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History of church government in Worldwide Church of God
(first of two installments)

By John Robinson

The Worldwide Church of God did not always embrace the stringent pyramid form of church government it practices today. I know from firsthand experience.

I was only 5 when I attended my first service with the Radio Church of God, as it was known until 1968. In 1950 I attended with my parents the Feast of Tabernacles in Belknap Springs, Ore., east of Eugene. We met in a rustic lodge that overlooked the McKenzie River.

It was a small group; fewer than 100 people attended that year. Herbert W. Armstrong gave all the sermons and ate meals with all of us in the community dining room. At that, my first Feast, I distinctly remember Mr. Armstrong praying for me and laying hands on me during the blessing-of-little-children ceremony, if you can call a 5-year-old standing in a chair little! I clearly remember seeing him during the Feast sitting alone eating breakfast shortly before services.

I sat down across the table from him and spoke to him. He was friendly and talkative in response. I watched as he drank three cups of coffee during the short time I sat there with him. I especially noted the coffee because he had mentioned in a previous sermon the ideal of only one cup a day. I had sneaked a taste of coffee once in my young life and hated it, so the relevance of adults craving coffee was lost on me.

As we chatted, I pointed out to him a huge rock that sometime during the night had crashed down the mountainside into the river. I was a proud young boy later that morning when Mr. Armstrong mentioned in his sermon the rock that I had told him about.

Calling ministers by first names

Four years after my first Feast, in 1954, Raymond C. Cole, one of the WCG's original evangelists, founded a congregation in South Texas, where I grew up. (Two decades later Mr. Cole would leave the WCG over doctrinal differences and found the Church of God the Eternal.)

C. Wayne Cole, Raymond's younger brother, replaced his brother as pastor shortly thereafter. Wayne Cole was a 1954 graduate of Ambassador, and the South Texas church was his first pastorate. The younger Mr. Cole is now an unpaid minister of the United Church of God living in Tyler, Texas.

The 1950s--especially the first half--were a time of little formality in the local churches. The Cole brothers and their wives were all in their 20s. I was 9 in 1954, and, like the other boys and girls in the church, we and our parents called the ministers and their wives by their first names. It was Raymond and Myra this and Wayne and Doris that.

But in the 1950s ministers began to instruct members to begin having members refer to them as Mr.

Both Wayne Cole and Roderick C. Meredith, an early student who is now presiding evangelist for the Global Church of God, said recently that Mr. Armstrong set that policy.

Mr. Cole said it was while he was pastoring in south Texas that he talked to a member, Bill Seelig, who was within two years of his age, and told him Mr. Armstrong wanted the ministers to be called Mr.

To show respect for the ministry, brethren were not only to address all ministers as Mr., but were also to call their wives Mrs.

The brethren, in an attempt to respond to the example of their leadership, began calling each other by Mr. and Mrs., and a few wives actually claimed to address their husbands as Mr., even in the privacy of their homes.

But in the early '50s the protocol of the day was relaxed. Laymen wore sport shirts or even more-casual dress to services. But brethren by the mid-'50s were encourage to dress more formally.

Dr. Meredith said recently what motivated Mr. Armstrong to stress more formally was his desire to raise overall standards of the growing organization, which had only recently come out of rural Oregon.

Clearly the culture he created had an up side, in that many people learned to dress and improve themselves economically.

But, to a young boy growing up in the casual atmosphere of the church in the first half of the '50s, these and other changes that were beginning to take place at church headquarters and subsequently ripple out to the congregations I did not come to understand until years later.

Amateur WCG historian

Off and on for decades I've been an amateur WCG historian. I have a considerable church-literature library, and I have been fortunate enough to talk to dozens of former Ambassador College students of the 1950s about the early days.

I have also been able to process that information against the backdrop of 45 years of WCG attendance, including 16 years of full-time WCG employment. As a result, I've come to appreciate the impact of the many watershed events of the 1950s and their resulting effect on the WCG.

I understand that some will not share my perspective, but I invite them to write In Transition and share with our readers how they saw it.

More democratic style

We learn from Mr. Armstrong's early writings that he began his work with a largely democratic approach.

Nowhere is this made more plain than in a 6,000-plus-word article he wrote in 1939 titled "Did Christ Reorganize the Church?" The item appeared in a publication called Good News of the Kingdom, an apparent antecedent of of The Good News magazine that was published regularly beginning April 1951.

