A Brief History of the Worldwide Church of God
In the early 1930s, Herbert Armstrong began a ministry that eventually became the Worldwide Church of God. He had many unusual doctrines. These he taught so enthusiastically that eventually more than 100,000 people attended weekly services. After he died in 1986, church leaders began to realize that many of his doctrines were not biblical. These doctrines were rejected, and the church is now in full agreement with the statement of faith of the National Association of Evangelicals. Here is the story of how the church developed and how it changed.
The New Worldwide Church of God
Jesus Christ changes lives. He can change an organization, too. This is the story of how the Lord changed the Worldwide Church of God from an unorthodox church on the fringes of Christianity, into an evangelical church that believes and teaches orthodox doctrines. The story involves both pain and joy. Thousands of members left the church. Income is less than one fourth of what it once was. But thousands of members are rejoicing with renewed zeal for their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Chapter One: A Brief History of Our Growth
The story begins in Oregon, in the 1920s. Herbert Armstrong, a newspaper advertising designer, accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior. He described it in his Autobiography:
As Herbert Armstrong studied the Bible, he came to a number of unusual conclusions. Eventually, he began to preach and to lead small groups of followers. In the early 1930s, he started a radio program and a small magazine.
Armstrong often focused on areas in which his conclusions were different from traditional doctrines. This aroused interest. He emphasized the unusual, the never-before-understood. With advertising flair, he created interest in various doctrines by teaching things that other preachers did not.
Most people did not accept his unusual views, but he persuaded a few people that traditional churches were wrong, and that he had the truth. This small group supported the radio ministry (called The World Tomorrow) and the magazine (called The P l ain Truth). Finances were tight, but the ministry gradually grew along the West Coast of the United States.
Move to Pasadena, California
In 1947, Herbert Armstrong moved to southern California so that he could have better access to the radio industry. He also began a small school to train leaders for the church — Ambassador College. Time was purchased on more and more radio stations, and the ministry continued to grow.
Since the message went out by radio throughout North America, the people who responded to the message were scattered throughout the United States and Canada. Young graduates of Ambassador College were then sent to various cities to gather the believers into small churches. The church grew rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s. The radio program was sent to England, Australia, the Philippines, Latin America, and Africa. Church offices were opened in numerous nations around the world. The name of the church was changed from “Radio Church of God” to “Worldwide Church of God."
But growth began to slow in the 1970s. Christ did not return in 1975, as many ministers had speculated. Minor doctrines were changed, weakening some members’ respect for Armstrong’s doctrinal accuracy. Armstrong’s son (now deceased), widely considered to be an heir apparent, was accused of improprieties, and he eventually left with a few thousand other members to form a different church.
Nevertheless, many people continued to be attracted to Herbert Armstrong’s style and teachings, and the church continued to grow until Armstrong died in 1986 at the age of 93. He left a denomination that numbered 120,000 people in attendance every week. Annual income was 200 million dollars. Magazine circulation was in the millions every month, and the television program was one of the top two religious programs in America.
As the Worldwide Church of God criticized traditional Christianity, it also attracted criticism. Many people considered Herbert Armstrong to be the leader of a heretical cult. Today, the leaders of the Worldwide Church of God reject Armstrong’s doctrinal errors, but we do not hide our past. Rather, we acknowledge that our errors were deep and serious, but that Christ has rescued us from them. We turn our attention now to the doctrinal mix that made Armstrong both interesting and unorthodox.
Three doctrines were instrumental in Armstrong’s conversion: 1) God is the Creator, 2) The Bible is true, and 3) The Bible does not change the Sabbath to Sunday. Armstrong was guided to this third doctrine by a member of the Church of God (Seventh Day), a small group that has some similarities to the Seventh-day Adventists.
Armstrong wanted to obey God, and he saw in Scripture that God commanded his people to keep the seventh day as a Sabbath. Although most Christians do not keep the seventh day, no one was able to prove to Armstrong that God ever authorized his people to change or ignore this commandment. Armstrong felt that he had to choose between Bible and tradition, and he chose the Bible. However, he had no seminary training, nor any disciplined study of church history, biblical interpretation, or the original languages of Scripture.
He reasoned that if traditional Christianity could be wrong about such a major topic, perhaps they were wrong on other things, too. Armstrong became skeptical of all Christian tradition, since he could not find biblical proof for many traditional doctrines. This bias against traditional orthodoxy became part of the WCG culture, and it was an advertising hook that captured many people’s interest.
