Global Lessons from the Worldwide Church of God
Gleanings for world missions from a wayward move
How does the American evangelical community respond when one of its customary entries into The Kingdom of the Cults refutes its aberrant doctrinal distinctives and repents of its abuse to those within their own fold? Or, more narrowly, how do the congregants of this movement respond when presented with the unpleasant reality that they no longer had the corner on Biblical truth and the sole keys to the Kingdom? And how do the leaders of this movement usher their people from exclusivism and self-acknowledged heresy to orthodoxy without bowing the knee to modern-day evangelicalism (saving such honors for the One who alone deserves such praise)?
These are a few of the fundamental spheres of interest and concern prompted by the upheaval in the Worldwide Church of God. Without a doubt, the changes are noteworthy. Many had counted the Worldwide Church of God faithful for one thing alone: To be found in Walter Martin’s tome on the cults. Now, they have boldly tried to set aside heresy and its legalistic outworking. In so doing, they have lost half of their denomination of 150,000—all the while watching the birth of over 100 splinter groups.
But the relatively small size of their membership, even at its peak, was no real reflection of their impact on the globe. Their Plain Truth magazine was distributed (free of charge) far and wide across the planet, presenting a Gospel message that was clouded with prophetic obsession, misapplication of Mosaic law and “exclusive” keys to the Kingdom, such as mandatory observation of the Sabbath and Jewish Holy Days. According to Joseph Tkach, Jr., Pastor General of the Worldwide Church of God since 1995, they did acknowledge “a few” other Christians outside of their church, but the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) was certainly the “main thing.”
To be fair, it deserves mention that the membership behind this global operation, though not large, was certainly disciplined, even exemplary in a number of areas. Tithing was practiced dutifully, with a firm 10 percent going to the church, 10 percent allocated for each family’s annual celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles and, every third year, an additional 10 percent was set aside to care for those within the congregation who were widowed, orphaned or otherwise indigent. Their annual budget peaked at some $200 million prior to the backlash from major changes that led to internal upheaval—and diminishing financial returns. Today, they estimate annual revenues at around $35 million. But Tkach is sure to point out that figures and membership don’t nearly tell the whole tale, for they fail to include the kind of suffering where families were split, marriages ended in divorce and disillusioned members wound up entirely outside of fellowship: “It is hard to quantify grief,” he says.
Born by Media. In order to understand the WCG at all, it must be clear that they were birthed through and grown by media. Coming from a somewhat nominal Quaker background, Herbert W. Armstrong was converted in the late 1920’s in Eugene, Oregon through the Church of God (Seventh Day, Oregon Conference), by whom he would later be ordained. In 1934, after ordination he started a weekly radio program entitled “The World Tomorrow,” with the birth of The Plain Truth magazine following shortly thereafter. Both vehicles proclaimed a prophecy-oriented message that found the “lost tribes” of Israel in the Anglo-Saxon world: the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia and Western Europe. Walter Martin credited the WCG with more cultic broadcasts than its “top five competitors combined.”1
Through these twin pillars, The Plain Truth and “The World Tomorrow,” Armstrong began what was initially named the Radio Church of God, not taking on its Worldwide title until 1968, when the scope and strength of the movement was significantly greater. After the Second World War the headquarters of Worldwide Church of God was moved to Pasadena, California where one congregation and the international headquarters remain to this day.
After moving into the backyard of one of the media capitals of the world, the church grew into something of a (mini) worldwide empire. The elaborate Pasadena campus was a regular host to numerous community and congregational events, with premier jazz and classical artists performing in Ambassador Auditorium. Herbert Armstrong himself, growing more comfortable with his “Apostolic” position, added the role of ambassador, arranging meetings with dignitaries and foreign heads of state and becoming a vocal advocate for the new-found Israeli state. (Armstrong would arrive conspicuously in the church’s private jet for these political meetings.) As the teaching of Anglo-Israelism became a more central and defining tenet of the WCG, so grew the sense that he had founded what was the only true Church.
