Why should we challenge Herbert Armstrong, a man who did such a "BIG WORK" ?


Herbert Armstrong wrote about numerous Bible truths in a readable and compelling style. His writing attracted attention and held interest. He was a dynamic speaker. His entire life was a part of his work—he had no "known" interests unrelated to it. He was not content to teach just a few people; he wanted to teach the whole world. He started colleges to train others who would carry on his work, and built a physical infrastructure capable of delivering the vast array of literature which he wrote or which was written by those he trained. Maybe 100,000 were baptized as the result of his teaching and hundreds of thousands more were positively influenced.

With all of these "good works" of Herbert Armstrong, why should we discuss his "bad works"? Because that is the only way we can honestly determine the degree to which we should follow his teaching, and how we should present it to others. If we were to only talk about the good teachings of Ellen G. White (prophetess of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church), we would have to conclude she is a teacher that we should all follow—she wrote numerous books which contain many good things. But when we realize that she erroneously taught the earth would be empty for the entire Millennium and when we see that she copied from older books and claimed it was a revelation from God (see The White Lie, by Walter Rea), then we are less likely to claim she is a Bible teacher that everyone should hear.

It is easy for WCG members to talk about and freely acknowledge Mrs. White’s unbiblical practices or dishonest teachings. It is much harder for us to acknowledge and discuss Herbert Armstrong’s unbiblical doctrines and dishonest practices because we so heavily identified with him in the past. To acknowledge his error is to acknowledge our error, and that does not come easy.

We could probably say the same thing about the leaders of the other 25 groups in the other article beginning on page 1. If we looked only to their good teachings, every leader would be worth following. Nevertheless, many of them do teach some error—probably some more than others. Some of those teachers thought that they were the human head of the church on earth. Do you think you should follow them? Or do you think that the people in those groups might be deceived and be "following a man"? If they need to realize that they are not the "one true Church on earth", do we also need to realize that we are not? (And were not in the past either!)

It would take more than a lifetime to try to evaluate every Sabbatarian Bible teacher and try to find the one with most truth and least error. We are to follow Christ—to really trust that He will lead us individually. We can rely on Him and His Spirit for teaching, and use the gifts that He has given us in His Body. Paul clearly taught in 1Corin thi ans chapters 1 and 3 that we should not seek to align ourselves with a particular teacher we consider the best.

The Eternal Works In Spite of Human Error

In spite of Mr. Armstrong’s errors, this writer believes in the probable truth of Mr. Armstrong’s autobiography account of Loma’s dream in which Christ said that He had much work for the Armstrongs to do. A person can be given a job from the Eternal, yet be far from perfect. The relationship that King Solomon had with the Eternal, the way he built His Temple, the wisdom he had and the prayer that he made are awesome—nearly beyond belief (1Kngs 3-9). Even though Solomon’s good work, the temple of God, lasted hundreds of years, notice what the Bible concludes about him:

So the LORD became angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned from the LORD God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice, and had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods; but he did not keep what the LORD had commanded (1Kings 11:9-10).

The building of the second temple was done by the Eternal’s anointed, Cyrus, a Gentile king who never "converted" in any sort of way (Is 44:28; Ezra 1:1-4). King Jehu of Israel was commissioned to destroy the house of Ahab. He did and he was rewarded, but he did not follow the Eternal (2Kngs 10:30-31). Jonah was told to prophesy to Ninevah, but tried to avoid it. The Eternal thwarted his escape plan and Jonah still had to do the job, even though he didn’t like it (Jonah 4:1).

There are other examples of very imperfect servants of the Eternal in the Old Testament, as well as some in the new: Demas worked hard with the Apostles (Col 4:14; Phm 1:24), but later lost his way: "for Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world, and has departed for Thessalonica..." (2Tim 4:10). Phygellus and Hermogenes deserted Paul: "...all those in Asia have turned away from me, among whom are Phygellus and Hermogenes" (2Tim 1:15).

Simply because the Eternal gave Herbert Armstrong or some other person a task to accomplish, does not mean that:

1. The task will be completed.

2. The task will be completed with the attitude that the Eternal desires.

3. The person will obey the Eternal or be a good example in other aspects of their life.

The Bible speaks of many people whom the Eternal "worked with", but that does not mean that we can rely on every word and deed of those people. Herbert Armstrong never claimed his teachings were divinely revealed by dream or vision, but that he was taught by the "written Word of God". We must read and hear that Word for ourselves—not rely completely on him.

If It Were Not For HWA’s Ministry, Would We Not Know the Truth?

Several people have told us: "You have no right to evaluate Mr. Armstrong’s work, if it were not for him, you would never have known the truth."

That is wrong. If we believe that, then we believe that Herbert Armstrong had the right to decide who is being "called and chosen". This right belongs to the Father in heaven (John 6:44). To say the Father required Herbert Armstrong to use the methods that he used is to say that the Father required him to sin. Mr. Armstrong did not have to claim that he was the human head of the "one true Church". He did not have to live in luxury while writing hundreds of letters encouraging poor people to give more money.

