‘Never before in the history of Christianity’, writes Ruth Tucker of Calvin Theological Seminary, ‘has there been such a complete move to orthodox Christianity by an unorthodox fringe church’.
Eddie Gibbs, professor in Fuller Theological Seminary, claims, ‘The transformation of WCG represents a unique phenomenon in church history’. An exaggeration? Possibly, but the change is at least rare, if not unique, in church history.
The President of Fuller Seminary, Richard Mouw, adds: ‘These people have led the most courageous, inspiring and Christ-centred movement into biblical Christianity that I have ever seen’.
Three years ago in this series, I described the changes in the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) as representing ‘a major U-turn’. This U-turn was recognised by the National Association of Evangelicals in the USA in 1997 when WCG was received into membership.
Why return to the subject? Because of the publication recently of the book, The Liberation of the Worldwide Church of God (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2001). The author is J. Michael Feazell, one of the most senior leaders in WCG.
The book is important because from 1979 to 1995, Feazell served as executive assistant and senior editorial adviser to the late Joseph W. Tkach Sr, the chosen successor to the cult’s founder leader, Herbert W. Armstrong. Feazell can therefore speak authoritatively about changes within WCG.
Feazell does this in an open, self-critical and warm manner but always ascribing the glory to God and his grace. While there are weaknesses in the book, the information provided is valuable.
Testimony of Scripture
Was there one person or group of persons responsible for initiating this theological and spiritual U-turn in the WCG? In his Preface, Feazell acknowledges that no human person initiated the changes. He ‘cannot point to a single starting place’ either for the personal changes in his own life or in the WCG.
How did it begin? Encouragingly, ‘it began in the testimony of Scripture’ (p.11). In the context of a long period of disillusionment due to ‘failed predictions and fallen heroes’, individual leaders, spontaneously – and often independently of one another – discovered and experienced the gospel of grace in their lives.
He likens this period to ‘many things [which] came together like tiny brooks and rivulets, bubbling up from here and there and nowhere in particular but little by little joining with others and growing steadily to form larger streams and finally cascading together into a mighty river’ (p.11).
Influence of Scripture
How did Scripture influence this change in the WCG? One must go back to 16 January 1986 when the WCG founder and leader, Herbert Armstrong, died. His chosen successor was Joseph W. Tkach Sr, and Feazell served as his executive assistant. Both men were committed to perpetuating Armstrong’s heretical teachings.
Within weeks, however, of Armstrong’s death, doubts were raised over the founder’s views. Some of the issues at first were minor yet significant. For example, Armstrong’s dogmatic view that the Israelites left Egypt the following night after the Passover meal, not the same night, was now deemed unscriptural (p.22).
But there were more important errors. According to Armstrong, Christians are not finally ‘born again’ until the resurrection when they receive glorified bodies. Until that time, Armstrong insisted that Christians are only ‘begotten’ in the sense of being ‘merely conceived but not yet born’. After careful study, WCG leaders were persuaded that Armstrong was wrong again.
In 1989 a Doctrinal Discussion Group was established within WCG to consider the many continuing challenges to Armstrong’s teachings.
Teachings such as prohibiting medical treatment or the idea that Christ’s sacrifice was segmented (into shed blood for ‘spiritual sin’ and broken body for ‘physical sin’) were seen to be unbiblical.
Rather, ‘Jesus’ sacrifice was one unified whole’ (p.55) for our redemption. Concerning trusting God and using medicine, Feazell concluded that ‘nowhere does the Bible even suggest that getting medical attention is wrong’.
And, he adds, ‘Every passage cited in our [WCG] literature as proof that “going to the doctors” was a sin was taken out of context, misapplied and misinterpreted’ (p.54).
Slowly, persuaded by Scripture, WCG leaders threw out many other distinctive beliefs of Armstrong. For example, the exclusivity of WCG, observance of a seventh-day Sabbath and annual Israelite holy days, observance of the Israelite clean and unclean meat laws, strict tithing and legalism, were all rejected.
Many of Armstrong’s failed predictions concerning Christ’s return also undermined confidence in their founder. Whatever WCG distinctive was questioned, WCG leaders, under Tkach Sr and Tkach Jr endeavoured to submit to the Bible’s supreme authority.
These changes in WCG theology were breathtaking and profoundly biblical. For example, Armstrong had taught (p.107) that the destiny of humans is to become literal Gods in the ‘God family’.
This he defined as God the Father and God the Son, both eternal and divine, who created and rule the universe by the [impersonal] Holy Spirit – of which they are bodily composed and which is their power.
To accept now the orthodox teaching that God ‘exists in three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ (p.205) represented a huge shift in opening the WCG up to the Scripture and the historic creeds of the church. Observers were stunned.
Nowhere, however, was the change more remarkable than in the rediscovery of the biblical gospel. This change is well illustrated in Feazell’s personal experience.
Asked in early 1991 by his ageing, godly grandmother whether he loved Jesus, Feazell was deeply challenged. ‘I knew a lot about him,’ he confessed. ‘But I didn’t yet know him’ (p.49).
From Galatians 4:1-7, he understood that he was a slave rather than a son in God’s household. ‘I lived like a slave because that was all I knew. I followed the rules…’
But it was nominal, an empty shell, and Feazell longed to be right with God.
He saw that ‘legalistic Sabbath keeping is irrelevant to salvation … You know that obedience to the law has nothing at all to do with your salvation. You know that your only hope is in what God has done for your salvation through the saving work of Jesus’ (p.99).
We learn from Feazell that these doctrinal reforms within WCG ‘met with enormous resistance from every level of the organization’ (p.119). Members, and some ministers, ‘were angered’ while others increasingly ‘began to respond to the gospel; and as they did, the need for the changes became clearer to them’. The latter saw they had ‘no more need for Armstrong or his “special mission”‘.
However, the transformed WCG still faces problems. There has been a shortage of gospel-preaching pastors (p.122). WCG lost more than half of its pastors and members as well as over 85% of its annual income during the period of theological reformation.
And Feazell is realistic: ‘Our current financial challenges’, he admits, ‘and generally flagging morale may finally prove irreversible’ (p.130).
But whatever the future holds for WCG, he testifies that by God’s grace, ‘we have already received the greatest gift imaginable’ – the rediscovery of the gospel of grace.
For Feazell, that is a key element in the WCG U-turn. Other elements are the rediscovery of the doctrines of the Triune God and the personality of the Holy Spirit (p.135), and leadership experiences of the gospel which were ‘like the light of day and like shouts of rescue to hopeless souls, beaten, starved, and imprisoned in darkness’ (p.139).
Other key elements specified by the author are the rediscovery of the priesthood of believers (p.140), and outreach.
Yes, it is a valuable book. But what of Armstrong himself? This is one major weakness in the book. Feazell’s discussion ‘Coping with the role of the Founder’ devotes only eight pages to the life of Armstrong (pp. 96-103).
The author stresses that the Founder ‘was not what he claimed to be’ (p.97). He was proud, condemnatory of others and ‘taught a good-sized chunk of heresy’ (p.100).
Is that all? What about Armstrong’s abuse of power and the gross inconsistency of his life? Or his immorality and alleged incest?
Feazell’s reply is that ‘Herbert Armstrong’s judgement is not my business; it is the Lord’s’ (p.96). I agree. However, there remains a need for a more extensive and thorough history of WCG which will explore in depth how the new, more biblical WCG should assess Armstrong’s life and work.