Was the WCG a “Cult?”

A young person recently wrote to me with a seemly simple question: “Is the Worldwide Church of God a cult?” I’ve decided to repost my response here.

I wish I could give you a simple “yes” or “no,” but the question is a bit more complex than that.

I don’t object when contributors to the blog call the WCG a cult— I understand the hurt and anger so many feel, and the term is definitely useful as a “snarl word” used to express that pain. But the word “cult” is one I personally try to avoid because it has no single clear meaning. Some people who study “high demand religions” prefer that term instead of “cult,” because it better describes what members go through. I have seen “cult” defined by one “anti-cult group” as, “A closed system whose followers have been unethically and deceptively recruited through the use of manipulative techniques of thought reform or mind control.” But in my opinion, this definition could also be applied to most “mainstream” religions as well. A better definition I’ve seen is simply, “Cults are religions that espouse an alien belief system that deviates strongly from the traditional faiths with which most people have grown up.”

Another thing to keep in mind is that the WCG lay on a spectrum of demand, between extremely low-demand religions and extremely high-demand religions. In my experience, the WCG as it was when I grew up in it was in the moderately high-demand range, but there have certainly been other organizations that were much more demanding, and destructive. Organizations can also change their demand level over time, on one end becoming “death cults” that demand the sacrifice of its members and/or the death of its enemies, and at the other end becoming moderate religions that tolerate open society and that are tolerated in turn. Fortunately, this latter direction is the one in which the WCG (now GCI) has moved.

A final thing to consider is that different people have had very different experiences within the WCG over the years. The organization’s doctrines and practices established a certain level of demand, but some individuals had it far worse at the hands of elders, ministers, and congregational cultures that were far more oppressive or abusive in some times and places than others. Again, I think this is nothing unique to the WCG— many religions contain abusive elements that are not readily apparent and that do not affect all members equally.

I hope this discussion helps. You can find more information on the benefits and problems of the Anti-Cult Movement (ACM) on the web site of the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.

23 thoughts on “Was the WCG a “Cult?””

  1. This analysis is very good in my opinion. WCG’s demand status did change over the years and went through ups and downs, like the makeup nonsense. I personally regard it now as cultic in many respects but I too regard all religions in much the same light.

  2. I personally feel like it was a cult. Maybe not to the extreme of June Jones but it could have headed that way pretty quickly. We were brainwashed to not even question leadership or we would be cast into the lake of fire. We were always “ready” to flee to the “place of safety” on the word of “mr” Armstrong. What I’m wondering is did Armstrong believe his own rhetoric like June Jones did?

  3. I don’t know if you remember when Jim Jones had all his members killed .. I remember at church at the time .. they told us .. the whole Jim Jones thing was the devil trying to cast a light on US the world wide church of god .. so people would condemn us .. lie for going to big Sandy and the feast .. i cant remember 100% what all they said back then .. now I think wow .. we really did thing everything in the world was about US .. gods elect .. what a mind screwing what ever the word you used to describe and yes I am at the point were all religions I feel are at some level controlling cultist groups ..

  4. To me a cult has a single leader and espouses a doctrine that advises members to isolate themselves from people who are not members of the same cult. In this way, WWCOG was a cult. The most harmful doctrine that they had in my experience was the isolation. I fight self-isolation now because it is how I was raised and how I lived the first 15 years of my life. I did not learn the social skills necessary to invite others into my life — instead I was taught how to keep others out of my life.

  5. Know how you feel CannedAm .. I am great with people on short burst .. but long term I am still learning .. and getting better at it all the time .. and not to judge their way of thinking is so freeing for me :) !

  6. I like your answer on whether WCG was a cult. I grew up in it and went to Ambassador, then went my own way. Yes it was very different, and yes it made a lot more demands on your life. But so many of us tried so hard to do the right thing, only to have a weird label like “cult member” hung around our necks for our trouble. A lot of sincere people jumped through hoops to do what they believed was right. But as the disclaimers say, experiences may vary.

