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Sometime ago I was talking on the air with Hank Hanegraaff during a live Bible Answer Man radio program. In discussing the many changes that have shaken the WCG during the past several years, I used the term "cognitive dissonance" to describe what often went on in our heads in decades past. In many instances we championed two flatly contradictory doctrines at the same time.
After the program Hank and I discussed this idea at more length. Hank thought the idea of cognitive dissonance could provide the foundation for a great book. Such a book, he said, would try to show how people can equally embrace two opposing ideas, concepts that cannot both be true at the same time. I agreed and gave him several quick examples of this phenomenon in our own church.
"You know, Joe" he said after I was done, "this dynamic is present in the kingdom of the cults."
"I imagine it is," I replied, with more than a little conviction.
I still marvel at how we could have believed one thing while noting that reality showed something vastly different. How could we simultaneously have held two radically conflicting ideas in our minds? Why did we not see the obvious contradictions?
We’re All at Risk
Before anybody starts shaking his head too much at our checkered history, let me hasten to say that everyone suffers from some measure of cognitive dissonance. Psychologist and author Dennis Coon has this to say about the issue:
Cognitions are thoughts. Dissonance means clashing. The influential theory of cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957) states that contradicting or clashing thoughts cause discomfort. We have a need for consistency in our thoughts and our perceptions. If individuals can be made to act in ways that are inconsistent with their attitudes, they may change their thoughts to bring them into agreement with their actions.
For example, smokers are told on every pack that cigarettes may endanger their lives. They light up and smoke. How do they resolve the tension between this information and their actions? They could quit smoking, but it may be easier to convince themselves that smoking is not really so dangerous. To do this, they will seek examples of people who have lived long lives as heavy smokers, and will associate with other smokers who support this attitude. They will also avoid information concerning the link between smoking and cancer.
Cognitive dissonance theory also suggests that people tend to reject new information that contradicts ideas they already hold, in a sort of "don’t bother me with the facts, my mind is made up" strategy.1
I wonder if Coon read our mail? The degree of cognitive dissonance in a religious sect or cult is staggering. It’s mind-boggling. Yet for decades we ignored it, skipped right over it without pausing to breathe. I guess that’s what intrigues me so much.
As I write this, I’m forty-five years old. From the age of five I grew up in this church – and for most of my life I cruised along with dozens of major contradictions elbowing each other in my head, yet without ever suspecting their constant warfare. I see this as a disease that continues to afflict so many today. Until someone sits down with these folks and starts examining and critiquing their clashing ideas, they will likely remain just as oblivious to them as I was for so many years.
Consider with me just five areas in which massive cognitive dissonance went unnoticed and unchallenged in our church for so long.
Whom Should We Worship?
The first example is a classic. Until recent years, it was common for us not to worship Jesus as Lord. Rather, we worshiped God the Father. Certainly we would pray in Jesus’ name or in praying we might say, "We’re praying to the Father with Jesus at His right hand." But worshiping Jesus was something we simply did not practice. We thought it was wrong to pray to Christ, although it was OK to mention his name at the end of the prayer.
To us, Christ was virtually a dead Savior. We referred to the Lord’s Supper as Passover, following the Old Covenant terminology. Talking and fellowshiping at any time during this annual service was strongly discouraged. It seemed to be solely a funeral service.
We taught that our Lord did indeed suffer and die on the cross to pay for our sins, but we spent almost no time celebrating His resurrection, even though that fact was at the heart of our faith. We held that Christ’s primary role was as a messenger to announce the coming kingdom. Of course this was part of our teaching that, in essence, denied the full deity of Jesus. Yes, He saved us from our sins through His death on the cross, but that was not the main event; the main event was the coming kingdom of God. While Christ was our means of access to the Father, He himself received little or no worship.
Even as we insisted we were to worship God, not Christ, we also taught that if we followed Christ’s earthly example – that is, if we did the same things He did during His ministry – then one day we would ourselves be worshiped! We taught that if Christ lived in us and if we emulated His example and thereby achieved sufficient success, then in the future, when Christ returned and we were changed into spiritual beings, we would be worshiped by all those who were not yet changed.
