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WCG church government history traced up to Tkach era
(second of two installments)

By John Robinson

In our last issue we promised the second and final installment of an article on the history of church government in the Worldwide Church of God.

Since this is our last regular issue (and perhaps our final issue), our staff felt we had no choice but to keep our promise. But they left me only one page.

As you can already tell, I'm taking a less-formal approach this time-for several reasons. First, with all the details of all 32 pages of our last issue, I simply ran out of time to do as thorough a job as I wanted to to. Second, we ran out of space. There was, as always, just too much material for the issue.

Since there is so much remaining to say on the subject, I can cover only some of the high spots. In this installment I'll address the post-1960 WCG. I'll write in most cases from firsthand experience. I lived most of the events I'll discuss.

I entered Ambassador College in the fall of 1962 and was employed full-time by the church or college for the next 20 years. After graduation I spent the next 16 years as a full-time employee, until 1982. In 1968 I was ordained an elder and remained a WCG elder until I stopped attending the WCG early in 1995.

The 1960s much the same as '50s

I won't rehash the first installment..

Although many elders, if not most, were kind, compassionate, wonderful ministers in those days, there were too many who were Hitlerian. Shamefully, some ministers even inspected kitchen cupboards for white sugar. (The '60s were the brown-is-beautiful days when the recommended church diet included brown sugar, whole-wheat flour and brown rice.)

Too many young ministers who were neither physicians nor businessmen offered diagnoses and cures for both health and business problems. Few if any were insincere, but many brethren paid a stiff price. The justification of the day for bad ministerial advice was that God honored your attitude, and even if you followed bad advice from God's servant He would take care of you.

Through the 1960s the church grew in income and members. A massive building program was initiated at church headquarters.

Mrs. Armstrong dies

Early in 1967 Loma Armstrong fell ill and died in the spring of the year. Mrs. Armstrong was deeply loved and respected by most of the church. She played a key, and at the same time retiring, role in her husband's ministry. Everyone took her death hard.

Not long after Mrs. Armstrong's death, Mr. Armstrong began traveling more than he ever had before. In 1968 he purchased a Falcon Fan Jet and a few years later a Grumman Gulfstream II, suitable for flights overseas.

After Mrs. Armstrong died, Stanley R. Rader, the church's nonmember general council and adviser to Mr. Armstrong, grew more influential. At first a part-time adviser, increasingly he spent time with Mr. Armstrong and finally became a full-time employee. Years later he was baptized, and a short time later Mr. Armstrong ordained him an evangelist.

The 1972 syndrome

As early as 1953 Mr. Armstrong said the church could be taken to a place of physical safety in 1972. Later he wrote the booklet 1975 in Prophecy. As I pointed out in the first installment, the doctrines that linked church membership to protection from the end-time holocaust served to motivate brethren to accept strong church government.

As 1972 drew closer, however, some began to question the time line set forth by Mr. Armstrong and Herman L. Hoeh, the chief architect of the church's teachings on government and prophetic understanding.

The first high-profile minister to do so was Roderick C. Meredith, then head of the WCG ministers and now presiding evangelist and founder of the Global Church of God. In the late 1960s Mr. Meredith wrote in a letter to the ministry that he felt there was "more time left than we had expected."

To his credit, Mr. Meredith tackled the issue head on and began to influence members to rethink the issue.

But fleeing to Petra was a priority in the minds of thousands of brethren in the WCG. Later, church leaders would say: "But we never set dates." Most members who lived through those days would say otherwise.

How does the 1972 syndrome impact church government?

As the brethren awakened to the fact that the church had been wrong in its prophetic scenario, they became less willing to submit themselves to heavy-handed authority.

Kinder and gentler church

The '70s have been characterized by some as a time of a great liberalization in the WCG. Garner Ted Armstrong began to stress personal evangelism and to try to encourage the church to be more open.

Herbert Armstrong ostensibly agreed with his son's direction, at least for a time. But in the end the two became locked in a power struggle, each discounting the other's role in the great commission.

Four years later the elder Mr. Armstrong finally rejected his son for good, saying his son didn't support him. He and Garner Ted remained unreconciled at the time of his death.

In exiling Garner Ted, Mr. Armstrong branded his son as a liberal who had tried to water down truth.

Setting things back on track

If ever Mr. Armstrong had been reluctant to claim the office of apostle, such was not the case in the late 1970s and early '80s. After having taught against the primacy-of-Peter doctrine, he aggressively embraced the teaching and hammered home his apostolic authority.

He was greatly aided in the effort by evangelist Gerald Waterhouse.

If Dr. Hoeh was the chief architect of the teaching on church government in the 1950s and 1960s, it was Mr. Waterhouse more than any other who carried the banner through the 1970s, '80s and into the '90s.

Mr. Waterhouse relentlessly preached church government. It's simple, he told congregations literally around the world: Keep your eyes on the apostle [Mr. Armstrong]. Follow him. Don't worry about what he does. Even if he's wrong, he's right. If there's a problem, Christ will fix it. It's so simple a child can understand it.

Mr. Waterhouse, an energetic, highly effective public speaker, developed a script that he delivered repeatedly, with little change, to congregation after congregation. With Mr. Armstrong's blessing, he made multiple around-the-world tours, visiting all or virtually all of the congregations.

His vivid imagination and colorful speculations about end-time events captivated thousands of WCG members. He intrigued the vast majority of members and inspired fierce loyalty among a core audience.

He kept alive the early teachings about Petra as the place of safety from the end-time wrath of God. With great power and conviction he painted scenario after scenario in glorious detail.

What would determine whether you were taken to Petra was your willingness to submit yourself to church government. One of Mr. Waterhouse's scenarios was that brethren would be taken to Jordan aboard DC-10 jumbo jets that had eight-inch cracks in the fuselage. The damaged aircraft would be kept together by angels.

