Originally published on GodlessMom.com
I was born into a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and it never occurred to me to be anything else. As a child, I never considered “other religions,” and never fully realized that people held different views about God, Jesus, right and wrong. By the time I first heard the claim that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were a cult, I was no longer an active “member.”
I already need to clarify. In the Jehovah’s Witnesses, you’re not really considered to be a member until you are baptized. For those born into it, this typically happens at a young age. The age is not fixed, but 12 or 13 is common. The child needs to be old enough to make a conscious and responsible decision to accept the faith.
I was never baptized. When I was 12 years old, my parents separated and later divorced. Divorce is forbidden in the Watchtower Society, so there was too much cognitive dissonance for my parents to continue taking me to the Jehovah’s Witness churches (known as Kingdom Halls).
Thus, I left the Jehovah’s Witnesses without ever having made a conscious, responsible decision to either join or leave. I survived my experience as a Jehovah’s Witness without ever being truly captive to the organization, by its own standards.
This is not to say I was not a Jehovah’s Witness. I was, in a very real but childlike sense. I believed it was the truth. I shared my faith with my friends (in a matter-of-fact, often arrogant and condescending way). When my friends asked why I never said the Pledge of Allegiance in class, my answer was that I was a Christian. When they said they were Christians, too, my response was that they were false Christians, while I was a true Christian. It never occurred to me, in my innocence, that I was deeply insulting them. It was just the way things were.
I didn’t celebrate my birthday and I didn’t miss it. I received Christmas gifts from family members who defied my parents, but we never gave any. I never recited the Pledge of Allegiance (once I knew it was “wrong”). I was one of them. Sort of. I never knocked on doors because that was an activity for the baptized, and I never made it that far.
I never went back.
When I was in my mid-teens, I became influenced by an evangelical Christian friend of mine. He taught me that the Watchtower Society was a cult. His best evidence was that Jehovah’s Witnesses did not believe in the Trinity. I didn’t know what the Trinity was, and I never asked. I just nodded my head. I came to understand that according to the Bible, which I accepted without reservation, one had to accept Jesus as Lord to be saved. I did, never truly appreciating the conflict between evangelical Christianity and the Watchtower Society.
It wasn’t until I was 17 that I had the slightest idea what was going on with my faith. Another friend of mine, who would later become my roommate, shared the Bible with me as no one ever had. The book, whose stories I knew well, finally started to cohere into a single message – Jesus was the savior from sin, and the Bible, from beginning to end, was the unfolding of God’s salvation plan.
My friend and I talked briefly about another group, the Worldwide Church of God, and I parroted what I had been taught about them. They were interesting, I said, but they did not believe in the Trinity. Mind you, at the time, I had no idea what the Trinity even was, and when my friend described it, I thought he was off his rocker. Jesus is God? No, he’s not. The Bible (what I knew of it from the Watchtower Society) clearly teaches that Jesus was God’s first created angel, not God himself! That would be preposterous (the incoherence of my statement was lost on me).
But my friend didn’t agree with either view! He showed me, from the Bible, that Jesus was neither God nor an angel. He was a man whose existence began when he was conceived in Mary. He learned wisdom. He grew up. He was a man. A perfect man.
This began, for me, a prolonged search for the truth about Jesus’ identity. Already biased against the Trinity, I studied the Bible and looked for the evidence. Some things confused me. The gospel of John was obviously problematic. The other gospels were much easier to discern. But John really seemed to support the idea that Jesus was, if not God, a pre-existent angel.
Then I read Hebrews, and something clicked. This book said Jesus was not an angel. It was emphatic about it. Other scriptures, such as the one in where Paul says there is one God, the Father, and one Lord Jesus Christ, made it clear that he was not God.
Well, if Jesus is not God and not an angel, that left my friend’s view as the only one that made sense.
I was 19 when I finally joined my friend’s “church,” a little-known but disproportionately confident outfit called The Way International. I knew going in it was not perfect. Members referred to the group’s founder, Victor Paul Wierwille, as “our father in the Word.” I never did. Jesus said to call no one on earth your father, and I dared not violate his instruction. But I understood the reverence for this man.
