CHRISTIAN EDUCATIONAL SERVICES:
THE EVOLUTION OF A SPLINTER GROUP
OF THE WAY INTERNATIONAL

by John P. Juedes

Shortly after the death of founder Victor Paul Wierwille in 1985, The Way International (TWI) splintered into several factions. Eventually, about 25,000 of its peak membership of 35,000 left. Entire twigs (small home fellowship groups), areas and even limbs (statewide divisions of TWI) left in cohesive groups. Many of these established their own organizations to maintain the networks they had begun as part of TWI, although few of them have had lasting vitality.

One of these groups, Christian Educational Services (CES) has maintained a good deal of influence with ex-Way members. CES deals with people who are suspicious, angry and disdain organized religion because they were disillusioned by TWI and its president, whom they felt was “the man of God.” To make headway with them, CES must emphasize that it is entirely different from TWI, even while it retains the “Truth” of the Word of God its audience learned in TWI.

CES produced a 58-page paperback titled Speaking the Truth in Love: The Purposes of Christian Educational Services, written by Mark Graeser, John Lynn and John Schoenheit, to describe how different it is from TWI and how unique it is compared to all Christian groups in the world today.

How different is CES from TWI? How important is CES to Christianity in the world?

HOW CES DIFFERS FROM TWI

Speaking The Truth in Love (STTIL) has three parts: an overview of church history (beginning from the first century), an overview of church government, ceremony and doctrine in the Christian Church and in CES, and a description of the mission of CES.

CES states that local fellowships (most groups associated with CES are home groups like twigs) should be self-governing and self-propagating. This is quite different from TWI, which controls the leadership and even “membership” of its twigs, unilaterally ejecting people from twigs whom it considers to be not completely loyal to the Way hierarchy. Ex-Wayers find CES refreshing in that it is not autocratic like TWI.

TWI was not authoritarian when it began to grow by drawing followers from the Jesus movement in the late 1960s. But it soon regimented the Power for Abundant Living class by requiring that only the filmed version by V.P. Wierwille be used, and it introduced the structure of “the Way Tree” to exert control over its followers. Accordingly, CES may be seen as a Way “reformation” movement with respect to authority.

HOW CES IS LIKE TWI

Outside the topic of authority, CES is like TWI in many important ways. It is ironic that the book STTIL which was intended to show the uniqueness of CES actually reveals how very much CES is like TWI.

First, even the name CES shows how similar CES’ thrust is to the purposes of TWI.   Note the similarities:

CES: Christian Educational Services.

TWI: Biblical Research and Teaching Ministry.

While each part of their titles are synonymous and interchangeable, they are distinctly different from most names for denominations (“Presbyterian Churches of America”) and parachurch groups (“Focus on the Family”).

Second, the core teachings, or doctrine, of CES and TWI are the same.

In fact, STTIL does not list any CES teaching with which TWI would disagree. Like TWI, CES emphasizes the book of Ephesians, uses much of the same terminology (like “one God”), and lauds the unusual teaching of the late E.W. Bullinger.

Like TWI, CES teaches “one God” (an anti-Trinitarian view of God), holds that Jesus Christ is lord but has no Divine nature, distinguishes between “the Holy Spirit” (another name for God the Father, as Dick is another name for Richard) and “holy spirit” (a believer’s own spirit which God creates in him when he is born again), rejects water baptism, and opposes church ceremony including Holy Communion. It holds that the soul ceases to exist at death (similar to the Jehovah’s Witnesses).

There are differences in teaching, but most of them are comparatively minor. For instance, TWI does not reject Communion as completely as CES, has a more intense view of ordination and defines interpretation of tongues differently. However, the central teachings are alike.

Third, they have a common view of church history.

Both CES and TWI believe that the Church went into widespread apostasy and heresy by the time the Apostle John died at the end of the first century. By that time, most all Christians had rejected true doctrine (which CES and TWI now teach) and substituted false and pagan teachings, like those believed by Christians today.

In their view, the Reformation corrected mostly minor teachings, leaving heresy on essential teachings such as one God and holy spirit. They give lip service to the value of the reformers’ work while maintaining that they were ignorant and blind on the most important doctrine. Today’s Church obeys “tradition,” not the Word of God, and is just as apostate now as it has ever been in the last 1,900 years.

CES’ chapter on church history could have been, and probably was, lifted right from chapter one of V.P. Wierwille’s Jesus Christ is Not God, even though CES is not forthright enough to list it in STTIL’s endnotes or bibliography.

Fourth, CES and TWI share the same idea of their group’s place in history.

