Can A Mind Control Cult Reform Itself?

Posted: August 5, 2013 in Fred Anson, Mind Control, Mormon Studies, Shepherding Movement, The Worldwide Church of God

The eyes of Herbert W. Armstrong

by Fred W. Anson
Q: Can a Mind Control Cult reform itself?
It seems that just below the surface of every discussion of Mind Control Cults this question burns, simmers, and smokes like the proverbial ember seeking to spark into flame.

But can they?
Will they?

Thankfully, the answer (at least occasionally) is yes. Here are two case studies for your consideration.

The Shepherding Movement (the mind control cult that I was in) is one such group. Ron Enroth described how this happened in his classic book, “Churches that Abuse”:
“It is possible for authoritarian churches to change direction? There several fairly recent examples of leaders who have announced changes and confessed to error. One of the leaders of the discipleship/shepherding movement officially known as Christian Growth Ministries, Bob Mumford, made a dramatic about-face after issuing a public statement of repentance in November of 1989. Mumford, one of the “Ft. Lauderdale Five” (so named because of the five founders of Christian Growth Ministries of Ft. Lauderdale Don Basham, Ern Baxter, Bob Mumford, and Charles Simpson), acknowledged abuses that had occurred because of his teaching on submission. This emphasis resulted in ‘perverse and unbiblical odedience’ to leaders. He publicly repented with ‘with sorrow’ and asked for forgiveness. He also admitted that families had been severely disrupted and lives turned upside down.

“Churches That Abuse” by Ronald M. Enroth

In an interview with Christianity Today magazine, Mumford indicated that the abuse of spiritual authority lead to ‘injury, hurt, and in some cases, disaster.” Leaders, he said, were operating at a level where biblical limitations on their authority were not clear. ‘Part of the motivation of my public apology is realization that this wrong attitude is still present in hundreds of independent church groups who are answerable to no one.’[1]

S. David Moore, author of the definitive book on the movement[2] offered this perspective in a 2004 article:
“The Shepherding movement admittedly missed many of its ideals, and its extremes are well-known. In 1989, Bob Mumford offered a public apology to those hurt by the movement’s teachings and practices.

L to R: Bob Mumford, Don Basham, Charles Simpson, Derek Prince, Ern Baxter

L to R: Bob Mumford, Don Basham, Charles Simpson, Derek Prince, Ern Baxter

Charles Simpson, who leads a major segment of those who continue in the legacy of the movement, has said that human carnality won out all too often. While many were hurt as some leaders improperly exercised spiritual authority, mostly ignored are those who benefited from the movement and those who continue in its varied expressions today.

Both Mumford and Simpson believed they were catching and riding a wave of authentic spiritual renewal. Simpson commented that ‘the bigger the wave the more debris it can carry in.’

Today that ‘debris’ is largely gone. As S. David wrote in 2003:
“The Covenant movement’s leaders have dialogued extensively in recent years and seem to have ‘de-radicalized’ the earlier extremes. Dissent is now encouraged and idealism has given way to a chastened practicality, while the values of relationship, accountability, covenant, and pastoral care are still embraced.”[4]

Another Mind Control Cult that reformed around the same time was the Worldwide Church of God (WCG).[5]

The 2004 documentary “Called To Be Free” summarized the change like this:
In the mid 1990s, the Worldwide Church of God, which began as a religious cult founded by Herbert W. Armstrong, underwent a massive upheaval. At great personal cost, but with an eye to even greater spiritual gain, they renounced their heretical teachings and embraced biblical, evangelical Christianity, and moved from the bondage of legalism to freedom in the grace of Jesus Christ.

Cover for the video documentary

Cover for the video documentary “Called To Be Free”

The leadership and the laypeople of the transformed Worldwide Church of God tell the incredible story in their own words.

Their moving narrative will bring deep encouragement to believers; and those in bondage to cults, legalism, and heretical movements will find hope and good news in this inspiring story.”[6]

Or if you prefer a more secular assessment, Wikipedia summarizes the group’s transformation like this:
“On January 16, 1986, Herbert Armstrong died in Pasadena, California. Shortly before his death, Armstrong named Joseph W. Tkach Sr. to succeed him as leader of the church.

