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Not long before he died, Herbert Armstrong told my dad that some things in the church needed to be changed. He didn’t make a list of the changes he had in mind, he simply said that "things needed to be changed."
What things might he have intended? We can never be sure – with one notable exception. Near the end of his life, Mr. Armstrong said that our stance on divine healing needed change.
Faith + Obedience = Healing
At least as far back as 1952, when he published Does God Heal Today?, Mr. Armstrong was teaching that it was always God’s will to heal His obedient, faithful children. He begins that early work by quoting Exodus 15:23-26 (KJV) calling it a report of "the first account in all history of direct divine healing."1 He calls special attention to the last part of that passage:
If thou wilt diligently hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, and wilt do that which is right in His sight, and wilt give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon thee, which I have brought upon the Egyptians: for I am the Lord that healeth thee.
And do you know, that the same conditions, "If you will obey and keep my commandments," etc. – apply today, and that’s one reason why a lot of people who have a little light on divine healing and believe in it are not being healed!2
From there Mr. Armstrong moved on to claim that anyone seeking to be healed in any way other than direct divine healing was guilty of idolatry. He also taught that Scripture condemns medicine as idolatry, that the origins of medicine could be found in paganism, and that modern people had ignored this truth to their own hurt:
So many seem to believe we should go to the doctors, they pray for God to cause their medicines to heal. They assume God raised up medical science and blesses it and works through it. But this is merely the same old Pagan practice of idolatry though very few realize it today. Truly all nations have been DECEIVED into practicing Pagan idolatry believing it is true Christianity! For the real Christian who has faith in God there is a better way.3
And what was that better way? Pure and simple, it was faith. His teaching was based on interpretations of passages such as James , 5:14-15, Isaiah 53:4-5, Matthew 9:2, 1 Peter 2:24, Exodus 15:26, and Psalm 103:3. If someone had faith in God, he didn’t need doctors. After all, since healing is nothing but forgiveness of sin, and Christ died to pay the penalty for sin, then the way to get healed is to put one’s faith in the Healer and in no one and nothing else.
Mr. Armstrong also made a big distinction between physical sin and spiritual sin, a distinction he continued until he died. He said that Christ’s physical beating before he was crucified paid the penalty for physical sin (and thereby paved the way for our physical healing), while his death on the cross paid the penalty for spiritual sin (and thereby paved the way for us to receive eternal life). Here is how he developed this unusual dichotomy:
Now God "forgiveth ALL thine inquiries," and "healeth ALL thy diseases."
Well, how does God forgive our spiritual sins? Sin is the transgression of LAW (I John 3:4). That’s the Bible definition of SIN. God’s law of "LOVE" is a spiritual law (Rom. 7:14). The penalty is DEATH (Rom. 6:23). HOW does God forgive our spiritual transgressions – remove the DEATH penalty from us? Why, by having given His only begotten Son, who, while we were yet sinners, DIED FOR US (John 3:16; Rom. 5:8). In other words, CHRIST PAID THE PENALTY IN OUR STEAD! So, since He paid the penalty we incurred, for us, in our stead, God legally can remove the penalty from us. We do not have to pay the penalty, because JESUS paid it for us!
Then HOW does God forgive physical sins? Why, exactly the same way! Jesus paid the penalty of them, too, in our stead! Is that in the Scripture? Most certainly it is!
Here it is: "(Jesus) healed ALL that were sick, That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying, ‘Himself took our infirmities, and bare our sicknesses’ (Matt. 8:16-17)."
There it is! Turn to it in your own Bible, and read it! Jesus healed ALL that were sick, because He, Himself took our physical infirmities and bare our sicknesses!
Let Peter answer: By His STRIPES, ye are healed – I Peter 2:24!
Just before Jesus was taken out to be crucified, He submitted voluntarily to being BEATEN WITH STRIPES. "Then released he Barabbas unto them: and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered Him to be crucified" (Matt. 27:26). "Then Pilate ... took Jesus, and scourged Him" (John 19: 1). Jesus suffered this PHYSICAL PAIN, actually breaking open His body in great welts, in order to pay for you, in your stead, the pain, suffering, sickness, or other penalty of your physical transgressions!4
With that doctrinal groundwork laid, Mr. Armstrong believed that real Christians do not run to doctors for healing, but to God. If a member were to go to a doctor, he would be disregarding the scourging of Christ’s passion. The only legitimate role for doctors, in Mr. Armstrong’s opinion, was "to help you to observe nature’s laws by prescribing correct diet, teaching you how better to live according to nature’s laws. In other words, to PREVENT sickness, not heal after you are sick!5 Doctors might also be legitimately called upon in special cases, Mr. Armstrong wrote, such as in childbearing or to set a broken bone. But in the vast majority of cases:
Here’s God’s instruction to YOU, today, if you are ill. If we are to live by every Word of God, we should obey this Scripture. God does not say call your family physician. Instead, notice:
"Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them PRAY over him anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of FAITH shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him" (James 5:14-15).
