A Ph. D. and Professor of Theology and Church History at Andrews University (Seventh Day Adventist)
The Worldwide Church of God (WCG) has lost about 50,000 members and 500 pastors during this past year as a result of doctrinal changes in such areas as Sabbath keeping, holy days, distinction between clean and unclean meats, and tithing. The church's top administrators introduced these changes to bring their church more in line with the Protestant mainstream. Enormous financial losses have followed, causing the suspension of the church's telecast, The World Tomorrow, the reduction in circulation of their outreach magazine, The Plain Truth, from seven million to less than half-a-million, and a substantial drop in enrollment at their Ambassador University in Big Sandy, Texas. The campus of Ambassador College with its famous auditorium, located in a prestigious section of Pasadena, has been put up for sale.
A group of ministers and elders of the WCG who could not in good conscience preach the new teachings convened in Indianapolis on April 30-May 2, 1995 and formed the United Church of God (UCG). David Hulme, former presenter of the telecast The World Tomorrow, was chosen as interim Chairman of the Board. About 20,000 former WCG members have already joined the newly formed United Church of God, and their number is growing daily.
These rapid developments, which have so dramatically weakened and divided the Worldwide Church of God, give rise to two questions: (1) What factors contributed to this sudden split in the WCG? (2) What lessons can we Seventh-day Adventists learn from the sad experience of a church that has shared with us such beliefs as the Sabbath, clean and unclean meats, and the importance of obedience to God's law?
To find answers, I contacted some of the leaders of the newly formed United Church of God. During this past year it has been my privilege to become acquainted with most of their pastors, since they called me from across the country to order supplies of my three Sabbath books to meet the challenge of the anti-sabbatarian stance adopted by their former leaders in the WCG. I also received several invitations to share my research about the Sabbath at various of their rallies across the country. For May 28-29, 1995 I was invited to deliver several lectures at the well-attended "Jubilee 95: Friends of the Sabbath" convention, held at the picturesque Dana Point Hotel Resort in California. For December 24-27 I was invited again to a similar Sabbath conference held in San Antonio, Texas. For 1996 I have been invited to speak at six Sabbath conferences, three in the USA and three overseas, in Australia, England and Mexico. In spite of an admission fee of $50.00 per person, the convention halls were full to capacity and stayed full through the last meeting.
In all my years of speaking around the world, I have never seen an audience so receptive and eager to deepen their understanding and experience of the Sabbath. A man told me at the San Antonio Sabbath Conference: "I have observed the Sabbath for thirty years and I would have never thought that I would fly across the country and pay to listen to lectures on the Sabbath. But now that the Sabbath is being challenged by our church leaders, I want to know more about its validity and value for my life." Sometimes it takes a crisis to cause us to reexamine the basis of our beliefs.
These personal contacts have given me the opportunity not only to gather information for this article, but also to appreciate the sincerity and commitment of pastors who lost their employment and of members who were disfellowshiped, all of them for choosing to remain true to their beliefs. While listening to their heart-rending stories of families split by the new teachings, I have often wondered what would happen to our church if our General Conference leaders were to promote abandoning such fundamental beliefs as the Sabbath, the sanctuary, the Spirit of prophecy, and biblical authority. What percentage of our Seventh-day Adventist pastors and members would rather be fired or be disfellowshiped than compromise their beliefs? No one can tell. But we can resolve to prevent such a thing from happening by learning from the experience of the Worldwide Church of God.
To understand what led to the split in the WCG, it is important to know the church's origin as well as some of its recent developments. The WCG was founded by Herbert W. Armstrong. He had been ordained in 1931 in the Church of God (7th Day), where he served until 1937, when he established his own independent church, known at first as the Radio Church of God. Mr. Armstrong commenced publishing The Plain Truth magazine, and in 1947 he founded Ambassador College in Pasadena, California, to which he also moved the church headquarters.
Unlike the founders of the Seventh-day Adventist church, who believed in a democratic form of church government, Mr. Armstrong believed in a hierarchical form of church government, in which he directly dictated the beliefs, practices and programs of the WCG until his death on January 16, 1986. The church is still governed in a hierarchical manner.
Before his death, Mr. Armstrong himself chose Joseph W. Tkach as his successor as Pastor General, bypassing several close assistants who had aspired to the position. Mr. Tkach himself died recently, on Sabbath, September 23, 1995, at age 68. He had appointed his son, Joseph Tkach, Jr., to succeed him. Incidentally, Joseph Tkach, Jr. and two of his close associates, have requested to meet with me here at Andrews University. I will endeavor to submit to ADVENTIST REVIEW a brief report of this meeting which is scheduled for April 29, 1996.
