It happened one evening early February 1996. I was reading the magazine of the Worldwide Church of God, a group many Christians have traditionally regarded as a cult. I was reading because it was, after all, my responsibility to keep track of and expose legalism, unorthodox teaching and error whenever it was discovered.
The declaration I read, "A Church Reborn," authored by the newly appointed president of the church, Joseph Tkach, caught me completely unprepared.
An editor's note explained that the article was also appearing in the winter 1996 issue of Christian Research Journal, published by the Christian Research Institute (CRI). Wow! CRI was founded by Walter Martin, the author of Kingdom of the Cults, a basic reference tool for Christians and a book that devoted 34 pages to Armstrongism, the cultic teachings of the Worldwide Church of God.
This was the Worldwide Church of God of Herbert W. Armstrong and Garner Ted Armstrong. The media empire of The World Tomorrow on radio and television and The PIain Truth in print.
This was the same church that had predicted the end of the world on a number of occasions. The same church that branded the Trinity as a pagan teaching. The same church that was rooted in the old covenant, teaching legalistic interpretations of Mosaic teachings as being required for salvation.
A Church Reborn
My interest was heightened as I read Tkach's words. "Our beliefs and practices have undergone a continuous process of revision under the direction of our pastor general, Joseph W. Tkach, Sr. (my father), who succeeded Mr. Armstrong. Before he died this past September , my dad appointed me to succeed him….
"Gone are our obsession with a legalistic interpretation of the Old Testament, our belief in British Israelism, and our insistence on our fellowship's exclusive relationship with God. Gone are our condemnations of medical science, the use of cosmetics, and traditional Christian celebrations such as Easter and Christmas.
"Gone is our long-held view of God as a ‘family’ of multiple ‘spirit beings’ into which humans may be born, replaced by a biblically accurate view of one God who exists eternally in three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
"We have embraced and now champion the New Testament's central theme: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus' saving work on behalf of humanity is now the focus of our flagship magazine, The Plain Truth, rather than end-time prophetic speculation.
Having read this far, I could hardly contain myself for joy! Never in my 60 years had I witnessed such a wholesome and positive reawakening within any group or denomination. This was a dramatic move in the right direction!
Perhaps I recognized anew what had happened in my own life at the tender age of 16 when I discovered the Scriptural message of salvation through the grace of Jesus Christ alone. That very same them had touched my heart when I was struggling to work and earn my way to God’s favor (unsuccessfully, of course). Legalism comes in many forms and disguises and can be found in hundred of denominations, cults, and –isms.
The scales of darkness cannot survive the Word of God. The Gospel always wins. When error and darkness are exposed to the Light a miracle begins.
President Tkach continued, "My father…subjected himself to the truth of Holy Scripture. In the face of opposition, he insisted that Jesus Christ is Lord. He was a humble and faithful minister of Jesus Christ who allowed God to lead him and the Worldwide Church of God into the riches of God's grace. Relying on God in faith and in fervent prayer, we fully intend to stay the course on which Jesus Christ has set us."
What are we to say to all this? How should we respond? How does the flock respond when the shepherd reaches out to locate and rescue his lost sheep?
Some may suggest that there is a subtle effort afoot to counterfeit the Gospel and confuse unwitting believers. Some have already responded to this wonderful news by saying that the Worldwide Church of God is trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the flock.
This response would interpret all of this as a clever public relations gambit; therefore Christians should be extremely cautious.
Others may insist that miraculous transformations like this just don't happen. And this is an understandable reaction, given the proliferation of cults and cultic teachings. The success of cults is frightening, seemingly out of control.
Reading Tkach's amazing testimony, I had some of the same concerns. How could this happen? The pattern of change in churches and denominations that I was familiar with was typically decay, a movement from orthodoxy to apostasy. But I also realized that God reaches out to seeking hearts and that He moves in mysterious ways.
I came to believe that such an astounding and unheard of renunciation of past error coupled with a clear confession of faith could only elicit the response of extending the right hand of fellowship.
I wanted to find out more. Circumstances allowed for me to have the privilege of spending some precious and memorable hours with Tkach, accompanied by director of church administration J. Michael Feazell and The Plain Truth editor-in-chief Greg R. Albrecht.
They were conducting a week-long pastor's conference in Harrisburg, Pa., explaining, teaching, and directing the transformation of the Worldwide Church of God to pastors and wives. At my invitation they drove to WFMZ radio and television headquarters in Allentown.
We shared lunch and the majority of the afternoon together. We had a joyous time centered around the Word and our personal testimonies.
As does everyone who hears of this remarkable movement of the Holy Spirit, I wanted to know how all of the necessary changes came about and how pastors and members who had been taught and trained in legalism reacted to the grace and mercy of our Lord and Savior.
