I've been cleaning out the garage, a major undertaking. Apart from the pain of decluttering, there has been the wistful rediscovery of things long forgotten. Among them an article I wrote in 1996 which, unless I'm much mistaken, was my first attempt at journalism on the subject of the Worldwide Church of God. It was intended as an overview of the situation as it then was, aimed at a general readership in New Zealand. Whether I'd yet begun on The Missing Dimension project (which later morphed into Ambassador Watch) I'm not sure. If so it would have been very early days indeed. It has never before appeared online or in print.
Here - after all those years - is that article.
Worldwide Church of God Plots New Path: An American sect enters the mainstream
Herbert W. Armstrong must be turning in his grave, perhaps even rotating like a rotisserie chicken. Armstrong, founder and leader ("pastor general and apostle") of the church that sponsors The Plain Truth magazine, could hardly have anticipated the massive changes that would be implemented in the Worldwide Church of God following his death in 1986.
Doctrine and Disaffection
Once preaching such unorthodox beliefs as strict Sabbath observance (Saturday and Annual Jewish Feasts), British Israelism (the belief that Anglo-Saxons are descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel), the conviction that theirs alone was the One True Church, and the literal rebirth of humans as gods at the resurrection, the Worldwide Church of God now stands firmly within the Evangelical Protestant camp after little more than a decade in transition. In the process a huge chunk of the membership, once numbering up to 100,000, have abandoned their former spiritual home to join splinter groups built around disaffected ministers.1
The church's repositioning, and a resulting crisis of confidence among the membership, has meant a dramatic decline in income. Members formerly gave up to 30% of their gross incomes to church related causes. The church has now, however, relegated its demanding tithing system to the dustbin, and those who remain within the fold are less inclined to such sacrificial giving. Whereas The Plain Truth could once be mailed free of charge to all who requested it, the magazine is now being sold by subscription (in the United States), or renewed only in exchange for an annual donation (in New Zealand). The once extensive World Tomorrow radio and television ministry has been completely axed, and church employees both at the Pasadena, California headquarters and in the field have had their numbers slashed in a major restructuring effort intended to balance the books.
Errant Heirs and Great Tribulations
Problems for Worldwide Church of God (WCG) members predated the death of their founder, an advertising salesman who was converted to a schismatic variety of Seventh-day Adventism in the 1930s.2 Armstrong had several false calls predicting the end of the world. In 1972 the "Great Tribulation" was predicted to commence, with faithful members expecting to flee to a "place of safety", rumoured to be the abandoned Jordanian rock city of Petra, in order to escape nuclear Armageddon. Earlier predictions included the victory of Germany and Italy over the Allies during World War II.
The church suffered further bad publicity during the 1970's when it was rumoured that the WCG's most prominent personality, Armstrong's son and anointed heir, Garner Ted Armstrong, was guilty of philandering on a major scale. The younger Armstrong, once heard widely in New Zealand on The World Tomorrow radio broadcast, finally left the WCG in 1978 following a lengthy internal power struggle.3 This was followed by a period during which the WCG receded further into a cultic shell, and thousands of members were disfellowshipped in purges designed to prepare the church "as a spotless bride" for Christ's imminent return.
To add to the angst, accusations of incest and alcoholism were to be levelled against the elderly apostle in the early 1980's, now an octogenarian in failing health.4 Credibility was further eroded when the church was placed in receivership by the State of California while its financial affairs were investigated.
All of this was in stark contrast to the carefully crafted PR image cultivated by Armstrong. The dapper, white-haired patriarch was regularly being flown around the world on the church's corporate jet to hobnob with leaders such as Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, ostensibly in his role as self appointed "ambassador of world peace". In return for the publicity such meetings offered, pet charities selected by the host would usually receive generous grants from the church's cultural and philanthropic arm, the Ambassador International Cultural Foundation.
As fate would have it, on Herbert Armstrong's death a virtual unknown, Joseph Tkach, was designated as heir to the leadership in a move that left many longtime Worldwide-watchers perplexed. Shortly after ascending to the church's highest office Tkach was to be converted to a "born again" form of Christianity. Until his death late in 1995, he pursued a relentless programme of reforms which are being continued by his own son and successor, Joe Tkach Jr. The WCG is now widely regarded as more mainstream than the Seventh-day Adventist Church, to which it is related. Indeed, many Adventist observers were deeply disturbed when the WCG officially abandoned Sabbath-keeping, retaining Saturday services only as, in effect, a cultural feature.5 The highly centralised and autocratic structures of the past are also being dismantled. Most observers believe the WCG has long passed the point of no return, making the sectarianism of the Armstrong years a fading memory.
The human cost has been significant. Weekly attendance is at a low ebb and "the brethren" that remain seem thoroughly shell-shocked at the pace of change. The number of ex-members is now believed to exceed those left in good standing. Ministers who formerly wielded their authority in an uncompromising and dictatorial manner ("like jack-booted fascists" according to one former Auckland member) have had to learn a pastoral style more appropriate to the changing times.6
The Christian world has lost a fiercely distinctive sect, and gained one more evangelical denomination, albeit one which retains some unusual features. Time alone will tell whether the patient will survive the treatment.
1. Principally the United Church of God, the largest and most stable grouping, and the Global Church of God, headed by former Armstrong lieutenant Roderick Meredith. Both groups are represented in NZ, along with the Philadelphia Church of God, an extremist offshoot.
2. Armstrong initially took up ministry in the Church of God (Seventh Day), an Adventist group (still extant) that parted company from Seventh-day Adventists in the 19th century over the doctrine of the millennium and the authority of SDA prophetess Ellen White.
3. GTA, as he was known to insiders, then founded his own Church of God, International, attempting to relaunch his career as a televangelist. However he continued to be dogged by scandal. Many of his supporters have since reaffiliated with other groupings.
4. Former senior minister David Robinson put the incest stories in the public arena in his book Herbert Armstrong's Tangled Web. Armstrong's drinking habits had been less of a secret.
5. One major critic is high profile Adventist scholar Samuele Bacchiocchi, who has publicaly sided with dissident ministers. The about face on Sabbatarianism was partly the result of church leaders grappling with the writings of Australian Robert Brinsmead, a former SDA who published an influential series of monographs on the subject in his journal, Verdict.
6. The chameleon like character of many long-term ministers has often been remarked on. Many happily adjusted to the relatively liberal "Indian Summer" of the mid-70s, only to then enthusiastically champion the cultic regressions and purges that lasted from 1978 till Armstrong's death. The same men are now implementing changes that are diametrically opposite to those pronouncements.