The Way International

Christian or Cult?*

The Way International (also known as the Way Bible Research Institute), with headquarters in New Knoxville, Ohio, was officially founded in 1957 by Victor Paul Wierwille (1916-1985). (Although no significant growth occurred until the Jesus Movement of the late 1960s, others attribute The Way's beginning to October of 1942 to Wierwille's radio broadcast, the "Vesper Chimes," which first aired on WLOK in Lima). Formerly, Wierwille was a United Church of Christ minister who had studied at two liberal seminaries -- the University of Chicago Divinity School and Princeton Theological Seminary. [Although his followers referred to him as "Doctor," Wierwille had no earned doctorate. His bogus doctoral degree was purchased from Pikes Peak Bible Seminary, a diploma mill (see, From "Vesper Chimes" to "The Way International," pp. 10-11).] Though exposed to the Bible, Wierwille was a man who had rejected God's truth in utter rebellion. Putting the Bible aside, Wierwille exercised very little discernment in learning from others, readily accepting teachings from itinerant mystics, Christian Scientists, and spiritists.

Wierwille founded what would become The Way after receiving (in 1942) what he claimed was a message from God: "He spoke to me audibly, just like I am talking to you now," Wierwille explained in a Way biography -- "He said he would teach me the Word as it had not been known since the first century, if I would teach it to others" (The Way: Living in Love, p. 178). In some ways, Wierwille's beliefs were not that unique. Nor did they come directly from God's lips. Much evidence exists that Wierwille borrowed theories from George Lamsa (The Quarterly Journal, Personal Freedom Outreach, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1989, p. 1), and plagiarized portions of his foundational books from the writings of others such as E.W. Bullinger and E.W. Kenyon (see: The Integrity and Accuracy of The Way's Word, and Will the Real Author Please Stand Up?). 

Three years before his death, Wierwille passed leadership to L. Craig Martindale. After Wierwille died, the church was beset by infighting and tax troubles, leading to a decade of decline and splintering amid charges of mismanagement, authoritarianism, intolerance, plagiarism, and adultery. Membership fell from approximately 100,000 people in all 50 states and 40 foreign countries to an estimated 10,000 in 1996. (Official Way publications include The Way Magazine, Jesus Christ is Not God, The Bible Tells Me So, God's Magnified Word, The Word's Way, and The Rise and Expansion of the Church.)

Considerable criticism has focused on the founder. During his lifetime, Wierwille had been elevated to the level of a living legend in the minds of his followers, according to former adherents. Most of the criticism by former Way leaders, however, has been directed at L. Craig Martindale. Wierwille, fighting cancer, installed Martindale as president in 1982. Born in 1948, Martindale had served as youth minister in a Southern Baptist church in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and had been president of both the local Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Baptist Student Union at the University of Kansas before joining The Way in 1971 (Profile: Rev. L. Craig Martindale, published by The Way, Int'l.). Dissidents have questioned and even rebelled against Martindale's leadership amidst violent turmoil and shocking controversy. Especially troubling to many former members are "widespread reports of rampant adultery and promiscuous sex in The Way, including the highest levels of leadership. One ex-member said the [Way] Corps' resident training was sometimes like a 'bordello,' with promiscuity, adultery, orgies, wife-swapping, and even gang-rape" (Christian Research Journal, Summer 1996, pp. 6-7). [These scandals apparently took their toll -- in April of 2000, Martindale resigned from The Way's board of trustees. Way's vice president, Rosalie Rivenbark, became The Way's new president.]

The Way is also battling charges of rampant homosexuality. In 1994, The Way ended the WOW Ambassador program (Word Over the World) at its annual "Rock of Ages" festival, fearing that nearly 10 percent of that year's applicants were homosexual. [Martindale's restructuring of most of the sect's traditional programs may have been intended in part to deal with this issue. Martindale said, "We have flushed homosexuals and 'homo' fantasizers and sympathizers out of our Way Corps and Staff." One Way staffer reported that by January of 1995, "163 sodomites had been purged, marked and avoided" (Ibid., p. 6).] Later in 1995, The Way began the "The Way Disciples Outreach Group" program to replace the WOWs. The Disciples were to find new recruits for The Way as the WOWs did, but serve only four months instead of the year the WOWs served. But the Trustees now limit the Disciples to only Advanced Class graduates in order to assure that they are more entrenched in Way practices and more answerable to leaders. Amid these and other charges, the loss in followers has been paralleled by a drop in finances, and many former Way members are flocking to break-off organizations (some of which are led by well-known and respected ex-leaders: Christian Educational Service (CES) led by John Lynn; Pacific West Fellowship; Great Lakes Fellowship; and The Way of Great Britain headed by Chris Geer.

