9 January 1997
The Inside Story of the Dramatic Turnaround of the Church Started by Herbert W. Armstrong as told by its Leaders
by Dan Wooding in Los Angeles
In his latest column, international journalist Dan Wooding interviews the leaders of the Worldwide Church of God to get their unique insights on how their church changed from what some considered to be a cult, to find the "pIain truth" of the Gospel and emerge from the "fog" of legalism to a new-found freedom in Christ.
It's been an incredible pilgrimage for Joseph Tkach, Jr., Pastor General of the Worldwide Church of God. He has followed in the footsteps of his courageous father in leading the church from what some considered to be a cult, out of the "fog" of legalism to a new-found freedom in Christ.
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"The journey that we have made is much like the one that you will read about in the book of Acts," said Joseph Tkach, Jr., who succeeded his father after his death from colon cancer in 1995. "We moved from Jerusalem to Antioch. The same struggles of the early church. The same battles. In that sense we have recreated history."
The Worldwide Church of God, once known as the Radio Church of God, was founded in 1934 by "businessman prophet" Herbert W. Armstrong, who propagated his message through The PIain Truth magazine and The World Tomorrow radio and television programs. This salesman turned preacher had a wonderful way with words and soon generated a worldwide following who joined what Armstrong called the one true church."
But, ironically, it was Armstrong himself who actually started the astonishing turnaround from his own "inspired teachings" when he made a comment shortly before his death about changing the church's teaching on healing. "One of the things that Herbert Armstrong did say to my dad in some private moments before he died was that there were a few things that he taught that needed to be re-examined, specifically the issue of healing," said the Pastor General. "Herbert W. Armstrong had written a booklet stating an ideal situation that you go to God, get anointed, and you get healed. It's a promise, he said, and it was so idealized that going to a doctor was a lack of faith and even viewed as perhaps a sin by many in the church.
"And here was Mr. Armstrong, with heart problems, taking nitro glycerin pills. In fact, during the last seven years of his life, he was taking seventeen different medications. He would call my dad frequently when he was having some serious angina pains and my dad would pray for him, anoint him and, after this, his pain would calm down.
"One day my father said to him, 'You know, a lot of our ministers won't even anoint someone who's going to a doctor and here you are not only going to one, you're going to two and also taking seventeen medications.'
"So here was an issue and before he died, he said, 'That needs to be re-examined as probably some other things do, too.' Herbert Armstrong didn't give any details on what those were. He just said, 'You'll examine them and when the time comes, God will lead you.'"
Greg Albrecht, editor-in-chief of the PIain Truth, who had joined us for the interview, then explained, "There was no doctrinal re-examination or even questions of any kind under Herbert Armstrong, unless it came from his initiative. He believed that he alone set doctrine. He believed that he alone was the apostle and that the ministers and members should simply implement and follow his instructions. There was little chance for any kind of a doctrinal dialogue."
The founder of the Worldwide Church of God, who died shortly after making his comments about reexamining doctrine, could never have realized where his words were to lead. But following Armstrong's instructions, Joseph Tkach, Sr. asked an inner circle of senior ministers and scholars based at the world headquarters to first look at healing in the light of the Scriptures. He could have just left things as they were, for under his leadership, the church in 1988 reached its peak in income and members. There were 145,000 constituents and 800 congregations in about 100 countries. He could have chosen to leave well enough alone, but he knew that some action needed to be taken.
"We wrote a booklet explaining what the church had taught in the past was not completely accurate, and the reasons why, and that topic then became normalized," said Joseph Tkach, Jr. "That caused a ripple throughout the whole denomination because people had to face the fact that Herbert W. Armstrong could be wrong about something. I would say that 95 percent of the membership knew that this was a biblical change and was right and accepted it wholeheartedly, but five percent didn't. They didn't leave, but they didn't like it, but the other 95 percent felt a ripple about that."
But then came other changes. Joseph Tkach, Jr. stated that some of Armstrong's beliefs that had come out of the "holiness movement of the 19th century" were then examined by several assistants to Mr. Tkach, Sr., some of whom came to be known as the "Gang of Four."
He went on, "We had rules that women shouldn't wear makeup or wear slacks and some of those kinds of strict items. Those things changed and we said it was now all right for women to use cosmetics, etc."
But then a pillar of the church's doctrine was looked at. "Herbert W. Armstrong had taught things that were at variance with what Scripture actually says, like being born again," said Joseph Tkach, Jr. "He had said that we were not really born again until Christ returns. You were only conceived. He believed that everything that Christianity taught on this topic was wrong. He would say that they were right about the conversion experience, but you are not born again, you are only 'conceived.' Under Mr. Armstrong's leadership, we gave a great deal of importance to this issue."
"After we changed our view on 'born again,' we began to address other issues. The ripple effect was just a continuing succession of tremors each time a change would occur until finally in 1989, one minister left with a following of about 3,000 people. He said, 'These changes are wrong. Herbert Armstrong, the end-time apostle, was right on these things.' That was the first big split that we had had since 1978, when Garner Ted, Armstrong's son, went to Texas and started his own group. He took about 3,000 people with him."
