Transformed by Truth, by Joseph Tkach
A lifelong evangelical who recently has become my friend told me a story that highlights the extensive doctrinal and theological changes we’ve been making the last several years in the Worldwide Church of God. My friend was sitting in a waiting room a few months ago when he noticed a copy of The PIain Truth lying on a table. He was acquainted with the magazine and knew of many of our former doctrinal aberrations. Out of curiosity he picked up the magazine. As he skimmed article after article, he became increasingly alarmed. What made him so anxious?
“I thought I was losing my theological discernment,” he explained. “I had heard nothing of the changes taking place within the Worldwide Church of God, and I was startled—no, worried—that I couldn’t find anything doctrinally wrong with the articles I was reading. I thought, What’s wrong with me? This stuff sounds like it’s straight out of an evangelical publication. What am I missing? Why can’t I spot the errors? Am I losing it?”
His alarm melted away only when another friend explained that the WCG had undergone monumental theological reformation in the past several years. My friend could hardly believe it. Had the church really moved away from the aberrant and even heretical doctrinal positions that had marked it for so many years? Yes, he was told, it really had done so. All he could do was shake his head.
The Protestant Connection
I think my friend would have shaken his head even more vigorously had he known that nearly all of the doctrinal distinctives that Herbert Armstrong taught originated not with him, but with Protestant groups (albeit extreme and even heretical ones).
Mr. Armstrong was nothing in his theological approach if not eclectic. He borrowed and adapted most of his “unique” teachings from others. Often when we try to tell some of our people that Mr. Armstrong borrowed much of his teaching from outside sources, we meet heavy resistance. So we sometimes respond with the following: “Allow us to lay out a challenge aimed at combating the idea that these doctrines were specially revealed to Herbert Armstrong. We want to show that they really did not pour directly from the Godhead into his mind. Here’s our challenge: You know the distinctive teachings of Herbert Armstrong; now you name the teaching and we’ll tell you where it came from. We’ll show you what preceded Herbert Armstrong and demonstrate that the teaching was not specially revealed to him and it wasn’t restored from the first century.”
When someone takes us up on this challenge, almost always the first doctrine to be mentioned is the Sabbath. “Sorry!” I say “The Seventh-day Baptists had that first, long before Mr. Armstrong.” You should see the looks on people’s faces as we start naming the origins of one doctrine after another.
How about the nature of man? Sorry—the evangelist Charles Finney heavily influenced our former ideas on that. In fact, after Mr. Armstrong’s death when my dad moved into his predecessor’s office and cleaned out his desk, guess what book he found there explaining the nature of man? You guessed it—a work by Charles Finney
Well, what about Anglo-Israelism? Certainly that one was specially revealed to Mr. Armstrong! Well, not exactly. A man named John Sadler apparently pioneered the idea way back in 1649, while another man named Richard Brothers (1757-1824) developed the concept further. It’s true Mr. Armstrong took their ideas and adapted them in a peculiar way, but he emphatically did not originate the concept. In fact, it is no secret that Herbert Armstrong’s The United States and the British Commonwealth in Prophecy was copied from a book titled Judah’s Scepter and Joseph’s Birthright1 by J. H. Allen.
It is possible to run down almost the entire list of “new truths” supposedly revealed to Mr. Armstrong and point out where he got them and what preceded them. And most interesting of all (at least for me) is that most of these teachings he learned from Protestants. Contrary to what we formerly believed, none of our distinctive doctrines was specially revealed to Mr. Armstrong-at least not in the way the term “specially revealed” is commonly understood. And therein lies another story.
A Story: More Than a Grain of Truth
A story which cannot be documented nevertheless gives an accurate understanding of how Mr. Armstrong used the term revealed. Before Mr. Armstrong moved to California, he and John Kiesz, a former Church of God (Seventh Day) minister who is now deceased, were working together in Eugene, Oregon. Mr. Armstrong was putting out initial copies of The PIain Truth and had started his radio broadcast. The men were sharing an office, and John Kiesz came in one day to find Mr. Armstrong pounding away on the typewriter.
“Herbert, what are you doing?” Mr. Kiesz asked.
