The writer is a former elder of the Worldwide Church of God who left the WCG in 1985. Mr. White and his wife, the former Margie Brown, attended Ambassador College, Big Sandy, graduating in 1971 and 1972.
Writer asks could the Church of God be materialistic?
By Dan White
HARTVILLE, Mo.-I asked 10 friends, none of them of WCG background, the same question:
"If the leader of a church had a Cadillac, a Rolls-Royce, and solid-gold tableware, would you say he is materialistic?"
They laughed at me. Obviously, they roared.
Yet if I were to ask 10 ministers of the old WCG that same question, most would huff: "No! Of course not!"
Herbert W. Armstrong did have a Cadillac in Pasadena, a Rolls in England and solid-gold tableware. But it was explained that Mr. Armstrong's Cadillac wasn't exactly brand new; that the work had gotten a great deal on the Rolls, so that wasn't really extravagant; and Mr. Armstrong had entertained the elite of the world, and when you do that you need something besides plastic. Like solid-gold tableware.
So it was thought that having expensive luxuries, which normally would have indicated crass materialism, in Mr. Armstrong's case indicated nothing. He didn't really care about them. He could take them or leave them. He just happened to take them when he could.
Notice this pattern.
Mr. Armstrong, in his autobiography, wrote about a time in his younger married days when he was out of work and desperate for money. A woman told his wife, Loma, about an odd job of throwing wood into a basement, "if your husband's not too proud to take it."
Mr. Armstrong took the job and earned a little money for his hungry family. But he was embarrassed at having to work at so humble a task as throwing wood.
Most people, especially in that Depression time, would not have been embarrassed to throw wood to earn money for their family. It's good physical work. But Mr. Armstrong mentioned this story as an example of tremendous humiliation, to show how God was breaking his vanity.
Years later, at a ministerial dinner in the 1970s, I heard Mr. Armstrong mock a former minister who had left the WCG and reportedly had become a clerk in a hardware store.
"He has to earn a living with his hands!" Mr. Armstrong exclaimed as he held out his smooth, uncalloused hands for emphasis. Even at this advanced stage of his life, Mr. Armstrong considered the idea of performing physical work for a living humiliating.
A pattern develops
When Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong were able to afford an apartment in Chicago, after having been forced to room with other families for some time, they bought the most expensive furnishings for their first home. This didn't work because it was too extravagant for the young couple, and some things were soon lost for lack of payment.
When he worked in advertising, Mr. Armstrong stayed in the best hotels, even if he had to take the cheapest room, so that he could be exposed to the highest class of people; that is, the richest people.
After he left Chicago Mr. Armstrong and his family lived for extended periods with his wife's family and then with his own parents. These people were simple, unpretentious farmer types who were willing to take Herbert and his whole family in, even though Herbert wasn't working and didn't really even help out on the farm.
Mr. Armstrong often mentioned that being exposed to the rich of the world helped prepare him for the work he was to do later. But he never maintained that his lengthy exposure to more humble, giving, poor farmer types helped prepare him for God's work.
Do you see the pattern here? Both before and after he learned about unclean meats, Mr. Armstrong liked to live high on the hog.
There was a period in the Radio Church of God when the church and its members had little wealth. They were satisfied with that. They even gloried in the opportunity to sacrifice. But, when the days of plenty came, Mr. Armstrong's natural bent led him back to the Rolls-Royce and the 24-karat forks and spoons.
In the Worldwide Church of God Mr. Armstrong taught his attitude toward material things to the ministry. Ministers had to be well dressed, they had to live in the nicest houses, and it was ridiculous to think that one of God's true ministers could visit in a smaller car, even if that did consume far less of tithes and offerings than a more expensive model.
Of course, this wasn't at all viewed as materialism. It was only showing wisdom by purchasing quality. And the higher ranking the minister, the higher-quality stuff accumulated around him.
For Mr. Armstrong, the highest-ranking minister in the church, expensive cars and such accouterments were merely the result of exercising God-given wisdom.
