Below is reproduced a letter from Eric Snow with comments inserted by Norman Edwards, in response to the earlier articles about the Ambassador Report.
Letter: June 23, 2000
To the Editor:
Since I’m someone who had actual dealings with Ambassador Report and the late John Trechak (I even got mentioned in it once or twice by name due to letters I wrote to him), not to mention anti-cultists in general, my perspective on SN’s (tepid) endorsement of reading Ambassador Report is worth some consideration. It’s important to realize that even though it’s clear the WCG had many problems, including sexual sins among the leadership (GTA in particular) and tithes that weren’t especially well spent, it still did the largest evangelistic work of any non-Trinitarian Sabbatarian group since the first century A.D.
The sins of its leadership don’t refute theological truth as a matter of epistemology (i.e. how we know that we know). Hence, any readers who go out and read Ambassador Report (AR) for the first time should realize that their personal salvation isn’t going to be lost or gained based upon the sins of HWA, GTA, or this or that elder, pastor, or evangelist. HWA’s and GTA’s interpretations of Scripture were fundamentally correct (on major issues, not some “picky points” or minor teachings).
Response: I agree with your fundamental conclusion that a person can teach truth while their life is very sinful. People should not reject biblical truth simply because King Solomon, Herbert Armstrong, David Koresh, or the Pope taught it. It is quite possible for the student to be saved whilst the teacher is lost. Christ told people to do what the Pharisees taught, but not follow what they did (Matt 23:3). I think most people understand that. The real questions that need to be answered are these:
1. Was HWA “the end-time apostle” or “the Elijah to come”?
2. Should we believe and teach doctrine and prophecy because HWA taught it, even though we cannot independently “prove it” from the scriptures?
3. Were the WCG and its leaders examples that we should still hold up to the rest of the world and say “this was the place where God was working”?
These issues become more important when one becomes convinced that HWA did teach some major doctrinal errors—see our Dec 1998 issue, Herbert Armstrong’s 18 Truths Report Card and our other papers: How Does the Eternal Govern Through Humans? and How Do we Give to the Eternal? (Norman realizes that Eric disagrees with the conclusions of some of these writings, but if you have not read them, we encourage you to get them and compare the contents to the scriptures for yourself.)
Letter: After I first started receiving the WCG’s literature in 1982, as a 16-year-old high school student who had very little previous religious training (the Unitarian-Universalist church I had had some contact with as a kid was definitely a “social club” and a joke of a “church”), I became soon converted to the truth of the Sabbath and the denial of eternal torment in hell. As I attended the first year of college (Jackson Community College), I happened to see a Christianity Today magazine in the college library which had a cover article on the SDA church and Ellen White. Since at that time I had not attended the SDA church, I found it all very interesting.
But even MORE interesting was a certain one-page article towards its back on the WCG. It discussed Raymond McNair’s (messy) divorce, and then mentioned Mr. Armstrong getting divorced from his SECOND wife. Since I didn’t even know he even had a second wife, I decided to engage in a research project that most “prospective members” of the WCG had never engaged in: I decided to look up all the magazine articles I could find on the WCG using the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature.
Needless to say, I found a very unpleasant mess. I read about the whole receivership/lawsuit mess, GTA’s sexual sins and eventual permanent exile, the D & R rules’ disastrous consequences, the deadly cost of the ban on medical care, various revolts and schisms, the failed 1972/75 predictions, misspent tithes, oppressed members, overkills on corporal punishment of children, etc. The magazine articles came mostly either from a skeptical, secular, liberal perspective or the conservative, evangelistic “anti-cult” perspective. Between the two, the coverage was almost completely negative.
Response: Thank you very much for this honest admission. We hope everyone understands this. Anyone who researches the WCG in a library is likely to find only negative information. Another researcher who tried recently reported that he could find almost no information—smaller libraries simply do not keep all magazines for 15 years.
The WCG leaders never wrote articles for mainstream magazines or invited their writers to see the good things that they were doing. Books tend to last longer, but the few WCG books were not published by mainstream publishing houses and are no longer available (except from ministries like the PCG).