    Growing up in it, I was not abused and I believed it all. But I always avoided telling my classmates anything about it, and kept it hidden, because I didn’t want anyone to think I was strange. My dad was a WCG minister, and I was very proud of him, but one of my classmates in high school once joked that, “We don’t know what his dad does. We think he drives a garbage truck, because he won’t tell us!” I ignored him, but I didn’t want to go through the rest of my life that way, unless it actually was “God’s True Church.” To go through life then harboring beliefs that most people would think were just stupid if you were foolish enough to tell them, was more than I ever wanted to do. But if it was really true that the whole book of Revelation were about to unfold, then in that case, I wanted to be on the right side of things.

    So I went to Ambassador to see if the WCG was what it claimed or not. My own human reasoning (a sure indication of trouble ahead) was that you could not be sure that you had the truth, unless at some point you were willing to accept that it was not, and deal with things however they really were. Otherwise nothing was actually proved, except that it was possible to believe anything by simply refusing to really even consider anything else.

    I believed, but I wanted proof. And I thought that Ambassador would be the safest place on earth to really question things the way I felt I needed to, meaning regardless of the outcome. But questions were also the tool of the devil, “who walks about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” so it seemed good to ask those questions in a place where God’s angels were busy running his errands and YA’s were popping out of bushes to sing showtunes to unsuspecting people.

    In my sophomore year at Ambassador, one of my friends working beside me washing dishes suggested to me that I should go see Mr. Albrecht to ask him how I was doing at Ambassador. (How would he know that, I wondered to myself. And what did that matter, since I already had a more firsthand view anyway?) Really, I didn’t get it, so I asked my friend why I would want to do that. And he said, because it helps to know what they are thinking, so that you can be on the right track for opportunities like foreign projects, RA, club president, etc. in your Jr/Sr year. I wasn’t really interested in any of those things in particular, but it sounded better than washing dishes all four years.

    So I went to see Mr. Albrecht, and he asked me what I had come to see him about. I told him that my friend had said it was a good idea to ask how your were doing. Mr. Albrecht asked me why I came to Ambassador. And I said, “because I wanted to know if this is God’s true church, like we say here, or whether this is a cult, like some other people say.” Oddly, he responded to that by asking me what I got on my SAT. 1360, I told him. We talked for a while longer, and he was reasonable enough.

    I was never a troublemaker, but more of an observer and much more quiet then (a bad sign to some people). When we weren’t busy between work and school and clubs, I liked to just disappear for a few hours and go biking around LA on a Sunday afternoon to clear my mind. So basically I was never in any kind of trouble. Later in the year, my dad visited Pasadena, and Mr. Albrecht told him that I had a lot of questions, using his well-practiced ominous tone, I’m guessing. But my dad didn’t see the problem. Some people did though, and told others. I was going to Orr that summer, and Dr. Nelson stopped my dad backstage of the Auditorium and asked my dad if he wanted him to keep an eye on me. My dad’s answer was “No … (??) Should I tell him to keep an eye on you?” That must have been a shock. But my dad had been a regional director overseas, so maybe he was a little higher ranked that Dr. Nelson the camp director. In any case he didn’t feel like he needed to worry about what Dr. Nelson thought, especially if it seemed a little silly to him. But obviously my friends’ well-intentioned advice for me to get ahead by asking Mr. Albrecht how I was doing, had completely backfired, due to my crude implementation.

    Still, I felt that the ministers, members, AC students and faculty were all very sincere in their beliefs. But so were a lot of other people in the world, so I knew objectively that did not make it all true. Mr. Armstrong had said that Ambassador was unlike other colleges were students simply had a funnel poured into them which they just accepted without really examining things. I took him at his word, and went there to discover that proof for myself. Somewhere in his Autobiography, Mr. Armstrong also said, or quoted someone saying that it is next to impossible to fool an honest man. I’m not sure if that is true, but it is a nice sentiment anyway.

    I was never baptized, not because I hated them and thought they were all a bunch of liars, but because it just never felt completely right to me, much as I would have liked to have had a more simple belief at the time (like all of God’s true servants, who simply lived by faith) and go along with everyone I knew at Ambassador. But in the end it was the circular reasoning that made me run, things like – “We know God because we have faith. We have faith because we know God.” Not very helpful. No better than “We know we are Buddhist, because we are Buddhist.” Sounds great… let me give you my money now.

