Doctrinal changes shake church
The startling epiphany by Armstrong's successors has shaken the church to its doctrinal foundations, scattered members and divided families and friends.
For those who have embraced the changes, the church's transformation is nothing less than a Protestant Reformation in miniature. They rejoice as the once cultlike institution founded in 1934 as the Radio Church of God moves toward mainstream evangelical Protestantism.
But members of the old guard call it the work of the devil. They warn that, unless the church turns from its "rebellion," its apostate members will face the Great Tribulation foretold in the Bible that is to precede the rule of Christ.
Indeed, the changes at Worldwide are seen as a sign that the end is near by Rod Meredith, a former high-ranking evangelist who left to form the Global Church of God, headquartered near San Diego, which now claims 7,000 members.
"We read in the Bible, you know, that Satan is the god of this age. He's going to be moving very powerfully at the end of this age, and the world reflects that," Meredith said.
"There's a constant feeling now of rebellion . . . I think that's reflected a little way in this current situation where they [Worldwide leaders] have rebelled against the truth of God. We didn't [leave] to rebel against them. After all, who changed? . . . They're the ones that changed the doctrine."
Splinter groups spawned
Fully a third of Worldwide's 104,000 members-including 150 of its 400 ministers-have joined one of at least eight breakaway denominations that remain true to Armstrong's vision, including Global and the Arcadia-based United Church of God, headed by Worldwide's former public-affairs director, David Hulme, which reports 17,450 members.
The exodus and reduction in tithes and offerings have forced the Worldwide Church to make drastic cuts in its operating budget. Its prime 56-acre headquarters campus in Pasadena is up for sale. Its critically acclaimed concert series at Ambassador Auditorium has been canceled, and the Pasadena campus of Ambassador College has been shut down. Even Armstrong's personal silverware has been auctioned off.
Then, in September, the man who steered the church onto its new course, Pastor General Joseph W. Tkach Sr., died of cancer, leaving to his son and a handful of trusted advisers the formidable task of moving the church into the Christian mainstream.
Theologians and sociologists say that the upheaval offers a fascinating case study of what happens to institutions and people when the theological rug is pulled out from under them.
Change often sweeps through a sect after a charismatic leader such as Armstrong dies. There are fewer restraints on questioning old dogmas, especially for younger members. For their parents, the old teachings were a means of asserting the group's identity and its unique place in God's plan. But, among their children, the same tenets that bound them together in a community of shared values and lifestyles also isolated them from the mainstream.
Breathtaking theological shifts
The theological shifts within the Worldwide Church of God have been breathtaking.
"This is very radical in terms of changes within a single religious organization," said Wade Clark Roof, professor of religion and society at UC Santa Barbara.
Contrary to Armstrong's teachings, there is no longer a belief that England and the United States, and their Anglo-Saxon inhabitants, constitute two of the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel and as such are among God's chosen people.
The church no longer rejects the mainstream Christian Trinitarian doctrine of God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It no longer teaches that its members are born again at a resurrection into God's family and thus become gods themselves, although not equal with God.
It still worships on Saturday instead of Sunday, unlike most other Christian churches, but Sabbath-keeping is no longer seen as essential to salvation. Christmas and Easter are not yet officially observed, but members are now free to celebrate those holidays without fear of going to hell.
Saved by grace
But of all the changes, none was more momentous than the church's acceptance of mainstream Protestantism's central tenet: that humans are saved not by their good deeds and conduct in life but solely by the grace of God.
The startling changes in church doctrine began subtly about 1986, a process that one reformer described as "darkness slowly turning to light" as church leaders began theological studies at Azusa Pacific University, a private institution affiliated with evangelical denominations.
"What's happening in the Worldwide Church of God today is the result of repentance, deep and heartfelt soul-searching and people coming to their Lord and Savior-coming to the cross," said Greg R. Albrecht, editor of the church's Plain Truth magazine.
Albrecht is among a cadre of men who grew up in the church and are now leading the reform, including new Pastor General Joseph Tkach Jr., 43, and J. Michael Feazell, 43, executive assistant to Tkach. Their studies convinced them that Armstrong-a man whom the church had proclaimed as God's end-time Elijah-had been wrong.