Asking brethren to fly on aircraft judged unsafe, as ascertained through human means, would show faith in God and His government as exercised through the church.

The dilemma of picking a successor

Who would replace Mr. Armstrong as head of the church was mostly a theoretical question for many years. Many if not most church members expected Mr. Armstrong to live until the return of Christ. But, as time marched on, it became a bigger and bigger issue in the 1980s.

A handful of church members, but few ministers, speculated that Mr. Rader would succeed Mr. Armstrong. Mr. Rader did little to spike the speculation.

In 1980 Mr. Rader, in his book, Against the Gates of Hell, beginning on page 20, wrote:

"Despite widespread speculation, fueled by Garner Ted, that I was Herbert Armstrong's 'heir apparent,' the pastor general could no more name me as his successor than the spiritual ruler of the Roman Catholic Church could designate the next pope before he dies. A conclave of the College of Cardinals selects the person who will sit upon the throne of Saint Peter. In the Worldwide Church of God, it is God alone who chooses in His own way and in His own time."

Within a few years Mr. Rader was gone from the WCG hierarchy, if not the payroll. By the early mid-'80s it became increasingly obvious that Mr. Armstrong was not going to live until Christ's return.

Speculation about who would next lead the church again picked up steam.

After going back and forth on the issue for years as to whether he could name his successor, he finally named Mr. Tkach late in 1995.

A few weeks later Mr. Armstrong died, on Jan. 16, 1986.

In the Dec. 16, 1996, issue of In Transition, an article titled "Mr. Armstrong's Aide Remembers Him, Mr. Tkach," recounts Aaron Dean's characterization of the process whereby Mr. Tkach was selected. Mr. Dean's account is worth reading, at the very least for its historical value.

Mr. Tkach wanted all of Mr. Armstrong's powers

Mr. Armstrong intended Mr. Tkach, after his death, to answer to the WCG council of elders regarding doctrinal matters, according to Mr. Dean in a Jan. 29 interview.

Both Mr. Dean and Larry Salyer, who worked with Mr. Tkach at the time and is now editorial director for the Global Church of God, say that Mr. Tkach within months of Mr. Armstrong's death grew obsessive about the limitations Mr. Armstrong intended for him to labor under.

Mr. Salyer said Mr. Tkach demanded that WCG lawyer Ralph Helge make changes necessary to give him all of Mr. Armstrong's titles and powers.

Former WCG insiders say that the council of elders enabled Mr. Tkach to accomplish his desire. After all, they were used to top-down government and following orders.

Seeds of destruction

The fruits of Mr. Armstrong's choice of a successor are now a matter of record.

I'd like to share with you a concept about government that I first learned from Dr. Hoeh in the mid-'70s. At the time I was editing The Worldwide News and from time to time, in those days, talked with Dr. Hoeh.

At that time in my life, for whatever reason, I had been reflecting on the forms of human government. I was down on democracy and rather infatuated with the concept of benevolent dictatorships. I mentioned my then-current feelings to Dr. Hoeh.

He listened and then quietly explained: "Every form of human government has sown within it the seeds of its own destruction."

As I recall, to illustrate his point he specifically addressed first aristocracies and then went on to reinforce my concerns about democracies. But then he returned abruptly to the topic I'd raised.

"With benevolent dictatorships," Dr. Hoeh said, "the problem is: Who will succeed the dictator?"

What is the ideal?

What is the ideal form of church government? The debate has raged for millennia. For those who still defend the WCG format on the strength of Mr. Armstrong's later writings, I offer you a final story in closing. The story will mean different things to different people, but I think it's an interesting piece of history. I tell it without commentary.

In the Jan. 22, 1996, issue of this newspaper, in an essay titled "Let's Stop the Rancor Over Ministerial Rank," the author, Larry Walker, a part-time UCG elder who lives in Bend, Ore., wrote:

"Mr. Armstrong confessed to a younger minister in 1975 that, in retrospect, he felt that the concept of church government he wrote about in 1939 would have worked, but he had been afraid he would lose control."

That's quite an admission. Perhaps he would have lost control; we'll never know.

Mr. Walker did not name the minister, but I subsequently contacted him and he told me the man he quoted was Marc Courtenay, formerly Marc Segall.

Mr. Courtenay, who now lives in Santa Barbara, Calif., graduated from Ambassador College in 1973. He was ordained in October 1975 and served as a full-time WCG elder for 20 years.

I contacted him and asked him if Mr. Walker's characterization of the conversation with Mr. Armstrong was accurate. He said it was.

He said he was seated next to Mr. Armstrong during a meal when the conversation took place. Mr. Courtenay said he had at the time recently read Mr. Armstrong's 1939 article on government.

"I asked Mr. Armstrong about the article," Mr. Courtenay recounted. "At first he gave me the standard explanation that he hadn't fully understood government at the time." Mr. Courtenay said he then gently pressed Mr. Armstrong on the issue and asked him again about the article.

He said Mr. Armstrong became reflective and then gave him a more thoughtful, candid response.

He said the New Testament reflected a collegial approach to church government and that what he wrote in 1939 was the ideal. Mr. Courtenay said Mr. Armstrong added that if he had had more faith he would have continued that practice, but he "was afraid of losing control."

I asked Mr. Courtenay if anyone else heard the conversation. He said his wife, Lisa, had. I talked with her at length on the phone Jan. 28. She said the conversation was as her husband remembered.

"It was on the day Marc was ordained," she recalled. "In fact, Mr. Armstrong ordained Marc. After the ordination we were at a restaurant eating with Mr. Armstrong and some other ministers."

She said she remembers the conversation clearly. She said there were times when Mr. Armstrong would speak candidly, and that was one of them.

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