The Enigma of Herbert W. Armstrong
Transformed by Truth, by
To all current or former members of the Worldwide Church of God:
Please Read This First!
This chapter is not written to attack or belittle Herbert Armstrong in any way. I will not dare to judge the quality of his spiritual relationship with God – that’s not for me or anyone else to attempt. I believe that God loved him, that he loved God, and that his security rests in Christ alone. This chapter represents my personal attempt to come to grips with the central place Mr. Armstrong holds in the history and shaping of our church.
As I write these words, I’m working in the office once occupied by Herbert W. Armstrong. I’m sitting at the desk Mr. Armstrong used, and I’m looking out the windows that once served as his eye on the world below. Everywhere I turn my head there are reminders of his strong leadership and pervasive influence. As I gaze on his portrait and glimpse mementos from his world travels that are scattered throughout our Pasadena headquarters, I feel compelled to try to make sense of what has happened in the Worldwide Church of God since his death in January 1986. So I sit in Mr. Armstrong’s former office, trying to look back and understand the man who led our church for so many years.
The Hardest Chapter to Write
I’ll be honest with you: This chapter is the hardest one in the whole book for me to write. There are many reasons why this is so.
First, Mr. Armstrong himself was a very complex man. It’s not always easy to understand the motivations that drove him or the influences that helped shape him. He could be both loving and harsh, gracious and antagonistic, humble and proud. He is not an easy man to categorize.
Second, my task in this chapter is difficult because I know my readers come from one of at least two vastly different audiences. One group is made up of people who greatly admire Mr. Armstrong and everything he said. They will be watching closely to see if I attack my former mentor and spiritual leader. The other group is at the other end of the spectrum. Its members want me to denounce Mr. Armstrong, to call him a false prophet who led thousands of people into serious spiritual error.
I am afraid that I will disappoint both groups, for I won’t be taking either of these two options. I intend neither to canonize Mr. Armstrong as a sinless saint nor to condemn him as a hateful heretic. My goal is to try to come to some understanding of who he was as a man and as a leader, as well as to see how he laid the foundation for where we stand today in the Worldwide Church of God. It is necessary to be honest about the errors that he taught, yet it is appropriate to show respect to him as the founder of a movement that taught Jesus as being the only name under heaven by which we can be saved.
Regardless of what you may personally think of Herbert W. Armstrong, one fact is incontrovertible: The overriding reason our reforms have developed and taken root is that Mr. Armstrong himself always insisted that those who want to follow God must find out what God’s Word really says, then go and do it. As we have followed his instruction in the past few years, we have discovered many things in our church that needed to be changed.
To avoid running ahead of that story, however, I think it would be helpful to jump back to the beginnings of the Worldwide Church of God. The following is by no means an exhaustive history of our founder and the denomination he created, but it should help you understand where our church came from and where we have been.
In the Beginning
Herbert W. Armstrong was born in 1892 to Quaker parents in Des Moines, Iowa. He would later say that the religious training he received in his formative years taught him a system of beliefs but nothing of vital spirituality as a way of life.
As a young adult Mr. Armstrong worked as an advertising agent and from 1912-1915 wrote advertising copy for The Merchants Trade Journal. In 1920 his own advertising business was wiped out in what he called a "flash depression." He moved to Oregon in 1924 and soon saw two more businesses fail. Around this time he began to get more serious about spiritual matters.
In the early years of Mr. Armstrong’s ministry, before he was attracted to Anglo-Israelism, Pyramidology, and Adventism, he was strongly influenced by evangelical Christianity. This fact is little known. Most of our members have long thought they were not Protestant – hardly a surprising development since we were taught we had a history independent from "the whore of Babylon and her daughters." On the other side, many books critical of Mr. Armstrong talk only about the cultish sources which allegedly influenced him. Some cultish and aberrant groups did influence him – the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Adventism for example – but these books ignore the significant influence of the evangelical community (see appendix).
This evangelical influence is one of the strongest reasons Mr. Armstrong consistently pointed to the Bible as his final authority for faith and practice, as opposed to church tradition or an outside source. Believe it or not, our "culture" in the church always has been closest to evangelical Protestantism. Where did this influence originate?
In the midtwenties Mr. Armstrong frequently consulted with an evangelical minister and was baptized by the pastor of the Hinson Memorial Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon. Mr. Armstrong once said of this pastor, "The man is the most godly man in all of Portland." There is some reason to suppose that Mr. Armstrong attended the Bible school which was associated with Hinson at that time; this Bible school met at the Portland library at the time Mr. Armstrong was beginning his studies.
We also know Mr. Armstrong used the Scofield Reference Bible, the favorite Bible of dispensational evangelicals during that period. He said the Scofield Bible helped him understand some important doctrines, especially the dispensationalist view of prophecy. Perhaps it was the pastor of Hinson Memorial who introduced him to Scofield’s Bible. Whatever the case, Mr. Armstrong later adapted those prophetic views to an Anglo-Israelite model.
