The Philadelphia Church of God (PCG) is a religious organization based in Edmond, Oklahoma. They are an off-shoot of the more popular Worldwide Church of God (WCG), a religious organization started by Herbert W. Armstrong in the 1930s, which was an off-shoot of the Church of God (7th Day), which was an off-shoot of Ellen G. White’s Seventh-Day Adventists, which was an off-shoot of the early-1800s Millerites, which was an off-shoot of … [insert history of Christianity] … , which was an off-shoot of Judaism.

The PCG has an eclectic set of doctrines. They believe in biblical inerrancy, reject the traditional Christian trinity, keep a 7th-day Sabbath, adhere to British Israelism (the theory that the “Lost Ten Tribes of Israel” can be found in the United States and Britain), reject evolution, refuse to keep Christmas or Easter (rejecting them as late pagan additions), and, of course, believe that Jesus is “a few short years” away from returning to Earth.

Yet the above beliefs also belong to the now-hundreds of off-shoots of the WCG like the Living Church of God, United Church of God, Global Church of God, [Something] Church of God, etc. What sets the PCG apart from these is the belief that the WCG’s founder, Herbert W. Armstrong, was the “End-Time Elijah”–a figure based on discussions that Jesus’ disciples supposedly had with Jewish contemporaries (see John 1:21 and Matthew 17:9; “And His disciples asked Him, ‘Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’”) Now, according to the PCG, that Elijah has come, Jesus can as well.

Whether or not this is all true is one question. Another one, which I’ll try to answer here, is this: Is the Philadelphia Church of God a cult?

TL;DR What is a cult?

First, what is a cult? Definitions are dangerous territory, as all true featherless bipeds know[efn_note]See Socrates[/efn_note], but I’m afraid this is a question we can’t ignore.

Cult, from the Latin cultus (“care”), was originally used to describe the dues (or care) owed to religious deities. Around the 19th century, cult began to be used as the describing a form of worship devoted to a person or object. And then in the 20th century, everyone just started to use it however they wanted–as in Hugh Rawson’s Wicked Words definition: “Cult. An organized group of people, religious or not, with whom you disagree.”

As of now, the problem with its usage is so great that some academics shy away from using it, preferring the term New Religious Movement (NRM) instead. I’ll explain why I think this is problematic later, but let’s first see why the usage is so confused.

A big part of the usage problem comes from the what sociologists have called the Anti-Cult Movement which started to boom around the 1970s-80s. The sociologist Jeffrey K. Hadden divided the movement into four classes of opposition: 1) Opposition grounded on religion, 2) Secular opposition, 3) Apostates, and 4) Entrepreneurial opposition.[efn_note]Hadden, Jeffrey K., SOC 257: New Religious Movements Lectures: The Anti-Cult Movement, University of Virginia, Department of Sociology[/efn_note] Unfortunately for anyone wanting a good definition of cult, the first group, consisting mainly of mainstream Christian groups who hated seeing their own members leave to join neo-Christian “cults”, defined cults in theological and heretical terms.

I partly blame Walter Martin, whose immensely popular 1965 book The Kingdom of the Cults, which self-describes as the “gold standard text on cults,” was really just a cleverly disguised long-form defense of orthodox Christianity. Let’s check out his definition of cult in his earlier work The Rise of the Cults:

By cultism we mean the adherence to doctrines which are pointedly contradictory to orthodox Christianity and which yet claim the distinction of either tracing their origin to orthodox sources or of being in essential harmony with those sources. Cultism, in short, is any major deviation from orthodox Christianity relative to the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith.[efn_note]Walter R. Martin, The Rise of the Cults, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1955, pp. 11-12.[/efn_note]

This definition is … horrifyingly bad. Not only did Martin limit himself to Christianity, but he made the his definition entirely relative, floating in opposition to mainstream definitions of orthodoxy. Now there could be no cults without the mainstream, just as there are is no heresy without orthodoxy. Martin’s later definition of cult as “a group of people gathered about a specific person—or person’s misinterpretation of the Bible”[efn_note]Michael J. McManus, “Eulogy for the godfather of the anti-cult movement”, obituary in The Free Lance-Star, Fredricksburg, VA, 26 August 1989, p. 8[/efn_note] was even worse. Jews might as well just define Jesus and St. Paul as cult founders and just call it a day. You’re all cults! Every one of you!

