets, anyway? You're paying that waitress to work on a holy day. Both your father-in-law and your best friend's wife have confronted you about it. Would you do YOUR job on an annual Sabbath? Then how can you justify paying her to do hers? 

You might disagree that it's a sin, Martha. That's fine. We all must have faith unto ourselves. But if your teach that your righteousness is dependent upon what you do, then you must accept that your righteousness really hinges upon everything that you do. But if we're to the point that we base "God's standards" on knowing and agreeing with subjective standards, then we're on pretty shaky ground. The book of James tells us the law - which you cherry-pick to define your righteousness - is like a plate glass window. You break one, you've broken them all. You must get it all right - the oyster sauce, the new moon, the calendar, the proper Sabbath observance. You must have the proper checklist. And having the right checklist isn't even enough. The Sermon on the Mount tells us that even our silent thoughts can condemn us.

(Galatians 4:21) Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law?

(Galatians 5:4-6) You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love. (Neither the context nor the historical record indicate that Paul is simply talking about circumcision alone here).

Estranged from Christ. That's a bad place to me. So I ask you again, are you ready for the Feast of Trumpets? Would God count your behavior as righteous, as Mr. Ciesielka of LCG would put it? Are you clean, as Mr. Haughee of COGWA explains?

You already know the answer. You know that you can't make yourself clean. But understand that you can't even keep yourself clean. Attending UCG, exclusively, or COGWA, or LCG won't make you clean. Dutifully marking the new moon, keeping the Ten Commandments perfectly and adopting a vegan diet won't keep you clean. Your righteousness is like filthy rags before Him.

How can you ever hope to bridge the gap between your behavior, as obedient as you try to be, and God's perfect standard of righteous perfection? Well, the same way that Abraham did, all the way back in Genesis 15:6.

We must stop placing our faith in ourselves and instead place it in the promise of salvation through the blood of the Lamb. We must repent of our sins and dedicate ourselves to God. And when we do, God credits us with Christ's righteousness. Now, we stand justified before Him and can begin the process of sanctification through the leading of the Holy Spirit. This is a process led by God, not us. It is the evidence of our salvation, not the cause of it.

Quit placing your faith in attending the right church, in keeping the right days and eating the right foods. Wash the filthy garments of your righteousness in the blood of the Lamb. Only then will you be clean, and truly ready for the Feast of Trumpets. 

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )
Acts 17:11

Friday, August 5, 2016

David Hulme's Tips for Raising a Christian Moral Child

Hi guys. It's been a while. In light of UCG's recent stance on women in media, I took some time off to reconsider my roles in this blog and my family. I came to one definite conclusion:

It's really hard to type with cookie dough on my fingers.

(insert rim shot here)

Seriously, though, life did require some time away. And some of it did involve baking cookies and playing board games with my children. Many of you have been in a similar season of life, and I thank you for understanding.

Actually, children are the reason I'm writing today. As I mentioned, I have some. I've managed to keep them alive for several years now. So I was naturally intrigued when I discovered the existence of a “special report” on parenting from Vision magazine, which is published by David Hulme's Church of God, an International Community. It had some good points. It certainly offered better counsel than the Philadelphia Church of God, which has advised the parents of a disabled child to abandon them at the mall and to cut off contact with unbaptized children who have left the cult.  Mostly, though, Vision's special report reminded me why I'm thankful I'm no longer raising children in the Churches of God.

I have some experience with parenting in this community. I've spent several years raising my children both the inside the COGs and outside of them – as of late, in an evangelical Christian setting. And I was raised in the Worldwide Church of God. No, this isn't one of those posts. I wasn't beaten or abused. I will say that my family would have benefited greatly from a religious system that encouraged mercy and grace. But in comparison to others, I was very blessed. My parents tried their hardest and did the best they could, and I'm grateful for the reverence for the Bible and fear of the Lord them instilled in me. All that being said, I can see how the religious climate and parenting philosophies of the COGs are spiritually damaging.