Yet even this was not the full extent of the evangelical influence on Herbert Armstrong’s teaching. His first wife, Loma, was a Methodist, and the perfectionism often found in Methodism eventually was incorporated into the teachings of our church. In addition, when he was beginning his own evangelistic efforts, Mr. Armstrong said he had read and admired the works of Charles Finney, the great nineteenth-century American evangelist. Finally, the evidence indicates that Mr. Armstrong learned his stance on healing from Pentecostal sources. While he rejected their tongues-speaking, he accepted some form of their doctrine on healing. Our archives show that when some people in Los Angeles wanted prayer for healing, he pointed them to the Pentecostal mission downtown.
Of course, Mr. Armstrong didn’t stay long with mainstream evangelicals. By the mid- to late-twenties, he had begun to search elsewhere for spiritual truth. When his wife told him she had come to believe that the Bible taught Christians should worship on the Sabbath, not on Sunday, Mr. Armstrong said he vigorously disagreed and set out to prove her wrong. Yet at the end of several weeks of intense study, he said he was "completely converted, spring of 1927" to the Sabbatarian point of view.1 Shortly after that, he and his wife began fellowshiping with a Church of God (Seventh Day) group in Salem, Oregon. Mr. Armstrong began preaching to small crowds in 1930.
There is some controversy about whether Mr. Armstrong and his wife ever became members of the Church of God (Seventh Day). Throughout his ministry he loudly insisted he never was a member, that he provided help and encouragement to this group but never joined. Yet several extant documents dispute this. A memo from the Bible Advocate Press (affiliated with the Church of God, Seventh Day) in Denver, Colorado, offers the following history of the time in question:
Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong began his search for "truth" (in earnest) back in the Fall of 1926 after his wife, Loma, had embraced the seventh-day Sabbath message as the result of the witness of a Church of God woman.
Mr. Armstrong to that time had considered his wife’s acceptance of the Sabbath as an indication of "religious fanaticism." So he set out to prove her wrong. In the spring of 1927, Mr. Armstrong accepted his wife’s views as correct.
It was about that time that Mr. Armstrong entered into the Church of God fellowship. According to Mr. Armstrong, he felt that the Church of God in Oregon embraced the truth and the testimony of Jesus, but it was a fruitless work. So he has contended that he and Mrs. Armstrong maintained "a detached fellowship."
That "detached fellowship" did not prevent Mr. Armstrong from accepting a ministerial license from the Oregon Conference of the Church of God (Seventh Day). The Oregon Conference was an affiliate of the organization which at that time was headquartered in Stanberry, Missouri. The ministerial document was issued in about 1931. Back in those days state conferences were empowered by the General Conference to grant ministerial licenses, with the General Conference granting credentials. The General Conference was composed of state conferences, each of which was an association of congregations. The state conferences were totally dependent on the General Conference offices for their authority.
(Some folks have inquired of the Armstrongs’ membership status. The Church of God did not ever issue ministerial documentation to nonmembers.)
In 1933 the Church of God (Seventh Day) suffered a severe schism, dividing right down the middle. The half that severed (both in members and ministers) established their headquarters in Salem, West Virginia. This new organization was headed by Andrew N. Dugger, who had served as president of the old conference from 1914 to 1928 and as editor of the Bible Advocate from 1914 to 1932. The two divisions reunited in 1949, eventually establishing new headquarters in Denver, Colorado. A small number of dissidents remained separate from the reorganized body, and kept a skeletal work in Salem.
Mr. Armstrong gravitated toward the Salem movement. He had aligned himself with A. N. Dugger, thus following Elder Dugger in that association.
By 1934, Mr. Armstrong had accepted appointment as one of "the seventy," a group of ministers and church leaders who were charged with "the message for the last days."... Mr. Armstrong was granted ministerial credentials at that time.
It was also about this time that Mr. Armstrong began a radio broadcast ministry which he identified as "The Radio Church of God," and which he later contended to be independent of the Salem body’s support or endorsement. Interestingly enough, the Salem body was publishing his reports and articles at the time, so apparently they did not share his understanding. He was carrying the highest documentation that the Church bestows.
During the ensuing months and years, Mr. Armstrong began to take an outspoken view on his understanding of British Israelism and the Hebrew feasts. The brethren encouraged him to present to the ministerial body as a whole his views on those subjects, rather than to continue preaching and promoting most forcefully his personal position.
It was at Detroit, Michigan, that Mr. Armstrong’s material on the Hebrew festivals was presented. The ministerial body gave full treatment to the positions of Mr. Armstrong and a majority rejected the doctrine as unscriptural. But Mr. Armstrong was most insistent and continued to present his viewpoints in an antagonistic manner.
So, in 1938 the Salem organization revoked Mr. Armstrong’s credentials. Official records show the doctrinal dispute to be the reason for the severance.
In a "summary of copies of letters on file at the General Conference offices regarding Mr. Armstrong’s affiliation with the Salem movement successive to the 1933 division," the memo calls attention to a form letter which Mr. Armstrong signed which "required each minister’s allegiance to ‘the Constitution of the Church of God, with world headquarters at Jerusalem.’" Attached to that form is the following note: "Will you please record this my acceptance, and have credentials issued to me, according to my ministry in the body? Sincerely, Herbert W. Armstrong, 1142 Hall St., Salem Oregon." Another letter dated August 15, 1934, states, "I feel that my views and my stand, and what I preach, are in harmony and accord with all these ‘40 points’ [that is, the 40 points of doctrine as outlined in the Constitution of the Church of God (Salem, West Virginia)]."
