The WCG Experience: Facing the Past and Putting It to Work for the Future
In the Worldwide Church of God, nearly everyone believed that the Bible was the source of doctrine. The ministers and brethren studied and prayed and diligently tried to do what the Bible said. In that environment, the Eternal could work. When differences about doctrine or administration arose, people often turned to the ministry (or the hierarchy managing the ministry) for the answers. As long as people believed that the Eternal would give His answer through the hierarchy, there was peace—whether the hierarchy was right or not.
The hierarchical system would continue to work peacefully as long as one of two things happened:
1. The hierarchy made biblical, godly decisions.
2. The people were ignorant of the hierarchy’s bad decisions.
Obviously, the first point is the best way for an organization to function. Even though the Eternal did not want Israel to have a king—a hierarchy (1Sam 8), he said that things would go well with them if the people obeyed Him (1Sam 12). However, an organization can still have peace and unity if the second point continually happens. Of course, a group can have peace on a combination of the two points.
In the RCG and WCG, the first point probably happened more at the beginning, and the second point more at the end. When leaders begin to say things like "God backs me even if I’m wrong", then an organization is running mostly on point 2. The Radio Church of God required a 2/3 vote of a congregation to disfellowship a member. In the WCG, it was common for one or two ministers to disfellowship a member—and all other members were commanded to have no contact with the disfellowshipped member. These practices were important for point 2: if a member was unjustly disfellowshipped, the other members had to be kept ignorant of the situation.
While an increasingly authoritarian hierarchy is probably the main reason for the switch from "point 1" unity to "point 2" unity, another reason is, personal Bible study. In the early years of a church organization with mostly very new members, a lot of the questions are very simple—easy to answer from the Bible. New members are quite likely to accept what they have been taught. After many members are added and after some have studied for many years, the members begin to ask Bible questions that the leader of the organization has never studied. If the leader is busy with evangelizing or administrative matters, he may never have time to study some of these questions.
For the last 20 years of Herbert Armstrong’s life, there was essentially no way for a WCG member to reach him with a new doctrinal understanding. Even if a local minister would listen, the ministry felt there was almost no chance to bring a doctrine to headquarters, and headquarters felt there was almost no chance to bring it to Mr. Armstrong.
While Mr. Armstrong and the ministry claimed that God was guiding them directly, it would have been hard to prove that to an outsider. The leaders did not perform great public miracles as did Christ and His Apostles. Miracles and healings were often claimed, but they were in situations where it was hard for an individual to verify them. Most people continued to believe that they were in the "one true Church" organization because they knew of no other group that was anywhere close in size, media outreach and doctrine. Most had few Bible questions that were unanswered, and they were treated reasonably by the ministry.
Those who were victims of ministerial abuse, who challenged a doctrine that the ministry could not prove from the Bible, or who caught an "important" minister in a serious sin, found themselves disfellowshipped. They were cut off from all of their friends, and in many cases believed that they were cut off from the Body of Christ! It was terribly traumatic for most of these people. Usually, none of their old friends would help them in this time of difficulty. But since these people were removed from the WCG way of life, they had little effect on it. If anything, it strengthened the resolve of the people in the WCG to "stay in the one true Church" when they saw some of their friends leave.
The Big Break-up
When Herbert Armstrong was near death in January 1986, he named Joseph Tkach as his successor. (Some claim that Tkach "stole" the office, but we have yet to hear a first-hand account of this—if someone has, we would like to know). Nevertheless, the Eternal clearly allowed Joseph Tkach to gain control of the WCG corporate assets and the loyalty of most of the WCG members.
Joseph Tkach was never a writer. He had almost nothing published in WCG literature before 1986. He had not been a noted speaker either, giving only a few sermons at the headquarters congregation—none on technical doctrinal subjects. But when he became Pastor General, a "Personal" column appeared under his name in several church publications, and he began to speak more often. For somewhat over a year, Robin Webber was the "ghost writer" for the Personals. He tended to imitate Herbert Armstrong’s style. But then Joe Tkach, Jr. moved back to Pasadena to become head of the ministry. (This was amazing, since he had never been a church pastor and only a few months before was not even attending services regularly.) However, only a few months after his arrival, Joe and his childhood chum, Mike Feazell, became the driving force behind the WCG. These two, along with Bernie Schnippert and Greg Albrecht, were responsible for the WCG doctrinal changes to become essentially another Protestant denomination.