While it's not exactly correct to call this a Good News article, this piece is a valuable historical reference to Mr. Armstrong's approach to government at the time. In it he thoroughly condemns centralized, hierarchical church government, and he supports the autonomy of congregations.

Dr. Meredith points out that Mr. Armstrong wrote this early in his ministry. He says Mr. Armstrong told him that the article was written in haste as a rebuttal against church leaders of his day who were imposing their will on the church.

Regardless of the perspective, Mr. Armstrong wrote (the emphasis here is Mr. Armstrong's): "An apostle does not mean one in authority, but one under authority--one sent by the authority of another! The only power and authority Jesus ever gave even to his original twelve was to heal the sick, and cast out demons. And he sent them, not to rule, but to preach--not to bear authority, but to minister, to serve!"

Later in the same article Mr. Armstrong addressed the New Testament form of church government under the subhead "Jesus' Teaching on Church Government":

"There is not one single hint in the New Testament of any Church board with authority to rule, to govern, to decide doctrine, or to handle tithes and church finances (the whole church). In a later number we shall devote an article to explaining Acts 15, which certainly sets no such example.

"Jesus never organized, or re-organized his Church! There is no scripture for it!

"All authority and power to rule is limited solely to each local congregation. But there is no Bible authority for any super-government, or organization with authority over the local congregations!

"The plain teaching of Jesus is just the contrary! Listen! 'Jesus called them unto him, and saith unto them, "Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them. But so shall it not be among you" (Mark 10:42).'"

Mr. Armstrong in the 1939 article asked: Where did church government originate?

Calls church government the image of the Beast

He said it came out of spiritual Babylon, which he identified as Rome. He wrote that Constantine through the Council of Nicea introduced the concept of church government.

"Thus Thus [sic] it was Constantine--the 'beast'--who injected and introduced into the Church the idea of a board to decide doctrine, and to rule.

"Thus it was that Constantine made doctrine, as decided by a higher-up board, the basis of fellowship and unity in the Church! . . .

"Thus was church government introduced into the Western world a century after Constantine (the 'Beast') injected the idea of church boards to decide what doctrines the rest of the church must believe. And thus the very principle of church government becomes the image of the beast!"

Although Mr. Armstrong's perspective on church government would eventually shift a full 180 degrees from what he had expressed in 1939, it would do so in gradual but snowballing steps over the next four decades.

Readers interested in learning more about the early ministry of Mr. Armstrong may find helpful a book titled Early Writings of Herbert W. Armstrong, a 248-page, 812-by-11-inch volume published by Richard Nickels (In Transition, May 27). This carefully prepared work contains about 30 of Mr. Armstrong's writings, including the 1939 article on church government quoted in this article. It's available from Giving & Sharing for $9 by calling (888) 687-5191. In an appendix Mr. Nickels takes a hard, but in my opinion fair, look at Mr. Armstrong and the organization he built.

Mr. Armstrong had limited success building an organization for the first two decades of his work. He was effective in getting people's attention through his radio broadcasts and evangelistic campaigns. He could also start congregations, but brethren would begin to leave once he had moved on to the next area or the next project.

Much of his early ministry was driven by predictions of the end of the age. As the storm gathered over Europe that would become World War II, Mr. Armstrong told brethren to forget about the prophetic significance of Adolf Hitler. Instead, he admonished readers and listeners to concentrate on Italy's fascist premier, Benito Mussolini. Mr. Armstrong taught and preached that Mr. Mussolini, not the German fuehrer, would be the Beast prophesied in the book of Revelation.

Later, as events unfolded, Mr. Armstrong turned his attention to Hitler and kept the spotlight on him well into the 1960s. He strongly speculated that Hitler was alive and probably living in South America, preparing to return to lead a reunified Germany, which would be the head of a unified European Beast power.

However, by the end of World War II it was clear that World War II was not an immediate precursor to the end of the age as he had taught.

Moving to California and building a team

The Radio Church of God was for the first 15 years essentially a one-man work. Better said, it was a one-man and one-woman work. The first Mrs. Armstrong, Loma, who died in 1967, was an integral part of Mr. Armstrong's ministry, and some early insiders credit her with being a profoundly stabilizing influence on her husband.

Shortly after the war Mr. Armstrong decided to move to Southern California and start a college. He said one of the attractions of that geographical area was the rich resources in electronic media in and around Hollywood.