Letter: But, I hesitated very little: After attending the SDA church as a mere stopgap for nine months in 1985-86 because I knew full well my mother wasn’t going to lend me the family car to drive to services in Ann Arbor or Lansing, Michigan (approximately a 35-mile drive either way from Jackson, MI, where I lived), I started attending the WCG the December of 1986 after I moved to East Lansing in order to attend MSU. I was baptized in the August of 1987. For even then, I was exclusively driven by doctrinal considerations, and I saw the SDA church as no proper substitute, since they were Trinitarians and they didn’t observe the Holy Days. Truth matters more than the hypocrisy within the leadership.
Response: If one is simply a student learning at a distance, then your last statement makes some sense. You only learn and do the good things the teacher teaches, but do not follow his bad example. But if you directly experienced the negative side of hypocritical leadership, you would probably see it differently. What if corrupt leadership broke up your family, got your daughter pregnant, took your life-savings or caused you to lose all of your friends of many years through unjust disfellowshipment?
As far as eternal judgment is concerned, numerous scriptures teach (Matt 23; Luke 12:47-48; John 9:41; Rom 2:13; James 1:22; 3:1, etc.) that those hypocrites who know the most but do the least will receive the greater judgment.
“Beware of the scribes, who desire to go around in long robes [expensive business suits], love greetings in the marketplaces [wherever they were among the members], the best seats in the synagogues [separate minister sections at services], and the best places at feasts [the best motels and minister-only meals], who devour widows’ houses [HWA asked for widows mites over 100 times in co-worker letters, and for a pretense make long prayers [or give long sermons]. These will receive greater condemnation” (Luke 20:46-47).
Letter: When I would look at anti-cultist research on the WCG in local Christian bookstores, I could readily see the appalling errors in it. They were constantly stating the doctrines wrong, such as accusing HWA of being (for example) an Arian, a polytheist, a believer in salvation by works, etc. So, the ambitious soul that I was, I decided to systematically scan over the WCG literature that I did have, making notations on it, and bought books and copied articles from magazines by anti-cultists.
I then wrote what became (as amateurish as some parts were) a source book on WCG theology, featuring long direct quotes from WCG booklets, books, and magazines in order to rebut one or more chosen statements taken from this or that anticultist (such as Dave Hunt, Walter Martin, Josh McDowell and Don Stewart, Bob Larson, Paul Benware, and Roger Chambers). I showed these people to be in error time and time again when compared to what HWA and other church writers had in print in the 1980’s.
I did the basic writing of what became its first edition during Christmas break (hey, call it what it is!) of the sophomore year at college (1985-86). I did read and receive some copies of Ambassador Report when doing my anti-cult research and refutations as a WCG member, although I never officially subscribed until 1995, when the breakup of the WCG over the “New Covenant” theology began. (I HAD to have an independent news source then, since I didn’t know that something like In Transition or The Journal would eventually exist).
But as I told Mr. Trechak, I found what he wrote to be largely irrelevant to most of what I wrote defending the WCG, because he focused on the personal sins and failings of the leadership, while what I defended (except for one chapter of what ultimately became 152 pages) concerned the anticultists’ doctrinal misconceptions of the WCG’s teachings.
Response: I agree that the anti-cultists were not very good at refuting WCG doctrine and that they frequently did not even state it correctly. Because they did such a poor job of this, most WCG members did not believe they were telling the truth when they wrote about the leaders’ sins—when, in fact, they usually were. Ambassador Report was primarily concerned with the sins and hypocrisy, less concerned with doctrine. I think they did adequately refute some error, and erroneously tried to refute some truth.
Letter: A couple years later or so (1992), he asked me if I was still an apologist for the WCG and whether I thought it was “legit”, to which I said “yes” to both. I was well aware that his publication had the opposite bias from the Worldwide News, which was to selectively publish the most embarrassing facts possible on the church. For example, what Stanley Rader said in defense of the WCG in Against the Gates of Hell concerning the receivership I found quite valuable in writing up my defense of the WCG. For example, would AR ever mention these facts concerning the receivership?
1. Arthur Andersen & Co. had audited the books in 1978, and found no problems.
2. The IRS had gone through the Church’s books no less than eight times in previous years, and found no problems.
3. The receivership hired a major outside accounting firm, Peat, Marwick & Mitchell, which spent one and a half months going over the WCG’s records, and found nothing!
And that despite the presumption of guilt! I would suggest the truth (interpretation of the facts) on such issues will be between AR and the official WCG line, since the selective quotation of facts doesn’t prove as much as we may like to think (just like selective Bible quotation!)
