Church alters positions on care, discipline

Former Church of God members doubt that resolutions about children would lead to serious reforms.

Note: This church is independent and not affiliated with the Church of God congregations. 8, 2002
By David Hermann and Gene Maddaus

Upland -- Confronted with criminal child abuse cases in the United States and Canada, the Upland-based Church of God has changed its position on faith-based healing and physical punishment for children, its founder said Friday. The Rev. Daniel Layne said the church will allow parents to seek medical care for their children who are seriously ill, a move that he acknowledged is a departure from its previous stance.

"We have felt that the Bible doesn't instruct the church to do that," Layne said. "But in trying to show sensitivity to this issue, we feel that we need to let the people know that we are allowing, and feel that God will allow, them to do as the government demands in this area." Two Rancho Cucamonga church members, Richard and Agnes Wiebe, have been charged with manslaughter in the death of their 11-month-old daughter, Julia. The girl died of meningitis last year, never having seen a doctor. Medical experts said that her death was preventable.

Layne said the church's change of heart on divine healing and a new recommendation that parents explore ways other than spanking to discipline their children were the product of three days of meetings among church elders in Ohio last month.

The end result of the conferences was a four-paragraph statement that Layne said was approved unanimously by those in attendance.

"The general ministerial body is the highest authority to which all the people in the church look to for guidance in theological matters," he said. "This makes it a very strong thing for our people."

The church's critics are not convinced.

"It's so far from the truth," said Pauletta Willis, of Farmland, Ind., who grew up in the church but was excommunicated last year. "They would never, ever, ever do that. They would say they're compromising their religion."

Peter Thiessen, of Ontario, Canada, agreed. His wife, Anna, a church member, died of untreated breast cancer in September 2000.

"I don't believe it," he said. "They're not going to go to a doctor. People are shunned when they go to a doctor."

Bernie Tocholke, of Kenosha, Wis., said the move was just an effort to end legal scrutiny of the church.

"I think they just dropped their elevation a little bit," he said. "They're just getting their heads a little lower."

While Layne acknowledged that the changes come in response to the flurry of legal activity that has surrounded the church, he said they are sincere.

"It's not damage control," he said. "We've had some serious conferences about this point and we feel strongly that we're on the right course."

The statement's emphasis on abiding by "the law of the land" is a departure for Layne, who once said the Church of God has more authority than the U.S. government.

But the statement also bears similarities to prior comments. Layne has previously said that the church has no objection to parents seeking medical care for their children, and has said that spanking should be done in a loving manner and only as a last resort.

Tocholke casts spanking in a darker light, and said that more often, what the term really means is "paddling." Five of his children still live with their mother, though he is going to court to seek their custody. He said he used to spank his boys when he was a member of the church, though he added that he was "grieved" by it.

He explained what he said were the church's teachings on spanking in a written statement.

"The parent then selects the appropriate weapon to inflict the pain ... the bigger the child, the bigger the weapon," he wrote. "The child then has to take it silently and without resistance. As long as the child struggles or needs to be held or cries aggressively the parents do not stop spanking. The parent only stops when the child relaxes, goes limp, stops crying, or until the Lord tells them to stop."

The Kenosha County (Wis.) Sheriff's Department is investigating Tocholke's allegations that his former pastor hit his children with an 18-inch paddle.

Similar charges have landed the church in court in Aylmer, Ontario, Canada, where it is illegal to hit children with objects. Local authorities are seeking the right to monitor the health of seven children who were removed from their parents' home last year. The family has since been reunited, but it remains under the supervision of child welfare officials.

In answer to his critics, Layne said people who have been asked to leave by a church or a company are bound to be critical of the organization they left behind.

"If you just talk to those people who've been fired by Ford, you're never going to buy a Ford," he said. "We've fired some people, if you know what I mean, and they're not happy."

Layne added that hundreds of other members are happy with their church.

Layne said the statement, which will be disseminated to church congregations in the United States, Canada, Europe and Mexico during Sunday services, does not change the church's position on faith-based healing for adults.

"Adults are free to treat themselves," he said. "We have never told anyone you cannot go to the doctor. Our people just choose that."

Asked if there will be a stigma attached to church members who seek medical treatment, Layne said that faith in spiritual healing is one of the faith's central beliefs.

"We, as a people, are known for our belief in faith healing," he said. "People normally wouldn't attach themselves to us who held an opposing view. We will comply with the law as it is written, which gives us considerable latitude."

San Bernardino County Deputy Dist. Atty. Jeremy Carrasco, who is prosecuting the Wiebes, said he did not know if the change in belief would affect his case.

"We're obviously concerned or interested in the change of opinion, but as to whether it changes the case, that hasn't been determined," he said.

Church of God statement

The following is the full text of the statement drafted by The Church of God's General Ministerial Assembly during its meetings May 22-24:

Whereas: Our national, state/provincial and local governments have passed laws with severe penalties, limiting our liberty to treat our seriously ill minor children exclusively with spiritual means.

Resolved: Having the best interest of our children in mind, in cases of perceived serious illness of one of our minor children, the ministry shall advise the parents/guardians of their legal requirement and allow seeking of medical means for the child according to the law of the land.

Whereas: We, as a Christian people abhor the abuse of children in any form, that we consider them the "heritage of the Lord," and that child abuse in any form is a hideous sin and is contrary to the teaching of the Word of God.

Resolved: That the ministry of the church shall advise the people that they are to continue to use and explore methods other than "spanking" as forms of discipline, and that if, as a last resort, spanking is called for, it is to be administered in a loving way, without anger, in a way that will not abuse the child physically, psychologically, or spiritually. Spanking should always be with careful consideration and a moderate approach.

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