The Way International
Founder: Victor Paul Wierwille
Date of Birth: December 31, 1916; died 1985
Birth Place: New Knoxville, Ohio
Year Founded: 1942
Sacred or Revered Texts:
The Bible (Aramaic version). Wierwille’s writings, such as Jesus Christ is Not God are also considered important. Emphasis is also placed on the works of George Lamsa, including The Holy Bible From Ancient Eastern Manuscripts . Other important books include the writings of Indian bishop KC Pilla: The Orientalisms of the Bible and Light Through an Eastern Window . (Melton, 1986: 208)
Size of Group:
Since The Way International has never published organizational statistics, estimates must be treated with caution. It is clear that the group reached a peak membership sometime in the 1970s around 35,000 and went into a period of decline after that date. ( The Watchman Expositor page ) The Watchman Expositor estimates that membership in 1995 dropped to 20,000 and is down below 10,000 today. Lewis, however, in a recently published encyclopedia claims that membership has begun to grow again. This would seem to be supported by reports in The Way Magazine (September/October 1998: 20-24) of significant numbers of persons participating in advanced PFAL classes in the summer of 1998. A recent estimate by Cynthia Kisser of the Cult Awareness Network (as quoted on the NoWayOut page) is 20,000.
The Early Years
Victor Paul Wierwille was born on the 300-acre farm which many years later would become the headquarters of The Way. He grew up in the Evangelical and Reformed Church and decided to become a minister while attending Mission House College (now Lakeland College) in Sheboygan, WI. He received his B.A. in 1938 and a B.D. in 1940. Wierwille then studied briefly at the University of Chicago and received a Master of Theology degree from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1941. (Kyle: 368) He married Dorothea Kipp while in college and had five children.
Wierwille was ordained as a minister in the Evangelical and Reformed Church (now the United Church of Christ) in 1941 and received his first church assignment at that time. His first pastorate was at the Evangelical and Reformed Church in Payne, Ohio. While preaching there in 1942, he began to feel inadequate in meeting the spiritual needs of his congregation. At that time, he claims God audibly spoke to him. His account, as quoted by Ruth Tucker (226), is as follows:
“I was praying. And I told Father outright that He could have the whole thing, unless there were real genuine answers that I wouldn’t ever have to back up on.
And that’s when He spoke to me audibly, just like I’m talking to you now. 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.
Well, I nearly flew off my chair. I couldn’t believe that God would talk to me…. But He spoke to me just as plainly as I’m talking now to you.”
Wierwille was not convinced simply by the audible speech of God. He asked for a sign:
“The sky was crystal blue and clear. Not a cloud in sight. It was a beautiful early autumn day. I said, ‘If that was really you, and you meant what you said, give me a sign. Let me see it snow.’ My eyes were tightly shut as I prayed. And then I opened them. The sky was so white and thick with snow, I couldn’t see the tanks at the filling station on the corner not 75 feet away.” (Tucker: 226)
On Saturday, October 3, 1942, Wierwille first broadcast his radio show, “The Vesper Chimes.” The show consisted of Bible teaching and Christian music, and was meant to convey this truth that Wierwille had apparently received from God. He continued his pastorship through this time, taking a position at St. Peter’s Evangelical and Reformed Church in Van Wert, Ohio from 1944 to 1957. (Press packet released by The Way International, 1984.)
Wierwille continued his quest for knowledge and went back to school. In 1948 he received his doctoral degree in theology from Pike’s Peak Bible College and Seminary. Pike’s Peak was an unaccredited correspondence school which is no longer in existence. The headquarters were Manitou Springs, CO. (Melton, 1986: 205)
In 1953, Victor Paul Wierwille taught his first “Power For Abundant Living” (PFAL) class, which would later be required of all converts to the Way. In 1954, he began publication of The Way Magazine , which continues to be published today. The magazine serves as a link between TWI headquarters and followers who have no regular meetings.
