Thursday, January 19, 2017

Thoughts on the Allwine Tragedy

Stephen Allwine

Many in the Church of God community were shocked to learn that UCG elder Stephen Carl Allwine of Minnesota, was recently charged with the murder of his wife, Amy Allwine.

Allwine, 43, is alleged to have shot his wife and staged it as a suicide after failed attempts to hire a hitman to kill her. The alleged murder followed Stephen Allwine's extramarital affairs arranged on the well-known cheater's web site, Ashley Madison.

The finger-pointing has begun in the COG blogosphere. How could someone in "God's true church" do something so terrible? UCG must be a sham. Or maybe it's proof the Allwines should have gone with COGWA in the 2010 split. No, wait, it's all because of Herbert Armstrong's doctrines.

Let's all stop for a moment. And forgive me if this post is less smooth and edited as usual. I wanted to join the discussion quickly, before the finger-pointing starts in earnest. Though I'm no fan of COG doctrines, UCG and the COGs are not responsible for this tragic situation. Here's what is responsible:

(Jeremiah 17:9) The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?

People who profess to be Christians - whether Protestant, Catholic or even cultic - share the basic goal of becoming more like Jesus Christ. We also share the basic problem of being human. There is a reason that the Bible instructs us to focus on what is good, what is noble and what is of good report. There is a reason that the Bible tells us to strive against sin, to resist the devil. That reason is that many of us do not naturally focus on the good, do not naturally strive against sin, do not naturally resist the devil.

(James 1:13-15) When tempted, no one should say, 'God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

James is not writing to unconverted sinners. James is writing to brothers and sisters in Christ. James is warning true believers not to give in to sin and temptation. James wasn't known for wasting words or hypothesizing about impossibilities.

(Romans 7:18-25)  For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do - this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Paul describes the very real struggle that he himself faced. Paul is no casual Christian. Paul endured beatings, shipwrecks, imprisonment and intense persecution for the cause of Christ. If he wasn't immune, no one is immune.

I do think that some of the peculiarities of the COG community make its members more vulnerable to succumbing to temptation. But no one is immune. Recently, a pastor in my church was forced to resign because of an extramarital affair. Granted, he didn't attempt a hit on his wife. Thankfully, it never got that far. Here are some reasons I believe the COGs make members more vulnerable than the average Christian:

  • Less community support
You are tragically scattered, which makes you vulnerable in many ways. Split after split has left many of you relationally separated from those to whom you were close and geographically separated from your "brethren." This leaves you disconnected, isolated and vulnerable to Satan, that prowling lion, just waiting to pick you off like a wounded gazelle. There is often no one to turn to when you're hurting, when you're tempted. And there's also no one to catch you or notice something's off when you give in to temptation. 
  • Misconceptions about sin
All sincere Christians struggle with sin. But in COG theology, it's different. Historically, the COGs have taught that humans are born with a morally neutral nature and have been influenced by the Prince of the Power of the Air. "True Christians" are responsible for changing their "tuning" away from Satan's "frequency." Today's COGs may each variations on this theme, but the basic message, especially among old-timers (and aren't the majority of them old-timers) focus on man's responsibility to change himself. Further, they must overcome enough sin to achieve some nebulous "righteousness quotient" by the end of their lives or else they won't "make it." Rather than spurring members to encourage one another to live holy lives, this teaching ends up leading members to believe they aren't "good enough" and less likely to admit their temptations to one another. 

  • Misunderstandings about the Holy Spirit
The COGs teach that the Holy Spirit is a tool that Christians are to "use" in their quest to overcome sin. I was in the COGs for decades, but no one has ever been able to explain just how to harness the Holy Spirit. This isn't meant to be a dissertation on the Trinity. Suffice it to say that the Bible teaches the God is in the driver's seat and He changes us through the Holy Spirit, not vice versa. By trying to lead the process, we set ourselves up for discouragement and failure.

Heinous, grievous sins such as those alleged in the Allwine case are discouraging to say the least. When our spiritual leaders fail, we have choices to make. We can speculate whether such a person was ever called. We can cast stones, ignoring our own sins. Or we can recognize the depth of the wickedness in each of our hearts, realize that we are powerless to change and fully rely on God for our salvation, our redemption and our sanctification. 

We pray for the Allwine's family, including their son, and all individuals affected by this tragedy. 

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


Martha said...

And no, there is not a contradiction between our position on Allwine's alleged heinous sins and our position that HWA's alleged repulsive sins disqualified him to start a religious movement.