Response: It certainly is easy to tell the part of the truth that is most favorable to one’s own bias. Your statements about audits are true. But does passing an audit mean that nothing unethical or illegal was occurring? Obviously not! Nearly all the financial scandals one reads about in the papers occur within companies that are regularly audited. Audits investigate only a token few of the hundreds of thousands of financial transactions that corporations conduct. They primarily check to see that accounting controls are in place and followed.
I worked for the WCG computer department and participated in some of these audits. I had many friends in the accounting department who participated, also. These systems prevent someone in the organization from simply grabbing some cash or writing a check to themselves without being detected. However, if a person who knows the accounting controls invents a tricky way to get around them without being detected, then it is unlikely that these auditors would find the problem either.
(There is not space to go into the many ways of doing this, but as one example, accounting procedures might require that anonymous cash donations be opened and recorded by two people so that no one steals this cash for which nobody is expecting a receipt. However, an evangelist might tell these two clerks that the Pastor General needs some unaccountable cash for his international trips, and that they are not to record half of the anonymous cash donations but rather put them in an envelope and give them to his office, and that they will be disfellowshipped if they ever tell anyone or do not comply with these instructions.)
Auditors may make inspections to see if procedures are being followed, but they do not plant hidden cameras, search employees without warning, and do other things that would be necessary to find people “working around the system”. Furthermore, if there is no law against a church official spending $10,000 on a “business lunch” or a million dollars to remodel his house (“parsonage”), then the audit will say nothing about this.
I agree that the truth about the WCG is probably somewhere between the WCG’s and AR’s writing. But we must realize that the WCG had complete access to the facts about itself, claimed to be God’s one true Church, and claimed to be a model government for the Kingdom of God on earth. Ambassador Report had to hunt and dig for information about the WCG and never claimed to be a “Church” or to be God’s example to the world. The WCG virtually never mentioned names or contact information for those who disagreed with it, whereas Ambassador Report did.
The AR staff offered to meet with the WCG and talk over their differences, the WCG was never interested. If you had to be a leader of one of these groups facing judgment, which would you rather be?
Letter: It proved to be a somewhat entertaining effort dealing with these anticultist people by correspondence. I even sank most of my spare second tithe one Feast (1991, Wisconsin Dells) by copying and firing off dozens of copies of a short 14-page version to various anticult research organizations listed in a Directory one of the largest organizations published. I twice personally met Josh McDowell during evangelistic meetings (about five years apart) he had in Michigan to give him information on the WCG since he wrote a book (Understanding the Cults) with a critical chapter on the WCG. I corresponded extensively with a man in Ireland who was doing a dissertation on the WCG named Neil O’Connor. (He once said that I was so good at it that I should be made head of the WCG’s PR Dept.!) I even got one woman who ran a small anticult group part-time to withdraw a tape critiquing the WCG that was absurdly full of errors.
Needless to say, this all was unauthorized by Pasadena (except for some of the correspondence with O’Connor towards the end). Someone at HQ eventually caught wind of my operations, and requested of the local pastor a copy of what I had written (the 152-page version) that another local member had given to him that I unwisely had given to him. (This pastor then proceeded to sit on it, saying nothing about it to me, for six months until turning that copy over to Pasadena when they found out such a thing existed from the anticultists and started inquiring. Later on, I got together with this pastor and his assistant, and got formal permission to write up a defense of the WCG, pending HQ’s approval down the road, which I acknowledged would have the power to kill it if desired).
So how could a good hierarchalist like myself justify doing this, since I really did believe in obeying what ministers told me to do? I had always operated by the principle that what isn’t formally prohibited is allowed.
Response: I applaud your diligent research and defense of what you believed. Most people simply left these things to the ministry, which often did not get involved with these things at all. I am amazed but pleased to hear your admission of how one must accomplish things within a hierarchy: don’t ask, just do it. You realized that if you started your project by asking for permission, you would probably be told “no” or put “on hold”. The WCG hierarchy certainly never would have asked you, an un-ordained nobody without a previous “track record” to produce a defense of their theology. Yet what you produced may well have been better, for its purpose, than anything they had.
But your very action seems to fly in the face of hierarchical government. If the Eternal wanted you to do such research, shouldn’t He have inspired some church leader to tell the ministry to find someone to do the research and then they would be guided to find you?