Wierwille taught a class called “Power For Abundant Living (PFAL),” and this class formed the foundation for followers of The Way. There was never any official membership in this group, but you weren’t really “in” until you had taken PFAL, a 36-hour course spread out in 12 sessions over a three-week period. I took the class in October 1988.
This was a conscious decision. I knew what I was getting into, and I was excited about it. I had heard it was a cult, but I rejected that label. “What kind of cult has no members?” I thought. To its own detriment, The Way made a big show of telling its followers not to trust what any teacher said, including their own, but to rely on the Bible.
In practice, the opposite was true. Reading the Bible on your own was great, so long as you came to the same conclusion as Wierwille. If you came to a different conclusion, you were wrong and needed to do more research. Research, to them, meant “re-searching” what Wierwille and his followers had already searched out.
In a lot of ways, The Way was the polar opposite of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Both taught that the Bible was free from error or contradiction. Both taught that Jesus is not God and that there is no immediate life after death. Both taught that the holy spirit is a thing, God’s active force, not a third person of the Trinity.
But there, the similarities end.
While Jehovah’s Witnesses taught a strict adherence to God’s law (setting aside kosher and other ceremonial laws that no longer needed to be followed because of Christ’s completed work) and a salvation maintained by works, a salvation that could be lost, The Way taught that once you were born again, you were saved, period. That salvation could not be undone. And while Jehovah’s Witnesses taught that the “gifts of the spirit” went out with the age of the apostles, followers of The Way were encouraged to speak in tongues, interpret, prophesy and otherwise practice all nine “gifts.” More on that in a moment.
The bottom line is that followers of The Way were not afraid to sin. They were a lot more relaxed, and never, ever worried about losing God’s favor (in eternal terms). “It was a cult,” another former Way believer would say later, “but it was a fun cult.”
My experience with The Way lasted, officially, just a little over a year. In the spring of 1989, the group underwent a massive schism (the second of several, I would later learn). Wierwille had died in 1985. His chosen successor, a man named L. Craig Martindale, was challenged in 1987 by one of Wierwille’s personal aides, a man named Christopher C. Geer. To make a long story short, in 1989 The Way fragmented into two pieces – those loyal to Martindale, and those loyal to Geer. Each side declared itself to be truly loyal to Christ.
In New York, the vast majority of Way believers followed Geer, who ran The Way’s operations in Scotland. The New York believers developed their own name (The Way Bible Fellowship) and continued to run classes, first by using pirated copies of PFAL and later by adapting and teaching the substance of the class without resorting to the use of copyrighted material. It was still blatant plagiarism, but it was less detectable.
I remained with this offshoot until 1997, when my own marriage ended in divorce. This was unrelated to the ministry, but it had a profound effect on me. I still believed divorce was wrong for believers, but I was unhappy in my marriage and could not continue living as a hypocrite.
I tried to stay involved with The Way Bible Fellowship (which changed its name and structure again in a way that’s not quite relevant to this account), but the ties to my failed marriage were too close. Instead, I became involved with an earlier offshoot called Christian Educational Services (CES). This group was the result of a schism with the Way that took place a short while before I first took PFAL.
The man most identified with this group, John Lynn, was himself divorced. He was able to bring me spiritual comfort where my offshoot did not.
But CES had its own problems. This group taught that God was not omniscient, that there were limitations to His knowledge. I could not accept that. (Geer actually taught the same thing in the mid-1990s, before my divorce, and I rejected it then, too).
CES also taught something called “personal prophecy.” It requires a bit of explanation. The Way International taught that all believers are empowered by God to operate nine manifestations of holy spirit (mainstream churches refer to these as the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but in The Way, they were nine manifestations of one gift, and the Holy Spirit was not a person but a thing implanted by God in each believer).
The way it works is, every believer is taught how to speak in tongues. Every believer is also responsible for interpreting the message he brings forth in tongues during a believer’s meeting. This is not how most evangelical churches operate. In most churches that practice this sort of thing, one believer speaks in tongues and another one interprets. In the Way, the same person who speaks in tongues also interprets.
I would later realize that speaking in tongues is nothing more than free vocalization, a decidedly non-spiritual practice in which the speaker utters essentially random syllables with the belief that he is bringing forth a foreign, obscure, dead or angelic language. Anyone can do it. They teach it as an exercise in acting classes all the time. But we believed we were doing something Biblical, something miraculous, something amazing.