Many will say that TV and mass circulation magazines are God’s preferred way of reaching people—that He would have had a big centralized work in the first century if mass communication had been available then. Actually, forms of mass communication were quite available during the time of Christ and before. When Absalom wanted to get everyone’s attention, he "provided himself with chariots and horses, and fifty men to run before him" (2Sam 15:1)—people came to see this "big happening". First century people were quite used to attending Roman amphitheaters which seated tens of thousands. The Apostles could have hired the directors, musicians and actors of their day—the parallel of today’s TV and radio professionals. Many thousands could have heard the Gospel this way. They could have hired scribes to make many copies of tracts and books, and paid to have them distributed throughout the empire. The Apostles could have insisted that all the brethren "sacrifice" to "get behind their work"—to pay for these expensive efforts. But it was not done that way. The Gospel was preached by humble people by the power of the Eternal’s miracles and His Spirit.

While it is not a sin to use modern broadcast means to preach the Gospel, it is a sin to tell the Eternal that He has to, or had to use them. If it were the Eternal who intended hundreds of thousands of people to hear Armstrong’s message, then He would have made a way for him to do it within the principles taught in the New Testament (1Cor 10:13). The Apostles did not continually predict Christ’s return in a few years, tell brethren that they need to send in all available money because it would be "of no use" in a few years anyway, and then claim that if they left their organization that they could not have salvation.

The early apostles gave all credit to the Eternal, and recognized that each had a function: "I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase" (1Cor 3:6). How much of your teaching and support in time of difficulty came from a diligent local minister or member? The WCG frequently acknowledged that the biggest source of new members were friends and relatives of current members who saw a good example. Rather than giving all credit to Mr. Armstrong, how much belongs to other Godly men and women?

There are other very vital questions that we must ask ourselves and the others we know from the WCG: When did you first hear that you should love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself? Many church groups teach these most important commandments (Matt 32:37-39). When did you learn that Jesus died for the sins of mankind and that we, individually need to repent and accept His sacrifice? When did you first read Bible stories—examples of faith and righteousness. When did you first realize that you may be judged for your life actions at some time in the future?

This writer understood all of the above teachings before entering the WCG. Most of the other WCG members I know also understood these basic truths before they came to the WCG. Some even had much more knowledge. We could back up even further and ask who were the men who copied the scriptures for hundreds of years and who were the men who died in the effort to produce English language translations. The truth of the matter is that many men were used in the process of bringing truth to us. Herbert Armstrong was certainly an important part in bringing us truth. But we should not give him all of the credit simply because he wanted to take it.

Discouraging the Gospel

While Mr. Armstrong did many good things to warn the world and preach the Gospel, a balanced evaluation of his work must also consider how much he did to discourage some people from coming to a knowledge of the Sabbath, Holy Days, and other truths. While this may seem strange, it happened in two major ways.

1. WCG members were discouraged from sharing truth with others. Members were taught to refer anyone with the slightest Bible interest to the WCG ministry. This was a great discouragement to people who were very interested in the Bible but unhappy with "corporate religion". These people wanted to find out what other people understand about the Bible, not what a church organization teaches. These are the sort of people who would be quite willing to accept Bible truth even though it differs from traditional "Christian religion". Nevertheless, WCG members were not encouraged to communicate with people with this kind of Bible interest. Notice this quote from Lesson 8 of the Ambassador College Bible Correspondence Course (1966):

Should You Loan Your Lessons? Absolutely not! There is no surer way for you to lose a lesson! Besides, Jesus Christ forbids you to do it indiscriminantly. Notice! "Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you"! (Mat. 7:6.)

It is hard to understand how someone who is interested in studying a Bible correspondence course could be classified as "swine". Christ never used this term for the unlearned masses—he called them "sheep without a shepherd" (Matt 9:36). Christ reserved his most derogatory terms for those who resisted his message for their own personal gain. The commands to WCGmembers not to teach religion to others stopped a lot of personal evangelism before it could get started. Those commands no longer exist in most WCG splinter groups, but the "we are better than those unconverted people" attitude that was taught is still there in some cases. This makes it difficult for former-WCG members to get involved in any kind of program where they are rubbing shoulders with "ordinary unconverted people". We must remember that Christ was not embarrassed to eat with people who were known sinners (Mark 2:15).

2. Many people disdained the truth of the Eternal because of Armstrong’s publicized problems. The New Testament apostles and evangelists attracted public attention from the miracles that the Eternal did through them, and from their teaching which was different than the religious leaders of their day. The most public attention that Herbert Armstrong received was in early 1979 when a California court-appointed receiver temporarily took control of the WCG assets. While neither the media nor the government officials involved were honest or thorough in their portrayal of Herbert Armstrong’s practices and doctrines, it was truthfully obvious to everyone that Mr. Armstrong and those few close to him lived a very expensive life-style—having the vast WCG assets at their disposal, as well as large salaries. They also saw the great infighting within the WCG about who would be in control of those assets. How many viewers who were interested in the truth of the Bible compared these reported problems with the simplicity of New Testament Gospel preaching and with verses like this:

and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain (1Tim 6:5, NIV).