As far as we know, Allwine did not claim to speak for God other than discussing what was already revealed in scripture in his sermons and sermonettes. HWA claimed to speak for God and set the machine in motion. Allwine was a cog in the machine. There's a big difference.

Anonymous said...

My memory escapes me, but back in the early 2000's, in NY, a member for many years slaughtered his wife and young teen daughter, then proceeded to slit his own throat. I sat at the same pot luck table with them many times, the wife very sweet, if not stifled, the child precious. He was creepy. No mention of it ever again. Clearly this man had psychological issues for a long time, was never handled, the WCG didn't do that kind of thing. Suicides, murders? They happen with regularity but swept under the rug. I couldn't help but notice this happened in 2016, why have we not heard of it until now?

Martha said...

Yes, it did happen in 2016, but late in the year. I believe Amy Allwine's "alleged" suicide was November 13. Stephen Allwine was only arrested this week. While that's ages in a 24-hour news cycle, that's not a long time in terms of COG publications. That's barely enough time to get an obituary into the United News, even in a normal situation. And suicide, even if they're suspicious, are tricky. Even professional news organizations have mixed policies about reporting suicides. If it's still under investigation, it's trickier. In my experience, word of even straightforward suicide in the COG often travels by word of mouth because there's just no simple way to address it. As one wise commenter on another related blog said, there's just no winning in responding to a situation like this.

Regarding your comments about people in "the church" with mental instability, well, any group that has humans in it is likely to have its share of people who do not fit in, who are social outcasts, for lack of a better word. Perhaps groups that teach its insiders have a "special calling," "secret knowledge" and are destined to be gods attract more of those types, giving them automatic acceptance where they've always been rejected. In the past, we have evidence that some like this were even recruited. In addition, perhaps groups that focus on apocalyptic scenarios and preach that death, destruction and the end of the world is around the corner disturb these unstable types even further. But, as I said, there are misfits everywhere.

I'm also not certain that the COG ministry is well-supported to deal with this kind of thing. For example, I once heard a minister who had recently been made a certain COG department head criticizing those who said he was unqualified to head the department. Well, I'm sorry, but he was unqualified. His training came from Ambassador College and he had little background or expertise in that domain. In a mainstream church, you may have a pastor heading the finances, but it's a pastor with a degree and background in finance. A pastor may organize media efforts, but he also has a background in media. You may have a pastor heading up a counseling department, but that pastor has a background and certification in mental health or counseling. For the most part, this simply has never happened in the COGs because the candidate pool is so small and most went to Ambassador College.

I'm not trying to be overly critical, I truly pity the minister who has no experience in mental health or counseling who is sent out to deal with a tragedy like this, or is expected to head off a mental health situation. I have more pity for the individual who is turning to him for support and expertise, but I don't envy the guy thrust into the situation. I'm certainly not qualified and I probably wouldn't do any better than him.

I think this is one aspect of what Paul is getting at when he talks about the church being a body, and the nose should not envy or be discouraged because it's not an eye. God has given each of us talents. While it can be a good thing to be flexible and get out of our comfort zones, God has endowed us with talents and we should use those talents to His glory. So an ear or elbow is not going to deal well with a situation that requires a nose or lung, and if a body has no noses or lungs but a glut of ears and elbows, it is ill-equipped to address many situations. Again, this is not necessarily a criticism, it is a biblical truth.

xHWA said...

Psychology and mental health counselling were verboten in the old days. Not certain about the present but I can't imagine it's gotten any more acceptable to try and improve yourself through any other means then a renewed commitment to more Sabbathing. The last place I would want to go for genuine help is an Armstrongist minister, most especially if they aren't a close friend.

Anonymous said...

I think you all know that Herbert Armstrong established a system based on physical religious rituals -- in fact, the rituals based in the Old Testament under the direction of the Levite priests, to wit, tithing, clean and unclean meats, observation of the feasts. Of course, the animal sacrifices were scrapped and the doctrine of healing through anointing was established.

For the most part, Herbert Armstrong set the system to be one of cause through physical ritual and effect of physical consequences. You tithe, you will be physically prospered; you are anointed and God absolutely MUST heal you (if you don't remember, go back and read the booklets on the topic he wrote).

You know that the Bible says that the just shall live by faith and it is impossible to please God without faith. The Scripture says plainly that the ancient Israelites had no faith, and, in fact, faith is only mentioned twice in the Old Testament.

What Herbert Armstrong did was to convince his followers that they were righteous by keeping physical rituals. This lends itself to the idea that if you just do all the things prescribed, like tithing, keeping the feasts, being anointed when you are sick and the whole host of other things, that you will be righteous and you are on your way to salvation.