Mr. Armstrong later wrote that "The parent local church of the present WORLDWIDE CHURCH OF GOD was the Church of God at Eugene, Ore., organized in August, 1933, with 19 members."2 From that year until 1968, the church enjoyed growth of about 30 percent each year – something Mr. Armstrong often noted with pride. Almost all the growth could be attributed to the church’s magazine, and later to its television program, The World Tomorrow. In response to this growth, Ambassador College was founded on October 8, 1947, largely to provide ministerial training for the church’s increasing number of pastors and lay elders, What they learned at Ambassador was largely the esoteric doctrine of the church. Here’s how Mr. Armstrong outlined what he considered to be the three most critical doctrinal distinctives of his church: "The real TEST COMMANDMENT of God’s law is the Sabbath. Another was the truth of U.S. and British true identity as the birthright tribes of the ‘lost’ 10 tribes, the house of Israel. Another was the annual Holy Days."3
On this foundation the church continued to grow quickly. In 1953 Mr. Armstrong began broadcasting in Europe via Radio Luxembourg, thus introducing his message to the rest of the world. Rapid growth continued until the 1970s, when it slowed substantially. Herbert Armstrong’s mission seemed to change after the death of his first wife in 1967. He started to delegate much of what he called "The Work" to others, including his son, Garner Ted Armstrong, while he began to travel around the world on the church’s G-II (and later a G-III) jet to meet with foreign dignitaries. (One book I read featured a little section that always stuck in my mind. It said, "If you want to make your CEO ineffective, make him a world traveler." Mr. Armstrong did become a world traveler and did become ineffective in the daily operations of the church.)
Eventually several problems came to Mr. Armstrong’s attention, and he was forced to take action. His son, Ted, was removed from broadcasting for four months in 1972 for a series of moral and doctrinal failures (the official word was that Ted was "in the bonds of Satan"). That was also the year a major prophecy by Herbert Armstrong failed to be fulfilled: He had erroneously predicted that the Great Tribulation would begin and that the WCG would be miraculously transported to Petra, Jordan, where the church would be physically protected. We generally referred to this event as "fleeing to a place of safety." Some have said this was our version of the rapture.
Our booklet 1975 in Prophecy implied the return of Christ in that year; but when it too failed to come true, Mr. Armstrong began to be more careful in his prognostications. He reasserted his control over the teaching and practice of the church and took action against certain leaders who were trying to systematize church doctrine. Ted was officially disfellowshiped in 1978 for his "liberalism" and "modernizing" tendencies. As Herbert Armstrong wrote in February 1979:
I can tell you how my son, when he was executive vice president, with a small group of liberals at headquarters, tried to bring us into harmony. Some of the ministers did not believe many of the doctrines Christ had put into His Church. A minority (yet perhaps close to a dozen field ministers) had liberal leanings – did not believe the SAME THINGS Christ had put into His Church. So, behind my back – unknown to me, while I was in another part of the world carrying Christ’s Gospel message into other nations – they produced what they called a Systematic Theology Project, changing and watering down – making more liberal – many doctrines Christ had put into God’s Church.4
The Systematic Theology Project (STP) was actually one of the most positive steps the WCG had ever taken. By this time several ministers in Pasadena were engaged in studying and systematically recording church doctrine under Garner Ted Armstrong’s authority. Ted claims he had his father’s blessing; Herbert Armstrong later said this was all done behind his back and while he was "out of town."
The STP later became the target of those who were "loyal" to Herbert W. Armstrong. Copies of the STP were trashed and destroyed. Ministers loyal to Herbert Armstrong claimed that the STP was a conspiratorial plot to change "everything" Mr. Armstrong taught.
Of course any examination and detailed study will raise questions. For a brief period of time in the midseventies, we began to liberalize a number of prohibitions regarding dress, use of cosmetics, and several other minor issues. But the charges against the STP were effective, with some ministers claiming that the Systematic Theology Project in fact more accurately stood for Slowly Turning Protestant.
In 1977 the widowed Herbert W. Armstrong married divorcee Ramona Martin. He was eighty-five, she was thirty-nine; they divorced in 1981. In 1979, while Armstrong was living in Tucson, Arizona, the attorney general of the state of California tried to take control of the church, charging that it had violated several statutes. The following year the suit was dropped.
In the years just prior to his death, Mr. Armstrong himself changed some minor doctrines, shaking a few members’ belief that he was an infallible teacher of biblical truth. Yet by the time he died in 1986 at the age of ninety-three, Mr. Armstrong left behind a church that attracted 120,000 people to services each week, with an annual worldwide income of about $200 million. Magazine circulation was more than eight million, while The World Tomorrow television program had risen to become one of the most watched religious programs in America.
When I look back at the long life and career of Herbert W. Armstrong, I am struck by several things. On the one hand, he was passionate about discovering biblical truth and was deeply committed to living by it; on the other hand, many of the doctrines he championed were flawed and unscriptural. He taught that people were not saved by law-keeping but by the grace of God through faith in the death and resurrection of Christ, yet he also taught that God would finally save only those who obeyed Him, including obedience to WCG teachings such as observance of the Saturday Sabbath and the annual holy days. His teaching minimized the sufficiency of the saving work of Christ and emphasized the coming millennial kingdom. He often characterized Christ as little more than a divine messenger.