“John,” Mr. Armstrong replied, “God has revealed this incredible new truth to me.” You must understand that in our former system, “new truth” was the ultimate find. When my parents first joined the church back in the fifties, I remember my mom and dad being asked one question repeatedly. The question wasn’t, “How did you come to join the Worldwide Church of God?” but “When did you come into The Truth?” Not “When did you accept Christ?” but “When did you come into The Truth?” For us, new truth was the pearl of great price.
Back to the story. As John Kiesz peered over Mr. Armstrong’s shoulder and looked at the article being typed, he recognized it. “Herbert,” he said, “this appeared in The Bible Advocate [the Church of God (Seventh Day) magazine] about three months ago.”
“Yes, that’s how God revealed it to me,” Mr. Armstrong enthusiastically replied.
This story, told to me by Mr. Kiesz himself, illustrates the fact that Mr. Armstrong used the term revealed in a way substantially different from how one might see it defined in most dictionaries or seminary textbooks. When he said something had been revealed to him, he did not mean that God had poured the new understanding directly into his waiting mind. No, whatever the new teaching happened to be, it usually came through a more human channel.
When some people hear this for the first time, they wrongly assume that Mr. Armstrong knowingly talked about “new revelation” in a deceitfully malicious way. When he’d talk about ideas being revealed to him, most people automatically assumed he meant revealed in the sense of Paul’s experience on the Damascus road or Isaiah’s experience when he was called into ministry as described in Isaiah 6. But this would be to misunderstand. Mr. Armstrong’s use of the term revealed was a good deal more elastic than that, and I don’t believe it was deliberately deceitful or malicious. Yet it did create a picture for people that God was somehow directly communicating new ideas and teachings to Mr. Armstrong through some kind of divine pipeline. That, of course, created all kinds of problems.
A Stroll Through Past Headlines
When people sincerely believe that their spiritual leader has the ultimate inside track on divine wisdom, they cannot help but sit up and take notice when he speaks—especially if what he says concerns their eternal welfare or destruction. Imagine for a moment that you were convinced your own pastor had a direct line from God, that what he said was the absolute truth, and that when he spoke, you had better listen and take heed. Imagine also that he made most of his pronouncements through a church newsletter. What would you think when you saw headlines like the following, knowing that they were directed to you from your undisputed spiritual leader?
HOW YOU DRESS FOR CHURCH— Could it keep you out of the KINGDOM?2
How subtly Satan used MAKEUP to start the Church off the track3
OUR LIGHT IS SHINING!—and not the cosmetics on our faces4
My guess is you’d probably respond a lot like we did—with firm dedication laced with fear. Our spiritual lives were heavy with rules and threats. Most of us began to measure ourselves more by what we didn’t do than by what we did. As our rule books grew thick, our concept of grace grew correspondingly thin. We did not so much have a vital relationship with Christ as we had a cognitive acceptance of certain esoteric doctrines. Who you knew wasn’t nearly so important as what you knew. Doctrine—new truth—was everything to us. It’s what set us apart from everyone else. And my, did it set us apart!
Seven Key Doctrinal Emphases
For those who may not be familiar with what the Worldwide Church of God formerly taught, allow me to briefly sketch out seven areas of doctrine that, taken together, set us apart from all other organizations, denominations, and churches. Our former doctrinal distinctives cannot be limited to the following, but in my opinion what follows represents the chief teachings that defined us as a group and distinguished us from all others. Please remember: The Worldwide Church of God no longer holds to, teaches, or defends any of these doctrines. What I am about to describe is the former doctrinal edifice of the Worldwide Church of God. In large part, the following description will apply to the vast majority of our splinter groups. (For a brief comparison of what the church formerly taught with what it teaches today, see the appendix.)
1. Who Is God?
While the Worldwide Church of God has always taught that God was eternal, immutable, and sovereign, it also used to teach that He was constantly learning and growing. We taught that God the Father had a human form, as we do. Consider this:
Now notice once again Genesis 1:26: “…God (Elohim) said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness [form and shape]…” God is described in the Bible as having eyes, ears, nose, mouth—hair on his head—arms, legs, fingers, toes. Jesus was “…the express image of his [the Father’s] Person…” (Hebrews 1:3).5
From this passage you see that our God was not entirely orthodox. He had eyes, ears, nose, mouth—all the bodily parts we have. On the one hand, we were right in saying the Bible used these words to describe Him; the Psalms, for example, are full of such terms in reference to God. On the other hand, we can now see, by God’s grace, that these terms are used anthropomorphically, to picture God in a poetic way. I think we understood this principle a little even then, for we never did take all such terms literally. We never taught, for example, that God had feathers, as a woodenly literal reading of Psalm 17:8 would require, nor that He sometimes acted like a drunk, as Psalm 78:65 would suggest. That was too literal even for us.