    The funny thing was that growing up in the church, “going along with everyone else” was just what I had been programmed not to do! And growing up with my own beliefs that were different from everyone around me, I had learned very well how to keep my beliefs, and later at AC my disbeliefs to myself.

    After my Ambassador experience, I got a degree in engineering and married someone who had never heard of the Worldwide Church of God, but who amazingly enough, is wonderful person anyway. My dad told me once, “You know, it is not often you meet someone like her who is just a real gem!” He was right. But I can’t really explain to her all that the WCG was to me. She’s not real clear on why we used to chuck out all the bread every year, or why we had a problem with Christmas. But she isn’t worried about it. She buys me lots of sweaters and socks at Christmas, and she loves me.

    It’s good to have mostly moved on. But once or twice a year maybe, for whatever reason, maybe as a remembrance like those Children of Israel were so often commanded to do throughout their generations, I am drawn to think back a little, and to see what others have to say about their experiences in the group, and so many things come rushing back. The FOT, DUB and the purple book with those haunting words about a pelican alone. You can’t make this stuff up!

    But life goes on, and sometimes it gets a whole lot better. I am glad when I see my classmates who have moved on and made good lives for themselves as well. And my heart goes out to those who still carry a burden from some horrific past wrongs, who went through so much worse than me just hating to get teased as a kid in school, and deciding that I needed to really check things out to be really sure, one way or another.

  7. Nice read Roy .. we all who have moved on from the WWCG .. are like cousins .. we all grew up in the same family .. I feel a connection to all the people who write here .. yes some had it worse then others .. and you said yours beautifully .. Thanks for sharing .. I am very close to a young lady who got dis-fellowship from the JW church and I know her feelings before she has them .. because I have deprogrammed already .. and when you get all those chains off your brain and can consider every thought free and not the devils work .. it really is a beautiful sunshiny thing ..

  8. Thanks Lesa. We do all have a connection… like all going through boot camp and maybe cleaning toilets with toothbrushes. Some of the things you just have to laugh at, and others you wonder why we ever did those things. We have some things in common, and some of them are kinda funny…

    Some of my relatives are JW, and some were in it and disfellowshiped and then shunned by their own family. Life is too short for unnecessary problems.

    When the JW’s came to the door, one of my friends likes to ask if they are part of the 144,000. So far they have always said no, and he tells them, “Well I only want to talk to someone who is part of the 144,000, because I don’t want to get any wrong information.” Cracks me up! Though I’m sure they think he’s just a beautiful trial they endured for the kingdoms sake, and maybe they’ll get to play an extra round of golf with Jesus in the kingdom for it. (I may be a little fuzzy on some of the particulars of that religion. The rewards may not be as practical as that.)

    It’s good to be free from all that nonsense. And I don’t think it’s anything to be ashamed of, or worried about. There was an old GTA song from the 70’s that went, “The battle scars of life, I bear proudly because I know I’ve won… I remember 21.”

  9. Thanks, Roy & Lesa, for your extended comments here. As Lesa says, a “nice read.” And Roy, if you don’t already have your own posted story here, I am surprised. You certainly have a good one to tell. Lesa has a great line also on the relief she felt in not having to “judge” people; that it is a “freeing” experience. I know the feeling!

    But at as enjoyable as these comments are, they appear to drift away from Robert’s post as to whether we should be slamming the old church as a “cult” in so many posts and comments.

    One reason I have so enjoyed my recent month or more of finding these writings here, is the fact that most everyone on this site seems to have left all of the morass of religious restrictions behind and moved on into a free form of living. Free to find one’s own path; free to not judge others. This I admire and try constantly to not only revel in that freedom I have found but also to express it clearly to others.

    The very question of whether WCG was a cult seems a bit odd to me. And the many views on the matter seem to show me that we are micro-defining and/or re-defining the very word. The simple dictionary meaning of “cult” is a “system of beliefs.” In the dictionaries I have checked, I fail to see even slants on the definition that indicate any specific denunciation of extremism, “high demand” references or other qualifying words. Cult IS belief, in my own simple understanding.