To this day I am not certain how to relate to the memory of Herbert W. Armstrong. He was my spiritual leader and teacher for almost forty-five years, and it was through his ministry that I came to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ; yet as I sit in the chair he once occupied, I have come to recognize how far short our church had fallen from biblical norms. He dogmatically taught an inaccurate view of church history which amounted to one gigantic conspiracy theory. There are, however, several lasting and positive legacies Mr. Armstrong bequeathed to us.
1. Respect for the authority of Scripture
From his earliest to his last days, Mr. Armstrong maintained a reverential respect for Scripture. He believed and taught that Holy Scripture was the very Word of God, faithful in all respects and utterly worthy of our loyalty and obedience. As he wrote, "Our teaching and doctrines MUST COME FROM GOD! Through CHRIST!... Jesus Christ is the Word of God in PERSON. The Bible is the same Word of God IN PRINT!"5
He would often say that if it could be shown that something he was teaching was unbiblical, he would change his teaching, since the Bible can make no error. It was this strong heritage that created the rails along which our doctrinal train has been running these past few years. Without the deep commitment to the Scriptures which God instilled in us through Mr. Armstrong, we would never have embarked on the journey we have taken. It was this passionate dedication to the truth of the Bible that has emboldened us to make the corrections that Scripture demands.
2. Use of media as a pre-evangelism tool
If you take our former doctrinal aberrance out of the mix, the Worldwide Church of God under Herbert Armstrong led the pack in using electronic and print media to reach unchurched people.
When you hear the history of radio evangelism, you often hear of men such as Charles Fuller but almost never of Herbert W. Armstrong. Yet, an outsider who was not a committed evangelical Christian would ask, "Why are you leaving out one of the top radio and television ministries not only in the United States but the world?" In numbers and impact on his audience, Herbert Armstrong (and his son, Ted) had far greater influence than many other ministries.
Early on, Mr. Armstrong recognized a way to get his message out to an interested audience. The first radio broadcast aired in October 1933, and the regular weekly program, which became The World Tomorrow program on radio, began January 7, 1934. He was one of the pioneers; he built one of the largest radio ministries in existence. Most ministries and churches can’t do what he did because of the enormous expense. The payback on investment simply doesn’t happen. Yet his efforts were effective.
One of the first times several of us visited Hank Hanegraaff at the Christian Research Institute, we were in the middle of having to decide, for financial reasons, whether The World Tomorrow television program should go off the air. Hank earnestly asked us not to let it die. "Clean up the doctrine," he said, "but you guys are one of the best programs on the air, getting to unchurched people a right idea of what Christianity is about. You’re not a dog-and-pony show At least if you continue your program with some changes, there will be somebody on the air with some measure of credibility." I think Herbert Armstrong can be credited with the high standards and professionalism that our program embodied.
On the print side of things, The PIain Truth began with Vol. I, No. 1 as a humble mimeographed paper on February 1, 1934, in order "to reach the world with the Gospel."6 I’ll let the former advertising man describe his own strategies:
God had been opening my mind to understanding of His truth. I had been experienced in magazine and newspaper writing. God put it in my mind to publish HIS magazine, making His TRUTH – the Bible – PLAIN, CLEAR, UNDERSTANDABLE, INTEREST-GRIPPING, DYNAMIC....
What I had in mind was articles dealing with world conditions and human interest problems – but always in the main content of the article, approaching that problem and dealing with it from the BIBLICAL revelation – so that in fact it was actually making plain the TRUTH – derived from revelation, not from science or secular scholarship of behavioral science and university-brand psychology....
Now, back to the BASIC POLICY and PURPOSE of The PIain Truth. I have already stated it – to make plain God’s revealed TRUTH as it is in the Bible. To make the Bible interesting! To make it understandable! To make it COME ALIVE as a NOW Book!... We reach people 10 times more effectively through the eye than through the ear.7
The Plain Truth can and must be made the No. 1 MAGAZINE ON EARTH – utterly unique – no subscription price nor advertising revenue – making the biblical message not only plain but dynamically interest-gripping, with a stronger public-reader appeal than even Reader’s Digest.
It must become the No. 1 QUALITY magazine, as a vigorous, dynamic, interest-grabbing magazine that literally makes God’s truth COME ALIVE!...
We are the only voice in the wilderness of today’s evils, frustrations, discouragements, with the world’s ONLY HOPE – and its one SURE HOPE of happiness, abundance and eternal life!
We are going to develop the NEWSSTAND circulation into multiplied millions. But first, before I sell The PIain Truth to the newsstand audience, I must have a PRODUCT that will grab attention, arouse instant interest, create suspense and the DESIRE FOR MORE – AND MORE – AND MORE OF THE SAME!8
After all these years, that still sounds like a strategy that would work, doesn’t it? Mr. Armstrong was a master at causing readers and listeners to consider what the Bible had to say on current world and national issues. We can still learn much from him here.
3. Concern over secular influences on young adults
One of the major concerns driving Mr. Armstrong to found Ambassador College was his desire to provide young people with a resource to combat harmful secular influences. One of the reasons he began writing back in the thirties was his antagonism toward atheistic evolution. He wasn’t as informed on the subject as he might have been, but he was deeply concerned that atheism was negatively affecting the minds of young people and so took action. He was right on target in foreseeing how a purely secular outlook corrupts and eventually destroys the morals of a people and their nation.