Most noticeable to outsiders, the church no longer engages in prophecy. For years, Armstrong had fascinated millions of television viewers on his The World Tomorrow television program (which is no longer on the air), and readers of Plain Truth magazine with his statements that the Great Tribulation foretold in the Bible and Christ's Second Coming were imminent.
First he predicted that the end times would occur in the 1930s. Then it was the 1940s. Then it was to be in the 1970s, when Germany would rise again in a new United States of Europe that would mount a nuclear attack against the United States.
"Those things are obviously wrong," said Feazell. "You can't just keep on saying, 'Well, we just had the timing wrong but the framework is right.' "
Now, he said, "we repudiate the use of Bible prophecy . . . as some sort of a way to decide when the end is going to come, what nations are involved and all that kind of thing. We've done that for decades, and we don't do that anymore."
That has led Worldwide's new leaders to question other church practices as well, from the prohibition against birthday celebrations to the edict that women could not use cosmetics.
"You see this consistent set of errors being made, of misreading of Scriptures, a misinterpretation of history, inconsistent logic and, wow, you begin to ask, how many more teachings [are wrong]," Tkach said.
This is not the first time the Worldwide Church of God has faced controversy.
Some of its leading members, including Armstrong, were embroiled in contentious divorces that were widely publicized.
In 1978 Armstrong had a falling out with his son, Garner Ted Armstrong, who was then excommunicated. The son organized his own church in Tyler, Texas, the Church of God International, but stepped down as leader of that church last week after he was sued by a woman who charged that he sexually assaulted her during two massage sessions.
And in 1979 and 1980, the state of California placed the church under receivership over charges-never proved and later dismissed-of financial irregularities. The investigation was dropped after the church persuaded the Legislature to enact a law prohibiting the attorney general from investigating religious organizations in such cases.
Changes split families
Still, this transformation in the church's basic teachings has shaken thousands of its members and ministers, who have bolted amid cries of betrayal and warnings to those who stay behind that they face divine punishment. The split in the church has reverberated in the lives of families such as William Whiteaker's of Coos Bay, Ore. His stepdaughter, Tara Whaley of Chapel Hill, Tenn., has embraced the new-and to him blasphemous-changes in Worldwide's teachings. After 23 years in the Worldwide Church, Whiteaker has left to join the new Global Church of God.
In separate interviews, both recounted a painful long-distance telephone call.
"He yelled and hollered that if I did not wake up to the truth I was going to hell and to the tribulations," Whaley said.
Now, Whiteaker said, he lies awake at night agonizing over his stepdaughter's embrace of their church's new doctrines. To keep peace in the family, the topic of religion has become off limits.
"It's very tough for my wife and I both," said Whiteaker, who at 51 is disabled from post-polio syndrome. "That's all we used to talk about . . . Religion to us is a way of life."
All sides in the splintered church use Armstrong's name and sayings to justify their positions. Worldwide's new leaders have tried to make the shifts easier by noting that Armstrong always said all truth must be proved by Scripture.
But, at a recent meeting of new Global ministers, Meredith railed against the changes. He told the pastors-many of them still trying to decide whether to leave Worldwide-that Armstrong would have been shocked.
"You read the whole New Testament carefully," Meredith told them. "God talks about the truth! The truth! The truth! If any of you find one single, solitary scripture where He says stay with a church, stay with an organization, in that way, . . . you tell me."
But, while the Worldwide leaders have been castigated by the breakaway groups, the changes they have put forth have been welcomed by mainline evangelical leaders.
"From a theological perspective I think they're positive and courageous," said Paul Pierson, dean emeritus and professor of history at the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, an evangelical institution. "I believe the changes came as a result of the new leadership taking the Scriptures seriously," he said.
Few are willing to predict what the future holds for the Worldwide Church of God. Recurring rumors, so far denied by the church, are that it will declare bankruptcy.
If the church does survive, it will probably be smaller, and its members will be little different from those found in mainline evangelical denominations, academics say.
The church's new leadership says it is undaunted. "If five people answer God's call and repent from error, I think God is happy," Tkach said. "But there's no hiding the fact that there is anguish that our membership and ministers feel. It's not easy to hear that something that you've held as . . . truth for 25 to 30 years of your life is erroneous."