Although The Way holds services, commissions missionaries, performs weddings, and other functions associated with churches, technically, The Way does not consider itself to be a religion or a church. -- "The Way International is a biblical research and teaching organization concerned with ... the inherent accuracy of the Word of God ... The Way is not a church, nor is it a denomination or a religious sect of any sort" (This Is The Way, pamphlet). Yet, it has been successful in attracting recruits via a time-tested cult technique known as "love-bombing" -- in The Way's case, the showering of unconditional love and acceptance through its "Twig fellowships." 

Wierwille organized The Way around the structure of a tree, with the international headquarters serving as the "roots," national offices forming the "trunks," state advisors serving as "limb" coordinators, regional or area organizations serving as "branches," local congregations of 3 to 30 followers meeting in home study groups called "twigs," and individual members are the "leaves." As most cults operate, The Way innocently infiltrates a fellowship. After a meeting, they engage new Christians in Biblical discussions and invite them to Bible studies. Left undisturbed, The Way members will display loving dispositions and appear quite harmless.

Wierwille was also a conspiracy theorist with a "militia" mindset, warning followers about the Illuminati, a supposed world cartel of powerful individuals secretly planning to overthrow the U.S. government. Rumors of survival training and the buildup of a military stronghold circulated through Way fellowships. Students attending advanced Way classes were required to learn how to shoot a gun -- they were advised to bring a Bible, Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, and a rifle or shotgun (handgun also if desired).

One of the most damaging aspects of The Way is the ability of its leadership to control many of the thoughts and actions of its followers, using tactics of mind control. This is not strictly speaking "brainwashing" (which uses physical abuse), but is the use of emotionally manipulative tactics to direct a person's attitudes and behavior. The Way also routinely condemns everyone outside the organization of being "possessed by devil spirits." The Way member often tells the children of divorced parents to be wary of, resist, not obey, or avoid the fallen-away parent (the one who has left The Way) to protect themselves from the influence of the parent's devil spirits. The most common and vicious claim is that people are possessed by "homosexual devil spirits." 

Anyone who closely views the lives of Way members is amazed and shocked by how every aspect of a follower's life is controlled. Way members are also taught that the President of The Way is "The Man of God" and that they must give allegiance to and obey him in all things, no matter how insignificant, and even if it appears that he is in error. Way members are also told to obey local leadership, especially the "clergy" and "Way Corps" who have graduated from The Way's leadership program. Leadership tells followers whom to date, whom to marry (and not marry), when to separate or divorce, how to spend their time and money, when to sell their house, where to live, when to change jobs, how to discipline their children -- the list goes on and on. In recent years, leaders have told Way members to vacate certain towns and move close to leaders (sometimes hundreds of miles away, as when Way members in Saint Louis were all told to move to Columbia, MO, in 1998) to be under their "protection."

Way teachers also typically attack verbally anyone who is not in The Way, so as children accept Way teaching, they tend to turn against parents and family members who are not in The Way. Profanity and name-calling are typical in the language of Way followers and Way leaders. Former Way President Martindale set the example, as he peppered his conversation, lectures, and even sermons with profanity. In a brief, 15-minute impromptu talk to his followers during a Sunday Night Service (May 4, 1997), he called his critics "morons," "snot-nosed punk," "can't find their *** in the dark," full of "devil spirits," "not have two brain cells to rub together," etc. He identified the local newspaper as "St. Mary's puke sheet" and mused at how wonderful it would be if all journalism and law schools were burned down. In less public settings, he is even more profane. Since children commonly hear Way members and leaders call their non-Way parents profane and derogatory names, this reduces their respect for them and increases allegiance to the group.

Many of the core beliefs (anti-Semitic) that Wierwille taught should disturb true Christians -- such as Jesus Christ is not God; today's Jews are actually an impostor tribe from Siberia; the Jewish Holocaust is a myth; and that much of the Gospel doesn't have any real meaning today. Insiders have also reported instances of weapons stockpiling, kidnapping, wife-swapping and other sexual misconduct, and financial scandal -- with varying degrees of documentation in personal testimony and in the press. Below are the highlights of what The Way International believes concerning their source of authority, the Trinity, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, salvation, giving, spiritual gifts, heaven and hell, laws, and God's dispensations:

1. Source of Authority. The Way claims the Bible as their final authority, but in practice, Wierwille's interpretations of the Bible are seen as the true, final authority -- Wierwille stated that he produced the only "pure and correct" interpretation of the Bible since the first century. Wierwille claimed to have received special revelation from God, but that the "Bible as a whole is not relevant to all people of all times." He rejected the Old Testament and the Gospels as unnecessary. [HJB] The Way also teaches that the Bible is not the Word of God, but only contains the word of God. Only the rest of the New Testament is relevant for his group, which he called the "Church of God." The Way also believes that the New Testament was first written in Aramaic, not Greek. 