I personally heard the story that was summarized in Tkach's article. And now I am testifying to you what I heard.
Tkach said, "Our progress has not been without costs. Income has plummeted, costing millions of dollars and requiring us to lay off hundreds of long-time employees.
"Membership has declined," the president continued. "Several splinter churches have broken from us to return to one or the other of our previous doctrinal and cultural positions. As a result, families have separated and friendships have been abandoned, sometimes with angry, hurt feelings and accusations. We are deeply saddened by this and pray that God will bring healing and reconciliation.
"Despite the material losses, we have gained much. As Paul wrote, 'Whatever was to our profit in what we embraced before, we now consider worthless for the sake of Christ. We take courage and comfort in knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection and fellowship of sharing in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead' (Philippians 3:7-11).
"We welcome the blessing of being part of not just a small, exclusive, physical corporation, but the body of Christ, the community that is the church of God, and to do all we can to help share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with all the world," Tkach declared.
Forgive Us Our Trespasses
Many will still question how such a transformation can take place with formal apologies without a request for forgiveness and without an acceptance of the responsibility of the hurt and pain caused by unbiblical teaching. /
"Surely if there is sincerity," runs this line of reasoning, "there will be fruits of repentance." This was addressed in the March/April 1996 issue of The Plain Truth. (The once monthly magazine changed to bimonthly as a direct result of the payment to be made for accepting truth over error.)
Tkach wrote in this issue, "We've been wrong. There was never an intent to mislead anyone. We were so focused on what we believed we were doing for God that we didn't recognize the spiritual path we were on.
"Intended or not, that path was not the biblical one," he continued. "So we stand today at the foot of the cross — the ultimate symbol of reconciliation. It is the common ground on which all estranged and alienated parties can meet. As Christians, we all identify with the suffering that took place there, and we hope that identification will bring us together."
I am thrilled and delighted to personally know the leadership of the Worldwide Church of God. Perhaps it will seem trite that I compare the glorious triumph of Jesus Christ in this part of the body of Christ to the classic stage production Fiddler on the Roof.
Young Tzeitel has been promised by her father, Tevye, to old Lazar Wolf the widowed butcher, though her heart belonged to young Motel the tailor. Tevye's relenting permission for the young lovers to wed brings forth the joyful song "Miracle of Miracles." The true loves were allowed to dwell together.
I can tell you that miracles still happen in the body of Christ. In the real life of the church our Lord and Savior walks among us seeking the lost, the wounded, the blind, and the broken-hearted. What a joy to be alive and to witness the mighty work of the Holy Spirit as he moves among us to bring us to the unity we have in Christ!
(Regarding miracles, I am told that the cover story of the March/April 1997 issue of The PIain Truth is an exclusive interview with Billy Graham!)
The Worldwide Church of God and the newly formed PIain Truth Ministries will focus its ministry and outreach on teaching others what it has learned. These people know firsthand what it means to be trapped in a world of legalism.
They believe their journey out of the world of cults, unbiblical teaching, and legalism can help them to point out the pitfalls and obstacles. They have a zeal and a passion for the Gospel which drives them to do their part to serve our Savior.
PIain Truth Ministries is now a member of the Evangelical Press Association (EPA), the Evangelical Christian Publisher 's Association (ECPA), and an associate member of National Religious Broadcasters.
Some of the most respected names in the Christian church have publicly applauded the transformation and requested the support and prayers of the larger universal Church.
The July 15, 1996, issue of Christianity Today devoted seven pages to this historic transformation in an article by author and professor Ruth Tucker, "From the Fringe to the Fold — How the Worldwide Church of God discovered the pIain truth of the Gospel."
What We Can Do
The Worldwide Church of God needs to tell its story. The PIain Truth needs to thrive and to grow in influence as it stands for the kind of reformation that leads to revival and growth in the body of Christ.
The church and its publication need our help, our support, and our prayers. They cannot grow if we accept them on probation. They cannot succeed if we do not stand up with them and for them. They are in a struggle for survival.
PIain Truth Ministries not only publishes The PIain Truth magazine, but also produces quality videos to help finance its operations. The ministry also plans to rejoin the electronic ministry, this time to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Funds do not permit the expansion this year, but I am one radio and television station president who will be praying and cheering for them to do so as soon as possible.
With the courageous, uncompromising stance of the Worldwide Church of God, dedicated to proclaiming the message of God's all sufficient grace in Jesus Christ, the honest-to-God plain truth can be clearly shouted from the housetops!
Please join me in welcoming our new brothers and sisters in the Lord.
Richard C. Dean is president of WFMZ-AM-FM-TV/Allentown, Pa.
originally published in Religious Broadcasting, February-March 1997