By Wayne S. Walker
Not long ago I was at a shopping center in a nearby town when my attention was caught by a flyer posted on the window of one of the store. It was printed by “The Way Ministry” of Brunswick, Ohio, and the headline read, “The Way Is Jesus Christ (John 14:6). ” A note near the bottom said, “We of The Way are a Biblical Research (Acts 17:11), Teaching (2 Cor. 5:17-21) and Fellowship (Heb. 10:25) Ministry. You, too can be a true follower of The Way… Jesus Christ.”(1)
What caught my attention was the use of Scripture. Most religious organizations today make no appeal to the Bible for their beliefs, teachings, or practices whatsoever any more. The flyer claimed, “As Jesus Christ responded when tempted by the devil, so The Way, today, responds with `It is written.”‘ There ensued five concepts, each followed by Scripture citations, four with which, if I understood them correctly, my study of the Bible forced me to disagree.
So far as I could remember, I had no knowledge of this group before I saw the flyer. So I wrote the address included with the advertisement seeking clarification of the points made. I received a telephone call from a gentleman who suggested we set up a meeting. So we met at a convenient restaurant. Although we did discuss some of our differences, my purpose was not to “argue” but merely to seek information. He explained the flyer, talked about his involvement in the movement, and gave me some more literature. I responded by giving him some tracts as well.
Seeking still further information, I found several interesting facts. “The Way,” which takes its name from Acts 9:2, et. al, originated between 1942 and 1953 when Victor Paul Wierwille, a former United Church of Christ (Evangelical and Reformed) minister, began teaching his Power for Abundant Living class, a thirteen-week course which cost $45 in 1971, $85 in 1975, and $200 in 1981.(2) It should be noted that Jesus and His apostles never charged a single penny for any of their services. Wierwille studied at Mission House College, University of Chicago Divinity School, and Moody Bible Institute, has a master’s degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, and received an honorary doctorate from Pike’s Peak Bible Seminary, a reputed degree mill.(3)
In 1957, Wierwille resigned his VanWert, Ohio, pulpit to launch an independent ministry. The Power for Abundant Living course spread to other areas, but “The Way” was largely confined to a few adults in Ohio until 1968 when two former drug users from the Jesus movement, Steve Heefner in New York, and Jim Doop in California, joined Wierwille to take “The Way” to both coasts. Soon the movement gained a conservatively estimated 20,000 adherents, distributed among all fifty states and thirty-three foreign countries, say its leaders.(4) By 1980, the followers were numbered at 40,000.
“The Way” has no official membership. Most participants are young people, although some parents have joined also. The organization is carefully structured, according to Allan Wallerstedt in a book, Victor Paul Wierwille and the Way. The trunk is the international headquarters at New Knoxville, Ohio, near Lima. The limbs are statewide organizations of which there are about twenty. The branches are city areas. Twigs are home or campus meetings of which there are over fifteen hundred. And leaves are individual members.(5)
Although chapel is conducted each Sunday night at the world headquarters, there are no formal worship services, just home Bible fellowship meetings. Other institutions associated with the movement are The Way Magazine (which increased in circulation from twenty-five hundred to ten thousand in just three and a half years), the American Christian Press publishing house, The Way College in Emporia, Kansas, and a national convention in Ohio called the “Rock of Ages Christian Music Festival,” plus a training center in Rome City, Indiana.(6)
The doctrine of the group is based on instruction Wierwille claims the Lord revealed to him directly in 1942.(7) According to Ellen Whiteside in a book, The Way, published by the organization in 1972, Wierwille reported, “I was praying . . . 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.” One of his converts is quoted as saying, “I see Dr. Wierwille as the next man of God to rise up after Paul’s death.”(8)
This doctrine is a blend of many different ideas. It includes typical denominationalism – salvation entirely by grace; Calvinism – once saved, always saved; dispensationalism – the church began with Paul’s epistles; Pentecostalism -tongue and healing are stressed; Unitarianism – the trinity doctrine is contrary to Scripture; and materialism – human beings do not have immortal souls.(9) Members believe in God, the Bible, Jesus Christ, salvation, and eternal life, but define these terms differently from the way we would. For this reason, James Bjornstad, executive director of the Institute of Contemporary Christianity in Oakland, New Jersey, said, “Probably the closest counterfeit to orthodox Christianity we have today is The Way International.”(10)
According to a publicity folder, “The Way” is “not a church, nor is it a denomination or a religious sect of any sort.” Yet the organization’s fifty ordained clergy (as of 1975), five of whom are women (cf. 1 Tim. 2:11-14), are authorized to perform marriages. A strong missionary effort is emphasized. In 1974, one thousand thirty-three “Word over the World” ambassadors were commissioned to herald the news about “The Way” in the United States, and two-thousand seventy-seven more in 1975 in both the United States and foreign countries, plus one-hundred four “minute men” or seasoned troops. The group began to grow appreciably when they began foraging for leaders among Jesus-movement converts.(11)
Shirl Short has written in the Moody Monthly, “The individual who has some religious or biblical background but no strong church ties or convictions is easy prey of The Way. So is the person who is down and out, feels rejected by his family, doesn’t have a good self identity, or lacks love. He is very likely to find appealing the loving, positive approach of The Way.(12) Wierwille also convinces some with his claim of scholarship. He often makes a point of saying, “Now in the Sanskrit it says . . . .” There are no Sanskrit manuscripts, but he uses that language to prove his unique interpretations. To anyone who has no scholastic background, it sounds plausible.
The group is often accused by critics of mind control of its recruits, who are usually young, white, and with “Christian” backgrounds. It is suggested that members be approached in the same manner they were approached by “The Way” – in love. It is best to begin with the Scriptures and the deity of Christ. If it can be demonstrated that Christ truly is God and the passages shown that reveal it, Wierwille’s theology crumbles. It is also helpful to show that his scholarship is faulty and how the Bible refutes “The Way’s” doctrines. These will be studied in the next article.
Guardian of Truth XXVII: 6, pp. 202-203
April 7, 1983