Our heretical concept of God did not stop there. We vigorously denied the Trinity, claiming that it was a pagan doctrine. Although we upheld the deity of Christ, we understood Him to be a separate God from the Father; while we said He had always existed with God Almighty, we also taught He did not become the Son of God until He was born into the world through the virgin Mary. And the Holy Spirit? We denied His personality and taught that “He” was really an “it,” as the following passage shows:
If the Holy Spirit is not a Person—a Ghost—then what does the Bible reveal about the Holy Spirit?… The Holy Spirit is the Spirit (not Ghost) that emanates out from both God and Christ everywhere in the universe. Through His Holy Spirit, God projects Himself, in Spirit, everywhere in the universe—yet both God and Christ have form and shape, even as man.
The Holy Spirit is many things. It is the VERY LIFE of the immortal God, which, entering in a human, begets him with GOD-life.
It is the POWER of God, by which, when Christ “spake” it was done. It is the POWER by which God stretched out the heavens—created the vast endless universe.
The Holy Spirit, entering into man as God’s gift, opens the mind to UNDERSTANDING of spiritual knowledge, unknown to the human mind otherwise. It is the LOVE of God “…shed abroad in our hearts…” (Romans 5:5). It is the FAITH of Christ, which may be given to God’s begotten children through the Holy Spirit. It is the POWER of God, begotten within humans, enabling us to overcome Satan and sin.6
We taught that the primary mission of Jesus was to prove that the law could be kept. We said that the Holy Spirit came to the believer to implant the life and character of Jesus. In that way we were able to obey the commandments of God.
Finally, we taught that the destiny of all true believers (that is, members in good standing of the WCG) was to become God even as God is God. We said that we would become part of a “God family.” The quest of every believer was to become God even as He is God. This is one reason we so vigorously attacked the doctrine of the Trinity. In our minds, the Trinity limited God to three Persons—hardly an acceptable teaching when you insisted that every believer’s destiny was to become a literal God in the God family. We put it like this:
Emperor Constantine of the Roman Empire government called the Nicene Council in A.D. 325 and made both, the pagan Easter (from the goddess Astarte) and the Trinity doctrine, LAW!… The Trinity doctrine limited God to three Persons.7
These days, of course, we have admitted our error and have embraced the biblical and orthodox doctrine of the Trinity: one God existing eternally as three coequal, divine Persons. We believe that God is spirit and therefore does not have bodily parts as we do, and that Jesus’
primary mission was to seek and to save that which was lost (we humans!). The Holy Spirit does empower us to live godly lives but not as a mere “force” or “energy.”
2. Who Is Man?
While we thought that true believers would be resurrected to eternal life, we taught that unbelievers remained dead for one thousand years longer. This would have major implications for our teaching on the afterlife.
We taught that God was literally reproducing Himself through mankind. Our destiny was not to remain merely human, but to become God—born again as members of God’s family just as human children are fully human, so (we thought) God’s children will be fully God.
Today we recognize that our destiny is not to become God; He is forever separate, holy, and blessed, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:15–16).
He alone is uncreated; we are His creation, brought into existence by His creative power. He is without beginning or ending. We humans have a beginning. The redeemed will one day be glorified and receive indestructible bodies like that of the Lord Jesus after His resurrection, but we will never become God. That is impossible.