Their plan to change doctrines slowly was indeed masterful. They started with doctrines which were considered less important and with doctrines where there was scriptural support for their changes. If their doctrines were not accepted right away, they retreated for a while and brought them back in different packaging. They avoided challenging Mr. Armstrong directly for several years—they did not reprint his old writings with refutations. They called their changes "new truth" and said that he would have made them himself. As they progressed to doctrines where the scriptures did clearly support Mr. Armstrong’s teaching, they began to get into trouble. People brought out their old booklets and realized that Tkach and Feazell were not answering the questions raised by Armstrong. Members began to ask hard questions—and began to leave to join the many other groups that were forming.
The WCG stopped officially claiming that it was the "one true Church". How could they claim such a thing when they were accepting doctrines believed by most of the Protestant world? However, they did little to change the authoritarian rule in place. Ministers who loudly opposed the changes quickly found themselves with little or nothing to do. Ministers were clearly on notice that if their congregation drifted away, they would probably be out of a job—so there was little "quiet opposition" to the doctrinal changes. Many field ministers continued to tell their members that this was the Church "God called them into" and they could be in deep spiritual trouble if they left it.
Yet all the while, many of the ministers had serious doubts. But what could they do about them? If they expressed them to headquarters, they might be out of a job. If they expressed them to their members, they might be "turned in" to headquarters. The idea of an "independent congregation" was too scary. How does a minister make members obey if his congregation is no longer a part of a big organization claiming to be the "Work of God"? In this distress the ministers carefully sought out friends and planned to start new organizations. Some ministers literally gave sermons one month about loyalty to the WCG, and the next month about why members need to join a new organization.
Impact on the Members
This process often devastated the Bible-studying member. They could see the massive doctrinal changes in headquarters literature, but often heard little about them in services—often only in statements read from headquarters. In larger congregations, one minister might enthusiastically teach the new doctrines, while another might say little. In the era of e-mail and cheap long-distance, members who asked distant friends questions, experienced the great diversity in what was actually being taught from one WCG congregation to another. The ministers were supposed to be shepherds, but members were fearful to ask questions about such a sensitive topic, and even when they did, answers were often not very satisfactory. There have been several suicides and lots of family break-ups attributed to these very issues.
To summarize what happened, members who did not want Tkach changing anything that Armstrong wrote joined the Philadelphia Church of God. Those who did not care for the PCG’s radicalism, but wanted to "do a Work" similar to the WCG, joined the Global Church of God. Most of the people in the above groups made these decisions on their own—they did not leave because their local minister did. Later, the largest splinter group began as many ministers with their congregations formed the United Church of God. Other brethren left the WCG for the Church of God International, Christian Biblical Church of God and other long-standing WCG offshoots. Independent local congregations formed also.
But where did the largest group of people who left the WCG go? The answer is "none of the above". About 50,000 people no longer attend any of the above groups. The very idea that "the one true Church" could begin to teach error and break up into groups of similar but competing churches seemed like nonsense. Many people became permanently bitter at religion—they poured their life into a group that they thought was the one and only. People who they thought represented God turned out to be representing mostly themselves. Others were not bitter, but they rejected all WCG religious teaching and started over from "square one".
Even many of those who did join various WCG splinter-groups are not happy there. Each group claims to be continuing the work of the WCG, but only a very few new believers have begun to attend. The absolute trust that the Eternal is directing the organization from the top is forever gone! If Tkach could change most of the doctrines without the Eternal stopping him, then certainly a leader in the split-off groups could do unrighteous things. Members of these groups are watching their leaders—-and not always liking what they see. Small independent groups have leadership problems as well.
Nearly everyone in these WCG split-off groups has relatives and friends in other groups. They are trying to solve the problem of "how much cooperation among groups is permissible?" Will an elder be allowed to continue speaking if he attends the Feast with relatives in another group? Can members of different local groups work together to sing songs in nursing homes? If someone in the nursing home asks for literature, which group’s literature will they give them? The whole thing seems somewhat unbelievable and unchristian, but such is life among splinter groups
The cause of this problem is very simple:
People have had too much of a relationship with their church organization and its leaders, and not enough of a relationship with the Eternal and our Savior!