The original Way new-member, Power for Abundant Living video course (PFAL) was the main source of teaching and outreach. (PFAL cost about $50, and was an intense, 12-session, 36-hour, no note-taking, no questions-allowed, instruction series in The Way's doctrines. PFAL promised that right "believing" will keep away sickness, insure prosperity, and even protect soldiers from enemy bullets. Poverty is condemned as the result of imperfect faith. The "Good Life" is the proper reward for believing.) Power for Abundant Living has been replaced by Martindale's, The Way of Abundance and Power. Other courses are also offered, starting at a minimum of $65 each, providing The Way with most of its revenues.

2. Trinity. The Way denies the Trinity doctrine and teaches a doctrine of God similar to the Arianism of the Jehovah's Witnesses. Technically, Way theology is called Dynamic Monarchianism (See Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, "Arianism," "Monarchianism"). They correctly believe that there is only one God, but wrongly conclude that God is limited to one Person. They believe that only the Father is God, denying the deity of Christ and the third Person, the Holy Spirit. According to The Way, the Father, ONLY, is the one true God. He created all things including Jesus and "holy spirit."

3. Jesus Christ. Wierwille believed that Jesus Christ had no preincarnate existence except in the mind of God the Father. The Way teaches that Jesus is not God, but a perfect human who came into existence when the Father created sinless sperm and implanted it in Mary. Thus, The Way denies the deity of Christ, making the distinction that "Jesus Christ is not God [that is, God Himself], but [merely] the Son of God. They are not 'co-eternal, without beginning or end, and co-equal.' Jesus Christ was not literally with God in the beginning; neither does he have all the assets of God" (Jesus Christ is Not God, p. 5). To support this, they change the meaning of common Greek words in John 1:1 -- it is claimed that the phrase "the Word was with God" actually means "Jesus Christ was with God in His foreknowledge," but that Jesus was not co-eternal with God the Father. The Way claims that "if Jesus Christ is God ... we have not yet been redeemed." [HJB]

4. Holy Spirit. Wierwille denied the deity and personality of the Holy Spirit. To circumvent obvious Biblical references supporting the deity of the Holy Spirit, The Way arbitrarily provides two different meanings to the term Holy Spirit (pneuma hagion) in the New Testament. Wierwille argued that in some texts the term should be translated capitalized and in other verses with all small letters. According to Wierwille, the term Holy Spirit (capitalized) is another name for God the Father (just like Bob is another name for Robert). The term "holy spirit" (small letters) refers to an impersonal force that is given by the Father (Holy Spirit) to empower His believers. Thus, holy spirit is the gift (inanimate force) and Holy Spirit (God the Father) is the giver (Receiving the Holy Spirit Today, pp. 1-5). To support his position, Wierwille contends that the deity of Christ was a late invention of apostate Christianity and was never taught during the first three centuries of church history (Jesus Christ is Not God, p. 12). [McDowell and Stewart refute Wierwille's claim: "Ignatius, (A.D. 50-115), an early Church Father and disciple of the Apostle John, clearly writes of Christ's deity. Irenaeus (A.D. 115-190), another Church Father, makes clear reference in Against Heresies, when he calls Christ Jesus 'Lord and God.' The apologist Tertullian (A.D. 160-220) calls Christ the 'God of God.' Also Hippolytus, Origen and Lucian of Antioch, all clearly refer to Christ as the one God" (Handbook of Today's Religions, pp. 107-108).]

The Way teaches that natural man is born with a body and soul, but not a spirit. When one is born again, God creates a human spirit in him or her. This spirit is also called "Christ in you," "holy spirit," "inherent spiritual power," "power from on high," "spiritual abilities," and "the mystery." It is not Jesus Christ Himself.

5. Salvation. Rather than emphasizing salvation through faith in Christ, Wierwille artificially separated "faith" from "believing." He taught a very mechanical view of faith in Christ -- a mere intellectual or mental assent to Biblical, historical facts. He also redefined repentance as just confession and belief. Thus, salvation does not involve repentance of sins, but only doing "the will of God" (The Bible Tells Me So, p. 18; Jesus Christ Is God, pp. 238-257). The Way also teaches that Jesus was raised on Saturday and that there were four people crucified with Him, not two. Additionally, only true believers who lived after Pentecost will be saved. Also, The Way teaches that once a person is saved, he cannot sin in his spirit. His body and soul can sin, but not his spirit -- this can lead to sinful practices that are said to not affect the spirit of a person.

