Almost since its founding by Herbert W. Armstrong, the Worldwide Church of God was dismissed by orthodox Christianity as a cult. But today the church has left behind the “fog” of legalism and
journey from cultism
embraced a new-found freedom in Christ, according to Joseph Tkach, Jr., pastor general of the group.
“The journey that we have made is much like the one that you will read about in the book of Acts,” said Tkach, whose father began the church’s theological pilgrimage before 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 Plain Truth magazine and The World Tomorrow radio and television programs. This salesman turned preacher was a gifted speaker 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,” Tkach told journalist and ASSIST Ministries founder Dan Wooding. “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.”
That teaching became harder for Armstrong to justify when he developed heart problems. “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 17 medications,” said Tkach. Armstrong told Tkach Sr. that various teachings of the church would need to be reexamined after his death.
Greg Albrecht, editor-in-chief of The Plain Truth, added, “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.”
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.
Under the leadership of Tkach Sr., 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.
The church issued a booklet explaining that its past teaching on healing had been wrong, and embracing an orthodox Christian view of healing. “That caused a ripple throughout the whole denomination because people had to face the fact that Herbert W. Armstrong could be wrong about something,” said Tkach Jr. “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.”
That was followed by other changes on a variety of church teachings, ranging from women’s fashion to the nature of being born again. Each change brought the church closer to Christian orthodoxy, and each change caused more ripples in the church. “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,” recalled Tkach Jr.
When Tkach Sr. finally departed from Armstrong’s teaching that the Worldwide Church of God was the only true church, a seismic wave went through the church, leading to still more changes.
“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,” said Tkach Jr.
Perhaps the biggest change was the acceptance of the traditional Christian doctrine of the trinity. Tkach Jr. said people who grew up in the church may have thought that “false-pagan-trinity-doctrine” was one word, because that was the only way they heard the term “trinity.”
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.”
With all of the other changes, why keep the name that for so long had been associated with cultic teaching? “It’s part of our identity,” said Tkach Jr. “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 Plain 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 plain 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,” Tkach Jr. concluded. “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.”
— E.P. News