The proof is everywhere. Does anyone believe that "God is dead" or that He doesn’t know what to do about all of these "Church problems"? Probably not. Yet they have been so devastating to so many brethren. That is because we have placed far too much value on membership in some organization—-or in following some "inspirational leader". Even those in non-hierarchical, independent groups have severe trouble when they lose their leader for some reason.
We cannot stop our friends from leaving us because a church organization tells them to do so. But we can trust the Eternal to provide us with new friends and to take care of our needs. David was greatly persecuted in his early life—even betrayed by friends, but look at what he wrote:
I will say of the LORD, "He is my refuge and my fortress; My God, in Him I will trust." Surely He shall deliver you from the snare of the fowler And from the perilous pestilence. He shall cover you with His feathers, And under His wings you shall take refuge; His truth shall be your shield and buckler. You shall not be afraid of the terror by night, Nor of the arrow that flies by day, Nor of the pestilence that walks in darkness, Nor of the destruction that lays waste at noonday. A thousand may fall at your side, And ten thousand at your right hand; But it shall not come near you (Psalm 91:2-7).
Developing this kind of faith and reliance upon the Eternal does not come instantly. It takes time, prayer and study. But it is the only solution to our present problem—and the difficult times that lie head. Herbert Armstrong and many who claim to be his successors promised their followers that they would be taken "to a place of safety" before the Great Tribulation began. Almost none of them have prophesied anything about the year 2000 (Y2K) computer problems—yet this disaster is completely possible to predict from publicly available sources. Are these groups making plans to help their members and others through this disaster! No, some are even discouraging their members from preparing to help themselves! How much worse would this disaster have been on the WCG if it had continued, thinking it was the one true church and no trouble would come upon it? The Eternal has been merciful by showing that church organizations are run by imperfect men that often make self-seeking decisions. He has broken up the organizations and slowly taught us to learn to trust Him.
Facing the Past
When we at Servants’ News were planning to write a "Herbert Armstrong" issue, we thought we could put the necessary information into only one issue and then go on to other important Bible lessons. But the more we studied it, the more we realized how much effect Herbert Armstrong and the WCG had on so much of what we think and do. HWA taught a lot of Biblical truth. But for most of us, he was our only source of such teaching. Separating the Biblical truth from his ideas or personal preferences is not always that easy. Finding which of Herbert Armstrong’s teachings were borrowed from elsewhere is also not that easy. We had years of "check up" homework to do. When we thought Herbert Armstrong was God’s representative on earth, we did not check up on him—who needs to check up on what "God is doing"?
Hopefully, you have been able to read the articles and letters in these three issues of Servants’ News. If you need more information, please write for the extra articles on the back page. We need to know what was wrong with our past, but we need to keep that which was good. We should not think that a scattering of believers is either from Satan or a punishment from the Eternal. In the first few chapters of Acts, the Church at Jerusalem seemed wonderful: it was growing and everyone was getting along well together (Acts 2:41-47). But God allowed persecution to come upon it, and it was scattered everywhere (Acts 8:1-4). The scattering resulted in much additional preaching of the gospel.
The Eternal may be doing a similar thing today. He may want people with knowledge of the Bible, Sabbath, Holy Days and other truths to be scattered among others who will learn these truths from them—outside of "organized religion". Being dispersed from our group was traumatic; it was also traumatic for first century believers to be cast in prison for their beliefs.
If the Eternal is "sending us on a new mission", what do we do with the old one? What do we keep and what do we throw away? There are a surprising number of good things worth keeping—both from our distant past and from our recent past.
Good Things From WCG Past
We cannot begin to cover every specific doctrine taught in the past. We will cover important characteristics and habits that were developed during the Radio Church of God and Worldwide Church of God years.
1. We believe truth comes from the Bible. While many other groups claim this, the WCG tended to go to the Scripture more than many of the others. Compared to other groups, far more WCG members have exhaustive concordances and other technical Bible helps.