3. What Is Salvation?
We used to teach that no one was “born again” until the final resurrection. We said that those who believed in the death and resurrection of Jesus and who committed themselves to obeying the law were “begotten” (which we understood to mean “conceived”) sons of God and would be “born again” at the time of the resurrection. Until then, a believer was only conceived, not born. Therefore, no one was “saved” in their earthly life; they had to await the return of Jesus Christ for that. At the resurrection the believer would be raised up and finally be born again. “We are begotten sons of God if we have the Holy Spirit. And therefore, we are impregnated with immortal life, to have it when Christ comes, which will be in the Family of God.”8
This was one of the few doctrines taught by Mr. Armstrong that has no known precedent; it appears to be unique to him. He developed this teaching through a simple misunderstanding of the original Greek text underlying the New Testament. He erroneously claimed that the Greek word gennao (“beget,” KJV) was the only word used for this activity in the New Testament. Yet at least three other terms—apokueo, anagennao, tikto—are used interchangeably with gennao and can be translated “conceive,” “bring forth,” “deliver,” etc. Experts in the Greek language—as well as a properly utilized lexicon—can easily point out the correct understanding of this term. First Peter 1:23 makes it clear that our former understanding was in error: “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God” (emphasis mine).
We also claimed that while Christ died for the sins of the world, believing in Christ was insufficient to gain salvation; the believer must also obey Christ. That obedience, as we formerly understood it, included adherence to the Saturday Sabbath, to dietary laws (as in Leviticus 11), and observance of religious festivals, new moons, and holy days. We taught that only those who obeyed all the commandments—including those portions of the Old Covenant law that Herbert Armstrong believed and taught to “still be in effect”—could achieve salvation. In other words, while salvation was a gift, one had to qualify to receive this free gift. Adam had to qualify to restore the government of God on earth; he failed. Christ had to qualify by overcoming Satan and proving loyal to God and God’s way; He succeeded. In the same way, each one in the church also had to “qualify” in order to sit on Christ’s throne with Him. It was a sort of conditional grace, which helps to explain how Mr. Armstrong could make such statements as, “Jesus Christ does not make it EASY for any of us whom God calls and Jesus uses in His service—or those called for salvation. To qualify for the free GIFT of salvation is not easy.”9 Today we teach that people are born again the moment they put their trust in the living Savior, Jesus Christ. Salvation is a gift and cannot be earned or “qualified for” in any way: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8).
4. What Is the Church?
We were adamant that God had only one true church in the world, and we were it. All others were false and apostate. We labeled Roman Catholicism “the Great Whore of Babylon” (from Revelation 17) and called Protestants her harlot daughters. Herbert Armstrong also claimed that the true gospel ceased to be preached from about A.D. 53 when it was squelched by the Great Whore. The truth reappeared nineteen centuries later under the leadership of Mr. Armstrong. He was Christ’s apostle in the last days who would restore lost truth to the church in order to prepare for Christ’s imminent Second Coming.
How did we know we were the “only true church”? For one thing, we had the “correct” name, “the church of God.” We were known as the “Radio Church of God,” until 1968 when we changed our name to the Worldwide Church of God. Second, we observed God’s Sabbath, along with the Old Covenant dietary laws and special feast days. We required the celebration of seven annual Sabbaths (Leviticus 23)—one of which lasted for eight days—and avoided pork, shrimp, and certain other meats. The WCG interpreted the Bible to discourage members from voting, to prohibit righteous people from serving in the military, marrying after being divorced, relying on doctors (for anything other than accidents, “repair surgery” or childcare), using cosmetics, or observing Christmas, Easter, and birthdays. No other church followed all these strict practices; therefore, they were apostate and we were righteous.
Because this was true, we distanced ourselves from every other “Christian falsely so-called” and all other denominations. We became isolated and set apart. Information about the time and location of services was carefully guarded. Prospective members were carefully screened and invited to services only when they “were almost ready for baptism.”10 We saw ourselves as God’s only true church and we didn’t hide our belief. A headline from a Good News published on December 18, 1978, blares, “THE WORLDWIDE CHURCH OF GOD TODAY” and is subheaded, “the only voice in the wilderness of today’s religious Babylon giving a hopeless world its ONLY and SURE HOPE!””
And what of the organization of God’s one true church? In the beginning, we were organized in a largely democratic fashion. In a six-thousand-word article written in 1939 and titled “Did Christ Reorganize the Church?” Herbert Armstrong thoroughly condemned centralized, hierarchical church government, and enthusiastically supported congregational autonomy. He wrote, “All authority and power to rule is limited solely to each LOCAL congregation. But there is NO BIBLE AUTHORITY for any super-government, or organization with authority over the local
congregations!” He blamed Emperor Constantine for instituting a hierarchical system, as he had blamed him for introducing the doctrine of the Trinity.