    Those who read my post in the Painful Truth blog of last February, may have bridled at my strong stance on this simple meaning. My conclusion in that post was that ALL religions are cults – pure and simple. Later in the year, after finding the new website for us former AC Big Sandy students, I noted that apparently a good many of those who left the original church (sect) wandered into one or more of the many splinter groups and continued with some kind of “cult,” (belief). Many have now gone so far as to join traditional or mainstream churches, both large and small, and somehow feel comfortable now that they are “out of a cult.” I’m sure a few of these nice former friends and acquaintances of mine have now read my words and very likely have difficulty accepting my view on the cult matter.

    Using Lesa’s commendable approach of not judging what others believe, I am fine with whatever description anyone places on either the old WCG or the current place of hanging his religious hat. The fact is, our language is alive and ever adapting. Folks who use the word “cult” to mean something evil, exclusive, destructive – and who probably spit out the term with vitriol when in conversation – have a definite slant on the original meaning of the word. So the word itself gets altered in its finite meaning.

    As a half-assed etymologist, I can call attention to the contortions exacted on the word, but as one who appreciates the flexibility of the language, I can merely observe and toss out comments.

    What amazes me, however, is that anyone can leave the cult of Armstrongism after years of devotion and then accept some other form of demanding, ritualistic (or merely easy-going, “feel-good”) church with its own tenets (its cult) and various requirements of worship. And If one can manage this shift, I suppose he would not want to ever consider that the newly adopted church home could be another cult.

    So, for the sake of simple semantics, I would argue that Christianity is a cult; Judaism is a cult; Islam is a cult, etc., etc. These all are belief systems, and the many varied strains within of each of them represent the same cult (belief). If it’s EXTREMISM we are trying to attack, more power to us! Let’s call out extremism and curse it wherever we find it. Unfortunately, not enough people did that back in antiquity, so today we have many huge groups called “mainstream,” therefore not dangerously extreme any longer.

    Big picture question: Which church has hurt more people in history? WCG or Catholic? My time of blindness and religious ardor was spent on the WCG, so I can hate it more vehemently if I choose to hate. But I live among recovering Catholics, and some of them aren’t making any headway at recovery at all. Damaged from birth, as surly as were those born into Armstrongism.

    What I DO CHOOSE TO HATE is the evil that mankind has suffered at the hand of religion of any kind, all of which comes at us in the cloak of “love.”

  10. Oh Markman .. love love love this read .. I agree with you 100% .. I would even go so far as to say science and all its science theories is also that way .. I know some one and all they can believe is what science theories say .. Not what is true in front of our face .. plants ..animals. love.. family .. I am so much about FACTS .. I think I was born that way and Armstrong was good at making everything look like a fact and the truth .. in fact as I slowly over years let the old ways of WCG go .. my mom would of course come after me letting me know what the BIBLE SAYS .. “as I have said before” .. one of the best things that ever happened to my mind was when it gave up the bible and decided it was just a book of some intelligent and some crazy people written through time ..to control us .. keep us in line .. the way they think we should be and live .. so when I had the power to tell my mother who is still in one of these churches .. I don’t believe in the bible as the word of any God .. I think she almost hated me after that .. isnt that sad a mother would almost hate her daughter for not believing in a book written so many thousands of years ago .. shows you the power of that book .. Have you ever read the lyrics by a band named XCT song called Dear God .. really good .. any way .. I agree with you what you said about the word CULT .. you are right in what it means .. I guess we have seen so many crazy churches over time called CULT we just grabbed on to the meaning .. I do think in that form WCG was a cult and in that form I think ALL religions who tell you how to feel .. and if you don’t .. you will not receive the gift of eternal life or what ever crap they are selling .. I am so free .. I have no fear .. its so beautiful it gives me chills !! ..

  11. Still don’t eat pork .. I don’t eat a lot of animals that were told to me as CLEAN 😉 .. I just don’t care for it .. I have never eaten deer or duck.. just think they are to cute or smart to eat .. buts that’s my opinion and I like having my own and letting others have theirs !

  12. Lesa,

    You said, “I would even go so far as to say science and all its science theories is also that way.” I think that science can be thrust upon people in a dogmatic way, or more likely people take science to be a kind of dogma. In these cases, however, I really think “science” is not the right term to use— “scientism” comes closer: an irrational belief that science is an unmitigated good and will solve all our problems. Science is first and foremost a search for a better understanding of how the world works, and only as a (welcome) byproduct does it actually enable us to make our lives better. But in some cases it also opens terrible Pandora’s boxes that we may not be ready as a species to handle. Regardless, I think that when viewed correctly, science is not a religion, although it is a way of viewing the world.