As early as 1988, Joseph W. Tkach Sr. began to make doctrinal changes. Doctrinal revisions were made quietly and slowly at first, but then openly and radically in January 1995. They were presented as “new understandings” of Christmas and Easter, Babylon and the harlot, Anglo-Israelism, Saturday Sabbath, and other doctrines.

Herbert W. Armstrong

Herbert W. Armstrong

In general, Tkach Sr. directed the church theology towards mainstream evangelical Christian belief. This caused much disillusionment among the membership and another rise of splinter groups. During the tenure of Joseph Tkach Sr., the church’s membership declined by about 50 percent. His son, Joseph Tkach Jr., succeeded him after his death in 1995.

Eventually all of Herbert Armstrong’s writings were withdrawn from print by the Worldwide Church of God. In the 2004 video production Called To Be Free, Greg Albrecht, former dean of WCG’s Ambassador College, declared Herbert Armstrong to be both a false prophet (though Armstrong himself did not claim to be a prophet) and a heretic.”[7]

Today the group remains in transition: Some think that the organization has gone too far and have splintered and organized into groups that emulate the old WCG to varying degrees; still others don’t think that it’s gone far enough and have left for other churches, become inactive, or become atheist.[8]

In 2003 Cult Expert Rick Ross observed:
“It seems without its peculiar dogma that the religion lost its attraction. And many Worldwiders felt there was no longer much reason to belong and tithe to the church. Schisms and splintering have subsequently reduced Worldwide to about 60,000 adherents, though its annual revenue is still about $25 million dollars.

The modernization of Worldwide doesn’t seem to have included democratization and/or opened up the issue of meaningful financial accountability to the membership. A power elite still appears to run the organization without referendum and they recently decided to hold an auction.

Herbert W. Armstrong and Joseph W. Tkach Sr.

Herbert W. Armstrong and Joseph W. Tkach Sr.

In what can be seen as a symbolic liquidation they sold off some of the opulent residue that still remained from Armstrong’s glory days, reports The Pasadena Star News.

It appears that the ‘cult’ Herbert Armstrong built may gradually disappear without the man and idiosyncratic beliefs that made it so unique and compelling to its faithful.”[9]

So while the answer to the original question, “Can a Mind Control Cult reform itself?” may be yes, it is never easy, painless, or smooth – and there’s always fall out.

[1] Christianity Today, March 19, 1990 as cited in, “Churches That Abuse” by Ron M. Enroth; 1992; Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan

[2] S. David Moore, “The Shepherding Movement: Controversy and Charismatic Ecclessiology”; London: T & T Clark, 2003

[3] S. David Moore, “Cover Me”; Ministries Today, November/December 2004

[4] Op cit, Moore, “The Shepherding Movement: Controversy and Charismatic Ecclessiology”; p.188

[5] Of interest to those familiar with Mormonism may be the fact that the WCG believed that is was the God’s restored church and used this doctrine as a proselytizing point. Further, there are many other parallels as it appears that Armstrong borrowed some of his teachings from Mormonism. See “Between The Old Worldwide Church of God And The Latter-day Saints”;

Some who have studied both organizations have even suggested that should the LdS Church ever reform it’s likely that it might follow a path similar to the WCG.

[6] Link to full video production on YouTube:

[7] “Death of Armstrong and doctrinal reform” from Wikipedia “Grace Communion International” article;

[8] In addition to the aforementioned, “Called To Be Free” video which contains the stories of many who have stayed and seem to be genuinely pleased with and hopeful for the new church, Grace Communion International, many former members have posted their stories on the following website and continue to speak out against Grace Communion International as well as the WCG splinter groups.

[9] Rick Ross, “Do cults collapse when leaders die and/or they give up the exclusive claims that define them?”; h

(Originally published on the Mormon Expression Blogs site where this article premiered on October 20, 2011)

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