Yet over time the WCG itself would institute a rigid hierarchical system. On January 22, 1955, Mr. Armstrong said that “for the first time in 750 years God’s complete government is restored to His Church.” On that day, he said, every administrative office mentioned in Scripture had been recognized and filled in the Radio Church of God—apostle, evangelist, pastor, minister—elder (preaching elder), deacon, and deaconess. By the midfifties it could be said that “the congregations are ruled by the elders, who are ruled by the evangelists, and they are ruled by the apostle who is ruled by Christ who is ruled by God. All offices are appointed, by a superior office. It is government from God down to each individual member of the church.”12
Other things would change in “God’s church,” as well. Mr. Armstrong was not always called “Christ’s apostle.” But by the early 1950s some students at Ambassador began to refer to him that way. Soon others picked it up. The first time he was publicly called an apostle was in 1951 at a Feast of Tabernacles, when Herman Hoeh, one of the first graduates of Ambassador College and ministers of the church, used the title in a sermon. Mr. Armstrong later wrote, “At that time his words hit my startled ears like an atomic bomb and my first impulse was to deny and correct his statement immediately.”13 In 1955 he acknowledged the truth of this title, but he rarely used it or even mentioned it for the next twenty years. When he did use it, he would call himself “the one you [ministers and others] call an apostle.” By the seventies he had begun to use the term frequently, and in the last decade of his life he often called himself “the sole apostle of the twentieth century.”
Today we reject what is well known as “Armstrongism,” that is, adherence to the teachings of Herbert W. Armstrong in lieu of biblical evidence to the contrary. We have accepted the primacy of the Bible and of the gospel, while more than one hundred splinter groups that the WCG spawned continue to teach and proclaim the unbiblical interpretations of a man. We do not believe the WCG is God’s only true church; we know there are genuine believers in all Christian denominations. We do not believe that one form of church government is more biblical than another and are taking steps to decentralize our ecclesiastical structure. God’s church has continued to thrive through all of the centuries since Jesus rose from the grave two millennia ago; we are simply one small part of the Bride of Christ. And we are happy to be so!
5. How Should We Handle the Old Covenant?
This question shaped a multitude of beliefs and practices in our church. The New Covenant/Old Covenant debate is a significant piece of the puzzle because a mixed understanding of this existed in our church for a long time. Many people thought we were still under the Old Covenant, primarily because many of our ministers were teaching exactly that.
I remember Ted Armstrong giving a sermon in Pasadena about this topic. He asked the audience, “How many people here think we’re under the New Covenant? Raise your hand.” Scores of hands went up. Then he asked, “And how many people think we’re under the Old Covenant? Raise your hand.” More hands went up. Then he said, “By the time I’m done this morning, you’ll know what kind of a church we are.”
Then he took us on a tour of scores of verses, highlighting the word commandments wherever it appeared (out of context, of course, but we were all ignorant of that). His concluding verse was Hebrews 8:13, which says, “In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away” (KJV). He fixed on that final phrase and said, “See, it hasn’t yet vanished away. It waxeth old, but it’s still in force; it hasn’t vanished.”
As we sat there listening to him deliver this sermon, we were biblically ignorant. We had no idea that the Book of Hebrews was written just a few years before the destruction of the Jewish temple in A.D. 70. When the invading Roman army razed the temple and burned Jerusalem to the ground, the old mode of relating to God was certainly done away with, forever. The Roman legions of Titus saw to it that the Old Covenant system “vanished” once and for all. Yet almost two thousand years after those events had occurred, we remained firmly convinced by Ted’s presentation that we were still under the Old Covenant.
Even so, the question didn’t stay settled for long. Troubling objections continued to be raised. How could we still be under the Old Covenant when we never made any of the animal sacrifices that were at the heart of that covenant? And how could we say that Christ did away with that aspect of the covenant, but the rest of it was still intact and in force? How did one decide which portions of the Old Covenant still applied and which ones didn’t?