    “Science adjusts it views based on what’s observed,
    Faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved.”
    — Tim Minchin, Storm

    If anyone reading this has not seen Tim Minchin’s Storm: The Animated Movie, you should click that link and watch it right now.

  13. Well .. I guess in more detail what I mean is .. say you have a new big deal in the “science world” or can even be something older like Time travel .. String theory .. I love learning why and what people have to say on all these things .. because my mind is free to say ..Humm neat .. but what I never forget is its PEOPLE telling us this .. Instead of someone telling you “the bible says” they say .. Well Einstein said” or “Isaac Newton said” You know what I mean .. they still cant think and ponder about things for their OWN SELF if a great mind in science even 500 years ago says it is so or not so … they are stuck thinking what they were thought
    I mean .. I love science stuff don’t get me wrong .. I am a scy-fy girl and I love to have BIG thoughts I was never allowed to have as a child and young adult .. I love to learn about everything .. because I pushed it all always most of my life .. I guess what I am saying is I will never get hung up on ONE WAY of thinking .. even if some larger brain says I am wrong ..:) I am keeping my mind open for IN and OUT flow of knowledge

  14. Lesa,

    I agree with most of what you’re saying, but scientists don’t go around saying “Isaac Newton sayeth…” or “Albert Einstein sayeth…”. They may be the first to have described certain models of how the universe works, but they have been followed by thousands upon thousands of actual people who have verified that their models are incredibly accurate. They have also discovered limits to the accuracy of those models and proposed other models that explain those limits. Even in the case of Einstein, relativity didn’t invalidate Newton’s Laws of Motion— it just showed where their limits are.

    The cool thing is that, at least in principle, anyone can also verify their findings and in fact many of our modern conveniences like GPS devices in our cars could not work correctly unless they took into account Einstein’s findings on relativity. This is true of all science— you can check it for yourself as deeply as you wish.

    You can certainly choose what to believe. But science is about choosing provisional beliefs based on evidence, and always being willing to revise those beliefs when the evidence points in another direction.

    So, I really can’t equate science with “The Bible says…” mentality at all.

  15. “…keeping my mind open for IN and OUT flow of knowledge”

    Love that attitude, Lesa. Life can be good with this approach.

    Your points are well taken, and I appreciate Robert’s inserts & insights. Always well written and clear. Robert also hits the “science nail” right on the head by saying that science goes where the evidence leads. I don’t get into the “belief” in science quite as some do, but I do believe science is doing a super job of helping mankind; religion helped perhaps minimally to bring savages to some start of civilization, but since then, it has dragged mankind down and limited his mental capacity. Science is about limitless study of the evidence, keeping limitless the places it may take us.

    “So, I really can’t equate science with “The Bible says…” mentality at all.” — This I really appreciate, Robert. And I think we probably can all agree, SCIENCE is NOT a CULT!! (yes, there are some extremists here too…)

    Great exchange, folks. Thanks!

  16. Gotta thank you now, Robert. I just watch “Storm” and will return to it more than once, I am sure. Outstanding performance of an amazingly witty poem.

  17. Howdy Robert
    I was talking about people I know who can not think out side of science ..nothing supernatural .. only science and they do tell me science sayeth .. I know a lot of it is fact and proven .. But as time passes so do people understanding of everything science .. it changes .. I have seen that in my life time .. so I say question everything .. and I do .. I am cool with them believing what ever they want .. I just feel like they are in a trap like I used to be .. and I hate to see any one in a mind-trap and cant think for their.. own self .. I love freeing people and have helped others free their mind from bondage like I was born into ..