4. Opposition to nominal Christianity
Mr. Armstrong took seriously the Bible’s call to live out one’s faith. He often preached against the kind of "faith" that would allow a person to disregard God’s Word whenever it became convenient to do so. His concern reflects that of Paul in Acts 26:20:
First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.
He was concerned that believers should honor God by obeying His divine commands. As Paul wrote in Romans: "What shall we say then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?" (Romans 6:1-2). Mr. Armstrong took seriously the apostle’s words in Titus about some professing believers: "They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good" (Titus 1:16). We now believe our founder’s response to this legitimate concern was unbalanced, but that does not mean the concern itself was misguided. It still ought to be a concern for all of us.
5. Creation of a charitable foundation
Mr. Armstrong created the Ambassador Foundation, funded by the WCG, that he used to express his concern for impoverished and disadvantaged peoples around the world. Over the years he developed a special relationship with the people of Thailand, helping fund several agricultural and humanitarian projects in the country. Headlines from our internal newspaper, The Worldwide News, tell of numerous trips he made to Thailand, interacting with government officials and the nation’s royalty On January 22, 1984, the king of Thailand presented Mr. Armstrong with the Order of the White Elephant for his contributions to the welfare of his country. In February of the next year, Queen Sirikit of Thailand visited the United States to see Mr. Armstrong.
In retrospect it might be said that the foundation may have been overly generous in certain areas, but at least the right "heart" was present. It began to be acceptable for the church, through the foundation, to spend money on charitable works outside our own fellowship. We wouldn’t do things in the same way today, but the foundation was a step in the right direction and away from our long isolation.
I should point out a few of the more personal doctrinal aberrations that affect my thinking about Mr. Armstrong. It is the existence of such problematic areas that cause me the most perplexity when I try to evaluate the ministry of our founder.
1. Who Is Elijah?
The very last text in the Old Testament reads: "See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse" (Malachi 4:5-6).
Herbert Armstrong used to read Malachi 4:5-6 and say that it applied to him. One year before his death he published Mystery of the Ages in which he said:
It is revealed in Malachi 3:1-5 and 4:5-6 that God would raise up one in the power and spirit of Elijah, shortly prior to the Second Coming of Christ. In Matthew 17:11 Jesus said, even after John the Baptist had completed his mission, that this prophesied Elijah "truly shall first come, and restore all things." Although it is plainly revealed that John the Baptist had come in the power and spirit of Elijah, he did not restore anything. The human leader to be raised up somewhat shortly prior to Christ’s Second Coming was to prepare the way – prepare the Church – for Christ’s coming, and restore the truth that had been lost through the preceding eras of the Church. Also a door was to be opened for this leader and/or the Philadelphia era of the Church to fulfill Matthew 24:14: "And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come."
It was to be a time when, for the first time in the history of mankind, the weapons of mass destruction were produced that could erase all humanity from the earth (Matt. 24:21-22). This also was to occur just before the Second Coming of Christ (verses 29-30).
These prophecies have now definitely been fulfilled. The true gospel has been restored and has now gone in power into every nation on the face of the earth.9
He was the Elijah who was going to come and turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers. He was the one who would prepare the way for the Second Coming of the Lord. Herbert Armstrong taught that he was the real fulfillment of this passage and that John the Baptist was merely a foreshadowing. Yet he had not always taught these things; the thought slowly evolved in his mind over the years.
At the beginning, people convinced Mr. Armstrong that we were doing an Elijah-like work because we were preparing the lost tribes of Israel for the Second Coming of Jesus. The lost tribes of Israel had lost their identity because they did not keep the Sabbath. Therefore, went the reasoning, Herbert Armstrong was restoring the Sabbath so that the lost tribes would understand their true heritage. Perhaps they would "wake up" before it was too late.
After his first wife died and the idea started to play in Herbert Armstrong’s mind – as his own ego accepted the notion and certain people began to play on his ego – he began to accept that he was personally the Elijah. This was part of the flirtation our church long has carried on with Old Testament personalities. We said we were the modern Ezekiel or the modern Zerubbabel or the modern (fill in the blank).
We have evidence in Herbert Armstrong’s personal papers, that by 1929 he already believed he was called to give a unique prophetic vision to the world. This conviction came two years before his ordination and was tied in with the ideas of Anglo-Israelism, the Sabbath, and other Adventist doctrines he had come to accept. These beliefs helped set him up to later identify himself as the Elijah.
In the sixties we would say that WCG was doing an Elijah-like work. In the seventies we said that Herbert Armstrong himself was fulfilling the role of Elijah. Until the mideighties, Mr. Armstrong would consistently make statements such as this: "I have been asked, ‘Are you the Elijah?’ And I say, ‘No.’"10 Yet we already have seen what he said in The Mystery of the Ages. In the last two years of his life, in several sermons, he was even more explicit when he said directly, "I am Elijah." When Ron Kelly, one of our longtime ministers, heard Mr. Armstrong say this, he confessed to me, "I was alarmed when I heard him say, ‘I am Elijah.’ I could handle, ‘I’m in the role of Elijah.’ But ‘I am Elijah – what did he mean by that?"