Times of Change. The groundwork for transition was laid in 1986, when Herbert Armstrong appointed his successor, Joseph Tkach, Sr. Armstrong passed away later that same year at the patriarchal age of 93.
The administration under Tkach’s leadership lost a bit of its rigidity, with younger faces filling key positions long held by aging, early converts to Armstrongism. As the constricting belt of the authoritarian structure began to loosen, a series of conversations were gingerly pursued amongst key leaders. Through their private Bible study, these leaders were struggling with the WCG’s interpretation of scripture (both on major and minor points)—an interpretation they were promoted to uphold. To admit this type struggle had previously been unthinkable, nearly equivalent to a notice of self-termination.
These initial, fragile conversations illumined the fact that not only did others also have private reservations, but they had them on many of the exact same issues, a testimony of a prime mover beyond any Pastor General. Tkach, Jr. says, “We compared notes and found we were all in agreement.” The experience was nothing short of liberating.
Questions that came up would be answered from scripture, one at a time, beginning with issues like the appropriateness of make-up and pants for women, or whether or not Christians should vote, things Armstrong had previously preached against. As a result Tkach, Jr. says, “starting to teach that those things were okay to do and Herbert Armstrong was wrong was a challenge because he was the founder, being the equivalent of one of the original twelve Apostles. So, to point out he was wrong shook the whole world.” And, indeed, their world was shaken, but it would not be destroyed. One of the ironies in their entire transition is that it was Herbert Armstrong’s advocacy of searching scripture as the final authority that eroded the distinctly “Armstrongian” cornerstones on which the empire was built.
Each successive issue led to another, in what was described by Tkach, Jr. as a “row of dominoes,” each time one would get taken care of, it would fall, knocking down several more that they would have to deal with, one at a time. The mechanism for change was not Tkach, Sr. alone, but this unprecedented inquiry and discussion amongst a group of seven or eight key leaders that have remained within the movement to this day. Over the next eight years they would make numerous doctrinal and administrational changes. But the permanence and significance of these changes was confirmed in a December 1994 sermon delivered by Joseph Tkach, Sr. His “Understanding the Covenants” message served to codify that the incremental change of the preceding years was not temporary but permanent, and indicative of the journey on which the WCG would continue. In expounding the covenantal theme, he emphasized obsolescence of the previous, Old Covenant and the non-essentiality of Sabbath observance. Early the next year, Tkach, Sr. would be incapacitated by cancer. He appointed his son Pastor General prior to his death in September 1995.
The Worldwide Church of God and World Missions?
What, you might be asking, was the significance of world missions in the Worldwide Church of God? At face value, the WCG, by the leaders’ own assessment, does not hold its previous mission work up as any sort of example. In his book, Tkach describes their work as consisting “largely of exporting our American church culture.”2 When asked about it, he explained, “First we’d get some magnificent office in the financial district of the downtown, prestigious area of town. That was our way of starting a work there.”
They were also guilty of beginning foreign works that were dependent on the United States’ WCG for survival. Tkach continues, “We used to subsidize all of our churches in other countries, we’d pay all their bills for them. So that we created a dependence on us that was almost like an addiction—rather than ever teaching them a way that made them interdependent so they could grow up and plant churches themselves.” Perhaps the humility that gave them the scruples to recognize the non-Semitic features of the British also gave them the wisdom to see that the best gift for these mission churches would be the lifting of subsidy. In the end, that is precisely what they did. Tkach says they “cut the umbilical cords and had them run under indigenous income.”
Randal Dick, the Director of World Missions for the WCG, places their previous foreign work in a bit different perspective, stating they were not really exercising a strategy of missions, but simply responding to what happened as a result of their own proliferation of media materials—both print and electronic. These foreign offices were, to a significant degree, distribution centers for their growing inventory of literature. By this earlier design, the Gospel was to be proclaimed primarily on a media level, rather than individual, familial or even congregational.
Dick, who is currently working on a master’s degree at Fuller School of World Mission, recalls that the Great Commission was always near the core of the WCG’s vision, but the need today is for an education in missiological methodology, which is new and “a little scary” though the climate is open for learning. Bob Persky, one of the WCG’s Regional Pastors, based in Bowling Green, Kentucky is confident that savvy in mission will increase. He says, “We’ve gone through such a hard time and we’ve paid such a high price, we’re not just going to stop here and say, ‘This is as far as we go.’”