Talk about cognitive dissonance!
We were not to worship Christ, yet if we lived as He did while on earth, we would be worshiped. How is it possible that we did not see the contradiction? I marvel at how long I failed to see the lack of logic behind accepting both these teachings. The error is so clear to me now, but for more than twenty-five years the contradiction never dented my consciousness. It makes no sense, yet for decades the impossibility of both teachings being true escaped our notice.
God Is Immutable ... Or; Is He?
The immutability of God is one point of doctrine our church has always taught. That is, we have always insisted that God the Father is perfect and does not change. We often quoted verses where this is found, including one passage where the word immutable itself is used:
God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath: That by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us. (Hebrews 6:17-18, kjv)
For I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed. (Malachi 3:6, kjv)
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:17)
On this point, at least, we agreed with the vast majority of the orthodox Christian church. God is separate from us, distinct in nature, and immutable. He does not change.
We also taught that we were going to become God and be God in the same way He is God. As Herbert Armstrong wrote in 1981:
In man God is reproducing Himself. We shall be as much God as God Himself is God. It will be a Family of God, a God Family. God the Father will always be at the head of that whole Family. Jesus Christ will always be next in that Family The rest of us at the resurrection, at the time of the Second Coming of Christ, will be the Bride marrying Him. The husband, Christ, will rule over the wife, the Church, and Christ will be ruling next to God.2
Of course, the historic Christian church did not agree at all with us here! While we taught that we would become God, even this paragraph shows that we also insisted we would never be completely identical to God. God was forever going to be a couple of steps ahead of us; in His learning cycle He would always grow and learn ahead of where we were. Therefore He would "always be at the head of that whole Family."
It’s not hard to see where the cognitive dissonance lies in these two opposite positions, is it? On the one hand, we said God doesn’t change, He’s immutable; on the other hand, we taught that He’s growing and learning and forever a step ahead of us. In a very real sense, this is the most liberal process theology there is.
How could you get any more contradictory? Yet we didn’t see any difficulty at all. It’s not that we saw the contradiction and tried to defend it; we simply didn’t see the problem. We could confidently proclaim that God is perfect and immutable and would even quote the verse, "I am the Lord, I change not," then turn around and say, "God is growing and changing, and one day we will be God."
Of course, it’s got to be one or the other. It can’t be both.
Tragically, virtually all the major groups that have broken away from us continue this historic, heretical teaching that human destiny is to become God. This error was at the heart of Herbert W. Armstrong’s teachings.
The Best Church and the Best Marriages
We used to proclaim in our services and brag in our sermons that we were the only true church. Just look at us: We had the right name, the "Church of God" (see Acts 20:28; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 10:32; 11:16, 22; 15:9; 2 Corinthians 1:1). We had the most honest people, godly men and women filled with integrity. Not only was the Worldwide Church of God the one and only true church, but it was also the best church as evidenced by its superior marriages.
Some of our ministers would make this boast to their congregations, and our people strongly believed the claim. They were convinced that our church fellowship had the best marriages of any church in the world. How could you tell that God was in our midst? Because the quality of our marriages so far outshined those in any other denomination.
The truth is, we didn’t have the best marriages. We had just as much divorce and remarriage as any other church. To this day, most of our members and former members are oblivious to the fact that we averaged about three hundred divorces a year. As a denomination, we had just as many troubled marriages and people needing marriage counseling as any other religious group in America. The survey of our ministers that we do every year consistently told us that the number one problem in our fellowship was conflict and difficulty in marriage.
That, friends, is called cognitive dissonance.
On the one hand, we said we were the best church because, among other things, we had the best marriages in the world. But on the other hand, the number one problem in our church, year after year, was our marriages. How could we say we had the best marriages? We could say it because we wanted it to be true; cognitive dissonance clouded our eyes.