Too late though. Nearly a million copies of The Kingdom of the Cults were sold, which meant multiple millions of Americans running around with the idea that cults were just “heretical Christian groups.” This was not good for dictionaries.

In any case, cult has become for some a slur, something to throw at weirdo and extremist groups with fanatical followers. Fortunately there were plenty of more careful definitions made which focused on group control, brainwashing, social isolation, psychological manipulation, organizational structure, and ethical double-standards. These are the types of definitions I’ll be using, and they are the reasons why I think using the term New Religious Movement is insufficient. For example, the Bahai Faith is a New Religious Movement (1863), a break-off (thus unorthodox) interpretation of Shia Islam. But the Bahai Faith is almost certainly not a cult.

I’ll be using three sets of definitions for cult in my analysis of the PCG:

The first comes from the clinical psychologist Margaret Singer (1921-2003) whose main research areas were in family therapy, brainwashing, and coercive persuasion. Singer was an advisory board member for the Cult Awareness Network. I’ll be taking definitions from her book Cults in Our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against Their Hidden Menace. The second set comes from Jan Groenveld (1945-2002), an ex-member of both the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Groenveld was the founder of the Cult Awareness and Information Center (CAIC). Although she would fall under Hadden’s first class of “Opposition grounded on religion”, Groenveld’s definitions focus on actions rather than beliefs. The third set comes from Janja Lalich (1945-), a professor of sociology who specializes in cult groups, charismatic authority, coercion, and social control. Lalich founded the Center for Research on Influence and Control (CRIC). We’ll look shortly at her definitions, but then move onto her book Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults, where she compares two cults, Heaven’s Gate (religious cult) and the Democratic Workers Party (political cult). We’ll see how well the PCG fits with her descriptions.

One last note before we get into it. Walter Martin’s previously criticized book The Kingdom of the Cults spends 34 pages discussing the Worldwide Church of God as a cult institution. Since the PCG is almost a direct copy of the WCG, differing only on a small portion of its doctrines, more intensely focused on the significance of a charismatic individual (Herbert W. Armstrong), stricter in its tolerance of dissent, and harsher in its isolation of ex-members, why don’t we just take Martin’s word for it, close up shop, and label the PCG a cult?

That certainly would be easy. Instead, two reasons: 1) I don’t trust Walter Martin, and 2) it will be more convincing if we do this properly.

Is the PCG a Singer Cult?

Margaret Singer gives a short definition of a cult in her introduction to Cults in Our Midst:

It denotes a group that forms around a person who claims he or she has a special mission or knowledge, which will be shared with those who turn over most of their decision making power to that self-appointed leader.[efn_note]Singer, Margaret. Cults in Our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against Their Hidden Menace. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco: 1995. p. xx.[/efn_note]

Singer spends a lot of time explaining the definition and making sure the audience knows cults can come in all shapes and size, religious or non-religious. She then breaks up her final descriptions into three classes: 1) the characteristics of the leader, 2) the relationship between the leaders and the followers, and 3) the coordinated program of persuasion.

The Characteristics of the Leader

The question of who is the real leader of the PCG is an interesting one. Being trained for questions like these, members will tell you the answer is “God.” In reality the tentative answer is Gerald Flurry.

Yet since almost all of Flurry’s credibility relies on his claim that they are the True Followers of Herbert W. Armstrong, it is very hard to deviate from any of his established teachings. Armstrong rules from the grave, and everything small important matters of doctrine to peripheral matters (such as “what music should I listen to?”) are settled by an extensive search of whatever Armstrong said on the subject. So when we answer questions about leadership, we should bare in mind both Flurry and Armstrong.

Characteristic No.1: Cult leaders are self-appointed, persuasive persons who claim to have a special mission in life or to have special knowledge.

Herbert W. Armstrong’s Autobiography is a goldmine of quotes about the uniqueness of his calling. This we can equate with Singer’s “claim to have a special mission in life.” Of his initial calling and training, Armstrong says:

Actually, though I didn’t realize it then, I was, myself, being literally thrust into the ministry of Christ, though not at all of my own seeking. And I know now that my experience was, in all probability, utterly unique! … No, I know of no one who was thrust into the ministry of Jesus Christ, untaught by man, but by the living Christ through His written Word, in the manner in which I was. I didn’t realize it yet, but I was being brought into His ministry by the living Christ in a manner utterly unique and totally unlike any other of which I know!