When ministers Mr. Armstrong were taught were asked about materialism, they pointed out that Abraham was a rich man, by God's direct blessing. None of these folks ever voiced the fear that they might not have the character of Abraham, but that of Solomon or of the young man with great riches, of whom Christ said, "It is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle."
We even had alternate explanations for that verse, other than what it obviously seemed to say to the astonished disciples.
John the Coolest
One WCG evangelist used John the Baptist to support the quality approach to material things. In Matthew 4 and 11 the Bible says John wore a rough camel's-hair garment, but the evangelist intoned seriously about how John wore a quality camel's-hair suit. Cool.
This tone toward material things that Mr. Armstrong set in the WCG was strongly presented as being God's way. Was it really godly, or was it ugly materialism dressed in a snazzy $1,000 suit?
Materialism is a means of exalting yourself. You have something that someone else just can't afford: a bigger house, a new car, solid-gold flatware. Your fine possessions reflect your good taste and your fine character for all to see. You are doing something in life, making something of yourself, and the easiest way to show that is by the stuff you surround yourself with.
I recall personal incidents that make me think that gross materialism was the norm in the WCG, concentrated most in the ministry. Again, notice the pattern.
When my wife and I first began working for the church, we needed a table lamp for our little duplex, so we ventured into Woolco and bought one.
As we were leaving the store, we met the pastor under whom we worked, along with his wife. She gave us a backhanded compliment on our lamp-something like, "Yes, it'll probably work"-and then walked away with the admonition, "Of course, I would never buy a lamp like that myself."
Tut, tut. We were being introduced to the ministerial culture. Image was everything.
As I worked in that position, it became obvious that houses, furnishings and possessions were important, and much effort was spent on those concerns. There was one example in which a church pastor had an assistant who had inherited a good bit of money. This pastor forbade the assistant to live in a nicer house than the pastor's, even though the young family could afford it. That wouldn't fit the pastor's image.
We gave sermons and sermonettes on the premise that someone might be called into the church because of the appearance of our houses or cars or suits, although none of us ever knew anyone who was.
Subtleties of the finer things
When a muscled, trembling man valiantly gave his first halting speeches in Spokesman Club, instead of praising his effort we excoriated him because of his purple shirt.
We learned to appreciate the subtleties of fine (expensive) dining. For example, we were sitting with a Pasadena bigwig in the finest restaurant in our town. (But that goes without saying, because obviously you had to take a visiting Pasadena bigwig to only the very best place. Can you imagine taking a bigwig to Burger King?)
The whole dinner party was duly impressed when the B.W. refused to order the pompano of our finest restaurant because it was frozen and not flown in fresh from Florida every day.
From sites to suites
At a regional ministers' conference about 1974, when the church was first entering its period of marked decline, the lead evangelist was telling us how the income was down and there would be big cutbacks here and little cutbacks there. It seemed that he was preparing us for the news that our wages would be cut and that we, too, should be ready to sacrifice.
Instead, he told us that the church was upping our pay. We were already sacrificing enough, we were assured.
We all humbly agreed.
When all the feasts were kept by the Radio Church of God, second-tithe money was spread out over almost 10 percent of the year, counting travel and preparation time. So a 10 percent tithe to finance about 10 percent of the year was not a lot of extra money at any one time.
But, when keeping Passover for all eight days was abandoned, the Feast of Tabernacles became a big spending time. It was always emphasized as picturing the Millennium and not as depicting sojourners wandering through a dangerous worldly wilderness as the Bible actually says.
Unlike the early camping days, the Feast sites were eventually located in the resort areas of the world, and Tabernacles became the prime time for members to sample the world's goodies. The ministers quietly competed to rent the most luxurious condominiums, and much discussion was had expertly critiquing all the local restaurants and whether the pompano was flown in.
I recall one fall when the main speaker was flying in from Pasadena during the middle of the Feast of Tabernacles. One minister's job was to make sure that the finest penthouse suite in a fine hotel was to be booked for that evangelist.
However, the hotel had another distinguished personage arriving at the same time, and the minister was not able to get the No. 1 suite for the evangelist. Naturally he booked the second-best suite-not room, but suite-and didn't consider it any big deal.