Besides the marriage claim, we also used to trumpet our church’s superiority by pointing to our members’ level of commitment.
We never had the extraordinary level of commitment from our members that we see today in the missionary programs of other denominations. I saw a statistic the other day that claimed more than one hundred thousand people lost their lives for the sake of Christ in this past year alone. More missionaries are being killed today than at any time in history. Yet that never happened with us. Our missionary work consisted largely of exporting our American church culture.
As a fellowship, we remained largely unaware of Christian missionaries, their work and sacrifices, until these past few years.
One of the more peculiar dynamics of WCG history is that our magazine formerly contained vast amounts of prophetic speculation. Our intention was to help explain world events in light of biblical prophecy. We were so locked into our prophetic schemes that we tended to see prophetic fulfillment in almost every news item. One of the most common predictions was that very far in the future (yet here and now), the Nazis were rising up again to take over Europe. We would often point out how the news fit into our predictions of a united Europe and the coming of the Antichrist.
Consider just a few such headlines and excerpts from articles Herbert Armstrong wrote in the late seventies and early eighties:
- In a page one article headlined, "Where Are We Now in the Panorama of Prophesied World Events?" Mr. Armstrong started out, "The death of Pope Paul VI may trigger a drastic change in world events. This change could plunge the world into the most terrifying crisis ever experienced by man."3 Later in the article he wrote, "The meeting of the Catholic College of Cardinals in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican may well prove to be a WORLD-SHAKING EVENT – the most important world event since World War II!"4
- When the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1980, Mr. Armstrong wrote, "In the past two weeks, this world has entered into a ‘whole new ball game.’ The intervention of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan changes the whole world picture."5 A few pages later he asked, "Can WE discern the signs of the times? END-TIME EVENTS are going to happen FAST from here on! The 80s well might see the END of this present world; WAKE UP!"6
- A few months later Mr. Armstrong wrote, "Signs are now fast appearing that our Work of the GREAT COMMISSION may be much more near completed than we have realized."7 And in a related article in the same publication he ventured his prediction that "God’s great work through His Church (Philadelphia era) may be FINISHED in a matter of months."8
- On June 30, 1980, Mr. Armstrong wrote, "This present election travesty may well be the very LAST political election for the presidency of the United States, with little incompetent men vying for the coveted prize."9
- On March 6, 1981, Mr. Armstrong said that "conditions in the world fulfilling biblical prophecies are now fast accelerating, indicating that we are indeed in the very last of the last days"10 and predicted that "terrible, frightful things are going to happen in the next few years that are going to take the lives of probably two thirds or more of all the people now living on the face of the earth."11
As these predictions of impending doom indicate, we were convinced the world was about to end and that God was poised to set up His kingdom at any moment. We firmly believed this and boldly proclaimed our beliefs for everyone to hear.
While we did manage a few correct calls, we also made more than one hundred prophetic predictions that failed. For one, we said that Europe was going to unite and take the American and British people into subjection and slavery. We predicted this would happen by the early 1970s – and of course, it didn’t.
The sad fact is that for fifty years we predicted the end of the world would come in just four to seven short years. When those four to seven years passed into history without our predictions coming true, we’d say that the world would end in another four to seven short years. This pattern repeated itself many times. Only when decades came and went and still the world hadn’t blown itself to pieces did we finally begin to notice the cognitive dissonance. We started to realize we couldn’t keep saying such nightmarish events would happen in four to seven years when, in fact, fifty years had come and gone without any of our apocalyptic prophecies being fulfilled.
I think our experience has much in common with that of a group led by a certain Mrs. Keech, a woman mentioned in Coon’s psychology textbook as a notable example of cognitive dissonance:
Mrs. Keech was receiving messages from superior beings on a planet called Clarion. On their journeys to Earth, they had detected a fault in the earth’s crust that would submerge the North American continent in a natural disaster of unimaginable proportions. The date of this event was to be December 21. However, Mrs. Keech and her band of followers, who called themselves the Seekers, had no fear of the impending disaster. Their plans were to assemble on December 20 when they expected to be met at midnight by a flying saucer and taken to safety in outer space.