2. We have experience explaining many sound Bible doctrines that most other groups do not. These include the Sabbath, Holy Days, no eternal punishment, the avoidance of pagan days, avoiding unclean meats, etc.
3. We are willing to go against society or "traditional Christian" practice. Many WCG members have had to change jobs or schools in order to keep the Sabbath and the Holy Days. They have been considered "weird" at social occasions for not eating pork hot dogs or other unclean things. The list goes on. But the important part is that WCG members have had to take a public stand for what they believed (or at least for what their church believed—more on this later).
4. We have experience keeping the Sabbath in a non-Sabbatarian world. This is related to the above point, but is the practical side of things. How does one deal with institutions and businesses about the Sabbath without needlessly upsetting them?
5. We have country-wide and world-wide contacts. Many local churches are concerned primarily with themselves and their communities. WCG members have long lived with a concept of preaching the Gospel to the world and many have friends throughout the world.
6. We understand the value of media: TV, radio, magazines and literature. Many ministries are limited primarily to sermons and tapes thereof. With electronic and print media, one teacher can reach many more people.
7. We value dynamic but not overly emotional speakers. Many typical preachers are either sanctimonious, wildly emotional, or boring. The ideal WCG speaker was to be interesting, business-like, yet heartfelt and sincere.
8. We know how to conduct services with rented halls. To most of the Christian world, a church is a building—a base around which religious activities revolve. WCG members realize that they can meet almost anywhere. They are experienced and highly organized at setting up chairs, songbooks, sound systems and other things necessary for a service. We realize we don’t need extra religious stuff like: robes, alters, kneeling benches, crosses, etc.
9. We know how to plan and organize Feasts. The WCG has probably been the largest modern organizer of Feast of Tabernacles sites.
10. We are used to budgeting a substantial portion of our resources for the Eternal’s work. In most church groups, people give what is left over.
Good from Post-WCG Past
Beside all that we learned from our years in the WCG, most of us have also learned much more of value in just the last few years.
1. We know the failure of hierarchical government. We have seen that the Eternal does not always correct the "man at the top". We have also seen that the "man at the top" does not always correct those underneath him. The world is full of other church groups with members who are looking to human leaders far too much. We should be able to help them.
2. We should have patience to work with other people who are stuck in cult-like systems. We should be able to understand that people can be "stuck" on a partly-erroneous teacher, yet still have a relationship with the Eternal. We should even be able to understand that another group that claims to be the "only true Church", is not the "only true Church", but may have converted members.
3. We should have learned that people can be seriously wrong on a significant doctrine and still have the spirit of God. Our understanding of the Bible teaching on church government and worship services is probably much different now than it was 10 or 20 years ago, but almost none of us have been rebaptized because of that.
There are many other points that probably could be added to this list. The main point is that we have a lot to give to others. "For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more" (Luke 12:48). We should not let the above good points die with us, but let the Eternal use this experience in us to do His will.
Things We Can Learn From Others
Now that former WCG members are scattered across the country, and as transportation becomes more and more difficult (the Y2K-related oil shortages will see to this), we will have to learn to work with others who are not from our background. There are millions of people who are dissatisfied with organized religion and want to simply live by the Bible. They may not have all of the understanding that we do, but they may have some understanding that we do not.
It is important that we learn at least some of the terminology and practice of people from other Christian backgrounds. Herbert Armstrong and nearly every other leader who started a religious movement could speak the language of the day to religious people. We need to understand their beliefs so we can talk about what they believe that is right and what they need to change.
These are some other specific things that we might be able to learn from other Bible-believing groups:
1) Rely on the Eternal, not money to do His work. In Christian literature, one can read verifiable stories of people who believed that God sent them somewhere to accomplish a certain mission. They went with enough money for transportation and maybe a few days food. They found a place to work or someone took them in, and they began physically serving and spiritually teaching those around them. Church of God groups have a tendency to want to collect money first and then decide what to do. This does not mean that we start projects without thinking, but that we pray for the Eternal to show us and then trust Him to supply the details. See the article on prayer in the attached issue of Shelter in the Word.