Deep down, I think we all knew we were faking it, though for obvious reasons no one who still believes it will ever admit that.
Interpretation was supposed to be a divinely inspired message that translates what was spoken in a tongue thought-for-thought (not necessarily word for word). An interpretation would be a message from God to the body of believers present. The message would be encouraging, would tell believers to do good things, and would provide comfort.
A word of prophecy, in The Way, would be identical to interpretation of tongues, only without the speaking in tongues.
The message was typically general. It was never specific to any one person in the group.
In CES, that changed. They were prophesying in meetings, but sometimes the prophecy would be very specific to an individual.
Again, what was really happening (no matter which version of this was practiced) has a very natural explanation – it’s called extemporaneous speech. As a speaker, you know the type of message you want to deliver. So when you’re called upon to deliver the message, you start speaking without necessarily pre-thinking what you’re going to say. You know you’ll be speaking words of “edification, exhortation and comfort,” so naturally, those are the messages you produced.
The messages were always similar. God loves you. He’s chosen you to be His very own. He will never leave you or forsake you.
Within individual fellowship groups, the messages varied little. Among groups, there was a bit more variety. But somehow, God never revealed to any of us that we were in a ridiculous, petty cult founded by a self-important blowhard more interested in enriching himself than in bringing us closer to God. That would have been a handy bit of information, let me tell you.
I continued to believe as my experience with The Way and its offshoots influenced me. Jesus Christ is not God. Death is the temporary cessation of existence, and a future day of awakening is coming. I was never sure what to make of hell, but my understanding of the Bible led me to believe that it was, when all is said and done, the cessation of existence, not everlasting punishment.
In 2001, I decided (without really telling anyone) that I felt most at home as a traditional, evangelical Christian with a lot of questions. I can’t say I ever really, truly adopted a Trinitarian position. But I appreciated the extent to which Trinitarians made Jesus their Lord, and I adopted that trait. Whether he was God or not, it was within my understanding of the Bible to treat him as God because he was my contact point with God. I did a lot of rationalizing. I “prayed” to the Father, but I only “talked” to Jesus. In practical terms, it was the same thing.
My understanding of the Bible evolved as well. In contrast to the teaching of both cults, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Way, I came to understand that the Bible was not literally true. That is, Genesis 1-3 never happened. There was no worldwide flood. Maybe the story of Noah was based on a regional event. I didn’t know. I also came to understand that the book of Job was a story, not a history. The notion that God would allow the events of that book to unfold the way they did seemed incomprehensible to me if God had even finite love for his people, never mind infinite love.
As my belief in the inerrancy of the Bible eroded, I managed to cling to my faith for one simple reason – the followers of Jesus, people who were in a position to know for a fact whether he truly got up from the dead or the story was just made up, went to their deaths rather than recant that story. That told me the resurrection was true, no matter what one might say about other Bible stories. If the resurrection of Jesus Christ is true, then he could still be my Lord. He lives!
At the same time, I noticed the arguments of former believers who had become atheist. I struggled to counter them, and ultimately left those atheists and agnostics to their own devices, respectfully.
There was nothing in my break from this second cult that was smooth. It was a very long process, and while I count the end of my experience as 2001, I could just as easily pick any year after that. After 2001, I do not recall attending any Way or offshoot fellowship meeting. I went to regular evangelical churches. I got baptized. I was a believer.
In August of 2012, I challenged myself on an important question. What is the evidence that any first-century apostle was killed directly as a result of refusing to renounce a belief in the resurrection?
There is no such evidence. None. Not a scrap. There’s evidence early apostles died, but no evidence that they did so because of such an ultimatum. It simply never happened.
When I realized that, my faith became untenable. I realized that I no longer believed any of it.
I was an atheist.
There’s obviously a lot more to this story, a lot of challenges and theological musings and debates. There was the premature death of a close friend, despite all our prayers for her. There were other medical diagnoses that somehow seemed beyond God’s power or interest to heal. But ultimately, my rejection of the God hypothesis came down to an inability to square its claims with the evidence for them. There was no evidence. Ever. I don’t hate God. I don’t hate anyone who taught me about Him. I simply do not believe the God of the Bible exists. The evidence is not there.
And an atheist, I remain.