The night of December 20 arrived, and the Seekers assembled at Mrs. Keech’s house. Many had given up jobs and possessions in preparation for their departure. Expectations were high and commitment was total, but as the night wore on, midnight passed and the world continued to exist. It was a bitter and embarrassing disappointment to all concerned.
Question: Did the group break up then?
The amazing twist to this story, and the aspect that intrigued social psychologists, was that the Seekers became more convinced than ever before that they and Mrs. Keech had been right. At about 5 a.m. Mrs. Keech announced that she had received a message explaining that the Seekers had saved the world. Before the night of December 20, the group had been uninterested in convincing other people that the world was coming to an end. Now they called newspapers, magazines, and radios to explain what had happened to convince others of their accomplishment.
How do we explain this strange turn in the behavior of Mrs. Keech’s doomsday group? The answer seems to lie in the concept of cognitive dissonance.12
We, too, did our share of "explaining" why certain predictions failed to come to pass. And just as in the experience of those who followed Mrs. Keech, our prophetic failures did little to convince us that something was wrong.
These days, what can we say about a unified Europe and the approach of Armageddon? For one, we notice that trends in Europe continue to move both toward unity and away from it. It is impossible to say, from looking at such data alone, that the end is near. We have learned that not every major political development is a fulfillment of biblical prophecy; not every catastrophe is a harbinger of imminent judgment. I suppose that if the floods and windstorms that swept over California in early 1997 had occurred thirty years before, they most certainly would have made the cover of The PIain Truth as evidence that the world was going to end in a few years. In reality, of course, the California floods and windstorms were no more devastating than many others in the history of this nation.
So the question keeps rising to the surface of my mind: How is it that for more than fifty years we couldn’t see what should have been so plain? It was right in front of our eyes. One or two failed prophecies might well be ignored – but more than a hundred of them? At long last, the cognitive dissonance between failed prophetic speculations and historical reality became too much even for us to bear. We gave up on frequent predictions – yet somehow we still clung to the flawed framework that made them possible.
And Herbert W. Armstrong wasn’t the only one caught up in prediction addiction. Consider some of these historic predictions from the pen of Roderick C. Meredith, who now leads one of our splinter groups. The predictions below were written while he was a minister in the Worldwide Church of God:
1957 – "After 1965, we are destined to run into increasing trouble with the Gentile nations. America and Britain will begin to suffer from trade embargoes imposed by the brown and oriental races.... We will begin to experience the pangs of starvation and the scarcity of goods!"13
1963 – "You might as well wake up and FACE FACTS! The world you live in won’t be here 15 years from now!"14
1965 – "Frankly, literally dozens of prophesied events indicate that this final revival of the Roman Empire in Europe – and its bestial PERSECUTION of multitudes of Bible-believing Christians – will take place within the next seven to ten years of YOUR LIFE."15
The Global Church of God is merely one of a number of splinter groups that continue to dust off failed predictions and reinsert new dates, over and over again. Just a few days ago I was shown the following quotation from Garner Ted Armstrong, who along with his father, has given one failed prediction after another. In the first issue of a newsletter Ted wrote, "The ‘strongman’ of Europe is Germany, just as I have been saying and writing for the past forty-two years, and just as my father before me predicted even as World War II was coming to a close."16
What Ted Armstrong fails to point out is that we all have been living for over two decades in an America that, according to his predictions, shouldn’t exist. The predictions he speaks of – the ones he gave in writing, on the air, and in sermons for forty-two years – were laced with specific times and dates when America would be destroyed by Germany.
It is with profound sadness that we in the Worldwide Church of God see such delusion, such cognitive dissonance. We know that there, but for the grace of God, go we. And our prayers are that God will touch the hearts of those still gripped by such cognitive dissonance, those who are suffering from prediction addiction.