But the elder in charge of the Feast made it known that he was greatly irritated that an evangelist would have to stay in the second-best suite in the hotel.
I was being moved by the WCG from one area of the country to another by Bekins Van Lines, which had done business with the church before. What did these men remember about the church?
They remembered only the incredible amount of possessions they had moved for a WCG evangelist. They did not at all mention the evangelist's love, joy, peace or anything like that. They remembered the fancy stuff the WCG minister had and the big expense of moving all that ministerial stuff around the country.
I was never close to the inner circles of the church, so these incidents are only trail-marking tidbits. I am certain many others could recite more-typical examples.
The way we were
Contrast this with stories of the early years of the work. Nobody was paid much. Some weeks Radio Church of God employees couldn't be paid at all. Unpaid overtime was the expected extra mile. And, when somebody forgot to issue C. Paul Meredith his meager paycheck, he forgot to mention it!
Since the C. Paul days, we have seen six-figure salaries, double salaries where men were paid both for being a college instructor and a minister, ministerial Lincolns and Cadillacs, $1,000 suits and solid-gold tableware. All of this was accepted as being perfectly normal, even godly.
I know that you can find incidents of materialism in any culture, but I strongly believe that Mr. Armstrong's original emphasis on quality eventually slipped over the line into lordly, exalting, malignant materialism-concentrated most heavily in the ministry.
Ministers tried hard to look like somebody important in the world. Their cars, houses, clothes all attempted to make them look like successful IBM executives, supersalesmen of the truth, Christ's corporate clergy. They did not at all want to look like humble servants of the despised Lamb, mocked and scorned by the world around them. They wanted respect.
In subsequent discussions about ministerial pay, there have generally been two obvious sides: on one side those who think the ministers are too materialistic, on the other all the salaried ministers and their wives.
In reading various ministers' and wives' comments about their pay, they justify whatever pay they have received, no matter what the level, from local elder up to evangelist. After all, they always give a lot of it back, which leads one to wonder why they insist on getting it in the first place.
The usual justification for high pay is that worldly corporations of the same size pay similar salaries. This answer shows that they accept the world's outlook toward money and material things as being correct. That is their standard.
But materialism is more than just an absolute pay level. It is the direction of one's intentions, the preoccupation of the mind with things that can be touched and admired, the evidence of things seen.
I was attending a ministerial-refreshing program in Pasadena along with one of my closest college friends whom I hadn't seen in about a decade. After not having talked with me for years, one of the first things this pastor wanted to tell me was his net worth, even though I hadn't thought to inquire about that.
Further, during that refresher session he became concerned because one of the evangelists conducting the lectures always wore a black blazer. My friend kept complaining to me, day after day, about the man's dress, not at all in line with the image of a WCG minister, a high-ranking HQ one at that.
Finally he became so exasperated that he took it upon himself to personally correct the evangelist.
That was not well received.
My pastor friend was not making a vulgar amount of money at all, probably one third what the evangelist in black was getting. But my friend's actions showed a preoccupation with things physical-materialism-more so than that of the evangelist in black.
Former WCG ministers who are now UCG ministers and GCG ministers and PCG ministers and xCG ministers will find it difficult to accept the premise that they grew materialistic in a culture that emphasized materialism.
But note this, gentlemen and ladies: It is an irrefutable fact that many people see you as being that way. So either you are materialistic or you have given strong impressions to the people you serve that you are. Both alternatives are not the best.
Before the split of one of the spin-off corporate groups, a couple of headquarters ministers were making close to $150,000 in salary. Meanwhile, other elders in the church, some of them 70 years old with no social security, working and scraping just to have food to eat and a place to live, were serving as local-church pastors.
What if those two expensive evangelists had taken a normal salary-say, $40,000 or so-which would admittedly be below scale-and the difference given to those ministers who really needed it to live?
That extra $200,000 would have provided $5,000 each to 40 men, and that little bit could have made their lives much easier.
The manna principle is that everybody has enough; nobody has too much. The worldly corporate principal is that the top dog gets to be the hog.