You should realize that a great many other WCG members (even some ministers) began sensible projects that were not officially approved and found themselves disfellowshipped without a hearing. You did not run into any trouble probably because you never posed any threat to the membership or income of the WCG. In general, you supported the WCG hierarchy and never seemed to be the type that would “start his own group”. But if a big contributor to the WCG had first read your paper, then went on to read other anti-WCG writings, and eventually left the WCG (whether over doctrine or leaders’ sins), there is a good chance that you would have been disfellowshipped.
Letter: Since nobody specifically told me I couldn’t write and do such things, for years I chose to engage in unauthorized apologetics in defense of the WCG. And this was despite of the fact that I was well aware of the many of the sins that HWA and GTA had committed (or been accused of). Perhaps part of the reason why I didn’t find such problems so off-putting was because I had been quite badly treated by my peers as a kid in school (the archetypal wimp who’s good in studies but awful in sports), and I found far more social acceptance than I ever had before among people in the church I dealt with locally. The church had proven itself to be far better than the world, in my social experience. So far as I saw (and I didn’t see everything even locally by any means, since I had no role in leadership or speaking), even with the first minister who was known to be especially strict (although he mellowed even during the time I knew him), people got along quite well generally locally.
Response: I have heard many different people relate how they were better accepted in the WCG than by “the world”. I experienced this myself. However, I have heard similar stories from people who joined other “we are the one true church” groups. Why is there such a family-like atmosphere in these groups, even though they are large? I believe there are several causes:
1) Group members all believe the same thing and expect to be friends with the people in their congregation until they die or move away.
2) Group members believe that everyone in the group is special to God, that they will be spending eternity together, so they must “get along”.
3) The ministry of such groups either sincerely believe that it is their job to encourage a family togetherness, or carnally try to keep everyone in the group to keep the “numbers and money” as high as possible. The ministry can discipline or remove members who are making life difficult for others.
4) The Holy Spirit is actually at work in some of the people and they have genuine love and concern. It is not possible to know exactly what percentage of each point is responsible for the “friendly” atmosphere that exists in each congregation.
I began attending services in 1973, but I never had any difficulty with the ministry or hierarchy until the 1980s. My attendance and tithe checks were quite regular. I did not have a lot of problems that affected others. I was not involved in any church leadership or speaking roles. My experience was pleasant, apparently not all that different from yours.
Letter: So what’s the point of this (by now) rather meandering letter? If I can read lots of this anticult literature, including even some of AR, and all these charges about personal corruption, sexual sin, failed predictions, etc. and still believe the WCG was the truest (cute modifier, eh?) Church of God, I would encourage those brave souls who venture to read AR as the result of SN’s endorsement to still believe that HWA’s teachings were the truth (mostly) despite his sins and those by others close to him. For again I challenge the independents at SN: Can you name another church organization that did more to spread a non-Trinitarian Sabbatarianism around the world than the WCG under HWA?
Response: Sure! The Gideon Bible Society. They have placed millions of Bibles throughout the world which contain the truth that HWA taught minus much of his error. I have met a number of people who have learned much of the same truth simply by reading the Bible and praying for understanding. We have no way to know how many there are whom God has taught in this way.
Secondly, the combined conferences of the Church of God Seventh Day. They have a couple hundred thousand members throughout the world today. You might say, “But they are not a single central organization!” To which I reply, “That is better.” There is no one headquarters that can be infiltrated to steer away the majority of members.
By contrast, after about 12 years of doctrinal changes from the WCG headquarters, about half of the 1988 WCG members are no longer in an exclusively Sabbatarian group. (They are either in the WCG, a completely Sunday-observing group or are no longer attending anywhere.) Whilst the Church of God Seventh Day has had doctrinal ups and downs, they have certainly never experienced the wholesale change as in the WCG.
The first article in the December 1998 Servants’ News gave 26 Sabbatarian groups, many of which were non-trinitarian. Was the massive media campaign of the WCG somehow more righteous than the personal evangelism of the Church of God Seventh Day? We must realize that the WCG did not promote Sabbath keeping and non-trinitarianism in their big media, the Plain Truth magazine and the World Tomorrow telecast. These were mostly secular in the 1960s and 1970s. My own brother was very familiar with these and read many booklets—but went to Ambassador College in 1971 not knowing about Sabbath-keeping.