He wrote of his plans to supporters and even included in one coworker letter a survey asking coworkers' opinions about which of two sites he was considering.

In 1947 Mr. Armstrong founded Ambassador College with four students: Mr. Armstrong's older of two sons, Richard David, who died in 1958 as a result of injuries sustained in an automobile accident; Herman Louie Hoeh; Betty Bates; and Raymond Cole. The college struggled financially and otherwise but kept operating.

Enrollment increased with early students such as Norman A. Smith, Mr. Meredith, Bob Seelig, Herbert Burk McNair and his wife-to-be, Billie Sue Sanders.

The first graduation was June 15, 1951, in which Miss Bates and Mr. Hoeh graduated. Although growth was slow at first, Ambassador began training and graduating laborers for Mr. Armstrong's ministry.

Students in their late teens and early 20s began preaching, serving as interim pastors and participating in nationwide baptizing tours. Mr. Hoeh was listed as a faculty member in the fall of 1951, after graduating in June.

RCG publication efforts benefited greatly from Ambassador. Before Ambassador students began helping with the production of church publications, issues appeared sporadically. Sometimes there would be gaps in publishing of months or even years.

By the early '50s, thanks to the fruit of Ambassador College, Mr. Armstrong's work was picking up steam. Seemingly, his work had finally reached a critical mass, and the church began to explode with significant growth in income and membership.

Although the RCG after 16 years had a total Feast of Tabernacles attendance of fewer than 100, within the next five years it would enjoy a 15-fold increase. And the greatest growth was yet to come.

But the growth spawned through the newly founded college also began to alter the personality of the organization. Several streams of influence converged in the early 1950s to change the tenor of Mr. Armstrong's work.

Mentor and spiritual guide

When Mr. Armstrong began Ambassador College in 1947, he was in his mid-50s. Most of the first students were still teenagers when they arrived on campus. As is the case today, and it was probably more so in the 1950s, young students often seek mentors, and Mr. Armstrong for many Ambassador students became not only a mentor but a spiritual guide.

Mr. Armstrong was eagerly embraced by young students. They saw him as a man of God; they placed him on a pedestal. Many hung on his every word.

For example, some student leaders talked among themselves and agreed that Mr. Armstrong, as a man of God, needed to be respected. Student leaders decided that they and their fellow students should stand when Mr. Armstrong walked into the classroom. This became a custom, which Mr. Armstrong permitted.

By the early 1950s some students began referring to him as an apostle.

Two of the most visible of those who especially esteemed Mr. Armstrong were Mr. Hoeh and Mr. Meredith. Both men were prolific writers for the publications and increasingly influential in the church.

In late 1952 and early 1953 Mr. Armstrong ordained the first Ambassador-trained elders. Seven men were ordained, six of whom were in their 20s. Mr. Armstrong would later conclude that these men had been ordained to the office of evangelist, though at the time they were simply called elders.

On Dec. 20, 1952, Mr. Armstrong ordained Richard Armstrong, Raymond Cole, Mr. Hoeh, Mr. Meredith, and Dr. C. Paul Meredith, an older student who was the uncle of Roderick Meredith.

Sightly more than a month later, on Jan. 30, 1953, two other young men, Marion Joel McNair and Raymond Franklin McNair, were also ordained, after their midterm graduation from Ambassador.

During the time that Mr. Hoeh and Roderick Meredith were working closely with Mr. Armstrong, his younger son, Garner Ted, was serving in the U.S. Navy. Garner Ted would later characterized his joining the navy as an act of rebellion against his father.

I remember seeing Ted for the first time at the Feast of Tabernacles in Siegler Springs, Calif., in 1952. He was standing on the edge the swimming pool, about to race two Ambassador students. As a 7-year-old boy I couldn't help but notice his tattoos.

His father was clearly not pleased with his son's early choices and perhaps Mr. Armstrong saw the Rod Merediths and Herman Hoehs of the college as surrogate sons. Regardless, Mr. Armstrong's early disappointment with Ted, contrasted with the adoration of the young college men, fostered a tension not only between father and son, but between Garner Ted and some of the other early student leaders.

Those feelings simmered under the surface for the next two decades and more. This tension was further exacerbated in the early 1970s and finally brought to a boil when Garner Ted Armstrong was disciplined by his father for alleged sexual misconduct.