He does not say, call the doctors and let them give medicines and drugs, and God will cause the medicines and drugs and dope to cure you.... Instead God says call GOD’S MINISTERS. And let them PRAY, anointing with oil (the type and symbol of the Holy Spirit). Then GOD PROMISES He will HEAL YOU!6
Mr. Armstrong maintained this position for most of his life. A later booklet called The PIain Truth about Healing, published in 1979, expanded on his earlier ideas without changing their basic premise. His teaching still could be summed up like this: "The very fact that two conditions to miraculous healing by God are obedience and faith requires the exercise of, and therefore GROWTH in, obedience and faith."7
Yet, Mr. Armstrong already seemed to be making room for the idea that not all those who lived in faith and obedience would be physically healed in this life:
A minister, apparently lacking either in faith or in UNDERSTANDING, writes, "Case histories in the Bible, and especially thousands of case histories in the present Church, show that faith was present in the lives of people, and God did not heal."
I could not vouch for the fact that FAITH was present in all such cases – I cannot judge others; only God can. The same letter gives the following, striking home to me, in contending against God’s PROMISES to heal on faith: "What about the many of our dead we have buried – Mrs. Loma Armstrong [the wife of my youth who died at age 75½], your son Dick..." and four others.
My answer, in simple FAITH, is that they, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, all died in FAITH, not having received the PROMISES – YET! But in the next fraction of a second from their loss of consciousness in death, THEY SHALL WAKE UP HEALED – in the resurrection, and in GOD’S KINGDOM! I have faith that in the not-too-distant future I shall SEE my father, my first wife, my son Dick and others this minister named FULLY HEALED in the Kingdom of God.8
In this same booklet, Mr. Armstrong also made it clear that visiting a doctor was not just cause for being disfellowshiped; he said the church did not condemn a member who used the medical profession.
God’s Church does not judge or condemn those who, through lack of faith, utilize the services of the medical profession. God’s Church merely says to you, HEALING IS INCLUDED – Christ already has PAID for it – it is a PROMISE of God (with conditions of obedience and faith) and it is one of God’s BENEFITS that is INCLUDED in the gift of His grace!...
Notice, HEALING is one of the BENEFITS God gives us along with salvation. Like the meals on the steamship, IT IS INCLUDED – no extra charge. Jesus already PAID FOR IT! And God wants His people to learn to rely on Him!9
This teaching on divine healing remained in force and unchallenged until the last few years of Mr. Armstrong’s life. With old age, of course, our bodies usually start to fail. The same was true of Mr. Armstrong, who lived to the ripe old age of ninety-three.
Changes in the Wind
In the last years of his life, Herbert Armstrong took a number of heart medications and had a full-time nurse travel with him everywhere he went. He used the medical profession for almost everything.
What amazes me now about this is that he would almost brag about what he was doing. He would write letters to the membership saying things like, "You know, most people can hardly get a doctor to visit their home, but I have two doctors who come to visit me on a regular basis." I found that many of our people were actually entertained by his admission. The tension between Mr. Armstrong’s practice and his teaching almost never registered among some of us. Some of our braver people would come to ministers and pastors and ask quietly, "Is Mr. Armstrong really going to a doctor?" And we would tell them, "Yes, he’s telling the truth!"
In the days before he died, this conflict finally began to sink in, especially with Mr. Armstrong himself. My dad asked him, "How could you take this medication? You’re the one who wrote the booklet that insists God’s people have no need of a doctor if only they obey and have sufficient faith. So how can you be using the medical profession? How do you want me to answer this question that church members are asking?"
The situation was made worse by the way some of our pastors responded to members who did go to doctors for help. Even when members were diagnosed with some catastrophic illness, their pastors might say to them, "The Bible teaches that going to a doctor shows a lack of faith!" Thankfully, most of our pastors were not that inflexible and judgmental – but far too many were.
All of these things finally conspired, I think, to make Herbert Armstrong realize that his stance toward the medical profession had to change. His conversation with my dad about this topic took place in 1985. By the end of January 1986, Mr. Armstrong was dead.
The Change Begins
One of the main problems with our doctrine on healing was its deficient view of faith. Not only did we teach that people of vibrant faith could ward off disease and sickness, we also taught that faith was the key to financial prosperity. We had bought into both of those doctrines, largely through the same sources that influence today’s prosperity theology and faith movement. Not only did we believe that if a person did what God says, he would be materially blessed with higher salaries and better jobs – that was one example of how our flirtation with the covenant of blessing and cursing in Deuteronomy 27-28 worked its way out – but we also taught that if a person didn’t do the right thing, he would be accursed. In other words, he would get sick. So if something’s wrong and you can’t figure it out, it must be caused by a secret sin. Of course, the guilt that accompanies such a flawed system can be absolutely devastating.