Herbert Armstrong’s concept that he needed to live a wealthy life-style so he could appear before kings is simply not in the Bible. Do you see how people could have dismissed the WCG as a source of Bible truth simply because of this reported preoccupation with wealth?

The second greatest amount of public attention brought to the WCG was several mass-media stories through the 1970s about Garner Ted Armstrong’s sexual misconduct. Herbert Armstrong was well aware of the qualifications for church leaders (1Tim 3; Titus 1). He was the only one who could remove Garner Ted from his position of leadership, but he did not act until 1978. Herbert Armstrong never apologized for (or even acknowledged his mistake) in letting his son continue to be a leader when he was disqualified. When King David was involved in a sexual sin, The Eternal said through Nathan the prophet:

...by this deed you have given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme... (1Sam 12:14).

David openly repented of his sin, was publicly punished for it, was forgiven of the Eternal, and restored respect for his kingship, Israel and the Eternal. To this day, Garner Ted Armstrong identifies himself as the successor of his father, yet video tapes of his escapades have been aired on national television. Rather than being drawn to the truth that Herbert Armstrong taught, many people have simply dismissed him as another one of the many religious leaders who do not practice what they preach. Unfortunately, the truths that Mr. Armstrong taught have also been dismissed with it.

This is not to say that Mr. Armstrong’s problems "prevented the Eternal" from reaching people that He planned to call, but it does mean that the Eternal had to reach them another way. It also means that if we hope to bear fruit today—to reach others with the Gospel—we cannot build on the fractured foundation of Herbert Armstrong, but must build firmly on the chief cornerstone, which is Christ!

Armstrong’s Ministry Was Unique Why?

Even with all of the problems listed above, Herbert Armstrong’s ministry still seemed unique in history. He probably gave the greatest media airing of all time to certain of the truths that he taught. Nevertheless, it was the combination of diligent mass media effort and the error of hierarchical government that caused Mr. Armstrong’s outreach to appear much bigger than it actually was. This happened for two reasons:

1. Herbert Armstrong repeatedly claimed to be the human leader of the "only true Church". He brought many people into it who were probably never called by the Eternal. They may have been impressed with his personality, the wealth of his work, or his explanation of prophecy. Even though they never had the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, his preaching left them with two alternatives: suffer terribly in the soon-coming great tribulation, or join his "one true Church".

2. Mr. Armstrong threatened or rejected those who criticized his work or who studied other current Bible teachers. The WCG ministers never baptized anyone unless the person agreed that the WCG was the true church. They taught people that they would lose salvation if they left that organization. They regularly disfellowshipped people for studying the writings of other Bible teachers or attending other services.

These two practices brought a lot of people into Mr. Armstrong’s organization, and made it difficult for them to leave. Certainly there were many true believers among them. The first booklets which people read—on the Sabbath, heaven & hell, baptism, etc. were well documented from scripture. It was not until they had studied much, been baptized, and begun to attend WCG services that they encountered the doctrine of hierarchical government. By that time, most members had so much trust in Mr. Armstrong that they did not carefully read and research that doctrine from the Bible. A few did—and left the WCG shortly after they were baptized.

But the majority who were baptized by WCG ministers remained in Armstrong’s organization. At his death, a mixture of over 100,000 people considered themselves members—but they were there for many different reasons. Now, thirteen years after his death, they have no uniform opinion about how to react to the doctrinal changes introduced by the Tkachs. Some stayed, but most have left to join dozens of other groups, and thousands have dropped out of Sabbatarian groups altogether.

Why Debate Armstrong Today?

We are forced to debate the soundness of Herbert Armstrong’s doctrines today, because he would not do so during his life. From the 1960’s onward, it was next to impossible for a WCG pastor to bring a doctrinal issue to Mr. Armstrong—and it was impossible for the WCG member. Most of the doctrinal changes that Armstrong implemented were in answer to a significant group of people planning to leave if he did not make the changes.

Mr. Armstrong did not answer questions or debate anyone either from within his own organization or from without. He would never publish letters of people who disagreed with him in a credible way—letters published that were against his teaching were usually obviously flawed. Mr. Armstrong would talk about the doctrines of others and refute them, so members assumed that he could answer any questions. They did not realize that Mr. Armstrong could always refute others only if he completely controlled what members were allowed to hear. This is totally unlike Christ and the Apostles who quite regularly answered questions from antagonists in the presence of numerous believers.

It has not been easy for this writer to study, pray about, and think through these issues. I read the Plain Truth magazine as a teen-ager, attended WCG services my last year of high school. Upon graduation, I attended Ambassador College from 1974 to 1978, then worked for the WCG until 1992. I worked for Roderick C. Meredith and the Global Church of God from its inception until the end of 1994. Most of the physical things I worked to build during those years are now gone, or about to go. Many of our readers probably feel the same way.

But some good things remain!

There are great strengths that still remain. In the next issue, we will discuss those strengths, and our understanding of what can be accomplished by those who share our past experience in the Worldwide Church of God.

May the Eternal strengthen and guide all of us during these difficult times.

—Norman S. Edwards