Armstrong had a high respect for Scripture. If the Bible said it, he was willing to do it, no matter how difficult it might be. His zeal is commendable — and his respect for Scripture made his message more believable. “Don’t believe me,” he often said, “believe the Bible. Blow the dust off your own Bible, and read what it says.” Many people were surprised at what they found, when guided by Armstrong’s writings.
Armstrong believed that Jesus is God, but he usually gave much more emphasis to God the Father. Armstrong emphasized God’s role as Lawgiver, as One who is to be obeyed. Armstrong accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior, as a sacrifice for our sins, as divine. But he did not have the theological training to know how to reconcile the biblical data that Jesus is God and the Father is God and yet there is only one God. He mistakenly taught that God is a family, and that the Father and the Son are two beings in that family, and that when humans are resurrected, they will be members of the God Family.
Armstrong did not see biblical proof that the Holy Spirit was a distinct person, so he taught that the Holy Spirit was an impersonal force. In this, his teaching was similar to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but there is no evidence that he obtained his doctrine from them. This anti-trinitarian view had circulated in several groups.
Armstrong preached that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, but he also stressed the necessity of obeying God. An emphasis on law-keeping formed another major component of WCG culture. Armstrong believed that if a person loves God, the person will obey God’s commands. If a person does not keep the Sabbath, Armstrong concluded, then that person must not love God. Unfortunately, he viewed the Sabbath as the “test commandment” in effect, a requirement for being considered a true Christian. Other churches were false churches, children of the devil.
In addition to the weekly Sabbath, the WCG observed seven annual Sabbaths, based on Leviticus 23. Church members also avoided pork, shrimp and certain other meats (Lev. 11). They gave one tithe to support the ministry, used another to keep the annual Sabbaths, and in some years gave a third tithe to the church for its poor members. The financial requirements were high, but they also increased the levels of commitment. Where a person’s treasure is, there the heart will be also. Members of the WCG had their hearts in the church and its work.
Armstrong taught that repentance involves a change in behavior, that Christianity involves a way of life. In the WCG, this focused primarily on prohibitions. WCG members were not allowed to vote, serve in the military, marry after divorce, go to doctors, use cosmetics, or observe Christmas, Easter and birthdays. This emphasis on rules, however, meant that grace was rarely mentioned. Many members were legalistic in their relationship with God, and judgmental of other Christians.
Armstrong viewed himself as God’s apostle, leading the one true church. Armstrong had supreme doctrinal authority. If anyone was disloyal, that person would most likely be fired and expelled from the church fellowship. (Legally, Armstrong was under the authority of a board of directors, but they always supported his decisions.)
Armstrong also had many unusual ideas about prophecy, and these may have been the most attractive doctrines of all. He taught that the United States and Britain are modern descendants of the northern ten tribes of Israel, and that therefore many biblical prophecies apply to the Anglo-Saxon peoples. He saw himself as an end-time fulfillment of prophecy, with a message of warning for the “Israelite” peoples.
The Great Tribulation would soon start, he warned in the 1930s, in the 1940s, in the 1950s, in the 1960s, in the 1970s, and in the 1980s but the good news is that Christ will soon return and rule for 1,000 years. This prediction was so important to Armstrong that it became the center of the gospel. It was the reason the radio and television broadcasts were titled “The World Tomorrow.” The future utopia was the good news.
Obviously, there are a lot of doctrinal errors in this list — and we would not describe them as errors unless we understood why they were in error. We have worked hard to inform our own members about where we went wrong — and we say “we” with all honesty, for all the current leaders of the church once believed and taught these erroneous doctrines. We have all criticized other Christians as false, deceived, children of the devil.
We have much to apologize for. We are profoundly sorry that we verbally persecuted Christians and created dissention and disunity in the body of Christ. We seek forgiveness and reconciliation.
Chapter Two: A Decade of Painful Change
Much of our doctrinal foundation was faulty. And yet part of it was true. Some of our members came from other denominations, but others were unchurched people who had little previous exposure to Christianity. People came to Christ in the Worldwide Church of God, accepted his death for their sins, and trusted in him for salvation. Many lives were transformed from sin and selfishness, to service and humility. A germ of life existed inside the crust of erroneous doctrines.
After Herbert Armstrong died, that germ of life began to grow, breaking off the crust that had hidden it. It took many years — and many tears. Here’s the story:
Joseph Tkach Sr.
In 1986, shortly before he died, Herbert Armstrong appointed Joseph Tkach (pronounced Ta-cotch) to be his successor. Tkach had been a loyalist who supervised all the ministers. He did not have the magnetic personality that Armstrong did, and he assigned other people to present the television program and write the articles.