  18. Hey Markman .. yea I probably wasn’t real clear where I was coming from .. I try not to get into great detail .. just give the feeling of what I am trying to pass along .. I have some one close to me in my life who only believe what he reads in science books and magazines.. never has a stand alone thought and that drives me crazy ..so thats kind of like HIS bible.. I am not saying science is not good .. its a vast subject .. science can be different stuff to different people .. could be new meds to someone and different parallel dimensions to others :) .. it can be simple or way way out there Good and bad .. proven and ever changing .. I just keep a very open mind to all of it

  19. Seems you have a good head on those shoulders, Lesa – and you try to use the shoulders also to lift others. Commendable, young lady!

    Well, we have survived another round of holidays and now can get back to the work-a-day world. That means also that I can check in here to this terrific site now and again, so I trust I will be seeing your comments here and there. I wonder whether you have read my own posted story as yet. And I am at least a little surprised – and maybe sad – that no young folks from any of my former pastorates have commented on my post. Surely a few of these people I might remember are now aware of this site Robert is running. One fellow named Jeff did comment at last after reading my post; he was not from one of my own congregations but remembered me as a bearded guy who played basketball in the Chicago church league back in 1975. That was a nice thing for me to receive – just a thoughtful “Yes, I remember you” kind of comment.

    Anyway, Lesa and others, I hope we are all off to a great start on a terrific new year. And I will NOT begin to tense up late this year over the Mayan calendar!

    Good Cheer to all, and thanks again to Robert.

  20. I am reading a book called “Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion.” It’s interesting to see how one goes about inventing a religion. It strikes me that we have certain expectations of the founder of a religion. At some point I think they have to become, or at least enlarge upon, becoming complete assess. L Ron Hubbard (Elbert Hubbard’s nephew) realized that the more he charged for his religious programs, the more people would be attracted to it. I think the process of inventing a religion eventually trains the founder to be more mercurial, more demanding, more of a pita (pain in the ass) over time, because that is what followers expect. It makes it more feel more “real” for the flock. If the leader tries to be more accomodating or uses more normal common sense, then it just looks like weakness, like maybe he is just making it up and hope that you will support him and his lifestyle if only he makes it easy enough for you. Who would fall for that? But if he makes your life hard, then obviously it must be worth it.. it must be real. It’s like Goerring said, people will believe a “big lie” much easier than a small lie. I believe that this is demonstrated to the successful religious founder, time and again as his success is built up, by his actions and corresponding reactions of his followers. He becomes a caricature of his younger less demanding self. I think Ralph Nader and Britney Spears are also very similar to one another in this respect. Having achieved some fame and success, and craving more of the same, they amped up their original material and personnas to the point of becoming a caricature of their former self. Or in other words, one giant plastic boob. It’s just a very natural thing to do. It makes me think there is a a kind of gentle wisdom in the verse that says, “let not there be many masters among you.” It makes me appreciate being blessed with a more normal life. But I do think it takes a special kind of ass, a person who has a 99th percentile belief in his own innate specialness to have the audacity that we expect to see in one whom we would willingly follow as the founder of a religion.

  21. Hey peeps
    I tried to post elsewhere and it wont let me log in .. I know I am probably doing something wrong
    I have a question .. another X member and I have a disagreement
    I remember not being allowed to say the pledge of allegiances to the flag at school or any where else
    And she remember being able to do so .. so what is it ? she says the church never said we could not
    Help me out here ..
    Oh and she doesn’t believe we were raised in a cult .. so she may have more sunshiny memories then I
    Although I know she had hard times .. I remember them if she does not .. we grew up very close
    Of course I also remember when we were teens ,, me being hungry at atonement as she ate her shrimp salad in front of me ! lol
    Those of us who believed truly .. may have been more effected .. then those who didn’t really care ,,,
    Oh and in the 90s her family went right to the X-mass tree as the church spilt and changed .. as I hung on to the “old ways”

    Thanks !!
    Crazy Lesa

  22. It was ok to say the pledge of allegiance as far as I knew. I thought that was similar to Thanksgiving or 4th of July which we all liked to celebrate. But maybe the minister in your area had his own private interpretation. That wouldn’t surprise me.

  23. Thanks Roy .. Probably right .. I went to the south church and she went to west .. That could be what happened … I knew the no voting and no military .. The no government stuff .. Gods government not mans govenment and all that.. I know I was not allowed to do the pledge at school .. 
    It’s kind of great that I couldn’t remember 100 % .. Been trying to purge all that stuff from my brain 

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