For four or five years after his accession in 1986 the senior Mr. Tkach enjoyed overwhelming support from the leaders and members. But by 1992 signs of change began to appear. Gradually Mr. Armstrong's publications, especially his opus magnum, Mystery of the Ages, were withdrawn from circulation. The new leadership modified the church's prophetic emphasis and adopted a more mainstream Protestant approach. Similarly, the emphasis on obedience to God's commandments shifted to the acceptance of salvation by grace, irrespective of works of obedience. In late 1994 began the assault on the Sabbath, holy days, distinction between clean and unclean meats, and tithing.
Regarding the Sabbath, Joe Tkach, Jr., whom his father had appointed to preside over the ministry, asserted in a study paper, published on February 14, 1995, that "The question is, Does God tell his new covenant people to rest on the seventh day? The answer is no, He doesn't." Evidently the young Tkach had adopted the popular view that the New Covenant releases us from the obligation to observe God's commandments.
Informed sources believe that these doctrinal changes were influenced by the so-called "Azusa Pacific University theologians," men whom the church had sponsored through graduate degrees in theology and biblical studies, mostly at Azusa Pacific University. The WCG needed qualified teachers to gain accreditation for their Ambassador University. Some of these young theologians became part of Joseph W. Tkach's administrative cabinet. Their avowed goal was to lead their church into the evangelical mainstream by doing away with beliefs such as Sabbath keeping which they considered as vestiges of the Old Covenant.
At first, church loyalists preferred to think that their Pastor General, Joseph W. Tkach, was unaware of the "New Theology" promoted by his administrative cabinet. Many others, however, recognized that the young "Azusa Pacific University theologians" were exerting an enormous influence on the senior Tkach. All doubts were finally resolved in December, 1994, when Joseph W. Tkach videotaped a sermon which was played in virtually all WCG congregations in early January, 1995. In that sermon, Tkach made it clear that he had embraced the new theology and was now prepared to enforce it by firing and/or disfellowshiping recalcitrant pastors and church members.
After reflecting on the events that have split the Worldwide Church of God, causing irreparable damage to its financial, educational and organizational structures worldwide, I feel that as Seventh-day Adventistsa people who also keep the Sabbath and who are preparing for Jesus' second adventwe can learn four important lessons from this traumatic experience.
Danger of Hierarchical Structure. A first lesson to be learned from the experience of the WCG is that there is great danger in a hierarchical form of church government in which the decision-making process rests in the hands of a few administrators. Pastor General Joseph W. Tkach exercised almost pontifical authority in the WCG. A small administrative cabinet advised him, but ultimately he dictated what ministers ought to preach and what members ought to practice. Such an autocratic form of church government does not allow for any meaningful participation by the laity and clergy in the government of the church, and it rejects any type of dissent.
Several former ministers of the WCG informed me that they repeatedly requested Mr. Tkach to convene a ministerial council to discuss the doctrinal changes, but their request was rejected. Such autocratic policy can only alienate members and undermine the leadership's credibility. The strength of a church organization is measured by the degree of consensus and conviction among its members. These cannot be dictated from the top down; they must grow from the bottom up through involvement in the decision-making process.
The current hierarchical structure of the WCG reminds us of the Seventh-day Adventist administrative structure at the turn of the century. At that time a few General Conference leaders exercised what Ellen G. White called "kingly power." Largely as a result of her timely counsels, the 1901 General Conference session effected a much-needed reorganization which, among other things, allowed wider representation in the General Conference executive committee.
Church administrators will always be tempted to consolidate their power in order to facilitate the implementation of their policies and programs. This was one of the issues hotly debated at the just-concluded 56th General Conference session. History teaches us that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. To protect our leaders from the corrupting influence of too much power, it is imperative to preserve our current representative system of church government, with all its checks and balances.
Influence of Liberal Theologians. A second lesson to be learned from the recent experience of the WCG is that it takes only a few liberal theologians, placed in key positions, to influence doctrinal changes that can prove divisive to a church. According to informed sources, three key liberal theologians ("Azusa Pacific University theologians") close to Pastor General Tkach advised him to implement doctrinal changes.