The church continued to grow slowly. In 1988, Tkach made minor doctrinal changes. He taught that it was permissible for members to go to doctors, take medicines, observe birthdays and wear cosmetics. He realized that many of the prophetic speculations, even though they made the television program and magazine interesting, couldn’t be proven from Scripture.
Questions also arose about some of the things that Armstrong had written, and some of his books were withdrawn from circulation until further study could resolve the questions. Some members were troubled that the church was no longer teaching the same things that Armstrong had, and in 1989, several thousand members left to form a new church that preserved Armstrong doctrines.
In 1990, the church peaked at 133,000 in weekly attendance. More doctrinal changes were made as Tkach realized that more of Armstrong’s unusual beliefs, though sincere, were not biblical. The focus of the gospel is Jesus Christ and grace, not prophecy or the millennium. Budgetary reductions began to affect the television broadcast. More Armstrong literature was discontinued and/or edited.
In 1991, Tkach revised the church’s explanation of what it means to be born again, noting also that humans will never become Gods. He also announced a study about the modern identity of the lost ten tribes, and accepted the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Membership, attendance, and income began to decrease slowly. In 1992, income continued to decrease, and a prominent minister and a few thousand members left to form yet another church.
In 1993, the church accepted the doctrine of the Trinity. The church declared that the cross is not a pagan symbol, that it is not a sin to have illustrations of Jesus, and that Christians may vote. Such changes may seem inconsequential to most Christians, but each change was significant for WCG members because each change attacked strongly held beliefs about how we ought to express our devotion to God. Our identity was based in how we were different from others, so each change had to be explained from the Scriptures and had to explain how previous explanations were not correct.
In 1994, the television program was cancelled and employees were laid off. The church also explained to the members that true Christians can be found in other denominations.
The most traumatic change came in December 1994: Tkach announced that Christians do not have to keep old covenant laws such as the weekly and annual Sabbaths, two and three tithes, and avoid pork, shrimp and other meats. In many ways, the Sabbath had been the foundational doctrine of the entire denomination, so this was the biggest change of all. (Click here for the text of the sermon Tkach used to announce these changes, and click here to see a menu of papers analyzing these doctrines.)
Many members did not accept these changes. After decades of understanding their identity as Christians in terms of Sabbath-keeping, and after making many sacrifices in order to keep the Sabbath, they could not easily accept the idea that it really didn’t matter. In 1995, hundreds of ministers and 12,000 members left to form a different denomination. Thousands more stopped attending any church, and many congregations were left with only half the members they used to have. Church income dropped another 50 percent, and hundreds of employees were laid off. Friends and families were split. It was a time of anguish and depression.
Something unexpected also happened: Many members, after struggling to understand the doctrinal change, began to experience a new sense of peace and joy through a renewed faith in Jesus Christ. Their identity was in him, not in the particular laws they kept. The Sabbath doctrine was changed in order to be more biblical; the result was that members became more spiritual. Members focused more on their relationship with Jesus Christ; they also had an increased interest in worship. Organizationally, the doctrinal changes had catastrophic results. But spiritually, they were the best thing that ever happened to the WCG.
Another major change also occurred in 1995: Joseph Tkach Sr. died after a brief battle with cancer. He designated his son, Joe, as his successor, and the board of directors honored this appointment. A few additional doctrines were changed later in 1995: The church officially rejected the doctrine that the Anglo-Saxons descended from the tribes of Israel, and the church permitted the observance of holidays such as Christmas and Easter.
Joseph Tkach Jr.
It was a tumultuous decade. Now, the Worldwide Church of God is about half the size it used to be. The television ministry, once one of the largest in America, is gone. The church’s magazine, Christian Odyssey, now goes to less than 20,000 subscribers. The number of employees at headquarters fell from 1,000 to 45. Our reduced income forced us to remove some pastors from the payroll, and lay pastors were appointed for small congregations.
Ambassador College/University closed because the church could no longer subsidize it, and its properties have been sold. The church’s properties in Pasadena were greatly underutilized and were sold in 2004. The denominational headquarters is now in Glendora, California.
Evangelical churches also re-evaluated their stance toward the WCG. One of the first friendly groups was the Haggard School of Theology at Azusa Pacific University. Fuller Theological Seminary also helped. Cult-watching groups such as the Christian Research Institute complimented the church when it accepted the doctrine of the Trinity. In 1995, more evangelicals embraced us as brothers in the faith. We cite the International Church of the Four Square Gospel in particular. We are grateful for those early gestures of reconciliation.