That same year, Wierwille began to study the Aramaic Bible, believing that Aramaic was the language which Christ Himself spoke and in which the original Bible was written (most scholars believe that it was actually written in Greek). He met George Lamsa, translator of the Aramaic Biblical Texts , and they began to work together on study of the Aramaic translation. Wierwille believed that the best way to know the truth revealed in the Bible was to know it the way it was originally written. (Melton, 1986: 206)
Wierwille officially chartered The Way, Incorporated in 1955 from “The Chimes Hour Youth Caravan,” an ancestor of the “Vesper Chimes” show. At that time, he and his family took a seven-month trip to Europe and the Holy Lands to continue research and evangelism. In 1957, he resigned from his parish to devote his life to this movement, and his family farm was deeded to the Way. (TWI Press packet, 1984)
The 1960s: An Era of Growth
Victor Paul Wierwille began converting his family farm into his own official residence, and the headquarters of The Way International, in 1959. Work was completed in 1961. Wierwille continued the expansion of facilities throughout the 1960s, building the Biblical Research Center on the farm in 1961. The next year, he initiated the first International Summer School program, where courses in Biblical research were offered. All this physical expansion was a response to the rapid growth in membership experienced around this time, largely due to the part The Way International played in the counter- culture of the 1960s, including the Jesus People movement .
The Jesus People
The Jesus People movement sprung out of the counterculture of the 1960s. Many organizations, including campus organizations, communal groups, individual churches, and parachurch organizations became a part. For example, groups included in the movement were Calvary Chapel , Bethel Tabernacle, Jesus People’s Army , His Place, Christian World Liberation Front, East Coast Jesus People, Jews for Jesus, Children of God , and the Alamo Christian Foundation.
The recruits were, as Jack Balswick described (as quoted by Kyle, 356), “a counterculture within a counterculture…’double dropouts'”. They tended to be at odds with the straight culture on one hand, as evidenced by their “subjectivism, informality, spontaneity, and the symbols of the hippie lifestyle: long hair, beards, rock music, cast-off clothes, and a questioning of the American way of life.” (Kyle: 356) At the same time, because of their acceptance of fundamentalism, they shied away from the drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and free love characteristic of the countercultural movement.
In 1967 and 1968, Victor Paul Wierwille made a mission trip to the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, where he made connections with several young leaders of the Jesus People. Among these were Steve Hufner and Jimmy Doop, whom he recruited to take charge of the Way East and the Way West. Through their influence, he was able to recruit large numbers of young people. As these people began moving back to the headquarters in New Knoxville during the early 1970s, growth became exponential. (Kyle: 369)
The Way International seemed to fit in well with the general Jesus People movement. They shared with the counter-cultural movement a rejection by the larger culture. In time, other Jesus People groups became wary of the Way, considering it “a heretical movement and Wierwille…a false prophet.” (Kyle: 368)
To further attract the young people, Wierwille made several “youth-friendly” innovations. PFAL classes were transferred to 16mm color film in 1967, the 25th anniversary of the Way, for easier distribution. In 1970, Wierwille founded the Way Corps. This is a four-year Christian leadership training program. It is “not a substitute for a college education but provides specialized training for selected men and women in all phases of their lives — spiritual, mental, and physical.” (TWI Press packet, 1984) The program offers a B.T. for those already holding a baccalaureate, and an Associate of Theology for others. The Corps central tenets are expressed in five principles:
Acquiring an in-depth spiritual perception and awareness.
Being trained in the Bible in preparation for teaching others.
Keeping physically fit.
Implementing Biblical principles to live abundantly.
Working after graduation in areas of concern, interest, and need. (TWI Press packet, 1984)
Also in 1970, Wierwille initiated the Word Over the World (WOW) Ambassador program. Ambassadors, generally young people, commit to spend a year in missions in a city, either in the U.S. or somewhere overseas. The ambassadors live communally while teaching the Bible and leading fellowship meetings in homes. (TWI Press packet, 1984)
The WOW Ambassadors are sent out each year at the end of the Rock of Ages. The Rock of Ages is an annual gathering of Way members; a sort of Christian Woodstock music festival held each summer. The integration of rock music into its ministry is another innovation which makes TWI attractive to young people. (TWI Press packet, 1984)
The 1970s ushered in a period of expansion of physical facilities. In 1974, TWI acquired The Way College of Emporia in Kansas and The Way International Fine Arts and Historical Center in Sidney, Ohio. The Way Family Ranch in Gunnison, Colorado was acquired in 1976, as well as The Way College of Biblical Research in Rome City, Indiana.