The influence of liberal theologians who question the authority of the Bible and the validity of their denominational beliefs is felt in practically every denomination, including the Seventh-day Adventist church. This is part of the price churches are paying today for promoting higher education. To receive accreditation for their church-related colleges and universities, younger churches especially have to sponsor qualified students to earn graduate degrees in institutions of higher learning where humanism, secularism and higher criticism prevail. When exposed to these ideologies daily for several years, it is difficult for anyone to remain unscathed. So it is not surprising that some of the promising young people sent out by their churches to earn degrees in such institutions return with liberal views which are not compatible with their churches' teachings.
The solution to the problem is not in doing away with higher education. There is no merit in ignorance. Rather, the solution is to ensure that those who serve in academic institutions or administrative positions are committed to the beliefs and standards of the church they serve. People who during their graduate studies have become critical or even cynical of the beliefs of their church cannot and should not serve in their church. To fulfill their church's expectations would require them to be untrue to their conscience and beliefs; teaching divergent beliefs would be unfair to the church that pays their salaries.
Change Requires Consensus. A third lesson to be learned from the recent experience of the WCG is that proposed doctrinal changes should be widely discussed and examined and adopted only with the broad support of the membership. Doctrinal changes dictated by one or a few, against the will of the majority, can split a church and destroy its credibility.
It is not surprising that some WCG theologians have questioned some of their beliefs and have worked hard to change them. Unfortunately, they went about doing so the wrong way, by dictating doctrinal changes from the top down rather than by achieving gradual consensus from the bottom up, from the rank and file of their membership. Furthermore, in their desire to purge the church of undesirable beliefs, they went too far by adopting a dispensationalist view which rejects such legitimate Old Testament institutions as the Sabbath, tithing, and the distinction between clean and unclean meats.
In my association with pastors and members of the newly formed UCG, I have sensed that they are open to a reexamination of their doctrinal beliefs. In fact, many of them have urged me to research the annual feasts of Israel in Scripture and history, and share with them the finding of my investigation, whether favorable or unfavorable to their position. I accepted the challenge and last December I shared with them the conclusions of my book GOD'S FESTIVALS IN SCRIPTURE AND HISTORY at the San Antonio's Sabbath conference, recently reported in the Adventist Review. The text of the lecture was posted few days ago. This example serves to show that there is considerable openness on the part of former members and pastors of WCG to reexamine some of their beliefs, but they want this to be done in an open and democratic way in which delegated pastors and members can participate.
Changes in doctrinal beliefs cannot be dictated by a few without splitting the church. Imagine what would happen if our General Conference president had authority unilaterally to impose the ordination of women on all Seventh-day Adventist churches around the world, irrespective of the conviction of our members. The result would be very similar to what has happened in the WCG. Our representative form of church government has made it possible for the issue to be debated and voted by all the delegates attending the last two General Conference sessions.
Yet even our Adventist system needs some fine tuning. A simple majority of 51% is hardly sufficient to approve the adoption or rejection of an important policy. To adopt a divisive policy rejected by 49% of the membership means to split the church down the middle. Changes that impinge on fundamental biblical beliefs should have the support of a vast majority. A church's strength depends on its doctrinal cohesiveness. A church divided on important doctrinal or policy matters no longer represents the unity of the body of Christ. Her identity is blurred, her mission weakened, and her credibility destroyed. To a large extent this is what has happened to the WCG.
Dangers Arise Within. A fourth lesson to be learned from the recent experience of the WCG is perhaps the most sobering of all: the greatest dangers to a church arise from within itself. No pressures strictly from outside have brought the present turmoil in the WCG. No civil power or rival religion has dealt her this blow. The damage has come from within the church. Could such a thing happen to our church as well?
Ellen G. White noted, "We have far more to fear from within than from without. The hindrances to strength and success are far greater from the church itself than from the world" (Selected Messages, 1:122).In recent memory some of our own best and brightest have challenged our teachings on the sanctuary, on prophetic interpretation, and on the Spirit of prophecy.
The experience of the Worldwide Church of God should serve as a warning to Seventh-day Adventists. We can learn these valuable lessons and prevent such painful trauma in our own church. We must avoid the dangers of concentrating too much power in the hands of a few and of allowing influential liberal voices to shape our policies and doctrinal understandings and mold the emerging generation of young Seventh-day Adventists. We must insist on broad consensus for doctrinal changes and for policies that would imply such changes. And we must remember that our greatest dangers come from within.
If we learn these lessons, we can protect our church from divisive influences and work together to fulfill our global mission.