How so? Well, Armstrongist parenting philosophy is based in the Aristotelian theory of tabula rasa, or, in Latin, "blank slate." Herbert Armstrong taught that children are born morally neutral and acquire their sinful behavior from Satan, who broadcasts his sinful, selfish, hateful attitude though the air like a radio signal.  Many COGs do not directly state their foundation of tabula rasa as overtly as UCG does.  But nearly all groups minimize scriptures about the original state of man's heart (Psalm 51:5, Job 14:4, Psalm 58:3 and Jeremiah 17:9) and instead focus on man's absorption and acquisition of this satanic “broadcast.”

Who cares, you ask? Who would argue that Satan doesn't influence the world for the worse? Does it really matter?

Yes, it does. Because Armstrong also taught that we are able to change the channel on the “receiver” of our hearts. And, by the way, your eternal destiny depends upon your ability to do so. HWA taught that you must qualify for eternal life by showing that you are trustworthy through works of obedience. And that God might choose to abort you if you do not grow and change enough in this life. These statements all appear directly in Armstrong's writings and underpin the salvific theology of today's COGs.

Most parents would give their right arm – probably their own life – to keep their child out of the Lake of Fire. So what do we do? We get started right away on the obedience checklist. After all, it's for their own good. I'm not judging. It's exactly what I did. Further, it's natural, normal and perfectly appropriate. For toddlers and preschoolers.

But as our children mature, continuing the  carrot-and-stick method the COG prescribes for both children and adults places us on one of two dangerous paths. I suppose there is another path - those who casually follow the tenets of their religion but do not focus purposefully on the implications of their theology or their behavior. Which leads to a whole new set of difficulties. But I digress.

Please note, these ideas are not the product of Martha and her alleged bitterness toward the COGs. These are the conclusions of respected Christian writers like Jerry Bridges, Ravi Zacharias and Chuck Swindoll, among others. These writers, and many more, have addressed this troubling dynamic in mainstream Christianity. I believe that the “unique theology” of the COGs as established by HWA puts our children at even greater risk.


As our children get older, our goal should be for them to obey from the heart; not out of fear of punishment. Unfortunately, Armstrongism never makes this transition. We are still obeying out of fear of punishment. We may dress it up in grown-up clothes and describe it as “doing the right thing” or “doing what the Bible says.” But in the COGs, both of these statements have an implicit, unstated “or else” at the end. I get messages from adults in their 60s admitting as much. The only difference is, a 6-year-old or 16-year-old may still believe he is capable of changing the channel, while the 60 year old knows it is futile.

The portion of Vision's special report concerning self-esteem actually gives us insight into this dynamic. In it, author Gina Stepp explains how the concept of "agency" – or an individual’s sense of personal and independent control over an outcome or event – starts developing in infancy.

“Over time, this realization matures as they successfully complete tasks by setting goals, maintaining effort, and overcoming failure to achieve a desired result. Through repeated opportunities to test the effects of their actions, they form beliefs about their self-efficacy, their ability to perform at the level they have intended or to produce a desired result." Stepp says. "This, it turns out, underpins an individual’s motivation to change his or her behavior and is therefore also crucial to the development of the other component of a positive sense of self: self-esteem.” 

Armstrongist theology completely undermines  this process because it sets the bar impossibly high – the goal is completely overcoming sin in this lifetime. We're not simply talking about acing a math test or achieving the correct form in ballet class. We're talking about overcoming sin as a means of attaining, or more accurately, maintaining, our eternal life.

On the flip side of this concept, each failure reinforces the belief that they are not good enough, will never be good enough and destroys their motivation and self-image. The Vision special report points out the importance of a “history of successes” to creating a child's sense of reality. But in COG theology, one's history of success doesn't matter, because each poor choice separates us from God. We are only as good as our last choice.

Vision quoted a Pavlovian shock conditioning study of dogs that discovered the animals who learned they could avoid a shock by performing certain actions continued those actions even if they stopped producing results. But dogs whose actions never stopped the shock quickly learned that their actions didn't matter and became passive; giving up on affecting the outcome - an important note for parents, according to quoted motivational researchers William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick:

“To assert that a person is responsible for deciding and directing his or her own change is to assume that the person is capable of doing so. The person not only can but must make the change, in the sense that no one else can do it for him or her.” 