Herbert Armstrong was not converted and did not have a spiritual life. His fruit proved that. Those who follow his example are going to achieve similar results: A life empty and devoid of spiritual values, devoted to keeping physical rituals.

As time goes on, people following this pattern will be devoid of a spiritual life and will be empty, without even missing what's gone.

Over time, a person such as Stephan Allwine will slip into the mode that he is more and more immoral and unethical until he goes illegal, without skipping a beat and without his seared conscience telling him anything.

After all, we all make mistakes, but as long as we keep following those physical rituals, we should be OK.

xHWA said...

Very poignant words. Thanks for that comment. Seems spot on to me.

Everyone has their own experiences. I know some people who were fairly well adjusted despite the system. Not the case for me, though. And not the case for a lot of other people I have met or heard about.

I remember the pain and the fear and disappointment and the overwhelming sense of going it alone. In fact, I often still default to that. I remember too many stories about the ministry treating personal issues as if they were solely the fault of the person having the issue. A blame the victim sort of thing. "What? You're severely depressed, you feel your life is spinning out of control, and you're desperate for help? Must be hidden sin in your life. Have some shame to go with that, and don't come back to church until you've got your sins sorted out. Next! What? You lost your job after the FOT and you need assistance? Well, we'd love to help but there's a process. You did turn in your excess second tithe, we hope. Have you begged family and friends for money first? Have you tried looking for another job? He who won't work doesn't eat, you know. I'll make sure to have a Deacon's wife tell everyone about it so people can show up unannounced with donations of their old clothes and embarrass you beyond your ability to cope." I remember public shaming from the pulpit. People have told me about being utterly abandoned after they left; even more so if they were forced to leave. I remember reading about tithe audits. I remember the bitter divorces after a spouse left. I remember the guilt trips. I remember being told not ever to read a self-help book because that was all directly from Satan in contradiction to the will of God. Personally ran into that once when a sister-in-law of mine recommended a book when she learned how (let's just say "unconventional") my childhood had been. I agonized. Never did read more than a couple pages. Too afraid. Wish I could turn back the clock.

The tragedies of this story aren't by any means unique to Armstrongism. But I heard that the quantity and magnitude of hidden sexual crime is directly proportional to how closed off a system is. I feel so sorry for the wife and child, though. If there is any chance this could have been avoided.

Anonymous said...

Armstrongism is insidious. It undermines people. It transforms them. It is evil.

Countenance those who entered Ambassador College, fresh, eager, willing, along with honest, moral, wanting to become godly and help save the world.

Four years later, a different person emerges, concerned with appearances, taught to buy the best quality you can afford, certain that no other group has the truth and whatever one of the five ethical foundations the person started with, only one remains: The end justifies the means -- if you have to lie, cheat and deceive to get the 'truth' out there, use any tool available -- after all, it's for a good cause (people who have watched Leah Remini on the A&E series documentary on Scientology should have a good idea of what this means).

The venue is a catch-22: It is so extreme, what with giving up to 3 tithes on your gross, keeping the Sabbaths and Feasts, making sure you keep the clean and unclean meets, not only takes a lot of time, effort and resources, it produces a crisis in priorities. In order to live when you don't have enough, what do you do? When you are a family member is sick what do you do? In a world where all the answers are provided for you, few to none are really functional. You are living a high impact lie, draining you mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually, financially. If you get into real trouble, there's no one to help. Moreover, other people want what you have and will actually undermine you in various and subtle ways.

This should help clarify: You go to the Feast and usually there is the question, "Why are you here?". The answer is simple.

You are here because Herbert Armstrong wants you to be. And never mind that he's dead -- if you are in Armstrongism, you are still serving him and what he wanted in his lifetime. You were in a cult of personality, supporting a very selfish arrogant narcissistic person (and again, watch the Scientology documentaries and decide whether or not David Miscavige fits the pattern of Joseph Tkach, Senior).

Everything you do, say and think has been subverted, undermined and perverted by Herbert Armstrong. Everything. You have lived for him. You lived to provide his lusts.

This quite the opposite of what Christianity should be (in fact, most religions, really). The focus should be on God, not a man and his stupid rituals and demands for money when he overspends in profligate manner.

Armstrongism is an enemy of Christianity and saps the holy spirit from its followers until they are weak and empty spiritually, confused and hearing impaired: They will no longer listen to the truth, only to the liars they have come to trust.