As I look back, I wonder how in the world I did not question some of these claims: He was Elijah; he was Zerubbabel; he was given Ezekiel’s commission. We taught that when the Book of Ezekiel was written, it was never delivered to its target audience, but that in these last days it finally was blossoming for us, its rightful readers. Of course, that makes absolutely no sense to me now, but it seemed right back then. Now I can clearly see that Herbert W. Armstrong was not another fulfillment of Elijah for two simple reasons:
- Mr. Armstrong has been dead for more than a decade; it is obvious he did not prepare the way for Christ’s return; and
- Jesus himself taught that John the Baptist fulfilled Malachi’s prophecy (Matthew 11:14).
2. The Evolution of an Apostle
Something very similar happened with Mr. Armstrong in his use of the term apostle. Although the ordination certificate he was issued in 1932 certified that "H. W. Armstrong is a recognized licensed minister, and apostle of the primitive faith," he didn’t like the idea that he should be called an apostle. He wanted to be called superintendent or pastor or some other descriptive title. But in the 1950s his chief advisors said to him, "Mr. Armstrong, we have both evangelist-rank ministers and pastor-rank ministers. You need to be over all of The Work. You need to have apostolic authority over everyone. So being called apostle is a good thing." Mr. Armstrong relented and replied in essence, "I’ll accept this title as an ecclesiastical rank, but I’m not a New Testament apostle."
As time went on, however, Mr. Armstrong eventually became "the only true end-time apostle," or "Christ’s Apostle," who received instruction directly from God through Christ. Over two or three decades he claimed rank on a par with the first-century apostles. Here is how he described his position in 1979:
When Christ chose His apostle for this time, he chose one who, 1) does believe what God says, 2) will not compromise or water down truths and doctrines Christ has given, and 3) has an OPEN MIND to receive further truth from Christ, and to be willing to acknowledge error when PROVED and turn from it! I do TREMBLE at the Word of God! I LOVE it, and I FEAR to go contrary to it or to mislead you, my brethren and my children in the Lord!"
It is said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Mr. Armstrong may have never wielded absolute power in our church, but by the same token, there weren’t many who would challenge him on an issue. No doubt that is one reason why he earned a reputation "on the outside" as a theological despot. Sometime ago Mike Feazell, Greg Albrecht, and I were having lunch with several well-known, evangelical pastors. We were talking about our history and two of these men (who are now friends) joked with each other about their visiting Mr. Armstrong’s formerly secluded offices. "Wow!" one said, "Could we sit in Herbert Armstrong’s chair?" The other added, "Yeah! We could make a pronouncement or something."
I have little problem with a high church official using the title apostle to denote ecclesiastical rank within his denomination, but I do reject the idea that anyone today can legitimately be said to be an apostle on a par with the New Testament apostles. And in his heart of hearts, I think Mr. Armstrong did, too, as his comments regarding the publication of his opus magnum demonstrated.
3. The Publication of Mystery of the Ages
Herbert Armstrong considered the book Mystery of the Ages to be the great work of his life, the greatest book since the Bible. It was basically a compilation of scores of his magazine and church newspaper articles that had appeared through the years, organized into major topics. My father was among a group of a few trusted associates who helped Mr. Armstrong put the book together.
When the book was published in 1985, Mr. Armstrong addressed a class at Ambassador College and handed out the book to sophomores and juniors, who were assigned to use it as a textbook. "This book is the greatest book since the Bible," he said, "and it was inspired just like the Bible." As he went on, he suddenly realized what he was saying, and you could almost see the wheels turning inside his head. He caught himself and started backpedaling. "I don’t mean that this book is like the canon of Scripture," he said. "I don’t mean that. I don’t mean it was inspired like the Scripture was inspired." He didn’t want anyone to put his book on the same level with Scripture. But why not, if he was an apostle on a par with the first-century apostles? I believe the answer is that he could never quite convince himself that he ranked as an equal with Paul and Peter and the rest of the New Testament apostles. He knew better.
Yet he was most definitely and absolutely in charge of our church. Herbert Armstrong was born in the nineteenth century and reflected the leadership style of the captains of industry. He looked up to Henry Ford and other great men like him. He admired the men who built the railroads and opened the banks. He wanted to be a great man. Since he didn’t become a captain of industry in advertising, he ended up becoming a captain of religion. He embodied the entrepreneurial spirit, the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps attitude so necessary for a self-made man. His leadership style was definitely pre-World War II. He was the founder, and he came on the scene as this transcendental figure whom most of our members saw as having all authority and power, a man to whom members felt God spoke directly
What to Think?
Historical elements like these make it difficult for me to assess my own feelings about the ministry and leadership of Mr. Armstrong. While I will always be very deeply grateful to him for instilling in me a profound respect for Scripture and a vital love of the Savior, I regret that we spent so many years majoring on minor and oftentimes aberrant issues. I have never felt that those years were wasted, but I do wish they had been spent much more productively. That ambivalence is also part of the legacy Mr. Armstrong left behind.
The legacy of the past can often be difficult, opening doors to emotion-filled closets and entryways to attics filled with skeletons and secrets. As the Worldwide Church of God has been dramatically changed and as we have faced the emotional upheaval of finding out much of what we believed was wrong, we have also had to face allegations about Herbert W. Armstrong and his son.
