New Zealand protected by isolation
AUCKLAND, New Zealand-According to a Church of God member here who also serves as the distributor for THE JOURNAL in this country, the Worldwide Church of God in New Zealand has been less affected by the WCG's doctrinal changes of the past four years than WCG congregations in other countries.
"The New Zealand church has been protected by its isolation from the problems in the church in the past," said Bruce Porteous. "Political infighting in Pasadena, swings in doctrines, changes in church leadership have largely passed the New Zealand church by."
Mr. Porteous believes the New Zealand WCG ministry has tried to steer a middle course over the past few years, but as a result "brethren have become complacent, protected from many of the problems that the church has experienced in other parts of the world."
New Zealand reportedly had the highest per-capita readership of The Plain Truth magazine in the English-speaking world.
"Though the country is no more or less religious than other English-speaking societies," said Mr. Porteous, "the church has generally had a stable, loyal ministry and membership over the years, ever since the work began in 1960 through advertising in Reader's Digest. Throughout the history of the WCG in New Zealand, there has been emphasis on loyalty to the church, to look to headquarters at Pasadena for decisions and to obey church government.
"Unfortunately, more emphasis may have been put on church government than obeying God."
New Zealand ministers were confused in 1995, Mr. Porteous said, and unprepared for the doctrinal changes.
"It was not till a ministerial conference in mid-1995 on Australia's Gold Coast, where Joe Tkach [Jr.], Mike Feazell and Greg Albrecht convinced the Australian and New Zealand ministry to accept the changes, that the New Zealand ministry began to gradually introduce the new doctrines originating from Pasadena."
The changes came more gradually than they were coming in America, and members did not seem to be pressured to accept the new doctrines.
"One by one further changes were gradually introduced, such as the flexibility on keeping the Sabbath and it is okay to work if the family had a need, to where the Sabbath was done away."
Mr. Porteous said the New Zealand ministry was "seduced" by the new teachings, then the ministers seduced the other brethren.
"It has crept up on many unawares, where they have become torn from a false sense of loyalty to the church that they had been called to, then a gradual acceptance of trying to understand the new teachings.
"Some of the changes appeared to have made sense, and before they realized it many were compromising on keeping the Sabbath, clean and unclean meats, etc. Their consciences became blurred."
Younger members and women welcomed many of the alterations in doctrine, Mr. Porteous said, and they began to play more active roles in church services.
"Yet church attendance continued to drop, and most areas had less than half the number in attendance to a couple of years previously. Income continued to fall, but not as fast as in other parts of the world."
Throughout the time of monumental changes in the Worldwide Church of God, no ministers have resigned in New Zealand, said Mr. Porteous. All the church leadership apparently went along with the shifts in doctrine.
"One long-time minister, Lyall Johnston, was laid off because of lack of income. A single deacon resigned, living in provincial Tauranga. A few of the brethren became concerned about the continued liberalism in the church, and some joined the various splinter groups."
Most WCG spin-offs are represented in this country. Half the Christchurch church went with the Philadelphia Church of God and minister Colin Sutcliffe.
"The PCG still has an active presence in New Zealand, though Sydney-based Sutcliffe has since broken away to establish his own church, called the Church of God's Elect. He has a few followers in New Zealand, mainly ex-PCG members."
The Global Church of God had a few people join in the mid-1990s, but has not experienced great growth in this country, said Mr. Porteous.
"Without a local minister, they have had problems with division amongst their members."
The Christian Biblical Church of God's principally tape ministry, founded by American Fred Coulter, has a following of about 25 members.
The United Church of God began here after the Feast of Tabernacles in 1995 and grew under the leadership of the late David House and more recently South Africabased Peter Hawkins.
"Mr. Hawkins is currently awaiting immigration approval to migrate here," Mr. Porteous said. "United is now the largest of the splinter groups, with around 40 members."
The WCG's future in this country is uncertain. Income and church membership continue to decline, down 11.4 percent from 1996. The decline over the last four years has been steady. Many members attend only occasionally.
"Some have joined Protestant churches, while others have rejected all organized religion," said Mr. Porteous. "The New Zealand ministry appears to be distancing themselves from Pasadena and are largely running their own operation.
"However, they have largely accepted the same theology as Pasadena, rejecting the teachings of Mr. Herbert Armstrong and accepting the charismatic approach to Christianity."
© The Journal: News of the Churches of God