The True Church: Dead or Alive?
In a classic article titled "Seven Proofs of the True Church" from the late 1970s, Herbert Armstrong offered the following version of church history:
By about A.D. 59 the Gospel Jesus Christ proclaimed had been suppressed (Galatians 1:6-7). A counterfeit gospel had replaced it. From about a.d. 70 there ensued "the lost century." All historic record of the true Church of God had been systematically destroyed during that hundred years – the curtain had been rung down on Church activities, and when the curtain of recorded history lifted an entirely different church appeared, calling itself Christian. Extreme persecution of powerful forces had driven the true Church of God underground.
The church by the fourth century was more like the Babylonian mystery religion, having appropriated the name "Christianity." (Revelation 17:5)17
In other publications and at other times Mr. Armstrong preferred the date of a.d. 53 as the year of the church’s demise. Yet in general his teaching on this point remained fairly static: The true church was persecuted and destroyed about a.d. 53 and remained in absentia until God restored it to the world through Mr. Armstrong, beginning in the twentieth century. As Mr. Armstrong wrote, "Could anything sound more unbelievable? To say the true Gospel of Jesus Christ was not proclaimed during 19 whole centuries – from the middle of the first century until the middle of the 20th – may sound preposterous! Incredible! But TRUE!... The Gospel Jesus brought from God, proclaimed and taught His apostles was the prophetic message of the coming KINGDOM OF GOD. Yet THAT GOSPEL was SUPPRESSED about or just past the middle of the first century and was not again proclaimed to the world until 1953 – 19 centuries later – and THEN by the present living generation of that same ONE and ONLY true original Church of God, established by Jesus Christ a.d. 31!"18
We believed this wholeheartedly and taught it forcefully.
Herbert W. Armstrong also taught that the true church continued to exist through seven eras of time, each one represented symbolically by the seven churches of Asia Minor listed in Revelation 2 and 3. The WCG embodied the faithful Philadelphia-era church, the next-to-last era in world history. Only the Laodicea-era church – the apostate church – remained.
Do you see the problem with this? How could we say that the true gospel wasn’t preached since a.d. 53, yet maintain that the church survived (at least in an underground form) for nineteen hundred years? It makes no sense.
And beyond that obvious contradiction, it is a fact (one which we never disputed) that much of the New Testament wasn’t even written by A.D. 53. If the true gospel had not been preached since a.d. 53, then how did we get the New Testament? Who wrote it? Paul’s letters are generally believed to be the first parts of the New Testament to be written. The first one, probably 1 Thessalonians, was penned around A.D. 51; the last one, 2 Timothy, was not written until A.D. 66-67, when the apostle was imprisoned and then executed by the Roman emperor Nero. Now if the church truly ceased to exist after A.D. 53, then what are we to say about the legitimacy of Romans (about A.D. 57), 1 and 2 Corinthians (A.D. 55), and the rest of Paul’s letters? And what should we do with all four of the Gospels, the earliest of which (Mark) likely was not written until the late A.D. 60s?
The statement that the true gospel had not been preached to the world since A.D. 53 simply doesn’t match history. Even if it were true, how could it be that the church continued to exist through the same period? It’s an obvious contradiction, yet no one seemed to notice it. Why not? Probably we viewed the ancient church as a secret, underground society that existed all through this time. The statement that the true gospel wasn’t preached for eighteen and a half centuries was really an attack aimed at all other churches. We unwittingly replaced true, authentic, documented church history with a giant conspiracy theory.
I realize this doesn’t clear up the contradiction, but that’s the thing about cognitive dissonance. Explanations don’t have to make sense, they simply have to give security and some peace of mind. Ours did.
Is Modern Medicine OK to Use?
Earlier in this book I described the last example of cognitive dissonance that I’d like to mention, but I think it bears repeating. On the one hand, we taught that using modern medicine to battle disease and illness demonstrated a lack of faith. Calling upon the services of a doctor for anything beyond an accident, setting bones, childcare etc., merely showed that your faith was insufficient and small.