Back to the present
Contrast that with the people who began the UCG and GCG. We who were outside of Worldwide watched and wondered and waited through the years. How could all those ministers go along with such ungodly practices? How long would they put up with the dribble of devilish drivel? How far would they compromise themselves? What were they waiting on?
The WCG-derivative churches seem to have adopted the WCG materialistic approach as inspired truth-God's way-even in the face of widespread criticism. This is the biggest indicator of malignant materialism: Even though it obviously means offending countless little ones, both old and new in the faith, these ministers insist on keeping the well-to-doexecutive image intact, millstones notwithstanding.
There can be no stronger indication of gross materialism than that.
Cause and effect
I will go so far as to posit that the materialism that metastasized in the WCG was one of the prime causes of the great apostasy.
Originally the brethren running the Radio Church of God were not concerned with respectability. When The Plain Truth was trumpeting "Who Is the Beast?," they didn't get no respect. But they did change lives.
Bold and disrespected, the church grew quickly. Those early church members were paragons of dedication and selflessness. They tithed multiple tenths.
But through the decades the healthy flow of money began to go to buy respect.
From newsprint to Kromekote
The magazines and booklets went from cheap little leaflets with priceless words to expensive, high-quality productions with a toned-down, less-offensive approach. The shiny paper glistened, and the words slid smoothly across the slick surface.
The physical facilities of the church properties were continually upgraded in only the finest style. When faced with the choice of building numerous local church facilities that could be used by tens of thousands of members or one big, expensive showplace in Pasadena, the church built the lavish Ambassador Auditorium for God with seamless carpets and beautiful onyx walls.
This facility was then used for highbrow cultural events featuring the best and most famous classical artists. A classical-music radio program originated from the auditorium, narrated by Beverly Sills, the Whitney Houston of the classical scene. Ambassador Foundation became renowned in elite circles.
Mr. Armstrong traveled around the world in style, tossing around Steuben crystal like Christmas candy. He met with leaders of various nations by doling out gifts to those nations and their leaders, including the well-heeled Imelda Marcos. No conversions came from these lavish trips. The only thing Imelda changed was her shoes.
All of this spending did buy respect, but it was a limited respect. Always the fact remained that the group behind the classy facilities and events had weird religious teachings. Sometimes they were even called a cult.
Logically-in the transformation that was occurring-for the church to gain true respectability at some point it would have to change its basic, disreputable teaching: that followers of Christ should actually obey the Ten Commandments.
And so it did.
Now, instead of proclaiming "Who Is the Beast?," that church propounds warm, fuzzy phrases about fighting racism, expanding responsibilities for women and not judging homosexuals. They do not teach obeying the Ten Commandments. How much more respectable can they get? Doubtless they have even caught Hillary Clinton's eye.
So how will the groups of former Worldwiders fare? Will they be spiritual Israelites or spiritual Mammonites? Which do they want most, the respect of the world or the respect of God?
First the good news
There are good signs. Some men have ultimately decided to obey God, disregarding paychecks and retirement benefits and health benefits, and I hear about ministers furnishing HQ offices with good used furniture, and I read about ministers taking pay cuts.
This is admirable and encouraging to see. Perhaps this is a return to the spirit of the Radio Church of God, when everybody knew the ministers were broke and all praised God for the opportunity to sacrifice.
Perhaps not, though. Doesn't common sense tell you that any church employee who can accept anything near a six-figure income from tithes has his wallet in his front pocket instead of in the back?
To non-WCG types it is overwhelmingly obvious that anyone with a Rolls-Royce and solid-gold forks is just showin' off, but the WCG accepted its pursuit of material prominence as being godly, not greedy. We went from C. Paul Meredith refusing to mention his missing paychecks to Herbert Armstrong's golden forks and Stanley Rader's silver suits, all under the guise of godliness.
And then the WCG-the real WCG-was no more. The three beautiful Ambassador campuses, the Ambassador Auditorium, the sculptures, the art-all the quality possessions that were thought to reflect godly character are now possessed by ministers whose theology amounts to advocating the breaking of the Commandments.
Can we identify with the feelings of the disobedient Jews when the temple was destroyed?
This is the deceit of riches, isn't it? You are deceived only if you think you're not.
"And the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful."
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