Armstrong would later begin called himself an “Apostle” of God, a title he claims was first given to him by Dr. Herman Hoeh, even though he was using it as early as the 1950s:

“I call upon all of you in the name of Jesus Christ, as God’s Apostle, and your Minister, be careful!” (March 29, 1957 Dear Brethren letter) “Naturally, it is incumbent on me as God’s Apostle, to protect His ‘sheepfold’ He has placed under my care.” (July 31, 1978 Dear Brethren letter) “And please state in your letter, in your own words, that this money is your endorsement of my apostleship, and the money is to be used for defending God’s Work as I, Christ’s Apostle, deem best.” (January 14, 1979 Dear Brethren letter) “But I am the chosen apostle of Jesus Christ and in His name, I have to say these things to you,” (March 14, 1980 letter to Roderick C. Meredith from Herbert W. Armstrong)[efn_note]ESN, “Herbert W. Armstrong Claimed He Was God’s Apostle.” Exit Support Network. Accessed at:[/efn_note]

Towards the end of his life, Armstrong began to take on the title of the “End-time Elijah,” a term he took to mean the prophesied biblical figure that needed to come and first “preach the gospel to the world” before Jesus would return to the earth.

Here’s what Joseph Tkach, the following leader of the WCG, said about Armstrong claiming this title:

In the last two years of his life, in several sermons, he was even more explicit when he said directly, “I am Elijah.” When Ron Kelly, one of our longtime ministers, heard Mr. Armstrong say this, he confessed to me, “I was alarmed when I heard him say, ‘I am Elijah.’ I could handle, ‘I’m in the role of Elijah.’ But ‘I am Elijah – what did he mean by that?”[efn_note]Tkach, Joseph. Transformed By Truth. “The Enigma of Herbert W. Armstrong.” Multnomah Books, 1997.[/efn_note]

As for claiming to have “special knowledge,” Armstrong would often claim The Truths he told his followers were given to him directly from God:

“And so I say to you, as the Apostle Paul said to those at Galatia: I certify you, brethren, that the GOSPEL which is preached of me is not after man, for I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it but BY THE REVELATION OF JESUS CHRIST. . . . When it pleased God, who . . . called me by His grace, to reveal His Son in me that I might preach Him to the world; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood—neither went I to any sect or denomination or human theologian, but I went directly to the WORD of GOD, on my knees, corrected, reproved, and instructed in God’s righteousness and TRUTH!” (Herbert W. Armstrong, Co-Worker letter, November 29, 1954) “I came to the truth in a way I know of no other church leader. I know of no other minister who ever came to it by himself through the leading of God in that way.” (Quoted from sermon by Herbert W. Armstrong on July 24, 1976) “My eyes were opened to the true gospel described so clearly and unmistakably in the Bible — for those willing to see and believe. And so, as I have written before, I say with the apostle Paul (paraphrasing): ‘I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which is preached by me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ … But when it pleased God, who … called me by His grace, to reveal His Son and His gospel in me, that I might preach it among the descendants of the house of Israel, and the Gentile nations, and kings [Acts 9:15], immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood, neither went I to any theological seminary or source of religious teaching of this world, but I went to Christ, the living Personal Word of God, who instructed me through the written Word of God, the Holy Bible’ ” (Galatians 1:11-17). (Herbert W. Armstrong, The Plain Truth About Healing, 1979) “Jesus Christ….in person, taught the original 12 apostles, and the apostle Paul…the same Jesus Christ who taught both the original apostles, beginning A.D. 27, and 1900 years later, beginning in 1927, myself.” (Herbert W. Armstrong, Mystery of the Ages, p. 24-25, 1985)[efn_note]AJW. The “Key to Unlocking Prophecy”: Did Herbert Armstrong Say God Revealed it to Him Alone?. Exit Support Network. Accessed at:[/efn_note]

Notice in the last two quotes the direct comparison Armstrong makes between himself and St. Paul and the “original 12 apostles.”