There were also a few new ministries opened in the 1970s. In 1975, PFAL classes were translated into Spanish for use in international ministry and the name of the group was changed to The Way International. The Family Way Corps (like the Way Corps, but geared towards entire families) opened training at The Way College of Biblical Research outside Rome City, Indiana in 1977. LEAD (Leadership, Education, Adventure, Direction) Outdoor Academy (in Tinnie, New Mexico)was opened in 1978, as was the University of Life, a correspondence course. (TWI Press packet, 1984)
Today, the Way still has ownership of several large properties. Their headquarters in Ohio support a staff of reportedly 500 employees and volunteers. The grounds support office buildings, housing for staff, dorms for students, classrooms, maintenance buildings, and farm buildings. The Board of Trustees decided in November 1997 to sell The Way College of Biblical Research in Indiana. Three months later, in January 1998, the Family Way Corps moved to Gunnison, Colorado to train where the Way Corps was already in residence. New classes are being taught, including:
The Christian Family and Sex.
The Renewed Mind.
Witnessing and Under-shepherding.
Rise and Expansion.
Advanced PFAL (introduced in the Summer of 1998).
Membership is acquired through taking the PFAL class, a twelve session class which is offered for a fee. The class, originally taught by Victor Paul Wierwille and recorded on videotape, attempts to package all the Biblical knowledge Wierwille gained through his research. It is the body of the “lost knowledge” he received from God when he received the vision. The class:
“teaches individuals how to establish and maintain a positive attitude, make life more meaningful, and overcome both worry and fear. It promotes prosperity and health while explaining apparent Bible contradictions. Students learn how to develop more harmony in their homes and are taught how to separate truth from error, while disciplining their minds by believing. Students are also taught how to pray effectually.” (TWI press packet, 1984 The Way Magazine )
The Way International is a Bible-based group, but several of its teachings depart strongly from mainstream Christianity. Most prominently different is the denial of the Trinity . Wierwille is quoted as once saying, “When my life is over I think my greatest contribution may prove to be the knowledge and teaching that Jesus Christ is not God.” (Tucker: 222) The Way International views Christ as a created being not equal with God, and the Holy Spirit as simply a manifestation of God. Other beliefs which make TWI different are Arianism (the denial of the personality of the Holy Spirit), glossalia (speaking in tongues), Ultra-dispensationalism , and a rejection of Sunday worship . The Way also differs in its interpretation of the organization of the early church and other Biblical principles .
The Eleven-Point Belief System
The major beliefs of The Way International can be summed up in eleven points (Melton, 1986: 206):
Belief that the Old and New Testament were “God-breathed”, perfect as they were originally given.
Belief in God, Jesus Christ the Savior, and Holy Spirit.
Belief that Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit, God was in Christ, and Christ is the mediator between God and the people.
Belief that man was created in God’s image, sinned, and experienced spiritual death. All humans have a sinful nature.
Belief that Jesus Christ died for all sins, as a representative and substitute. All who believe God raised him are born again by the Spirit of God, and receive eternal life.
Belief that Jesus Christ was resurrected, ascended, and sits at the right hand of God.
Belief in the coming personal return of Christ.
Belief in the bodily resurrection of the just and unjust.
Receiving of the holy spirit, as evidenced through nine manifestations: speaking in tongues (glossalia), interpretation of tongues, prophecy, word of knowledge, word of wisdom, discerning spirits, faith, miracles, and healing.
Belief that it is available to receive all God’s promises and receive all Christ accomplished by substituting for us.
The early church flourished because of Root, Trunk, Limb, Branch, and Twig setup.