Armstrongism teaches us that we are the only ones who can make the change (somehow wielding the Holy Spirit, of course).  But in reality, we can't do it. Failure and fear of punishment can't change our hearts. Instead, they fill us with despair and bitterness because we know we'll never be able to change the channel. It leads us down a dark path of failure that ends in depression at best, and suicide at worst. I've seen many whom I love echo Paul's thoughts in Romans 7:22-24 – minus the encouraging resolution in verse 25:

For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 


Not surprisingly, the second path leads in the opposite direction. It was the path I walked. Some children, like me, are naturally obedient and enjoy following rules. Their sticker chart is full. They are told they are good and, over time, they come to believe it. Since they are at least "pretty good” on their own, they grow to trust in themselves rather than God. After all, they don't really need Him that much. They're doing pretty well on their own. Jesus spoke of these people – people like me – in Mark 2:16-17:

But when the teachers of religious law who were Pharisees saw Him eating with tax collectors and other sinners, they asked his disciples, "Why does He eat with such scum?" When Jesus heard this, he told them, "Healthy people don't need a doctor - sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous but those who know they are sinners." (New Living Translation) 

Like the Pharisees, we set ourselves apart from the “scum.” We wonder why they just don't obey like we do. We judge them. Sometimes we even fool ourselves into thinking we are justified in judging and criticizing them, because they need to know they are wrong. What could possibly wrong with trying to keep someone off the road to hell? But really, we are looking down our noses at them. Gradually, our hearts grow cold and harden against our fellow man.

So how do we help our young pharisee stop looking down scornfully from her ivory tower? In its article on raising moral children, Vision encourages parents to foster empathy from an early age. This is a noble goal, no doubt. But is it the solution? Will it make a child change her "channel?"

Stepp, who also wrote the report's article on morality, tells us that brain scientists have determined children are born with innate ideas about things like fairness and harm, responsibility and integrity, sexuality and cleanliness. The key, then, is to wed these innate ideas to a set of virtues to create a "moral belief system."

How does one do this? Well, virtues are mostly established by the example the parents set. Most importantly, parents should establish a good socializing relationship - secure attachment and parental warmth – as the basis for moral training. Beyond that, parents should use emotional language and talk about feelings – their own and those of others – with their children.

Parents should give guided practice in thinking about the connection between decisions, behavior and compassion, Stepp advises, possibly by posing hypothetical questions. For example, questions about the morality of running a red light in an emergency will help children practically apply the virtues of kindness and compassion through their innate understanding about harm or suffering. Over time, such thinking is proven to result in “brain change.”

To be fair, this is good parenting advice, on a secular level. But will fostering a child's “moral belief system,” as Stepp puts it, change her channel to the proper broadcast? The answer is no. Parental prodding cannot change a heart. It can guide one to think of others, or at least to keep her judgmental thoughts to herself. Even then, her empathy and understanding is based on the subjective standards of her parents, not an objective source. She will likely learn empathy for those people and situations that her parents taught her were deserving. But empathy for everyone? That's just crazy. Not everyone deserves it. They made their bed, now they need to lie in it.

Following Stepp's advice may lead our little pharisee to look down from her ivory tower with pity rather than scorn, but she still doesn't identify herself with the sinners below. Deep down, she still believes she is better than those around her. Especially if she is taught, week after week, that she is special and that others around her are deceived and false Christians because they do not keep the Sabbath. That she is responsible for purging her spiritual leaven; and that not doing it to an unspecified amount will cost her salvation. This theology teachers her to focuses on the checklist of works she was handed, blinding her to her own self-righteousness and pride.

(Revelation 3:17) Because you say, “I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing” - and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked.


To be fair, Hulme's special report offers some helpful parenting tips. But they could be just as easily be employed by parents who want to raise moral children who grow up to be Buddhists, Mormon, Muslim or secular humanists. If these strategies could be used interchangeably to raise well-adjusted, empathetic Taoists or Scientologists, then they aren't Christian.

