Student’s pilgrimage through cult group spotlights need for doctrinal teaching
Is it important for a Christian to study biblical doctrine or should all Christians merely love Jesus and leave theology to trained theologians?
Ask David Bell, who may be Exhibit A in the case for the doctrinal training of all Christians.
Bell is a doctoral student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, but less than a decade ago he was a pastor in the Church of God International, which branched off from the Worldwide Church of God in 1978.
Founded by Herbert Armstrong in 1934, the Worldwide Church of God rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, denied the Holy Spirit as a member of the Godhead, and held that redeemed men will eventually join the “god class.”
While the Worldwide Church of God has undergone a dramatic doctrinal shift over the past decade, the majority of the Armstrongist movement, now composed of many smaller churches, continues with essentially the same doctrines espoused by Herbert Armstrong. These churches also hold unorthodox views on the new birth, the person of Christ, and a number of other doctrines central to historic Christianity.
Bell, a native of Owensboro, Ky. was saved at age 10. During his college years at Western Kentucky University in the early-mid 1990s, he began to hunger for biblical doctrine.
At WKU, his roommate introduced him to the Church of God International, an Armstrongist group founded by the late Garner Ted Armstrong, son of Herbert W. Armstrong.
By 1995 Bell became one of the youngest ministers the Church of God International had ever ordained.
Heavily influenced by Garner Ted’s charismatic personality and teaching, Bell planted a Church of God International congregation in his hometown. He regularly traveled to denominational headquarters in Tyler, Texas for theological training and once preached alongside Garner Ted Armstrong at a large gathering of Amstrongists.
Bell said he was susceptible to Armstrongism because the church in which he was raised did not teach much doctrine.
“I had a hunger for doctrine and for the Word of God but those needs weren’t being met,” Bell said.
“Garner Ted Armstrong is an extremely doctrinal, persuasive minister. He knew the Scriptures as well as anyone I have ever encountered. He may have misunderstood them at certain key points, but he knew them well. So, when I started listening to his sermons, I was hearing doctrinal meat.”
Once he began wrestling with Armstrongist teaching, Bell met with one of his former pastors to solicit his assistance in working through the issues biblically. His questions were anything but well-received.
“Instead of sitting down with me and helping me work through some of those issues, he just got angry, slammed his Bible shut and stormed off,” Bell said. “I thought, ‘well, if he can’t answer those questions and Garner Ted can, there must be something to this (Armstrongism).”
Doctrinal wall comes tumbling down
For six years Bell remained a committed Armstrongist. But he began to question some of its major doctrines—doctrines that differed radically from those held by evangelicals.
As it turned out, this was the beginning of a slow process that would eventually lead him out of the aberrant religious body.
“Armstrongists have a ‘loose brick’ approach to theology,” Bell said. “They look at doctrine as a complete whole or as nothing at all. That’s why they refer to their system of belief as ‘The Truth.’ If any one doctrine falls then the whole system falls.”
Bell had been a member of the movement for three years when he began to question its teachings. In 1995 he founded the Owensboro church but soon began to examine central Armstrongist teachings under the microscope of Scripture and history.
For Bell, the first brick to crumble from the wall of Armstrongism was the sect’s doctrine of “Anglo-Israelism.” Influenced by a book called “Judah’s Scepter and Joseph’s Birthright” by J.H. Allen, Herbert Armstrong taught that Anglo-Saxons are direct descendants of the 10 lost tribes of Israel. Armstrongists see this teaching as the key that unlocks a true understanding of biblical prophecy.
Bell read “Judah’s Scepter” and was incredulous at his findings.
“When I got finished with it, I thought, ‘There are some interesting ideas here, but this is historical fantasy,’” he said. “...I began to research it in more depth and quickly tossed it out.”
Though spooked by this revelation, Bell nevertheless dismissed the doctrinal aberration as a peculiarity of Herbert Armstrong’s system of belief. But much of the weight of Armstrongist dogma rests on the concept of Anglo-Israelism. With this foundational doctrine gone, it was only a matter of time until other loose bricks gave way.
The next doctrine to tumble down was the Trinity. Armstrongists are strongly anti-Trinitarian and construct a “straw man”—a shallow misrepresentation of the doctrine— when addressing the historic Christian view of God in three persons.
The final Armstrongist brick that Bell dislodged was the group’s teaching on God. Armstrongists believe that man eventually accomplishes ‘god-status,’ a qualitative equality with God.
It didn’t take a seminary education for Bell to realize that was blasphemy.
“When I was first getting into the Armstrongist movement, I read a booklet that said the resurrection (of the dead at Christ’s return) would be the most momentous event in the history of the world because it would be the birth of gods,” Bell said. “When I read that, I said... ‘that’s blasphemy.”
Still, Bell decided to ignore the booklet because Garner Ted Armstrong had not written it. He remained in the movement.
“I chose that everything else I was hearing was so good, I was going to shove that aside,” he said.
Under the leadership of Joseph Tkach, who succeeded Herbert Armstrong as leader of the Worldwide Church of God upon his death in 1986, the sect experienced a massive doctrinal shift in the mid-90s toward biblical orthodoxy.
The group’s website trumpets this radical transformation as a “Damascus Road experience.” The Worldwide Church of God was admitted as a member of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1997.
As an Armstrongist devotee, Bell saw the change as a great apostasy. Other true Armstrongists agreed and the Worldwide Church of God lost more than half its members and ministers because of the shift. True Armstrongists still hold fast to the teachings of Herbert Armstrong and have churches scattered about the country, Bell said.
It wasn’t until the spring of 1998, after a series of sexual misconduct allegations were lodged against Garner Ted Armstrong, that Bell’s foray into Armstrongism came to an end.
Full circle: Historic Christianity rings true with Bell
The allegations turned the Church of God International on its head and struck Bell with sledgehammer force. Due in large part to the accusations, Bell eventually resigned the pastorate and began the journey back to Christian orthodoxy.
Bell began at Southern in the fall of 1998. It was a revolutionary experience and within one year, his view of theology underwent a profound metamorphosis.
That first year, Bell studied Baptist and church history, theology, and hermeneutics. Soon, Bell had fully embraced historic evangelical Christianity.
“By the end of my first full year at Southern Seminary, I had my theological world rocked,” he said. “I emerged from that a convinced evangelical.”
Bell’s pilgrimage through Armstrongism has infused him with a desire to equip believers with such a thorough knowledge of biblical Christianity that even a subtle counterfeit is immediately evident to them. When his doctoral work at Southern is complete, Bell hopes to pastor a church and teach at a seminary.
Bell put his love for doctrine to work last year when he was one of two students who assisted the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth in developing a new Gospel tract called “Experiencing God’s Grace,” which includes a full-orbed Gospel presentation.
“The main thing my experience taught me is we can’t be superficial in our evangelism, our teaching, or in our preaching,” Bell said.