A whole year after Herbert Armstrong’s death, a change was announced. My dad had asked several of us to start studying this question, and after a short time we all realized it was simply wrong to say that people suffered from inferior faith if they used doctors. It was wrong to say that using the medical profession demonstrated a lack of faith. We began to see that the whole health-and-wealth approach to the gospel was bogus and mistaken.
Once my dad was satisfied that we had studied the issue in enough depth to correct our old doctrinal stance, he decided to announce the church’s new position in the March 23, 1987, edition of The Worldwide News. In an article titled "New Understanding of the Meaning of Christ’s Broken Body and the Church’s Teaching on HEALING," my father began a new era in the church when he wrote,
Now, I want to clarify some matters regarding the very important subject of divine healing!
Brethren, God has led me to see that the Church has misunderstood the concept of what we have called "physical sin." Let me now explain to you how we came to believe that physical illness was the result of "physical sin," and why the living and powerful Jesus Christ now leads me to clarify the Church’s teaching on this misunderstood subject....
But now God has added a new dimension in understanding the transcendent purpose of Jesus’ broken body. And as I stated earlier, Mr. Armstrong himself would have been the first one to change and accept new understanding when God made it clear.10
My father then went on to describe what this new understanding entailed. Among other things, he dealt with one of the chief passages Mr. Armstrong had used in his doctrine of divine healing, Psalm 103:2-3. In the King James Version, that text says, "Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits: Who forgiveth all thine iniquities; who healeth all thy diseases." My father wrote about this passage:
In Psalm 103:2-3, healing "all thy diseases" is described as one of God’s benefits. It is something, along with renewing our strength like the eagle’s (verse 5), and executing "righteousness and judgment for all that are oppressed" (verse 6), that God grants as direct blessings and benefits that it is His good pleasure to give to those who serve and obey Him. But these are NOT unconditional promises that God is bound to give in all circumstances for everyone!
God knows our hearts and minds. He knows what is best for us. He knows what blessings to give and what blessings to withhold for our ultimate GOOD! But not everyone’s strength is renewed like the eagle’s now in this life. Nor has every righteous person received justice from oppression in his or her physical lifetime. In the same manner, while God can and does heal, and it is His desire and will to do so, He who sees all things KNOWS whether it is for the best in each circumstance or not.
Sometimes God heals one person as a witness or encouragement for others, perhaps even more so than for the sick person himself. The point is, in EVERY SITUATION God knows what He is doing. He is all-wise, all-powerful and all-merciful! He will not withhold a good thing from a person if it is truly in the best interests of all for that person to receive it.11
Further, my father insisted that whether someone is divinely healed is no evidence of his spiritual health (or lack of it). The prophet Elisha, he reminded his readers, was a faithful servant of God who died of an illness. The apostle Paul asked three times to be healed of a "thorn in the flesh" but was refused. Yet Scripture sees neither man as either disobedient or lacking in faith.
So what was to be the church’s new attitude toward the medical profession? "The Bible simply does not speak in a condemning way about physicians in general," my dad wrote, adding that Luke, the author of the third Gospel and the Book of Acts, was referred to approvingly as "the beloved physician." He summed up his new understanding like this:
Brethren, let us realize that seeking medical attention and having faith in God need NOT be OPPOSITES!
God has nowhere in His Word commanded Christians to avoid doctors, to avoid checkups, to avoid medicines, inoculations or any surgical operation. God can and does supernaturally intervene to heal. Yet He does not ask us to avoid taking such care of ourselves as we have knowledge and facilities available.13
My dad announced that the healing booklet had to be temporarily withdrawn until edits and revisions reflecting this new understanding Jesus Christ had given to His Church could be made.14
That promised revision came the next year when The PIain Truth about Healing was rewritten by my dad and Bernie Schnippert. The booklet made it clear that it was OK to go to doctors. Visiting a physician wasn’t a sign of lack of faith in God.
The vast majority of our members were happy with the church’s new understanding. But a few emphatically were not. Even then there were rumblings of unrest. Some members were unhappy about the way the new understanding had been presented. Because we wanted the booklet to be appropriate and useful for a general readership (and not directed only to our members), in describing the church’s former teaching on divine healing we had used phrases such as, "Some have taught... " or "Some have believed... " A few people approached us and said, "What do you mean, ‘some have taught’? You guys taught us this stuff!" They viewed such language as a cop-out.