The present Pastor General said that his father began to struggle with the fact that Herbert W. Armstrong had taught that they were the "only true church." His father felt that the Body of Christ had to be much larger than just their denomination. "The whole idea that God allows 99 percent of the earth's population to be deceived and less than 1 percent were the true believers, began to bother him," said Joseph Tkach, Jr.. "He'd read articles about missionaries giving their lives and he'd say, 'How can we say that we are the only true Christians? They have put their lives on the line for the Gospel.'
"My father became convinced that there were Christians in other churches and that there were authentic ministers in other denominations. But when he started to address that, that was a seismic wave that went through the church.
That recognition led to more scriptural study which resulted
in more changes."
A RUMOR RICH ENVIRONMENT
"By then we were in a rumor-rich environment," he continued. "It seemed as if one of us (the Gang of Four) would be seen reading a book about doctrine or biblical studies, the next rumor would be that, whatever it's topic was, that was what was going to change next."
The Pastor General recalled how this small group had been put in the role of answering the challenging questions to Armstrong's systematic theology. "We were getting questions that we had never addressed, challenges that we had never received before," said Joseph Tkach, Jr. "We would compare notes because we knew that we had to give one answer and that dynamic forced us together to talk. But what's interesting about it, I wasn't very comfortable doing that. I thought Mike ...had almost gone off the deep end, because he shared some thoughts with me about his own study of the trinity and the new covenant.
"We started studying and began to see that we had been taught a bogus version of history. I can see now, by the way we explained things, we had been taking a few verses out of a larger context and we simply had allowed the Scripture to say or support what we wanted. So we began to put things back into the larger context. With that kind of experience, we began reaching out to each other after a certain point. We would take these questions and answers to my dad for final approval and he'd see that they were right and he would say, 'We've made three or four major changes already; every new change is like an earthquake.'
"He was very concerned because he saw that these new teachings were right and wanted everyone to know what the truth was, but he didn't want to do it so rapidly or just dump one change after another on people so that it destabilized them. But we never had an agenda that we devised. None of us were that insightful enough to see all of the ramifications."
He went on, "The trinity was the one issue that fissured and really did draw lines for people. As Mike Feazell said one time, growing up in our church he thought that 'false-pagan-trinity-doctrine' was one word, because you hardly heard the word 'trinity' in any other context. The only 'agenda' was that of honestly answering questions. The question would come, we would research it and would answer it and try to explain it.
We'd write articles, give sermons and teach. Some would read it and see that it was correct. Others would read it and would fight it. All kinds of conspiracy theories emerged. In a rumor-rich environment, every nuance gets interpreted. There was all kinds of intrigue. Rumors and conspiracy theories made it all the more difficult to articulate the truth. My dad, although he wanted things to go slowly, didn't really have any control on how fast the changes occurred.
THE IMMENSITY OF THE ERRORS
"The immensity of the errors that were suddenly being realized by people became exceedingly stressful for my dad. The pace of our changes was being set, in effect, by the questions of our membership and the ministry. We couldn't then say, 'We're not going to answer your questions.' The questions were being asked from all over the country by both ministers and members. Our goal was to respond honestly and biblically."
"It was in December 1994 that Joseph Tkach, Sr. took an action that finally sealed the future of the church. "He gave a sermon in which he explained that we were no longer under the Old Covenant, but the New Covenant, and he went through the ramifications of what that means," said his son. "Saturday, Sabbath keeping was no longer a test of fellowship. Clean and unclean meat was not a test of fellowship. Failure to give 10 percent of your gross earnings does not, he said, mean that you burn in the lake of fire and brimstone. He gave this sermon to our congregations in Atlanta, at our university campus in Texas, as well as at our headquarters congregation in Pasadena, and at a ministerial conference. The sermon was videotaped for our congregations worldwide, and it was published as well.
"That was the final straw, for not too long after, a big split occurred and the United Church of God formed. Initially, in the U.S. a group of 20,000 people left with them. Their numbers have fallen since then, but I understand they have about 13,000 in the States and about 20,000 worldwide. They, like all of our other splinter groups, have an Armstrong theology. They officially organized just a couple of months after that sermon."
Greg Albrecht then interjected by saying, "In a Martin Luther like way, Joseph Tkach, Sr. nailed the sermon to the door. That sermon, in December '94, was our acceptance of salvation by grace through faith. Up until that point there were quite a few people in our fellowship, pastors and members, who hoped that this small group of advisors that were influencing Mr. Tkach would somehow be taken out of the way, destroyed, die a premature death, or whatever, and Mr. Tkach would be led to his senses by God.
"But when he gave that sermon, there was no doubt in anyone's mind what he believed. He believed in Jesus Christ and Him crucified. In the New Covenant. And at that point, people realized, 'Okay, this is where he is. This is where the church is going.'"
As this internal struggle was going on, just a few Worldwide Church of God watchers were becoming aware of the historic changes taking place. "Sometimes, a book would come out about the cults and it would contain our old doctrines and so we would contact them to update them on our present position and teaching, but that was the extent of our public presentation," said Michael Feazell.