In 1978 Herbert Armstrong wrote an article intended to clear up the confusion.14 He wrote that while it was correct to say we were no longer under the Old Covenant, yet we were not yet under the New Covenant either; that wouldn’t begin until Christ returned. So where were we? We were “between” the two covenants.
Such a pronouncement gave Mr. Armstrong a platform from which to pick and choose which items from the Old Covenant and which items from the New would apply to us. It explains how we could be required to observe Old Covenant holy days but not be required to make animal sacrifices for sin. Whatever we were commanded to obey, however, we were commanded to obey in no uncertain terms.
By God’s grace, we have left all this behind. We are not an Old Covenant church, but a New Covenant church. We do not earn our standing before God by doing anything (although what we do certainly reveals what is in our heart). We live by grace, not by law; by the New Covenant, not the Old.
6. What Is a True View of History?
One of Mr. Armstrong’s chief teachings was his own version of British-Israelism. He taught that the Anglo-Saxons (the British peoples) are direct descendants of the ten “lost” tribes of Israel. He said the ten tribes of Israel migrated to northwestern Europe and are to be found today primarily in England and the English-speaking world. The Anglo-Saxons of England and the United States, he said, are the descendants of Ephraim and Manasseh.
How did he come to this conclusion? Tortured etymology gives one answer. For example, he said that the Hebrew word for “covenant” (berith) became significant in English when combined with the Hebrew word for “man” (ish). Since vowels are not written in the Masoretic text of the original Hebrew text, the e in berith drops out to form the term brith. Since ancient Hebrews did not pronounce the h, berith became brit. Put that together with ish and you have “British.” Of course, there are no biblical or historical reasons to make such leaps in logic.
He did something similar with the term “Saxon.” Genesis 21:12 tells us that God promised to bless Isaac’s seed. If the I in Isaac is dropped, we are left with saac—and it is “Saac’s sons” (Saxon) with whom God’s covenant was established. Therefore when Jesus said He had been sent only to “the lost sheep of Israel,” He meant He had come to deliver His message not to the
Jews, but to the Anglo-Saxon people. Mr. Armstrong wrote, “Jesus had told His disciples to go NOT to the gentiles, but to the ‘lost sheep of the House of Israel.’ The ‘House of Israel’ never refers to the Jews—always to the kingdom that became known as ‘the lost ten tribes.’ They were in Western Europe and Britain when Jesus gave this instruction.”15 Earlier he had insisted: “So here is another TRUTH unknown in the teachings of most churches called Christianity—Israel was divided into TWO nations—and the people of the kingdom of Israel were NOT Jews, nor are they ever called Jews in the Bible!”16
At other times he would claim that the current English throne is an extension of the throne of David and that the Stone of Scone, which used to lie beneath the royal English throne, is actually the very rock Jacob used for a pillow as described in Genesis 28:11. Mr. Armstrong claimed the stone had been transported by the prophet Jeremiah to the British Isles (yet geologists say the stone is calcareous, a type common to Scotland, and is inconsistent with rocks from the area of Israel). In many ways this doctrine of British-Israelism shaped our major beliefs and practices.
Beyond British-Israelism, we were taught false church history. It was commonly maintained, for example, that the man often referred to as Simon Magus (Acts 8:9-25) started the Roman Catholic Church—a claim which is simply wrong. Such false history shaped much of what we did and taught.
Sometimes we would be directed to a diagram of church history. It would indicate the beginning of the church at Pentecost at one end of the diagram and where we were in the twentieth century. In between was little good. The gospel had ceased to be proclaimed in A.D. 53; a little while later the “church” abandoned the Sabbath and replaced it with Sunday-keeping. This is where the church got off track.
So according to the diagram, the church started well, then almost immediately got on a descending line until finally it was corrupt. Still, the church never completely lost sight of all the truth. Through time a number of remnant people—the Waldensians, the Bogomils, the Lollards—were persecuted by the Great Whore. We preached and taught that these people were true Christians. Why? Regardless of what else they may have believed or practiced, they were true Christians because they had the “Sabbath truth.”
It’s interesting for us today to look at some of these groups honestly. Many of them were gnostics and deists. Waldensians were Trinitarians and were not Sabbath keepers; they kept Sunday as their Sabbath. But because they used the word “Sabbath” in their writings, we mistakenly assumed they worshiped on Saturday. At some point a few Waldensians did break off from the main group and started keeping Saturday as the Sabbath, but the majority of the church never did so.