The WCG kept very good records of their TV audience size, their literature distribution and the responses to these things. We have no idea how many millions of people have heard the truth about the Sabbath and the Trinity from less centralized Sabbatarian evangelists or from members talking to their neighbors. God knows these things.
The other thing we do not know is, “How many people read those media articles you talked about and concluded that Sabbath-keeping and anti-trinitarianism were wrong doctrines because the people teaching them lived such sinful, unchristian lives?” Many Bible students know Matthew 7:15-16 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles?”
While the WCG taught much truth, it is easy to see why people who saw the leader’s fruits first simply turned and look no further. When King David was involved in just one case of adultery, the Eternal said: “However, because by this deed you have given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also who is born to you shall surely die” (2 Samuel 12:14).
Letter: God decided to use some especially defective human instruments (HWA and GTA) to spread His truth (basic correct interpretations of Scripture on major doctrines in one package, not bits and pieces of the truth scattered about in various denominations) that the traditional Christian world generally didn’t know or practice.
When I asked one man, a CGI pastor who knows the anti-WCG literature even better than I do, why God used HWA, his response was that was God’s way to show His all-consuming grace. If God could use HWA despite having personal failings far worse than (say) Billy Graham’s, something like Solomon’s or Samson’s sins, why should we doubt our salvation or the basic truths we learned in the WCG in the past? Are we to be more demanding than God is of His own servants? As a matter of philosophical logic, it’s a false ad hominem argument to say that because so-and-so has sinned, therefore, his interpretations of Scripture are false.
God will deal with HWA in due course. Meanwhile, let’s rejoice in knowing God’s truth through whatever servants God chose to use in calling us.
Response: I agree. HWA’s teachings are not wrong just because he presided over and covered up a lot of sin. However, you and your minister friend seem to misunderstand the difference between being “used of God” and having salvation. Solomon was “used of God” in a big way, but the final words about his life say that he “turned from God” (1 Kings 11:9). Judas was used by Christ to be the treasurer of His work (John 13:29), but it appears that he does not have salvation (Matt 26:24). Jonah was used by God, but was not an example of cooperation (see the book of Jonah).
God’s grace forgives sins when we repent—it does not alter the qualifications for church leaders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Your writing and Ambassador Report have documented numerous cases were Herbert Armstrong disqualified himself. The congregations should have rejected him and some other WCG ministers from being elders, but most of us did not know our Bible well enough to do that while he lived.
(Please don’t say that a congregation has no right to reject unqualified elders—if you claim that God cleans up His church from the top down you are speaking contrary to the reality of the Tkach appointments, numerous men who lead other WCG splinter-groups that claim to be the one true church, and most of the rest of church history. God allows most church leaders, good or bad, to live a long life and teach whatever they will, and sin however they will. He promises to teach individuals through His Spirit, not organizations—John 16:13.)
I think God did have a mission for HWA to accomplish. The story of Loma Armstrong’s dream where Christ said He had much work for them to do supports this idea (if it is true). However, Herbert Armstrong, like David, Solomon or Jonah, was still a free moral agent able to choose the right way to live or to choose sin. When he sinned, he was free to go to those whom he sinned against and attempt to make restitution (Luke 19:8), or he was free to cover up his sin and disfellowship any who knew about it. Jesus Christ is our standard to look to for salvation.
Anyone who thinks that all they have to do is live a life better than Samson, Solomon or HWA to be saved, is probably going to receive a rude awakening—either now or in a later resurrection.
Thank you for writing the letter. I am glad that you do not claim that Ambassador Report is “all lies” with no proof, as many HWA supporters do. However, I hope you do see that Herbert Armstrong does not fit into the pattern of any New Testament leaders. We find the apostles, before conversion arguing about who is the greatest and Peter refusing to eat with Gentiles, but we do not find any leaders with the adultery, greed, dishonesty and other problems of the WCG leaders.
I would much rather rely directly on what I can learn and what Christ will reveal to me from the New Testament, than on the teachings of leaders who for many years missed the qualifications of a congregational elder.
Would I know about the Sabbath and holy days if it were not for the WCG? If the Armstrongs would have realized their sins and quit their ministries years ago, who are you or I to tell the Eternal that He could not have reached me another way?