2) Walk in daily faith. Many WCG members have never learned to trust the Eternal to be with them on a daily basis—in normal every-day work. WCG members have a tendency to believe that the Eternal guides those who are doing a "big work", but not people who are only facing a daily struggle to "make ends meet".
3) Get personally involved doing good to others. Christ and the Apostles healed a great many people who never became disciples. They often did their good works first, and then preached later. We may not have miraculous gifts today, but we do have the physical means to do a lot of needed good for other people. Rather than just give to other "good works" programs, we need to learn to do our own so our teaching can go along with our works.
4) Get involved in your own community. So much of WCG evangelism was via national TV and magazines—most WCG members were never encouraged to have a positive religious effect in their own community.
5) Learn not to fear "getting dirty"—serving among people that we and/or the rest of the world would classify "trash" or "sinners". Our Savior was criticized for serving "sinners", but He did it anyway.
6) Learn to work with others who do not have the same doctrinal understanding that you do. This does not mean accept heresy, but there are many cases where certain doctrinal differences may not be important. Peter did not understand that Gentiles could have salvation until several years into his ministry (Acts 10-11). Yet there are several fairly clear passages in the Prophets that indicate this will happen. If you were alive in the first century, and the Eternal gave you understanding that Salvation is available to Gentiles, would you have refuse to recognize or work with Peter? If you were teaching Gentiles, then Peter probably would have refused to work with you. But if you were a Jew working among Jews, you should not let this doctrinal difference keep you from working with Peter.
7) Learn to talk about the Bible to others in a normal conversational manner without sounding like "we know more than you." "...Always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear" (1Pet 3:15). The WCG preachers often tried to follow the example of Christ who "spoke with authority". Christ had the very words and mind of the Eternal—we do not.
8) Realize that we do not have to have perfect knowledge to talk to others about the scripture. Many WCG members know more about the Bible than many trained pastors of churches. But so many would decline to teach others because they want to "study more" first. Also, WCG members have too often tended to answer another’s question with a booklet or article. We need to learn to answer at several levels: a. if we know how, show the answer from the scriptures; b. explain the answer that we believe is in the Bible then find the scriptures later (by using Bible helps or asking someone); c. when we are uncertain about what the Bible teaches, look for an answer with the person who is asking. Use a concordance together, or read a section of scripture that deals with it. Pray together and ask the Eternal to show the answer; or d. be willing to admit that we do not know the answer.
Problems to "Watch Out For"
1) Avoid Doctrinal Absolutism: "I have this doctrinal truth that you do not—you must either accept my doctrine or disprove it from the scripture. If you don’t, then you are not converted."
2) Avoid authoritarianism. When new believers become interested in your teaching, do not try to give them an answer to everything and tell them exactly what the Bible says. Help them learn to read it themselves, even if their understanding does not agree perfectly with yours.
3) Avoid exclusivism. While a believer should never relegate is Christian life to "finding someone else's program to participate in", we should not go to the opposite extreme of thinking that no project is worthy of our efforts unless we or our group originated it. Be willing to serve the Eternal in whatever way He leads you.
4) Do not wait for the "great" work or leader to come along. When the first century Apostles went out to preach the Gospel, they did not have choirs of angels singing, haloes around their heads or even bands playing to see them off. They looked like regular guys carrying their luggage aboard small, salt-crusted ships. You will always be able to find some fault with other believers and with groups you assemble with. We have heard cases of people who will not attend a certain fellowship because they do not like the way one of the leaders talks or sings. That leader may need to change in some way, but this problem does not disqualify the person as a leader (1Tim 3, Titus 1) nor is it a Biblical reason not to fellowship. Before the Eternal grants us great spiritual gifts, He probably wants to see what we will do in our present environment.
This article has not addressed specifics of what former-WCG members could or should be doing now. Christ has something in mind for each one of us and we must individually find out what that is. But there is much in the scripture to guide us. Whenever I think about the WCG, I cannot help but think how much I learned in it, and how much I learned getting out of it. The parable of the talents then rings in my head (Math 25:15-30). It seems like we are the people who have been given five talents. We ought to be asking the Eternal to show us how to earn five more!
—Norman S. Edwards