Since everyone who has ever claimed to be Christian is, in fact, in the dark (the truth is “totally obscured” by tradition), those in CES and TWI are the only people in the last 1,900 years to have the truth. Like most cults, they think that God has been so weak that only a few thousand people in the last 1,900 years (most of whom are alive today) understand the truth.

CES’ claim, “Perhaps for the first time since the life of the Apostle Paul, the truth of the Word of God is available to enough people that it will pierce the veil of darkness that has en-shrouded it” (STTIL, pg. 45) is just like V.P. Wierwille’s assertion that he would “teach the Word of God as it has not been known since the first century” (The Way: Living in Love, Elena S. Whiteside).

Fifth, they claim not to be a church or denomination, yet act just like one.

Both groups assert that denominations are (unlike them) restrictive and authoritarian. Actually, both groups are more directive than most church bodies (denominations). Most church bodies are associations of congregations. When the churches meet in convention, together they elect leaders to short-term offices, approve budgets, make statements on doctrine, plan goals and programs, and direct studies that are to be done. Local churches control their own schedules, staff, finances, discipline and leadership. Church bodies recommend things, but local churches choose whether or not to implement them.

In contrast, CES and TWI are directed by a small number of officers (three trustees in TWI who are placed in office for life) on a board which controls all aspects of the organization. They collect offerings from local fellowships, but unilaterally decide how to use them. In this way, CES and TWI function in a hierarchical way (like the Pope and college of Bishops) rather than in a democratic way like most denominational associations.

CES and TWI have the same goals as denominations, including networking local fellowships, forming local groups, training leaders, and education. (CES and TWI serve as their own publishers, just as many denominations have their own publishing house.)

TWI and, to a lesser extent, CES also function as a church in the sense that the leaders have their own fellowships, and the leaders distribute regular teaching tapes. It is likely that their followers virtually consider their national leaders to be like their pastors rather than just as denominational executives. If CES finds more local fellowships looking to it for leadership, it is likely to become even more like a denomination and national church — and even more like TWI.

CES also performs like a parachurch organization (which includes service agencies like Christian colleges, Bible translators, and missionary groups) in that it has an educational goal, is run by a board and has a looser, yet authoritative connection with local fellowships than most denominations. But its goals and functions are just like any denomination.

Sixth, CES is steeped in TWI tradition and style (and doesn’t notice it).

The items listed above show the close similarities between TWI and CES. Other similar traditions they have include: their stated purpose, specific Bible interpretations (for instance, teaching that Christ was crucified with four, not two, criminals), emphasis on figures of speech, structure, dependence on regional conferences, audio tapes and classes, rejection of tradition, and so forth.

As a whole, CES relates more to TWI/ex-TWI people than it does to the Christian Church, and the Christian Church recognizes that CES has more in common with TWI than with the Church. If there weren’t a TWI, there wouldn’t be a CES. CES was founded by a very homogeneous group which had already “bought” a detailed set of teachings and practices from TWI. A “who’s who” of CES in 1996 reads almost the same as a “who’s who” of TWI in 1985 (except TWI’s list was longer).

Yet, STTIL never mentions CES’ roots and the eight to ten TWI books that describe its basic teachings and practice. To this day, books published by TWI more consistently express CES’s core teachings than any publisher (not counting CES itself). Even the fact that CES hides its sources is similar to TWI, since founder V.P. Wierwille always posed as one who studied the Word itself rather than man’s writings, while he in fact plagiarized other men’s writings wholesale.

CES attracts ex-Way members not because it is unlike TWI, but because it is so much like TWI. In fact, every Christian group is much more different from TWI than is CES. But ex-Way members feel comfortable in CES because it is so much like TWI in teaching, style, structure, personnel, terminology and thought. TWI emphasizes the “renewing of the mind.” This unique Way mindset which TWI cultivates in its adherents also resides in CES to a great extent.

CES proudly notes that Christian apologists like Norman Geisler and Keith Tolbert believe that CES is open to dialogue. But is CES open to dialogue, or is this just a pose? STTIL says that “believers have been subjected to religious junk food, oppressive hierarchical systems, nonsensical doctrines and a mediocre spiritual existence” (pg. 17).

CES newsletters to their supporters use satire and sarcasm (John Lynn is especially partial to this) to blast the “doctrines of devils” and “the bondage of religious tradition” throughout Christianity, but caution that they “would not necessarily lay on them what we said in our letter” (April 1994). Can a person who is open to dialogue make such broad condemnations at the same time? CES has much of the same caustic, berating and pretentious nature of TWI, but hides it better.

CES believes itself to be far different from TWI. While Christians can appreciate some differences, we need to be discerning enough to see how the central character and teachings of CES is still very much like TWI. Therefore, we must steer ex-Way members away from CES, and take advantage of opportunities to share the truth of God’s Word with both groups.

 

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