A man who went on a rampage last Saturday, killing seven members of a suburban Milwaukee congregation meeting in a hotel before committing suicide, belonged to an unusual, cult-like denomination that fosters a sense of “apocalyptic paranoia” with a heightened sense that the end of the world is near, says a Baptist professor of theology.

Police said 44-year-old computer programmer Terry Ratzmann fired 22 bullets into the gathering of the Living Church of God before turning the gun on himself.

Investigators aren’t sure what prompted the attack, but some media reports quoted people who knew Ratzmann as saying he had been upset after recently hearing a taped speech by founding evangelist Roderick C. Meredith that told people to prepare for the end times and major economic upheavals.

Meredith started the church in the mid-1990s. It is one of more than 200 splinter offshoots of the Worldwide Church of God, started by the late famed radio evangelist Herbert W. Armstrong, whose empire included Plain Truth magazine and “The World Tomorrow!” radio broadcasts.

According to Wikipedia, Armstrong preached an unorthodox gospel, because his church was formed not to seek new members but to warn of impending doom. After Armstrong’s death in 1986, church leaders dropped many of his teachings, attempting to move nearer to mainstream Christianity. That sparked numerous splinter groups and a legal challenge that ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Meredith, one of the original evangelists ordained by Armstrong in 1952, remained more faithful to the founder’s views. Meredith recently began suggesting that that the end of the world may be imminent and urged followers to prepare, pointing to natural disasters, wars and economic crises as signs that the end is near.

“This heightened sense of ‘the end’ and the belief that they are the select few in an evil world creates an atmosphere of paranoia and pessimism,” said Curtis Freeman, research professor of theology and head of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke University’s Divinity School.

The Living Church of God, based in Charlotte, N.C., believes church members are spiritual heirs of the original Jerusalem church of New Testament times.

Freeman said official church teaching holds that white Anglo-American people of the world are the literal descendants of the 10 lost tribes of Israel, and therefore are heirs to the covenant promises.

The church also employs a strict hierarchy, where “The presiding evangelist and council of elders make decisions, and church members simply obey.” Such authoritarianism “fosters a cult-like atmosphere that allows little room for dissent,” Freeman said.

Meredith last week told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that his church rejects all violence and if Meredith acted on religious feelings, he was acting against church beliefs. “We’re a pacifist church,” he said. “We do not believe in violence or killing.”

While the church emphasizes belief that events signaling the end times will occur soon, it teaches that people should not take matters into their own hands. If that were a factor in Ratzmann’s thinking, he said, “that would be exactly the opposite of what we’ve been teaching.”

A statement on the denomination’s Web site called the rampage “a terrible tragedy.”

“We are cooperating with the authorities to find out what happened,” the statement said. “Information is still coming in. We have deep concern and are fervently praying for the injured and for the families of the deceased.”

The church claims 7,000 members in 228 congregations, many of them meeting in hotels or public places with itinerant preachers.

Among unusual views, Armstrong believed that the Old Testament commandments to worship on the seventh day and to abstain from eating certain animals and fish are still in effect. He said the Worldwide Church of God had been commissioned to warn the world by print and broadcasting media before the end of the age would come about with a World War III brought on by a United States of Europe.

Among other beliefs, Freeman said, the church considers Christmas and Easter pagan holidays that should not be observed by the “true church.”  It rejects the Christian Trinity and encourages members to avoid politics, court litigation and military service in order to be separate from “worldly” belief systems and communities.

While some practices in the church are similar to evangelical Christianity, mainline Protestant, Catholic and evangelicals regard the it to be “theologically eccentric” and “odd socially,” Freeman said in the New York Times.

The church’s views on the end of the world, however, are not far removed from theology popularized in the Left Behind novels, which merge fiction and Bible prophecy into a scenario involving a cataclysmic Second Coming of Christ.

“This is the dark side of the left-behind theology,” Freeman said in an e-mail to EthicsDaily.com, “proving that some folks don’t know the difference between fiction and history.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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