Others were upset for another reason. They wondered, Is this booklet intended to correct a misunderstanding in doctrine? Or has it been issued as a slap at the authority of Mr. Armstrong? Even some who believed that Mr. Armstrong had made an error on this particular teaching didn’t like the new booklet. They didn’t object to the thrust of the new teaching; they simply were uneasy that the church would officially declare Mr. Armstrong to be wrong on anything. They did not want anyone to open the door on the notion that Herbert Armstrong could be really wrong about something. And now that door was fully ajar.
Further Early Changes
The next doctrinal changes came on the heels of the first one. Two changes were announced in February 1988.
First, we said that it was no sin to wear makeup. That might sound petty to many readers, but it was a big deal for us. Remember two of the headlines I quoted in the last chapter? "How subtly Satan used MAKEUP to start the Church off the track" and "OUR LIGHT IS SHINING – and not the cosmetics on our faces." Mr. Armstrong had taught, clearly and forcefully, that wearing makeup was a sin that had led God’s church into serious error:
God’s Church, the now imminent Bride of Christ, is not going to rise to meet the returning Christ in the air with painted faces and plucked and repainted eyebrows!
How cleverly, without our suspecting it, did Satan influence leading ministers to derail the Church in many ways!...
The Church RULED AGAINST THE USE OF MAKEUP based primarily on specific "do" and "don’t" scriptures, rather than the application of the PRINCIPLE of God’s Law....
Jesus Christ through me has been GETTING US ALL BACK ON THE TRACK, ready for His return to earth as the KING OF KINGS, and Lord of Lords. The Church, as HIS BRIDE to be spiritually MARRIED to Him, is to rise to meet Him in the air as He descends. Women of the Church, do you think Jesus Christ will say to me, "SEND A PROCLAMATION TO ALL WOMEN IN THE CHURCH TO PREPARE FOR MY COMING. TELL THEM TO GO TO THEIR DRESSING TABLES, PLUCK OUT THEIR EYEBROWS, PAINT IN NEW ONES HIGHER ON THEIR FOREHEADS, AND USE COSMETICS TO MAKE UP THEIR FACES TO MEET ME IN THE AIR"?
No, dear people, I don’t think He will have me make such a proclamation. But rather: Wash the dirt off your faces! CLEAN UP your faces!
Now JESUS CHRIST, through His chosen apostle, is going to RULE on this question once and for all!...
My mother and grandmothers did not wear makeup – nor did your great-grandmothers of the same era. How did it get into our mid-and-latter 20th century society? FROM PROSTITUTES!...
Women do not use makeup to PLEASE GOD today – for I can tell you ON HIS AUTHORITY it is NOT pleasing to HIM!15
Now, most women in our church never wore makeup in the first place, so this verbal barrage didn’t much affect them. But some of the women in our church did wear makeup, at least at work. They wouldn’t put it on when they came to church, but away from services they hoped to get away with it without being caught. Inevitably, however, a pastor would hear of a member’s use of makeup and then the inevitable questions would begin. In 1988, we rethought this prohibition and declared it to be unbiblical. God had no opinion, one way or another, about makeup – unless it took precedence over the pursuit of godliness. As the apostle Peter wrote, "Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight" (1 Peter 3:3-4). Focusing on the outward simply misses the point; God is concerned about the heart.
Second, 1988 was also the year we pursued accreditation for Ambassador College. This decision upset some of our more conservative members. "Why are you seeking the approval of the world?" they demanded. "God’s college doesn’t need Satan’s approval. God has accredited us, and that should be good enough." Yet we pushed ahead.
With each doctrinal reform we made in those early years, the dissatisfaction and resentment of some of our members mounted. They were sure that we had some kind of hidden agenda or master plan for the complete reshaping of the church. Of course, we never had any such scheme; we simply were responding to the increasing numbers of questions posed by our members after the death of Mr. Armstrong. When the door to doctrinal change was cracked open by our new understanding on divine healing, we should have known that further (and more significant) changes were inevitable. Still, we never expected what was about to happen.
That is, we never expected that the main beam holding together our theological ship would crack and splinter. Yet it did – sooner and louder than any of us had ever imagined.
1. Herbert W. Armstrong, Does God Heal Today? (Pasadena, Calif.: Radio Church of God, 1952), 2.
3. Ibid., 6.
4. Ibid., 9–10.
5. Ibid., 11.
6. Ibid., 15.
7. Herbert W. Armstrong, The PIain Truth about Healing (Pasadena, Calif.: The Worldwide Church of God, 1979), 67.
8. Ibid., 69.
9. Ibid., 49 – 50.
10. Joseph W. Tkach, "New Understanding of the Meaning of Christ’s Broken Body and the Church’s Teaching on HEALING," The Worldwide News, March 23, 1987, 3.
11. Ibid., 4.
14. Ibid., 5.
15. Herbert W. Armstrong, "How subtly Satan used MAKEUP to start the Church off the track," The Worldwide News, November 16, 1981, 1, 4-5.