Added Joseph, "I would have thought these Christian cult-watching groups should have recognized what was happening and extend a helping hand and be kind and gentle; instead some of them made the journey twice as difficult and added to the defections and dissidence that was occurring. Our credibility was impacted. A few cult-watching groups were constantly second guessing our sincerity, our authenticity and so they damaged our credibility, particularly to our own people."
I then asked Joseph how, in retrospect, he saw his father? "I see him as courageous. I think he fulfilled what God had for him to do."
WHY KEEP THE NAME?
I wondered, then, why they had decided to continue to call themselves the Worldwide Church of God when their theology was now so different to that of the founder? "It's part of our identity," said Joseph. "That was one of the things it was rumored that we were going to change, so we said, 'No, we're not going to change it.' When you are registered under that name in every state and in 100 different countries, it's considerable work to change it.
"With regard to changing the name of the PIain Truth. We talked about it. We kicked around different thoughts and ideas, but just kept coming back to the fact that it is such a good name. We also realized that we would be finally telling the pIain truth.
"Now actually a few of the people that left us at the time felt and have said, 'No, you guys are not the Worldwide Church of God. We're the Worldwide Church of God. Because the Worldwide Church of God is Herbert Armstrong and we are taking that with us. You guys have, in fact, hijacked the Worldwide Church of God and made it into just another Protestant church.' So the issue of changing the name for us was decided. Our name helps people understand that we, the Worldwide Church of God, are a living testimony that God has reformed us. We are a new church, transformed by Jesus. We are a testimony to the fact that God can do anything.
"Of the 110 to 120 splinter groups of the Worldwide Church of God since 1934, when Herbert Armstrong founded it, everyone of them teach a brand of Armstrongism. They may teach 1957 Armstrongism, or 1942 or 1978, but they all adhere to a snapshot of what Herbert Armstrong taught at a particular time in history. With one exception, the founding church, the Worldwide Church of God. We are fully orthodox and fully Christian. That's the irony.
"The one church that carries the name that Armstrong gave it is the one church that doesn't teach his errors. And for us, that shows the beauty of God's sovereignty."
He then revealed the stress he has been under in heading up the church. "The hate mail has been incredible at times from former members," he revealed. "It's died down some, but I've even received death threats. I generally get them here at the office, but once I got one at home and I had wanted to insulate my wife and kids from that kind of stuff."
I asked him if it would not have been easier to have shut your eyes and carry on as it had been in the days of Herbert Armstrong? "No, I couldn't have done that," he said.
He said that people like Hank Hanagraaf of the Christian Research Institute has been like "a breath of fresh air compared to all of the other cult watching groups." He added, "And he really doesn't view himself as a cult watching group and he really is different. He was singularly different." Tkach said that Ruth A. Tucker, a visiting professor at Trinity Evangelical School, who has written two articles on the church for Christianity Today, and the staff of the graduate school of theology at Azusa Pacific University in Southern California, have also been very supportive. They were among the first to recognize that God was orchestrating the miraculous.
"I had been taking graduate studies there and they had immediately extended the right hand of fellowship and were extremely supportive, encouraging," explained Mike Feazell. "They had no qualms in giving us any help, especially in prayer, that we needed. They didn't push us at all or expect anything of us, but they wanted to help where we felt we needed it. They didn't worry about their reputation. They were just Christian brothers from the very beginning."
What did Joseph think that Herbert Armstrong would say if he were in this room and listening to this conversation? "I would like to think that he would have seen some of these errors," he said. "I know for sure he knew that his former teaching on healing was off. I would like to believe that he would have said, 'It's good that you made these changes and shame on all of those people who left.'"
I then asked Joseph, if he were face to face with leaders of the Jehovah Witnesses or the Mormons, what would he say to them? "I'd tell them that they need to reexamine some of the things that they are still teaching, like exaggerated truth claims and false history," he said. "I would challenge them to start on the road to reforming. However," he added, "I don't know whether they would listen."
What would be your message to the evangelical community? "Continue following the lead of the Holy Spirit to break down the denominational barriers and walls. I think we need to embrace each other as brothers and sisters. Some in the broader Christian community as well as some of our splinter groups have said we are making these changes just to be accepted by the evangelical community. We didn't make the changes to please any denomination or Christian leader or individual. We made them because God led us to do it; that we see it's right. It is quite humbling to say the people we have been calling 'pagans,' or 'deceived by the devil,' or 'falsely so-called Christians' for 50 years, were right about a lot of things."
What would you like to be inscribed on your tombstone? "He lived for Jesus" he said firmly.
Greg Albrecht added, "We struggle with our role. We wonder what we could have done better. But there is no textbook written giving step by step biblically based instruction about coming out of cultic teaching into the historic, orthodox Christian faith. We wish there had been a textbook. We thank God for his mercy and his grace. Some of our people are worried and they will say, 'Oh my, it's a shame that we've lost so many thousands of members.' The flip side of that is that it's a miracle that so any thousands of people have come to Christ in our fellowship. It's a miracle."...
The "World Tomorrow" is certainly looking different these days for the Worldwide Church of God. For they have gone from the fringe to the fold. Who says the age of miracles is over?