There is no question that his administrative and organizational structures allowed unbiblical teaching to be believed and perpetuated. In His mercy God has changed our doctrines first, and we are now working to change our governmental structure and polity.
There is a great deal of pain when longtime members are confronted with allegations about Herbert Armstrong or Garner Ted Armstrong. We not only lack the resources to verify or dismiss all such reports, we do not feel that God wants us to focus our energies on such things. Together with other leading administrators, I felt that we needed to apologize and ask forgiveness about our past unbiblical teaching and behavior.
While writing and editing these words, one of our church members directed an open letter on the Worldwide Web to me. Here are some excerpts from his posting in April 1997:
I felt I needed to write this letter to you, hoping very much that you might be able to assuage the stress that I have felt and am feeling as a result of unearthing some rather distasteful and upsetting information through the Worldwide Web. Perhaps I could even go as far as terming it a "crisis of confidence and trust," not unlike the feeling that I imagine I might experience if a longtime friend would suddenly turn around and tell me that I don’t matter all that much to him or her after all? A feeling of betrayal, confusion, sadness, anger, bewilderment? In short, a feeling of grief... Openness and honesty; this is what I am asking of you now in this letter. The point is this: we need the truth. People want the truth. What really did go on in the Worldwide Church of God hierarchy? Was there abuse? If so, what kind? Who were the perpetrators? Was anything done about it? If so, what? If not, why not?… It was thoroughly disturbing to discover that so much went on in the church that I had no idea of because it was kept from the membership. I felt cheated, used and profoundly disappointed.
Here is the response I sent on May 6, 1997:
Please accept this letter as a response to the open letter you posted on the World Wide Web on April 26, 1997. You stated that the posting was largely as a result of "unearthing some rather distasteful and upsetting information through the Worldwide Web."
Your posting describes your emotional reactions with words like "betrayal," "confusion," "sadness," "anger" and "bewilderment." While I am not specifically aware of what you "unearthed," I do have a general sense of the kinds of issues you may have seen and read. During the past few years we in the Worldwide Church of God have been attempting to give gracious answers regarding allegations about past leaders of the church while we have been responding to what God has been teaching us.
We have attempted to avoid "bashing Mr. Armstrong," his son or other past leaders for either real or alleged misconduct and behavior. On the other hand, we have clearly asked forgiveness of our members, former members, readers and those who listened to us on the radio and watched our television program. In case you did not see them originally, I am enclosing my articles from February 1996 ("A Church Reborn") and March/April 1996 ("Forgive Us Our Trespasses").
We have not mentioned names or personalities or specific sins, problems or allegations. We have offered sincere, heart-felt apologies for the teaching, practice and behaviors of the historic Worldwide Church of God. Even our careful attempts to present facts about how we have been wrong in the past have resulted in angry and bitter accusations of "Armstrong bashing." Virtually all of the individuals who were primarily responsible for authoritarian approaches and extravagant lifestyles are either deceased or have long since left our fellowship to join splinter groups that continue to proclaim some degree of teaching associated with Herbert W. Armstrong.
We do not believe that it is our Christian duty to unearth and expose – even if it were possible – to find out the "truth." There is much discussion, supposition and allegation about the past. We know some of it to be true, assume some of it is supposition, while some is fabrication. What we can do now is to move on and be the kind of church, and the kind of Christians, who do not engage in such unbiblical teaching, behavior or practices. God has not asked us to be the judge of Mr. Armstrong, his son or others who held high administrative positions in the historic Worldwide Church of God. Of course, we have judged his unbiblical teachings and have changed them.
We neither have nor promote an extravagant lifestyle. We have divested ourselves, and continue to, of those things that are opulent and do not befit a church. We have "come clean" as you request. A few months ago I wrote a letter to all members of the Worldwide Church of God letting them know that every employee of the church has a salary which is less than $ 100,000 per year. In case you did not see that letter, I am enclosing a copy.
We give thanks to God that he is beginning to heal the hurts and wounds not only within our fellowship, but within churches and people worldwide. God is working to bring about reconciliation – the reconciliation that is possible because of the finished work of Christ on the cross. We are committed to continuing to heal and to bind up the wounds and to work for unity within the body of Christ, rather than division.
In Christ’s service,
As I said at the beginning of this chapter, I know there are some readers who want me to condemn Herbert W. Armstrong as a heretic. There are others who want me to lionize him as the greatest man of God since the apostle Paul. So where do I stand today?
First, I firmly believe that as a church we were essentially wrong on many crucial issues – and yet I also know that it was Mr. Armstrong who put the system in place that eventually got us where we are today. While much of what Mr. Armstrong taught was in serious error, he also gave us some things – a profound respect for the Bible, for example – that helped to pave the way to our current biblical understandings.
Second, I could point out that many men God has used did a lot of foolish things or made many inaccurate or even harmful statements. All of us show our brokenness in one way or another. John Wesley was not known for having an ideal marriage. Martin Luther was stridently anti-Semitic. John Calvin allowed a theological opponent to be burned at the stake. It’s not my place (or yours) to question their standing in Christ. The same could be said of Mr. Armstrong.
