In this second article we evaluate the changes which have occurred within the WCG. The changes have been extensive and startling, but are they adequate? Have the doctrinal changes filtered through to affect members and leaders at local levels? These important questions will be considered below.
For the United Kingdom, Ireland and the rest of Europe, the WCG is administered from Borehamwood in Hertfordshire under the directorship of John Halford. The headquarters, however, are located in Pasadena, California. Joe Tkach Jr is committed to continuing the major church and doctrinal reforms initiated by his father following the death of Herbert Armstrong in 1986. The organizational structure is strongly hierarchical. Heading the church is the Pastor General, while evangelists supervise department leaders. Regional pastors oversee local church ministers who in turn are supported by elders and deacons. Their publications include The Plain Truth, Worldwide News (for members), and Youth.
While WCG members are found in 120 countries, their UK churches are mostly in England with fewer in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Eire. Some UK churches have created their personal home pages on the Internet and are easily accessible. These include Dunstable, East Anglia (Norwich, Ipswich, Peterborough, Ramsey and Cambridge), Scotland (Shetland, Aberdeen, Perth, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Irvine), South Wales and the West Country (Llanelli, Bristol, Plymouth, Tiverton and Cardiff), Watford, London and the South-East, Belfast and Basildon.
We are informed, for example, that in Plymouth there are approximately fifty members ranging in age from pre-school to elderly. Some members travel from as far afield as Cambourne in Cornwall and Lustleigh in Devon for services. The Exeter church only has twenty-eight members, all of whom travel to meetings. Welcoming visitors, the UK and Ireland web-page urges us to ‘Worship and praise God, hear the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ expounded, and fellowship with us’. The main WCG home page claims that its goal is ‘To proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ’ and adds, ‘The gospel is the message that God is reconciling the world to himself and offering forgiveness of sin and eternal life through Jesus Christ.’ Concerning its mission, we are informed that ‘as a result of our heritage and tradition as a church’, the following ‘spiritual gifts and distinctives’ are offered: ‘emphasis on the absolute sovereignty and centrality of Jesus Christ … insistence on salvation by grace through faith, reverence and commitment to God’s Holy Scriptures … willingness to be continually transformed by the Holy Spirit … the certainty and importance of the second coming’ of Christ as well as ‘responsible stewardship’.
Evaluating the changes
Joe Tkach Jr was interviewed by Larry Mantle on National Public Radio in the United States, on 4 December 1997. The transcript of that interview provides valuable and reliable insights into the changes which have taken place within WCG. Mantle reminded Tkach of former WCG members who were angry over the way WCG had been taken in ‘this direction of mainstream Evangelical Christianity’. Tkach replied that David Hulme and his breakaway United Church of God only represented 13,000-17,000 people. From Armstrong’s earlier ministry onwards, Tkach continued, ‘over 100 groups have split off’ from WCG. From all these seceding groups, Tkach claimed that at most only ‘two or three … still retain some percentage of Armstrongism, anywhere from 75-110 per cent’. The latter figure refers to those that perpetuate all of Armstrong’s teachings, ‘plus have added 10 percent’ of their own. In this whole process of doctrinal reform and adjustment to biblical orthodoxy, Tkach acknowledged that the WCG has ‘lost about, not only three quarters of our membership but three quarters of our income’. Yet ‘the majority have stayed with us and embraced the changes. The minority wants to hold on to Armstrongism. There is a large group in between that have, let’s say, not joined anyone and are frustrated with the authoritarian abuses of the past…’
Defending the doctrinal reform which his father introduced, Tkach referred to ‘the record of changes that Herbert Armstrong made himself. Given enough time, he would have made more changes.’ The point is questionable, but the interviewer then probed concerning ‘the first rumbling’ of change within the WCG. It was just before his death that Armstrong told Joseph Tkach Sr that ‘there were some things that needed to be changed. He recognised that himself.’ However, Armstrong was not specific on all that needed to be changed and the main item mentioned was a marginal one, ‘the teaching about healing and going to doctors’. Although he had prohibited members from using medicines and consulting medical doctors, Armstrong himself had ‘used everything the medical profession could offer’ during the last fifteen years of his life.
How biblical now?
Joe Tkach Jr, however, was understandably reluctant to agree with the interviewer’s suggestion that his father was ‘the first one in the church who started moving toward evangelical Christianity’. He preferred to call it ‘a journey that was shared by several people at the same time’. As they questioned and researched different themes, they ‘were all starting to find chinks in the armour…’. Help was also available from Azusa Pacific University, particularly in the area of biblical hermeneutics and church history.
How biblical are the WCG doctrines now? Their doctrines of God, Scripture, Christ, salvation, justification and grace are adequate, reflecting a major movement away from Armstrong’s strange and unbiblical teachings. For several years the WCG had re-evaluated the doctrine of God. One final obstacle in accepting Trinitarian theology was overcome in 1993, when the leadership accepted the personality of the Holy Spirit and affirmed: ‘The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are co-equal, co-eternal, omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, indivisible, of one essence, and immanent…’
The Scriptures, they affirm, are ‘the accurate record of God’s revelation’ and ‘constitute ultimate authority in all matters…’. It is refreshing to learn that they officially view grace as ‘the free, unmerited favour God bestows on a sinner who repents’, while justification ‘is God’s gracious act of pronouncing a believer righteous in his sight’ on the ground of Christ’s sacrificial death.
Church and law
While the statements on the church and the law of Christ are acceptable, one wonders to what extent these new biblical principles have been consistently applied in terms of the claims and practices of the organization. The WCG leadership seems to have abandoned Armstrong’s claim that the WCG is God’s ‘only one Church on earth’, but how exclusive is the WCG? There is still need of reassurance and further clarification on this point. In addition, there are questions relating to the Sabbath, Holy Days, and ‘clean and unclean meats’. Maintaining its seventh-day ‘tradition and practice’, the WCG officially declares that ‘physical Sabbath keeping is not required for Christians’.
On the 24 December 1994, Tkach spoke in Big Sandy, Texas, on the reality of the Christian life under the New Covenant. Quoting Colossians 2:16-17, he claimed: ‘Paul’s point is that to bring the physical figure back in, as a requirement for salvation, is to minimize the value of the true reality. We are not saved by grace through faith in Christ plus the Sabbath, or plus circumcision, or plus the sacrifices, or plus anything. We are saved by grace through faith in Christ.’ It is well spoken, but in the Watchman Expositor, Phillip Arnn reports that some WCG members have complained ‘about remaining Old Testament language and practices’, in that Holy Days, Saturday worship and tithing are ‘still observed’, even ‘enforced’ for some. This is confirmed in some reports I am receiving from members or ex-members.
The shadow of Herbert Armstrong
A final concern relates to the respect still given by many to Herbert Armstrong. Tkach acknowledges, ‘We’ve distanced ourselves as far as we can from him’; his spending, lifestyle, behaviour, false teachings and claims. Yet he adds, ‘Armstrong was sincere’ although ‘his interpretation of Scripture, even his reading of history was in error. And so he made errors.’ This official stance towards Armstrong is ambivalent. There are many books in the United States exposing the former leader; while many ex-members (and their web sites!) are angry towards Armstrong for having deceived them. They feel they are ‘victims’ who have gone for years through something worse than rape. There is a magazine called The Painful Truth that exposes Armstrong and monitors WCG progress. The doctrinal changes are warmly welcomed. But, please, WCG leaders, do not hesitate to describe Armstrong as a false prophet!