6. Abundant Sharing (and Tithing). Wierwille taught that every person owes God a tithe of his or her income, and "true giving" only begins after the "minimum payment" is made. The portion over the tithe is called "abundant sharing" and (with the tithe) is to be paid directly to the headquarters of The Way International. God's unchanging "law of prosperity" is that the payment of one's "debt" of the tithe insures that the payer will not experience financial collapse, health problems, or accidents. The Way's law of tithing and abundant sharing requires followers give this 10%-plus even if personal needs go unmet.

7. Speaking in Tongues. The Way claims that every true believer should speak in tongues, and that the "holy spirit" within enables the believer to do so. They claim that speaking in tongues is "the only visible and audible proof that a man has been born again." [HJB] Followers are taught how to speak in tongues, interpret tongues, and prophesy; and are then expected to do so instantly when called on by a leader in any meeting. [Wierwille taught "tongues" by having his followers relax and inhale "holy spirit" through "heavy breathing," which he claimed was a more accurate translation of "mighty rushing wind" in Acts 2:2 (Receiving the Holy Spirit Today, pp. 61-62).]

8. Soul Sleep.
Like Jehovah's Witnesses, The Way also teaches that the soul is the body's life force, which is in the blood, and that the dead cease to exist (Ibid., pp. 258-290). The Way claims that "no passage of Scripture teaches that there is conscious existence after death" -- they deny that believers immediately go to be with the Lord at death. [HJB] Similarly, they teach that the wicked are annihilated at death, thereby denying the clear Biblical teaching concerning eternal suffering in hell.

9. Laws. The Way teaches that God established "immutable laws" which govern human situations, such as the law of believing (whatever one believes will happen to one, whether bad or good -- i.e., positive/negative confession), the law of prosperity, and the law of tithing. Accordingly, what one does, believes, or confesses (affirms) causes either good or bad to come to him or her, depending on the quality of his or her action or belief. [Wierwille once claimed that a boy's death in an automobile accident was actually caused by his mother's fear that he may be hurt (Power for Abundant Living, pp. 37-44).]

10. Administrations. Wierwille adapted E.W. Bullinger's ultra-dispensationalism. Dispensationalism divides history into seven administrations (dispensations). Ultra-dispensationalism teaches that water baptism should no longer be practiced and that only the seven "church epistles" by the Apostle Paul are meant for Christians today, thereby placing little stock in the other 59 books of the Bible.


Endnotes

1) Steven Hassan, in his book, Combating Mind Control, describes several features common to groups like The Way, which use such tactics of mental coercion, including:

2) The founder's "Advanced Power for Abundant Living" class, on which The Way's current teachings on devil spirits is based, listed more than 31 varieties of devil spirits, including: Spirit of Anti-Christ, Bondage, Error, Fear (in any realm of life), Jealousy, Emulation (ambition), Envy, Infirmity, Iniquity, Leviathan (alcoholics), Oppression, Depression, Hallucination (often from drugs), Cancer, Murder, Epilepsy, Lesbianism, Sensuality, Obsession, Sadism, Lying, Deception, Python, Masochism and many more. Followers of The Way can easily see many more devil spirits in non-Way parents, even when they aren't actually there, especially a Spirit of Strife (people who can't see and entirely obey The Way's version of truth), Whoredoms (especially not worshiping The Way's version of God; therefore, in most anyone in any religion or church other than The Way), a Morbid Spirit (sickness), Sordid Spirit (foul language), Sullen Spirit (introvert, sourpuss, unsociable, which may well be confused with the sadness of being recently divorced and under attack by a Way ex-spouse), Spirit of Python (being critical, as any ex-Way spouse would be of The Way), and other devil spirits. Since devil spirits can harm people, children are taught by The Way to avoid people, including parents, who may be possessed.  [Return to text]


* Unless otherwise cited, primary sources used for this report are: (1) 10/15/95, Arkansas Democrat Gazette; (2) "Sweeping Changes in The Way International," CRI Journal 1996 Special Report; (3) What They Believe, Harold J. Berry [HJB], BTTB:1990, pp. 305-324; (4) "The 'Closing' of The Way International," 2Q98 PFO Quarterly Journal; (5) "The Poisoning of Families: Mind Control in The Way International," 3Q99 PFO Quarterly Journal; (6) "The Way 'Robot Corps'," 2Q00 PFO Quarterly Journal; (7) "The Way Tree is Splintering," CRI Journal, Fall 1988; (8) "The Way, International," James K. Walker, (Watchman Fellowship Profile, 1996); and (9) Examining & Exposing Cultic & Occultic Movements, Jack Sin, "The Way International," April 2000, pp. 40-41. 


Biblical Discernment Ministries - Revised 11/01

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