We absolutely accepted this deeply flawed version of history. In truth, there’s something appealing even to the Protestant mind about such a view of history. We know the Roman Church did wander off track through its medieval teachings of indulgences and its general
corruption. We know that Martin Luther did a great thing by igniting the flame of the Reformation. There’s something good about such a view of history—but there’s something troubling about it, too, even beyond the wild inaccuracies. We saw conspiracy everywhere, a parallel track of good and evil. The groups that “had the Sabbath truth” (or the ones we thought had the Sabbath) were good; the others were corrupt because they didn’t have the Sabbath. Everything for us was colored by this skewed view of history.
7. What Does the Future Hold?
In our former view, all of history looked to the millennium as the pinnacle of righteousness and godliness. Christ would come back to set up His government and reign for a thousand years, and we would be His partners. All that He did on earth at His first advent—His sinless life, His sacrificial death, and His resurrection from the grave—were nothing but preliminaries to the kingdom. He came not so much to save us from our sins (although He did that) as to proclaim and lay the groundwork for the coming kingdom of God.
At the resurrection and the beginning of the millennium, dead believers would be resurrected and born again to reign with Christ on the earth. As Herbert Armstrong wrote: “The KINGDOM OF GOD is a literal GOVERNMENT. Even as the Chaldean Empire was a KINGDOM—even as the
Roman Empire was a KINGDOM—so the KINGDOM OF GOD is a government. It is to take over the GOVERNMENT of the NATIONS of the world.”17
And when would this cataclysmic event happen? Mr. Armstrong taught that it could happen at any time and offered many predictions about its timing (all of which failed to come true). He said that the Worldwide Church of God would first be miraculously transported to a place of safety, probably Petra—an ancient, walled city in the south of Jordan, a place of protection against the terrors of Armageddon—in 1936. He later mistakenly predicted that this event would occur in ’43 and then again in ’72. Three and a half years after the church was taken to safety, Christ would return and the battle of Armageddon would commence. When all these predictions failed and numbers of people left the church in response, he became much more careful about setting prophetic dates.
Finally, we taught there were three separate resurrections:
1. Members of the true church, as well as departed saints, would be raised to life to meet the returning Christ and establish the millennial kingdom. At that time they would be born again and become literal Gods in the “God Family.”
2. Those who had not heard “the Truth” in their lifetime would be resurrected at the end of the millennium, at which time the saints would teach them correct doctrine. If they refused to accept it, there was only one fate.
3. Willful sinners were to be resurrected from the dead, only to be thrown into the lake of fire, where they would perish and cease to exist for eternity.
Today we no longer hold this three-resurrection eschatological scheme to be a test of fellowship. We recognize that true Christians can and do differ on their views of future things; this does not make them less Christian or spiritually inferior. Our members vary in their beliefs about eschatological details. But we all believe that Christ will return one day in power and great glory and that “he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:25-26). We believe God to be fair, just, and merciful. We look forward to spending eternity with Christ and all the saints, not as fellow-Gods, but as glorified children of God—redeemed men and women who love Him and will worship Him forever.
A Master Salesman
As I mentioned in the last chapter, before Mr. Armstrong entered the ministry, he was an advertising man and salesman. He did a wonderful job in those roles; many experts called him one of the great copywriters of the twentieth century, and we admire him for that. Unfortunately, he brought that sales mentality into the founding of our church. It appears that he said to himself, “All right, I’ve got to make this church different. How do I make people want to come to this church and not some other church?”
Many of our members still ask this question sixty years later: “How are we different anymore? In the old days we always were different. What sets us apart today?” One of Herbert Armstrong’s greatest successes was in making us different; we thought nobody else had the Truth but us.
Think of it like this. Suppose you start to market a new brand of soap. So you say to yourself, “OK, I’m selling soap. I’ve got to distinguish my soap from Tide and from Ivory and from all the others. So what do I do?
“For one, I can start positioning my product by identifying all others as inferior or even worthless, as misleading, as spurious and even hurtful. Of course, I will have to use basically the same ingredients for my soap that they do in theirs, but I will change the name of those ingredients. It’ll be basically the same thing, but I’ll give it a slightly different name.”