Herbert Armstrong, the very one who taught us that using modern medicine showed a lack of faith, used the medical profession, especially in his later years. Mr. Armstrong visited doctors for his heart condition and took several medications to maintain his health.
So what were our members to think? This point was difficult for some people to accept. We hoped that what Mr. Armstrong practiced would lend some balance to what he wrote, but our hopes were not always realized. Sometimes when we pointed to Mr. Armstrong’s practice as a corrective to what he wrote, members got angry and perceived our words as "Armstrong-bashing." They could not accept that what he practiced spoke just as loudly as what he preached and wrote. In the case of those members (who in many cases became former members), the cognitive dissonance continues unabated.
The Only Ultimate Remedy
There is no doubt that, to one degree or another, cognitive dissonance afflicts us all. Virtually all Christians say they want to spend more time with their families, yet many of us work ever-increasing hours. As Christians we decry lawlessness in society, yet some believers cheat on their taxes. We claim that we care about the plight of the poor, yet we Americans give less than three percent of our incomes to charity. That’s cognitive dissonance!
Cognitive dissonance also permits us to believe two contradictory ideas at the same time. Frequently you hear of someone who believes God’s Word is true yet also believes premarital sex is OK, or that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world yet there are many ways to God. Both can’t be true at the same time, yet the same individual can profess belief in each doctrine simultaneously.
While all of us suffer from some measure of cognitive dissonance, my friend Hank Hanegraaff is certainly correct when he asserts that this "disease" reaches massive proportions within sects, cults, and churches with infirmed doctrine. "Massive cognitive dissonance" is surely the right description in our case. For decades we believed doctrines that absolutely contradicted one another, or we adhered to teachings that simply did not match observable, demonstrable fact.
The apostle Paul helps us to understand this phenomenon. In his words, "the god of this age" had blinded our eyes so that we could not "see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ" (2 Corinthians 4:4). People who are blind cannot see. How do you explain light to someone who lives in perpetual darkness?
Now that by God’s grace the veil is being lifted, however, we do see His glory – not all of it, but a breathtaking portion of it – and we find the sight stunning beyond words. In an ultimate sense, the only sure way to dispel massive cognitive dissonance is to be so bathed in the true brilliance of the gospel that "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" shines in our hearts (see 2 Corinthians 2:6). We are finding that in that kind of light, darkness cannot continue to exist. We bank on that promise, because we’ve had too much of the night.
1. Dennis Coon, Introduction to Psychology: Exploration and Application, 3d ed. (St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing Company, 1983), 588.
2. Armstrong, "CONGRESS OF LEADING MINISTERS," 2.
3. Herbert W. Armstrong, The Good News, August 28, 1978, 1.
4. Ibid., 7.
5. Herbert W. Armstrong, "A WHOLE NEW BALL GAME," The Worldwide News, January 28, 1980, 1.
6. Ibid., 12.
7. Herbert W. Armstrong, "COMPLETION OF WORK NEAR???" The Worldwide News, June 16, 1980, 1.
8. Herbert W. Armstrong, "SATAN INTENSIFIES PERSECUTION," The Worldwide News, June 16, 1980, 1.
9. Herbert W. Armstrong, "THE PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN," The Worldwide News, June 30, 1980, 5.
10. Armstrong, "CONGRESS OF LEADING MINISTERS," 1.
I 1. Ibid., 2.
12. Coon, Introduction to Psychology, 584.
13. Roderick C. Meredith, The PIain Truth, August 1957.
14. Roderick C. Meredith, The PIain Truth, December 1963.
15. Roderick C. Meredith, The PIain Truth, February 1965.
16. Garner Ted Armstrong, Twentieth Century Watch: News Flash, February 15, 1997.
17. Herbert W. Armstrong, "SEVEN PROOFS OF THE TRUE CHURCH," The Good News, November 20, 1978, 4.