So we can see that Armstrong: 1) was self-appointed, 2) claimed he had a special life calling, 3) claimed special knowledge (directly from God), and, although we have not discussed this directly, 4) he was persuasive. All this is not very surprising, especially considering the number of similar claims made by previous authors like Marion McNair (Armstrongism: Religion of Rip-off?), David Robinson (Herbert Amrstrong’s Tangled Web), William B. Hinson (The Broadway to Armageddon), etc.

But what of the PCG’s Gerald Flurry?

Many of the following quotes we will use to establish the Flurry’s leadership characterstics will come from his book Who is “That Prophet”?, first published in 2001. From a number of interviews I performed with PCG members, this book was a litmus test for True Believers, and a number of people left over the strength of it’s claims.

It was in this book where Flurry claimed the Bible prophesied someone like him would come, in the form of “that prophet”–a phrase taken from John 1:25. Flurry also claimed, among other titles, that since Armstrong was the prophesied “End-time Elijah,” and he was following Armstrong’s lead, and Elisha followed after Elijah, that he was a prophesied “Elisha-type figure.”

Here are some of the more notable quotes from Who is “That Prophet”?.

God placed me into the office of a prophet. The fruits of new prophetic revelation and a work to declare the message prove who I am. (p. 21) In fact, “king” and “counselor” apply to the office I hold. (p. 34) Mr. Armstrong and I each have been used to fill the role of lawgiver to God’s Church and the world. (p. 52) I didn’t receive this message from man! I was taught it by revelation from Jesus Christ! (p. 61) My office must be a type of the Elisha office. But God does not refer to me as Elisha. I believe that is because that prophet is typed by so many other prophetic offices. (p. 68) Eliakim is actually a type of my office. … Eliakim is a father … You need also to come into God’s true Church with Malachi’s Message and other new revelation God has given me. In that sense, I am a father. (pp. 80, 86-87)

Flurry’s second claim here–of “king”–became even more interesting in late 2017. In a series of three sermons, Flurry slowly revealed that he had heard voices from God explaining to him that he was now the new King of England.

Let me repeat that: Gerald Flurry (and his followers) believe God has made him the new King of England.

Now, there are whole books worth of backstory which explain the emphasis the PCG places on the throne of England, its relevance to their doomsday prophecies, and many other things. One can read the Flurry’s full explanation in The New Throne of David which is available on theTrumpet website. Flurry never actually comes out and says–“I am the New King of England!”–in this publicly available book (for obvious reasons). But he does say “God has moved the Throne of David [England according to the PCG] to this Church!” and “God has to have a king in this Church who is a descendant of David.” I’ll let you fill in the dots.

We have only scratched the surface, but it is already clear that Flurry: 1) is self-appointed (claims voices from God told him he was the King of England), 2) claims he has a special life calling, 3) claims special knowledge (as God’s representative), and is 4) persuasive enough to have people believe it all.

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Characteristic No.2: Cult leaders tend to be determined and domineering and are often described as charismatic. … They persuade devotees to drop their families, jobs, careers, and friends to follow them. Overtly or covertly, in most cases they eventually take over control of their followers’ possessions, money, and lives.

Singer’s second definition is quite dense, so we will parse it a little differently than the first. We will take “determined”, “domineering” and “charismatic” as broad terms confirmed or dis-confirmed by the leaders ability to persuade devotees to drop 1) families, 2) jobs and careers, 3) friends, and take control over 4) possessions, 5) money, and 6) lives.

I’ll first note that Flurry is in no way as typically “charismatic” as Armstrong was. In fact, Flurry is quite a poor speaker, and during my time spent at Herbert W. Armstrong College, when being forced to watch his Key of David television program, one could hear the occasional snigger from students as Flurry stumbled over his words. In any case, there is a still an air of power surrounding him, which comes mostly from the claims he makes about his special office.

Characteristic No.3: Cult leaders center veneration on themselves. Priests, rabbis, ministers, democratic leaders, and leaders of genuinely altruistic movements keep the veneration of adherents focused on God, abstract principles, or the group’s purpose. Cult leaders, in contrast, keep the focus of love, devotion, and allegiance on themselves. In many cults, for example, spouses are forced to separate or parents forced to give up their children as a test of their devotion to their leader. Is the PCG a Groenveld Cult? Is the PCG a Lalich Cult?