No photos allowed

Those who knew him well had little doubt that Mr. Armstrong was probably always by nature dictatorial and enjoyed the limelight. But, during the first 20 years of his ministry, he seemed to have subordinated those natural tendencies. Loma was no doubt a restraining influence. She was not one to put on airs, and she did not support her husband when he did.

Whether it was Mrs. Armstrong's idea or not, Mr. Armstrong did not allow photographs of himself or his family to be published for the first two decades of his ministry, until 1951, just four years after Ambassador College began.

On page 7 of the November 1951 issue of The Good News (which by then bore a positioning statement: "The National Magazine of Ambassador College") were photos of Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong.

The caption read: "You asked for it--10,000 of you [possibly an exaggeration] have demanded Mr. Armstrong's picture. For the first time in the 18 years of this work, he has finally consented. Here are four pages of pictures of Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong, faculty and students, and the campus of Ambassador College."

Mr. Armstrong's earlier policy of not allowing published photos of himself stands in stark contrast to his approach to photos in the final two decades of his ministry.

Accepting apostleship--reluctantly at first

The first time Herbert Armstrong was called an apostle in public was in a sermon in 1951 during the Feast of Tabernacles.

"The first proclamation before the church that God had filled the office of apostle was made by Herman Hoeh in his sermon at the Feast of Tabernacles at Belknap Springs, Oregon, in 1951," Mr. Armstrong wrote of the incident a few years later in the February-March 1955 issue of The Good News.

Mr. Armstrong revealed that Mr. Hoeh had not consulted him about what he was going to announce in his sermon. "I had no inkling of what he was to say," Mr. Armstrong wrote.

"At that time his words hit my startled ears like an atomic bomb and my first impulse was to deny and correct his statement immediately. Only propriety restrained this impulse. I felt Mr. Hoeh was just a little young and carried away with himself. Never in my life had I thought of occupying such an office."

But, in the 1955 Good News article, he acknowledged his apostleship.

"But in the light of events the fact of how God has set up His church today has become self-evident to all. It is God's doing. If one does find, unexpectedly, that God has set him such an office, there is only one choice--he must accept it with full humility realizing personal lack, and surrendering the self totally to God as an instrument in His hands, relying wholly on God for guidance and every power and need."

To Mr. Armstrong's credit, he did not dwell on his apostleship for the next 20 years. For most of the next two decades, he would rarely call himself an apostle. He did, however, with increasing frequency over those years call himself "the one you [the ministers and other brethren] call an apostle."

By the 1970s he was calling himself an apostle with growing frequency. In his final decade of life, he often billed himself as the "sole apostle of the 20th century."

God's complete government restored in church

What sparked the comments in the 1955 GN about his apostleship were reports of recent ordinations.

Mr. Armstrong wrote in the lead story of this issue of The Good News, in an article titled "Six More Ministers Now Ordained," that "for the first time in 750 years God's complete government is restored to His Church."

Drawing on not untypical hyperbole, he wrote that the Sabbath of Jan. 22, 1955, would go down in "the eternal history of God's Church and His Kingdom" because on that day every administrative office of the church had been recognized and filled. The ranks, in descending order, were apostle, evangelist, pastor, minister-elder (preaching elder), deacon and deaconess.

Ordained that Sabbath were the first deaconess, Annie M. Mann, and a deacon, Edward E. Eckert. Ordained as "preaching or minister-elders" were Burk McNair and George A. Meeker. Dean C. Blackwell was raised in rank from minister-elder to pastor. Garner Ted Armstrong, Wayne Cole and Mr. Smith were ordained pastors.

In this article Mr. Armstrong said he was the first apostle since Peter Waldo, who some historians say was not a Sabbath-keeper.

Calling the 12th-century French preacher an apostle and assuming a connection between the Waldensians and the Radio Church of God, Mr. Armstrong said some, but not all, of the proper offices had continued in the ensuing eight centuries. He cited Mr. Hoeh's research on the history of the "true church."

Mr. Armstrong said the office of prophet carried no "administrative power," and, since the Scriptures are now complete, "there seems no need for prophets today."

Drawing from the perceived model of Waldo's organization, Mr. Armstrong outlined the pyramid of offices in the church: Christ at the head, followed by apostles, evangelists, pastors, minister-elders, nonpreaching elders, deacons and deaconesses. These all ruled over the unordained brethren.

Primacy of James

In the next issue of The Good News, August 1953, Mr. Hoeh wrote an article titled "Government in Our Church."