Vision's special report gives only passing references to the Bible and fails to mention Jesus even once. Stepp's article on moralism gives a nod to scripture in its admonition to “love thy neighbor,” “love the stranger” and “love thy enemy." But it fails to mention who made these statements or why we should give them any more weight than the words of the Buddha or Mohammed.

And this problem is not isolated to David Hulme's COG-AIC. COGWA's Equip, Encourage and Inspire parenting manual is much more explicitly Biblical. But it noticeably fails to mention our Savior in its “People of the Bible” section of role models from the pages of scripture. In both its original edition and in later online editions that add more material. It's not surprising. Back in the Worldwide Church of God, our monthly YES lessons did not discuss Jesus outside of a Holy Day context until somewhere between third and fifth grade.

(John 14:5-6) Thomas said to Him, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

As a result of HWA's errant theology, the COGs misunderstand Jesus and the grace His sacrifice provided. The focus of the gospel is not Christ's return and reign. Nor is it the Sabbath, the Holy Days or the Sinai Covenant. The gospel is the good news that Jesus came to save sinners from condemnation when they repent and place their faith in Him. It is this true gospel and the grace it provides that both our despairing sinner and our self-righteous pharisee need most. Both their paths converge at the level ground of the foot of the cross.

Any truly Christian parenting guide must be based in these scriptural truths:

(Romans 3:21-24) But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus  All have sinned and fall short of God's glory – both the sinner who lies and the pharisee who scorns the sinner in pride. Both have sinned and cost their Savior's blood and have earned condemnation, whether through a sinful act of commission or a prideful act of omission. But true righteousness, or right standing with God, is freely available to both through faith in God's promise of forgiveness through Jesus Christ. 

(John 3:16) For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.  Jesus died for everyone, not just those who are worthy. None of us are worthy. Not the one who cheats, nor the one who is angry because he was cheated. Not the disobedient child. Not the one who obeys, at least most of the time. All of us are equally guilty for His death and all are capable of receiving His love and forgiveness.

(Ephesians 2:8-9) For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. Our salvation is a gift from God, it is not from ourselves. We did not earn it through works and, by extension, neither can we maintain it by works, or else we would have something to boast about. 

(Romans 4:22-24) And therefore “it was accounted to to him (Abraham) for righteousness.” Now it was not written for his sake alone that it was imputed to him, but also for us. It shall be imputed to us who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead. Just like Abraham, Christ's righteousness is credited to us when we place our faith in him.  This standing comes from God, not our own works. 

(John 6:28-29) Then they said to Him, "What shall we do, that we may work the works of God? Jesus answered and said to them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent." Our job is to believe or trust in Jesus for salvation. This "work" is the basis of our Christian walk.

(Galatians 5:4) You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. Those who try to win their salvation through obedience rather than faith are severed from Christ's sacrifice. 

(Romans 12:1) I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.  We do not obey to win God's approval. We obey (the covenant to which we are party) because we already have God's approval and He has changed our hearts. This obedience is proof of that regeneration and the Holy Spirit at work in our lives; not what makes it happen. It is a reasonable to dedicate our lives to God since He has saved us from condemnation. 

(Ephesians 2:10) For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.  God is the Creator; we are the creation. He created us and set aside specific things for us to do. It is only by Him and through Him that we are able to achieve them. We do not perform them in order to win His approval. We do them to demonstrate our love and obedience to the Lord of our life, and to draw others to Him.

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If you want to raise a moral child, that's fine. Vision and COGWA are more than happy to tell you how to do it. But if you want to raise a Christian child, there is only one Way. Give that child the gospel.

The true Christian gospel gives both the despairing sinner and the self-righteous pharisee an accurate picture of their true human condition, their standing before God and their worth to Him. When the sinner's heart is encouraged and the pharisee's heart is softened, both are fertile, well-prepared ground for life of service to God and showing grace and love to his fellow man.

I don't know about you, but I think that's a better goal for my children than discerning when it's morally acceptable for them to run a red light.

But maybe I'll change my mind when they're old enough to drive.

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )
Acts 17:11