While Dick is well aware that, when viewed quantitatively, the WCG is “just a blip on the computer screen,” he is convinced that their transition is something of a laboratory experiment, rich with missiological lessons.
One of the most obvious parallels between the WCG transition and work on any foreign field is the treatment of adherents to local Christian cults and other aberrant expressions of the faith in a foreign context. Ralph Winter, General Director of the U. S. Center for World Mission, explains how missionaries rarely even attempt to work with such people: “They’re considered hopeless, they’re goners. We prefer to start with ‘unsuspecting innocents,’” who have no tie to Christianity whatsoever. Winter observes that these movements are not usually rebellious, but ignorant: “What they need to know is more of the Bible.” This is clearly the case with the Worldwide Church of God. In person, in public and in his book, Tkach grieves the lack of Bible training that left Herbert W. Armstrong open to aberrant interpretation of scripture, amounting to “one gigantic conspiracy theory.”3 Yet it was the repeated, prolonged exposure to more of scripture that revealed these gross hermeneutical errors, gradually drawing them within what Christian Research Institute Director Hank Hanegraaff has called the “pale of orthodoxy.”
The Worldwide Church of God has not been without its critics, even in this transition. In fact they have been criticized from virtually every side—by critics from within and without contending that the change was too slow or too fast or poorly managed. Most cult-watching groups questioned the authenticity of the move itself. Many are still discontent with the “end product.” This criticism has been added to the central, internal resistance to any change at all, labeling it “liberal.” All-in-all, WCG leaders found the cult-watching groups more adversarial than ministerial, making the journey much more difficult than it already was. Tkach attributes this, in part, to their need for “getting a scoop, reporting it and undermining our credibility and going out of their way to point out situations that, in some ways, could be construed as abusive.”4
Whatever conflicting opinions are heard about the rate and substance of change, it did not happen overnight. It was not an immediate “conversion” from heterodoxy to orthodoxy. Instead it was an incremental change, happening one step at a time, with some steps larger than others (like revising their doctrines on the Trinity and human nature, which they got from an evangelical, Charles Finney). In an effort to facilitate the change, Tkach describes how they attempted to build bridges from their past doctrines to their current, more orthodox doctrine. To do so, they made deliberate efforts to emphasize what was right about Armstrong’s past teachings, the “kernel of truth” that could be carried through the transition. He contrasts this with a caricature of the more popular, though less effective approach of “coming in with a hatchet and just chopping everything up and saying this is the way it has to be and now! ... I think we’re better off building bridges to make it easier for people to walk across and come closer to Christ, rather than throwing them in the water—people who don’t know how to swim—and trying to make them swim across.”
While it was at times deliberate and at others an effort employed for survival, the transition of the movement happened, in Tkach’s words, as they “contextualized for our obviously cultish environment.” If they had not, he believes, they would have suffered a much more severe loss, perhaps going out of existence entirely. Instead, many who have left the WCG now fellowship in mainstream denominations, though they are prayerful advocates of the change.
With the movement of the WCG to the world of evangelicalism comes concern from Dr. Winter at how our own evangelical movement “is ridden with weaknesses and imperfections.” While we were sure to point the finger at their past wrongs, we may not be entirely in the right.
What was significant about the WCG of the past, and commendable in some respect, was the demonstration of both vertical and horizontal authority—vertical submission to Christ and horizontal yieldedness to the church and pastoral leadership. Winter observes that, by and large, the evangelical movement today “acknowledges only one authority, and that’s what we call Jesus Christ, not our pastor, not our friends, not our family.” This has contributed to the flowering of a great number of theories of divine guidance—while guidance by Biblical leadership is assumed to be something less than divine. Winter contends that the degree to which obedience is preached from the pulpit today often rings hollow because it is void of any authoritative structure of reproof. The church is fearful of interfering in the sanctity of people’s “personal lives,” while sin flourishes, unaddressed and uncorrected. “Our only authority is vertical, and since that is very fuzzy, we interpret God the way we wish, both consciously and unconsciously.... This is a real heresy,” because, Winter says, “God intends to express His will through parents and friends and church relationships.”