I don’t think that this really went though Mr. Armstrong’s head, but in fact it is what happened. We were told that we were the “only true” soap. So when we started admitting a few years ago that we weren’t the only true soap, that others had been making excellent soap for centuries, what do you think some of our people did? Many of them left. But where could they go? They would never use the mainline soap. They would never become an evangelical Christian—why, that soap was falsely so-called, it was heretical, it was bogus. So what could they do? In their
disillusionment many of them started spinning off to splinter groups.
The Emergence of Splinter Groups
We started making doctrinal changes in 1987, but a number of splits occurred before that—thirty-four, actually. Fourteen of those thirty-four are splits of splits. The names of these groups are revealing: The Plainer Truth; the Mystery Church of God; the Mystery of the Kingdom Ministry; and my all-time favorite, the New Moon, the Church of God in the Netherlands.
Many of these groups are still meeting, although the numbers in each are small. Some have rather tragic stories. A year after The Family Church of God began, for example, the leader and his wife divorced. Our largest splinter group, the United Church of God, formed shortly after my dad gave the 1994 Christmas Eve sermon (see chapter 7). It has about eighteen thousand members. The Global Church of God counts about seven thousand members and is led by one of Mr. Armstrong’s first students, Roderick Meredith [who is now deceased] .The Church of God, Philadelphia era, is the oldest of these major splits and has about three thousand members.
A minority of our former members—it would be hard to assign a number—have joined other Christian denominations. These people may have felt the WCG congregation they were attending wasn’t making changes fast enough. Or they may have been dissatisfied with their pastor. Or perhaps they had significant numbers of family members in other denominations. Others simply have found that their local WCG congregation was not equipped for fully serving the needs of all members, in light of the many changes we made. They felt they needed to go elsewhere in the Body of Christ to find help and healing. We are not happy to lose those people, but we are glad they’re joining a healthy, Bible-believing, authentic church.
So after all the doctrinal changes of the past few years, here’s where we stand: Close to seventy thousand people remain with us, which means that we have lost about seventy thousand members. Only thirty thousand people, perhaps less than that, attend the splinter groups. A
larger group of forty thousand people sit at home, confused, frustrated, and not knowing what to do or what to believe. So they go nowhere; they’re dropping out of everything.
My earnest hope is that all will be led by the Spirit of God to embrace the real gospel of the Living Savior and will find the abundant life He promises to give. That abundant life doesn’t come in accepting a bushelful of esoteric doctrine but in coming humbly to the Author of Life Himself, Jesus Christ. He and no other is the center and focus of the gospel. I cannot end this chapter any better than with the words of the apostle John at the close of the final book in the New Testament: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life” (Revelation 22:17).
1. There is no copyright on Herbert W. Armstrong’s first edition of The United States and the British Commonwealth in Prophecy, probably because it is so similar to J. H. Allen’s book.
2. The Worldwide News, May 21, 1979, 1.
3. The Worldwide News, November 16, 1981, 1.
4. The Worldwide News, December 28, 1981, 1.
5. Herbert W. Armstrong, The Good News, November 20, 1978, 5.
7. Ibid., 4.
8. Armstrong, “CONGRESS OF LEADING MINISTERS,” 10.
9. Herbert W. Armstrong, “Just What Is the Work?” The Worldwide News, June 30, 1980, 1.
10. John Robinson, “How WCG’s Top-Down Rule Evolved,” In Transition, December 16, 1996, 7.
11. The Good News, December 18, 1978, 5.
12. Robinson, “Top-Down Rule,” 7.
14. Herbert W. Armstrong, “The PIain Truth about the Covenants,” The Good News, December 18, 1978, 1, 8.
15. Herbert W. Armstrong, “Non-tithing Is Stealing,” The Worldwide News, July 9, 1979, 1, 5.
16. Herbert W. Armstrong, “AND NOW CHRIST SETS CHURCH BACK ON TRACK DOCTRINALLY!” The Worldwide News, special edition, February 19, 1979, 2.
17. Herbert W. Armstrong, “SEVEN PROOFS OF THE TRUE CHURCH,” The Good News, November 20, 1978, 16.
Author: Joseph Tkach