The Way International believes in the doctrine of Arianism, or the rejection of the personality of the Holy Spirit. Instead, TWI believes in the holy spirit, which is a gift from God, manifested through speaking in tongues, etc. (see #9 above)This is a break from other Christian churches, who rejected Arianism at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. (Melton, 1986. Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults and Sects in America)
The doctrine of dispensationalism holds that the books of the Bible are products of seven progressive periods of different administrations of God’s relationship to humanity. The administrations are:
Personal Reign of Christ.
Ultra-dispensationalism, as believed in by The Way International, adds an administration. They believe the current church lives under an administration begun at Pentecost and ending at the second coming of Christ. The period of transition to the new administration is characterized by John’s water baptism, as told in Acts. Thus, TWI rejects water baptism, accepting only baptism of the holy spirit.
The Way also rejects the Old Testament, the Gospels, Hebrews, James, and Acts as having relevance. These books were written before the current administration. Instead, Paul’s later epistles are considered primary. (Lewis, 1998: 523)
Rejection of Trinity
Where the theology of The Way deviates most strongly from mainline Christian traditions is in their rejection of the Trinity and divinity of Jesus Christ. In this they join other nontrinitarian groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Worldwide Church of God. Wierwille’s argument is set forth in his book, Jesus Christ is Not God . He argues that belief in the Trinity is polytheistic and therefore pagan. Instead, Christ is considered a created being, not coequal or coeternal with God. Wierwille’s views resemble Sabellianism or Modalism, which are teachings that God the Father is “preeminent and the Son and Holy Spirit are modes of the Father’s self-expression and self-revelation.” (Kyle: 371)
Unlike most mainstream Christian groups, The Way does not worship on Sundays. Instead, the group has fellowship meetings throughout the week (see Organizational Structure ). Weirwille writes
“the laws of the Sabbath were given to Israel, and, therefore apply to Israel. Since these laws were never given to the Church, their interpretation cannot be for it. . . We are not believers tied to one legalistic day of worship. We worship God daily in spirit and in truth.”(as quoted in Tucker: 227)
Speaking in Tongues
One of the main tenets of Way belief, and one which sets it apart from all but the Pentecostal tradition, is glossalia or speaking in tongues (SIT). Believers in the Way see SIT (as they refer to it) as a manifestation of the holy spirit. They are very pragmatic about it, however, not seeing it as particularly miraculous. Instead, it is seen as each individual’s responsibility, a way of reminding oneself of God’s power in your life. SIT, as Wayers practice it, is a mechanical process which is easily duplicated and participated in by anyone. (Tucker: 225-226)
Reinterpretation of the Bible
Victor Paul Wierwille believed he had special insight into the true Word of God as written in the Bible. This led to the adoption of original interpretations of scripture. First, The Way International takes issue with the idea of the virgin birth of Christ. Instead, they assert that there was literally physical sexual intercourse between the Holy Spirit and Mary which resulted in the conception of Jesus:
“Conception by the Holy Spirit was the only way Jesus Christ could be conceived. The Holy Spirit contributed the soul-life in the blood of Jesus by way of the sperm. In his arteries and veins there was sinless soul-life.” (Wierwille, as quoted by Tucker: 224)
In addition, TWI asserts that Joseph and Mary had sexual relations before Jesus was born, and that the scripture “Joseph knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son” (Matthew 1:25) simply means that Mary did not conceive a child by Joseph until after Jesus was born. (Tucker: 224)
Another interesting and unique take on scripture is Wierwille’s insistence that there were four criminals, not two, who were crucified with Christ. This belief is taken from the fact that Matthew 27:38 and Mark 15:27 both state that there were “two thieves,” while Luke 23:32 reads “two malefactors.”