Tkach has found this issue of authority to be particularly sensitive. While their past leadership was strong and respected, it was abusive—abuse for which they have repented. Yet Winter’s point about evangelicalism may be partially illustrated by the fact that it was in the United States, not the WCG’s foreign labors, where Tkach has observed the fruits of what he calls the “John Wayne syndrome”—individualism unfettered by scriptural guidelines for church, family and community. In the U.S., after institutional repentance, some of their people developed a demonstrable resistance to being told anything disagreeable. The common response was, “you’re abusing me.” Due to the sensitivity of their past, they now err on the side of grace. Randal Dick believes that there is still a strong respect within the WCG for Biblical authority, a unique, beautiful respect he hopes will be maintained. Winter’s deep concerns over the state of the evangelical church tempers enthusiasm with an exhortation to the WCG: “I hope you’ve come to strengthen us, not simply to bow down at the image.”
Many who have analyzed the past conduct of the WCG conclude it was legalistic—excessive in its application of Old Testament law. But as they’ve crossed the line they’ve met evangelicals who may well be flawed on the other extreme, risking a complete devaluation of Old Testament material that should be rich for instruction in Godly living. Theologian Walter Kaiser, Jr., President of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, sums up his concern well:
“The current evangelical generation has been raised almost devoid of any teaching on the place and use of the law in the life of the believer. This has resulted in a full (or perhaps semi-) antinomian approach to life. Is it any wonder that the unbelieving society around us is so lawless, if those who should have been light and salt to that same society were themselves not always sure what it was that they should be doing?”5
Of Global Concern
Those issues noted thus far are illustrative of a common struggle on a mission field. A most frequent occurrence is the sprouting of off-beat interpretations of scripture, sometimes harmless, sometimes illuminating, at other times heretical. Winter has witnessed two common types of “success” on a mission field. The first is exemplified by a body of believers where everyone believes exactly as they are taught to believe. The second type of “success” is when the missionary “loses control and the people take the Bible and run with it.” To be sure, he continues, the people end up with some heretical ideas, though they follow the Bible with integrity of heart rather “than following a formula that was imported from a foreign country.”
If that is the case and many mission field churches start out heretical, what ought our response to such churches be? Should we divorce them immediately? Or should we rather embrace them, commend their heart and hunger for scripture, and recognize that God is working both through His word and, as the WCG demonstrates, in the movement itself. Dr. Winter argues that we need to be less concerned with making the ultimate determination on who’s going to heaven or not (doesn’t Someone else make that decision?) and instead focus on whether the people are truly seeking God in their hearts and are believing and obeying the scripture that they already know. “In any case, people can be very confused about the details and still be saved.” George Alexander, professor at Biola’s School of Intercultural Studies touched on this point while clarifying the nature of the Great Commission at a recent meeting of the Evangelical Missiological Society. Jesus Christ, he said, tells us that we are to train ourselves and others not in “creed but conduct; not things to be believed, but things to be done— ‘teaching them to observe all things, whatsoever I commanded you (Mt. 28: 20).’”
While not the final Word on the matter, it is worth a passing note that none of those interviewed from the Worldwide Church of God felt that their faith in Christ prior to these changes was non-regenerative. They still hold the great dedication of the members in the old WCG with great esteem, while grateful that the theological scales have fallen from their eyes. Tkach writes of a clear, experiential work of God in his life through baptism nearly 20 years prior to the heart of this transition. Yet, in reference to the nature of their personal experience, Randal Dick makes clear that their qualitative relationship with Christ is different as “night and day.”
As we recognize the complexity of dealing with mission churches that have not assented to an orthodox creed, yet are manifestly alive, Dr. Winter offers poignant consolation: “When you do missions, you don’t color within the lines. In fact, you don’t do the coloring. The Holy Spirit does.”
Perhaps that is how He intended it to be.