A return visit. That is how I describe this month’s article. And it is a return visit to the Worldwide Church of God. The reasons? Well, there has been an encouraging response from several readers concerning my articles on the WCG. Not all have agreed with me, but most comments have been constructive. Secondly, the responses have included valuable information, often drawn from personal involvement in the WCG over several years, and some of this information I am free to share with ET readers. Thirdly, some have asked questions concerning my sources and expressed surprise about some details included earlier.
Fourthly, some former WCG members, soundly converted to Christ, express concern as to whether WCG has become wholly evangelical. To what extent have the theological changes imposed from the top filtered down to, and been embraced at, grassroots level? Here my informants are sceptical, and a similar position is taken by evangelical pastors who counsel those previously involved in the WCG. One pastor reports: ‘I know that there have been huge doctrinal changes within the WCG, but somehow I still feel uneasy too’. The subject is so important that it needs to be pursued in this further article.
Where have I obtained my information? From many sources, especially on the Internet, where there are numerous web sites providing information and views about WCG. A significant number of books have also been written on the subject in the United States. While a few major on recent developments in the WCG, others focus almost exclusively on Herbert Armstrong’s life and teachings. A quick glance at one bibliography on the subject indicates there are as many as thirteen books listed, and only four of these have fewer than 200 pages. Five of the thirteen books are available from Emissary Publications in the USA, but there are additional books, which should be mentioned.
Christian Literature Crusade
has published Paul Benware’s interesting book entitled Ambassadors of Armstrongism. In the United States, the Watchman Fellowship has provided some useful resource items on WCG, including manuals and cassettes on related themes. Worldwide Church of God: Living under the Law details Armstrong’s false prophecies of the end of the world, as well as the doctrinal changes in the 1970s. Worldwide Church of God: A Broken Wineskin helpfully compares the teachings of Armstrong and Tkach on the crucial doctrines of God, the new birth and the gospel. David Robinson’s book Herbert Armstrong’s Tangled Web is a readable account of an insider’s view of Armstrong and his work, documenting the struggle for (and the abuse of) power during the 1970s.
There are still more books on the subject. For example, an Australian academic, John Buchner, has published The Buchner Report: Armstrongism in America, which is a thorough piece of research. Bruce Reneham has written a critical and detailed book entitled Worldwide Church of God: Daughter of Babylon, The True History of WCG. In addition to books, there are web sites on the Internet provided by individuals and organisations, many of the former being disillusioned ex-members of WCG. The information available is extensive.
Some readers have found it ‘disgraceful’ that doubt has been cast on Herbert Armstrong’s moral life. They do ‘not know anyone who believes these serious allegations’. Another correspondent, who had been a WCG member for several years, reports that he never heard any doubts about Armstrong’s morals. Four observations are relevant here. Armstrong regularly visited Bricket Wood, in Hertfordshire, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A bungalow was built there for his use. During these visits, some WCG members closely involved in helping him observed what one referred to as ‘the gross inconsistency of his life’. Rank and file members, even local leaders, would not be aware of such inconsistencies. These inconsistencies did not involve immorality but rather contradictions between actions and his teachings. I am unable, because of confidentiality, to divulge the details.
Secondly, one source in the United States, Douglas Becker, reports that ‘During the first ten years of Herbert Armstrong preaching on The World Tomorrow Broadcast, he was committing incest with his youngest daughter. He had actually taken her to a hotel room on occasions and cruelly raped her’. This is a serious charge and one I did not want to detail previously. To those who dismiss this as a lie, Becker replies: ‘This is well documented in several places, including the divorce proceedings with his second wife Ramona’.
Thirdly, the leader’s second son, Ted, became an effective radio speaker, but he lived immorally and was put out of fellowship. He then started his own group. Fourthly, Ambassador College, which Armstrong established in the United States, was affected by worldly and immoral practices. To quote one report: ‘There were many beer busts … drug dealers were to be found among the faculty. There were seductions of the female students by the faculty and evangelists. There was even a small ring of homosexuals on campus…’ One Ambassador College student published an exposure of the Armstrongs and the college. This was called The Ambassador Report,
Nevertheless, as I have explained in the previous articles, there has been a great change.
How extensive and how biblical are the recent changes within WCG? A recent interview in Reach-Out Truth’s Quarterly (Autumn 1998) between Doug Harris and John Halford, the British WCG leader, is helpful. At least, it helps us understand the process of change which is still ongoing in the WCG. Halford was ‘not in the forefront of the changes’ and acknowledges that he is ‘considered conservative’ by some of his peers. He adds: ‘But I have wholeheartedly embraced the thrust of our changes’, particularly in regard to abandoning legalism and fully accepting the doctrine of grace.
Is the WCG wholly committed to the historic gospel and the finished work of Christ? Here Halford provides the unequivocal answer: ‘Yes … and we realised there was indeed nothing we had done, did, do or could do that could earn salvation. Jesus did all that needed to be done — indeed, all that could be done’. And he also emphasises that observing Saturday as the Sabbath is not essential to salvation. Some WCG in the USA actually hold their services now on Sunday, not Saturday.
While welcoming these assurances from Mr Halford, I am afraid that he is too optimistic about the extent of the changes. Not all legalists have left the WCG, and members vary concerning their perception of the gospel. Even at ministerial level there is cause for concern, as some ministers are known to be more traditional. The average member also thinks highly of Herbert Armstrong, and still wants to revere his memory and teaching. One even discerns some cynicism about the gospel, and an attitude which waits to see what the next issue of their magazine, The Plain Truth, will say about doctrines.
There has been a mixed response to the theological changes. What concerns me is the status still given by many to Armstrong’s teaching. Mr Halford maintains that WCG is not so much going back on what Herbert Armstrong taught, as trying to assimilate some challenging new ideas. He also insists that they do not intend to make a complete break with the past. This is disconcerting as well as ambivalent, in that so much of the past was bound up with Herbert Armstrong and his theological error. There are other concerns as well. Their statement of beliefs is provisional. ‘We will revise the statement accordingly’, adds Mr Halford. In this fluid situation, we need to pray that biblical truth will be increasingly honoured and taught within WCG.
In an earlier interview in Idea (April/May 1997), John Halford reveals his plan to send the male leaders of WCG’s thirty UK churches to a UK Bible college to study the doctrine of the Trinity. This is commendable. But one person with inside knowledge of the group insists that, at the local level of members and leaders, ‘it is doctrinally very mixed at present with quite a lot of confusion existing … not a healthy place for any young, impressionable Evangelical’.
The question of acceptance
In its interview with John Halford, Evangelical Alliance’s Idea quotes him as seeking ‘a place at the table’ of historic Christianity and to be accepted as one denomination alongside others. He attended EA’s National Assembly of Evangelicals in Bournemouth in 1996, and EA director Joel Edwards has rightly spent time talking with him. The WCG UK leader remarked: ‘Really, if we are not accepted, we are very vulnerable’. He speaks of the danger of being ‘pushed ever further out on to the fringes’. Unlike its American counterpart, the EA has responded cautiously and correctly. It is also sympathetic and prayerful. It is far too early yet to welcome WCG into formal fellowship with evangelical churches. Their reformation must continue and be consolidated, theologically as well as pastorally, throughout its entire fellowship. The situation needs to be monitored wisely.