A last point, also related to the Crucifixion, casts doubt on the mainstream belief that Christ was crucified on a Friday and was raised on Sunday morning. TWI affixes the day and time of the Crucifixion as Wednesday afternoon, meaning Christ rose 72 hours later on Saturday afternoon. (Tucker: 226-227)
The 11th belief point, as mentioned above, is that the early church flourished under a tree-like structure. Striving to duplicate the early church, The Way has established the structure of a tree in their own organization. They do not build churches, instead choosing to meet in the homes of members. The main branches at the international level (New Knoxville, Camp Gunnison, The Way College, etc.) are called roots. National organizations are trunks, branches are the local organizations, twigs are individual fellowship groups, and members refer to themselves individually as twigs. (Melton, 1986)
The tree structure is headed up by a three-member board of trustees, currently consisting of President L. Craig Martindale, Vice President Donald E. Wierwille (son of Victor Paul Wierwille), and Secretary-Treasurer Rev. John R. Reynolds (who replaced Howard R. Allen on April 12, 1998). ( The Way Magazine , TWI Press packet, 1984) The board appoints a cabinet to oversee each root location.
Most new religions face significant problems of succession with the departure of the founding leader. Struggles over who will lead often results in schisms and people leaving the group with unfavorable accounts of what life in the group was “really” like. The Way International is no exception. Wierwille picked a youthful Craig Martindale to succeed himself in 1983, but retained a strong hand in leading the organization until his death in1985. After Wierwille died, Martindale’s leadership was openly challenged. To date, there have been at least three major breakaway splinter groups. Perhaps even more important, The Way has been subject to a wide range of charges by Apostates. We briefly identify some of these charges below.
All groups undergo upheaval at the passing of leadership. On the fortieth anniversary of the founding of The Way, Wierwille announced his retirement, and passed leadership to 33-year old L. Craig Martindale. Martindale came to the movement while attending school on a football scholarship at the University of Kansas. While at KU, Martindale served as president of both the Baptist Student Union and Fellowship of Christian Athletes. After converting to the Way, Martindale became heavily involved. He graduated with the Second Way Corps, and served as state coordinator for the Way in Oklahoma from 1973-1974. He became the international director of The Way Corps in 1975, and played a part in establishing The Way College. He served as vice-president for the College from 1977 to 1980. (TWI Press packet, 1984)
While Martindale officially took over the position of president in 1982, Wierwille remained the president emeritus until his death in 1985, exerting a controlling hand over the movement even as he stepped out of official leadership. After Wierwille’s death, several leading Way officials challenged Martindale’s leadership, and the morality of Wierwille.
In 1986, Chris Geer, ordained by The Way, published a paper entitled The Passing of the Patriarch , which challenged Martindale’s leadership and attempted to establish his own spiritual authority. (Tolbert: 44) One year later, letters began circulating, calling for Martindale’s resignation. Other problems with the IRS, the government, and outsiders, began surfacing (see below). Around this time, TWI replaced the Moonies as the group targeted most by deprogrammers. (Melton, 1986: 209) Splintering became inevitable. By 1988, three breakaway movements had emerged: The American Fellowship Services, led by John Lynn; Steve Sann’s Pacific West Fellowship; and the Great Lakes Fellowship, led by Paul Rawlins and Paul Till. When asked how the Great Lakes Fellowship differs from TWI, Paul Rawlins replied:
“People are free here. We don’t have a hundred different things to tell the people to do. And we believe that Victor Paul Wierwille made mistakes with adultery and plagiarism. They still don’t want to believe that.” (as quoted by Tolbert)
Reports from 1988-1989 (Tucker) indicate that the splinter groups are not really affecting Way membership. The 1988 Rock of Ages concert drew in thousands. The only noticeable difference was the age of the crowd, which seemed to be made up more of young couples with children than college students. This, and the numbers indicated above, suggest that The Way is holding old members, but not recruiting as it needs to to survive.
An Active Counter-cult/Apostate Movement
The problems of succession and ensuing schism movements contributed to the development of an active group of apostates. Some former members have used the Internet to promote their campaign. Here is a brief summary of the major complaints apostates have leveled against The Way International:
Like many new religious groups, TWI has been the recipient of allegations that their methods of acquiring new members are coercive and involve the “erasure” of consciousness. In an article on the NoWayOut page , a member’s relative describes the behavior she observes:
“A college graduate who had started a nail concession at a Montclair beauty salon, [my niece] gave up her work, stopped wearing makeup and jewelry, and relinquished her wedding gifts, including Lenox china and Waterford crystal. . . to the ministry. . . Now,. . . [she] talks about the Bible incessantly and fears she will be condemned to hell.”