Please don’t ask me to make a decision on his soul; that’s not my prerogative, nor is it yours. On this issue I think of the Lord’s response to Peter when, after the latter heard a disturbing personal prophecy, he turned toward the apostle John and demanded of Jesus, "Lord, what about him?" Jesus replied in no uncertain terms, "What is that to you? You must follow me" (John 21-21-22). That remains a good word for us today.
I’d like to close this chapter with a story. A little while ago some of us had lunch with a well-known evangelical leader and author. Toward the end of our time together he said something incredible for us in the Worldwide Church of God. "Let me tell you where I am on this thing," he said. "I think that when your dad gave that sermon on Christmas Eve, God was tapping Herbert Armstrong on the shoulder and saying, ‘Take a look at this – I want to show you something.’ And I think Herbert Armstrong was leading the cheers when your dad introduced the new covenant to the Worldwide Church of God."
I like the sound of that. I like it a whole lot.
1. While the popular understanding in our church long has been that Mr. Armstrong came to his Sabbatarian convictions as a direct result of Loma’s challenge to him, notes written by Mr. Armstrong (probably in the late ’20s) indicate this may not be accurate. In one, a draft note to A. N. Dugger written on the back of preprinted stationery ("Survey of Laundry Conditions"), Mr. Armstrong says of the Sabbath question, "In a word, Mr. Dugger, my present status on the question is just this: It now appears to me that the Bible says the Sabbath is abolished, ended, and done away. That, so far as Divine Command is concerned, there IS NO SABBATH." Later in that same note he indicates he was already teaching that believers should keep the Sabbath when he writes, "We do it [i.e., keep the Sabbath] because we WANT to keep it, and not because we feel God COMMANDS us to keep it. But you see, Mr. Dugger, feeling as I do about it, now, I cannot write or speak to others on the question. And I am perplexed as to what should be my course regarding those present. I am merely keeping silent so far as they are concerned, and they do not know of my present perplexity. If I become finally convinced I have misled them, I shall most certainly make every effort within my power to undo what I have done.
"Of course this does not need to prevent any usefulness I might have in reaching others with God’s message. Sabbath keeping, in ANY event, will not bring salvation. The Sabbath question is a minor one compared to the paramount question of salvation – yet I think it important, as it affects RETENTION of salvation.
"Sooner or later, this question will be cleared up for me. The real truth will be revealed to me, whichever it is. I have prayed earnestly for it, and it is God’s promise that a prayer of that kind is going to be answered. Perhaps you can be a means of helping me get it cleared up. It seems to me the truth OUGHT to be on the side of the question I know you believe.
"But, Mr. Dugger, even believing as I know you do, how would you answer one like my sister who said to me ‘I have prayed and prayed, earnestly, for the Lord to tell me if He wanted me to keep Saturday for the Sabbath, but I have never felt I should do it. If I have been converted, and come to Jesus and repented, and accepted Him as my Saviour, and tried earnestly to live according to everything He taught, and yet don’t keep Saturday for the Sabbath, when no one was ever commanded to keep that day but the Jews between Moses and Christ – I can’t feel I am wrong because I don’t do something Jesus never said to do, nor any of the Apostles!’ The New Testament, my sister reminded me, says that if we repent and ‘believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, you shall be saved.’ How would you answer her?
"Trusting you will be able to help me, I am, Very sincerely,"
What appears to be a "working document" by Mr. Armstrong, from approximately the same period, says this: "Paul said we are not under the law. I have studied this from every possible angle, and tried every possible interpretation. And I cannot persuade myself that the plain, obvious meaning Paul intended to give us by that statement was anything except that we are not under obligation to obey the Mosaic Law, including the Ten Commandments.... Paul’s writings, in other words, appear to confirm the idea that God’s Law means supreme love to God and equal love to one’s fellows, and not specifically the Ten Commandments at all. Paul’s writings seem to convincingly indicate that the Law of God, in effect BEFORE Sinai, was those Two Great Commandments, and not the Ten Commandments. In that case, until the Ten Commandments were given the Jews, there was no command to keep the Sabbath, and when the Ten Commandments went, at the Cross, the Sabbath obligation went again, and then there remained just what had existed before – the Two Great Commandments, which, themselves, give no thought or even suggestion of any Sabbath.... And so it goes. I am frankly undecided. The Bible does not clearly settle the question. Positive direct proof, I believe, is not given in Scripture.... Personally, I am in doubt, and while in doubt, shall continue to play safe by observing Saturday. But, being in doubt, I cannot set myself up as a teacher on the subject. The subject is simply bewildering."
2. Herbert W. Armstrong, "Editor’s Note," The Good News, June 5, 1978, 1. The correct date is January 1934.
3. Herbert W. Armstrong, "Would You Accuse Jesus Christ?" The Worldwide News, November 12, 1979, 3.
4. Armstrong, "CHURCH BACK ON TRACK," 1.
6. Armstrong, "Editor’s Note," 1.
7. Herbert W. Armstrong, "And NOW – The PLAlN TRUTH being Set Back on Track," The Good News, September 11, 1978, 1.
8. Ibid., 6.
9. Herbert W. Armstrong, The Mystery of the Ages (Pasadena, Calif.: The Worldwide Church of God, 1985), 290–1.
10. Armstrong, "CONGRESS OF LEADING MINISTERS," 10.
11. Armstrong, "CHURCH BACK ON TRACK," 4.