At least two points bear repeating: (1) He identifies James, the half brother of Jesus, as the chief apostle in the account of the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15, thus on a technicality rejecting the primacy-of-Peter doctrine employed principally by Roman Catholics. This would remain the teaching of the WCG for at least the next 20 years. Mr. Armstrong would in the late 1970s modify this teaching and embrace the primacy of Peter. (2) He again identifies Mr. Armstrong as an apostle:

"How plain it is that God rules our church. The congregations are ruled by the elders, who are ruled by the evangelists, and they are ruled by the apostle who is ruled by Christ who is ruled by God. All offices are appointive, by a superior office. It is government from God down to each individual member of the church."

Top-down government was enthusiastically and determinedly preached.

Even deacons, who were for a time assigned and wore armbands denoting their rank during the Feast of Tabernacles, exercised considerable authority over their unordained brethren. Many congregations also had head deacons.

Husbands ruled their wives, wives ruled their children, and, as kids growing up in the RCG, we joked about how we children ruled our pets. To say we were an authority-conscious group would be an understatement.

Prophecy-based teachings fuel top-down government

There came a series of doctrines developed in the 1950s that went arm in arm with strong government. Although the focus of this article is government, it is important to note that government became a means to an end. Mr. Armstrong taught that the end was near and that the church had reached the "gun lap." It was only through the church that the brethren could be assured physical safety from the Great Tribulation and other end-time catastrophes.

As early as 1953 Mr. Armstrong set 1975 as the possible year for the return of Jesus Christ to earth. In a sermon at the Feast of Tabernacles that year, he talked about 19-year time cycles, one of which he said probably started in 1953.

"We may have only 19 years before the Church is taken to a place of safety," Mr. Armstrong said.

I was in the audience. To this day I remember using a pencil and sheet of paper to add 19 years to my then age of 8. That meant I would be 27 years old when the Great Tribulation started. Since someone 27 years old sounded relatively ancient to me, I mentally shrugged and got on with my life.

Through the ensuing years this teaching took on greater significance.

Church eras

Also during the 1950s the Radio Church of God developed the doctrine that Revelation 2 and 3 depicted seven successive eras of the Church of God. Among other highlights, the RCG taught that the Sardis "era" depicted the Church of God (Seventh Day) that was "spiritually dead." The Philadelphia era was the RCG, and the Laodician era would come out of the RCG.

In the 1950s RCG brethren first became obsessed with Petra. Although there were almost always disclaimers in RCG church services about how "we're not absolutely certain," most members believed and talked about Petra as a prophesied literal place of safety.

In the lead article of the January 1958 GN, Mr. Hoeh wrote about a trip he and Dr. Paul Meredith took to Petra. He wrote: "We do not yet know absolutely where the prophesied place of escape may be. But the recent trips to Petra have led to uncovering important new Bible evidence strongly indicating Petra to be the probably place of safety! Petra is mentioned more often in the Bible than any other city except Jerusalem, Samaria and Babylon."

Doctrine of disfellowshipping

The CG7, out of which Mr. Armstrong's ministry sprang, did not take a hard-nosed approach to those who disagreed with them. Most CG7 brethren had a live-and-let-live approach.

The RCG in the 1950 began developing an increasingly aggressive approach toward those who disagreed with church teachings. Ministers, as their power and authority increased, held as a weapon the ability to excommunicate members. Disfellowshipped members were shunned in a fashion then employed by the Roman Catholic Church or in modern times by sects like the Amish.

The threat of being kicked out of the church was a terrifying prospect for members. To the member, it was as though the minister held his eternal destiny in his hands.

Church teaches exclusivity

Another watershed event of the 1950s was a movement to make the church exclusive, even secretive.

As early as 1953, in the July issue of The Good News, the lead article, "A New Good News," written by Mr. Armstrong announced that the magazine would be sent "only to those recognized as members of the one true Church of God.

"We ask you to help us keep The Good News exclusively a paper for real members only. Do not give or loan a copy to anybody, whether friends or relatives," Mr. Armstrong wrote.

Members were increasingly advised not to talk about what went on in services. The time and location of services was carefully guarded information. Prospective members were carefully screened by pastors and invited to services only when they "were almost ready for baptism."

This approach further isolated members from family and friends and helped build the RCG a reputation as a cult. Isolation from "the world" led nonmember East Texans in the 1960s to speculate that storm drains carried off the blood from animals sacrificed during church festivals in Big Sandy.

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