As mentioned above, this has led to The Way becoming a target for deprogrammers, during the 1980s becoming the group most often targeted.
Apostates have posthumously charged Victor Paul Wierwille with adultery and with child abuse. Other allegations are presently circulating among apostates concerning rape and harassment within the leadership of the group. In the NoWayOut online magazine there is an article written by a former female member who charges that one of the WOW leaders (a married man) treated her like his girlfriend and raped her:
“Before I knew it he was on top of me on the bed. He was . . . rubbing his penis up and down on my hip bones to stimulate himself. I was in SHOCK!”
Another sexually-related allegation is that Craig Martindale is a homophobe who has been removing homosexuals from the church, particularly the leadership. These and other “homo-sympathizers” and those who question Martindale’s teachings, are “marked” and shunned. (This from the Personal Freedom Outreach page )
Weapons and Military Training
For three years in the 1970s, the Way College of Emporia, Kansas offered a course (which was not mandatory) in hunting safety. The course was initiated by the state of Kansas, funded by the state, and followed state guidelines. However, the use of weapons in this course, and the subsequent storing of weapons on the Way International property, led to allegations of training in guerilla warfare. However, there has been no evidence found to support these rumors, particularly since no military tactical training was given, and military weapons were not used. (Lewis, 1998: 524; Melton, 1986)
Problems With the IRS
In 1985, the IRS revoked the tax-exempt status of The Way International after finding that funds had been diverted to political causes. It was alleged that The Way supported Deloris Fishbaugh, former mayor of New Knoxville and sister of Victor Paul Wierwille, in her run for state representative. In addition, The Way was accused of supporting the campaigns of Hayes Gahagan (senator of Maine), Lillian Caron (mayor of Lewistown, Maine), and Joseph Kaputa (state senator of Colorado). The Way contested the IRS ruling, citing first-amendment rights, and claiming that the support to campaigns was on an individual basis among members, and was not sponsored by the Way. The status was reinstated after challenge in 1987. ( St. Mary’s Evening Leader )
Other Religious Groups
The Way has also drawn criticism from other religious groups. In particular, two books released by the movement, The Hoax of the Twentieth Century and The Myth of the Six Million have drawn charges of anti-Semitism. These books claim that the Nazi genocide of Jews in the Holocaust was grossly over-exaggerated. (Melton, 1996)
Hopkins, Joseph M., 26 September 1975. The Word and the Way According to Victor Paul Wierwille.” Christianity Today. Vol. 19., 40-42.
Kyle, Richard., 1993. The Religious Fringe: A History of Alternative Religions in America, Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press. 355-373.
Lewis, James R., 1998. Encyclopedia of Cults, Sects, and New Religions . Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. 522-525.
Melton, J. Gordan, 1996. The Encyclopedia of American Religions (5th edition). Detroit: Michigan. Gale Research Co.
Melton, J. Gordan, 1986. Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults and Sects in America. Detroit: Michigan. Gale Research Co.
St. Mary’s Evening Star. 1985. “Way officials seek peace with IRS,” St. Mary’s Evening Star. (September 9)
The Way Magazine , September/October 1998.
The Way International Press Packet, 1984.
Tolbert, Keith, 19 February 1988. “Infighting Trims Branches of The Way International.” Christianity Today. 32:44.
Tucker, Ruth A. 1989. Another Gospel: Alternative Religions and the New Age Movement. Michigan: Academie Books. 217-230.
Whitmore, Bob. 1982. “Rightly Dividing The Way”, Faith . February: 10-12.
Created by Maria J. Whitmore
Soc 257: New Religious Movements
Fall Term, 1998
University of Virginia
Last modified: 10/04/01