In 1996, Joe Tkach wrote an article [click here for article] apologizing to members and to all who were hurt by the church’s erroneous teachings and practices. He asked for forgiveness and cooperation. Also in 1996, Christianity Today published an article on the Worldwide Church of God —“From the Fringe to the Fold,” by Ruth Tucker [click here for article]. And in 1997, the church was accepted as a member of the National Association of Evangelicals. [click here for press release]
Our doctrinal changes took about 10 years—10 years of turmoil and tremendous reorientation. We all had to reorient ourselves, to reconsider our relationship with God. Our sharp drop in income required an immense change in organizational structure—and again, it was not easy, and it was not quick. In fact, the organizational restructuring took about as long as the doctrinal re-evaluation did.
Every congregation was reorganized, too. Most have new pastors—often serving without pay. New ministries have developed, often with new ministry leaders. Multilevel hierarchies have been streamlined, and more members have taken active roles as churches have become involved in their local communities. Local church advisory councils are learning to work together to make plans and set budgets. It is a new start for us all.
Chapter Three: At a Crossroads
The apostle Paul, after his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, immediately began to preach that Jesus is the Son of God (Acts 9:20). But he was not immediately accepted into Christian fellowship. The Christians in Jerusalem were skeptical, and it took a bridge-builder named Barnabas to bring him into the group (verses 26-27). Paul was soon sent away to Tarsus (v. 30).
God had great plans for Paul — but it took quite a while for those plans to be implemented. Paul spent three years in Arabia, many more years in Tarsus. What he preached and whom he reached, we do not know. But it must have been a time for Paul to clarify his thoughts. He had heard the arguments of the early Christians; he knew well the arguments of the Jews who did not believe in Jesus. And he had undeniable evidence that Jesus was in fact the Messiah.
Paul had help from his new-found Christian friends. He already knew what they were teaching, and they taught him more, and yet he still had more to think about. Why did the Messiah have to die? Why did the Jews not accept the Messiah God had given them? Where had the Jewish religion led them astray? If one could be right with God under old covenant laws, then why did God have to send his Son to die? Paul had to think about all the implications — thoughts we would later read in his epistles. It took many years to make a transition from a worship rooted in the Old Testament, to a faith based in the new covenant.
Paul, whom God had chosen to be a missionary to the Gentiles, was waiting in the wings for many years. Luke tells us that Paul wasn’t even around when the first Gentiles came into the church (Acts 10). Paul doesn’t enter the picture until after many Gentiles had already become part of the church at Antioch (Acts 11:20-26). And it was only after some time in Antioch that Paul finally began to do the missionary work for which Christ had called him.
There are some similarities between the story of Paul and the story of the Worldwide Church of God. We have roots in the old covenant, and the new has been revealed. We have embraced the new with joy, and there have been Barnabas-like people who have helped reconcile us to other Christians, and who have helped teach us. And yet it has taken us some time to understand our identity and our role in the Christian world.
We do not have any delusions of grandeur, that we will be as great as the apostle Paul. We do not imagine that we will turn the world upside down. We do not think we will transform the church like Paul did. But we do expect God to use us to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. There may be a niche that needs our particular experience. Perhaps God is preparing us for situations that do not yet exist. We do not know, but we remain ready to respond to God’s leading.
Why do we exist?
When our foundational doctrines were changed, some people claimed that the Worldwide Church of God should just close its doors and tell all its members to go to authentic Christian churches. Ironically, we heard this not from other Christian churches, but from some of our own members! They were angry and bitter that the WCG had caused such pain in their lives by teaching erroneous doctrines. They concluded that the WCG had been built on false pretenses and had no right to exist.
We acknowledge that many of our doctrines were erroneous. We acknowledge that the WCG would not exist without those erroneous doctrines. But we do not conclude that Jesus Christ rescued us as a group merely to have us disband. He has bought and paid for this church. It belongs to him, and we have told him that he can have it! If it is of any value to him, he can use it as his instrument, and we are happy to let him lead us. We rejoice in the fellowship we have with him, and we believe that he has already led us into usefulness.
Our strengths as a denomination include a fresh awareness of the importance of grace, a high respect for Scripture, and a willingness to do what it says. We recognize that Jesus, as our Savior and as our Lord, has reconciled us to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We know that Christ makes a difference in the way we live. He transforms our lives in this age, as well as giving us eternal life in fellowship with our Creator. Jesus is not done with us yet. We are still being shaped and fashioned for his purpose. We praise him and worship him, and seek to know his will for our lives.
For further information on the history of the church, you may wish to consult one of the books listed below:
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